In a recent issue of the New York Times, an article by David Bentley Hart raised the question, “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” In this article, the author claims that “no truly accomplished New Testament scholar … believes that later Christianity’s opulent mythology of God’s eternal torture chamber is clearly present in the scriptural texts.” But is this really the case? Why does there seem to be renewed interest in this idea of universal salvation? Shane Rosenthal discusses this issue with Michael McClymond, professor of Modern Christianity at St. Louis University, and the author of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism.
Michael McClymond: There is in effect a religion of humanity that seems to be emerging in our time in which the preeminent value is the inclusion of everyone. There’s no place within this worldview for a line of division, sheep on one side and goats on the other as we have in scripture. They can turn this with everyone being incorporated and included. And so there’s something fundamentally different about this way of looking at life than I think we find in scripture where there is a division between those who respond to God and those who do not.
Term to Learn
Too often discussions of hell go beyond biblical description to alert people to avoid such a dreadful place. The problem here is that hell, rather than God, becomes the object of fear. Think of Jesus’ sober warning: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Hell is not horrible because of alleged implements of torture or its temperature.
Whatever the exact nature of this everlasting judgment, it is horrible ultimately for one reason only: God is present. This sounds strange to those of us familiar with the definition of hell as “separation from God” and heaven as a place for those who have a “personal relationship with God.” But Scripture nowhere speaks in these terms. Quite the contrary, if we read the Bible carefully we conclude that everyone, as a creature made in God’s image, has a personal relationship with God. Therefore, God is, after the fall, either in the relationship of a judge or a father to his creatures. And God, who is present everywhere at all times, will be present forever in hell as the judge.
(Adapted from Michael Horton, “Is Hell Separation from God?” Modern Reformation, May/June 2002, p. 18)