The Bell saga, which is only a “saga” in the 24-hour news cycle world in which we live, continues. In light of the chorus of voices surrounding Bell’s statements that “love wins” and his casting doubt on someone’s certainty that Gandhi is in hell, I thought I would say a few words about hell, and then point you to the long discussion of hell by Jason Wermuth on this site, which begins here. My aim is simply to set forth some basic ideas that all synergists would embrace because I think the Bell saga provides a nice moment to reflect on these ideas.
It may be worth recalling at the outset that all synergists (Wesleyans, Arminians, Orthodox, etc.) begin from the perspective that the atoning work of Christ is universal in scope, if not in application. “For God so loved” (John 3:16) is understood to mean that God’s love reaches out equally to all individuals on the cross, which is a different starting point than the Reformed claim that the atonement is limited in scope. This may seem basic, but it is important because it presumes that God does not want anyone to perish and the corollary that God does not directly will to send individuals to hell.
A second corollary of this point is that synergists usually think that there will be more people in heaven than Reformed folks do although there are clear and important exceptions. For example, because of his eschatology and in light of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards thought that there would be many persons whom God would bring to heaven through his electing grace. Reformed folks in the revivalist stream tend to be more optimistic about the numbers of God’s elect than those not in the revivalist stream.
Synergists also affirm that humans may reject divine love in action, which is why the atonement is universal in scope but not in application. For the sake of simplicity, synergists affirm that the Spirit generates the movement of faith within the individual and thus can hold that faith is a gift. At the same time, there are multiple movements of emotion and desire that emerge in the context of making decisions for Christ. Thus, the individual in whom faith emerges from the Spirit now must decide what internal movement to follow. Will the individual follow the movement of faith or will the individual follow another internal movement of emotion and desire? Examples of other movements of emotion and desire are the desire to go home, the desire to continue in a lifestyle that must be given up to embrace Christ, the fear of the implications of the decision to become a Christian, etc.
We can add then to the idea that the atonement is universal in scope and thus God does not directly will to send individuals to hell that God indirectly (allows) individuals to go to hell. This is nothing more than saying that God directly wills to act in concert with free agency. Theologians will talk about the difference between what God actively wills and what God passively wills, but by passively wills is usually meant God not directly willing that something be the case.
Divine Judgment and Hell
Most Christians have affirmed that hell is an enduring reality, but that this reality was not intended for humans at all. Instead, hell was to be a place for fallen angels (Matt. 25:41). Even within Reformed circles there is a strong reluctance to presume that anyone is or is not elect. This implies that there should be a reluctance on the part of all Christians to make speculations as to what human beings may be consigned to a place not designed for them. It is simply the better part of humility not to put oneself in the position of God when considering someone’s final destiny. I could easily call into question anyone who attempted to play God by saying that “this person is in hell.” No human being knows with certainty who will be in hell because that would require that humans could know God’s mind and the state of each human heart. When Rob Bell questions whether someone knows for certain that Gandhi is in hell it could easily be merely a pastoral concern that Christians stop playing God on the eternal destiny question.
Hell also may be less a physical location and more a state of being. When Protestants came along, they tended to say that all sin is the same and thus any unforgiven sin will put you into hell. This conclusion was reached by focusing almost exclusively on guilt in reference to sinful actions rather than on the condition of sin that emerges from sinful action.
Until that point, the focus was more on the way in which human choices impacted the condition or state of humans. Thus the individual who lies repeatedly will turn himself into a liar, i.e., one who has the character of a liar or who has cultivated a pattern of behavior that now inclines him to lie. Choices and actions are related to character. You can see this in Dante’s vision of hell with its multiple layers or rings. The degree of judgment is really related to the character of the individual in question (I might note that the annihilationist position within evangelicalism is in part an attempt to return to this view and place it alongside of the classic Christian understanding of evil as non-existence).
C.S. Lewis, who was a professor of medieval literature, actually embraced this view and articulated it in his sermon “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis contended that there are no ordinary people because every human being is either on his way to becoming a being so glorious and beautiful that we would be strongly tempted to worship this being should we see it, or a being so heinous and deformed that we would not want to meet this being even in our darkest nightmares. The point is that humans either cooperate with God to become beautiful by developing righteous characters or they resist God and become deformed by developing sinful characters. The focus is on the condition that results from sinful actions, not on the guilt associated with each sinful act.
From this perspective, people in a sense create their own hell because they shape their own destiny. If this is the case, then divine judgment is more about God allowing (not directly willing) individuals to live with the consequences of their choices. It is analogous to, “if that’s who you want to be, then I won’t stand in your way.” This may be what Paul had in mind when he talked about God “giving individuals over” to their own devices (Rom. 1:26, 28). This is also what may be meant by divine wrath–the turning over of individuals to the life they have created. This is certainly one way of reconciling “for God so loved” with “the wrath of God.”
Where do these ideas put us?
- God does not directly will that anyone go to hell because a) the atoning work of Christ is universal in scope and b) hell is designed for fallen angels
- God indirectly wills (allows) individuals to determine their own destiny and thus to live with the life they have created
- Hell is about living with a reality that humans have themselves brought about through their own choices (a condition or state of spiritual deformity through misshapen character)
- Humans ought not to put themselves into the place of God when considering the final destiny of any other human being