Hell And A God Of Love (1)
The topic of hell is one that continues to divide and confound Christians. Does hell exist or does it not? If hell does exist, what is it and what is it not? What do the Scriptures have to say about hell? What did Jesus say? Is ‘turn or burn’ evangelism really the best way to make Jesus known?
These and more are valid questions that give us good reasons not to ignore the doctrine of Hell. The fact that Scripture apparently witnesses to the reality of hell, and the fact that Jesus himself taught more on it than anyone else in Scripture, mean that Christians are obliged to deal with it. How we deal it is of critical importance.
One must ask if it is a subject on which a ‘right’ answer will ever be found – since if such an answer existed I am sure that it would have been uncovered long before now. It is also pertinent to ask if any doctrine of hell is of crucial importance to our daily lives? Is it essential to have a doctrine of hell to help us live each day as Christ’s? And, if so, why? If it is not, let us not treat any doctrine of hell as if it were of primary importance.
We must also remember that whatever Jesus said about the concept of hell was said to Jews who lived and breathed covenant life, and we as Western Gentiles barely understand about covenant with God – let alone live it. The context and culture into which Jesus spoke must be understood and taken into account if we are not to distort what Jesus said and did.
Any discussion on hell must also take into account that, while it is indeed a Scriptural concept, many words in Hebrew or Greek may have been translated into English as ‘hell’ when, in fact, that was not what the text actually said. For example, Scripture speaks about a lake of fire prepared for the devil and his angels, alongside speaking of a burning rubbish tip, and there is also the idea of a final and ultimate separation from God. Are all of these and more to be understood as hell?
Our thinking on a subject like hell needs to be sympathetic, gentle and free of dogmatism, for every family has their own personal struggles about wondering what may have happened to loved ones when they died. We must express our thinking soaked in compassion. Our thinking also needs to be informed, and not just something we think that we believe, although we are not at all sure why or how we believe it.
In order to help our thinking and our understanding to grow healthily, the following discussion quotes many sources who are acknowledged in the Bibliography at the end. The sources quoted here do not represent every thought about hell, and the reader needs to keep up to date with current thinking on the subject in order to maintain a balanced and considered view.
The thinking here will give you some idea of the kind of positions adopted by the various writers that I have quoted, but it is always a good idea to explore all these writers (and many more) in order to understand the different ways of thinking and believing that may contribute to your own ideas.
Remember, too, that the writers and theologians quoted here must be allowed to change their minds over time and amend the way that they thought, so one quote must not be seen as the final word on the subject from and any quoted person. Rather, you are seeing a snapshot of the way that someone once believed, and they may have moved on in their thinking since then. Those who are no longer living obviously cannot contribute to the discussion any further, but let us be wary of labelling people in such a way that we suggest that their views were fixed for all time.
In any discussion such as this one, the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are far less important than simply being willing to listen, to receive, and, if appropriate, to change the way that you yourself think and believe. While the subject of hell is not a pleasant subject to contemplate, it is surely significant enough to make worthwhile all the effort that we may put in to learning and understanding.