The next question for conversation comes from Olivia. She wrote: “What kind of person, do you think, actually goes to hell? I know God tries to save everybody–He loves us so much; I hope that not that many actually are sent there.”
Let me begin by saying this. When I was raised in the church, I was raised with the belief that every good Christian MUST believe in the existence of hell. No one ever taught me that there was a variety of beliefs in existence about it.
It wasn’t until I reach seminary and was blessed with the opportunity to spend three years delving into Scriptural study and historical/sociological research that I discovered not all good and faithful Christians believe in hell. I found the work of Elaine Pagels particularly helpful in this matter. She wrote a book called The Origins of Satan that helped me think about these things in new ways.
I wanted to share that background with you before I make what some of my readers will consider to be a hugely controversial statement: I do not believe God sends anyone to hell.
I could go into all of the details of why that is – sharing bits of the Scriptural and academic work I did that support the position of myself and many other faithful people who do not believe in the existence of hell. Instead, I will share two simple reasons for my position.
The first reason I don’t believe in hell is my personal experience of God. The God I know (and have experienced repeatedly throughout my life) as revealed through Jesus points me toward a being that is the very definition of love, grace, and mercy. The story of God as told through the lens of Jesus teaches me that God goes to unthinkable lengths to be in relationship with all of God’s creation. That shockingly expansive love is – by its very definition – God for me. As 1 John 4 teaches so beautifully, “God is love”.
This takes me to my second theological reason for my position.
I know that much of classical theology over the years has put forth a theological position called “limited atonement”. This position says that while God loves everyone, God requires that in order to be saved – one MUST accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior. If you do that, God will love you enough to “save” you. If you don’t do that, then God’s love, grace, and mercy isn’t big enough to “save” you.
I do not personally subscribe to limited atonement theory – because I think it SORELY underestimates God’s capacity for love, grace, and mercy. It assumes that God’s capacity for love, grace, and mercy are actually no greater than OUR capacities as human beings. That God ultimately embraces those who embrace God; and that God rejects those who reject God.
That makes no sense to me on any level. I could not possibly celebrate a God whose capacities are no greater than yours or mine. I am continually humbled to be in a relationship with a God who fully embraces (and fully loves) everyone!
I have had the chance to share my belief in many, many challenging places. The most challenging of which was to a class of comparative religion students at New Jewish Community High School here in Los Angeles. One day one of the students in a class I was teaching asked, “Do you think Hitler is burning in hell?” I said, “No” and shared with them what I’ve just shared with you. It was a powerful moment, indeed.
When I share my belief with traditional Christians, I sometimes get a strong push back. There are two reasons for the pushback. The first reason for the pushback has to do with some people’s reading of Scripture. They will begin by proof-texting a few pieces of Scripture and suggest these texts prove a belief in hell is essential in order to be a good Christian. They never, of course, use other Scriptures that point in another direction. The second reason for pushback has to do with a way of thinking about life as a whole. “If there is no hell,” some will say, “then why be good?”
When I hear that response, I always get very sad – for it suggests a way of being that suggests the primary reason to be in relationship with God is to get things we want.
For me, the reason I am in relationship with God is to be connected to the ultimate source of life and life that helps me make sense of the world. And while I don’t believe that God feels any different toward me (even though I’ve devoted my life to serving God and God’s people) than God feels toward an atheist or agnostic, I don’t need any reward in order to tend to my relationship with God. Simply being in relationship with God is enough for me.
And while I don’t believe in hell as a place people go for eternal punishment after they die, I do believe that many people spend their earthly lives living in hellish places. My passion in ministry is to try and reach folks who are suffering and share with them my experience of a God whose love and grace is UNCONDITIONAL – in hopes that they, too, may find their way to healing, wholeness, joy and peace.
So how about you? What do you think?