Hell seems to be have a renewed popularity these days. The renewed interest results in part because of several new books that have been written on the subject, such as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. But even more, the furor stems from the reaction of many Evangelical Christians and literal Bible readers to a promotional video that Bell prepared in advance of the book in which he seems to advocate a position many call “universalism,” the belief that God will ultimately redeem all people, leaving none to suffer the fires of hell.
Some of this thinking is based on John 3:16 which might be summarized as “Love wins!” and reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
The word for “world” everywhere else in the Gospel of John describes that entity that is at complete enmity with God. Typical is this prayer by Jesus just before his crucifixion: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:14-16).
This gives John 3:16 a bit more punch: “For God so loved the God-hating world that he sent his only Son…” – a more accurate translation. Apparently, at least according to Jesus, God really, really, really loves the world. That doesn’t, of course, by itself address the question of universalism, as the verse continues, “all who believe will not perish but have eternal life.”
But the force of God’s love as articulated by Jesus does raise the question of why hell is so incredibly important to so many Christians. As the theological concept, “hell” is almost entirely missing from the Old Testament and surfaces as a minor concern in the New, showing up most frequently in Jesus’ parables (which, let’s not forget, regularly defy a literal reading). In contrast, topics like proper treatment of the poor, good use of money, and imperative to care for neighbour and creation all capture a strikingly disproportionate amount of the attention of the biblical authors.
So why can’t a prominent Christian author even question how to reconcile Jesus’ description of God’s incredible, even incomprehensible love with the notion of condemning souls to eternal torment without being condemned as a heretic? There are several reasons. Certainly the threat of hell provides a motivational system par excellence. During the Middle Ages, for instance, when doctrines of hell were most fully developed, the desire to avoid eternal punishment motivated Christians to all kinds of supposedly pious acts, everything from donating money to build the Sistine Chapel to enlisting in countless Crusades.
The importance we attach to hell today has more to do with the allure of certainty than fear of punishment. A clear sense of the rewards and punishments for having or lacking faith in Christ offers a compelling logic regarding our eternal destiny that reduces ambiguity from the life of faith. After all, and as many Evangelical Christians and literal Bible readers have argued, if you can go to heaven without believing in Christ, what’s the point of faith in the first place? This certainty, in turn, lends believers a sense of authority, even power, as they have a clear standard by which to judge “who’s in” and “who’s out.” Talk about seductive!
But as Bell notes, our notions of hell don’t only witness to our beliefs about afterlife, they also speak volumes about how we imagine God. Is God primarily loving or angry, forgiving or vengeful? Conservative Evangelicals seem to want it both ways: God is loving, but also just. Therefore, while God desires that all people be saved through faith in Christ out of love, God nevertheless must punish sinners by condemning them to hell or God’s justice would be moot. The trouble is, when that’s spelled out in plain English – “God loves you very much, but if you don’t believe the right way you’re going to suffer eternal torment” – there’s an inescapable contradiction. Karl Barth, arguably the greatest theologian of the twentieth-century, after listening to just such a message by a noted American evangelist, is said to have commented that such logic sounded like the gospel, all right, but at gunpoint.
To be fair, it’s easy to understand why classic universalism leaves many Christians underwhelmed. The idea that whatever religious path you choose is as good as any other seems detached, generic, and rather anaemic, hardly representative of the passionate faith of those who follow Jesus. But to assume that God cannot in God’s infinite power, love, and wisdom save all persons if God desires? … Or to assert that there must be a hell if heaven is to be meaningful? …. Such sentiments seem at the very least to underestimate the God of biblical faith.
If Rob Bell advocates that the God revealed in Jesus will not stop until all God’s creation is redeemed and recreated, he will not stand alone. Theologians as diverse as Clement and Origen in the third century, Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich in the twentieth, and countless in between also chose not to limit just how far Christ’s redemptive love can reach. So doesn’t the possibility that God’s love will eventually win at least deserve a hearing and civil discussion in our own day? This is, after all, the God who loves the God-hating world so very much .