Friday, March 23, 2012

What the Hellbound!? A New Documentary Coming September 2012

Hellbound? Teaser Trailer 1080 from Darren Hull Studios Inc. on Vimeo.

In light of this new documentary I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the topic. The following is an adaptation of part of a paper that I composed on Evangelism and Soteriology. This portion of the paper briefly touches on hell.

Christian evangelism has no place for the desire of hell. “As soon as we find ourselves wanting to believe in hell we find ourselves in great danger,” writes New Testament scholar Tom Wright.[1] Exclusivist soteriology (i.e. the belief that ‘non-believers’ go to hell) has yielded many Christians who resemble the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.[2] At the very least, shouldn’t Christians hope that all persons will be saved by God? (This is also known as "Arminian Universalism")[3]

People often argue that we need hell in order to talk about sin and grace. Do we? Historically speaking, the concepts of sin and grace predate the concept of hell by a long shot. That alone suggests that God’s love and grace are discernable without hell (as in Judaism). To me it makes more sense to appropriate sin and grace in light of God’s love and the reign of God. This approach allows us to speak of sin as an issue that matters here and now, not just then and there (i.e. after death). Like Jesus, we may use this-world realities to elucidate the seriousness of sin. For example, as Jesus compared the road of sin to Gehenna[4] (a burning pile of human waste[5]) so too may we speak prophetically against the sinful realities in our world. What is sin? Sin is human trafficking. What is hell? Not a fiery furnace below the earth. Hell is Auschwitz. Hell is starving children in a world of abundant resources. Appropriating sin in this way not only befits the larger system of Christian theology, but also places more weight onto the doctrine of sin by making it a matter of urgent, present concern.

No one seemed to take this more seriously than Jesus himself. The Gospels portray Jesus speaking of sin and hell quite often. But I’m not convinced that Jesus’ use of hell is the same as what we mean today. The seemingly explicit teachings of Jesus on hell must be interpreted in their original context (rather than using modern meanings).[6] It can be argued from those contexts that Jesus makes use of Gehenna as a culturally derived rhetorical device. More specifically, Jesus’ stern warnings contrast his inclusive soteriology with that of the religious guardians, for whom the earliest form of Exclusivism had become ‘orthodoxy’:

“It is reasonable to conclude that the system of belief identified in the previous chapter as ‘individual post-mortem compensation’, with its key elements of ‘the world to come’, ‘reward and punishment’, ‘Gehenna and Gan Eden’ and ‘judgment’, did stem from the Pharisees. …The expectation of individual post-mortem compensation had become so established in the thought of the Pharisees that it had transformed their understanding of salvation,” [7]

Jesus’ usage of hell suggests both a present and future state, so we need to take seriously that hell is not simply a post-mortem issue. Perhaps hell is as present today as it was for Jesus in the First Century. I suggest that we can use the language of hell to describe horrors such as human trafficking. However, present hell screams out for justice (cf. Gen. 4:10) and thereby divulges its transience. This ought to give us pause when considering the idea that hell is everlasting. As a future state, we must confess our profound lack of certitude and hold our views with humility. Nobody (that I know) has ever returned from hell to give a report.

Like all New Testament theology, the concept of hell must be interpreted in light of Old Testament theology. The Hebrew Scriptures largely remain silent on ideas of post-mortem punishment.[8] Moreover, Old Testament notions of judgment, from which Jesus drew his teaching,[9] contain no hints of the unending punishment that we find in modern views of hell.[10] Instead, judgment in the Old Testament – even God’s “eternal fire” (Jer. 17:4) – is not the final word but a means to reconciliation with God (cf. Jer. 31:38-40).[11] There is substantial grounds for arguing that God’s judgment is itself salvific.[12] This does not, however, mean that biblical teaching on hell may be glossed over as a “means to reconciliation.” Paul makes clear that all will be judged (Rom. 14:10-12, 2 Cor. 5:10) and that the man whose work is burned up “will suffer loss” (1 Cor. 3:10-15). Yet, Paul also claims that those who suffer loss “will be saved, but only as through fire.” Here, as in the Old Testament, hell may be a terrible – yet purposeful – experience that God uses to achieve God’s one, true purpose: the salvation of all.

[1] N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 92, italics added.

[2] Lk 15:11-32, esp. 25-32. cf. Matt. 20:1-16.

[3] See Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, ed. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), xvi.

[4] Matt. 5:21-26, 27-30; 10:28; 23:15,33; Mk 9:42-50. ‘Gehenna’ is nowhere found in the Hebrew Bible but may be found in the Pseudopigrapha, Palestinian Targums, and New Testament. The term came to indicate a place of punishment or punishment itself. However, the ambiguity of the term allowed for many different interpretations. See David J. Powys,‘Hell’: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, Carlisle, Cumbria, United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 1997. (1997), 177-194.

[5] “During intertestamental times [Gehenna (Greek), or the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew)] became the garbage and sewage dump of Jerusalem and a symbol of the place of punishment (1 Enoch 27:3; 4 Ezra 7:36) because worms and fires were always consuming the refuse,” James A. Brooks, Mark: The New American Commentary. vol. 23 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1991), 153.

[6] Matt. 5:21-26, 27-30; 10:28; 23:15,33; Mk 9:42-50.

[7] David J. Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question (1997), 216.

[8] See Jan Bonda The One Purpose of God (1993), ch. VII and Powys (1997) sec. II.

[9] e.g. Mark 9:43-48 draws from Isa. 66:24. Matt. 25:46 from Dan. 12:2.

[10] Many conventional interpretations are anachronistic in their import of modern definitions of “eternal” for the Hebrew “‘olam”, which is translated “forever” and “everlasting” but did not carry the same meaning in Hebrew. See Bonda (1993), 63-73, 211-219.

[11] cf. Bonda (1993), VII.3

[12] Isa. 48:9-11; Jer. 9:25; 30:11-17; 31:10-11, 18-20, 31-37; Ezek. 16; Hos. 11:1-3; 14:4-9; Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:10-15. (See Bonda [1993], 196-219 for discussion on salvific judgment. cf. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963], 398-399.)


  1. Masterfully reasoned, Joshua. Your theological track warms my heart in general. Zack Jackson wrote a paper for me on this subject that you might ask him for a copy of. I also have a rough draft of an article on Annihilationism in which I am intuiting a critical flaw. It pertains to my firm conviction that God created with the idea that there would be no acceptable casualties as a result of God's creative activity. And yet, in the article I am recommending Annihilationism as an acceptable alternative, because it respects human freedom and the possibility that our decisions in this life might very well preclude finding God's appearing attractive. I am going to send the rough draft your way. My question for you is, Have I boxed myself into an unacceptable corner between free will and God's unwillingness to accept of casualties? Again, great work here: as always.

  2. I think Annihilationism is a very honorable and acceptable theory to hold GIVEN WHAT WE (CAN) KNOW. I would be happy to hold that view because it allows for the "Personhood" of humankind to triumph. That is, it allows for freedom and volition to be exercised freely in the context of true relationship. Love is possible; it is simply rejected. I can groove with Annihilationism.

    I especially love your idea that our freedom permits human beings to find God unattractive. (I wonder if this happens more often than we can admit? e.g. it is truly difficult to imagine the crucified Jesus and say, "That is my God.") It is certainly plausible that many would not find God attractive; many may be repulsed by God.

    BUT, I have come to believe that God is too beautiful to be rejected "forever." I don't think this precludes human freedom; I simply believe that humankind possesses a desire for God that cannot be terminated. (I also think that we give freedom an idealized form. There is plenty that humankind is NOT free to do)

    I recently read William Barclay's opinion on this matter and found him very compelling (

    I'll end with a story:
    One of my CPE advisors did some of his training in Vacaville Mental Facility during which he worked with Charles Manson. He shared an incredible story with me one day about an encounter with Charles. The encounter that took place involved an intense 20-second stare down between murderer and clinician. Their faces were inches apart. My advisor described Manson's eyes as filled with wrath and horror. But then, for a split second, my advisor saw his eyes break and well up - just for a moment before returning stone cold. My advisor told me that from that moment on he knew that Charles Manson was a child of God too, and he could never look at him in the same way.

    In the coming days Charles invited my advisor up to his cell to look through family photo albums. {end}

    My opinion is that hurt people hurt people. And it will take the indefatigable love of God to mend the wounds that cause us to hurt others.

  3. You know, at the same time, I have to ask myself: Is this yet another childish projection onto God of my hopes and what makes up for my finitude? Am I just constructing a God that will take the final initiative FOR ME so I don't have to? (A God that will ultimately "fix" things)

    This is hard to assess because John's vision was of God's initiative to wipe every tear away for the faithful. Yet, I also know that God demands that we choose and stay in relationship by our own volition...