Some random, contradictory thoughts on Hell. Discuss.

Rothko-untitled-2Below, you’ll find a random assortment of 30 completely disjointed musings on Hell. Each paragraph is its own statement, in no particular order. This is not meant to be a discussion of where I currently land on this issue. I’d love to just get your thoughts. Respond as you like, below.

(1) In the past 10 to 15 years, the American Church saw a new emphasis on Idolatry as the foundation of sinfulness, rather than “Law-breaking”. I’m starting to see a new re-emphasis on Law-Breaking and Hell as punishment for this. And yet, the “Law” is always connected to God’s Image and Character, and so Law-Breaking is living by a wrong law, or image, and therefore is idolatry. We have an analogy for how a Judge responds to breaking the law, and this leads to the popular view of Hell since Medieval times. But what is the analogy for the response to transgressing an image?

(2) Can any Universalist tell me what the point of missions or Evangelism is in this life, if their perspective is true?

(3) Jesus experienced the same wrath on the cross that would otherwise be poured out on individuals for their sins, right? In other words, Jesus had to –literally–go through Hell for each and every person that would ever not go to Hell. And yet, this wrath on our behalf was neither eternal nor was it annihilationist. If the Atonement was truly and fully substitutionary, how did Jesus “get away” with only a brief period of wrath, while others get an eternal period? In fact, it almost seems that God’s wrath–here, at least, where it was on display most clearly and forcefully–was redemptive and salvific. Just saying.

(4) How is it loving to let sin–the disfiguration of humanity made in God’s Image–go unanswered? Doesn’t the love of one thing necessary imply the hatred of its harm? Wouldn’t it represent a profound ambivalence should God not fully address it?

(5) If at the end of all things, Jesus does away with all evil, what is there left for God’s wrath to be poured out upon eternally? Will there always be some drop of sin left in reality that will need God’s justice poured out on it?

(6) I respect those theologians that try and re-cast Hell as simply a process by which God “gives people over” to their sin and, in a sense, lets them float off into eternity further and further away from God, on into “un-realness”. But, too often they try and offer this as an alternative articulation of the mainstream view of Hell. This is nothing like the mainstream view of retributive hell, and they need to stop pretending it is. I may or may not agree with their assessment, but it’s not the same thing (I’m looking at you, Keller and Lewis).

(7) I hear it said that all of God’s wrath is “restorative” and not “retributive”. That’s certainly not what seems to be the case in the Bible. Sodom and Gomorrah? The Philistines? Ananias and Sapphira? How are these “restorative”?

(8) God’s wrath is always restorative in the long view. The Father’s wrath poured out on Jesus was not immediately restorative and curative. It took time for the other side of the coin to drop. Perhaps the residents of Sodom, the Philistines, and Ananias and Sapphira were ultimately (in a cosmic sense) the benefactors of how the story played out after justice was exercised upon them.

(9) Which comes first: repentance or forgiveness? Are we forgiven first, and this leads us to repentance and faith, or do repentance and faith lead us to being granted forgiveness?

(10) When there is talk of God’s ultimate purpose and destination for redemptive history, namely New Heavens and New Earth, I can’t remember a single time where these images are tied to judgment–outside of the Book of Revelation, that is. Really, think of it. Every other piece of Scripture talking of the final scene of redemption is entirely devoid of talk of Hell. Am I wrong? I can’t think of any right now?

(11) What is “gnashing of teeth”?

(12) Is forgiveness truly forgiveness if it only comes after wrath has been poured out? After all, if the wrath is poured out, isn’t the wrong “paid for”? Why is forgiveness still necessary?

(13) Universalists too often try and frame their case by saying that forgiveness is not true forgiveness if it comes after wrath and justice because the sin is “paid for” (see what I did there?). This is why sin is idolatry, and not simply “law-breaking”–the sin being atoned for is not economic (as in able to be “paid for”), it is personal (and so it is just as important who bears this wrath–Christ–as it is how it is poured out). May I suggest a better tactic: Christ “absorbed” the wrath due us so that he may now forgive all. After all, Jesus is both the “just and the justifier”.

(14) Similar to a different point above: does not an eternal Hell imply the eternal existence of sin, evil, rebellion, and hopelessness? Would this please God?

(15) Hell is not the absence of God. People need to stop saying that. Whatever Hell is, it is the place for people that want precisely that: the absence of God. As an Orthodox Father once said, “the wrath of God is the love of God poured out on sinners who hate it.”

(16) Is anyone frustrated that every mention of something like a “Hell” in the Bible is always–without exception–couched and nested deeply within layers of poetic, symbolic, parabolic language. There is no simple, straightforward discussion of this issues.

(17) Do you believe that Jesus’ death on the Cross atoned for the transgressions of angels or demons or any other heavenly being you may or may not believe exist? If not, then congratulations, you believe in Limited Atonement.

(18) Yes, Jesus talks about “Hell” more than anyone else (technically, it’s not one concept, there are two words that mean two entirely different things, that are often translated “hell”), but he only ever exclusively talks about when talking to (and about) religious leaders. Note, this is not simply a progressive “oh, he never talks about hell to the poor and marginalized.” He doesn’t mention it to pagan, unbelieving Romans, either. Nor the rich. Nor the powerful. Seriously, it is only to the religious conservatives to whom Jesus ever talks about Hell.

(19) The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not about Hell.

(20) Is it a big deal, that God’s people did not even have a conception of Hell, much less an entire theology of it until after they were exiled among a people who did have a Hell-like theology? Is it a problem that the origins of Biblical “Hell-ology” seem to be stolen from other Ancient Near Eastern people and seem to just pop out of nowhere in the Scriptures? (And no, Sheol is not in any way close to the New Testament conception of Hell.)

(21) How do Universalists think through all of the “binary”, black-and-white, in-and-out, saved-and-unsaved language of the New Testament? I haven’t ever heard them address this.

(22) I’m trying to think. Is there anyone specific in the Bible that is said to have gone to “Hell”, or on their way there? I personally don’t think the “Hades” of the Rich Man and Lazarus Story is meant to tell us anything theological about this Hell idea. And either way, it’s a parable, so this characters or not necessarily historical. Outside of that, is there a specific individual (or even specific group) that is said to go to Hell? If not, what might this say to ow much latitude and freedom Christian should feel in assuming who goes there now?

(23) Do conservatives really get just how large a contingent of Christian heroes throughout history (including their beloved quote-machine C.S. Lewis) had ideas and conceptions of Hell that differ entirely form theirs? Many of the earliest Christian theologians were Universalists. Were those people just “giving in to cultural accommodation”? Were they ignoring the “clear teaching of Scripture”?

(24) If the whole world is created “through” a Christ who came, suffered, died, and rose again would it not make sense for everything in that creation to rise from its Fall? Similarly, if the Image of Christ is one that died and then rose, could one believe that God will do this to all those who bear his Image? (I’ve written something similar before)

(25) Why does Christ’s Resurrection inaugurate an entire New Creation with no exception, but not New Creatures without exception? Creation certainly bears “fallenness” within in, and even rebelled against Jesus. Why does his death and Resurrection bring newness and life to the Creation regardless of its willing participation in this redemption and repentance? In the scope of redemptive history, there seems to be a movement in Creation from “groaning” and “futility” to life and praising and singing within the natural order. How is this salvation and introduction into the World to Come appropriated to Creation, if not through repentance and faith? Why can’t this also be applied to sinful humans?

(26) The traditional doctrine of federal headship says that through one person (Adam), sin and death entered the world, and this spread to the rest of us apart from our active choosing to be a part of it. And yet, conservatives would say that the world’s new federal head (Christ) does not usher in Life that spreads to the rest of us apart from our active choosing to be a part of it. We die without choosing, but we can’t live without choosing. Does this ruin the otherwise beautiful symmetry of this idea? Condemnation, it seems, we get apart from works. Salvation, on the other hand…

(27) Is Hell more of a Place or a Process? Or is it a process done in a place? Or a place that exists within a process?

(28) If Christ bore Hell and came out the other side, does this mean he conquered it entirely? Only partially? Is it even something that’s “conquered” or simply “satisfied”? Can it be conquered and/or satisfied fully? Why or why not? If so, why wouldn’t Christ do that? how do we know he hasn’t?

(29) To the Conservatives: consider the idea that, ultimately, everyone’s sin is eventually paid for (either in Christ on the Cross or in that person in Hell), and eventually, everyone ends up back together in the New Creation. Even if we don’t have enough biblical information for this idea to be Christian dogma or doctrine, is there enough room left for it to be a Christian hope?

(30) Jesus began to sweat blood over the impending wrath of God being poured on him. Jesus is eternally God from God, Light from Light, and so this was his own wrath. The wrath he knew intimately from eternity past. He knew what was coming. If we want to know what the proper posture is when thinking about and discussing this wrath, we need only look to Christ in Gethsemane.


Okay, you’re turn. Let me know some of your own thoughts and responses to some of the lines above. What number(s) do you find compelling? Interesting? Silly?

[image credit: an untitled piece by Mark Rothko]


8 thoughts on “Some random, contradictory thoughts on Hell. Discuss.

  1. paul, here’s a follow up to what i posted on facebook:

    most notably:

    “I don’t propose to have a definitive answer to this dilemma, but I do find it interesting that — in the entire first millennium of Church history, and prior to the composition of the Masoretic Text (between the 10th century for the Aleppo Codex and AD 1008 for the Leningrad Codex) — there was not any widespread explanation of the atonement among the Church fathers that explicitly agrees with that of the “penal” theory, which has become most predominate in the “west” and within Protestantism — who also base their modern, English translations of the Old Testament upon the medieval MT. I certainly have never come across any hymns or liturgical references in the Orthodox Tradition that would agree with or even hint at this interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.”


    “However, what you emphatically don’t see (much of, at least) in the Orthodox Tradition is the idea of a “penal” atonement theory; that is, that Christ was “punished” by God the Father on the Cross in order to appease the Father’s wrath and anger towards mankind (something that the reposed Fr John Romanides has rightly associated with gross paganism, and not traditional, Orthodox Christianity). On the contrary, the Scriptures of the New Testament (such as in Saint Paul’s epistles) tell us that Christ’s death on the Cross shows the immense love of God towards sinful humanity (e.g. Rom. 5:8), not His anger/wrath — again, while we were yet sinners.”


    • I’m always super excited to see fellow Westerners referencing Eastern Orthodox doctrines on the atonement! An emphasis on the Incarnation as the site of salvation opens so many doors that have been closed so long within Protestantism. Anselm sometimes gets a perhaps unfairly bad rap, but he definitely did a lot of damage here…well, and also with the ontological argument…


  2. I can’t say for sure, but i believe the primary “atonement model” in the EO is Christus Victor – Jesus winning victory over death, sin and satan. There is a widely different understanding of pretty much everything in the east. It’s mind boggling actually. I do wonder why Protestants don’t often go back beyond the reformation to understand a broader view of theology. It’s as if the first 1054 years didn’t really matter, that somewhere between then and 1530-something the Romans got it wrong and only then was serious theological work done and “finalized”. The church fathers are far more important than Calvin, Luther, etc, but rarely are they read and understood. Perhaps this is because of the influence of Revivalism and how embedded it is in our culture? When I was Protestant, I had no interest in the first 1000+ years of church history, afterall, the catholics (and by implication, the Orthodox) weren’t really Christians anyway, right 😉 ?


  3. I have two thoughts that give me a different perspective by which to view your points. Perhaps, like glasses, you could put them on and view your own points to see if you come up with your own answers. First, God is outside of time. I know you know this but almost every one of your points is dripping with references that involve time in one way or another. That’s natural since we exist within time and have no other way of seeing reality. Fortunately, God gave us the ability to think abstractly, so give it a try. Second, while we’re given a free will and from our point of view, we do make our own choices, you can’t get around all the predestination passages. On that, I fall back on God’s responses to Job.


    • Having faith doesn’t mean ignoring our doubts. St. Paul instructs us to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling”. For me, this means often confronting our confusion and doubt, our concerns. So many of the Psalms are complaints against God. I think that not only can faith coexist with some doubt, but that belief often needs doubt to sharpen it, and to remind us what is at stake: the future of being. Faith doesn’t have to mean complacency or detachment from the real sufferings of our world. So I think Paul can struggle over these questions *and* have real faith in Christ.


  4. Pingback: Logos Bible Software & Evangelical Insecurity | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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