Hell Yes, I Believe in Hell…Just Not Its Eternity

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2019 — Leave a comment


In Romans 8 Paul famously crescendos with the promise to the baptized: “There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

     But if nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then how is it good news that Paul, only six chapters later, tells the same audience: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God?” 

How do you square “…everyone will come before the judgement seat of God” with what Paul said four chapters earlier that “…everyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.” 

     Which is it? Everyone will be judged? Or everyone will be saved?

     How does “…all will stand before the judgement seat of God…” square with chapter eleven where Paul said that all will be saved, that God will be merciful to all— even to those whom God has, for the present time, “consigned to disobedience?” 

     Judgement. Mercy. 

     Which is it, Paul? 

     It can’t be both/and can it? That everyone who confesses Jesus Christ will be saved and everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God? In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of God.” And you can’t dismiss this verse about judgement because the Apostle Paul here sounds like Jesus everywhere— all over the Gospels, Jesus warns of the Coming Day of Judgement. As in his final teaching before his Passion, Jesus promises that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, gathering all before him. 

Not some. 

All: 

unbelievers and believers 

unrighteous and righteous

the unbaptized and the born again 

    All— not some— all, Jesus says, will be gathered for judgement. 

    The “saved” are not spared.

     And all will be reckoned according to who fed the hungry and who gave water to the thirsty and who clothed the naked and who welcomed the immigrant. 

     And who did not.

     “All shall stand before God for judgement,” Paul says. 

     Just like Jesus said. 

     And according to Jesus’ Bible that reckoning will be a fire. 

So, like the first Christians and the early Church Fathers, hell yes I believe in hell.  

I just disbelieve in hell’s eternity and its retributive torment.

The fire of God’s judment, depicted by Michaelangelo and rhapsodized by Augustine and Calvin, is not the fire promised by the Bible.

The fire of God’s judgment, the Bible testifies, will be refining fire. 

The prophet Malachi, the last voice we hear between the testaments, says on the Day of the Lord our sinful self—- even if we’re “saved”— will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still clinging to our soul will be burnt away. 

     The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed. The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self- righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God who is a refining fire. 

     Keep in mind:

Purgation is not damnation. 

     Purgation is not damnation. 

     But neither is it pain free. 

The Gospel is not that God’s love and mercy are at odds with God’s justice; therefore, some— maybe many, to listen to some Christians— will be consigned to eternal torment. No, for a finite creature could never justly merit an infinite punishment. 

The Gospel is that in God, in his love and justice, is dragging all of sinful creation unto himself, and this means that prior to the Endyou will stand before the judgement seat of Almighty God, stripped and laid bare, all your disguises and your deceits revealed, naked wearing nothing but your true character, so that you can be fit for heaven. 

“The Gospels,” as David Bentley Hart writes, “simply make no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering.” And Gehenna, the child-sacrifice-site-turned-garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which gets translated into Jesus’ mouth as hell, was thought of in Jesus’ time principally “as a place of purification, a refining fire for the souls of those who have been neither incorrigibly wicked nor impeccably good during their lives,” who eventually, their penance due, would be released and taken up to paradise.”

Says Hart:

“The figure of Christ in the fourth gospel passes through the world as the light of eternity; he is already both judgment and salvation, disclosing hell in our hearts, but shat- tering it in his flesh, so that he may “drag” everyone to him- self. Some things then, perhaps, exist only in being surpassed, overcome, formed, redeemed: “pure nature” (that impossible possibility), “pure nothingness,” prime matter, ultimate loss. Hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always al- ready been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never finally come to rest—for, being only a shadow, it provides nothing to cling to (as Gregory of Nyssa so acutely observes). Hell exists, so long as it exists, only as the last terrible residue of a fallen creation’s enmity to God, the lin- gering effects of a condition of slavery that God has conquered universally in Christ and will ultimately conquer individually in every soul. This age has passed away already, however long it lingers on in its own aftermath, and thus in the Age to come, and beyond all ages, all shall come home to the Kingdom pre- pared for them from before the foundations of the world.”

Jason Micheli

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