Archive | Hell

Can I Reject an Eternal Hell and Still Be Saved?

I don’t really like this question. No, let me be stronger: I hate this question. Please forgive me. I understand the question and empathize with it on just about every level, no matter what it’s source may be (philosophical, biblical, or emotional). However, when you ask me this question you put me in a difficult position. I want to be as honest as possible, yet remain aware of the pastoral nature that addressing this subject requires. In other words, it is not an impossible question, and should never be seen as such.

This question, and others like it, are becoming more and more common today.

  • If I become a Christian, do I have to believe in Hell?
  • Do I have to believe that those who have never heard of Christ are going to hell?
  • Does God really elect some people to go to heaven and not others?
  • Do I have to believe in inerrancy, a six-day creation, the sinfulness of homosexuality, or the reality of a literal being named Satan? Really?

Don’t get me wrong, not all these questions have equal gravity. Some are more debatable than others. Moreover, there are many questions similar to these which leave me relatively unsure that I have the best answer. Therefore, it is not so much the questions themselves that are most important. The difficulty comes down to the fact that we are often tempted to give people a loophole to theological issues that may be, otherwise, too intellectually or emotionally unpalatable. Often, for the sake of peoples’ acceptance, we will reduce the tenets of Christianity down to a minimal set of truths that are the easiest to swallow.

In some ways, it is not unlike another question that I don’t like: “If I commit suicide, can I still go to heaven?” I was asked this by my sister in 2003. I was asked this by my very depressed sister in 2003. I did not want to answer. At least I did not want to answer honestly. I believed my answer would somehow give her permission to do something we all feared she was about to do.

Technically speaking, whether or not one believes in an eternal hell, a literal Satan, or whether or not God used evolution to create man, these issues, while important, are not cardinal issues of the Gospel. What I mean by this is, if you push my back against the wall, I would not say that someone who says they don’t believe in a literal Satan is not a Christian. Nor would I say that all the other questions, including the one concerning the existence of an eternal hell, is so doctrinally central that a denial of such is a damnable offense (or evidence of one’s retribution). This would include the question of suicide. Suicide is not an unforgivable sin, nor does it keep people outside the gates of heaven. (Though I would often rather this to remain a secret.)

So, if someone asks me these theological questions in a more academic or objective sense (which is almost never the case), I am comfortable—indeed obligated—to say that their respective positions regarding such beliefs do not evidence or determine their status as a child of God (as I was with my sister who, as some of you know, did commit suicide in 2004). But I am not a fan of making Christianity “palatable enough” for anyone to accept. In other words, my goal is not to win you to a Christ that is necessarily easy to believe or follow. And I am afraid that some of those who are attempting to be theologically astute wind up becoming academically agnostic. That is, they are agnostic enough to find every place where they don’t have to take a stand, which allows them to remain neutral for the sake of evangelism. Continue Reading →

How Do I Stay Sane and Believe in Hell?

Below is an email (edited) that I received recently. How would you respond? Please speak directly to John Doe.

“Dear Michael,

Right now I am in a crisis of faith and am in great need of your advice.

[He then talks about the abusive and legalistic Christian environment he grew up in]

Right now, intellectually I believe in double predestination but emotionally I am a Universalist. If I allow my emotions to bleed into my intellect then I will become a heretic and if I allow my intellect to bleed into my emotions I will become suicidal. In other words, I can’t handle the truth, so I lie to myself.

In an attempt to become consistent I read some of Jonathan Edwards. His view seems to be that because God hates the damned, the saints in heaven will also hate the damned and will rejoice over their misery. I thought that maybe we as Christians should do likewise, so I watched a bunch of YouTube videos by Fred Phelps (the “God-hates-fags”, funeral picketing guy). He argues that God hates the reprobate more than Satan hates the elect and that therefore we should hate non-Christians. I grew up with a lot of abusive, unstable, racist, paranoid relatives so I have seen what hate looks like. It’s a very ugly thing, but what’s really scary is that there’s a part of me that enjoys watching Fred Phelps; that enjoys the adrenaline that comes with stomping on another human being with your mind. I watched Fred Phelps the other morning, and for the rest of the day I felt like I wanted to fight somebody, so I decided to not watch him anymore.

My question that I desperately need answering is: **How do you believe in hell without becoming a suicidal psychopath?** All my life I have struggled with mental illness and my main goal has been peace of mind. I have sought peace in religion but many a time it has been an aggravator and not a soother. I am in a part of my life where I’m going through religious change and am afraid that I may abandon orthodoxy for the sake of the emotional stability that I have so desperately sought all my life.

I realize that such is dangerous because even benign quirks in theology will lead to illogical patters in life. Right now I’m very close to deciding to never have children because they’ll probably go to hell (there’s a part of me that suspects that the vast majority humans do) and it is cruel and evil to bring souls into existence that are probably doomed to damnation. They’ll probably grow up in a world ruled by homosexuals and Muslims. I have become so bitter that I have come to often feel that God hates humanity; that He delights in our misery. I still love God, but I’m starting to love Him in a Stockholm-Syndrome, Battered-Woman, masochistic kind of way. There’s a part of me that feels like I should never get married because my wife will probably go to hell, in fact, it may just be better if I become super reclusive and not have any relationships because everybody’s going to go to hell. There have even been times when I felt like I would probably go to hell and that I should torture myself in order to prepare myself for the afterlife. Michael, I think I’m losing my mind.

People have told me that this should motivate me to evangelize but every time I have tried to I make myself look like an absolute nut and push people away from the faith. I think my mental health makes this very difficult and I have come to think that maybe I have no purpose in life. Maybe God just created me to suffer.”

Universalism Through the Centuries

The following is a summary of Richard Bauckham’s survey of the doctrine of universalism (the belief that all will eventually be saved). It is taken from Themelios Journal, Volume 4, No. 2 (The Gospel Coalition). Please note, this is from 1978!

The history of the doctrine of universal salvation (or apokastastasis) is a remarkable one. Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated (in its commonest form this is the doctrine of ‘conditional immortality’). Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment. Its advocates among theologians today must be fewer than ever before. The alternative interpretation of hell as annihilation seems to have prevailed even among many of the more conservative theologians.4 Among the less conservative, universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma, is now so widely accepted that many theologians assume it virtually without argument.

[Origen on Hell]

The most famous and influential advocate of universalism in the early church was Origen, whose teaching on this point was partly anticipated by his predecessor Clement of Alexandria. . . According to Origen all intelligent beings (men, angels, devils) were created good and equal, but with absolute free will. Some, through the misuse of free will, turned from God and fell into varying degrees of sin. Those who fell furthest became the devils, those whose fall was less disastrous became the souls of men. These are to be restored to God through a process of discipline and chastisement, for which purpose this material world has been created and the preexisting souls incarnated in human bodies. The process of purification is not complete at death but continues after this life. Nor is it an inevitably upward path: the soul remains free to choose good or evil, and so even after this life may fall again as well as rise. Within this scheme punishment is always, in God’s intention, remedial: God is wholly good and His justice serves no other purpose than His good purpose of bringing all souls back to Himself. Thus the torments of hell cannot be endless, though they may last for aeons; the soul in hell remains always free to repent and be restored.

Given unlimited time, God’s purpose will eventually prevail and all souls will be finally united to Him, never to sin again. The final restoration includes even Satan and the devils.

. . .

The doctrine of the final restoration of all souls seems to have been not uncommon in the East during the fourth and fifth centuries. It was clearly taught by Gregory of Nyssa and is attributed to Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia,10 and some Nestorian theologians. Others, such as Gregory of Nazianzus, regarded it as an open question.12 Augustine took the trouble to refute several current versions of universalism, as well as views on the extent of salvation which stopped short of universalism but were more generous than his own. Continue Reading →

Can Satan be Saved?

There are some moments, beyond explanation, that just stick in your brain. I remember, 14 years ago, sitting in my college student union as a new Christian. One day a girl, whose name I have long forgotten, sat down with a group of us friends. Our conversation meandered around many topics until she mentioned something so unique it lodged deep into my memory.

She told us a portion of her morning had been spent praying for Satan to become a believer. The world would be a better place, she surmised, if the Devil would trust Jesus as his savior. I didn’t have any slick biblical or theological response. I remember thinking, “Hmm, that’s an interesting thought. It doesn’t sound ‘right’ but yeah, I guess it would be good if Satan became a believer in Jesus.” The moment came and went. I didn’t think about her prayers for Satan very much until recently.

As Executive Director of the Credo House I get some great opportunities to speak at various churches. Recently, I was at a church in Oklahoma City teaching through the first five sessions of our Discipleship Program. On this particular week I was teaching through our session on the importance of the Trinity.

After discussing topics such as Tritheism, Modalism, Subordinationalism, Arius and the Council of Nicea, I wanted to make sure everyone was tracking with me so I asked if there were any questions. Unrelated to the topics we were discussing a lady asked, “So, it seems like you don’t think I should pray for Satan to be saved. Is that correct?”

Why she asked that question at that time in our teaching is still beyond me. What are the odds, I thought, having bumped into two people who pray for the salvation of Satan. Are there only 2 Christians on the planet who spend time praying for his salvation? By some astronomical bit of luck I have conversations with both of them? Maybe this is common for Christians? Is this one of those hidden beliefs people don’t talk about but still practice? Can Satan be Saved?

2 Major Reasons Against Satan’s Salvation

I think there are predominately two major reasons why we should not pray for the salvation of Satan. Are there only two reasons? Probably not, but for the sake of this post I think two reasons should pretty much end the discussion.

1. Only Humans Have a Savior

It’s easy for us to forget the vast difference between humans and angels. Yes, we have a bunch of similarities. We are both conscious intellectual beings created by God. We both have the capacity for good and for evil. It seems we are both immortal. Both of us have a beginning, neither of us have an ending. Individuals from both humans and angels will spend eternity in either heaven or in hell. Those are some of our similarities. Now for some differences.

The greatest difference comes from the simple fact we are completely different created beings. Dolphins and humans share similarities but at the end of the day we are completely different types of creatures. Similarly, angels and humans are different creatures. Some other differences…While all humans can trace their lineage back to Adam and Eve, this is not true for angels. Angels do not have grandparents, great-grandparents, etc… It appears all angels were individually created by God around the same time.

Here is where my first point against Satan’s salvation comes into play. All of reality contains one Savior. Let me say that again, in all of the universe there is one and only one who can say, “I am the Savior.” That is the God-man Jesus. As God, Jesus is able to fix what needs to be fixed. As a Man, Jesus is able to pay what needs to be paid. Jesus, in His grace, became a man instead of an angel. His incarnation was to free humans, not angels. Hebrews 2:16 says, “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.” God accepted the payment of Jesus on behalf of humans…not angels. As Adam represented all humans in sin, so Jesus is the new Adam representing humans.
Continue Reading →

“If We Are Faithless, He Remains Faithful” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations

2 Timothy 2:13
” If we are faithless, he remains faithful.”

I know that I am not very faithful. I want to be, but I have this problem—an infection, an inclination, an uncanny ability to disappoint people. No, I am not just saying that to identify with others . . . I really do have this ability. I have won the gold medal in the triathlon of let-down, disenchant, and flake-out. Be it forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, or just plain selfishness, I can make a mess of things. I am often faithless, to others and to God.

Yet, at the same time, while I have periods of faithlessness, I still believe. In other words, I am never perpetually faithless. Confused maybe, but not faithless. I do know in whom I believe.

I am going to take an odd and probably unexpected turn now. One of the most frequently-quoted passages of Scripture, with regards to our tendency to weaken our grip on faith, is 2 Tim. 2:13:

“If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

Normally, we would turn to this passage and wipe the sweat off our brows in relief. Phew . . . When we are faithless, Christ will remain faithful. Faithful to what? To us! In other words, we may let him down, but he will never let us down. We may let him go, but he will never let us go. While I believe that this principle is true and can be found in many passages of Scripture, I don’t think that is what is being taught here. If I am right, then this verse is misused, and its real (important) message is lost. This has implications concerning the character of God and the reality of judgement. Continue Reading →

Reflections on Heaven: How can Heaven be Heaven when People you Love are in Hell?

Are you really excited about heaven? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what it will be like?

My ears perk up every time someone mentions heaven. I’m naturally fascinated, for some reason, to know people’s thoughts about the only place Jesus refers to as “Paradise.” I’m usually disappointed, however, when people talk about heaven. My thoughts are usually something like, “Really, that’s what you think about heaven?” I don’t think I’m being self-righteous, but I do think we have not sufficiently pondered this place.

Here are some common comments I hear: “Floating around on a cloud sounds boring.” “Why would I want to go to a place where I don’t remember my past life?” “Why would I want to be at a place forever away from the spouse and kids I love?” Perhaps some future blog posts can tackle those questions.

And then there’s the other thought: “How can heaven be heaven when people you love are in hell?” Won’t everyone in heaven have survivor’s guilt?

How can heaven really be a joy-filled paradise? How heartless, it would seem, for me to enjoy heaven if people I love dearly are being continually tormented in hell. What do we do with these thoughts?

Here are some possible options to this question:

Option #1: Heaven is not Heaven

Is it possible heaven is over-hyped? Sure, it’ll be amazing to see Jesus. Satan will be conquered, sin will be no more, we will have an endless time for…for…thinking about those precious people suffering. How can I be in heaven when they are there in agony?

I would never dream of going on a vacation, having the time of my life, and all the while knowing a very close loved one is endlessly tortured with pain. It would seem heartless. How can I enjoy heaven? Maybe, therefore, heaven is not really heaven.

Here’s one way to process this option:

In Philippians 1:22-23 the apostle Paul says, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23  I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

If heaven was a bummer, you would think Paul would want stay on earth as long as possible. He could still make a difference while living on earth. Paul even says it would be “fruitful labor” if he stayed.

Paul was having a successful time leading people to Jesus. Why stop that? For Paul, however, it was far better, not a little better, but far better for him to depart and be in heaven. He reiterated this again in 2 Corinthians 5:8 saying, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

It would seem heaven may really be heaven. Perhaps, there’s another option.

Continue Reading →

Loopholes for Hell: A Response to Jeff Cook’s Response to Francis Chan

Give me enough slack and I can get out of anything. I am a master of manipulation. Before you get too smug, let me say this: you are too. It’s called sin. Manipulation is lying for the sophisticated.

I have gone on record saying that I hate the doctrine of Hell. If there is anything in my theology that I could discard—if there was a theological “burn card”—it would be the doctrine of eternal punishment. It causes me great anxiety and disillusionment. I am sorry if that makes some of you uncomfortable, but that is just the way it is. That is me.

That is why I am somewhat jealous of people who can find their way out of this doctrine. That is why, in one sense, I am envious of those who have found ways to adjust or deny the existence of the eternal punishment of the unredeemed. Would that I could follow them, but my conscience will not yield to my emotions and allow me to.

Here we go again…

Francis Chan has a book coming out in July called Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up. Though the book has not yet been released, there is a substantive and dramatic video preceding it to get people talking (following the lead of Rob Bell prior to the release of Love Wins). I know of no other Christian author with the popular appeal right now that overshadows that of Rob Bell, so Francis Chan’s contribution to the issue should only serve to intensify this discussion. As well, from what I have seen from the video (and the obvious connotations carried by the title), I imagine that Chan is going to defend the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment in a unique way.

And, just like with Rob Bell’s book, there are people critiquing the book before it comes out. As I said before, I have no problem with this, as the promo videos are meant to provoke thought by allowing us to preview the substance of the book. More copies get sold that way.

Jeff Cook, at Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog), is the first I know of to begin the pre-publishing critique by examining the implications of the video. Check it out here. While Cook opens with some very kind remarks about Chan, as the old saying goes, nothing really counts before the word “but”! Continue Reading →

Bell’s Hell and the Destiny of Those Who’ve Never Heard of Jesus

In a recent interview with Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, Rob Bell again muddied the waters over the question of the fate of those who’ve never heard about Jesus. In doing so he also greatly misrepresented the evangelical answer to this question. Here are his words:

“If, billions and billions and billions of people, God is going to torture them in hell forever – people who never heard about Jesus are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of – then at that point we will have far bigger problems than a book from a pastor from Grand Rapids.”

Bell is responding to evangelicals who purportedly believe that people “are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of.” Let me say this as clearly as I can: No one will ever suffer for any length of time in hell or anywhere else for not believing in the Jesus they never heard of. Should I say that again or is it enough to ask that you go back and read it again?

Bell and others who make this sort of outrageous claim have evidently failed to look closely at Romans 1:18ff. Here we read that the wrath of God revealed from heaven is grounded in the persistent repudiation by mankind of the revelation God has made of himself in the created order. In other words, there is a reason for God’s wrath. It is not capricious. God’s wrath has been deliberately and persistently provoked by man’s willful rejection of God as he has revealed himself. Continue Reading →