Hell Under Fire
Mar 14, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 5 Comments
"He [Jesus] will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thess. 1:8-10a; updated NIV).
A good friend who read my last blog on the need to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be saved, according to Romans 10:9-10, asked me if I thought the same was true for hell. After all, if there is no hell to be saved from, what’s the point of the atonement, much less the resurrection?
I suspect there are actually several versions of this question. One certainly doesn’t have to believe that the biblical imagery of outer darkness and unquenchable fire are literal descriptions of the afterlife for those who have rejected Christ; after all they’d cancel each other out if they were, as many throughout church history have pointed out. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10a, quoted above, is an awful enough, more literal depiction—separation from God and all things good.
Nor does one have to believe that all those who have never heard anything remotely like the true gospel of Jesus Christ are eternally separated from God. John Sanders showed in his book, No Other Name, published by Eerdmans back in 1992, that there have been about a half-dozen ways that question has been answered by orthodox Christians over time.
What then about annihilationism or conditional immortality? Annihilationism believes that “hell” for the unbeliever is simply the cessation of conscious existence forever. Body and soul both die, never to exist again. Conditional immortality sounds to most people like the same thing, even if it is slightly different, arguing that people are created with mortal bodies and mortal souls, but believers will receive recreated bodies and souls in which to enjoy eternity. While, in my opinion, not the best interpretation of the biblical data, it is one way to understand language of eternal destruction. Major evangelical associations on both sides of the Atlantic have annihilationists or conditional immortalists among them, so rejecting these options cannot be a prerequisite for salvation.
That leaves universalism—the belief that sooner or later everyone will be saved, no matter their beliefs or behaviors in this life. In other words, God’s love ultimately triumphs over his justice. There are different kinds of universalists, too. Some see hell more like the Roman Catholic notion of purgatory, in which unbelievers suffer for a period of time, perhaps commensurate with the amount and severity of their sin on earth, but ultimately are permitted to leave and go to heaven. Others simply see God acquitting everyone on Judgment Day. The second of these options faces insurmountable biblical texts to the contrary; the former might just barely be exegetically possible but it seems highly unlikely.
But the question for this blog is merely if a person has to believe in hell to be saved. Without wanting to be dogmatic, I think my answer would be no. Suppose I am shopping in a used car lot and am told by an eager salesman that no matter which car I buy, I will be able to drive cross-country without anything breaking down. Every car will get me to my desired destination. As it turns out, only one car in the whole lot is in good enough condition for that to be a true statement but I don’t know that. Fortunately, I purchase that one good car and my cross-country drive is successful. I think the analogy holds in the spiritual realm as well. I may believe someone who tells me that all roads lead to heaven, and therefore that there is no hell. Even if only one road actually does so—following Jesus—as long as that is the road I pursue I will arrive at my desired destination, even if those in other cars or on other roads wind up in hell.
Of course, if I seriously believe that all paths in life will take me to heaven, I may have substantially reduced reason for choosing the Christian road. I may opt for it simply because it’s what I was raised in or know best. But it will still work, so long as I really have followed it, and continue to do so, when the going gets tough and I might be tempted to opt out for something more comfortable.