Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why the Hell? Prelude

This post is another offshoot of all the thinking I've been doing on faith and skepticism. I'll be looking at one of the most common and influential reasons I've seen skeptics give for their rejection of Christianity: the doctrine of hell. People express disbelief, ridicule, and even moral outrage at the notion of a God who willfully condemns people to eternal punishment for the smallest infractions. How is this view of God just, they ask? How is it loving for God to torture people for eternity? How is anyone who believes in hell not just deluding themselves about God's essential goodness? For the next however-long-it-takes (I reject any notion of posting on a set schedule) I'll be studying this criticism of hell.

First, a disclaimer: conservative theologians might now be worried that I am trying to "water down" Christian doctrine or alter it to be more palatable to our modern, western culture and sensibilities. I am aware of the danger of this habit, especially considering the whole controversy over Rob Bell's borderline universalist book Love Wins not too long ago. In the name of peoples' sensibilities, various Christian groups have turned the body of Christ into a fun social club, Christian doctrine into an indecisive "conversation", God into a kind of cosmic Santa Claus who just can't wait to bless you with a third car, and Christ Himself into a blond-haired, blue-eyed patron saint of the American Protestant middle class--your homeboy, your pal, even your boyfriend.

But if we take from these examples the lesson that correct Christian doctrine must be difficult to accept and if it is easy we're doing something wrong, we miss the mark. Different parts of the gospel are difficult to different cultures. For example, as westerners we have a relatively easy time applying Jesus' command to forgive others (when the media doesn't go into a condemning frenzy) relative to people in collectivist cultures where grudges can last generations and involve entire extended families. Some cultures have more trouble accepting the fact that God forgives than that He condemns. If so many people are leaving the church and pointing to hell as their biggest issue with Christianity, we must ask ourselves: do they dislike hell because they have rejected God and the gospel, or is there something wrong with how we are presenting the doctrine of hell that is rightly offensive to peoples' consciences?

I have been realizing that my posts lately have been pretty difficult to read, both because they are a bit of an organizational mess and because they are roughly the length of my honors thesis. Like I did with predestination, I'm going to try and solve both problems at once by breaking what would have been a long post up into a short series. Here is what's coming:
  1. Exploring the "difficult" view of hell
  2. What we can know about the nature of hell
  3. What we can know about the intentions of God (pertaining to hell)


  1. Thanks David! I think that this issue is a cultural one and I think it is extremely important not to water down any doctrines. However, we must meet the culture where they (we) are at and do our best to contextualize what we know to be true. I think that Timothy Keller does a great job of this regarding the issue of hell.

    Check out this video, what do you think?

  3. Hm, it's mostly a retelling of C.S. Lewis' position on hell. It's largely what I believe now, but one purpose of these posts is to investigate whether that's really what the Bible says, or if that's just what we're making it say to make more sense of hell.

  4. I recently met a person who had the same issue..waiting for your post to understand this better..