I had a funny moment in the office last week that turned into something of a theological odyssey. We’re planning a second campaign based on Tim Keller’s Reason for God. One of those sermons asks “What about Hell?’ The person who is down to preach that sermon really doesn’t want to and I have to say I have some sympathy with them! It makes you realise that, after the dust has settled on the ‘Love Wins’ controversy, Rob Bell really was asking some very important questions.
What does ‘eternal conscious torment’ say about the character of God? Obviously, I appreciate that my own capacity for justice is finite, yet still, as God accommodates himself to me, as he reaches down to me so I can, in some small way, comprehend him, my own sense of justice should at least resonate with the justice of the God who has revealed himself to me. Maybe I have been watching too many episodes of 24, but it does sound a little like torture to me and that’s got to beg the question. Now, Tom Wright, in his book ‘Surprised by Hope’ allows himself a moment of speculation and argues that as all created goodness is stripped away in hell, then those who reject God become less than human, pure evil if you like, so that not only are they without hope, they are without pity. That helps a bit, but as Tom says, it’s speculation.
What does an eternal hell say about the victory of God? If everything is not summed up in Christ, if the cosmos is not remade, if there are those that resist God’s love forever, does that mean God has been defeated? Origen asked this very question. It’s why he’s not a saint!
What does an eternal hell say about existence? Is hell the absence of God? If it is, then how can those suffering the torments of hell be said to exist at all? Doesn’t existence participate in God? Doesn’t some notion of extinction make more sense of eternal separation from God?
In the end we decided on an approach to the sermon we were both happy with. Go with Calvin and refuse to speculate. What do we know? On what is the bible crystal clear? One can argue about the different metaphors and names we translate hell. Is it the second death or a lake of burning sulphur? What about Hades, Gehenna or Tartarus? Will the worm ever die? But the bible is clear that salvation is found in Jesus alone. The bible is clear that one day we will all be raised from the dead to face the judgement of God. At the end of the day, isn’t that enough?