What I Don’t Believe on Hell, Salvation and Death

Since my Uncle Larry died on Thursday I have been finding myself in an abnormal amount of conversations about death, hell, heaven and the afterlife. My Uncle Doug is a pastor in Connecticut, has been at the same church for 22 years and it all started with him. After seeing my hesitancy to the idea that Uncle Larry might be in hell, he asked me a few days ago. “So I’m curious Nathan, what do you believe in when it comes to death.” Being faced with the reality of my Uncle that I found myself constantly in interaction with and on very close terms, I had to have some sort of understanding. Five years of questioning and confusion lead me to simple say “well in the end I believe that God’s grace is bigger than any sort of judgment (in the punishment sense of the word that we like to attribute to it).” I just left it at that. Really what else can I say? Five years ago I would have been devastated because I would have been convinced that my Uncle Larry was now being eternally tormented in hell.

I’ve been warned over and over again not to base my beliefs on negatives, but sometimes I just can’t get away from it and other times it helps me understand a lot better what I do believe. So here are some things that I am either having a hard time believing or don’t believe at all (I won’t tell you which one is which cause it’ll be too easy to call me a heretic.)

1. I don’t believe hell is a place of eternal torment, or a place that those that don’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour go because they eternally rejected God.

2. I don’t believe that judgment refers to punishment.

3. I don’t believe that anyone (even Hitler) being subjected to eternal separation from God is an accurate view on grace, mercy or judgment.

4. I don’t believe salvation is limited to just going to heaven when you die. In fact I’m starting to think it has very little to do with that.

5. I don’t believe that God’s story ends in separation or a split, but rather in reconciliation and embrace.

6. I don’t believe salvation is purely personal; there is something universal and larger than just individuals getting saved.

7. I don’t believe cognitive understanding of Christ’s death is a ticket into the Kingdom of God and a get out of hell free card.

I don’t exactly know what these things mean for me. I do know though that my concepts of salvation, eternity and judgment have been vastly changed over the last few years. I feel like I am moving into sort of a limbo where people are afraid to talk about it but they love to warn you to be careful. Sure it’s a scary road to be on. Doesn’t it make sense to be on it though? Would we be true to ourselves if we didn’t ask these questions? Hopefully soon, I’ll start have a better understanding of what I do believe, and hopefully and more importantly it causes me to act more lovingly and more graciously to those around me. Here is a few quotes I’ve stumbled upon.

Most of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die don’t in fact refer to any such thing…they have to do with the way God acts within the world and history. Most of them look back to language and ideas in the Old Testament, which work in quite a different way from that which is normally imagined.
– N.T. Wright-

There cannot be a kind of curtain which comes down at death, dividing humanity irreversibly into the companies of the saved and of the damned. God’s loving offer of mercy cannot be for the term of our earthly lives alone…Every turning away from God will make the return journey much harder….If these ideas are correct, they illustrate the claim that theology can make to be a discipline concerned with the progressive exploration of truth, not held forever in thrall to past understanding alone…Eternal punishment was a source of moral scandal which helped to alienate many thoughtful and sensitive people from contemporary Christianity. Charles Darwin called it a “damnable doctrine” and said he could not “see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true.” [The rethinking of the doctrine of hell] has come about, not through surrender to a secular sentimentality, but through the realization of its incompatibility with the mercy of a loving God, who cannot be conceived to exact infinite punishment for finite wrong. Theology has proved itself to be open to correction.
-John Polkinghorne-

14 Comments

  • I’m just gonna sit with you and grieve your loss. Maybe one day our Father will give us wisdom in these questions.

  • Would we be true to ourselves if we didnt ask these questions? Hopefully soon, Ill start have a better understanding of what I do believe, and hopefully and more importantly it causes me to act more lovingly and more graciously to those around me.

    Nathan
    I appreciate very much your honesty in these sentiments. Having lost my father to cancer several months ago, I think I can understand a little of the sorrow you are feeling at your Uncles death. In the couple of times we have met in person, I have always sensed a genuineness in you that is evident in your blog posting, too.
    Understanding the limits of our relationship (rare personal contact and the frustration of trying to really communicate over a blog), I wonder if I might venture a thought or two regarding your post. Really it is only one thought.
    Doesnt your confusion all boil down to a question of authority? By that I mean, how will you ever decide what is true about God? What I have noticed on your blog over the last couple of years is that you do not often seem to run your questions through the pages of Scripture the Bible. You know me enough to know that I believe you will find the answers you look for there and no where else.
    I am not trying to school you or condemn you… I think of you as a friend in the Lord (as limited as our contacts have been) and cannot hope anything but the grace of God on your life. I feel in many respects like one of those 4 lepers who wandered out of the besieged Samaria to find the Syrian camp emptied and full of food. This day is a day of good news, said the one as they returned to the city to tell all of Gods provision. I am no better than any man (and far worse than most), but there is good news in the Word of God, my friend. And answers.

  • Hey Paul, I to have appreciated our interaction in the past, either in person or on here. I appreciate the sense of grace you have yet firmness in your convictions, something I have a lot to learn from. I don’t think your schooling me, feel free to post whenever on here without fear of that.

    I feel as if I have been searching the Bible for these answers, which has brought me to conclusions thus far (on at least what I don’t believe). In fact, I’d have a hard time looking anywhere else on my understandings of hell, judgment and death than the Bible. So I will continue to look there. I don’t think my views (at least on these subjects) come from anywhere but.

    However I can see how a post like this (at a time like this) makes me look like I’m making these statements based highly on emotion and feelings. I hope they are not. I have read and listened a fair amount in the past number of years on these subjects, so I hope I’m not just saying things in the moment, because someone died that was close to me and did not profess Christ as is Saviour. Today, as we go spread the ashes of my Uncle I too believe today is good news, yet simultaneously there is probably a lot of bad news mixed in for him, but in the end don’t we have to believe, based on our bible that the good news wins?

  • By far one of the best posts I’ve ever read.

  • Yeaaahhh! Kick ass dude!….I’m going to echo “Gnorb” and say, “Wow….excellent post.” It might actually inspire me to post somewhere in that vein as well (if I find some time)

    Dave

  • I just listened to a sermon called “Jesus wants to save Christians”, about hell. It made me realize how much of my theology comes from Christian sub-culture and Sunday school felt-boards instead of what Jesus actually taught and lived out. Even my definition of “hell” is not even close to what Jesus meant when he talked about it. Some other points that were raised in the sermon were about who Jesus was talking to, and that when he talked about hell it was to religious people, and that the word for hell that Jesus used, ghenna, was a real physical place, a garbage dump, that was near Jerusalem.

    You have some great questions and I need to think about them. thanks for blogging them.

  • Mikey,
    Sounds like you should read “The last word and the word after that” by Brian Mclaren. Its like ther sermon you listened to but in story form. Very good read.

    P.S – Nathan, God told me to tell you that your going to hell now.

  • Hey Nathan,

    Sorry to hear about the passing of your uncle. However, it is good to see that you are thinking through the topic of hell. Some of my own, fairly concise (for once!) reflections on hell can be found here: http://poserorprophet.livejournal.com.

    Grace and peace.

  • Hey, the link above didn’t work out. It should be this:

    http://poserorprophet.livejournal.com/90376.html

    Sorry about that.

  • Nate dawg. let the excommunication and witchburning begin! just kidding. but thing I have trouble with regarding the whole explain-away-hell theology (which I’m not saying you’re doing) is, for one, the passage regarding Lazarus and the Richman. The rich man definately seems to be in torment. I realize this may be a parable. However, would Jesus really make up describe a hell that doesn’t really exist? seems quite deceptive of him. Also one of the other verses I’m thinking of is 2 Thess. 1:8-10, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.”

    After reading God and War, and Satan and Problem of Evil by Greg Boyd (which I highly recommend, I’ve wondered about Hell. He believes that bible describes hell as a place of destruction, that is to say, if you’re not going to reside in God’s presence, you are terminated, not eternally tormented. I would certainly prefer that be the case, but, those verses I just mentioned always come back to me.

    This is what I currently believe. Hell exists as place that non-christians reside in after they are dead. i believe they are in suffering in this place, but this place may stop existing when “hell is thrown into the lake of fire”, or, at the end of the a literal thousand year reign of Christ. this makes sense to me that hell would be destroyed at the end of this time because i believe that hell may exist in the center of the earth as crazy as that sounds, so when at the end of the thousand year reign of christ on the earth, and he creates a new heaven and new earth, naturally it would be destroyed when the earth is destroyed. some people would say that it being in the center of the earth is crazy, and there are probably plenty of good reasons why it might be wrong, but, isn’t it also crazy that Jesus physically “ascended into heaven”. if heaven is a spiritual place, and he is currently there with a resurected physical body, then I think hell would operate quite the same way.

    i have a feeling i’m talking to the don’t take it literally crowd, but. I’m just telling you what I think.

  • Hi Dave, you raise some excellent points.

    I’m pretty sure that I’m in the “Hell” is destruction, not torment camp myself, but points for you to ponder.

    Jesus is quite clearly speaking in the form of a parable, there is no doubt of that, the question really comes down to how much of his parable is “real” and how much is merely illustration to teach a lesson. Clearly, the point of the parable is directed at how we live our life, not how we spend eternity, but what can we learn of eternity from this story? Do we go to Abraham? Do we really see and converse with those in “hell”?
    If we are going to base our entire understanding of hell on this parable, then we must admit we can’t know much about it at all.

    I find it interesting that you quote II Thess. 1 and then reference it as why you might not accept hell as termination because that verse comes back to you. II Thess. 1 itself speaks of destruction, not torment.

    At the end of it all though, I’m left wondering why we have any firm doctrinal beliefs regarding hell at all. God revealed nothing of it to His people and instead taught them how to live. Jesus only seems to even reference the concept in passing himself, making for some intriguing speculation. Much as the Law taught Israel how to live, Jesus similarly focused on how to live, so I save my doctrine for issues that Jesus focused on.

  • rock on John! The verse in 2 thess, was just one of the first passages that to me jumps into my head immediately to confirm that hell exists. The second reason i chose that verse in regards to is because it says “everlasting destruction.”

    NATE! I love you man. You’re such a cool guy! You bring up a good point regarding what is salvation. Cognitive understanding? I know is that it’s definitely not works, thank God.

    I’m kindof all over the place right now, but I just want to say I love how the Holy Spirit it is in us. That’s great huh? It makes me happy.

  • Everlasting destruction is an interesting phrase.

    It seems to me that people must imagine that it is an eternally slow process of being destroyed that takes all of eternity, which I can’t really understand as destruction. Sounds like eternal life, just not pleasant.
    Or perhaps everlasting destruction would be destruction, reformation, destruction, reformation, destruction… etc. but again I find that to be a convoluted explanation.

    I would tend to believe that everlasting destruction is something is destroyed. Permanently. It’s not coming back, ever. It is a lasting destruction.

    Anyway, great conversing with ya Dave!

  • Nathan
    I’m trying to remember the last words that Uncle Larry said about spirituality is the seeking of truth. I trust that we will always be seekers of the truth, the truth being Jesus and that we will always have an open mind to truth for only in the truth will we truly be free.
    I cna’t remeber where I heard this phrase, but some writer wrote, “Hell is the absence of God”. Without Him, there is nothing, no hope, no forgiveness. The question of hell goes back further to the idea of ‘original sin’ and ‘free will’ both topics of great debate down through the centuries. Some food for thought.

    Uncle Doug

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