Does Hell Exist?
Last week’s article, Why I Am Not A Universalist, has led to some awesome conversations, both in-person and online. On Monday I was asked on Facebook if I believed in “a literal hell, not just the effects, like condemnation and shame and so on, but a literal fiery place of eternal torment?” I posted my response on Facebook and it led to more amazing interactions.
The interactions have been generous and open-hearted so I thought I would post my Facebook response as this week’s article that we might continue the conversation.
If you haven’t read, Why I Am Not A Universalist, please do before reading this as it will help add context to the thoughts in my response below. That said, I have done some editing to my response as well as added thoughts at the end to help articulate further.
Finally, I am aware that many have strong feelings regarding the subject of hell. My thoughts are not definitive. Please take them as suggestions from a fellow traveler who is leaning into His love and let not your heart be troubled.
“Do you believe in a literal hell, not just the effects, like condemnation and shame and so on, but a literal fiery place of eternal torment?”
Here are my thoughts on the subject of hell as of Oct 28, 2019.
I don’t know if hell is a literal place. I don’t know how time and space work on the other side of this life. But whether it’s a place or not, I do think it’s an experience, certainly in this life.
When it comes to my thoughts on hell, the question for me isn’t whether it exists, but, what is God like.
I don’t believe God is about punishment, (See – Why I Am Not A Universalist), I don’t think He is retributive, therefore I don’t think hell is about punishment, at least, not on God’s end.
Punishment says something about the nature of God I just don’t see in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
So how does hell work?
I don’t know. And neither does the fella behind the pulpit. Even if he tells you he does. He has no empirical evidence and his Biblical certainly is based on beliefs, philosophies, and the elevation of his interpretation of scripture over that of a church that spans 2000 years.
If you would like to read a book that helped me understand how the church has viewed hell over the last 2000 years, I’d recommend Brad Jersak’s, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut
But quickly here, I think how we understand hell is greatly connected to how we perceive God.
One scripture that has helped me understand heaven and hell is Matt 6:22-23. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
For me, hell is what happens when light, love, wholeness, and life are perceived as darkness, hate, brokenness, and death. And how great is that hell… To me, hell is what we experience when we either reject love or don’t have the inability to receive it. Hell is what we experience when light is perceived as darkness.
Essentially, hell is participating in retribution when God is doing reconciliation. I don’t believe hell is about God punishing us, I think hell is humanity’s broken perspective and the fruits thereof. God doesn’t punish us, sin is its own punishment. But if we perceive this punishment as God’s will, how great is that darkness?
When our eyes, (our perception) are true (Jesus) heaven is the result; grace is the result, life, light, and love. Just so, when we see untruly, how great is that darkness.
And, of course, this raises the big “scary question” I have avoided addressing outside of small groups for years simply because I knew my thoughts might possibly offend folks and I wasn’t yet sure enough in love to write them down.
(I’ve written more on the subject as of 11-29-21 – You can read it HERE)
“Can we be saved after we die?”
Yes, I hope so.
Because God is love.
God is love. Love is greater and grander and still measureless (Eph 3:16-20). Love is fully available to us in life and death (Rom 8:38-39). Love is a relentless redeemer and nothing separates us from His nature (Luke 23:34). Death doesn’t end His great affection for us nor cut us off from His presence. He is still there, His love is still available to us (Rom 8:38-39). His nature doesn’t change simply because we have rejected Him or are unable to see Him truly.
The only way love works, in my understanding, is that we are free to choose. The idea that we can’t receive or reject His love after this life is in direct conflict with the nature of Love. (see “A Few More Thoughts” below for more on this)
Satan was free to choose long before we had words to describe the consequences of his rejection; his story suggests free will existed before time as we understand it, existed (Isaiah 14:12-15). Adam and Eve were also free to choose, they lived heaven on earth and chose to reject the perfection of His love and that’s when hell entered their narrative.
So, if God is love and His love reconciles (see 2 Cor 5:19) and chases us down even into death as Paul writes in Romans, then I don’t know why there wouldn’t be opportunities to both receive and reject His reconciling love on the other side of this life.
(I’ve written more on the subject as of 11-29-21 – You can read it HERE)
This raises a new question…
“How does this work after we die?”
I have no idea. But to be honest, I don’t think I need to know. It’s not where my focus is. I believe Jesus wanted heaven on earth (Matt 6:10). So, when it comes to hell, my focus is very much connected to the here and now. It’s not that what happens when we die isn’t important, it’s just that I believe my ability to understand it is greatly connected to how sure I am in His love in the here and now. I’m only 45, I have eternity to discover the measureless, miraculous, mind transforming goodness of His affection.
One last thought, I would like to suggest that any thought about hell that isn’t interpreted through a measureless revelation of heaven should be held suspect; any conclusion about hell that isn’t birthed from sovereign love, Jesus on a cross reconciling the world to Himself not counting our sins against us, is flawed and therefore dangerous to our spiritual and emotional well-being.
I have found that those who tend to preach most fervently on the horrors of hell and eternal damnation seem to have very little evidence of the kingdom of heaven in their lives. You know, the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul wrote about in Romans 14:17. Those last two pieces of evidence, peace, and joy – they are often markedly absent.
You don’t understand a lie by studying the lie, you understand a lie by becoming immersed in the truth. His love, revealed perfectly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is truth. And I’m convinced this is where life is discovered and also where understanding regarding heaven and hell is discovered.
Anyway, those are my thoughts 🙂
Would love to hear yours.
A Few More Thoughts…
Regarding the “scary question” and whether free will exists after we die.
I believe hell exists, and I am not a universalist. I am hopeful. And I am convinced God is a relentless redeemer.
I’m not suggesting that this life and our decisions aren’t important. A poor, flawed, rebellious, or ignorant decision has consequences.
And I believe we can experience those consequences as punishment. But I don’t believe punishment is on God’s end. While the idea that God is retributive can be found in scripture, it is not supported in the Word made flesh, it is not supported in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Through Christ, I see God as restorative. (I’ve written more on the subject as of 11-04-20 – You can read it HERE)
I grew up being taught that heaven and hell were about God either rewarding or punishing. I don’t believe that anymore. When I write about hell, I am approaching the subject believing God is about reconciliation. This perspective doesn’t dismiss the existence of hell, it simply invites me to rethink hell in the context of reconciliation.
Here’s what I’m convinced of: God is love. He is perfectly revealed through Jesus, and He is always good. His love continues to be better than I think. At the end of the day, my goal in life is to grow in His affection and live as a revelation of His love.
My friend, Joshua Fletcher, posted a great 3 minute video from N.T. Wright on hell. I think his thoughts are insightful and helpful.
Also, here is a great article by Wright on the early church view regarding heaven. The New Testament Doesn’t Say What Most People Think It Does About Heaven
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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