Last Friday night I went with a group of friends to see the documentary Hellbound? screening in Toronto. I have to say straight up that this is a very valuable movie that most Christians should watch, but especially if you are in a tradition that emphasizes Hell (yes, it is true that many Christian traditions barely think about it). As I saw it, there were three main layers of discussion going on. On the surface, the movie was obviously about the doctrine of Hell: what is it and who goes there? At the next depth, and unfortunately not expounded upon as much as I would have liked, is the question of the character of God. Finally, the central point of the movie in my opinion was about Christian unity despite difference, encouraging us to be able to still talk as brothers instead of branding each other as heretics.

The Surface Topic: Hell

Theories of Hell have primarily been broken down into 3 categories based on the ultimate result:

  1. The Traditional (Medieval) View: the unsaved are tormented for eternity
  2. Annihilationalism: the unsaved perish
  3. Universalism: Christ’s sacrifice covers everybody so all go to Heaven. Most variants use Hell as a sort of purgatory to bring people to Jesus but some variants essentially eliminate it entirely.

Another way of dividing up the difference is in terms of the purpose of Hell. The first would claim that the purpose of Hell is torture in the name of an extreme retributive justice: since those people have sinned and not been forgiven, they must be tortured. The second would speak more of Hell as destruction. The third typically speaks of Hell as purification in line with the typical Scriptural image of fire being to purify and strengthen.

To make sure the final one is understood, Christian universalism is not saying that all religions are equal. There have been many Christian universalists throughout history and still today, and they all maintain the unique centrality of the person of Jesus including his death and resurrection as the way in which humanity is saved. It is not the same thing as relativism and it is not just trying to be politically correct. Christian universalism actually works very well within 4-point Calvinism if you accept all of the points except for Limited Atonement, and works pretty well within an Arminian framework too if Hell serves as a form of purgatory as I mentioned above.

For the most part the film focused on the final view. Some say that this is a bias, thinking it was trying to convince us that it was the right option. Typically this complaint comes from those who are pretty stubborn that it is wrong. To me it just seemed like it needed the most time because it is the most unfamiliar to most viewers. Eternal conscious torment is the majority view, and for the past 50 years or so annihilationism has generally been considered acceptable as well. As Mark Driscoll put it in the movie, he thinks those two are both within the realm of Christian orthodoxy but universalism is not. Many conservatives would agree with Mark on that, so the film needed to focus on the last one to establish why it wasn’t really that radical.

The Deeper Topic: Character of God

The problem with really deciding on your theology of Hell is that there is very little in Scripture. Most of us form our views based on some combination of church tradition, what our Christian leaders tell us, elements of Greek philosophy we don’t even realize, and other relevant aspects of our theology. It is the latter – probably the biggest factor, at least for the serious theologian – that I want to focus on. Each theory of Hell says something about how you understand God.

Eternal conscious torment proponents tend to emphasize an extreme retributive justice which they attribute as central to God’s character: if you have done anything wrong, you must be tortured for eternity and that is just the way it is. There is no real Scriptural evidence for such a view or for making it so central to their thought, but many assume that God is obligated to carry out this kind of justice. The same assumption underlies the penal substitution understanding of the atonement and the topics are inevitably linked; treating penal substitution as “the Gospel” as many do, it is hard not to transfer that thinking onto the topic of Hell.

On the other end, universalists tend to emphasize the mercy of God. As Rob Bell put it in his controversial book, this theory presupposes that eventually (maybe millions of years as in Bell’s version) love will win over the hardest heart. I’m not sure there’s any real evidence in Scripture for this either, although it is certainly within God’s character as primarily love rather than as primarily wrath or retributive justice. Holding this view speaks to an optimism that God’s love really does conquer all. Some of the closing remarks of the movie were the most powerful to me, as some non-universalists said that while they don’t believe it, they definitely hope they’re wrong. Regardless of what you think, if you’re cheering for anything else, you might need to check your own motives. On top of that, when you hope for this, you inevitably treat people better because you view everyone on the same page instead of the saved-unsaved/chosen-damned dichotomies (which even if they’re true, we don’t know who is on which side and so we shouldn’t be making the judgement calls).

Annihilationalists land in between the two. They don’t think that God’s love will conquer the hardest heart, typically because of a strong sense of free will, but they also don’t see why God is bound by the laws of this extreme retributive justice that the traditional view requires. So instead, they treat eternal life as a gift, not an assumption. So for those who have not received this gift, they simply perish, as in John 3:16 among other texts. They aren’t tortured to fulfill some extreme retributive justice requirement that is neither logical nor in Scripture, but God also honours their free will and does not continue to woo them after death.

Purgatorial Conditionalism and Why I Think That

I ultimately fall in a camp called purgatorial conditionalism, which starts by saying that the purpose of Hell is to purify (what universalists would emphasize). Where I diverge from Christian universalists like what Rob Bell proposes – although does not explicitly support – is that I am not as optimistic. I don’t think everyone will accept this purification and so will simply be burned up. In that sense, I agree with the ultimate end-state of annihilationalism while agreeing with universalists on the purpose of Hell. Why? Two main theological positions have shaped this view for me which again go back to the character of God.

The first is that God is a god of restorative justice, not of retributive justice. I don’t think God is obligated to torture. But I do think that God allows us to suffer the painful consequences of our choices in order to restore us. I don’t think God causes evil; I think he allows us to bring it upon ourselves, and I think the same is true of Hell. Jesus ultimately modelled a non-violent approach to redeeming the world – submitting to our violence instead of overpowering it with his own – and I don’t think that’s suddenly going to change after we die. Plus I agree with the universalist claim that fire throughout Scripture is primarily referenced as a means of purification – painful purification but purification nonetheless.

For me, though, I can’t stop there because I also believe that we have free will. Many Christian universalists, like Rob Bell, agree with this but argue that eventually God will be able to woo any free will to his love. It isn’t quite irresistible grace in the Calvinist sense which I picture as more of a hammer, but simply a case of the constant attempts to win someone over eventually doing so. I’m not as optimistic; I see these same choices all the time in this life and a lot of people would rather stay in a painful rut that they’re used to instead of doing the hard work of making their lives better. Other Christian universalists of the Reformed variety will just think that God will essentially force his love on anyone, but since I believe in free will in this life which only really works if you have the choice to continually say no, I continue to extend that into the afterlife.

My point of explaining my own view was to demonstrate that many theologians form their view not strictly on Scripture (which can support any or none of these views) but instead often from their other theological positions. The real question to ask is not which understanding you have of Hell but what your picture is of God. Is your God loving? Is your God angry? Is he trying to be loving but is bound by some law of retributive justice? Is his grace irresistible or does he always leave open the choice to resist? These are the real kinds of questions because how you answer will completely change how you relate to God on a daily basis, not just change a couple of abstract theologies.

The Real Point: Christian Ubuntu

The biggest point of the movie to me was that conservative Christians are very bad at talking to people who disagree. This theme seems to come up a lot throughout my recent posts, from my comments on Evangelical Inquisitions to many of my posts about A Year of Biblical Womanhood. That’s because it is important and a lot of people other than me are starting to point it out. What should we be striving for instead? The term I like is ubuntu which means something along the lines of “unity despite difference.” We don’t really have a great equivalent for it in English.

Hellbound? models this vision of ubuntu superbly. Occasionally it does somewhat mock the traditional eternal conscious torment view and Mark Driscoll in particular. But even then, I thought it was fair. Some may disagree, but in my opinion it does not try to persuade the viewers that any particular view is correct. What it does is similar to what Rob Bell tried to do with Love Wins, except more academic. It tries to open the conversation. It tries to say that it is ok to ask questions about tough doctrines, especially peripheral ones which are rarely discussed in Scripture and not even in most denominational statements.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

4 Responses

  1. John Ayala says:

    Good article.
    I have not really examined my view of Hell in light of many of my newer beliefs (relative to my upbringing in a mostly conservative evangelical family/church) but your article and this movie are starting to spark my interest in maybe doing exactly that. It is not that I have not heard of these beliefs recently but I have just not started to research them yet. I appreciate your thoughtful, gentleness with regard to expressing your views in contrast with the others. I hope to become mature enough to express myself in this manner, as you have.

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. Juan Carlos Torres says:

    Good Stuff!

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