Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mythbusters: Hell is Overcrowded

Finally I am coming to the fourth sermon in the series on hell preached by my minister. In this sermon he spends time answering the objection that too many people are destined to hell. In essence, his argument is that naming Jesus as the only path of salvation is actually the most inclusive option for God. He offers two primary supports for this position. First, compared to salvation by our deeds, salvation through faith in Jesus offers everyone a chance at salvation, regardless of their ability to be good. Here is a quote from his sermon:

(Timothy)  Keller is saying that most people believe that the most generous and inclusive way to think about the chair to heaven is to think that any good person can sit in the chair.  The way to the chair is to live a good life.  No matter your religion, if you live a good life, you’re in the chair.  But here’s the problem with that—what about those of us who don’t live a good life?  I can’t speak for you, but I can confess about myself—there’s a lot, an awful lot, about me that is not good.  There’s a lot in my life that is pure evil.  That means that I don’t have a shot at this chair.  Only the people who live a good life have a shot.  The rest of us are left out.  That doesn’t seem very inclusive at all.

But here’s what God’s done.  God’s said, “You know what, goodness is not going to carry the day.  Grace is.  So here’s how this is going to work—anyone, good or bad, can sit in this chair.  Anyone—moral or immoral—can sit in this chair.  I don’t care what your gender is, what your race is, or what your income is.  And I especially don’t care what your moral record is.  I don’t care if you’re a prostitute or the President.  If you want to, you can sit in this chair.”  I want everyone right now to raise your hand.  You can sit in this chair.  And God finishes, “The only thing I ask is, you let Jesus lead you here.  He alone has made it possible for you to sit here.”

My minister's second supporting argument is that God has done absolutely everything he could have done to bring all to salvation through Jesus. Again, another quote from his sermon:

Some may think that God’s intolerant for making salvation dependent upon Jesus.  But what more could God have done to create a way for all people to have heaven rather than hell?  What greater price could God have paid?  What greater sacrifice could God have given? If that’s not the action of a God who loves all and wants all to be saved, I can’t imagine what more it would take.  We don’t have to make God sound more loving by pretending that God’s going to save everyone whether or not Jesus is in their picture.  If we want to make God sound loving, Jesus is the only picture we need.  The cross shows how desperate God is to make sure that we, and every person, does not spend eternity in hell.  There is nothing more God could have done to fill that chair.  And you can bet that the God who went to such great lengths on the cross will go to similar lengths to give every person on this planet every possible chance to respond to that cross.

In response, I must say I agree that in theory, a model of salvation based on grace has the ability to bring more people to salvation than one based on deeds. And further, if Jesus was a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity, then God has found a way to save everyone at cost to Himself. However, in the churches of Christ, you really don't discuss salvation for long before moral behavior does enter the equation. There seems to be a hybrid grace/works model that we have adopted. Usually, it is framed in terms of "I will show you my faith by my works." This allows for works to be important without them technically counting towards salvation.

I confess that I still don't understand why faith must be relevant to salvation at all, if grace saves us. Why can't grace just, well, save us? Without us asking Jesus to lead us to the "chair" of salvation? And it's one thing to assert that "the God who went to such great lengths on the cross will go to similar lengths to give every person on this planet every possible chance to respond to that cross." However, where's the evidence for it? When we basically see entire countries of people living according to a Jesus-free religion, why should we maintain that they've been given every possible chance to respond to that cross, particularly when they've never heard of it? Or associate it with infidels trying to destroy them? Or find the whole Christian religion to be foreign to their worldview? And this says nothing of people raised in a Christian culture, who nonetheless reject it based on any number of factors predisposing them to disbelief and wariness of the Christian religion. Maybe what I'm saying is that even if God somehow gave everyone a chance to "respond to the cross", not everyone would be able to do so, given their culture, background, personality, experiences, etc. And if it's impossible for everyone to "respond to the cross", where's the grace in that?


  1. In my opinion you nailed it. If grace saves, then nothing should logically follow from that proposition.

  2. DoOrDoNot: In response, I must say I agree that in theory, a model of salvation based on grace has the ability to bring more people to salvation than one based on deeds.

    Mmm…perhaps. It would depend on comparing “Grace” and “deeds.” Although it doesn’t really matter in the Christian model, because even under it, “deeds” still come into play. Notice at the comparison’s end, the pastor concludes:

    Sermon: And God finishes, ‘The only thing I ask is, you let Jesus lead you here…’.

    Notice that? It is STILL up to the human performing a deed; Christianity merely re-defines what a “good deed” is required for salvation. The Human still has to “accept the gift,” or “let Jesus into their heart” or “believe on Jesus” or some act. God doesn’t quite…get…the…job…done….alone. Needs the human to put on the finishing touch.

    Of course, the Pastor is in relative comfort he is talking to people who—like him—performed the correct sequence to please his God, so the audience—like him—can pat themselves on their back for getting the Medal. Too bad for all those other people who don’t perform quite the right sequence or believe the right thing.

  3. Hey Doug, thanks for your comment. I still read your blog everyday, even if I don't comment alot. I continue to be amazed at your ability to crank out a post everyday.

    Yes, I was thinking about grace being superior to works if there is no requirement of any kind on the part of humanity and if salvation really is for everyone. A universalism where Jesus' death is actually sufficient on its own.

    I remember many discussions at church as to why requiring baptism for salvation isn't actually requiring a work or good deed. I saw more than one sermon where the minister would hold out a dollar and tell someone she could have it if she only gets out of her pew and takes the dollar from his hand. He would then point out how the church member wasn't working for the dollar, only taking a free gift. Though I agreed at the time, it felt vaguely like a semantics shell game. While salvation through baptism might not depend on a moral behavior, it depends on human agency, which is the fundamental problem to me. It necessarily excludes people unable to perform the deed. Letting "Jesus lead you" may sound simple, but it might as well be asking some people to cross the Atlantic by swimming it.

  4. Indeed! You bring up my primary argument with the notion that God did all He could do, when clearly He did not, especially for those who live in other countries, or those who die too young to understand, or brought up under negative influence, etc.

    A Christian friend of mine was confident that there would be special concessions made in those circumstances. I'm sure that belief makes him feel better, but then it also turns back to good behavior for basing the judgment of who gets in and who gets rejected.

    Based on the evidence, I think you can make a pretty good case the God does not want to save everyone or give everyone a chance. Jesus never seems very welcoming or forgiving towards the Pharisees, for example, other than in Johns Gospel and the case of Nicodemus, but John's Gospel also explicitly states that God actually prevents people from understanding and accepting Jesus.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your series. :-)

  5. Not to sound nihilist here, but that all starts with the premise that there is a heaven in the first place. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. But even if we start with that premise, that there is a God and there is a heaven, does is necessarily follow that there is a hell?

    I guess what I'm asking is if the actions of such a loving God would have even created a hell in the first place. A place of eternal torment? Okay, why not just create a heaven as a reward for his special pets and leave hell out of it? Just let the rest of us cease to exist? Love doesn't punish. Discipline, yes. Punish, especially eternally, not so much. These arguments don't make me feel any better about hell. At.all. But that's just me.

  6. TWF,
    You know, I was reflecting tonight on what evidence we have from scripture that God wants to save everyone. While there are verses that say as much, you rightly point out that there are other times in scripture when the case could be made that He doesn't really work that way.

    I don't really assume a heaven anymore, though I haven't ruled it out. And no, I don't think it necessarily follows that there is a hell. There's a good Mr. Diety video recently made about your line "love doesn't punish." It's hard to dress up eternal torment.

  7. Zoe sits down with said pastor and chats.

    Pastor: "But here’s the problem with that—what about those of us who don’t live a good life?"

    Zoe: You don't live a good life pastor?

    Pastor: "I can’t speak for you, but I can confess about myself—there’s a lot, an awful lot, about me that is not good."

    Zoe: You seem like a decent moral and ethical person to me pastor.

    Pastor: "There’s a lot in my life that is pure evil."

    Zoe: Evil? Pure evil? You have a lot of evil in your life?

    Zoe leaves the chat wondering what kind of sin pastor has gotten himself into?

  8. Good. My work here is finished. *giggle*

    Seriously though, this is how my brain works. And your post here reminded me of that. I would sit and listen to sermons and I'd hear out of all of it, this little part here. And in real-time it was not something I avoided during my next discussion with say, a pastor.

    When someone confesses to being "not good" or "evil" and worse, "pure evil" what are they thinking? Is this simply the "born in sin" doctrine or is the person truly carrying on in ways that are evil. Never mind whether there really is a heaven or hell, this pastor sounds like he's in hell and no wonder he needs salvation.

    A former pastor of ours preached on lust for 18 months. He'd admonish us against this sin, going at us in the pews with gusto. All I could think is, This guy has a problem. Short story - he did.

    Some people need heaven because they live in a type of hell on earth and others need hell, a literal hell because they think they deserve it and maybe some do but at least as in the case of this pastor's thinking, grace covers a multitude of sins . . . thank God!

  9. Ha! I kind of thought the same thing, Zoe. Pure evil? Oh my!

    But then, I can remember a time in my fanaticism I thought the same thing. Why? Because all of our righteousness is as filthy rags. Even my thoughts were evil. Which thoughts were evil? Putting anything before God, of course. I was supposed to be doing EVERYTHING to his glory, right? So my thoughts were evil, even if I never acted on them. What evil thoughts you might ask? Anything that wasn't about what God wanted me to do or say or think. Good lord, it's hard to think about God, God, God all the day long. What about my really evil thoughts? Yikes! Think I'll just keep those to myself!

  10. Oh! Yeah, no, not your evil thoughts DMa . . . I can't take it. *wink*

  11. Pondering deep issues here. I agree with the comments above. I think you have raised really important issues. Pure grace would seem to require no actions to be truly a gift. I also think the act of receiving is an act. Your pastor's free dollar bill was offered free of charge, but you had to get up to get it. And that takes effort.
    I would question whether the existence of Hell requires God making a place. I think CS Lewis makes a lovely point that Hell is what people create. Some great mystic (Therese?) once said, "The fire of Hell is the rejected flames of God's love." I think that is worth pondering.
    Maybe the concept of Hell is really another question: Does God respect human freedom? Does God afford people the chance to reject Him? Does God eventually overwhelm us all with love so that no one can resist? Or is it possible a human heart could find such love unbearaby oppressive and reject it. I do think a fundamental question centers on "is it about morality?" Perhaps an analogy would help: If a woman's husband is gracious and kind, a respectable citizen and highly ethical, spending his time benefiting humanity in general and individuals in particular on a regular basis yet he tells her, "I have no desire for you and am in no way attracted to you. You are, to me, like a neighbor whom I treat with kindness but not a wife whom I love"; is it not fair to say that the relationship is dead? Much the same, being good is not our vocation, but being God's own people. Ethics plays into that but is not the sufficient cause of the "heavenly relationship."
    Greater minds than mine have said it much better, but perhaps another branch or two for the fire?

  12. Jeff,
    Thanks for stopping by. Sheila recently left a comment about CS Lewis. I will surely have to reread The Great Divorce. I would certainly be more accepting of the notion of hell if it is not God-created.I feel like the teachings on the afterlife are quite muddled. It's hard to sort through grace vs. works, morality vs. relationship with God. I wish it were more clear and obvious what being God's own people actually means. There are as many ideas about it as religions.