Does anyone go to hell?

Christian faith has more to do with how we live in this world than it does with getting out of this world and receiving an eternal reward.

Yme Woensdregt

Almost two years ago, I wrote a column about “Love Wins”, the book written by Rob Bell. He asks whether it is really true that God would send to hell anyone who doesn’t claim to have faith in God. He concludes that God does not withhold love from anyone, that all people are embraced within God’s love. In this way, “love wins” — truly and deeply.

Many evangelical Christians were horrified by that conclusion, and excoriated Bell online. They claimed he was engaging in heresy by espousing a position many call “universalism,” which is the belief that God will ultimately redeem all people.

My own position is that no one is excluded from the love of God — not in this life, and not in whatever follows this life. Everyone is loved. Period. End of story.

Partly, I bring this up because this week, preachers all around the world who serve churches which follow the Revised Common Lectionary (including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and others) will be preparing sermons on the world’s most famous Bible verse, John 3:16. In case you don’t have it memorized, this verse — which might be summarized “Love wins!” — reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Interestingly, everywhere else in the Gospel of John, the word for “world” (kosmos in Greek) describes a world that is at complete enmity with God. A typical example is this prayer by Jesus just before his crucifixion: “I have given them your word, and the world (kosmos) has hated them because they do not belong to the world (kosmos), just as I do not belong to the world (kosmos). I am not asking you to take them out of the world (kosmos), but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world (kosmos), just as I do not belong to the world (kosmos).” (John 17:14–16)

When we understand this, it gives John 3:16 a bit more punch: “For God so loved the God–hating world that he sent his only Son …” Apparently, at least according to John’s gospel, God really, really, really loves the world.

This doesn’t, of course, by itself address the question of universalism, as the verse continues, “all who believe will not perish but have eternal life.” But the force of God’s love as John’s gospel articulates it does raise the question of why hell is so incredibly important to so many Christians?

As a theological concept, “hell” is almost entirely missing from the Old Testament and surfaces as a minor concern in the New, showing up most frequently in Jesus’ parables (which, let’s not forget, regularly defy a literal reading). In contrast, topics like proper treatment of the poor, good use of money, and the imperative to care for neighbour and creation all capture most of the attention of the biblical authors.

In other words, Christian faith has more to do with how we live in this world than it does with getting out of this world and receiving an eternal reward.

The threat of hell was most fully developed in the Middle Ages as a motivational system. People were told that they could avoid eternal punishment if they engaged in all kinds of supposedly pious acts, including everything from donating money to build the Sistine Chapel to enlisting in countless Crusades.

But it strikes me that we attach an importance to hell today less from a fear of eternal punishment, and more because of an allure of certainty. People seem to want a clear sense of the rewards and punishments for having or lacking faith in Christ. It offers a compelling logic which seems to reduce ambiguity from the life of faith. After all, as many have argued, if you can go to heaven without believing in Christ, what’s the point of faith in the first place?

So this unbiblical sense of certainty gives people a clear standard by which to judge “who’s in” and “who’s out.” Talk about seductive!

But neither the Bible nor Christian faith gives us this certainty. It is not ours to possess. We follow a God who really, really, really loves the world. Even the God–hating part of it.

And I, for one, choose to believe that God continues to come into the world to heal it. God is not content to let the world “go to hell in a handbasket”, or any other conveyance. God loves. After that, God continues to love. After that, God loves some more.

We simply cannot limit how far God’s redemptive love can reach.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.