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December 15th, 2011 @ 5:56 pm by admin
Throughout the production of Hellbound?, one of the questions I get asked most often is, “How is the film going to end?” By that, I assume what most people really mean is, “What’s your position on hell?”
Of course, I’m no Rob Bell (Who can afford the smart guy glasses?) But like him, I’m far too cagey to give a direct answer. Instead, I typically respond by saying we’re taking a critical look at every view on hell in order to provoke informed discussion. I’m not interested in telling viewers what to think. Rather, my goal is to help them learn how to think about hell and other contentious theological issues.
Apart from a desire not to alienate anyone until they’ve given the film a fair hearing, part of my caginess stems from my suspicion that most of my inquirers have an oversimplified view of hell. They tend to think there are only two sides to the story–the “official” version, where Christians go to heaven and unbelievers go to hell, and the “other” version, where Hitler ends up in heaven right next door to Mother Theresa.
And they’re only too eager to file me away in one category or the other. If I could give the categories a name, they would be: “One of us” and “One of them.”
In reality, both of these views are mere caricatures. They also don’t begin to take in the full range of possibilities when it comes to interpreting what the Bible and church tradition have to say about postmortem judgment.
So to help people get a better sense of the landscape, I thought it might be helpful to sketch out a rough map.
Hell–How to get there
Traditionally speaking, there are two ways you can wind up in hell–either God sends you there or you choose to go there yourself. The first version is expressed through various forms of Calvinism or Reformed Christianity. The second version is called Arminianism, a view most commonly expressed in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and various forms of Protestant Evangelicalism.
Ironically, the Reformed view of hell (God sends you there) is compatible with eternal, conscious torment (hereafter called “Infernalism”); Annihilationism and Universalism. You’ll find people in every camp who see God’s will as supreme. They just differ on the math (how many people find God’s will irresistible) and whether or not hell lasts forever.
The same goes for Arminianism. Your choices can lead to eternal, conscious torment; annihilation or eventual union with God and everyone else. (In the latter situation, your will is what determines how long the reconciliation process will take.)
Inclusive or Exclusive?
You can also break things down by dividing the various versions of hell into two broad categories: exclusive and inclusive. In other words, either everyone gets into heaven–eventually–or only some people get in. Those who don’t get a form of punishment that is eternal in effect (Annihilationism) or duration (Infernalism).
The test to determine whether you’re in or out is often predicated on whether or not you proclaim Christ as your savior. But many exclusivists make room for non-Christians who respond to God’s revelation in nature, in their conscience, etc. Exclusivists are also divided as to whether God sends people to hell (Calvinists) or people choose to go there (Arminians).
In the inclusive category are various types of Universalism. Some Universalists allow room for hell; they just don’t think it’ll last forever. Others see hell as a possible outcome that is never actualized. Still others think the entire notion of hell is nothing but a human fabrication, an unfortunate interpretation of the Bible’s stern warnings about the consequences of how we live our lives. Most inclusivists affirm free will, but they believe that God’s will is supreme, and eventually all people will freely choose to be with God.
Active or Passive Punishment?
Some people believe the tortures of hell are actively perpetuated by God. Whether literal flames and tortures as depicted in such works as Dante’s Inferno, or more figurative punishments, they believe the punishments in hell are carried out by God and/or his agents. Technically, you can put Annihilationists, Universalists and Infernalists in this category, although I’ve never heard a Universalist argue for this view.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who believe that the tortures of hell result from the withdrawal of God’s life-sustaining presence. Annihilationists believe this leads to destruction. Many Universalists and Infernalists believe this sense of alienation is far worse than any physical pain could ever be.
Punitive or Restorative?
Another way to slice the pie is to divide up the camps according to whether people see hell as a means to an end (punishment that eventually leads to repentance and restoration) or as an end in itself (a decisive judgment on human sinfulness).
In the first category are various forms of Universalism. The latter category includes both Calvinists and Arminians who believe in Annihilationism or Infernalism.
Separate locations or psychological states?
Most people in the West tend to see heaven and hell as separate locations that may or may not be visible to one another. According to Eastern Orthodoxy and some Universalists, however, heaven and hell are the same place–the presence of God. We just experience it differently depending on the state of our souls.
A common illustration of this idea is the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the two brothers experience the presence of their father in completely different ways. Another good analogy is the way our eyes adjust to light and darkness. If we’re used to living in the light, the presence of God will be pleasing to our eyes. If we prefer the darkness, the presence of God will be painful and blinding, and we’ll do anything to escape it.
So where does that leave us?
As you can see, the landscape of hell is a far cry from the windswept plains of Saskatchewan. There are hills, valleys, caves, rivers and all sorts of other bumps in the road. It’s far more like the high mountain passes of British Columbia. You’d better make sure you have snow tires or chains before you make the trip.
The really interesting thing is that proponents of each position employ the same the same set of tools to make their case: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I’ve met highly intelligent, well-meaning people all across the spectrum. So if anything, that should introduce some reflection, humility and perhaps even a second look at the evidence before we rush to judgment on hell or on people who don’t share our point of view.
So what’s my position on hell? Come one now, you didn’t think I was really going to answer that question… Did you?