Heaven and Hell—Christian Doctrine Reexamined


Heaven and hell—a staple doctrine of Christianity. And yet, surely this doctrine turns people away from believing in a loving God. Is it right? Is it true to what the Bible says? A small number of Christians believe the Bible actually reveals a very different story—one that is much more exciting and encouraging—one that reveals a truly loving God.


Hello Craig

I wasn't going to comment on this but since I was over here looking at the post on creationism I thought I'd just chime in that there's lots in the Bible that might turn people away. The incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection all by themselves are an "offense" to people, scripture says. There are many doctrines in scripture that are stumblingblocks to belief. Yet many have come to Christ and a loving God in spite of them all, even believing in a terrible eternal punishment, so if anyone is turned away, they simply don't have a heart for the truth. We can pray for them but we mustn't apologize for God's truth. It's not right or safe for any of us to try to make God's word fit our preconceived notions.

It would be one thing if you arrived at your conclusion simply from studying the Bible, from a neutral beginning position, but when it's so clear you start from an objection to the idea of Hell I think you need to be very wary of your desire to make God into your own image.

Biblical rationale for something different

Hello, and thanks for the feedback. Yes, if the hell doctrine is true, then I am wrong to say anything contrary to it. But I honestly do think the Bible teaches something else, and I've tried to explain why.

I assume you read the article that follows this short intro. It's a longish article, but I try to be as systematic as I can be and Bible-centred (apart from the intro). Please let me know where there is any flaw in the reasoning that you see.

The article about Hell

I did read it, though mostly skimmed, and found it to be predominantly your own reasoning about what a loving God SHOULD be like, but I'll go read it more carefully since you think there's more to it than that.

Looking to scripture

Hmm interesting you say that. Well admittedly the question of "what is a loving God doing?" is a theme through the article. I bring it up because it expresses one of the big questions that confronts humanity, but that doesn't in itself make a rationale, it just motivates the search for a satisfactory answer. Scripture must be the source of the truth of the matter.

I do intend for all the reasons to be derived from scripture, and looking over it again, there are some things that I say which I haven't put the scripture references in for. For example: “He promised to come again. The second time will be different – He will come in great power, and overturn the world as we know it,” for which I could refer to Daniel 2:44, Matthew 24:30, Revelation 19:11-21. Please let me know of anything which you would like to see more scriptural rationale for. Looking over it again, perhaps the section "Making Sense of the Present State" (the explanation of the taking of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve and its consequences for the current state of the world) in particular needs more scriptural rationale?

Haven't finished reading yet

I copied out your article to read it more carefully but haven't finished it yet.

No there's no need for more scripture support for the second coving or the Fall as explanation for the mess the world is in.

Mostly I recoil at the questions about God's character. But I'll try to get through the article soon and give a thought-out answer.

By the way that's one cute baby of yours, and a lucky baby to have so much loving family.

A beginning of an answer

Decided I'd comment on your article as I read, quoting you and then answering. Since you develop your ideas more toward the end of the article some of this may not apply by then but we'll see:

///The Misunderstanding of God’s Plan

I’m a Christian, yet I sympathise with people who think the message of the churches isn’t that appealing. ///

I’ve already commented that many doctrines aren’t appealing but an offense to those who reject them, and that it is wrong of us to expect God’s word to be appealing to fallen humanity. The first requisite for coming to Christ is to know oneself as a sinner in need of grace, and being offended by God's word is not a good start.

///Specifically, I'm referring to the doctrine of hell defined as the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked (refer to Wikipedia article for an overview of Christian hell doctrine). The message has problems that aren’t answered. But here’s the thing – is the problem with the message that we can find in the Bible, or is the problem with the message given by the churches? Perhaps a fresh look at the Bible will find something with a lot more appeal. We should hope so.////

I don’t think “we should hope so” at all, Craig. Again, the Bible tells us that the gospel itself is an offense to people, so why should we expect that any of the rest of it should tickle the ears of fallen humanity?

Also, I understand you want to claim that it’s not the Bible, but the churches that are responsible for the doctrine of Hell, but in my experience the churches have a tendency to water down or simply ignore the doctrine of Hell altogether, so that I had to look for a church that preached Hell to trust that it was truly a biblical church.

////The Problems of the Message
There are at least three problems with the popular message.

Again, Craig, just have to comment that the doctrine of Hell is far from “popular” but is usually avoided in the churches in my experience.

////Firstly, if God is a loving God, then why doesn’t he seem to be putting much effort into saving his own creation? ////

As I understand it God puts constant unflagging "effort" into sustaining His creation, which would disintegrate entirely if He didn’t. Of course you are talking about “saving” it. I can’t even bring myself to ask such a question, knowing that God is sovereign and His acts are all perfect, and that scripture says “He will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy” – it’s His sovereign choice whom He chooses and how, and “who are you, O man,” to question God? I have trouble with merely asking these questions, since it seems to me only unbelievers ask them.

/////John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should have everlasting life.” The question is, why don’t we see more of a follow-up? Why are there big chunks of the world who have not even heard of Jesus Christ, let alone had a decent explanation of what he’s all about? Why would God send his only son to die, and then not quite get around to making sure the message is reaching everyone? You would think that God is either not as loving as they say, or not that powerful in his ability to save people./////

Yes, we may wonder about that, and I do, but I couldn’t ever go so far as to suggest that it’s a fault in God that this is the case; I simply wonder why He’s doing it the way He is, and I expect to find out eventually. Again, He’s sovereign, He rules the world, and everything He does is perfect. That’s simply a definition of God.

Also, WE were given the commission to take the gospel to all the world; how can we blame God for what we aren’t doing?

/////Linked to the first question is the second. This hell thing – is it for real? So people miss out on hearing about Jesus, or maybe they have a tough life and can’t get it together before they die young, and so they burn forever in torment? When you hear the tough stories of so many people, it sounds as though they’re getting a pretty tough deal on life, if hell is true./////

Why do so many always focus on the people who have never heard the message? There are plenty of extremely wicked people in this world who deserve Hell to focus on instead.

Think of the time before God called Abraham, think of the time before Moses gave the Jews the Law, then think of the long time until the Messiah came. There were some righteous people in all that time that God saved. Job was one, the patriarchs from Shem to Noah are others. God saved them. They had the anticipation of the Messiah to come in their hearts. Anyone who has that is saved BEFORE the Messiah came. How God does it with people who haven't heard after the Messiah came isn't spelled out, but we can trust Him to save people who deserve it.

Also, there is some indication that Hell has levels, and the most wicked are in the very lowest, and we can’t assume the final disposition of any particular human being ourselves. Just leave it to God who knows all things to determine the final end of every creature -- God knows what He is doing, and when we finally face Him we will see His plan in a way we can’t see it now and understand it and most likely bitterly regret our distrust. We must simply take in faith that God IS good and merciful, as scripture describes Him, and that in the end we will see and understand. God made all those people, you know, and He knows exactly how to deal with them in His perfect justice and mercy. Meanwhile our job is to do what we can to make sure everyone does hear the gospel.

/////That links to a third question, which is another big one. “If there is a loving God, then why is the world such a mess? Why doesn’t God fix things?”////

This shouldn’t be a question at all for anyone who knows the Bible at all. Sinning human beings caused the mess, not God. God has been merciful nevertheless. And His great plan of salvation is the most merciful fixing of things imaginable. When He sent Adam and Eve out of the garden after their sin He covered them with animal skins to prefigure the sacrifice of Christ. God owes us nothing as we are ungrateful creatures, but because of His mercy and love He has made a way of salvation at great cost to Himself. He’s also make Himself available to fix things in general too, if we pray for His help. Not good to accuse God in this way.

I understand you will eventually attribute the mess the world is in to the Fall, but I cringe that anyone would ask the question at all myself. Only unbelievers should have that question. It’s easily answered by the first few chapters of Genesis.

/////A Better Message
Could it be that the Christian churches are misrepresenting the real message of what God is doing? Yes. The weakness is in humans’ and Christians’ understanding of God’s power, His true love for His children, and His amazing plan of salvation.////

As I say above, the biggest weakness I see in today’s churches is the attempt to give a smooth worldly feel to the gospel, to water it down and smooth out its rough edges so as not to offend the fallen.

I’m going to post this much and get back with the rest later.

Perhaps I will understand what you are writing somewhat differently by then.


Questioning not God's character, but our understanding

I think I see what you're saying. I don't seek to question God's character, but us humans' fallible understanding of God's character and what the Bible reveals about God's plan.

God is righteous, but we humans struggle to understand it. We don't need to be afraid to ask these questions—God is gracious to allow us to, and it's good for us to ask for answers from God (and search out the answers in His Word).

The Bible records some of God's servants expressing some of these challenging questions of life. In Jeremiah 12:1, the prophet says:

Righteous are You, O Lord, when I plead with You;
Yet let me talk with You about Your judgments.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?

King David also asks God in Psalm 13:1:

How long, O Lord?
Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

Both asked these tough questions, but pressed on in faith, and eventually (I think) were blessed to know answers to these questions.

Perhaps it's just in how you worded things

OK, but in what you wrote you aren't merely asking God questions about things that puzzle or seem to contradict our expectations of what He's like, the way you word things you are suggesting that God doesn't know what He's doing. The Bible quotes you give here aren't doing that at all, they merely humbly express lack of understanding. But perhaps this all comes down to a semantic problem in the end and you don't mean to be questioning God's character, as you are saying.


Thanks for your feedback

Thanks for your feedback. It seems like a good point. I'll have a good think about changing the way I've written it, according to what you've said. (Might take me a while. I'm a slow thinker.)

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