Sunday, October 28, 2012

Three Views of Hell

Last Thursday many of us from PHUMC went to see the new film by Kevin Miller, Hellbound?. On the whole, I thought it was as engaging and informative as a 90-minute documentary-like film on hell could be. I thought the film did three things especially well.

First, it drew the connection between how we think about hell and how we think about the character of God.  In my mind, the issue of hell is so important because no other issue influences and informs our view of the nature of God more than this does. It seems to me that we can talk all day about God being good and loving, but if at the end God is content to destroy or torture the majority of humanity (or even just one person?), then we cannot with consistency and integrity say that this God is deeply loving and perfectly good. Our view of hell determines how we really think about the nature and character of God.

Second, it made the connection between how our views of what God will do with people then and there influence and shape our ways of dealing with people here and now, particularly our enemies. If we think God will ultimately seek never-ending, retributive vengeance on God's enemies, then that doesn't really motivate us to seek to live with forgiveness and restorative justice here and now. If God can do it, why can't we? Interestingly, and importantly, Jesus said that God will not deal with people according to retributive justice, and so neither should we (Matt. 5:43-48).

Third, the film did a great job of teaching that the Christian church has never had just one definitive understanding of hell. Those who support the "eternal torment" view in the film, such as Mark Driscoll, like to assert that basically the Bible and the church has always taught this view, but this is revisionist history at its worst. The early church, especially for its first several hundred years, accepted a good deal of latitude in thinking about the nature and purpose of hell. (See, for example, Brian Daley's The Hope of the Early Church.) Some thought that hell was never-ending punishment for the wicked (eternal torment); some thought that hell would destroy or annihilate the wicked (annihilationism); while still others believed that hell was temporary in duration and purifying/corrective in nature, and that ultimately all would be saved through Christ (universalism). Up until the late fourth-century, all three of these views were in the bounds of orthodoxy. There is even some evidence (though not definitive) that universalism was the dominant position in the early church.

Several folks asked me about the slide in the film (at the top) that shows the long lists of scripture references that can be used to support each of the three main positions. This slide, I think, could be misleading if one took it at face value and concluded that each of the positions have the same amount of biblical support. Some of the references are much stronger than others, and that is true for each of the three positions.

But what this does effectively show is that no matter what your view of hell is, you have some explaining to do. Each position has biblical texts that one can use for support, but each position also has some problematic texts that it must explain. If we as Christians could just acknowledge this- that regardless of our position we are in the same boat- discussions about hell could be a lot more productive. We too easily accuse one another of not respecting the authority of the Bible if we have different views on this issue. You can love God and respect the authority of the Bible and end up with any of these three views on this issue. The early church got that, and didn't make a specific view of hell a litmus test for being a genuine, orthodox Christian. I think we would be wise to follow their lead on this one, and I think Hellbound? did a good job in pointing us in that direction.