In part 1 of this series I wrote about a recent Presbytery meeting where beliefs about Hell were discussed. Part 2 was about why it is important for all Christians to be clear and forthright about their beliefs. Part 3 is my attempt to layout a brief sample of Christian beliefs about Hell. Please note that I am not endorsing all of these beliefs. I am providing multiple viewpoints for two reasons: because they are out there and because, in my opinion, no one belief about Hell makes perfect sense.
“Turn or Burn”
The most common belief about Hell associated with Christianity is that belief in Jesus Christ as Lord is the sole requirement for eternal life, and all of those who do not believe will be condemned to Hell for eternity. This belief takes very seriously the many passages in the Bible that speak of a final judgment and the need for repentance and acceptance of Jesus as Lord. The oft-quoted John 3:16 supports this belief, as well as Acts 4:12.
John 3:16 “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.”
Acts 4:12 “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
There are many passages in the Bible that speak of a judgment after death or at the end of the world where some go to eternal life and others to eternal punishment. It should be noted that belief in Jesus Christ is not always the sole requirement to eternal life according to some passages and Christian traditions. In Matthew 25 people are judged and condemned based on their care for those who are hunger or a stranger. And the Roman Catholic church believes that certain types of sins will send you to Hell unless they are absolved by a priest.
“Give me just one more last chance…”
Some Christians believe in “universal reconciliation.” One expression of this belief states that there is a judgment after death, but those who do not believe in Jesus are not eternally damned, but instead God still reaches out to them and works for their eventual salvation. This belief takes seriously the many passages from the Bible that emphasize God’s unfailing love, and God’s will that all creation be saved and redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:22, John 12:31, Roman 5:18).
Many early Christians believed some form of universal reconciliation. Clement of Alexandria wrote that God never punishes (retaliates for evil) but instead corrects and “chastises” to seek redemption and conversion. Origen believed that someone spending eternity in Hell was a contradiction to the divine will, since God wants everyone to be saved. As long as one person remains in Hell then God’s will is stopped.
God is the father of the prodigal son who will never give up on his son, always waiting and hoping for his son to return home.
“Can’t we all just get along?”
I have a hunch that “universalism” is possible the most widely held belief among Christians, not that most would ever admit it. Universalism is the belief that everyone goes to Heaven and that there is no Hell. It takes very seriously the passages in the Bible that state God’s unfailing love and intention to redeem all creation. The passages about judgment are interpreted much more metaphorically, or as referring to specific situations in this present world.
I say that this may be the most widely held belief among Christians, because of my personal observations. Most Christians I know do not act as if many of the people they most love in this world are going to suffer for all eternity. If you were certain someone you loved was headed for horrendous pain it should motivate you to do all in your power to stop it, and I think it would also emotionally wreck you.
If a Christian is asked “Do you believe in Hell?” the proper (and sneaky) answer could be, “No, I don’t believe in Hell. I believe in Jesus Christ as Lord.” Although this may seem like avoiding the question, this also may be an appropriate response. As Mike P expressed in an earlier comment, this answer echoes sentiments expressed in the Second Helvetic Confession:
“We are to have a good hope for all. And although God knows who are his, and here and there mention is made of the small number of elect, yet we must hope well of all…And when the Lord was asked whether there were few that should be saved, he does not answer and tell them that few or many should be saved or damned, but rather he exhorts every man to “strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:24): as if he should say, It is not for you curiously to inquire about these matters, but rather to endeavor that you may enter into heaven by the straight way.”
Or as Shane Claiborne expresses it in his recent letter to non-believers:
“I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.”
This ends my attempt to address this subject in a brief yet informative manner. If you’d like to know more about Presbyterian beliefs on this subject, then take a look at this study from the PC(USA) on universalism. It has been very helpful to me in thinking about this complex issue.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!