Questioning hell

May 29th, 2018

Come Sunday

The recent Netflix original movie Come Sunday is based on the real-life experiences of Carlton Pearson (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), pastor of a large Pentecostal church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the film, Pearson responds to what he believes is a revelation from God by rejecting the doctrine of hell. At its core, the film is a character-driven drama that follows Pearson through the aftermath of his controversial declaration.

Come Sunday isn’t necessarily a movie about theology, but it touches on a number of theological topics and naturally raises theological questions. In one scene, Pearson tells his congregation, “If we’re really saying that God sends billions of people to burn in hell for eternity for missing the mark or missing the point, . . . that’s not the God that we worship. . . . God loves us all!” Yet according to Pew Research, most religiously affiliated U.S. adults (58 percent) believe hell is a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” That percentage climbs to 70 percent among Christians.

Hell and Scripture

The Old Testament generally doesn’t talk about the afterlife. Instead, there are references to Sheol, the underworld realm of the dead that houses both good and evil alike. Sheol, often translated as “the pit” or “the grave,” is dark and deathly quiet. The thought of it is said to terrify the living. In Psalm 88:5, the inhabitants are said to be “cut off from [God’s] power.” However, in Psalm 139:8, the writer holds out hope that could be present even in the darkest depths.

In the Old Testament’s clearest reference to resurrection, Daniel foresaw many of the dead being raised, “some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace” (Daniel 12:2). Centuries later, John had a vision of God judging all the dead, and “anyone whose name wasn’t found written in the scroll of life was thrown into the fiery lake” (Revelation 20:12, 15).

John’s “fiery lake” echoes Jesus’ descriptions of Gehenna, the word often translated as “hell” in the New Testament. At the time of Jesus, Gehenna was an actual place outside of Jerusalem. Also known as the Valley of Hinnom, it had been the site of child sacrifices in the past. As scholar Mary Ann Tolbert writes in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, it became associated with “death and eternal punishment for the unrighteous.” Jesus draws on this tradition when speaking about hell’s unending fire (Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:43-48). “Because no other biblical figure speaks more often of hell than Jesus,” states the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, “it is no surprise that he speaks most forcefully about the need to avoid hell.”

Hell and God

To consider the idea of hell in the abstract is an interesting academic exercise, but it’s only in the context of our relationship with God that this idea has any power. With that in mind, let’s consider what the doctrine of hell tells about who God is.

  • God is just. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that “the righteous get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked get what the righteous deserve” (8:14). Each of us can relate to this on some level based on our personal observations and experiences. The doctrine of hell proclaims that God is just and that evildoers will be judged and punished for their crimes — if not in this life, then in the next. 
  • God gives us freedom to choose to love. The doctrine of hell takes human moral responsibility seriously. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: ‘He who does not love remains in death’ ” (see 1 John 3:14, Amplified Bible). When viewed in this light, God condemns no one to hell. Those in hell condemn themselves. 
  • God calls us to proclaim the good news. The church has always called people to repent, believe in Christ, and be saved (Acts 2:38-40; 4:12). Concern that some people will be eternally separated from God because they haven’t heard the gospel and had a chance to respond in repentance and faith has motivated and still motivates many missionaries and evangelists. Theologian D. A. Carson writes, “The sheer desperate lostness of human beings” must impel Christians to evangelize.

Questions about hell

In addition to the ways the doctrine of hell can reinforce these positive ideas about God, it also raises serious questions.

  • Is hell a just punishment for sin? Eternal suffering may seem an unjust penalty for sin committed in a comparatively brief human life, especially if that suffering isn’t divine discipline leading to repentance. How does unending retribution square with scriptural insights into God’s mercy, including Jesus’ own prayer that God forgive his executioners (Luke 23:34)? 
  • Can our choice to love contribute to salvation? In Come Sunday, Pearson’s mentor Oral Roberts (played by Martin Sheen) urges him to preach on Romans 10:9 and teach that only people who accept Christ are saved. Does this understanding turn confession of faith into a “work” we must do to “get saved”? If hell is the refusal to love, do genuinely loving people who never confess faith really belong there? 
  • How good is the good news? Paul teaches that all have sinned, then declares, “All are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 1 John 2:1-2 suggest that Christ’s salvation is far-reaching and already accomplished. When we spread the good news in an attempt to save souls from hell, do we underestimate the extent of Jesus’ work on the cross? 

Any doctrine worth believing is also worth questioning. Questions asked in the faithful search for understanding don’t threaten God. No matter where we come down, we ultimately put our trust in God, who doesn’t want “anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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