If you’ve seen an outrageous or mind-numbingly divisive “news” story from a scary sort of “Christian” perspective, there’s a good chance it was posted on Charisma News. This ultra-conservative website and its parent magazine Charisma have been predicting the “end times” and wagging their fingers at American sinners for forty years now. They even hosted a disgusting post by a pastor calling himself a proud “islamophobe” before taking it down in response to social media outrage.
This week an older article from Charisma News has been making the rounds on Christian social media. It is called “24 Reasons to Believe Hell is a Reality,” and it seeks to debunk what the author calls “universalism,” basically anything other than a traditional “eternal conscious torment” view of hell. And look, it’s their prerogative to defend any position they want on their own website. But certainly they will be careful and balanced, considering all factors of context and interpretation, right? Let’s take a look. Here are their “24 Reasons to Believe Hell is a Reality,” in bold, accompanied by my brief responses.
1. Jesus made both repentance and faith prerequisites for forgiveness. “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Oof, really? It’s our first “reason,” and we’ve already got problems. Nothing in either of these verses says anything about hell or, for that matter, about any “prerequisites for forgiveness.” The “perishing” in the Luke passage refers to some Jews who were publicly executed by Pilate, most likely because they were suspected of insurgency. Jesus is saying, “if you don’t repent of your violence, you’ll meet the same end.” And in Mark 1, Jesus is announcing the good news that all Jews were waiting for, the coming of God’s reign on earth. Nothing there about brokering forgiveness or going to hell.
2. The “water of life” is offered to all, but not all receive it or even desire it. “Let him who is thirsty come. Let him who desires take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
Um, OK… Very strange that we would pick this, of all verses in Revelation, as “proof” of hell, seeing as just two chapters earlier there was a whole bit about a lake of fire and dragons and stuff. This verse just sounds like Jesus inviting people to come to him and be refreshed. Am I missing some implicit threat?
3. Scripture teaches that there will be a judgment after death. “As it is appointed for men to die once, but after this comes the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
OK, yes! The author of Hebrews did write that. After death comes judgment. And then… hell? Well, that’s not exactly what Hebrews 9 is about. The immediate context is a discussion of Jesus’ death and atonement, and here’s the rest of the thought: “…so, the messiah, having been offered once and for all to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time. This will no longer have anything to do with sin, it will be in order to save those who are eagerly awaiting him.” Another kinda weird choice for a prooftext, unless we want to rename the article “24 Reasons To Believe That The Second Coming Will Have Nothing To Do With Sin”?
4. Those who have not had a true conversion will experience a judgment for sin that the Bible describes as “the second death.” “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the abominable, the murderers, the sexually immoral, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars shall have their portion in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
All of these “reasons” are gonna be out-of-context Bible verses, aren’t they? Well, alright. Hey, this one is probably your best bet, since it actually talks about sinners being thrown into a burning lake of brimstone. Though, I would point to just three minor nitpicks: 1) this is a passage from Revelation, a text that is wall-to-wall visual symbolism and simply begs to be read in its first century historical context. 2) I hate to split hairs, but the whole “second death” thing actually contradicts the conservative doctrine of “eternal conscious torment.” If we’re gonna take this literally, we should at least get the details right. The sinners in this scene die in the fire, only the “dragon” and his two “beasts” are actually tortured forever (20:10). And 3), not sure where this “true conversion experience” stuff comes from. The basis for judgment in this scenario – just as in Jesus’ similar parable about sheep and goats – is behavior and character, not religious affiliation or “conversion.”
5. Contrary to Universalist beliefs, Jesus’ teaching indicates that most of humanity is on a broad path that leads to destruction. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. Once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know you, or where you come from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:24-27).
Kudos for providing more than a single verse on this one, really! I actually wrote a post about this, and while it’s hard to deny that Jesus here is teaching that “few will enter,” the real question is what it is that they will or won’t be entering. The answer, in context, is the “kingdom of God,” which for the publishers and readers of Charisma News most likely means “heaven when you die,” but which for Jesus means “the reign of God realized on the earth.” Look, there’s no doubt that Jesus is offering a bleak assessment of humanity in this teaching. But despite our history of self-serving interpretation of texts like this, being “in” or “out” of the kingdom is not about being Christian or non-Christian, or going to heaven or hell. This is an ethical teaching. Jesus taught a lifestyle of nonviolence and selfless empathy, and he knew that very few would authentically follow that path. Very few Christians actually follow it, and plenty of non-Christians have followed it. To reduce this teaching to a heaven/hell, believer/nonbeliever duality is to miss its real point.
6. Jesus spoke often of a terrible place of judgment for those outside His kingdom rule. “The Son of Man shall send out His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who do evil, 42 and will throw them into a fiery furnace. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:41-42).
It’s very telling that a few verses before this one Jesus said, “I will open my mouth in parables,” and in the verse that follows says, “if you have ears, then hear!” This imagery is framed as an apocalyptic parable. Yes, it is a harsh word: in the reign of God, things that are not useful will be pruned and burned away, so be sure to do what is right. Like the passage in #5 this is a cryptic, parabolic way of talking about ethics.
7. The Bible teaches both the love of God and His sure judgment of sin. Trusting in Christ’s payment for our sins saves us from this coming judgment. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. How much more then, being now justified by His blood, shall we be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom. 5:8-9).
I tackled this one recently in my series on atonement. Paul’s teaching is too complex to be reduced to soundbytes and prooftexts. The big question here is what exactly Paul thinks this “wrath” is, when it is coming, and who has been saved from it. In 1 Corinthians 3, for example, he says that the “coming fire” of judgment will only refine, not destroy. And right here in Romans 5 he says that Christ’s death has won “life for all people.” Paul definitely has an apocalyptic understanding of judgment and history, though he doesn’t talk about “hell” and places major emphasis on God’s love and Jesus’ victory. That traditional view of a “two-faced” God whose love is primarily manifested as wrath and destruction has come under fire of late, often because of what the scriptures actually say rather than in spite of it.
8. In one of the most loving verses in the Bible, Jesus issues eternal options. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
So, we’re sticking with the whole “perish = hell” thing? (Here’s a little thought experiment I did on John 3:16.)
9. Scripture teaches that there is unending, eternal judgment for those who do not know God and who do not respond in faith to the gospel. “… And to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They shall be punished with eternal destruction, isolated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
Here’s another passage I’ve written about before on the blog, in fact I wrestled with it pretty intensely and ultimately concluded that I simply disagree with the author of 2 Thessalonians. I do not disagree that God has the hypothetical right and power to send fiery judgment against the enemies of the church, I simply question how a bloodthirsty text like this holds up next to Jesus’ insistence that we love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. But maybe all of that is just my own personal issue. The question here is whether or not this text proves hell to be a “reality,” and I’d say that’s not really the point, however you slice it. I realize the phrase “eternal destruction” has been co-opted by proponents of eternal conscious torment and hell, but really it just means “permanent destruction.” Like, they’re gonna die. This reads like a revenge fantasy, an angry response to opposition or persecution.
10. Jesus emphatically taught that a spiritual birth is essential to entering the kingdom of heaven. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Golly, I forgot how tedious and depressing it is to list endless Bible verses under specious categorical headings without actually engaging with them on the level of language or context! Here is John’s version of the ethical teachings in the synoptic gospels. Only people who are “born from above” (who get it, who “have ears to hear,” who learn to love peace and their enemies) will be able to see the kingdom. It’s hidden from everyone else. Nothing here about hell.
11. In answer to a very clear question about what is necessary for salvation, Paul gave a very clear answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you and your household will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
A very clear answer that has nothing explicitly to do with afterlife destiny. This “reason” reflects conservative Christianity’s unfortunate conflation of bad soteriology and bad eschatology; being “saved” means being saved from hell. But the evangelists in the book of Acts say nothing about hell or afterlife, and citizens of the first century talking about “salvation” would not have had heaven or hell on their minds. For them, salvation is about being rescued from oppression and the temporal (here and now) effects of sin. The apostle’s answer? Trust in the way of Jesus, that’s the way to peace!
12. Jesus gave no indication that many roads lead to God. He forcefully stated that He was the only way. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me'” (John 14:6).
Ugh. This one again. John 14:6 is the favorite verse of fearmongering, exclusivist Christians who want to draw the thickest possible line between “us” and “them.” All other religions are wrong, Jesus said so! But that is a poor reading of what John 14 (and the Bible) is all about. The question is not which religion is true or leads to heaven, the question is how to know “the Father,” how Jewish Jesus and his Jewish followers can know what the Jewish God is really like. One of the major points of John is that God is like Jesus. If you want to know the Father, look at the son. In this verse, Jesus is assuring one of his followers that walking the gospel path – of peace, repentance, and empathy – is the way to know what God is really like. Nothing about pluralism or hell.
Continued in Part 2 (in which they eventually stop prooftexting and actually try to make a few arguments)!