Christians disagree on hell

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but I thought it was a particularly vivid example. It’s next to impossible to generalize about “what Christians believe,” because they disagree on so many seeming points of fact.

Justin Taylor recently asked, “What is the worst thing about hell?” and quoted Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul to answer.

It is common to say that hell is the absence of God. Such statements are motivated in large part by the dread of even contemplating what hell is like. We try often to soften that blow and find a euphemism to skirt around it.

We need to realize that those who are in hell desire nothing more than the absence of God. They didn’t want to be in God’s presence during their earthly lives, and they certainly don’t want Him near when they’re in hell. The worst thing about hell is the presence of God there.

(Emphasis original.) You can head on over to Justin’s blog to read the rest of the passage, but I think there’s something interesting for us to talk about already. Are these statements, that “hell is the absence of God,” primarily motivated by a desire not to talk fire and brimstone? I don’t think so — I think they’re primarily motivated by scripture.

There are many places in the Bible where it is written that sinners are sent to hell, a place of “everlasting fire,” of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But there are also many places in the Bible where it is written that one either goes to heaven, or one simply dies. Romans 6 proclaims that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life.” There are many other statements like this one — to say nothing of the passages which say instead that everybody is saved and no one is punished.

Different denominations of Christianity have picked different verses in the Bible to care about more. They spin, downplay, or outright ignore the verses that don’t fit their view of what the “right answer” is. When I try to figure out what “true Christianity” means, I look to the Bible, because that is the primary text which defines Christian belief. But what am I to do when the Bible gives two (or three, or more) different answers to the same question? How am I supposed to respond when one Christian quotes Revelation 20:10, and another Christian quotes James 1:15?

Now you might say that Hell being the absence of God is more of a Jewish belief, based on the Old Testament. If that is the case, we have to ask — was the Old Testament wrong? Or did God create a hell of fire and brimstone just in time for the New Testament to be written? Sproul has an answer for how to reconcile the Old and New Testaments, though:

When we use the imagery of the Old Testament in an attempt to understand the forsakenness of the lost, we are not speaking of the idea of the departure of God or the absence of God in the sense that He ceases to be omnipresent. Rather, it’s a way of describing the withdrawal of God in terms of His redemptive blessing.

First of all, I should point out that in the list I linked above, the passages supporting simple death instead of torment in hell come from both the Old and New Testaments. It is not appropriate to call this “the imagery of the Old Testament” when it can be found in Romans, Corinthians, and James.

But more importantly, I don’t think this is really the issue at hand. When I hear the phrase, “absence of God,” I think of that as something like, “out of God’s graces.” I doubt that many people actually use this phrase to mean that God has no idea what is going on in hell, that he isn’t really omnipresent and can’t be there. They mean exactly this compromise that Sproul is describing — that God has left a person in the sense of no longer protecting them or helping them, no longer blessing them.

The point is, some people believe that that is the ultimate bad outcome. Rejection and final death, never getting to be in heaven with God. They base this belief on scripture. Are they not true Christians?

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2 Comments

  1. jorge alvarado

     /  August 19, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Hi, NFQ. I don’t see where the “disagreement” is implied. Mr. Sproul answered the question of what he thought the worst thing about hell would be. That is not something every christian has to agree with.
    We know hell is a place with everlasting fire, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the worm never dies, and other, more terrible things, including the abscence from God. I don’t think anybody is saying it is only ONE of those things, and nothing else. THEN there would be disagreement. I believe it is those things, and many more, just as heaven, as described in the bible, is that, and many more “wonderful” things.
    I don’t think “simply dying” would be something to look forward to. In both the old and new testaments, what is MEANT by “living” is living, after death, in heaven with God; and “dying” is dying, and after the judgement, spending eternity in hell (with all those terrible things).
    Jesus said in Mat 25:46 And these (talking about the “not chosen”)will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous (those predestined from before the world was) into eternal life.” Parentheticals added by me. I’ll take Jesus’ words over anybody’s anytime.
    I haven’t yet found in the bible where it says: “that everybody is saved and no one is punished.” Care to elaborate?

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