It seems everyone’s talking about hell, since the news of Rob Bell’s upcoming book, Love Wins, hit the Reformed crowd. And, it seems that’s like you-know-what hitting the you-know-what. I even wrote about it this morning. (Was there this much hoopla when The Great Divorce came out?)
Apparently hell hasn’t been a very popular subject throughout church history. My neighbor, Randy, is doing research for a book he’s writing about hell at the request of Randy Alcorn, who wrote Heaven. Apparently only 40-some books have ever been written on hell, and that list includes Dante, Lewis’ The Great Divorce, and NT Wright’s recent Surprised by Hope.
I have to admit, hell has never been one of my favorite topics, either—but then neither has Heaven. The problem is, while both are certainly discussed in the Bible, none of the verses are really clear and it’s easy to get confused. As NT Wright pointed out, we assume that Heaven is where we’ll go when we die, and where we’ll live for eternity. But then, what about the New Earth? And where’s Abraham’s bosom? And if Paul visited the 3rd heaven, what about the rest?
And, if the gates of hell can’t prevail against the church, doesn’t that imply that the church will be victorious over it? Why, then, will it be eternal?
Why no one knows…
The reason no one agrees on eschatology is because it’s really not that clear.
Then, when we’re talking about hell, we get confused because along with the little that the Bible actually tells us, we mix in Greek mythology and Dante’s imagery. Most of us really don’t know what the Bible really teaches on the subject.
And, most of us don’t realize that the oldest Christian belief about hell and heaven is that they are both in God’s presence; for those who refuse God’s grace, his grace and light are eternal torment. This is not that far from CS Lewis’ proposal that the gates of hell are locked from the inside—meaning that those in hell are only there because they choose to be.
NT Wright suggests that a lot of Jesus’ references to Gehenna were talking of the immediate future of Jerusalem, which he spoke of in a few places, although he does believe in a place of eternal torment.
And, then there are all those verses which do hint to some sort of universalism, speaking of God “reconciling all creation to himself in Christ,” Christ dying for the sins of the world, and so on.
It’s not clear at all.
You get what you need
I don’t know that any of us can be completely certain about what happens when we die, and I have to admit, it does make me nervous. I mean, I don’t like surprises. When I go somewhere, I like to know what it’ll be like when I get there—for one thing, it helps me pack.
All I know is that if there are two places to go, I won’t be going to the bad place. That much I’m sure of. However, I’d still like to know how I’m gonna get there, and who should I look for when I get there? This made me nervous as a young boy, and to this day, no one’s been able to answer this sufficiently. As the man sang, “you can’t always get what you want.”
Meanwhile, there are many opinions about how the afterlife works. It isn’t clear. I think that the only way someone can claim to have it all figured out is to have left out some of the verses or bring in extra-Biblical concepts. I do have some thoughts, though, and someday I’d like the time to really study the subject further. But, after seeing the many contradictory conclusions reached by those who have studied the subject, I’m not holding on to much hope of every really figuring it out.
But as the saying goes, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”