On Hell

"...your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he does not hear." (Is. 59:2, ESV)

As you have surely heard by now (maybe on this blog), Rob Bell has done it again. Perhaps more so with the video promo for his new book, Love Wins, than with the book itself, he has opened a great debate (much of it online) on the nature of salvation, universalism, the work of Christ, and Hell. So the cover of TIME Magazine can ponder "What if there is no Hell?"

It should be noted that Bell does not claim there is no hell, and while some Universalists believe that there is no hell, others believe that hell is a reality for many, only a temporary one on the way to that final salvation that (Universalists believe) ultimately awaits everyone because of God's victory in Christ. Here is a link to thoughts from N.T. Wright on the subject of Universalism.

The belief in hell in Wesleyan theology is clearly attested in Wesley's sermon "Of Hell" and is the natural consequence in our belief in the freedom (by God's grace) to accept or reject God's salvation (a freedom which is logically necessary for a real relationship of love to exist). United Methodist belief in "endless condemnation" is attested in our Confession of Faith (see article xii), though that phrase may legitimately be 'unpacked' in a variety of ways. Check out the recent article from the United Methodist New Service: "Hellfire, brimstone, and John Wesley."

My own belief on the reality of Hell is perhaps best articulated in this quote by C. S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain:

"There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this [Hell], if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of our Lord's own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully 'All will be saved.' But my reason retorts 'Without their will, or with it?' If I say 'Without their will' I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say 'With their will,' my reason replies 'How if they will not give in?'"

- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chp. 8, "Hell"

I believe that this approach is congruent with what the Bible actually teaches, particularly as it has been understood by ancient catholic Church, and by the Wesleyan tradition. This is why I do not accept Christian Universalism. Note: I ran across the above Lewis quote recently while thumbing through The C. S. Lewis Bible at a bookstore.

One of the questions that Bell raises (and Lewis himself suggested it in his fictional works) is whether those who have died and who "dwell in outer darkness" in hell can even still repent and be saved. Thus, at least for some, Hell would be a reality, but a transitional one. Biblically speaking, there seems little evidence for this, however it may depend on how one reads 1 Peter 3:18-20, and similarly suggestive verses, along with how we understand the phrase "Christ descended to the dead/hell" in the Apostles' Creed. The United Methodist website recently featured an article on that question: Did Jesus descend to Hell or the Dead?

That Christ did descend "into Hades/Sheol" is clear from Acts 2:27, which must somehow be coherent with his going "to Paradise" (Luke 23:42; 'Paradise' probably should be understood as that part of the underworld/Sheol where the rightous wait for resurrection, rather than as "heaven").

As to the distinct, but related, question of whether those who did not know about Christ or who were faithful adherents of other faiths can finally be saved, I am a bit more agnostic than I once was. We can say clearly from Scripture that there is no way into eternal life besides that which is opened up by the work of Christ (John 14:6). We can say clearly those who trust and give themselves to Christ in self-surrender will be saved (Rom. 10:9-13) and those who explicitly reject him have no part in his eternal kingdom because, by the nature of things, they refuse it when they refuse to have him as King and Lord. But what of those who simply lived their lives as faithful Buddhists or Hindus? Will they all finally be in Hell? Or what of those Pagans who lived and died long before Christ was concieved in the Virgin's womb?

Many Bible-believing Christians, from some Early Church Fathers to contemporary Evangelicals, who have rejected Universalism as unbiblical have nevertheless held the hope of what is sometimes called "inclusivism." Inclusivism holds that that the Eternal Logos/Word, who became incarnate as Jesus Christ (Jn. 1) is also revealed throughout Creation (Psalm 19; Rom. 1-2) and is therefore, albeit in an incomplete way, revealed to individuals in non-Christian faiths. And insofar as those individuals conform their lives to their glimpses of him who is the Living Word there is the possibility that they can be saved. Not saved because of their 'religiousness' in a non-Christian faith or their good works, but by giving themselves in faith over to the Word who (though they didn't know or acknowledge it) also became incarnate as Jesus. In this way God's mercy is truly "over all his works" (Ps. 145:9), and not only those who heard the preaching of the missionaries. I hope that this view is correct, though I can make a Scriptural case against it as well as for it.

The inclusivist view also has supporters here and there from throughout the history of the Church. My fellow Methodist blogger Craig Adams recently highlighted quotes from theologians supporting this view from Early Fathers, to John Wesley, to contemporary Evangelicals. Check it out here.

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Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for the link, Daniel. And, thanks for the fair and even-handed statement of the issues.

4:00 PM, May 07, 2011  
Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

Except I just noticed the link doesn't work. Try this: Hopeful Inclusivism

5:10 PM, May 07, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey thanks Craig; I think I got that link fixed.

3:39 PM, May 08, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Here is another (more recent) post from Craig's blog dealing with this issue:
Why does the Bible talk about Hell (and who is it REALLY talking to)? - in the context of the new book "Erasing Hell"


4:15 PM, July 11, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the Methodist bishop in Florida has an interesting piece on the issue of universal salvation:


4:06 PM, July 13, 2011  

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