Thursday, 2 October 2008

Hell - I hate this topic!

"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling."
Philippians 2 verse 12

"Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation."
Isaiah 12 verse 2

The last post was motivated by questions that were posed to me at an alpha course. This post is no different. The doctrine of Hell is a serious stumbling block for many non-Christians and it seemed to be for the people I spoke to at alpha too. It's one of those issues thats to do with the theology of grace, predestination, free will, satan etc etc. In short it tends to get stupidly complicated very quickly. However, I think that serious attention can be paid to the doctrine of hell without it becoming abstract and intellectual. In fact - with a doctrine that concerns us and those we love it would be offensive and wrong to consider it in this way.

Jesus clearly believed in hell and mentions it numerous times. The story of the sheep and the goats is the most famous example of this. It's not a nice story at all! In any case the text does not provide a criteria of those who are saved and those who are dammed. The only soteriology (theology of salvation) we are provided with is to do with Jesus as the supremely good and just judge. I admit that I struggle with the idea of hell, but I struggle with it less when I remember that we can trust God because God is good. Whatever he decides will be fair and good in the strictest sense so we need not worry. Nevertheless the issue becomes rather personal when we are faced with loving and selfless people who are aware of what Christianity is and choose to reject it. Would it be just of God to send these people to hell? The liberating truth is that we are not God! We don't fully know what hell is or who is going to go there, but we can be sure that God knows the secrets of everybody's hearts. I take a certain comfort in this knowledge.

A few weeks ago I was nearly won over to the idea of universal salvation - salvation for all. There are competant theologians who advocate this position but I want to highlight the various thoughts that changed my mind in this matter. My ultimate problem was that universal salvation did not take the gravity of sin seriously. I'm not even referring to the sins of others either, merely my own. The challenge for me was that deep down I knew the seriousness of my own sin - that I did not deserve to be in Gods presence, and that I could only be so through the blood of Jesus. I'm not sure whether hell is nothingness, or eternal pain or whatever but I am certain that it is a place were we are cut off from Gods presence. Deep down I knew that I did not deserve to be in Gods presence and therefore that I needed forgiveness. Universalism destroyed all of this. It said that ultimately we are not so sinful that we don't deserve to be in Gods presence. I couldn't abide this idea - it took away the entire notion of repentence and therefore the entire notion of salvation.

I said this to the person concerned at the alpha course and encouraged them to think about heaven and hell on individual terms. Most of the problems people have with the doctrine of hell occur when they say 'well what about my atheist grandad, or what about this person'. The story of the sheep and the goats shows that we will have to give an account of our own actions before God and therefore we should 'work out our own salvation with fear and trembling'. Timothy speaks of the God 'who wants everybody to be saved'. Hell does exist and it should be characterised as everything that God is not, but most importantly - if we have faith then we believe that God is good and he is more than trustworthy. We are called to acknowledge that we as individuals deserve to be cut off from Gods presence, but once we have established this in relation to ourselves (as I did) we are not authorised to start providing a criteria for who is saved and who is not. Let God convict who he will and if he convicts us let us respond. However let us also acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and therefore it is quite simply not for us to know who is going to heaven or hell. We are only called to consider heaven and hell in relation to ourselves and our own salvation. The gospel will still be preached but as for those who, in the end, will be deemed righteous before God - that is totally and completely Gods decision and not ours. What I hope to have shown is an understanding of hell that is true to my faith but non-prescriptive with regards to everybody else.


P-Doc said...

Excellent post!

For me Hell has been a subject which has constantly been running through my head. Really it is THE subject isn't it. The faith of Christianity talks mainly of 'Saving' people, we are all, as Christians, above all concerned about what happens to us when we die, and concerned about what happens to others. Our friends, our family.

I think I've, after years of personal soul searching, come to belief that while "hell" does it exist, but only in an abstract way. I think the promise of Jesus is that we don't really "die" we are reborn and have eternal life etc etc etc. If you don't meet whatever criteria we deem adequate to make it into 'heaven', or eternal life with God, we truly "die" We are no more, the soul of that person simply ceases to be. And that place of not existing has to be "hell" because you aren't with God in eternal life, a state which would be "heaven" I really don't beleive God punushes people by sending them to a firey, tortuous hell, hell isn't like that and God certainly isn't. You get eternal life or you don't. It would "heaven" to get it and "hell" not to. I guess I think that "heaven" and "hell" describe two states you could exist in following death, not two places...

It's that criteria which can cause all the raging argument and discussion. What do you have to do to get into heaven? What earthly pursuits excludes you from eternal life? That's a much bigger discussion.

I'm sure I'll change my mind on this though...anywho, great blog!

mat said...

Yes, I tend to take a step back from saying directly what I think hell will be like because I think scripture leaves it pretty ambiguous. I agree though that regret will probably be one of the main feelings of hell. A state rather than a place. Nicely put!

I think that Christianity is a scandal because it makes a joke of our efforts to get to heaven/be good. In that sense there is nothing we can 'do' as such. We can only respond to a God who already has a hand outstretched to us in the person of Jesus. I guess that is still doing something. Scripture (to me) does seem to say though that if we actively reject Christ then we will not receive eternal life. I think it would be dishonest to Christianity and scripture to deny this.
Cheers pat

Dave said...

The reason that I don't like talking about hell too much (i don't mean not at all, just not too much) is that whatever it is, it's not somewhere either I or anyone in their right mind wants to be. It is also not something we were particularly called to think about much in the Bible. We were never particularly called to warn others about it. We were called to love God, and love people. That for me is the greatest challenge. I don't want anyone going that way, but equally, if they are, that should not affect my duty of loving them.

I suppose this thinking is similar to a guy I once interviewed on the topic of Global Warming. He is known by the press as a "Climate Change Skeptic". He isn't at all. He knows that it is happening, but believes that there is not a huge amount that we can do about it. He thinks that things like hunger, aids, typhoid etc, are far far far more pressing needs. Those things are killing people now and are the things that our media, government, and public should be focusing time energy and money on fixing. They are tangible, and within our reality now. They are not a theory of what might happen in the future. Which, in all honesty, is what hell sort of is.

But, Hell exists. Some people will end up in that place/state. But I want to devote my life to loving people and loving God, and hopefully through doing those things, introduce those people i love, to the God i love, and they will start a relationship with each other. I believe that we are called to do no more or less than that.

mat said...

really well put.

I agree that we aren't called to think about hell too much at all. The problem for the people on alpha could be put as follows:

'Given that our number one call is to love God and love people (as you say), how do we make sense of that in relation to an afterlife'?

I agree that ultimately its a hypothesis about what happens to us in the future, and that we have our hands more than full with all the crap in the world at the moment.AND that we must deal with this crap as part of loving each other.

But I think the reason it was important for me to get clear what I mean by hell was because the entire idea of being saved depends on how we characterise hell. Christians are saved, but saved from what? From themselves? from sin? from hell? From all sorts of things I guess. But for me the question was -'given that God has saved me from 'hell' (and other things) it would be helpful for me to establish as best I can what the nature of this awful state/place is that I have been saved from. Thats how I came to the conclusion that whatever hell is, it is a place cut off from Gods presence. I have been saved from not being in Gods presence.

Of course, loving each other is critical and I'm glad you brought it up. But I would be weary of undermining the doctrine of hell, I think its essential for understanding our own salvation.
However, I do agree very strongly that if you consider hell outside of the boundaries of loving God and loving people, then it is deeply unhelpful. I would never really bring up hell unless I was asked about it, and thats why I wrote the hell post.

Thanks alot Dave!

Anonymous said...

this post is boss. so are all your coments! i agree with you guys and think youve highlighted whats important when considering hell. that actualy were called to introduce people to God not hell. all i would say is that i gave my life to Jesus after a play called heaven and hell. the play worked i think because it gave me a clear understanding of what my options were if i continued to reject Jesus with my life. and actually wether rightly or wrongly it scared me a little. so i wonder whether, like matt has said, people need to know a little about what their saved from. as well as saved for and to.
hmm that was garbled, i just wanted to contribute!