As Adventist Christians we are blessed not to be encumbered with the most disgusting and nefarious of Christian doctrines: the ever burning, no relief, torture chamber of hell.
In recent years, a number of mainstream Christians have debated and discussed the existence of hell. Rob Bell was rejected by many evangelicals after his book Love Wins questioned the doctrine and was accused of universalism.1 Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle wrote Erasing Hell in response (full disclosure, I have not read either book). The movies Hell and Mr Fudge (2012) and more recently Come Sunday (2018), based on true stories, bring the debate onto the screen, albeit in a dramatised fashion.
Studies have shown half of all Americans believe in hell, with a significantly higher proportion than that among religious people.2
Closer to home, Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles was quizzed on national television whether he believed homosexuals would go to hell. “The mainstream Christian belief is that all of us are born going to hell. We’re all sinners, all to be judged by God. A Christian belief which runs to the very heart, soul and core of Christianity.
“Millions of Australians believe that,” he claimed.
When pressed again for not answering the question directly, he said, “I don’t think it’s that simple. I think all of us will be judged by God. The reason we go to hell is if we decline the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.”
For those who don’t know God, the answer paints Him to be a tyrant. Those who believe in hell will feel vindicated, but for those who don’t, their mistrust and doubts about God’s existence and even goodness, will be cemented.
God’s character has been maligned over the years as He appears to look more like the devil than love. [pullquote]
Ellen White described her fear of hell as a child: “I believed in an eternally burning hell; and as I thought of the wretched state of the sinner before God, I was in deep despair. I feared that I should be lost, and that I should live through eternity suffering a living death.”
She added: “[The only] words that I had any confidence to utter were, ‘Lord, have mercy.’ Such complete hopelessness would seize me that I would fall on my face with an agony of feeling that cannot be described.
“Our heavenly Father was presented before my mind as a tyrant, who delighted in the agonies of the condemned. . . when the thought took possession of my mind that God delighted in the torture of His creatures, who were formed in His image, a wall of darkness seemed to separate me from Him. I despaired that so cruel and tyrannical a being would ever condescend to save me from the doom of sin.”
A turning point for White was her mother questioning the doctrine. She recalls her mother saying, “It does not seem a proper way to win souls to Jesus by appealing to one of the lowest attributes of the mind—abject fear. The love of Jesus attracts; it will subdue the hardest heart” (CET 40.6).
When other Christians speak in the public space, we rarely use the opportunity to present a different narrative of Christian faith—perhaps we are too sympathetic to their concerns of religious freedom or standing for morality. Or perhaps we still just want to fit in.
If it comes up, in the public square or in personal conversation, we should deny that “people go to hell” or a belief in hell. If we admit such a belief—before we can clarify what we mean by it—the person we are speaking to has already assumed we believe in the eternal conscious torment (ECT) model. God appears monstrous. God does not need us to defend Him, but we have the opportunity to better reveal His character to the world.
Our fundamental beliefs don’t mention the word “hell” and we shouldn’t either.