I just finished reading Brian Mclaren's book The Last Word and the Word After That. It is an interesting look at the commonly accepted, conservative, protestant view of Hell. Which, to be very honest, I have always found disturbing.
The question often goes, "How could a loving God send people to hell?" The responses have included, but not been limited to, either God chooses who does and does not go to hell, or we choose by our own actions. The one that made hell a little more comfortablt for me was, "God doesn't want to, but our disobedience and rejection of Him causes us to be judged." I still, though, had difficulty with the concept.
Before we go any further, I would like to say that by the end of this I will not have decided on an acceptable replacement or theology of hell. I will have simply spoken of a very few problems I have with the concept, and a few of my tensions if it were to be let go.
There are several views of hell. These are very brief and very general. Exclusivist says that only a few people are in, and the rest are out. Inclusivist says that we don't know who God will let into heaven. Conditionalism can have a few different views. It essentially says that hell is only temporary either to purge the sinfulness or to eradicate the soul. Universalism says that everyone is in.
The problem is that none of these options seem adequate. The exclusivist view requires us to set standards and criteria for who is in and who is out. Inclusivist is a little more palatable, but does not answer the question or tension of a loving God and eternal torture. Conditionalism is inadequate because it doesn't fully answer the question either. Universalism, while also considered heresy, does not take seriously our accountability for wrongs.
Here are several things that stood out to me from Brian's book.
First, the words "judgment" and "destruction" do necessarily carry eternal significance, and may have more to say about how our actions will be judged. When we hear the word judgment we automatically think of a final judgment with people being sent to heaven or hell. Everyone will be judged. I love this quote from Brian, "We are saved by grace, but we are judged by our actions."
Second, the doctrine of hell, as we know it, is less biblical and more Dante than we care to recognize. Once we accept that doctrine of hell we read it into passages all over the place.
Third, when we read the word "righteousness" we often miss the "right action," "justice" part of the word meaning. When the Bible talks about obeying God it is speaking of more than just going to church and reading the Bible. It is talking about caring for the sick, the hurting, the widow, the orphan, loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God, seeking justice in our world. The spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, fasting, worship, fellowship, silence, etc) are meant to form us into people who hear God's voice and do His will and justice in our world.
We often spiritualize things. Being a Christian is so much more than saying the "sinner's prayer." Saying the sinner's prayer will not get you into heaven--following Jesus will. There is a big difference. Obeying God is more than going to church, tithing, reading the Bible, and praying, though these are important. Being saved is about more than just getting my butt into heaven or keeping my butt out of hell. It is about more than whether I follow a specific set of rules. Being saved is about being a follower of Christ, a doer of His works.
Take the word "believe" for instance. The modern interpretation of "believe" is something like giving mental assent. It means you know the right things. For the Bible, to "believe" means to live or follow or do. If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are doing what the Lord Jesus Christ did.
Hell kind of fades away in this post. I cannot do the book justice. (no pun intended). I think it fades because hell is not the focus. But Christian theology has made it the focus. Follow Jesus, being a disciple, being a doer of God's will, a bringer of God's Kingdom, that is the focus. (By the way, the Kingdom of God does not refer to heaven. It refers to the reality of bringing God's will and justice to our world. Christians are responsible to take part in this.)
The problem is that our concept of hell has caused us to be complacent. We get ourselves in--we are done. We don't have to worry about the problems of this world because, "one day this will all be over. We will be in heaven."
Maybe there will be more later. This is still rolling around, and probably will for some time.