Pastor on Past Dirty Little Secret: I Didn’t Believe in Hell

Brian Jones lost his faith in God and belief in hell while he was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. His faith recovered, but his belief in hell didn’t. For four years he led a church, keeping his belief on hell a secret, even from his wife.

But during a moment of sincerity and vulnerability, God revealed what the Bible truly says about the existence of hell. Jones, now the senior pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in the suburbs of Philadelphia, shares why he believes that hell exists and why people, including evangelicals, don’t believe it.

The following are excerpts from the interview with Pastor Brian Jones.

CP: What new perspective does your book offer to the debate about the existence of hell?

Jones: I would say that the new perspective that I was hoping to bring is that the old perspective that has been around for 2,000 years has been almost entirely rejected by all of my peers in ministry. That is why I wrote the book. It’s that Niebuhr quote that I put in the book: “The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there.”

That always struck me when it comes to this issue of hell. Not a unique way of looking at a particular biblical passage or approaching hermeneutics. The book isn’t even per se about hell as it is about what happens when we embrace it as a reality and how that changes our lifestyle and interaction with people who are far from God.

That for me was the real heartbeat of the book. In the Christian community, it is usually only the creepy, intolerant, and strange Christian that takes hell seriously. I wanted to argue and paint a picture of how a Christian could believe in hell and be the most relatable, patient, humble, normal person that a non-Christian has ever interacted with.

So I guess that would be the perspective. I am not offering anything new about the doctrine of hell, or eternal conscious torment or anything like that. What I am trying to offer is there is a way to be urgent about this and normal in the process.

CP: Why didn’t you believe in hell, even as a pastor?

Jones: I went to Princeton Theological Seminary and I lost my faith. That precipitated all of this. I went 6 months without going to church. This is in the middle of seminary. I didn’t believe in the resurrection anymore, I didn’t believe in the Virgin birth, I didn’t believe in anything. I went 6 months without being able to sleep or do anything really other than contemplate what do I do now. I got 7 years into this and now crap man, I don’t even believe in God anymore. Believing in God is sort of at the top of the job description for being a pastor. So I was like in trouble.

Through about a six month period of time I was able to rebuild my faith with the help of some mentors of mine. But I was never able to put in that last component – a belief in hell. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

So when I graduated from seminary, I said I won’t tell anybody. And surely I know that there are people like me among very large evangelical churches. I mean everyone wants to go bash Rob Bell. Rob Bell didn’t say anything new; Rob Bell didn’t say anything mainline seminaries in the United States don’t say. There is nothing new in that book at all. It is just the fact Rob Bell, an evangelical pastor, came out and said that.

I basically decided to keep it a little secret. I didn’t tell anybody. My wife didn’t even know. No one.

CP: How were you able to reconcile not believing in hell and the Bible? How did you preach, did you avoid the subject all together?

Jones: I always assumed the concept of hell was a concept not referenced that often. That it was in the periphery of Christian doctrine and so I view it in my mind and reasoned, “I am just never going to preach it,” which I didn’t.

I was in the practice of going to a monastery once a month to get away for a spiritual retreat to plan and pray. When I was there I just really sensed that there was something genuinely wrong in my spirit. I don’t mean to be overly mystical about it, but there was just something genuinely wrong. I just did something bizarre, I never done it before, I started playing Bible roulette. I started fanning pages of the Bible back and forth, “Alright God, whatever it is,” and putting my finger down. And consecutively, five, six, seven times my finger landed on hell.

I just thought this is the most absurd thing. I just need to put this to rest. I read the New Testament so that I could just put the nail in the coffin. I just need to eliminate any lingering doubt about this whole stupid issue of hell. So I did. The rest of the day in the monastery I read the entire New Testament, Matthew to the end of Revelation. I took a pen and underlined the passages that spoke about hell, false teacher, unsound doctrine – anything that had tentacles related to the issue.

By the end of the day, I don’t know how to say it other than I was completely overwhelmed with remorse because of just my sheer arrogance. I tell people all the time, you don’t think yourself through a faith crisis, you repent your way through a faith crisis. And in a modern western mindset, I’m going to analyze the data, assimilate it and come to a rational, objective decision on my own. It is not what Christianity is all about. It is about a relationship with a person, a personal being. There is more that goes into that other than sheer intellectual objectivity. Cartesian linear logic, that is not how you can approach it. It is submission to a person, not so much buying into an ideology that is written in a book.

I just really sense that. When I got to the end of my study I got down on my face and I repented before God for an hour. I was so broken, so remorseful. I drove home and I told my wife and told her my secret. I called my staff. My staff had no idea. They were shocked. I asked for their forgiveness as well. Then I called everybody on my leadership team and said there is an emergency meeting at the church and get over here. I went around the room and apologized to every single person on the leadership team. I failed you as a pastor. The Bible says, “Keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9) and I had not done this.

That Sunday morning I got up before the congregation and I asked for their forgiveness as well. There is a wonderful elderly gentleman on my leadership team and he came up to me after church and put his hands on my shoulder and said, “Oh Brian, I am so thankful I thought you were going to tell us you did something serious, like having an affair.”

And most Christians today have the same mindset that I am going to pick and choose what we are going to believe. I don’t necessary believe in the authority of the Scripture. I believe in my own canon that I create according to my own belief system.

If there is anything new to the table I want to bring is just the clarity around the arrogance that comes from picking and choosing our own belief system. I do believe in the canon of Scripture, I do believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. I do believe that when you pick up this book in some strange way, God literally inspires the women and men that wrote the pages of the book to reflect the heart of God.

If that truly is the case, to arrogantly pick that book up and say I pick this and I pick this and reject that and reject that. And why? Simply because I analyze the data and under my own acumen. I am so bright, I am educated, I know the original language. My gosh, how freaking arrogant can we be.

So that is ultimately what came out of that experience.

CP: How long were you a pastor at that church? Are you still a pastor at that church now?

Jones: I was there for four years when I had that experience. And I was there for a year later and we felt called to start a new church in the suburbs of Philadelphia so we left and came here. They were fundamentally different experience.

I can smell out a pastor who doesn’t believe in hell a mile away. You can tell by the way they talk, their language, what their priority are. I didn’t help anyone come to faith at all in that four year period. No one. And things certainly have changed coming here to Philadelphia. With that one piece of doctrine put back into place in the framework of my theology, it changed how I view ministry.

Where in that four years in that church, I didn’t lead anybody to Christ. Here, we had over 1,100 people making confession of faith and getting baptized. I attribute that to sound doctrine. I don’t attribute that to ministerial practice – there isn’t a light show or unique program for small group. To me it is directly linked to sound doctrine.

CP: What was the name of the church you were pastor of for four years?

Jones: Yes, Northern Hills Christian Church in Dayton, Ohio.

CP: What year did you have this conversion about your belief in hell?

Jones: 1998

CP: And was it in year 2000 that you came to your current church, Christ’s Church of the Valley?

Jones: Yes.

CP: What do you mean by the phrase apocalyptic urgency in regards to hell?

Jones: When I came back to a biblically sound position regarding hell, I was just overcome with urgency. It was intrinsic. I didn’t need to read a book and hype myself up to do evangelism. Over the year I just coined the words apocalyptic urgency. To me Christians are talking about the wrong apocalypse. They are always talking about the end of the world, Left Behind books and all that stuff. That is wrong apocalypse to be thinking about.

The apocalypse we can really understand for certain is the fact that the death rate for every human being still hovers around 100 percent. Everybody is going to pass over into the next world and knowing that, that they will face their own ending, and knowing that hell is a possibility creates urgency.

That is why I love Tim Keller, what he said. I am not a Christian, I am an atheist and the fact that you are not willing to evangelize because it will be socially awkward for you, it will make you uncomfortable? How much do you have to hate someone to believe that eternal life is possible and not share that with them.

That to me is what apocalyptic urgency is all about. It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you are introvert, you are illiterate, you have a phD, you are a Fulbright scholar, anybody can rub shoulders and develop a relationship with someone far from God and humbly and graciously understand the message of the Christian faith. Because it is possible for all of us, having urgency to make that happen is a natural byproduct.

CP: How do you answer the question why would a loving God send people to hell?

Jones: It is always brought up that there are all these amazing good people out there and how in the world can God send amazingly good people to hell. For instance, Rob Bell brings up the issue of Gandhi, really Gandhi is in hell? How can God send Gandhi to hell? He is the best human being to ever live on the planet that isn’t a Christian, surely if Gandhi is going to hell then we have a major problem.

What I point out is, listen, I don’t know any amazingly good people. Gandhi, for instance, if Rob Bell wants to bring up Gandhi, I don’t think he knows Gandhi that well. Gandhi practiced an ancient spiritual Hindu practice called Brahmacharya. Brahmacharya, the ancient spiritual practice of Hindu holy man sleeping with naked woman overnight to show that by the morning time, if they haven’t had intercourse with them, then lo and behold, yes, they are immensely powerful and self-control when it comes to their religious beliefs.

The thing that a lot of people don’t know about Gandhi is that Gandhi practiced Brahmacharya with underaged girls, 16-year-old family members and friends. It is well documented, if you look up Gandhi’s life, this is basic Gandhi study. Family members would plead with him, don’t do this. 16-year-old niece, her husband is begging him, please, let me sleep naked with you. I bring this up to not bash Gandhi, but simply make the point that there are no amazingly good person on this planet.

In this country, we have a name for what happens when they sleep with underaged girls, it’s called corruption of a minor, it’ll get you 30 years Leavenworth [Kansas]. So that’s the best you can do? This whole idea that God would send amazingly good person to hell, I disagree with the fact that there are any amazingly good people on this planet.

We are all fundamentally flawed at the core and it is only in our own hubris where we want to lift ourselves up. If there is an eternal, immortal being out there, I surely can’t believe that God would not allow me to be in His presence, because I am such an amazingly good person. Really? Listen to just the inconsistency in that comment.

So I answer that first and foremost that I reject the idea that there are amazingly good people out there. That we are all fundamentally flawed and it’s only because of our hubris that we can stand side by side with an all-powerful deity who created the universe in His perfect, complete holiness. It is so unfathomable to put those two concepts together.

The second thing to the question of how can God send a person to hell, you can frame that in a way that makes God sound like a prick. I think that is a false way to stating that because you are only stating part of what He does. It is like saying that the governor of Pennsylvania has just convicted and death row some person. That’s a horrible thing, but that is not all the governor of Pennsylvania does. The governor of Pennsylvania has some wonderful things he does as well.

It is same thing with God. You can’t talk about hell without talking about the cross. The cross makes no sense without hell. To talk about hell without God lovingly sending his own son to die on the cross so that we can avoid it, is creating a proposition that is fundamentally unbalanced and unfair. We wouldn’t want anyone talking to us and the decisions we make with that kind of logic, so why would we do that with God?

CP: What is the main point you want people to take away from the book?

Jones: The main point I want people to take away is hell is real and it is really hard to stomach, but God loves us with such an amazing love that we have to tell people about that. Hell is not the point, heaven is the point. Loving people into heaven in a gracious and humble way. If this resource can be a wakeup call to get people to understand the logic and framework of hell, to translate that into tomorrow morning getting up and viewing their neighbor differently, viewing their non-Christian husband or wife differently, their kids, their co-workers and actually doing something about it in a gracious, loving, non-creepy way. I would be so thrill if I can help in some small way contribute that to their spiritual walk.

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