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Six Questions from the Hell Debate | Provoketive Magazine
07 Jan 2012

The Author

I’m the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church and lead pastor for our Lifesign contemporary service. My wife Cheryl is a certified candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church as well. She’s served as a hospital chaplain in the past, but is currently taking some time off to stay home with our two boys Matthew (5) and Isaiah (2). I’m a broken person whose brokenness is what qualifies me to love and serve other broken people. I’m learning to be less ideological and subordinate everything else that I believe to trusting in God’s love. I’m very passionate which can turn into arrogance when I don’t have enough loving friends around to call me out. Above all, I seek to be saved from the prison of self-justification that Christ died to help me overcome. The more that Christ liberates me from the need to be right all the time, the more that I grow capable of love.


Six Questions from the Hell Debate

2011 will always be remembered as the year of the “hell debate” because of the explosion of Christian writing that rattled the popular evangelical conception of hell. What has become clear is that it’s not a debate between those “for” and “against” hell, but rather a debate between different possible hells. The following six questions are my attempt to explore the theological presumptions that explain how we come up with such different hells.

1) Is God’s being independent of the universe or is God the source of the universe’s being?

The modern imagination pictures God as another person like we are people. He’s invisible, omnipotent, and omnipresent but His being is seen as completely independent from ours. This is very different from the ancient Christian view that God was the source of all being, expressed most  succinctly in Colossians 1:17: “In Him all things hold together.”

If all things depend on God for existence and hell is eternal separation from God, then hell is the non-existence that results from rejecting the source of our being. The punitive nature of hell becomes literal rather than metaphorical only in modernity when it becomes possible to imagine existence independent of the presence of God.

2) Is God’s primary agenda to love creation or defend His glory?

If God’s love is the underlying motive for everything He does, then hell must have a loving purpose such as solidarity or protection for the victims of sin. If God never stops loving the people who suffer in hell, then hell must be the product of their choice to reject God’s love rather than God’s rejection of them.

But if everything God does is out of defense of His glory rather than love, and His glory is not defined in terms of His love, then hell has nothing to do with love. In this conception of hell, God punishes people in hell not because they hurt people He loves but simply because His honor has been offended. If God is invested in His honor rather than in seeking communion, He would be indifferent to whether He is glorified through salvation or damnation.

3) Is God’s justice primarily retributive or restorative?

Our modern capitalist world depends upon the assumption that every debt will be paid in full. Without this assurance, our entire economic order would collapse. I think this is why in modernity we equate justice with retribution. Modern justice concerns itself exclusively with ensuring that criminals “pay” fully for their crime, as opposed to restoring the well-being of crime victims or repairing the damage crime does to a community. Restorative justice concerns itself instead with healing, repentance, and reconciliation.

If hell serves the purpose of retributive justice, it exists simply to make sinners pay for their sins. Under this view of hell, some people might question whether eternal torment is an appropriate retribution for a mildly sinful life. The response is usually to say that God is such a perfectionist that sins we consider to be mild are infinitely offensive to God.

On the other hand, if hell serves the purpose of restorative justice, then it isn’t a punishment measured out in proportion to the offensiveness of sin, but the denial of eternal communion to sinners who have refused the means by which God offers to heal and reconcile them with the people hurt by their sin.

4) Is God’s holiness an intolerance for imperfection or an intolerable perfection?

It’s a common formulation in pop evangelical speech to say that God’s holiness means that He “can have no fellowship with sin” and that God has to send people to hell because He can’t tolerate their imperfection. On the other hand, Jesus did choose to fellowship with sinners without compromising His holiness. His holiness could tolerate sinners, but the sinners could not tolerate His holiness, so they crucified Him.

If holiness is God’s intolerance for imperfection, then hell serves the purpose of protecting God from exposure to our sin. If on the other hand, holiness is God’s intolerable perfection, then hell is the torture experienced by sinners who face God’s holiness without atonement.

5) When we escape hell, is it because God changed His mind about us or because we changed our minds about God?

Jesus’ death on the cross is often presented as the reason Jesus’ wrathful Father changes His mind about damning all humanity to hell. The objection to this is to point out that it breaks the Son and Father into two separate gods, rather than one single triune God. If God is truly both Son and Father, then He does not need to be persuaded by His own actions, which would seem to indicate that the cross is supposed to change our minds about God instead.

If God is the one whose mind needs to be changed, then we experience heaven or hell according to where God chooses to send us. If we are the ones whose minds need to be changed, then God’s attitude toward us is constant, but we experience heaven or hell depending upon whether we receive God’s fiery embrace as love or wrath.

6) Are we saved by proving something to God or does God save us from having something to prove?

Evangelical Christianity describes salvation as justification by faith rather than works. This means that we are saved by believing something but not by doing something. But if salvation describes God’s evaluative response to something we have proven about ourselves, then it would seem that whatever proof we have given God is our “works-righteousness,” whether it’s a decision or sinner’s prayer or adherence to the right doctrine. Alternatively, salvation could mean being liberated from the need to prove our worth to God because we trust instead in Jesus’ sacrifice.

If salvation describes God’s approval of our demonstrated “faith,” then hell is God’s reaction to those whom He disapproves. If on the other hand, salvation describes how God liberates us from thinking that we need to earn His approval, then hell could be our delusional imprisonment to the need to prove our worth to God, which would mean that many evangelicals who think they’re saved are actually suffering through hell.

  1. Morgan, this is a terrific, succinct distillation of these questions. Well done. I notice your author description gives a little bit away about which of each of these stances you lean toward. :)

    Questions are far more engaging than debates and propositions, and these questions are exactly the questions I have asked and been asked this past year.

    • Yeah I’m a Wesleyan and the way I framed the questions is probably reflective of my Wesleyan bias as well. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for making us think– and for consolidating the issues to make them easier to think about.

  3. Hmmm; some very good and importanty point here, but I would go further…

    1) why either/or, I would say both, but the second one is very important indeed and something we miss. We should pay more attention to the church fathers of the eastern orthodox sometimes…
    2) I’m not John Piper, so I go with the first one..
    3) primiraly restorative, and this is a very important point missed by a lot of protestants.
    4) I wouldn’t frame it in either terms, but I go with your description of the second option, which reminds me of Sadhu Sundar singh and of the eastern orthodox. Very powerful paradigm shift if contemplated in combination with the first one…
    5) I think there’s more to it than changing minds. I would say there also is an ontological change in the universe due to the incarnation, cross, and resurrection (death, evil and sin being defeated Christus Victor-wise). But again the second option…
    6) the second option, but again there’s more to the subject. Maybe associated with the ontological changes I see in Christ (see 5)

    I would add

    7) is the scope of salvation focussed on saving single persons of on saving the cosmos as a whole
    8) Is the gospel centered on the saved person or in the Reign of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

    (these are the same comments as I made on the CA group on FB)

    but thanks, these conversations are much needed!



    • Thanks for your responses, Bram. I’m recognizing that there’s a particular kind of conversation that is driving the way I’m framing these questions. Holiness is of course more than just “intolerable.” It’s also awe-inspiring, beautiful, wonderful, etc. In the context of describing hell as a product of God’s holiness, the question would be whether God cannot tolerate sin or sin cannot tolerate God. I like to say it the second way because it preserves God’s sovereignty and perfect benevolence. God doesn’t need to “react” to sin with wrath. Being entirely self-sufficient, God’s God-ness simply IS wrath to sin, which cannot survive its encounter with His holiness.

      As far as the ontological question about God’s relation to our being, I really think that the problem with Western Christianity is nominalism, the idea that God is just another being in the universe which is held in place by His externally-imposed will, instead of the sacramental view from the first half of Christian history that God is the only “real” thing in the universe and all other things are contingent upon God for their being.

      All of the arguments about free will vs. determinism, etc, disappear under the sacramental ontology, because if God is the source of our existence, then following God’s will for our lives is not submitting to some arbitrary omnipotent bully completely outside of us, but instead connecting fully with the source of our being instead of getting tossed around by idolatrous fetishes that don’t represent our true desires. Augustine’s definition of free will occurs within a sacramental ontology and thus has a completely different meaning than the nominalist definition of free will. Calvin read Augustine with a late-medieval nominalist lens rather than a sacramental one. Hence TULIP.

      • interesting, and I think I agree… In Him we live, in Him we move, in Him we have our being… Or like the orthodox say, the energies of God sustain all of creation and we would not ‘be’ without them. This is close to the panentheism of some in the emerging church, but faraway from most of protestantism. Deism could never have emerged from the older view, and in a way this absent God of much protestants (which is only te be found in the bible) is a precursor for the non-existent god of atheism…

        I would never have made the connection with nominalism; I have to reread and rethink some stuff, I hope I find the time for that, because this seems like something very important.

        So we have 2 aspects of hell, none of which have to do with being tormented or actively punished. The C.S. Lewis view of getting our own Kingdom and getting cut away from God, which may result in non-existence or at least ceasing to be the imago dei (as NT Wright says somewhere) and the intolerable holiness of God (an idea I first encountered in Sundar singh, and later found again in the orthodox tradition, but might also be implied in the end of Lewis’ great divorce, when the ghostly narrator seems to get dissolved in the breaking light of the morning) which makes it impossible for an unreconciled person to be in Gods presence. (which is why in the OT people who encountered YHWH were surprised that they had not died)

        “All of the arguments about free will vs. determinism, etc, disappear under the sacramental ontology, because if God is the source of our existence, then following God’s will for our lives is not submitting to some arbitrary omnipotent bully completely outside of us, but instead connecting fully with the source of our being instead of getting tossed around by idolatrous fetishes that don’t represent our true desires.”




    • “There are degrees of punishment in hell like there are degrees of reward in heaven.” In other words, atonement doesn’t change anything about his capitalism-derived understanding of justice as equivalent to retribution. It’s all just about rewards and punishments. No transformation whatsoever. Yeah that’s pretty much everything that I’m against.

  4. Honestly, I have a different take entirely. Not argumentative of either position really, and not to say there’s not value in the conversation. But throughout the last year as the debate has continued acorss the bookshelves and the blogosphere, my thoughts have more and more come down to this: Heaven, regardless of what, how, and where it is, is immeasurably good. It’s of God, and it’s His desire for all His beloved to be with Him there. Hell, regardless of what, how, and where it is, is immeasurably bad. It’s not of God, and it’s His desire that none of His beloved will be there. I would just like to see the church rally around wanting what God wants — for as many as possible to experience the goodness of God, starting now, and in progressively greater measure. But to hear the passion in some as they speak about Hell, I’d swear they’re secretly looking forward to seeing many sent there. I’m with God on this, I’d like NONE to perish. I’m going to focus on that.

    • Sounds reasonable. I think the only reason to question the (very recent) “traditional” evangelical understanding of heaven and hell is because so many non-believers get hung up on it.

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