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Faith column: Hell matters even to those who don’t believe

April 24, 2011

Latest faith column inspired by the controversy over the Rob Bell book Love Wins. And all the years I spent thinking about hell as a guilt-ridden Catholic kid. (Actually, my Catholic childhood was very positive, though I did think about hell a lot.) But the best inspiration was my Jewish friend Jennifer who was warned many times about hell from her evangelical classmates in Houston and from one classmate at our boarding school in Connecticut. Jennifer was very smart to suggest I also talk to her husband Ray Marcus who shared his personal experience with Christianity and hell.

Also, big shout out to Pastor Tom Goodman of Hillcrest Baptist who gave me a very powerful Francis Schaeffer anecdote to include in the column. I had hoped to give a hat tip to Tom within the column, but the sentence got too clunky as I was also trying to attribute the quote to a book.

Please note I am changing one key item in the column pasted below. Apparently a copy editor decided to change the word “schmuck” in a quote from Marcus to “(expletive).” I was not informed of this. I understand that “schmuck” might be considered vulgar and not suitable for print in the Austin American-Statesman (though I find that a bit silly), but by inserting (expletive) in the quote, it made it look like Ray Marcus had said something REALLY offensive. Like asshole. Or something along those lines. And he didn’t. So I’m restoring schmuck in the text that follows.

It’s a good reminder that  sometimes when you try too hard not to offend, you wind up being more offensive. Never mind the fact that a reporter/columnist ALWAYS deserves a phone call when a substantial change is made. Especially when it alters a quote. We need our sources to trust us. And this type of thing undermines trust. Plus it’s just embarrassing.

Hell matters even to those who don’t believe

It was an awkward place for a theological ambush: the quiet room at the library of our all-girls boarding school in Connecticut. But my friend Jennifer Golub, a Jew from Houston, was determined to get the truth from our born-again Christian classmate who had earlier that week made a remark about being saved. And, by implication, about who was not.

Jennifer stewed about it for days before working up the nerve to confront her with the burning question: “Do you think I’m going to hell?”

The Christian student was smooth and articulate, explaining that there was still time for Jennifer to open her heart to Jesus.

Jennifer left the library seething. She didn’t believe in hell. But that was beside the point. To this student and so many other Christians who had tried to “save” her in Texas, hell was very real. It was the worst fate imaginable. Wailing and gnashing of teeth, lakes of fire, unrelenting torment. And all of that awaited her if she didn’t accept Jesus.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s tortured character in “No Exit” determined that “hell is other people.” For Jennifer, hell was other people thinking she was going to hell.

Whether we believe it exists or not, hell holds a powerful grip on our consciousness. It’s part of our lexicon, a reliable metaphor, an idea that conjures vivid images even if we’ve never read the Bible. Even if we’ve never read Dante, hell matters.

This has become especially evident in recent weeks with the reaction to the controversial new book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” In it, popular Michigan pastor Rob Bell raises some uncomfortable questions about the afterlife:

If rejecting the Christian God — specifically not being saved through Jesus — lands you in a pit of fire, then are people like Gandhi in hell? How can God be a loving father who seeks a relationship with his children one minute and a vindictive abuser who will disown them at the moment of death?

In re-examining heaven and hell, Bell argues that love and forgiveness and trust should quash fear and judgment and guilt. This makes the line between the saved and the unsaved a lot less clear.

And this, according to many Christian critics, undermines church doctrine and ignores biblical teaching on the matter. They have accused Bell of bowing to universalism and abandoning the truth of the Gospel. Not to mention questioning whether God knows what God is doing.

So what is God doing?

It’s an important question for Christians to ponder on Easter as they celebrate victory over death and sin, the opportunity for salvation and eternal life. It’s important to remember that Christianity offers not just the promise of heaven but the threat of damnation, the worst fate imaginable.

Many Christians see hell as a tragic consequence they desperately hope to help non-believers avoid. The author John Blanchard related a now famous example of this sadness for lost souls in his book “Whatever Happened to Hell?” When asked for a theological explanation of hell, the late evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer “remained silent and wept.”

But Bell says that too many Christians have taken a smug attitude. They’re in; everyone else is out.

In an interesting twist, my friend Jennifer married Ray Marcus, who had spent his young adult life as an evangelical Christian. Marcus, now a convert to Judaism and a high school history teacher, told me it was the teaching on hell that ultimately led him away from Christianity.

He had prayed every night for lost souls, including his father, a secular Jew. And then it occurred to him that, according to his religion, his dad, a wonderful person whom he loved dearly, was going to burn while paradise was reserved for “some schmuck who happened to have gotten his ticket punched by getting saved by Jesus.”

“There’s something too vindictive and cruel and even sadistic about it for humanitarians to stomach,” Marcus told me.

Still, Marcus understands how hell plays into our desire for divine justice. The world is full of unfairness that doesn’t get resolved in this life. People commit evil and elude punishment here on Earth. Some people deserve hell, don’t they?

The discussion raises more questions than answers. Do Christians believe hell is a literal place? A permanent and wretched destination for the wicked as well as those who don’t accept Jesus? And if so, are Gandhi and Hitler suffering the same torment for eternity?

Whatever the answers are — and from what I’ve read they tend to be complex — the questions, Bell argues in “Love Wins,” need to be asked, at least by the people who claim hell exists.

My friend Jennifer, on the other hand, had to let those questions go. Her Jewish faith, she says, calls her to focus on the here and now. Recently, some Christians came to her door to inform her how she could be saved and avoid hellfire. She just laughed and said, “Thanks for letting me know.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. lswanson permalink
    April 25, 2011 8:54 am

    Eileen, this is such an excellent column … it’s going in my “keeper” file.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      April 25, 2011 9:52 am

      Thank you! I really appreciate that. : )

  2. Jack Wirtz permalink
    April 25, 2011 12:11 pm

    Dear ones, the complete answer would take a Biblios, but briefly, GOD condemns no one, which the Reformers deny, but each is self condemned as He says, “Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.” (Eze. 18:4).

    GOD has both revealed Himself and His demands to the Race created in His image (Gen.1:27). Throughout history He has never held man accountable to what he has not been given, and hence three dispensations of accountability: Patriarchal Age (Gen.1-Exo.17), the Mosaic Covenant of earthly rewards (Ex.19-John 21:25), New Covenant, the Christian Age (Acts 1-Rev.22). Finally revealed are the spiritual promises of all the ages, and then the Day of Judgment.

    For in all ages salvation is made possible by the death of Christ. That was promised by GOD from the beginning (Gen. 3:15 to the spiritual promise thru the linage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob & David to Jesus Son of GOD. And the eternal hop of the ages in His resurrection.

    Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of GOD, because we witnessed against GOD that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

    Yes Jennifer Christ was raised, He lives. There is a heaven and hell for He preached it; for if there is no eternal accountability for disobedience to Him, then there is no reward from GOD for obedience.

    • David Parker permalink
      April 25, 2011 12:42 pm

      From the article: “Marcus, now a convert to Judaism and a high school history teacher, told me it was the teaching on hell that ultimately led him away from Christianity.”

      Whose teaching? Is he referring to the New Testament documents? Is he referring to what they tell us Jesus said about Hell? Consider:

      “Almost all the biblical teaching about hell comes from the lips of Jesus. It is this doctrine, perhaps more than any other, that strains even the Christian’s loyalty to the teaching of Christ. Modern Christians have pushed the limits of minimizing hell in an effort to sidestep or soften Jesus’ own teaching. The Bible describes hell as a place of outer darkness, a lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of eternal separation from the blessings of God, a prison, a place of torment where the worm doesn’t turn or die. These graphic images of eternal punishment provoke the question, should we take these descriptions literally or are they merely symbols?

      “I suspect they are symbols, but I find no relief in that. We must not think of them as being merely symbols. It is probable that the sinner in hell would prefer a literal lake of fire as his eternal abode to the reality of hell represented in the lake of fire image. If these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. That Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols.

      “A breath of relief is usually heard when someone declares, “Hell is a symbol for separation from God.” To be separated from God for eternity is no great threat to the impenitent person. The ungodly want nothing more than to be separated from God. Their problem in hell will not be separation from God, it will be the presence of God that will torment them. In hell, God will be present in the fullness of His divine wrath. He will be there to exercise His just punishment of the damned. They will know Him as an all-consuming fire.

      “No matter how we analyze the concept of hell it often sounds to us as a place of cruel and unusual punishment. If, however, we can take any comfort in the concept of hell, we can take it in the full assurance that there will be no cruelty there. It is impossible for God to be cruel. Cruelty involves inflicting a punishment that is more severe or harsh than the crime. Cruelty in this sense is unjust. God is incapable of inflicting an unjust punishment. The Judge of all the earth will surely do what is right. No innocent person will ever suffer at His hand.
      Perhaps the most frightening aspect of hell is its eternality. People can endure the greatest agony if they know it will ultimately stop. In hell there is no such hope. The Bible clearly teaches that the punishment is eternal. The same word is used for both eternal life and eternal death. Punishment implies pain. Mere annihilation, which some have lobbied for, involves no pain. Jonathan Edwards, in preaching on Revelation 6:15-16 said, “Wicked men will hereafter earnestly wish to be turned to nothing and forever cease to be that they may escape the wrath of God.” (John H. Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell [Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 1991], 75.)

      “Hell, then, is an eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God, a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief. Understanding this is crucial to our drive to appreciate the work of Christ and to preach His gospel.”

      Read the whole article here:

  3. Gleason Parker permalink
    April 26, 2011 2:34 pm

    Basically, the truth of “no Hell” and God is good, and ONE is taught in some Christian circles, namely Christadelphians. The truth of the article and the book, recently read, blows away all bad theology, which we can do without; and allows the truth of the Bible to be the Bottom Line; it is an “echo” from the past, made current and usable. Amen.

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