Now that the smoke has largely cleared on Rob Bell's "Love Wins" book and most of the credible rebuttals and responses have long since fell off the Top 10 List of Christian bestsellers, I wanted to share my thoughts on this controversial topic.
Before I get into this one please let me say that this is still an in-progress study for me. My views are not set in stone, but this is where I've landed as of now, based on my studies. These studies have included reading the words of Jesus on the topic of hell, or gehenna, listening to various Bible teachers on the subject, and reading both Bell's "Love Wins" and Francis Chan's response, "Erasing Hell".
For me, Bell's book was anything but persuasive, and Chan's book was only a re-statement of the traditional view of eternal suffering without any real, hard look at the other two competing views of hell, namely Annihilationism and Universalism.
Honestly, I much prefer the ministry and teaching of Chan to that of Bell, so my opinion of their books isn't reflective of my like or dislike of their individual ministries. I'm simply commenting on my assessment of their books on this subject.
Before I get into this I should probably define what the three main views of Hell are for those who aren't familiar:
Eternal Suffering is the most popular view in the Christian church today, although as we shall see this is a fairly recent development. It was once the minority view in the early church but has risen to prominence in the last few hundred years or so. This view is that those who reject Christ will suffer an eternal punishment of extreme anguish and torture forever and ever without end.
Annihiliationism is the view that unrepentant souls are destroyed forever after a period of suffering.
Universalism is the view that those who reject Christ as Lord will suffer for a period of time and then be offered an opportunity to repent and turn to Christ, thus being redeemed and brought into the Kingdom of God.
I must point out that, although it may seem so, this theory of Universalism is not the same as the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. As I understand it, Purgatory is where only certain people go who are not good enough to be saved, but not evil enough to suffer forever. Catholics do also believe that some go to an eternal place of torment. Those who do not either go to Hell, or Heaven, must suffer a time in Purgatory and are then allowed to enter Heaven.
To study this topic you must only look at the New Testament writings. Why? Because the Old Testament scriptures are strangely silent on the topic of where we go after we die. David and the other Hebrew writers refer to "going down to the pit" or "the grave" but nothing is said about fire, or torment, or suffering forever and ever...or at all, really.
While we can probably wonder about why this is, the fact remains that Jesus and the Apostles give us our only clues about what happens to those who reject Christ after they die. So, let's look at what the New Testament tells us.
If we look at what Jesus taught about Hell, or Gehenna, (the term Jesus actually uses when He speaks of the place that people go if they do not accept Him as Messiah), we see that in every case the language that Jesus uses has to do with destruction of the soul, not eternal suffering without end.
Yes, there are a handful of verses that speak of "everlasting fire" or "everlasting torment" and Jesus talks about "fire that is not quenched" and "the worm that does not die", but these are only a handful (and we will address these in a moment). The majority of verses do not speak of an eternal suffering but instead about destruction, perishing, and death.
In the places where Jesus does speak of an eternal duration of hell, the eternal quality is placed on the fire, or the smoke, or the worms, not on the torment, and not on the souls of the people who are suffering.
The view of eternal suffering is predicated on an assumption which I believe is scripturally unsound; the idea that the human soul is eternal.
You and I have always heard it said that "every soul is immortal, the only question is where you spend eternity." But, does the Scripture teach us that those outside of Christ will live forever? No. I can find no scriptures anywhere that affirm the eternal quality of the human soul per se, without Christ.
Starting in Genesis, the reason that God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden is why? "Lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever." (Genesis 3:22)
And what was their punishment for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? "You shall surely die" (Genesis 3:2)
So, if death was the punishment for their sin, and if they were prevented from eating from the Tree of Life because to do so would be to "live forever", then are human souls inherently eternal?
This is also why Paul and the other Apostles go on and on about how "our life is hidden in Christ" and "when Christ, who is your life, appears, you will appear with him also." (Colossians 3: 3-4)
Jesus even tells us that if we come to Him we will have life, but if we do not come to Him we do not have life. (John 5:40; 10:10; etc.)
So, only those of us who are in Christ have life, and without Christ we have no life beyond this one.
However, Jesus does teach that those who reject Him as Lord will suffer in Gehenna, which we translate as "Hell" but that His contemporary hearers would have understood as the garbage dump outside the city gates. At best, Jesus is using this constantly burning trash heap as a metaphor for what will happen to those who die without His life in them.
At the resurrection, when Christ returns, both the righteous and the unrighteous will be raised from the dead to face the Judgment seat of Christ. Those who love Christ and who have followed Him will be raised to live forever with Him in the New Heaven and the New Earth. But those who do not belong to Christ will be raised for...what?
This is where it gets tricky.
Jesus warns that it will be a place of torment, but we do not know for how long. While Jesus says that the fire will be eternal, we are not told that the people, or the suffering will be eternal.
As scary as this may be, and Jesus did emphasize that this was a fate to avoid at all costs, it does not specifically teach us that Hell is about suffering eternally without end.
We have to balance these statements with verses where Jesus warns us to fear God who:
"The earliest system of Universalistic theology was by Clement of Alexandria who was the head of the theological school in that city until 202 A.D. His successor in the school was the great Origen, the most distinguished advocate of this doctrine in all time." (From the New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 2)
"In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked." (From the New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 3)
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