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Why do people believe in Hell?

I wonder, sometimes, if I was too hard on Rob Bell.

Rob Bell in the trailer for the upcoming film 'The Heretic,' released in January 2018.
Rob Bell in the trailer for the upcoming film "The Heretic," released in January 2018. | (Screenshot: YouTube/Untold)

In 2011, author and pastor Rob Bell published a book about hell that nearly every Christian I knew had an opinion on, Love Wins. Before the book was even available, people were indignant. The trailer for the book depicts Bell walking through the snowy streets of Granville, Michigan, staring down the camera and floating rhetorical questions: “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?” For many, these questions were a step too far. “Farewell, Rob Bell,” pastor John Piper famously tweeted in response to the video. When the book was eventually released, the controversy only got more fervent. It was banned at Christian bookstores. By that summer, pastor Francis Chan had published a rebuttal book, Erasing Hell. I vividly remember an MSNBC interview that infuriated me, where — to my fifteen-year-old eyes, at least — Bell seemed unwilling to give straight answers to basic questions. Denny Burke of Boyce College proclaimed in a blog post that Bell had “outed” himself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At the time, I couldn’t have agreed more.

Fast forward a decade, and the questions that Bell was posing have found their way back into the cultural conversation again, in a highly public forum: a recent op-ed for The New York Times. David Bentley Hart is a philosopher and theologian — one of the most well-regarded in the world today — and in his article, he addresses a question similar to Bell’s Gandhi query: Why do some Christians so badly want there to be a hell? When it comes to the existence of eternal damnation, Hart writes, for many believers, something “unutterably precious is at stake… Why?”

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According to Hart, the Christian idea of hell has never been entirely consistent. For one thing, Hart argues, the New Testament does not paint a full picture of hell, at least as we visualize it. Paul is virtually silent on the matter. Revelation renders vivid allegorical images of judgement day, but no “clear doctrine of eternal torment.” Hart also notes that it wasn’t until the fifth century that eternal punishment became a widely held belief. Prior to that, “especially in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic and Semitic East,” most Christians believed in “universal salvation” — that is, that God will redeem everyone eventually. For hundreds of years, “universalism” was actually not blasphemy, and many early Christian fathers — Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, to name a few — ascribed to that understanding.

Only when “the Christian Church became part of the Roman Empire’s political apparatus,” Hart says, did hell become a central part of the Christian tradition. From that point on, hell was frequently weaponized by the Church, as “spiritual terror became an ever more indispensable instrument of social stability.” Hart notes that it retains a similar power today.

So why do so many Christians still care about hell? Ultimately, Hart asserts, the reason the doctrine of hell has persisted has a lot to do with winning. For those believers, Hart writes, “the idea of hell is the treasury of their most secret, most cherished hopes — the hope of being proven right when so many were wrong…” For many, hell represents vindication.

A few weeks later, the New York Times published some responses to Hart’s piece, penned by individuals from across the country. The letters are pretty remarkable.

Some resonate with Hart’s claims. Robert Judkins from Tennessee says that the image of fiery damnation “burned into the psyche of evangelical and other Christians from their very youth…fails to reconcile with the infinitely merciful deity manifested in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.” Anne-Marie Hislop, a Presbyterian minister from Chicago, said that she has observed that “some Christians seem far more concerned with who is not saved than the fact that they themselves are.”

Others take issue with Hart. Andy Saylor from Pennsylvania remarks that, while there is “scant” Biblical evidence for “conscious eternal torment,” there are plenty of verses that suggest there will be some form of “separation” for nonbelievers. As Saylor puts it, “Those souls may not ‘rot in hell,’ but neither do they enjoy eternal life.”

Perhaps the most vehement rebuttal comes from Jeffrey von Arx, a Jesuit priest and professor. He recalls a lecture he heard in 2003, wherein Cardinal Avery Dulles presented the three things Christians “should believe about hell”: one, “There is a hell because human freedom can definitively choose evil”; two, “We don’t know as a matter of fact if anyone is in hell” because of “God’s mercy”; and three, “I could very well end up in hell” because of “my own wickedness.” He ends his letter by stating, “This made sense to me then and still does.”

My favorite response, though, comes from Alison Cornish, a professor at NYU. She offers another definition to hell, in contrast to Hart’s eternal torture chamber: “Hell is what there is without God.” And then she points out that, while we may be moving away from hell as a society, we have “also forgotten forgiveness.” “In our present cultural moment,” Cornish muses, “redemption is no longer an offer, even for the living, as a single misstep or divergent thought will be punished by total and permanent exclusion.” This trend, she seems to be implying, is itself a special form of hell.

So, why does any of this matter? Well, for one thing, it’s noteworthy that a publication as widely read and reputable as the New York Times is hosting this dialogue. But also, I think the fact that Christians continue to return to the topic of hell, again and again, often in public ways, indicates how vital the issue is. What we think about hell impacts how we engage with the people in our lives, how we conduct ourselves and how we think about God. It matters.

In 2011, there was a lot that I didn’t know about the Christian tradition of hell. I didn’t know that our binary understanding of heaven and hell is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament, that the earliest Jewish understanding of the afterlife is “Sheol,” the shadow place beneath the earth where all souls exist for eternity. I didn’t know about the Apocalypse of Peter, a second-century Christian text that presents a vision of hell most similar to our current understanding — a place where sinners are tortured by punishments that fit their crimes — but you won’t find it in the Bible, even though it was read in many churches as late as the fifth century. I didn’t know that much of our imagery of hell doesn’t come from the Bible at all, but from an epic poem by an Italian poet from 1300s: Dante’s Inferno. I didn’t realize how messy and frequently contradictory Christian thought has been and continues to be. I only knew what my youth pastor had told me. And that might be the problem.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that the questions Bell asked in Love Wins as worth asking. I come to think that perhaps he wasn’t being so shifty after all, but was simply trying to acknowledge the complexity and nuance that has surrounded the topic of hell from the very beginning. I don’t know if he was a false prophet. I think he might have just been a guy asking questions. And necessary ones, at that.

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