In Part 1 of this series I wrote about a Presbytery meeting where ministers were questioned about their beliefs about Hell, and the boundary-defining issues that surrounded that meeting. Part 2 of this series covers why I believe that it is important for Christians and churches to understand clearly and be able to articulate what they believe about Hell.
Some people reading this may be thinking that Christians and churches don’t have any problem articulating what they believe about Hell. Maybe you are familiar with “Hell Houses” that a few churches create around Halloween. These are like haunted house attractions except they are supposed to depict the Hellish fate of unrepentant sinners, in the hopes that those who go through the Hell House will turn to Jesus. “This American Life” has a very interesting story about them in this episode.
Some of you reading this may be Christian and you know very well and very specifically what you believe about Hell. Others may know Christians who are very clear about what they believe, and aren’t afraid to share it. Like the Bullhorn Guy in this Rob Bell video:
Yes, there are many Christians and churches that know precisely what they believe about Hell and aren’t afraid to share it. But… in my context as a Presbyterian, which can be lumped in with other Mainline Protestants, we don’t talk about Hell much (if at all). We prefer to focus almost exclusively on God’s love and the promise of the resurrection, eternal life, and puppies. It’s almost as if we think people will forget that the Bible talks about Hell and judgment, as long we don’t mention it.
But that’s just stupid.
Here is why I think Christians and churches need to be able to articulate their beliefs about Hell.
1) It’s not just about Hell. When you talk about Hell and who goes there, you are talking about the very being of who God is. You are answering questions like:
- How will God deal with sin and evil?
- What happens to a murderer/rapist/thief/terrorist/racist/ who stands before God?
- What are the eternal consequences of the evil acts that people commit?
- Will God’s love ever stop?
- How could a loving God eternally punish someone?
- Does God ever give up on us?
If you avoid talking about Hell you avoid answering these questions.
2) We must talk about Hell because it is a huge reason that many people dislike Christians and Christianity. It’s not hard for me to see how a non-Christian could understand a traditional doctrine of Hell. “Your God is going to judge me unworthy and punish me for all eternity. You love and serve this God, and try to see the world as He sees the world. I guess I know what you think of me.”
3) Christian beliefs about Hell are changing. An increasing number of Christians (and people of other faiths) believe that salvation or eternal life can be found outside of their own religion. You can read about the trend in this article and this article from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
I imagine someone reading this right now is saying, “So Shawn, you think we should change our view about Hell because it’s not attractive to non-Christians and it’s not as popular among Christians. Way to be ruled by the masses.”
No, this is not what I am saying. No one should change their beliefs about Hell because of polls and marketing appeal, but those are good reasons to talk about what we believe. If a church believes that non-Christians are damned, then they better be able to explain why with certainty and compassion. If Christians are walking away from traditional church teaching then the church should do a better job of addressing the beliefs in question.
Christians are called to believe what is true, not what is popular. Some Christians believe that truth is cut and dried, black and white, and easily expressed in bullet points, sound bites, and bumper stickers. That is not me. So while I seek to hold true beliefs I realize that I can only discover so much truth, understand even less, and enact only a portion of that. But what I can grasp, I will try to share.
Stay tuned for part 3, where I promise to get to the actual beliefs about Hell.