Rob covers a lot of ground in his chapters on hell and he starts with this nifty summary of the gospel, the kind you see on a poster or placard or t-shirt: Turn or burn!
Is this the good news, he wonders?
We may not have phrased it so succinctly, but maybe this is what we’ve been taught and maybe it’s what we believe. But is it true? Is it what Jesus taught? Did He, for example, say “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father and if you don’t shape up we’re going to throw you into hell to burn forever!”
Well He did say the first part, but the second is harder to attribute to Him.
Interestingly, when Jesus does talk about Hell, he’s talking to believers; it’s not a threat to the gentile world, but to believing Jews who are not living up to their calling as the people of God. So we might do well to warn ourselves of the consequences of such a lifestyle rather than wave threats of hell at unbelievers.
Contrary to what you might have heard or expected, Rob does not dispute the existence of hell:
There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously
He is more interested in the questions of who will ultimately find themselves there, and why, and for how long.
These questions beg some others:
- Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to consign most of them to never-ending suffering in hell?
- Is hell never-ending or only temporary?
- Is the suffering corrective rather than punitive?
- Do the fires of hell actually destroy those who go there, or is there eternal conscious torment?
- What does God want and does He get it?
- Do we get what we want?
I think what Rob tries to do is to answer these questions in the light of his understanding of the nature of God, whom Jesus epitomised on earth, and then to see if these answers can be supported by the Bible.
Unfortunately, for every verse that supports his ideas, which seem to make a lot of sense, there seems to be another that opposes. Rob does write that we do not have to resolve these tensions, but I feel that he desperately wants to do so.
In his filmed talk, Everything is Spiritual, he gives a very clear demonstration of how a two-dimensional being might argue as to whether a white-board marker was a circle or a rectangle. Of course it depends on whether they are looking at it from the side or the end. A three-dimensional being, like you or me, would answer the question, “Yep!” It’s both circular and rectangular, even though in two dimensions it is not possible to observe this. In the same way, we cannot possibly understand some aspects of life from our merely three-dimensional perspective because the reality exists in more dimensions (scientists explain the universe in terms of 11 or more dimensions). So (to take just one knotty example) is it free will or predestination? “Yep!”
Isn’t it the same here?
- What does God want? He wants everyone to be saved from the consequences of their sin/estrangement/rebellion, call it what you will.
- Is He all-powerful? Yes!
- Does He love the world so much that he sent His Son to save it? Yes!
- Will all be saved? It seems not.
- Is this all consistent? “Yep!”
- Can we understand it? “No!”
If this is the case, does it matter how we respond to God? Rob maintains that it does, for if we persist in rejecting Him in the end He will respect that decision and we will not be part of His Kingdom in the age to come. And if we decide not to be part of His Kingdom then hell is what we call the alternative.
We can argue about whether or not that means intense regret or torment or simply destruction, but it’s clearly a serious matter: to quote the fallen angel, Mephistopheles, in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Dr Faustus, when asked why he is not in hell:
Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joy of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?
So perhaps it’s not a question of Turn or burn! but Come in (please!) or stay outside – the choice is yours! It’s an offer that will be repeated often, but one day – we don’t know when – that offer will no longer be on the table.