[Note: unfortunately the software behind WF assumes the word hell_ is a curse word, and changes it automatically to @#!*% ... Till I figure how to fix this spelling issue, I've added _ to the end of the word, so it stays readable.)
The underlying tension behind the latest theological controversy – about Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins – is our uncomfortable belief in hell_. On the one hand, the New Testament, and Jesus especially, talk often about hell_, and suggest it is a nasty reality. On the other hand, hell_ sounds a Medieval, cruel belief, the dirtiest pleasure of a sadist God, a place where eternal suffering lasts far longer than the earthly sins committed. Many of us, then, wish to explain hell_ away, understandably, and Rob Bell’s book is the latest example of this sentiment.
In my view, however, whatever content we ascribe to hell_ – definitive death, eternal suffering, some meaningless state away from God – the existence of some form of hell_ is necessary if we are to have an all-good God. To get rid of hell_ does not give us a more loving God; rather, it gives us a more cruel, more mediocre God. A perfect heaven can exist only if there is also a hell_; if there is no hell_, there won’t be a heaven either, and neither earth: everything is consumed by hell_.
Let me explain. If a good God did not want to punish evil somehow, this could mean only two things. Either true, objective evil does not exist – date rape, systematic genocide, use of mentally sick people for selfish purposes, all these are not evil - and should not be punished. I don’t think any of us would sanely advocate this option, would we? Or else God does not care about evil. He gives in, hides the dirt under the carpet, and lets evil go unpunished. He looks at the Holocaust, at the hills of corpses in concentration camps, looks Hitler in the eye, and says that it is ok, no big deal. He looks at the father who preys on his daughter every evening, and shares her with his friends, and prefers to shy away instead of naming that evil.
Can you see the God we end up with? It is not a more loving God, but a less loving God. It is a God who does not care about evil, who in the name of sentimentality calls everything all right, and who ultimately is not good. It is a God who does not care about us. It is a God who watches the nightmare of wars and abuse and exploitation and selfishness and is too weak to care, or too timid to name evil as evil, or who is does not know what goodness is. We wanted a God so good that he abolishes hell_, but we end up with a God so weak that hell_ takes over him.
Instead, God’s provision of hell_ means that he takes our reality seriously, and does not let any evil act we suffer go unseen. God’s hatred of evil is a consequence of his unflinching goodness; his wrath is the greatest demonstration of his love. Only a God who abhors evil could be any good; only a God who sadly makes space for hell_ can redeem reality truly and create a heaven out of our mess. Hell_ does not mean that God is cruel, it means just the opposite: that he is not cruel, that he opposes evil without blinking, and that he is wondrously good.
Hell_ and God’s opposition to evil are not repulsive doctrines of a cruel God. On the very contrary: they are evidence of how unspeakably good our God is. Nor are they what the Christian message is about: they are just the shadows of a very bright picture, the low echoes of a virtuoso symphony, the dirt that shows that God’s shoes do indeed walk on this world; they are just the necessary consequences of the evil of this world. God is not focused on hell_, not at all. He is rather at work in the redemption of reality, in the restoration of every living thing to the glorious peace of heaven, to his society of purity and justice and love. God does not ignore or take pleasure in evil, but he is so indescribably good that he looks evil in the eye, and so indescribably graceful as to include and redeem evil people like us in his heavenly masterpiece. He is in fact so good that he offered himself to pay for our sins, and satisfy his wrath, so that hell_ does not take over reality, but is in fact dwarfed by the majestic redeemed society of heaven. This is goodness beyond description, this is a wide-eyed redeemer of evil, this is a trustworthy architect of heaven.
[i] Romans 12:17-21 NIV.