The Biblical logic of salvation and ‘hell’ (with ‘hell’ in quotation marks because although it’s an inescapable Biblical reality, it’s nothing like the hell of our imaginations) is this:
Those who are ‘in Christ’ can be sure of their eternal safety from it 1. How can you be sure that you’re in Christ? If you’ve accepted the gift of Jesus through faith, then you can be sure. It’s that simple. Grace is given, and your fate is secured 2. Salvation is Christ’s work, not ours. If we say ‘yes’ to the person and work of Jesus, it’s done.
So, what about those who don’t love and follow Jesus? It’s curious that Christians have mostly assumed that those who don’t explicitly call on the name of the Lord will ‘burn in hell’ for all eternity. Notice that we’ve only said that those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord receive a guarantee of eternal life. That’s what we can safely conclude from scripture. That doesn’t mean that everyone else is guaranteed to be left out. That idea simply isn’t spelled out in the Bible (don’t take my word for it, please seek it out for yourself! It’s at times implicit, but never explicit.) For us to assume such is quite a leap. Not only is it bad news for almost everyone in history, it’s also bad news for the character of God. After all, he designed this whole system, and it doesn’t seem rigged for the average Joe. If Jesus truly reveals to us what God is like, then God is quite concerned with the wellbeing of the average Joe. So, it’s at least worth reconsidering this position.
Why have we made this very dark assumption about the eternal destiny of those who don’t explicitly call on the name of Jesus? In my view, it comes down to two words: total depravity. Total depravity is a doctrine which is seemingly affirmed by most modern Christians, whether they believe it confessionally or not. It asserts that we are all hopeless sinners without the work of Christ, utterly spiritually dark and lost, with no true potential for goodness 3. While one can construct a relatively tidy case for this belief by compiling various scriptures, the main problem with it is that it’s manifestly untrue. Firstly, it’s just a bad way to think about our fellow man. It robs them of their inherent dignity given in the creation stories of Gen 1-2. But also, empirically, it’s ridiculous and offensive. In the real world, not only does it seem very possible for a non-Christian person to have much true goodness within them, and even fight against the kind of injustice and evil which the scriptures abhor, but it also seems to me that there are many such people occupying every corner of the globe.
Death Is Punishment Enough. But Punishment for Whom?
So, here’s an idea: Hell is not a torture chamber designed for those who haven’t said the sinner’s prayer. That is the hell that we’ve made up (just try reconstructing it using scripture alone — you can’t.) And what kind of horrible God are we talking about, anyway? What if a missionary climbs a faraway hill to share the gospel, then has a heart attack? What about the children in the village on the next hill? Too bad for them? (And whose fault would this be? The missionary’s, for dying? Or God’s, for letting it happen?)
Rather, the Biblical hell is the exclusion of human doers of evil — the kind of real evil which harms God’s world and the people in it — from the eternal blessing of God 4. It insists that our actions in the world matter, and that true injustices won’t go un-dealt with. Within the symbolic world of the Bible’s final book, hell is basically a person’s being left out of the ‘new Jerusalem’ (that is, the eternally blessed and deathless ‘new heavens and new earth’ described in Rev 21-22) 5. As for exactly who will be ‘in’ and who will be ‘out’, I have no idea. It’s not my place to judge (and thank God for that!) But, for those who are ‘out’, we should simply ask: what happens when you don’t receive a gift of eternal life? The same thing that happens to all living things at the end: natural and irreversible death. That is what the metaphorical ‘flames’ of hell may very well be on about 6. Flames consume things, bring death, and the result in this case is eternal separation from God and the blessing that he offers in his new creation.
The view I’ve described is one called conditional immortality or (sadly its more popular name…) annihilationism. It’s not some modern liberal invention, but a view which can be found in writings from the earliest days of Christianity 7. It is, if you like, a view for people who believe that God is as good as he seems to be on the cross. It respects the Biblical reality of divine judgment without disrespecting the evident goodness of many who are not confessional Christians or the evident goodness of God revealed in Jesus. For me, the latter is what has swayed me to accept this view. As soon as any theological view reduces the goodness of God below that high bar revealed at the cross, I think it’s time to pause and reflect 8. Jesus is, after all, described as the supreme revelation of God by our New Testament 9. All of scripture points to him and his great sacrifice of love as our main portrait of God’s heart. Anything that seems to conflict with that portrait must be considered deeply.
So, Why Bother with Missions?
If the above conception of hell is true, then what’s our motivation for missions and evangelism? Strangely, that seems like a natural question to ask. That is very sad in itself, because we have endless motivations to share the good news of Jesus beyond saving souls from hell!
The Gospel is much more than a message that you can go to The Good Place when you die. It’s the good news of the Kingdom of God. That is, the stunning truth that God is available to live in us and through us. He’s not stuck in some ancient temple. Thanks to Jesus, he has been released to all, and that changes everything. If you try to read the gospels with virgin eyes, you’ll find that Jesus preaches and teaches about this ‘kingdom’ much, much more than he does about anything else. And the kingdom he describes is not ‘the place we go when we die’. The Kingdom Gospel tells us that God’s own loving rule (basileia: ‘kingdom’) has come for everyone who calls upon him 10. It shamelessly states that despite everything we see around us, Jesus is the true king of earth, and that if we live that way, we will see his kingship continue to manifest in ways we can’t yet imagine. He’s not coercive, but he does long to influence us by his Spirit each day, to make us more like Him 11. That’s not just good news for us as individuals. It’s good news for the whole world, because God’s heart for everything is for its restoration to perfect peace and order, and we are his hands and feet in the world, called to work alongside him toward that end 12.
Also, while we retain our individuality and freedom as Christians, we are given a whole new identity. We are adopted into the family of God. We are redeemed 13, justified 14, united with Christ 15, and made into a new creation 16. Whatever wrongs we have committed, they are washed and we are made clean, utterly reborn 17. We’re a clean slate, and onto that slate is etched a new person, finally able to live up to our designed potential. None of this is possible without Jesus. No wonder we call it the good news! In fact, that Biblical title is far too humble; It’s the very good — no, the unsurpassable good news! It’s an invitation into a whole new life, in which we join with the creation of a whole new world by the loving empowerment of God’s spirit. To that good news, every cell in my body says YES.
Lastly, since the gospel is the guarantee against what we call hell (remembering that it’s not some divinely sanctioned torture chamber), by sharing the gospel we are also giving people access to the endless comfort of knowing that they will be with Jesus in his new creation at the end. It’s no longer just a possibility. It’s a certainty. Once again, this news is better than ‘good’ — It’s incredible!
I’m only getting started. I could go on all day about the riches of the Gospel of Jesus and its urgency in our world (and I’m quite sure I will in separate posts). But clearly, we don’t need everyone else to go to hell for our news to be good news (and if we do, we should probably question our definition of ‘goodness’).
It’s my prayer that you consider these ideas, and honestly seek them out in scripture and well-researched Christian writings (I have included some great starting points in the footnotes). Perhaps the supreme revelation of God in history really was his death on a cross. Perhaps the fact that he did this while we were still lost in our sins tells us what he’s really like. Perhaps God is love. Perhaps love is not something God does, but who he is. And perhaps such love doesn’t doom good people who don’t know what he’s really like to an existence of unending torment. Whatever people’s reasons for not accepting Christ, I’m convinced that if they could only see him as he is, most would follow. God sees the heart. The true person, and all their reasons. So I choose to trust his final judgment, whatever it is.
In the meantime, I suggest we become all-the-more generous in our sharing Jesus with others, with knowledge that those who accept him will experience a holistic ‘salvation’ which will not only transform their life on earth (and that of others through them), but guarantee their joy beyond the grave. If we have such a treasure, and we shrink back from sharing it, what breed of cowardice has afflicted us? Perhaps we need to fall more unambiguously in love with this God, by considering his character in some of the ways we’ve begun to here. After all, if he doesn’t look like Jesus, he’s not the Christian God.
In the prophetic vision of Revelation 19, the day of God’s final judgement is depicted as one of great celebration and song 18. This is either because God’s transformed people take a sick satisfaction in the punishment of all those who haven’t explicitly accepted Jesus, or because true justice has finally been done and real evil has finally been dealt with (meaning that only those whose punishment is truly earned are excluded from God’s new world). It can’t be both. From these two options, in my opinion at least, the choice is clear. You must prayerfully make your own choice, knowing that your position on this does not make or break your faith, nor make you a heretic. If we were all required to hold the same position on the details of heaven, hell and the book of Revelation, heaven would be a lonely place indeed.
- Rom 10:13
- Eph 2:8-9
- This summary of total depravity is a little unfair, but not much. A more positive view on TD can be found here. My main objection is, as I describe here, an empirical one. When we live as though TD is true, all unbelievers too easily become ‘filthy sinners’ in a way which is often incompatible with their manifest character. Also, this all seems very much at odds with the loving nature of Christ.
- N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, Ch 11. See ‘Beyond Hope, Beyond Pity’
- As above (Wright); see ‘Gehenna’, which was the most popular NT word for hell, and was a physical rubbish dump just outside of the literal city of Jerusalem
- Even the most conservative scholars rarely see the ‘flames’ or ‘fire’ of as hell as literal, but as an image of punishment, which is interpreted as either terminal, redemptive or perpetually punitive. See ‘Eternal Conscious Torment’ (Danny Burk), in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition
- Such prominent Christian fathers as Ignatius (first century) and Irenaeus (second century) seem to espouse this view. Quotations indicating such, and a good summary of conditional immortality, can be found here
- For some spectacular writing along these lines, see Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision or its academic-level counterpart Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Both highly recommended for anyone who wishes to strictly centre their theology on Jesus without throwing away the inspiration of scripture, including the most troubling moments in the Old Testament
- Heb 1:1-3. Here, the author contrasts that revelation brought by the ‘prophets’ (which is common biblical shorthand for the Tanakh or Old Testament, as is ‘the law and the prophets’) with that of Jesus. He makes no apologies for elevating the revelation of Jesus above all prior revelations
- For some great reading on the Kingdom Gospel and how it reshapes our faith understanding, see N.T. Wright’s How God Became King or Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel
- 2 Cor 3:18, Rom 12:2
- 1 Cor 12:27
- Eph 1:7
- Rom 3:28
- See point 1 here
- 2 Cor 5:17
- Heb 10:10-12
- See ‘Rejoicing in Heaven’ and ‘The Marriage Supper of the Lamb’ in Rev 19:1-5 and vv. 6-10 respectively