Why I might still believe in hell (sort of)

Or to give it a more accurate but less snappy title, Why I might still very reluctantly just about believe in some qualified form of what we might call ‘hell’, though nothing like the traditional fiery version.

Recently I talked about why I could still call myself a ‘sinner’ without signing up to particular theological interpretations of that term that I no longer find helpful. This post follows the same theme, looking at the related idea of hell.

These days I’m a ‘hopeful universalist’ – I desperately hope that all people will ultimately be redeemed and included in God’s good and eternal Kingdom of love and joy and peace. And I think God desperately hopes that too, and works his darnedest to achieve that. But I’m not 100% sure that it can be guaranteed.

Love can’t coerce

You see, the bottom line for me is that God is love. And love cannot coerce or be coerced, but can only woo. Love cannot force anyone to accept it, or to reciprocate it. The offer is always there, and I believe it is overwhelmingly appealing and persuasive – but it surely can be rejected.

There are two classic English proverbs (okay, clichés) that put it well. One is ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink’. God can show people his love, his mercy, his goodness in every way possible. But he can’t force them to accept or receive him, to love him in return. It has to be a free choice, otherwise it wouldn’t be love.

None so blind…

But why would anyone deliberately reject God’s love and grace? That’s the other proverb: ‘There’s none so blind as them that will not see’. It’s the problem of human stubbornness and self-destructive self-blindness. We’re terribly, tragically good at shutting our eyes to things we don’t want to see, at blocking out or explaining away things we don’t want to accept – even things that would bring us life and freedom.

“Sons of Adam, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that would do you good” as Aslan says sadly to Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew.

So I believe that God does all in his power to show us his goodness, but sometimes we just don’t want to see. And I don’t think God can force us to open our eyes or our hearts if we’re ultimately unwilling.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.” God calls and calls, longing to save us from the things that trap us and destroy us, but sometimes we don’t want to hear.

But why do we shut out the light? Perhaps we fear that truly letting God in would destroy any control we have over our lives, or would threaten our status and security. Perhaps we don’t want our prejudices or lifestyles to be challenged, or to have to give up the dear, sweet, deadly things that we cling onto for comfort and pleasure, or to have to forgive people who have hurt us. Perhaps we don’t want to change, or the path to salvation just doesn’t look very appealing.

Self-imposed exile

So the version of ‘hell’ I just might believe in is something along the lines of a state of self-imposed exile from God’s Kingdom – not a divinely imposed punishment, and not physical torment.

At the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the treacherous dwarves have become so mistrustful of everyone else that they have made themselves unable to receive – or even see – the good things Aslan (Christ) offers them. He leads them out of captivity into wide spaces, but they think they’re still locked up in a dark stable. He offers them rich food, but they taste it as animal fodder. It’s a great image of the kind of ‘hell’ I’m talking about – not a divine punishment, but something we do to ourselves by our choice not to open ourselves in love and trust.

Rejecting others

So far I’ve only been talking about our acceptance or rejection of God’s love and goodness, but I think there’s more to it than that. We have to accept others (and also fundamentally ourselves). The kingdom is not about isolated individuals in relationship with God; it’s a community of love.

So to enter the kingdom, to belong there, we have to lay aside what we have against other people. We have to let go of dear grudges and nurtured resentments, of feelings of superiority or inferiority and all our human jockeying for power and position.

So again, I think it’s not that God shuts us out of heaven, out of his kingdom. It’s that we shut ourselves out by refusing to forgive and accept forgiveness, refusing to have mercy, to love and accept others who we deem bad or unworthy.

I don’t think the kingdom of heaven is a place with a door, with bouncers only allowing in people with the right tickets. I think it’s more like a state or condition that you find yourself in when you love and forgive, and when you accept love and forgiveness.

Letting go of what holds us

Similarly, I believe that there are ways and traits in us that need to be overcome or let go of in order for us to ‘enter’ or be part of heaven. This is not because heaven won’t let us in, but because these things make us unable to be at peace (shalom), to be in full loving relationship, which is the nature and basis of the kingdom.

So I believe we all have to go through a journey of spiritual growth, of facing and dealing with the parts of us or ways in us that militate against us being truly ourselves and truly Christlike. Until then, we are simply not fully able to enter into and experience Reality (aka the kingdom of heaven, aka God’s full presence). (Again, C.S. Lewis offers a compelling picture of this idea, in The Great Divorce.)

So it’s not that God condemns us to hell for our misdeeds, but rather that self-destructive and toxic ways in us have to be overcome before we can be whole and ‘real’ enough for the community of heaven. And I believe we need Christ dwelling in us for this (whether we know he’s there or not); we can’t do it entirely by ourselves, though I think we do need to participate actively in our redemption.

Please don’t think I’m saying that only professing Christians can be ‘saved’, or that anyone definitely ends up in ‘hell’. I’m not. I simply believe that one way or another we all need to be transformed by Christ’s love, and (though I hope not) it may be that we can steadfastly resist that and remain as we are, rather than entering into all his fullness and life.

God’s wake-up call?

Finally, if there is any such thing as hell, whatever it might be, I just wonder if it might not actually be God’s final desperate attempt to call us back to our senses and drive us back to him. I believe God is always seeking to draw us to himself in love, but if we finally reject him then perhaps (just perhaps) for our sake he changes tactic and uses our (self-imposed) pain as a wake-up call to drive us to the light. In which case, hell would not be a punishment but our salvation. Perhaps.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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13 Responses to Why I might still believe in hell (sort of)

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    I am also a hopeful universalist, but I am not a very convinced universalist for the very reason you specify–God will not force anyone into the kingdom against their will. I think there is a way to summarize why people might refuse. If the kingdom is a place where no one dominates another, then that is good news! But it is not good news to those who wish to dominate others.

    Where will such people go? My guess is that those who self-select themselves out of the kingdom will cease to exist; when they refuse the gift of eternal life in the kingdom they will not have eternal life. This is called conditional immortality.

    By the way, let me offer my favorite line from the book Bored with the Rings: “U canleada horsta wata, bwana, Butyu canna makit drinque!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love the quote! 😉 Sounds like a great book too.

      My hopeful universalism stretches as far as this – I believe we have as long as it takes to turn to Christ, all eternity if necessary, and that our chances don’t run out at death (though it may possibly become a little harder after that). And I believe that the warmth of God’s unfailing, unending love is capable of melting even the hardest and most stubborn of hearts in the end. But… I also suspect that it may be possible to ‘blind’ and ‘deafen’ ourselves to that love to such an extent, and by such long force of habit, that the chances of our actually changing and turning may ultimately decrease to nearly zero. I’d say that there’s always hope, and in the very very end all may yet be saved, but I do suspect that won’t be the case unfortunately.

      My view of hell now is that it is always only populated by one person – the self-isolated, self-excluded self on the run from Christ’s love. There can be no room for anyone else, because this ‘hell’ is simply the prison of our own minds or souls shut in upon ourselves. There may be many such hells, one for each person, but each one is separate – which is why it’s hell. Of course this may be completely wrong, and either way I don’t wish it upon anyone.

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  2. David says:

    Another excellent post. I love the references to the Narnia series and C S Lewis obviously had some interesting things to say on this subject. I am very much on the same page with you on this and I have no doubt you have read Rob Bell’s thoughts on the subject in ‘Love Wins’, which runs along similar lines.

    For so long I went along with the prevailing evangelical dictum that was frankly motivated as much by fear as by love. If you believe in Jesus and say a prayer at the front you are in, but if you refuse, you will burn in hell for eternity. I am sure many of my Christian friends would deny it is a simple as this, but in reality, that is exactly what they and I certainly believed for many years. I find it truly liberating to see all of us in the same place in need of grace and the love of God. It is up to us and our own freewill whether we respond, but I am sure God is cheering us all on to do so. Also, perhaps another thought to ponder, is it just a one time response or are we all in a process of building a relationship with God that constantly changes and is never ‘finalized’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi David, sorry for the slow response – I tend to be offline evenings and weekends, and then was out on a course most of yesterday!

      I think C.S. Lewis is one of the best on this subject – compassionate, warm and with a lot of insight into the foibles of human nature. I don’t agree with him on all subjects but this is one where I think he generally hits the nail on the head.

      I really like Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’ too – I wrote a (rather lengthy) review of it here a while ago: https://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/rob-bell-love-wins/

      I agree that the prevailing evangelical dictum is motivated by fear as much as (or more than) love. And I’m not entirely free of that fear yet – I occasionally still suffer anxiety that I’ve gone seriously astray and I’m leading myself and any readers of my blog up a primrose path to eternal destruction. But that’s just an occasional evangelical hangover, which tends to strike after I’ve visited a particularly conservative and hell/sin/Bible-focused church.

      I like your final idea too, that we’re in a process of building a relationship with God rather than it being a one time response. I very much believe that – many people aren’t aware of a particular moment when they came to faith and I’m not sure such a conversion experience is necessary at all, though it can be very special to some. Rather I think we can grow gradually closer to God over the years, with many changes to our beliefs and practices along the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. tonycutty says:

    This is a subject I am also currently struggling with – I think this is what happens when you start to question all the bunk you have been taught in Evangelical circles! – and I agree with you. I am also currently reading a book called ‘The Lie of Hell’ by Roger Harper. Not sure yet where it leads, but I am looking forward to reading such a good bloke’s take on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, you may already be aware that I have a page of resources on hell. It includes my articles but even more articles by other writers (including one from you). There are also a few recommended books–two of them with my reviews.

      Just in case you are interested. https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/books-and-resources/hell/

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      • I’ll be very interested to hear what Roger Harper has to say!

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        • PS sorry, that was meant to be a reply to Tony… doh!

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          • tonycutty says:

            Well, I am doing fairly well with the book ‘The Lie of Hell’ but it is heavy going and despite saying that we need to only extract things from the Bible in order to form our doctrines, there is at least one doctrine that he assumes which, in my view, is unbiblical – that of having to decide in this life; once you die, it’s game over and you have to live or die with your choices. Personally I believe in extra chances after death, and in some ways (the Harrowing of Hell – Jesus going into Hell to rescue lost souls after death) he also asserts that too. But that aside, there’s also lots missing about the permanency of Christian salvation (once saved, always saved), works-based salvation (in that it is the way we treat others that determines our salvation status, and indeed some of Jesus’s teachings would suggest this) and other stuff. I am about 20% of the way through the book and I am going to complete it, but it’s not the sort of thing I really want to be pondering in great depth as my wife is going in for more chemo this week. But, look, I have a friend who has also read the book and he’s done a review and precis of it on his website. Here’s the link: http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/rvlieofhell.html – that might prove useful too. Or email me through my website and I can discuss other ideas as to how I can lend you the book to read. The take-home message of the book appears to be not that Hell does not exist, but that Gehenna and Hades/Sheol are actually two similar but separate places with different functions – and that those consigned to ‘eternal punishment’ do not suffer for ever. I think it’s definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than to get another view other than the standard Evangelical line. It suggests to me that this question is still very much up in the air in terms of great Christian thinkers.

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            • Thanks Tony – please don’t worry about giving a more in-depth account of the book. What you’ve said already and what’s on your friend David Matthew’s blog is more than enough to be going on with!

              I’m not sure I’d go along with all of Harper’s perspective or interpretation, but it does sound like a good response to some of the rather skewed teaching on hell we’ve received in parts of the evangelical tradition.

              I’m still not convinced that anyone is necessarily consigned to ‘eternal punishment’ or ‘eternal destruction’ in the sense that there’s no longer any hope for them. But I certainly prefer Harper’s approach to that of those who propound Eternal Conscious Torment!

              By the way, I’m really sorry to hear about your wife’s cancer and I will pray that the chemo is effective.

              Liked by 1 person

      • tonycutty says:

        I am indeed interested – thanks Tim! And Harvey – yes, if I can precis it sufficiently well, I will let you know 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, just found this blog and finding a lot that resonates. On this topic, have you read Brad Jersak’s book, “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut” ? I recommend it. He’s also featured in the documentary “Hellbound?” which contrasts the conservative evangelical / infernalist view with the ‘hopeful universalism’ viewpoint.

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    • Hi Matt, thanks – no, haven’t come across Brad Jersak but will look out for that book! I’ve been meaning to see “Hellbound” as well. Sounds like Jersak is making the point that the gates of heaven will always stay open to those who wish to enter, even those who are long dead?

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