Fifty years ago, a TIME cover article asked the question, "Is God Dead?" This week, a cover article of the same magazine asks, "Is Hell Dead?" This recent article comes in response to Rob Bell's book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It makes me wonder whether God had to die in order for hell to die with Him. Or, to put it more precisely, whether a conception of God as judgmental and punitive had to die a cultural death before hell could do the same. What we believe about hell, in other words, says a lot about what we believe about God.
And on Good Friday, the day that Christians honor and remember Jesus' execution as an act of salvation, these questions rise to the surface yet again. According to Jon Meacham's article in TIME, "to take away hell is to leave the church without its most powerful sanction. If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?"
Meacham characterizes traditional Christianity as a faith based upon fear. By this reckoning, the motivation to follow Christ is fear of what might happen. But Jesus, although he warned about the dangers of hell, didn't call people to follow him because otherwise they'll be punished. Rather, he said things like, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…" (Matthew 11:28) and "Today you will be with me in paradise…" (Luke 23:43). He offered people forgiveness even when they didn't ask for it (Matthew 9). He healed. He invited. He sought out the ones who thought they had been rejected by God and instead opened his arms to invite them into fellowship. Jesus warned about hell, but he never used hell as a threat. If Christianity is primarily a way to avoid hell, count me out. But if Christianity is instead an invitation to experience life with God and participate in God's redemptive work for all eternity—well, here I am. The Gospel's portrait of Jesus is not of a man who is saying, "Be very afraid." It is a portrait of a man who is saying, "Experience forgiveness and love."
There are Biblical reasons to believe that hell either doesn't exist or one day won't exist. See, for instance, 1 Timothy 2:4, where it states that God wants "all" to be saved, or 2 Peter 3:9 that God doesn't want anyone "to perish." There are theological reasons as well: isn't Jesus' death on the cross enough to defeat sin once and for all, period and end of story? If hell doesn't exist (or ceases to exist), it is because God's love for every individual human being and God's grace as exhibited in Jesus on the cross overcomes the free choice we have as humans to reject God altogether.
But there are also plentiful Biblical and theological reasons to believe that hell is a permanent and eternal state of being. Again, Jesus references hell frequently. Paul talks about destruction. The Book of Revelation envisions eternal punishment. This vision of hell can lead to a vision of God as judge and punisher. But it also can lead to a vision of humans as responsible agents, given the choice to live with God or not. Moreover, if hell does exist forever, it is a way to acknowledge God's hatred of evil, God's utter rejection of unrepentant offenders, of those who willfully murder and rape and oppress others.
Can God's grace overcome willful evil? Absolutely. Can God's love for human beings allow hell to exist? Absolutely.
So where does all this leave me? I remain agnostic when it comes to speculation on the eternal fate of any individual. And I remain confident in the saving power and the gracious love of God through Christ.
Jesus' death saves us from hell, from eternal separation from God. But it saves us with a purpose—that of living with God forever. So on this Good Friday I am reminded that Jesus' message wasn't really about hell. It was about heaven. It was about participation in the life of God, full life, available here and now and continuing for all eternity.