A recent Time magazine cover read, “What if there’s no hell?”
The article discusses the views of Pastor Rob Bell, author of a new best-seller, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell struggles with the traditional interpretation of hell as an eternal place of literal fire and torment, reserved for those who reject Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross.
Bell is not alone. Preachers often talk about heaven but may rarely allude to hell. It is difficult for many Christians to harmonize the concept of a loving, merciful God of grace with eternal punishment. It is also hard to acknowledge that a loved one or a person who does many good things but does not accept Christ before death, could end up in hell. And does God really banish babies to hell?
Such unsettling notions have led some to attempt to redefine the orthodox view of hell to make it more palatable. The metaphoric view suggests that the biblical text is not describing a place of literal flames. However, proponents maintain that the metaphor does not dilute the intensity of the punishment, therefore the metaphorical view is not really an improvement.
Annihilationists do not deny the reality of hell but they lessen the severity by contending that the punishment is only temporary; those banished to hell eventually perish. Universalists view hell’s flames as a refining fire; ultimately everyone ends up in heaven.
The problem with these theories: They have little scriptural support. The scriptures teach that while God is loving and merciful, he is equally just. It is because of his love and mercy that he extends the invitation of eternal life to all through Christ.
Still, his justice is believed to be exercised upon those who willfully reject his open invitation. Theologians generally agree that children who die before the age of accountability do not go to hell.
While the thought of hell bothers Bell and many others, traditionalists hold that Christians who adhere to inerrancy of the scriptures cannot reject a doctrine solely because it does not bode well with them.
Certainly preaching hell, fire and brimstone is not the best way to present the gospel message. But if hell is indeed real, denying it will not change that reality.