Thursday, September 23, 2010

Will Hell Be Empty?

This first week of fall, instead of cooler temperatures, it's been in the mid to upper 90's here in Memphis, so it seems like an appropriate time to do a post on hell! Right now, my studies are confined to the resurrection, but a friend of mine, Casey, who is a Presbyterian minister, gave a sermon recently where he answered questions about hell. I listened to it online and include it here if anyone wants to listen or read the text. He and I have been in dialogue via email since i listened to the sermon. I have to give him a great deal of credit for being one of the only ministers I've come across who willingly address difficult questions regarding faith. He engages my questions with humility and honesty. He is not threatened or uncomfortable discussing my doubts and disagreements. His personal experience in wrestling with faith issues as well as his depth of knowledge make him an especially valuable conversation partner. As an aside, all of these comments aptly describe his wife, a good friend of mine, as well.

To fast forward to the end of his sermon, which I realize ignores important material, he concludes by saying, in effect, it is for God to decide who will be in hell, though he won't be surprised if the love of God results in hell being empty. When I asked if he was a universalist, here was his response:

Am I a universalist? Technically, no. Functionally, yes. Along with
many reformed folks, I buy into that old saw we use (in a hundred
different formulations), "Because I believe in the love of God, I dare
to hope God will save everyone. Because I believe in the justice of
God, I don't cross that line." In terms of soteriology, I come from a
tradition that leaves everything up to the grace of God. God alone
chooses who to save. It is a gift. It can not be bought with good
works. It can't even be bought with belief or a confession of faith.
God simply gives us an afterlife as God has given us this life.
Because of this strong strain of God's prerogative, I tend to respond,
"I don't know" when someone asks who God will save. But, if pushed, I
tend to use the logic of Karl Barth, who said that God has judged
Christ in our place and has left to him the question of who will be
saved. When I look at Christ, I see someone who was reconciling the
whole world to God, that he was sent because God so loved the world, I
see someone who seeks out the lost sheep. I see someone who I suspect
will save all, but again, it is his prerogative. And I'm okay with that.

Well, I suppose that right now, I'm okay with God being a universalist, or perhaps with a hell that actually reflects the sort of justice with which I'm familiar: one where punishment is commensurate with the crime and/or where punishment is given for the purpose of rehabilitation. Casey clearly starts with the belief that God is good and understands hell within that framework, trusting that God will do what is good and right in the end. Given that everything I believe about God is now in question, I don't start with the same premise. I'm reevaluating my old presuppositions, so now when I read the Bible and come to the passages on hell, I wonder what kind of God, if any, exists who would include passages about eternal suffering in His Holy Word, particularly when those individuals sent to an eternal hell would appear to have little, if any, control over being sent there. I've written more about this in an earlier post on hell, so I won't expound on this point further here.

A question I never got around to asking Casey is this: if hell winds up being empty, then what is the point of discussing it in the Bible or of it existing at all (I have no idea what it means for it to exist, but I have no other words with which to ask the question)? I'm very interested in the answer to this one.


  1. Maybe God needs the concept of hell to motivate some people.

  2. Polkinghorne has a similar belief on hell. Here's a quote: “there cannot be a kind of curtain which comes down at death, dividing humanity irreversiby into the companies of the saved and of the damned. God’s loving offer of mercy cannot be for the term of our earthly life alone, so that it is withdrawn after three score years and ten….I cannot believe that God will ever foreclose on his loving offer of mercy, but equally I do not believe he will override the human freedom to refuse. If there is a hell, its doors, as the preachers say, are locked on the inside. It is not a place of torment, but rather a place of exquisite boredom, for it has all the emptiness of life without God. “ 171

  3. DagoodS,
    So, God is a behaviorist then.

    Like a Child,
    That sounds like C.S. Lewis. How are you doing these days?