2011 will always be remembered as the year of the “hell debate” because of the explosion of Christian writing that rattled the popular evangelical conception of hell. What has become clear is that it’s not a debate between those “for” and “against” hell, but rather a debate between different possible hells. The following six questions are my attempt to explore the theological presumptions that explain how we come up with such different hells.
1) Is God’s being independent of the universe or is God the source of the universe’s being?
The modern imagination pictures God as another person like we are people. He’s invisible, omnipotent, and omnipresent but His being is seen as completely independent from ours. This is very different from the ancient Christian view that God was the source of all being, expressed most succinctly in Colossians 1:17: ”In Him all things hold together.”
If all things depend on God for existence and hell is eternal separation from God, then hell is the non-existence that results from rejecting the source of our being. The punitive nature of hell becomes literal rather than metaphorical only in modernity when it becomes possible to imagine existence independent of the presence of God.
2) Is God’s primary agenda to love creation or defend His glory?
If God’s love is the underlying motive for everything He does, then hell must have a loving purpose such as solidarity or protection for the victims of sin. If God never stops loving the people who suffer in hell, then hell must be the product of their choice to reject God’s love rather than God’s rejection of them.
But if everything God does is out of defense of His glory rather than love, and His glory is not defined in terms of His love, then hell has nothing to do with love. In this conception of hell, God punishes people in hell not because they hurt people He loves but simply because His honor has been offended. If God is invested in His honor rather than in seeking communion, He would be indifferent to whether He is glorified through salvation or damnation.
3) Is God’s justice primarily retributive or restorative?
Our modern capitalist world depends upon the assumption that every debt will be paid in full. Without this assurance, our entire economic order would collapse. I think this is why in modernity we equate justice with retribution. Modern justice concerns itself exclusively with ensuring that criminals “pay” fully for their crime, as opposed to restoring the well-being of crime victims or repairing the damage crime does to a community. Restorative justice concerns itself instead with healing, repentance, and reconciliation.
If hell serves the purpose of retributive justice, it exists simply to make sinners pay for their sins. Under this view of hell, some people might question whether eternal torment is an appropriate retribution for a mildly sinful life. The response is usually to say that God is such a perfectionist that sins we consider to be mild are infinitely offensive to God.
On the other hand, if hell serves the purpose of restorative justice, then it isn’t a punishment measured out in proportion to the offensiveness of sin, but the denial of eternal communion to sinners who have refused the means by which God offers to heal and reconcile them with the people hurt by their sin.
4) Is God’s holiness an intolerance for imperfection or an intolerable perfection?
It’s a common formulation in pop evangelical speech to say that God’s holiness means that He “can have no fellowship with sin” and that God has to send people to hell because He can’t tolerate their imperfection. On the other hand, Jesus did choose to fellowship with sinners without compromising His holiness. His holiness could tolerate sinners, but the sinners could not tolerate His holiness, so they crucified Him.
If holiness is God’s intolerance for imperfection, then hell serves the purpose of protecting God from exposure to our sin. If on the other hand, holiness is God’s intolerable perfection, then hell is the torture experienced by sinners who face God’s holiness without atonement.
5) When we escape hell, is it because God changed His mind about us or because we changed our minds about God?
Jesus’ death on the cross is often presented as the reason Jesus’ wrathful Father changes His mind about damning all humanity to hell. The objection to this is to point out that it breaks the Son and Father into two separate gods, rather than one single triune God. If God is truly both Son and Father, then He does not need to be persuaded by His own actions, which would seem to indicate that the cross is supposed to change our minds about God instead.
If God is the one whose mind needs to be changed, then we experience heaven or hell according to where God chooses to send us. If we are the ones whose minds need to be changed, then God’s attitude toward us is constant, but we experience heaven or hell depending upon whether we receive God’s fiery embrace as love or wrath.
6) Are we saved by proving something to God or does God save us from having something to prove?
Evangelical Christianity describes salvation as justification by faith rather than works. This means that we are saved by believing something but not by doing something. But if salvation describes God’s evaluative response to something we have proven about ourselves, then it would seem that whatever proof we have given God is our “works-righteousness,” whether it’s a decision or sinner’s prayer or adherence to the right doctrine. Alternatively, salvation could mean being liberated from the need to prove our worth to God because we trust instead in Jesus’ sacrifice.
If salvation describes God’s approval of our demonstrated “faith,” then hell is God’s reaction to those whom He disapproves. If on the other hand, salvation describes how God liberates us from thinking that we need to earn His approval, then hell could be our delusional imprisonment to the need to prove our worth to God, which would mean that many evangelicals who think they’re saved are actually suffering through hell