Asking my pastor about hell

by Kristin on March 16, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by jurvetson

I’m not one to apologize for not being a “true theologian,” or to shy away from writing about my views on God and the Bible, even though I never went to seminary. I do, however, love to soak up the knowledge and insights of those who have gone to seminary—who know Greek and have spent countless hours studying the Bible in hopes to understand what it really says.

The senior pastor at my church, Ron Simkins, is one of those extremely knowledgeable people who always leaves me with much to chew on and reconsider. When the Rob Bell controversy hit a couple weeks ago, I began asking him what the Bible really says about hell. The beginnings of that conversation have become this (via-email) interview. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do. (Note: Ron provided me with biblical references for all of this. If you are interested in where to find particular images/instances mentioned below, just let me know!)

What do you think about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book?

I have not read the book [just released March 15], so I have no interest in pretending I know exactly what he says. What I do want to respond to is the claim being made by several prominent Christian teachers: that eternal torment in “hell” is a key tenet of genuine Christian faith. If it is, the writers of the New Testament didn’t know it.

But there’s a lot about God’s judgment in the Bible.

Yes, “judgment” and “justice” are key biblical issues. A key part of the Judeo-Christian hope is that God will bring a final judgment—a re-ordering of society so that the relationships between people are what they ought to be in the broadest and most wholesome sense of that hope.

So how does the idea of hell fit into that?

“Hell,” as a word describing separation from God, is a very small part of the imagery the biblical writers use to describe the future of those who reject God’s re-ordering of human society.

The word “hell” appears 16 times in the NIV. Three are a mistranslation of the word “Hades,” which means “the place of the dead.” In the other 13 instances, “hell” is probably a terrible translation of the word “Gehenna,” an actual place just outside the walls of Jerusalem. The books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that a wealthy family named Hinnom owned a garden near Jerusalem which first King Ahaz and then King Manasseh turned into a place for burning children as a sacrifice to the god Molech. When King Josiah came to the throne, he was so distraught by this practice of his forefathers that he destroyed the altars and turned the garden into a garbage dump—the beautiful garden did in reality become a place where the flames never went out and the worms never died out.

When does Jesus talk about Gehenna or hell?

Of the 13 uses of “Gehenna” in New Testament writings, 11 were spoken by Jesus, who would have walked by this location periodically when he was in Jerusalem. In every case, when Jesus uses this reference he is warning church/religious leaders not to abuse their influence—it is church leaders, not the lost and outcast of Jesus’ day, who are consistently warned of the danger of harming others in a manner that turns their own lives into the garbage of history. Never once does Jesus threaten the tax collectors, the prostitutes, or the wounded and oppressed with “hell.”

So why are we so stuck on the idea of this physical, fiery place we call hell?

To hear many preachers and Christians talk, one would think that “hell” as a fiery pit was the primary biblical image of separation from God. But Gehenna is not the only—or even the primary—image used. A look at some of the other images makes it clear that the biblical writers were not attempting to uniformly describe a place, but rather to warn us that separation from God was a choice we can make, and that it isn’t a good choice.

What are some examples of other images?

There’s the bottomless pit or the abyss—an image of falling into nowhere; a wandering alone in the blackness of outerspace; wandering in a desert or empty wasteland; the image of being in prison. Some biblical references that conjure up less concrete “places” include being left with unfulfilled desires, uncontrolled anger and bitterness, disintegration, and having no hope in the future. We should obviously stop thinking about separation from God as a literal fiery pit and instead think about the many very real consequences of rejecting God and his perfect vision of what this world should look like.

So where does that leave us with the Rob Bell debate?

It’s interesting that Jesus references hell when he’s warning church leaders. Rob Bell is a church leader. So are all his prominent critics. So, am I. I wonder what would happen if Church leaders started teaching “hell” the way Jesus did? What if current church leaders did what the writers of the gospels did and made it clear that the warnings were for them and leaders like them? Wouldn’t all the words take on a different inflection if we who teach, preach, and do biblical scholarship saw the fingers pointing first of all at ourselves, and never at those who seem to be “outcasts” from our “inner circle?”

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  • Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell

    A really great interview! While I haven’t read the book either, I think the best thing that could happen would be for Christians to study further the Biblical text. We have too long just accepted others’ teachings and studying for Biblical truth, but in the end, we must be the ones studying it. Now, I do plan on reading Rob Bell’s book, but maybe, if after i study these ideas on Hell for myself.

  • Angela Doll Carlson

    Well said! Thanks for this. :)

  • Tara Gentile

    I’ve been outside the evangelical/modern church movement for so long that I have to say I had not heard of Rob Bell until I saw a tweet or two from you a bit back.

    I haven’t done a ton of research yet – but I’m THRILLED to pieces that this conversation is happening in a very real way with very real Christians. This isn’t a conversation that should be limited to ivory towers or Greek language enthusiasts.

    I’m not scared to say that I believe in universal salvation and I’ll take what flack I get for that from family, friends, or the internet. I don’t know yet whether that’s what Bell believes or not but, to me, the question of universalism or understanding Hell points to a much more central point of conversation for Christians.

    Does God choose us? Or do we choose God?

    We are born connected & loved by God and we remain so until we choose to separate ourselves from God. God doesn’t judge us – we judge ourselves. And God’s love is big enough that it forgives our separation or judgment, always.

    It’s us that does that choosing. Not God – God made the choice a very very long time ago.

    For me, our choices are temporal. They die away. God’s love still remains. That’s where my belief in universalism comes from (well, and from Karl Barth).

  • ThatGuyKC

    Excellent post!! Thank you for sharing this insightful interview.

    I think if people focused more on loving others and less on whether or not someone else was going to hell the world would be a little more like heaven. Just saying.

  • Alise

    This is a subject I look forward to learning more about. I haven’t spent much time studying hell. Thanks for sharing your pastor’s thoughts with us here!

  • Ray Hollenbach

    I’m grateful to Ron for introducing me to a new image, in which Israel’s leaders “turned the garden into a garbage dump—the beautiful garden did in reality become a place where the flames never went out and the worms never died out.” It set me thinking about Paradise, the original garden, and the world as we know it today.

  • Mason

    Brilliant thoughtful post, thanks for sharing it!
    If nothing else Love Wins has provided room for a needed conversation and an interest in exploring what the Scriptures say about hell as opposed to the pop-theology we are typically fed on that subject.

  • Jill @ Clearest Glimpse

    Thanks for sharing this! Your pastor did a really great job responding to these questions and the issue at hand.

  • suzi w.

    Great post! It’s a great reminder that we need to go back to basics (as in what did Jesus say, what did the NT writers say) before we go saying that the images in literature and preaching are the images that are correct.


  • kristinherdy

    Great interview. I find that real circumspection on the part of leaders creates a much different message than kicking nonbelievers while they are down. And, it doesn’t lead to faith from fear, which I think is possibly the worst measure of whether or not that faith is lasting and “real.”

  • Joi

    Kristin, thank you for taking the bull by the horns and tackling this issue in a very helpful manner for everyone. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who has been able to totally discount the possibility of “hell” being a reality of some sort, so it is good to help clarify actual Biblical understandings. I think the fact that one of Jesus’ quotes is in reference to a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” suggests that at some point people will have deep regret for opting out of God’s offer of salvation. Your readers might be interested in the book C.S. Lewis wrote on this subject, “The Great Divorce.” It’s a rather bizarre fantasy that sort of imagines a kind of hell (no fire) based loosely on some of the ideas put forth by your pastor, as well as combining justice and the universalism concept, or the continuing love of God for all as mentioned by Tara. It helps people think outside the box about this whole idea.

  • Joi

    PS Great photo choice, by the way!

  • Jan

    Wow — Did anyone mention “designer religions” at your church because that is exactly what seems to be happening.

    Hell is a very real place. The rich man begged for God to allow his servant (who was in Heaven with the Lord) to bring him a drop of water or to warn the rest of his family that hell really and truly does exist. Jesus “descended” into hell after he was crucified so that He, as the sacrifice, would be traded for our sins. If you think that God would allow his beloved only son to suffer the “half death” of the whip, be mocked, spat upon, have thorns stuck into his face and head, and then put to the worst type of death imaginable among torture and ridicule and then give those who choose NOT to believe in hell a free pass, you’re wrong. Dead wrong.

    Many pastors choose to pass on what they believe their parishioners find easier to believe. Find a different church. You soul does depend upon it.

  • Teri

    Whydoes everyone want to change the WORD..There is a hell..Matthew 22:13…”and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth..this speaks of inconsolable grief and unremitting tormen..Jesu commonly used the phrases in this verse to describe hell..Mathew 13:42..and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth..Mathew 13:50…Mathew 24:51..there is a fierey hell, a place of torment..that people who don’t come to salvation in Jesus Christ, will go too…there is no sugar-coating it..But I’m not surprised with this hearsy of teaching..Timothy 4:1..But the Spirit says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrine of demons…Ron Bell is what I would call a false teacher..

  • The Modern Gal

    What a great post. Reading this made me think of the phrase “my own personal hell” — this explanation makes me realize all hell is personal, in a way.

  • Dan J

    I’ll open up another can of worms while this one grabs everyone’s attention.

    As an atheist, I simply have no belief in a heaven or a hell. I do find the discussions about it fascinating, though.

    The idea that basic concepts like heaven and hell have such a wide variety of interpretations within what is, ostensibly, one religion, has always baffled me. Each subgroup is convinced that their particular interpretation of scripture is the only true interpretation. All others are somehow being misguided, putting their eternal souls into jeopardy.

    My big question is this: What is it that gives a person complete certitude that their interpretation (or the interpretation of their particular religious group) is the ‘one true™’ interpretation?

    Many thanks to Kristin for providing an inviting atmosphere for people on every side of a variety of great topics.

  • Kristin T.

    Sarah, I hear what you’re saying–when the Rob Bell controversy broke I realized that I needed to look more closely at what the Bible actually says about hell. It’s so easy to *think* we know something and then have no idea where our understanding is rooted.

    Angela, thanks for stopping by. :)

    Tara, you’re right–there are a lot of topics that “real people” almost never talk about, either because the topic is scary or confusing or uncomfortable. But we need to talk about them, especially if the topics are alienating people. I love how you put this: “We are connected and loved by God and we remain so until we chose to separate ourselves from God.”

    ThatGuyKC, I guess that’s one of the things I don’t get about people who love to quote Bible verses at others–that they seem so willing to judge others and decide who’s going to hell, even though the Bible they love to quote also clearly says we are not to judge, we are to love.

    Alise, it’s funny–this is one of the last subjects I ever thought I’d be posting about on my blog, but once I began asking questions it became so interesting. Glad you think so, too.

    Ray, that is a really powerful image, with many implications in the world as we know it today. Thanks for making that connection.

    Mason, thanks! I agree–there have been some good discussions and reasons to dig deeper, thanks to the controversy. I always worry, though, that people will only see the fighting, which will impact their understanding of the faith. That’s the sad part.

  • Mark

    First I will say that I do not know the answers about hell, or why God would “send” people to hell, or not, based on uncontrollable circumstances like the culture you are born into. I have friends on all sides of the debate, and have never found a concrete truth that I can understand and explain to others. My general beliefs make me a strange, moderately liberal quasi-evangelical follower of Christ. I am most concerned with loving God, loving everyone, and following Christ. That said, I have a few questions for you or anyone who has an answer… I would like to think that for at least some of these, there is a true answer.

    If God is universally acceptant, why would any church, denomination, or individual bother with missions? Why would Jesus teach so frequently that the disciples were to go the Gentiles and to the nations to love, heal, and teach them about himself if they were already “saved” by the lives the were living?

    Is it really fair to say that anyone in the world who lives and dies, never hearing the name of Jesus, will be condemned to an eternity in hell? Is this God’s idea of Justice? Will they have a (first) chance after life, or after Jesus’ second coming to respond to the name of Christ? And if so, again, why would any of us bother to evangelize? Wouldn’t it be better to let people live their lives however they want, and then let them make one simple choice after life to live with Jesus or not?

    There is a lot of scripture about hell, in varying contexts and meanings. Are the descriptions of torment meant only to apply to the torment people experience on earth, before death? If so, why doesn’t everyone outside of Christianity complain of this constant pain? Are billions of people hiding the pains of their own personal hell? If the descriptions of hell are meant only to describe separation from God, how long does this separation last–do nonbelievers get a chance to reunite with God? One chance? As much time as they want to decide after death?

    This is a topic I have thought a lot about lately, and still find it very difficult to find conclusive, true answers. I also like the question Dan J asked–”What is it that gives a person complete certitude that their interpretation (or the interpretation of their particular religious group) is the ‘one true™’ interpretation?” I have a very close friend who is an atheist, and this is a question we discuss a lot. I’m curious if anyone here has a good way to answer it.

    Thanks for letting me ramble :)

  • Ron Simkins

    Kristin, sounds like the interview we did has led to many good comments and questions as well as a little anger here and there. It would be fun and enlightening to talk about all the good questions, but I know that isn’t the purpose of this blog. So, just a few quick comments.

    It always amazes me when people read something like this and their first reponse is “You don’t really believe/know the Bible.” I am guilty of many failures, but that isn’t one of them. For anyone who thinks this discussion was about ignoring the Bible, I would at least challenge that person to give as much weight to other images in the Bible which describe separation as “death,” “second death,” “destruction,” “destroy,” “end,” etc. Why do you give these images less weight in your Bible reading and interpretation?

    Interpretation is always an issue in all communication both oral and literary. No more and no less in the Biblical literature, but very real, especially when we are also crossing cultures and languages in the process. So, of course, all of our “knowing” whether scientific, medical, or faith issues is “the best we understand right now.”

    I am not a “universalist,” but I want it to be true. The writer of 1 Timothy 2:3-5 says God wants it to be true as well. But, the writer doesn’t believe it will happen that way even though that is what God wants. The Biblical writers were not Calvinists (which is really an extension of Greek philosophy), and they did not think God gets everything God wants when it comes to the choices he has allowed us humans. Whether or not everyone can be a part of God’s great future for the human race, will not be limited by God’s love for each person and desire that they participate, but by whether or not that person would ruin God’s gift to everyone else. Everyone would be denied this gift of fulfilled human potential in God’s new heavens and new earth if someone is allowed to be a part of it who do not value other humans who are different and less fortunate than right now. Isn’t that the point of Jesus’ story in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats? So, my belief that some will have to be separated from God’s future gift is not based on any limitation of God’s love, but on the amazing gift of human potential that God has given each of us and will continue to respect. We are more than we think we are, and for that reason cannot be “made” to love others, but must want to.

    PS. The New Testament writers did, in fact, believe that someone could be godly and devout and wonderful before they heard about Jesus — see the Acts 10:1-5 description of a pagan Roman Centurion as god-fearing, devout, generous, and prayerful. They also believed they would be better off to hear about what God had done for the human race in Jesus.

  • EmJ

    @Mark–I’m so glad you’re struggling with these concepts! As a pastor who is supposed to have all the answers, I still struggle with these things all the time! One thing though–i hate that as a church we’re so focused on heaven that we forget about earth. Mission and evangelism aren’t all about getting to heaven. I don’t tell others about jesus solely to “save their souls” but also to bring god’s kingdom to earth. Jesus talked about that a lot.

    I just pray that we all see our biases. That we think before we throw the first stone, that we take out the planks from our own eyes, turn the other cheek, and remember enpven the devil can use scripture for his own good!

    Love you girl! Thanks for sharing!

  • Genevieve

    I will never understand why people who are essentially saying, “I am right and you are wrong” participate in open blog discussions. It’s a complete contradiction of terms.

    Kristin, great post. The oh-so-prevalent “my way or the highway” certainty about anything and everything faith-related is one of the things that has repelled me most about organized religion. What on earth would prompt a person to listen to someone who is saying “I am 100% right. You are wrong. You are condemned. You are a false teacher.” People, phrases like those write you out of an open discussion. If you want to participate–reconsider how you address those who disagree with you. The harder you push, the less credible you become.

  • Kristin T.

    Jill, thanks for stopping by and letting me know what you thought! I’d actually like to do some other interview-type blogs with my pastor in the future (maybe on less controversial topics, though!). :)

    suzi, the whole “what did Jesus say” and “when/to whom did he say it” questions are so important. I know I don’t ask them enough, but this whole issue has been a great reminder for me of where I need to start.

    kristinherdy, yes to this! “…real circumspection on the part of leaders creates a much different message than kicking nonbelievers while they are down.” My pastors teach me so much, both through knowledge/study and action/example. I’m very thankful for it, because I have much to learn!

    Joi, I did think this would be a straightforward “Bible study” addressing an issue in “a very helpful manner for everyone,” as you put it, but I guess once again I’m naive about how controversial these issues are! Anyway, this would be a perfect time for me to read Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” now that I have a bit more knowledge of the biblical background. Good suggestion!

    Jan, you, of course, have every right to believe what you want to believe and even to express those beliefs to others. My blog is one of the few places where people of many different perspectives can come and be a part of one conversation, and I have many readers who do not share my views about faith. When someone is abrupt and rude in their comment, however, I refuse to take the time to engage them in dialogue. You fall into that category.

    Teri, the above comment also applies to you. You don’t know me, you don’t know my church, and you have no right saying that my salvation depends on me finding a different church.

  • Jan

    WOW — I’ve reread my comment and in no way find it rude. When you bring up such an important subject as where you will spend eternity, you should indeed expect disagreement. In no way would I perceive my comment to be rude. I expressed my feelings on the subject, as did others. God did not allow a “gray” area, Kristin, as you do in your blog (but then we are human, right — please do not perceive that as rude. I am stating a fact.) God’s word is black and white. When people (including your pastor manipulate God’s word to be a more agreeable way to life in harmony with hell), it is considered a “designer religion”. Are you familiar with that concept? (again — not wanting to be rude, simply asking to bring awareness to you.) Designer religions are all the rage now, a large part of that can be attributed to Oprah Winfrey (yes, Oprah). We do not worship whatever one considers to be their own higher power. God is God — he is a jealous God and does not want to be lumped into what feels good. This comment is not intended to be “rude”, just stating a strong opinion as I did in my previous comment. Perhaps your pastor should read on some of the apologists (or simply go to Youtube), such as Ravi Zacharias; or those who seems to know so much more than he does because they have received such wonderful gifts from God — Hank Hannagraf, James Dobson, Chuck Swindoll, Dr. Tony Evans, Dr. R.C. Sprout. In fact, I just listened to Dr. Sprout’s broadcast today on the devil (who is also very real).

    When it comes to everlasting life, I know little about coddling and “feel good” comments about hell. I simply know the truth as it is presented in the Bible. Please research this further for yourself.

  • Ron Simkins

    Jan, I have read each of the apologists you mention except Hannagraf and probably a few hundred others along the way. Several of the people you mention seem to be good people, but there is a whole lot more faithful insight out there than the narrow “design” your reading seems to be limited to..

  • Jan

    Ron, please elaborate. Good people is not my concern. Truth is my concern…particularly when one is responsible for passing on that truth. You say there is a lot more reading on faithful insight out there. Yes, I too could name another 20 or so that I have read. However; I am curious as to who you follow. From where do your opinions come? How would you answer the either/or? Either you are reading the Bible and passing on The Lords Holy Gospel as it given to us -or- you are not (you are doing something else). What is that something else? Who else are you reading? You are surely aware that the devil loves to get his hands into the beliefs of the pastor and his flock. This is not meant to be hurtful or rude to anyone. This is a fact IF you acknowledge a devil and his unholy world of hell. Do you believe in a personal devil?

  • Katharine

    I hardly think that Kristin’s original posting is worth the confrontational position that so many have taken. How quickly we take rightness up as an argument and discard kindness in its presentation. I don’t think Jesus would comment this way. Any argumentative position, no matter what is true or not, goes against Jesus’ meek and mild nature. It’s also easy to assume everyone’s spiritual maturity and temperament just by reading a few sentences they wrote passionately. Wouldn’t it be better to be thought to be theological misguided than to be thought to be abrasive and unapproachable? ( I think, Kristin, you owe me a beer, now.) ; )

  • Genevieve

    Yeah, Ron. Jesus’ message had nothing to do with being good people. Only being right people.

  • Nathan Welsh

    First of all, leave Oprah out of this. You can dispute God’s word all you want, but Oprah is right there on film. Back off. Secondly, if the god in question is restrained to what men have written in black and white, if this god is no bigger than a book on your bookshelf, then we are not talking about the same guy. The God I believe in is not black and white, but in living color and fully alive, moving and working in every day life. Also, I would point out that I have met many people who have made the claims you are making, and it always strikes me that even though I am accused of changing the word to feel good, those who are claiming to know the truth don’t seem to feel that good either.

  • Genevieve

    “First of all, leave Oprah out of this. You can dispute God’s word all you want, but Oprah is right there on film.”


    Kristin, you realize that this blog has been appropriated by your commenters and is no longer yours, right?

  • Teri

    You need to read my post again..I did not state that that your salvation means finding a different church..

    I like everyone else just stated my views on Rob Bells book..I thought that this was a to discussion..and if you read my post again..I don’t see anywhere, that I was rude..and I just have to say..Right on to Jan..I totally agree with all that you stated..

  • Jan

    Katharine, I do not know what Jesus would do. I do not think that he would argue this point as I have and so I am appreciative that you’ve mentioned it. I will, indeed, allow this to be my final post on the subject. Jesus has told about the wonders of Heaven and the horrors of hell. He did not sugar-coat hell and made sure that He was clear in stating that the devil and hell were real.

    Nathan, I am sorry to come between you and your personal relationship with Oprah, but she has encouraged people to believe in whatever makes them feel good. As far as Oprah is concerned, she would encourage me to worship a turnip, if it made me feel good. She has NOT contributed to a more Christian society in any way, and because of her popularity, has actually caused strife between Christians. Shame on her. Nathan, I did not say that God was black and white. I said that God’s Word is black and white, and it is. He was very clear and, in fact, repeated himself in many different ways so that His words would not and could not be misinterpreted except by those who “chose” to believe in what made them feel better. I’m afraid that is what Kristin’s pastor and so many other pastors are doing at this time.

    My final word is actually NOT my word, but Jesus word (and yes, although kind and loving, He was also demanding and clear, Matthew 18:9 “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”

  • Elizabeth R

    As long as we’re throwing around Biblical quotes: 1 Timothy 2: 11-12 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet.

    Jan, I know you are backing out of this conversation…but I just have to point out that it’s easy to share a couple of verses to make a point. I happen to be just fine with women leaders in the church, however if everything is cut and dry in the Bible, then I, being a female, should not get into this conversation in the first place. I say this to say that we can find a lot of confusing and seemingly incongruous messages from the Bible. That is why we need context and discussion!

    I may have misread, but I don’t think that Ron was saying to us- there is absolutely no hell as described in some verses in the Bible. Instead, he understands that the Bible has been translated in all sorts of ways that don’t give us much context and historical understanding. Biblical scholars (and he is one) like Ron can add so much more depth to the words that are written on the page.

  • Tanya

    It is one of the saddest realities that plagues people of zealous faith: that we can become so blinded by our convictions, so certain that we are the champions of “the Truth” that we become unkind and uncharitable without seeing that that’s what we’re doing. We think we’re doing something loving, but it certainly doesn’t bear witness to any love. (“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

    Almost always, the zealous one will believe that his/her motivation is grounded in love and concern for the eternal well-being of the other’s soul—and, I suspect, a personal sense of responsibility and/or accountability come Judgment Day if nothing was said or done to help the “ignorant” or “wayward” one to see sense. There are often hints of alarm and real concern about the devil’s wiles. (Those on the receiving end of that “concern”, however—or another casual observer—might characterize it as a messiah complex.)

    In all of my experiences of it (and I’ve had plenty, from all angles), the anxious soul-saving endeavours are ultimately rooted in fear: fear of God’s wrath, fear of the devil’s power, fear of not being found faithful, fear for the other person’s eternal salvation, etc. But those endeavours, grounded in fear, are therefore not rooted in God or in love—because “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

    Kristin, thank you for having the courage to engage this really polemical issue; for introducing us to a thoughtful and knowledgeable man’s insights and reflections on the subject (and for publicly appreciating your pastor!); for providing a space for all of us to be challenged to think a bit more carefully about our best understandings; and for consistently speaking the truth, as best you understand it, in love and wonder.

  • Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, interesting! I’ve never really thought about it in that personal way.

    Dan, I love that you and I can come from completely different belief structures and yet have much in common, such as this big question you posed: “What is it that gives a person complete certitude that their interpretation (or the interpretation of their particular religious group) is the ‘one true™’ interpretation?” I wonder that exact same thing.

    Mark, thanks for your open, great questions. Obviously they’re very big questions, and I don’t exactly have answers to them (at least not clear, concise answers). As I read this question, however—”Why would Jesus teach so frequently that the disciples were to go the Gentiles and to the nations to love, heal, and teach them about himself if they were already “saved” by the lives the were living?”—I did have a thought: It seems that being loved, healed and taught about the life of Jesus are all wonderful and worthwhile things, apart from salvation. I’m not saying salvation wasn’t a part of that process, I’m just saying that each of those forms of outreach is valuable, in and of itself.

    Ron, I definitely think the interest this topic has drawn outweighs the tension that often goes hand-in-hand in such instances. Thank you for being willing to do this post with/for me—for your careful study, your great love for the Bible, and your graciousness in the discussion. Also, I take responsibility for the decision to take out the many, many Bible references you originally included. I didn’t want the post to get too long, but I definitely hope my readers know that you have references for every point you made (and I’m more than willing to provide them at any point).

    EmJ, I just realized that what I was trying to say in my response to Mark, you said, too—much more eloquently and succinctly! And this is a great thing to focus on: “I just pray that we all see our biases.” Thank you.

    Genevieve, I always appreciate your perspective so much, and I can completely see how this offensive “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach would turn you off from organized religion. It’s an attitude that turns me off no matter who takes it on for whatever cause. It’s just unfortunate that it has become synonymous in many people’s minds with Christianity. Maybe the best thing to do is associate the attitude with an individual rather than the group with whom they associate? I definitely need to work on that, too.

  • Linda

    The Final Judgment

    31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,f you did it to me.’

    41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

  • Linda

    • Hell is final. There is no second chance after death. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

    • Hell is everlasting. It never stops. It is “eternal” (Daniel 12:2) and “everlasting” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), and the smoke of their burning goes up “forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11). We moderns may miss this image, since we don’t use fire on a daily basis. As long as the fuel remains, the smoke continues to rise. When the fuel is used up, the smoke stops rising. In hell people are burned, but the smoke keeps rising forever. They burn, but never fully come to an end. Such torment is called “the second death” (Revelation 21:8), where they are forever “outside” the gates of heaven (Revelation 22:15).

    • Hell is conscious. No sleeping here, where “there is no rest day or night” (Revelation 14:11). Notice the rich man’s pleadings in Luke 16:19-31. Hell’s victims are conscious.

    • Hell is punishment. It’s not “just what happens” to people. It is punishment at the hands of God. It is God’s contempt of people (Daniel 12:2), it is being “condemned” by God, like in a court (John 5:29). It is God’s just “payback” for sins (2 Thessalonians 1:6), when Jesus “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel…. They will be punished.” (v.8-9).

    • Hell is painful. Jesus described it as “the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:40-42), “the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41),“the darkness,” “outside” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Hell is “the blackest darkness” (Jude 13). Revelation calls it “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Whether hot or cold, bright or dark, all these images are images of extreme suffering.

    • People will be condemned to hell at the Second Coming and Day of Judgment. The sentence of hell is given at Jesus’ return (2 Thessalonians 1:7, also Matthew 25:31).

    • People suffer in hell even while they await the Second Coming and Judgment Day. “The Lord knows how to… hold the unrighteous for the Day of Judgment, while continuing their punishment” (2Peter 2:9). We also see this in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where the rich man was undergoing punishment in hell after his death while his brothers still lived. This is a parable, so it can’t be pressed too far, but Jesus’ parables were taken from real-life situations, including the situation of dying and being held in punishment while awaiting the Day of Judgment.

    • God is in hell and punishes people there. The guilty “will be tormented in burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10-11). The Lamb in Revelation is Jesus. Hell is not so much eternal separation from God as it is the eternal presence of God in unmitigated wrath and fury. Hell is separation from God in the sense of being separated from his blessings and fellowship (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Hell is where we must “drink the wine of God’s fury which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath” (Revelation 14:10).

    • Hell is both physical and spiritual. It follows the resurrection of the dead (John 5:28-29), so those who suffer in hell will suffer bodily as well as in spirit. Jesus said it was “better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30). Hell will be a place for our bodies as well as a condition of our souls. Beware those who make hell sound too ethereal and spiritual.

    • Hell is real. This isn’t just language the Bible uses to get a response out of us. Jesus warns us about it because it really does exist and really is our destiny. He loves us enough to warn us in advance.

    • Everyone goes to hell. Jesus Christ and those “in Christ” are the only exceptions. All who “do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” are sent to hell (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Those who turn to Jesus are saved. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already” (John 3:16, 18).

  • Ron Simkins

    Took a few days out for the flu – bummer. I think this will be my last comment on this topic. A couple of responses to Mark’s many good questions and comments. Although many Calvinists and universalists do find motivation for witness because a relationship with Jesus enriches life now, your point is still powerful. If God accepts everyone, even if they do not want what God wants to give them, the urgency of witness is certainly diminished for most of us. My own understanding is that God created such an amazing creation when humans were created (however long it took) that forced universal acceptance of God’s love and God’s future would involve God in diminishing the human potential which God prized highly enough to create us. Most of us do not believe loving anyone, including God, can be forced, coerced, or made to happen by a one sided choice. A loving relationship involves choices on both sides of the relationship, not just one. The choices and costs do not have to be equal, but they do have to ulimately be mutual for love to be full and complete. Do we want to be with people, and a God, forever who we would not choose to be with if given a choice? Would a society (kingdom of God) that was made up of forced rather than chosen relationships really be the great future where love and trust and peace prevailed that the Biblical writers envisioned? Your question concerning whether people who reject God get any more chances after death, one more, more than one more is a very good one? Actually the end of Hebrews chapter 11 indicates that everyone who lived faithfully prior to God’s great act in Jesus had the opportunity to be included after their death. I read the other day a quote by a Cincinnati newspaper in the 1890′s saying that baseball had run its course and would soon completely disappear. We are not great at figuring out the future, and we aren’t great at doing it with biblical promises either. They help us, but they don’t clarify everything, nor were they meant to — as Paul openly said, “We see through a glass darkly” right now. The one thing I am sure of is that God will do what is most loving for the community God is creating. My own understanding is that being most loving will include not letting people be a part of God’s great future community who would ruin it for everyone if given the choice to do so. I think that is probably the only thing that will cause God to keep someone out of his future for humanity. But, I do not think that is a small thing. That was the point C. S. Lewis was trying to make in his “Great Divorce.”

    Linda, I don’t have the space to respond to all of your quotations from the Bible right here, but I do want to say that I believe each of them tell us something important, and I do not want to ignore them at all. Just three notes here: (1) The various descriptions the Biblical writers use must not have been pictured in their mind as a place as much as a condition — how could the same “place” be described as a deep pit going down, wandering in the darkness of outer space, a lake of fire, darkness, etc. They were smart and literate writers, and chose not to attempt to reconcile these warnings into a single picture. These are powerful pictures of separation and wastedness (garden turned to garbage dump) , but hardly of a single geographical place. All of us would do better to be sure we don’t “waste” ourselves, and this precious life God has gifted us with, than to attempt to determine who else is wasting their lives. Let’s let God handle it. (2) You do need to learn to distinguish, as the biblical writers do, between “Hades/Sheol” which is “the place of the dead” versus the condition of final judgment (re-ordering of society into one of justice and love) at the end of this age of history, (3) We will all find out how much we only half understood when we stand before God face to face. But, half undestanding is the human condition in all fields of knowledge, and in no way unique to wrestling with faith, faithfulness, nor Biblical understanding. Shouldn’t surprise those of us who take the biblical promises seriously to find out that we are obviously a part of the human condition – “we see through a glass darkly… we know in part,” but “faith, hope, and love continue on and the greatest of these is love.”

    Blessings to all of you who took time to respond to the original interview. – Ron

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  • William

    I am not a regular follower of the blog (I found it through Stumbleupon), I am not a devout Christian, or a member of any other faith, though I attended church regularly with my parents as a child, and I am not an atheist. I am 24, both of my parents are dead, and while I took some courses concerning theology (specifically Christian) in school, I am not well-informed on the subject. Most of what I have to say (and I know I’m late to the party on this) comes from my own thoughts.

    I believe in God. I believe he exists. Exactly in what form, where, how and why, I don’t know. As a kid I pictured a grandfatherly figure, because that’s the picture others painted for me. I think Jesus was a real historical figure, but the importance of his message does not depend on his nature as son of God or human prophet, or random dude (anymore than the importance of Gandhi’s, Mohammed’s, or Buddha’s does).

    Since that’s out of the way, I do not believe in hell. A response is likely “You don’t need to, hell is real,” but this response is ill-informed. No one knows what happens after you die. Christ says (somewhere) that the believers get to go to heaven. And nonbelievers go to hell. What these places are, if they are literal places and not metaphors (as Simkins suggests, hell is separating yourself from God) is not clear, as who or what God is is not clear. If you accept God as omnipotent, then he’s responsible for everything. If he’s not omnipotent new questions are raised, but since you don’t know…

    I’m not sure I believe in heaven, though I’d like to, since my parents are dead and them having their own little slice of the afterlife is comforting. But that’s all it is: comforting. There is no more truth in it than in any other speculation about what comes after death, if anything. My reading of the Bible allows (now) for God’s existence and love without the possibility of an afterlife. It’s frightening, but Christ is often frightening. And as a final word, suppose both heaven and hell exist, and God puts the believers in heaven, nonbelievers in hell. Obviously hell would include bad folks, like Hitler, Stalin, murderers, rapists, and more. It might also include your friends, family, you, and more. And even if it didn’t, is eternal torment a reasonable punishment for 70 or so years of nonbelief, regardless of your other actions? God may be mysterious (as I have pointed out) but that’s not a God I want to worship. It’s not a God who deserves worship. And if you see this as part of a designer religion, remember, every religion is “designer”. Christ left no direct writings that we’ve found, God spoke through people who were crazy and diseased and dying, and that Christmas there’s a war on? It’s a hijacked pagan holiday remade so more people could be brought into the fold with less fuss.

  • Ron Simkins

    Hi William, I am the pastor who Kristin interviewed. You make many good comments and raise many good questions. Just wanted to respond to a couple of them quickly. First, there would be no reason Biblically to think you have to believe in “Hell” in order to follow God or in order to believe God has done something really unique in Jesus. It is a very peripheral topic except for the one point you raise — it isn’t peripheral if it is understood in a manner that means God really is not loving toward all human beings. If any of us somehow waste ourselves, and God is loving, it will be in spite of all God can figure out to do, not because of God not wanting us. Second, you are right that our wishing to live beyond death certainly cannot show us anything of “heaven.” If there is a future for the earth and for humanity that lasts beyond the day we or a volcano or an astroid blow it up, it will be because God really values us and believes humans are worth saving from the scientifically certain day when one of the many tensions in nature takes us out. That would be the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Not that God can do a miracle, but that God faithfully values us as having more potential than even we think we have. Third, Jesus can be God’s unique moment in human history when we are given a glimpse of how great our potential is and a way to get there, without God rejecting people who don’t know that right now. The Biblical writers certainly thought both realities could be true at the same time. Wish we could have coffee and sit and talk about all this for hours. I too was raised in church, and lost all interest for a while. I still find us church people pretty ambivalent — including myself — but, I find God’s willingness to encounter me through Jesus an overwhelming gift. Take care. If you want to continue this, feel free to ask the author of this blog for my email address.

  • Joy F

    Very interesting – I’ve wondered that for a long time – why the church seems to forget who Jesus was usually talking to…….it makes you pause a minute doesn’t it?