A Better Hell?
Apr 11, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 6 Comments
"The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:47-48; updated NIV).
I’ve long been struck by how little Luke 12:47-48 get discussed in debates over the nature and existence of hell. It’s not at all unusual these days to find writers, even very staunch evangelicals, repeating the point George Ladd made famous a generation ago that hell is not likely to be literal physical torture, as suggested by the language of fire or outer darkness, since, if taken literally those two images cancel each other out. It’s not unusual to hear evangelicals cite 2 Thessalonians 1:9, as I did two blogs ago, as the more literal description of hell—separation from God and all things good. C. S. Lewis’ Great Divorce remains as popular and poignant as ever, almost a half-century after Lewis’ death, with its insightful and memorable lines about hell being locked only on the inside (cf. God’s triple giving over in Romans 1:24, 26 and 28) and about there ultimately being only two kinds of people in the world—those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”
It’s increasingly widely recognized, as John Sanders meticulously documented way back in 1992 in No Other Name? that there are about a half dozen historic, orthodox Christian approaches to the fate of the unevangelized, with restrictivism (they all go to hell) being only one of them and not reflective of a majority position if you take the whole sweep of church history into account. The classic Calvinist will say God can elect and bring to himself through a special revelatory work of Christ apart from the preaching of the gospel whomever he wants, even if the preaching of the gospel is the ordinary way he works. The classic Arminian can say God foreknows exactly how everyone would have chosen if they had had the chance and treats them on that basis. Still others, like Sir Norman Anderson, evangelicalism’s leading scholar of world religions one generation ago, argue that how people interact with God, however they have learned or encountered him, whether trusting in his grace and casting themselves wholly on his mercy or trying to merit his favor through good deeds is the watershed that separates those who are saved from those who are lost. Maybe the most common approach of all has been to turn to Romans 2:14-16, understanding it to mean that God will treat all on the basis of the light they have received. And, in light of Matthew 20:1-16, God will always be fair and he will often be very gracious—far more than fair. It’s often also been remarked that not all who have heard the words “Jesus,” “Christian” or “gospel” have heard the true gospel. Jews, for example, during the holocaust didn’t hear the gospel from their Nazi terrorizers, though they heard these words from them a lot.
But all that having been said, there still remains the troubling question that can be phrased pointedly: “Are you telling me that the sweet little old lady at the end of the block who for whatever reasons repeatedly rejected clear presentations of the gospel and, as far as we know, died apart from Christ will have the same experience in the eternal state as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot?” If so, we wind up imagining those tyrants getting off much too easily or our neighbor being punished much too severely.
In light of Luke 12:47-48, I think we need to shout from the rooftops, “No, that’s not at all what Christians should believe.” There could, and probably will, be a vast difference between the nature of people’s experiences apart from God in the life to come, just as there is in this life. After all, salvation is by grace through faith alone, but judgment is by works. And people’s good and bad works vary drastically. All sin may separate us from God (hence, Matt. 5:21-26), but all sin is not equally bad (see Jesus’ comments in Matt. 23:23 on the “weightier matters of the law”). I would far rather you plot to kill me without ever acting on it than actually carry out your plans!
When I shared these ideas years ago with a friend, who like me had a mathematical background in his undergrad years, he responded with a fascinating thought. If those who did not commit nearly so heinous sins as others, or who did not know they were committing sins at all (or did not know they were committing sins that were as serious as they in fact were), or who for whatever reason were not consciously rebelling against Christ to the same degree as others) receive fewer metaphorical blows throughout eternity, perhaps we should think of periodic moments of more intense sorrow spaced further apart. After all, if eternity is everlasting (and given some recent redefinitions that is not a tautology for everyone!), then one can’t think of varying degrees of punishment in standard, linear, quantitative fashion. Infinity plus any finite number still equals infinity. But it’s completely possible to imagine some people being punished once a day, others once a year, and others only once a millennium, etc., for all eternity.
Wow, someone may object, you’re making it sound like hell for some people might not be all that bad! I guess my answer would be, it all depends on what you mean by “all that bad.” All that bad compared to what? Compared to Dante’s riveting Inferno (which has indirectly influenced way too many people’s pictures of hell, tragically much more than the actual texts of the Bible have)? Yes, compared to that picture, I am saying hell is not that bad! If the new heavens and new earth are indeed the intensifying and perfecting of people’s most glorious experiences with God, his people, and his creation in this life, then is it that improbable that hell for each individual might simply be the intensifying and perfecting of people’s freely chosen rebellion against him (which should be sharply distinguished from what we often call “hell on earth”—the worst experiences imposed on us or with which we have been afflicted that we did not choose)? It’s still hardly anything to look forward to, and something all reasonable people should want to avoid, but it is commensurate with God’s justice, sovereignty, human freedom, responsibility and accountability in ways that many other pictures aren’t.
This isn’t quite the same as Rob Bell’s hell, but I think it’s a more biblically faithful portrait of much of what he longs for but thus far hasn’t been sure how to get to, exegetically.