Hayden Royster on Why Do People Believe in Hell?

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).

I wonder, sometimes, if I was too hard on Rob Bell.

In 2011, author and pastor Rob Bell published a book about hell that nearly every Christian I knew had an opinion on, Love Wins. Before the book was even available, people were indignant. The trailer for the book depicts Bell walking through the snowy streets of Granville, Michigan, staring down the camera and floating rhetorical questions: “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?” For many, these questions were a step too far. “Farewell, Rob Bell,” pastor John Piper famously tweeted in response to the video. When the book was eventually released, the controversy only got more fervent. It was banned at Christian bookstores. By that summer, pastor Francis Chan had published a rebuttal book, Erasing Hell. I vividly remember an MSNBC interview that infuriated me, where — to my fifteen-year-old eyes, at least — Bell seemed unwilling to give straight answers to basic questions. Denny Burke of Boyce College proclaimed in a blog post that Bell had “outed” himself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At the time, I couldn’t have agreed more.

Fast forward a decade, and the questions that Bell was posing have found their way back into the cultural conversation again, in a highly public forum: a recent op-ed for The New York Times. David Bentley Hart is a philosopher and theologian — one of the most well-regarded in the world today — and in his article, he addresses a question similar to Bell’s Gandhi query: Why do some Christians so badly want there to be a hell? When it comes to the existence of eternal damnation, Hart writes, for many believers, something “unutterably precious is at stake… Why?”

According to Hart, the Christian idea of hell has never been entirely consistent. For one thing, Hart argues, the New Testament does not paint a full picture of hell, at least as we visualize it. Paul is virtually silent on the matter. Revelation renders vivid allegorical images of judgement day, but no “clear doctrine of eternal torment.” Hart also notes that it wasn’t until the fifth century that eternal punishment became a widely held belief. Prior to that, “especially in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic and Semitic East,” most Christians believed in “universal salvation” — that is, that God will redeem everyone eventually. For hundreds of years, “universalism” was actually not blasphemy, and many early Christian fathers — Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, to name a few — ascribed to that understanding.

Only when “the Christian Church became part of the Roman Empire’s political apparatus,” Hart says, did hell become a central part of the Christian tradition. From that point on, hell was frequently weaponized by the Church, as “spiritual terror became an ever more indispensable instrument of social stability.” Hart notes that it retains a similar power today.

So why do so many Christians still care about hell? Ultimately, Hart asserts, the reason the doctrine of hell has persisted has a lot to do with winning. For those believers, Hart writes, “the idea of hell is the treasury of their most secret, most cherished hopes — the hope of being proven right when so many were wrong…” For many, hell represents vindication.

A few weeks later, the New York Times published some responses to Hart’s piece, penned by individuals from across the country. The letters are pretty remarkable.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: Christian Post, Hayden Royster