A question that rises in all religions is who’s in and who’s out. If the religion has a heaven and hell, this question often boils down to who gets to go to heaven and who winds up in hell. The Christian religion has answered that variously through history, and it is recently being asked again, brought to the forefront by Rob Bell’s new book. A good conversation about hell might be the result, though it might become a name-calling wresting match too. So, who is in and who is out and is there a hell to shun?
I. The Catholic answer was: “Those not in the Catholic Church go to hell.”
This position has been eroding since they have softened up on Protestantism recently, but the classic Catholic answer was that everyone who was not a baptized Catholic was doomed to hell. The graphic portrayal of hell as a place of eternal torment was raised to the level of an art from (literally!) in the Middle Ages, and much of the torment motif we still have of hell comes from this Western Catholic Middle Ages view.
II. The Calvinist answer was: “God picks the elect and everyone else goes to hell.”
This idea dominated protestant thinking, especially in New England, so that it is sometimes considered “orthodoxy” and every other position is considered wrong. This answer argues that all men and women deserve to go to hell—even the slightest sin of a young child is enough to condemn that child to an eternity of hell. But, by grace, before the foundation of the world, God has chosen some to be saved—the “select elect.” God did not choose based on any good of the person, or even because He knew they would someday choose Him—He did it out of sheer mercy and grace. Those who are not elect are condemned to an eternity in hell. The Calvinist answer to the hell question is, “Everyone who was not selected to escape goes to hell.”
III. The Arminian answer was: “God sends nobody to hell—people choose themselves to go to hell.”
Like Calvinists, Arminians accepted the idea of hell, but rejected the notion that God consigns people there. They considered the Calvinist God capricious and proposed that people themselves decide to go to hell by refusing and rejecting God. Some Arminians considered it easy to reject God and others thought it took a continual and repeated rejection before a person chose to spend eternity separated from the people of God—but God’s grace didn’t give up easy on anyone. Arminians tended to believe that all children automatically went to heaven based on God’s grace, a kind of “juvenile universalism.” Calvinists considered Arminians liberals at best and unorthodox at worst. Many consider C. S. Lewis representing this position best.
IV. The Universalist answer was: “God’s love triumphs in the end and all will be saved…nobody goes to hell.”
Not long after the Revolutionary War a new answer emerged in America, though some early church fathers may have proposed this answer during the first centuries. To these “universalists,” God’s love was central. They considered a god who would pick and choose people to be saved and consign everyone else to hell was not a god at all but a devil. If God was loving and sovereign, they believed God’s love would triumph in the end. No human rejection or resistance was strong enough to veto the power of God’s love. They believed all humans are the children of God. Some of these cooperate with God now and join the mission, but others delay. Bu those who delay—or even reject God—will eventually fall under the accepting love of God, even if that occurs after death. The Universalist answer to the hell question is, “Love wins in the end and nobody goes to hell.”
So, who goes to hell?
Perhaps Rob Bell is only verbalizing a position most evangelicals have already taken. While evangelicals insist on having “hell on the books” and will fight furiously against anyone who says nobody is going to hell, functionally most evangelicals are Universalists. Several years ago I asked my students fresh out of high school two questions: 1) Is there a real hell where people go and are punished? 2) Name three people you believe are going to hell unless they repent. Virtually every student agreed with the first question—there is definitely a hell. But less than 10% could name three living people who they thought might actually go to hell. They listed a few dead people, like Adolph Hitler, who would go to hell, but most of them thought all their relatives and virtually every student on this campus would not go to hell. In the discussion follow-up I asked how many had heard a sermon developing the idea of hell, and exactly two of them had ever heard preaching on hell.
So I think Rob Bell and others have done a favor to the Christian community by proposing the old Universalist answer to the hell question again. Christians need a discussion on hell again—what is it, where is it, what happens there, and who goes to hell and why? Virtually all of us have “hell on the books” in our denomination’s doctrinal positions. But what is our position functionally? We to have a talk about hell.
So, what do you think?
(copyright 2011, Keith Drury, www.drurywriting.com/keith)
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.