The topic of hell has become increasingly controversial in Christian circles ever since the release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins in 2011. Up till then universalism, or the idea that everyone will be saved, was viewed by most evangelicals as the teaching of heretics or liberal Protestants. That all changed with Love Wins, whose author Bell is, or was, considered an evangelical. Now suddenly here was a supposedly Bible-believing Christian questioning the doctrine of hell and the idea that not everyone will go to heaven. Some more liberal-leaning evangelicals resonated with Bell’s message and seemed eager to jump on his bandwagon. Others of a more conservative bent were dismayed to discover a heretic had infiltrated their camp and seemed to be carrying others off with him.
I definitely fall on the conservative side of the issue: I believe Bell is wrong and that the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment for those who reject Christ is biblical and cannot be so easily dismissed. Moreover, the doctrine of divine wrath and hell for unbelievers has been part of the orthodox Christian church’s teaching from the beginning. My feeling is that both Scripture and the traditional teaching of the church cannot be so easily dispensed with.
To me it seems Bell’s position is motivated by external pressure from our culture, which is rapidly becoming more hostile to the traditional Christian message. Bell himself so much as admits his desire to accommodate modern society in a 2012 New Yorker interview in which he talks about wanting to create ‘a different kind of church, “one that can keep pace with the rising ‘waterline of culture.'”‘ (the last part in quotes [“] being a direct quote from Bell). http://www.christianpost.com/news/rob-bell-tells-how-love-wins-led-to-mars-hill-departure-85995/
But we Christians can no more change the substance of our message or of the Bible than a leopard can change its spots. Who are we to change the Word of God?? If we try to, we’re just creating the message we want to hear, which is then no longer God’s message at all, but just something we made up ourselves. A message of our own making cannot save us. Only God’s truth can save us. The fact that we don’t like a certain idea doesn’t in and of itself make it any less true. There are such things as objective facts which do not change, whether we like them or not.
Some rather obvious examples: You can dislike the law of gravity all you want, but if you jump off a cliff or tall building you’re likely to die or suffer serious injuries, whether you like it or not. You can dislike the color blue all you want, but that’s not going to change the pigment of the sky. You can dislike the fact that overeating causes weight gain, but that won’t change the fact that if you eat too much, you’re going to put on extra pounds (Hey – wait a minute – I’m getting a little too close to home for my own comfort here!!).
Author and Christian apologist Tim Keller points out in his book The Reason For God that for some reason we moderns seem to think spiritual truth isn’t like other kinds of truth. Our society believes that even though there are absolutes in the natural realm as I illustrated above, when it comes to spiritual matters, we can create our own truth. But that simply isn’t logical. It’s more reasonable to believe that the spiritual realm is governed by principles and laws similar to those of the natural realm, especially if both realms were created by the same God.
Scripture certainly teaches that there are absolutes in the spiritual realm. I don’t think we can simply change the truth every time our culture raises a fit over one of our doctrines. For most of the last century or more we’ve tried very hard to avoid being ridiculed. But no matter how much we accommodate, it will never be enough. There will always be a demand for more, until we’ve relinquished the very essence of our faith for the sake of “relevance.” If giving up the distinctives of our faith were the key to church growth then the churches which have already made a lot of these accommodations should be bursting at the seams, but they aren’t (take a look at the so-called “mainline denominations” if you don’t believe me). Just the opposite: generally they are dying, because in the pursuit of pleasing our culture they’ve actually sacrificed the very things that give our faith meaning and life.
This post is not a review of Love Wins, nor do I intend to deal with every objection raised against the biblical idea of hell and eternal punishment for those who reject Christ. Instead, I just want to address one of the common objections to this idea.
People often object to the doctrine of hell on the grounds that most people are generally good, so they ask why God would send the average person to hell when most people really haven’t done that many bad things? Often Christians will respond to this question by pointing out that we are all sinners and because of that we all deserve hell–that all it takes is one sin to make us worthy of hell. While this may be true, this explanation by itself winds up making God look like a petty ogre who is sending people to hell over little peccadilloes (minor sins). It doesn’t seem very loving.
But it also doesn’t really get at the issue. I believe Scripture reveals three much more significant problems human beings share that makes us all in danger of hell.
Our first problem is sin, but not in the way I described above. Let me explain what I mean.
Our real problem is much deeper than a few small (or big) sins we’ve committed. Our problem is that sin itself is a part of our very nature. The first humans’ disobedience in the Garden of Eden caused something to shift in their very makeup that made them prone to sin from that point on.
Unfortunately, this tendency to sin is hereditary. Adam and Eve passed it on to their children, which is vividly illustrated in the story of Cain and Abel–Cain murders his brother out of jealousy that Abel’s sacrifice is pleasing to God and Cain’s isn’t. In a single generation humanity went from mere disobedience to cold-blooded, premeditated murder. This tendency to sin has been passed down ever since. Sadly, it’s in our DNA.
So we have a much greater problem than the few or many sins we’ve committed, however large or small they may be–the bigger problem is that we ourselves are sinners. The Bible teaches that sin lives within us as a principle that is ever at work, continually leading us to sin. That’s our first big problem as we stand in the presence of a holy God. The sin that is inherent in our fallen nature will keep us out of heaven.
The second problem that leaves us in danger of hell is even more serious: We are born into the wrong kingdom. You see, when our first parents obeyed the serpent in the Garden of Eden instead of God, they inadvertently turned the world and the human race over to satan’s control. This is huge. This means that ever since then, every person on the face of the earth has been born into satan’s dominion.
This is shown by several Scriptures. When satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4 and Luke 4), he offered him rulership over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just bow down and worship him. Contrary to the opinion of some, this was not merely a bluff or idle promise. Satan said “it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to” (Luke 4:5) and Jesus did not refute his claim. Likewise, in John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11 Jesus refers to satan as “the ruler of this world.” Likewise, Paul calls the devil “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) and “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
When God created the earth, he gave dominion of the entire world over to the human race (Genesis 1: 26-30) and made us its stewards. When Adam and Eve sinned, they came under the dominion of satan and in the process the world God had placed under their rulership came under satan’s authority, too.
If you doubt what I’m saying, consider this verse: Colossians 1:13-14
“For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Paul is writing to Christians here and saying that we were rescued from the kingdom of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His Son. This is because we are born under the dominion of darkness, and there we remain unless we are rescued. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What this means is very serious: Because we’re born into the kingdom of darkness, we’re born into this world destined for hell. At birth we’re already separated from God, and unless Someone intervenes, we will remain in this state after death–which is one of the definitions of hell: separation from God. So you might say that we are born into a hell on earth that simply continues (and gets much worse) after we die–unless Someone intervenes to rescue us.
A lot of people believe it’s what you do that sends you to hell. Even some Christian churches teach that if you commit this sin (maybe sex outside of marriage) or that sin (perhaps stealing or murder) , you’re going to hell. The problem with this is it implies that as long as you avoid the bad sins, you can avoid hell. But nothing could be further from the truth. The reason people are in danger of hell is because they were born into the wrong kingdom – and that includes every person who ever lived. You’re born into this world already on the highway to hell, and nothing can get you off that road save Jesus. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The third reason we are in danger of hell is because when Adam and Even sinned in the Garden, their spirits died. They died spiritually. Because of this all of us, their descendants, come into this world spiritually dead as well. A dead spirit can’t go to heaven. A dead spirit can only go to one place, and that is hell.
Fans of the original Star Trek TV series will remember how Doctor McCoy tended to be somewhat melodramatic, saying typical lines like “I’m a doctor not an engineer!” when called upon to pull off some feat far outside his area of expertise. Another saying that’s often attributed to Bones, though I’m not sure he ever actually said it, is “It’s worse than that: he’s dead, Jim.” This saying is true for us. We think people might go to hell because of something bad they’ve done, when the reality is much worse than that: we are in danger of hell because we are spiritually dead apart from the regenerating work of Christ.
To sum up, then, we as human beings are in danger of hell not just because of whatever sins we may commit in this life, but for three even more serious reasons:
1) We don’t just sin, we are sinners. Sin lives in us and works in us as a principle that causes us to sin. The sin in us makes us unfit for heaven.
2) We were born into the wrong kingdom. We were born into the kingdom of darkness and as such are hell-bound from day one. We are born into the kingdom of darkness and simply continue in it after we die. We are born separated from God and will die still separated from God apart from divine intervention.
3) We are already spiritually dead when we are born, and spiritually dead people are not able to go to heaven or commune with God.
This all illustrates why we are in desperate need of a Savior! Because we are spiritually dead sinners under the dominion of darkness, we are without hope unless there is someone who can overcome our three problems–someone who can 1) forgive our sins and overcome the principle of sin that is at work in us; 2) rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and bring us into God’s kingdom of light; and 3) revive our dead spirits.
Thankfully, the Bible teaches us that God sent His Son Jesus (indeed, God Himself came to us in the person of Jesus) to do just these things for us. In his crucifixion Jesus took the penalty for our sins (and our sin) upon Himself. His pure, sinless blood shed for us brought forgiveness of our sins and restored our relationship with God.
When Jesus took care of our sin problem through his death, he also rescued us from the kingdom of darkness, delivering us from satan’s dominion and back to God.
And lastly, after Jesus had ascended to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand Scripture tells us he poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit on all believers, reviving and restoring our spirits so we can commune with God through His Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who is Christ Himself, comes to dwell in the very spirit of the those who trust in Christ.
So in Christ God reconciled us to Himself and transferred us from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of His Son, giving us eternal life. This life, this rescue from punishment and hell, is available to everyone who will receive Jesus and place their trust in Him. John 1:11-13 says “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
This is why John 3: 3 and 7 say “You must be born again” (or the Greek can also be translated “born from above). The first time we were born, we were born under sin and under the kingdom of darkness. Therefore we need to be born again–born from above–into God’s kingdom. John 3:16-18 says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” It says those who don’t believe in Jesus are already condemned because we are born into this world condemned due to our sin and being born into the wrong kingdom. The only way out is through faith in Jesus.
If you’ve never trusted in Christ as your Lord and Savior, I hope maybe I’ve helped you see now why it’s so important to do so. I hope you will consider it and ask Jesus into your life, to save you from sin, hell, and evil. It’s the only way. But it is a true way, a good way, a “new and living way” as the author of Hebrews says. Jesus said “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Of Jesus, John the disciple said “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). Reach out and take this life today. If you would like to talk with me more about this I will be happy to talk with you. Just post a comment, or send me a private message. If you have my number, you are welcome to call me.