Lacking Hell

The video below was recently brought to my attention by Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist. I found it profoundly moving, even as a nonbeliever. Please watch it (and/or read the transcript) and then join me on the other side to discuss it:


Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?

Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But would kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.

The good news is that love wins

The video is a promotion for a new book entitled Love Wins written by pastor Rob Bell (no relation). The video begins the discussion that he apparently takes to its logical extreme in his writing. From the book’s description: “Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.”

This is not a new thought. Others have argued this before; there appears to be a strong streak of Unitarianism in Bell’s video. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth examining. From the video, one sentence stands out strongly to me:

What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe who god is and what god is like.

I could not agree more. You can learn a lot about a religion by examining its beliefs and practices regarding death and the afterlife. Setting aside arguments of truth, there is an important consideration of whether or not a faith is worth belonging too. Proving a god exists is not enough. Even proving your particular god is true is not. There is a far more important question to ask: is your god worth worshiping?

Hell makes it easy to put gods in the “not worth worshiping” category. Any god who would punish the majority of the earth to eternal torment is not a god worth worshiping. That is not the actions of a perfect, all-good being. As Bell points it, hell is not the “good news.”

This is not a scriptural point of view. If I was a biblical scholar, and I cared, I would give a dozen quotes showing that the Christian god is a mean-hearted, egotist who does in fact want to send the majority of earth’s people to eternal torment. To hold Bell’s position, one has to think outside a strict interpretation of the scriptures. Which is not unheard of in the past. One could argue Jesus did that himself in relationship to his Hebrew traditions.

Assume for a moment that you can accept a Christianity without hell. What happens? In theory nothing. Christians should act the exact same, regardless of any punishment awaiting them. But maybe not. It is entirely possible that without the threat of eternal damnation, Christianity could take a better look its rules and policies. Suddenly, there is a possibility for growth and development.

Without hell, suddenly the condemning of homosexuality has less urgency. Maybe letting them marry in this country, in this town, maybe even in the church won’t doom everyone all to hellfire. Suddenly Christianity can begin to treat members of the LGBT community as actual people, who’s stories, opinions, and values matter.

Without hell, sex does not have to be sacred taboo to be locked away and never discussed. Honest, healthy discussions are possible about intercourse, masturbation, contraceptives, and abortion. Differing viewpoints and methods can be compared, and solutions for the real world can be developed.

Without hell, conversion is not an imperative. One no longer feels the need to evangelize at all their family and friends out of fear for them. Everyone would be free to find their own path, the path that works best for them, without guilt or condemnation from others.

Hell prevents members of a religion to consider other possible directions, other possible options outside the narrow view of their personal faith. Hell forces members to stick to rules regardless of the consequences. Removing hell would not fix all of Christianity’s problems. But it could definitely be the a step in the right direction. Freed from divine retribution, Christianity might be able to do good for the world without an equal amount of harm. At the very least, it would make it a lot easier to get along with the rest of us.

-That is all.


2 thoughts on “Lacking Hell

  1. I disagree that those things wouldn’t matter – I believe it would then become an issue of who gets a “better Heaven,” or who is doing it “right-er,” though what you describe would be ideal, it sounds more like utopia. Christian marketing, and evangelism, would still exist…simply without hell as the opposite end. Think about it like…you have certain theories in regards to raising children. Having to watch someone raise their child NOT in that way doesn’t mean that person is going to be eternally punished, literally, but it also wouldn’t stop you from intervening. Make sense?

    I’m on Rob Bell’s side, as far as Jesus dying for everybody (if that’s what you believe, that Jesus is the son of God)…whether or not you believe or “accept” it doesn’t change that it happened, and I’m pretty sure it happened FOR the sinners and nonbelievers, so the whole biblical debate drives me up the wall and I’m generally not even willing to have it, but I think you bring up some great points though I tend to disagree with a few. Ultimately, I do agree, that it might do some good for the world without having the punishment of hell to hang over people’s heads. I think there is a lot of good that could come from that. I just don’t think it would change much in terms of LGBT rights, for example, because it isn’t so much the “or” that matters- do this “or” go to hell, it’s more a matter of “God says it’s this way,” and by doing it wrong, you’re going against what God says is right. People would still push that arguement regardless of the outcome.

  2. Nicholas Lester Bell says:

    In this post, I was writing with the implied idea that giving up hell means giving up divine punishment, including the concept of a “better” heaven. If the Christian god did sacrifice his son, it was for all sinners of all time, regardless of their actions. Everyone gets into heaven, because that is what an all-powerful, all-loving, all-good god would do.

    This what is changes people’s minds. Take your parenting analogy. If you believed someone’s bad parenting was endangering a child’s life, like letting them swim in gasoline then dance near a fire, you’d take drastic action. A hell-believing Christian thinks all sins are eternal-life-threatening, and this leads them to take drastic actions. It is like if child protective services took your child away from you the moment the kid stayed up past 9:00. This mentality is what leads to bombing abortion clinics and protesting funerals.

    Removing hell changes the stakes. It pulls the teeth right out of any argument of why one person must adopt the values and practices of another. Now these issues are mere disagreements about how to enforce bedtime, where you would be much more likely to have a reasonable discourse about it. Issues become much more personal, and far less socially critical.

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