“Remember, they will give an answer to Him Who judges all who are living or dead. For this reason, the Good News was preached to the dead. They stood in the flesh before the One Who judges so they might live in the Spirit as God wants.” — 1 Peter 4:5-6
I need to tell you two things upfront, so there’s common understanding as I begin.
First, yes, this article is about hell. I know there are a lot of different ideas, much confusion and even anger when the topic is brought up. I am willing to take that risk for the purpose of encouraging and giving hope to followers of Jesus and those who are contemplating following Jesus. If you are in the latter group and the idea of hell is a deal-breaker for you, read on!
Secondly, on this topic, “We are,” according to historian and theologian Brad Jersak, “all children playing with crayons.” I am going to color my views of what the Bible has to say about hell. You are free to do the same. I promise to not stick my crayons in your eyes, and I hope you will do the same for me.
The Bible has at least three views of hell. None of the three are contained in the historical dogma of Christian belief. In other words, a specific view of hell is NOT found in the ancient creeds; i.e. Nicene, Chalcedonian, nor The Apostle’s Creed. If that tells us anything, it tells us that interest in the specifics of hell are quite new to the church, within the last 200 years.
Let me describe these three views and then share with you my opinion.
All three views are prominent in scripture.
This first view easily has the largest volume of verses in the Bible. This view states there are two deaths; first, a bodily death. Then, for the unrepentant, a death of the soul. Words are used like perish, destruction, consume, etc. For those who hold to this view, the Lake of Fire is an experience for those cast out, but they are mercifully consumed. Any weeping, wailing or gnashing of teeth is referring to the grief one experiences once they receive their sentence. Hell’s fire annihilates both body and soul.
Those who believe in this view see hell as a literal place. Once one dies, they either go to heaven or go to hell based on whether they confessed Jesus as Lord before they died. In this view, those sent to hell will suffer forever. The popular “Left Behind” series of books and movies indelibly inscribed this view on the hearts of a portion of Christians back in the 20th century.
This view, as the others, has quite a host of scriptural support; I used one above. In this understanding, God loves the entire cosmos and everyone who has ever lived. They believe it has always been His plan to save the whole world. Hell is a refining fire, not a consuming or tormenting fire, that gives opportunity for people to choose Jesus even after death. In this view, hell prepares them for an eternal relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit. For the first 500 years of the Church, there was a strong belief that God’s work of drawing humanity to Himself did not cease at death. Of course, the Catholic Church still holds this view today.
Whatever view one holds, on many subjects, and especially on the topic of hell, that view is influenced by other convictions and biases. For example, how we view God; view the Cross; see the Bible; grew up.
Each of these influence our opinion about hell. The operative word there is “opinion” because our views are just that; opinions.
As much as I want to believe I approach the Bible without bias, to think I do is only fooling me. We all have biases, let’s admit it. It affects how we “color” many things. One thing I know about myself, is my ideas have changed many times over the years. God has constantly been in the “changing my mind” business.
The Bible is ambivalent on many topics, including this one. But that makes it a much deeper and more helpful book than the contrary. The Bible is not intended to be a stop-the-discussion book. It is a “start-the-discussion” book. When Jesus was asked questions, His most prominent response was a question. He did not need to display right answers, He needed to engage people.
Here are some takeaways that I have found to be helpful.
• I avoid being dogmatic or certain that one view is more true than any other. Certainty on topics like this, does only one thing; it creates self-righteousness.
•I cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.
•Since Jesus extended love and mercy to all, I can have hope. Hope is rooted in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. These two events have shown the world the extent to which God will go to bring redemption and forgiveness to the entire cosmos.
I hold to hope with confidence. Hope presumes nothing. Rather, hope is rooted in love and “love hopes all things”