Why Do We Need to Believe in Hell? (Part 2: Hate)

Saturday, December 05, 2015

What causes a person to not only defend the idea of hell, but actually want there to be a hell, to need to believe in hell? What drives a person to adamantly defend hell as good and right? Last time I discussed one reason, which is fear. That is, you fear for a person you care about, you fear they are headed in a wrong direction, and attempt to communicate that urgency through threat and fear.

The issue here is not whether or not the danger is real, but whether fear and threat are effective means of leading a person to change and repentance.  Those who preach hell clearly believe it is. However there is a lot of evidence that instilling fear in a person can do a lot of damage. If we want to see people repent, if we want to see people turn towards love, if we want to see bad guys become good guys, the way we do that is not through sewing seeds of fear (you will get what you plant), but by sewing seeds of love. Love breeds love. Fear breeds fear.

Is there a hell? I don't know for sure. I've never been there. But I do know that there can be very real hell on earth for people. People are capable of profound evil and hurt. The recent mass shooting in San Bernardino of course comes to mind. There is profound hurt all over the world. There is human trafficking. There's child abuse. It's staggering just to contemplate how much hell there is, how much hurting there is in the world, or even just on your street behind closed doors.

This brings up two questions from a Christian perspective. One is how we move people to turn from hurting themselves and others. I maintain that fear is not an effective means. As Paul says, it is God's kindness that leads us to repentance (Ro 2:4). However, another aspect this brings up is hate and retribution.

It is a natural human reaction for us to respond to human acts of evil with anger. We see innocent people being hurt, and it makes us mad. Every parent can relate to Jesus saying that anyone who hurts a child should have a big rock tied to the neck and be hurled in the sea. That's wrath, and wrath is just a fancy word for anger. We feel anger when we feel wronged. We have a desire for payback, for retribution, for vengeance. Probably the biggest reason people need to believe in hell, the reason they want there to be a hell, is because they want those people who have done these terrible hurtful things to suffer. If they did not, they think, that would be unjust.

That's why the people in Jesus' time got so angry with Jesus for speaking about grace and love of enemies. Luke tells us that on one occasion, where Jesus preached his first sermon on grace, the people became "furious" and tried to murder Jesus by throwing him off a cliff (Luke 4:28). Tough crowd. They did not want grace, they wanted wrath. They did not want to see the Gentiles receive God's mercy and redemption, they wanted them to receive divine retribution. They wanted hell.

That desire for hell is common. You might even say it is instinctual.  We don't just think of it as an animal reaction though, we associate it with justice. This idea of retributive justice can be found throughout the Old Testament, and throughout every culture, including our own. In fact, America is, among developed nations, arguably the biggest proponent of justice understood as retribution. 

Retribution can legitimately be understood as a form of justice. The question is whether it is the best or highest form of justice. It is better than doing nothing, but does it result in making things better? Does it make the world safer and people better? To some degree, yes. But there is a point where it can make things worse, resulting in a cycle of retaliation and escalating violence, all in the name of justice. That pursuit of retributive justice itself makes a hell. 

If our goal is to create justice, to stop hurt, to make people good, then the question is: Is there a better way to bring about justice than retribution and wrath? This is where the gospel comes in. If you understand the gospel, you understand that what it proposes is the opposite of hell. It proposes that the way God will make things right is not by hurting the bad guys via wrath and retribution, but by turning bad guys into good guys with undeserved love (i.e. grace). Note that this is decidedly not the same as doing nothing. People may imagine that the choice is either to retaliate or to do nothing and forgo justice, but that is not at all what the gospel proposes. It's about change that leads to the hurt stopping, and people acting in love towards one another. Grace and mercy are not in conflict with justice, but they do entail a redefinition of justice. The justice of the gospel, the justice Paul calls in Romans "the justice of God" is restorative justice rather than retributive justice.It proposes that the way God will make things right is not by hurting the bad guys via wrath and retribution, but by turning bad guys into good guys with undeserved love (i.e. grace).

Restorative justice is a higher form of justice than retributive justice. The gospel of God's saving act of grace in Jesus towards sinful humanity is a higher for of justice than the justice of hell, wrath, and retribution. It is a higher form of justice because it works better, it is more effective. It succeeds where hell fails. That's what makes it higher, more advanced, more developed, superior to the way of retribution and hell.

Those who want wrath, those who need hell see that as bad news. It means they will not get the payback justice they long for. But Paul argues that this gospel is actually good news because we are all bad guys, we have all hurt others. You may want someone to suffer, Paul argues, but there is also someone who wants you to suffer for what you did. In that economy of retribution we all lose. In the economy of grace we all win. Not by overlooking evil and hurt, but by finding a way to undo it.

Do I believe in hell? Yes, in the sense that I believe that there is clearly very real hurt and suffering and evil. I believe that suffering and evil exist. But do I believe in the justice of hell? No, I think there is a superior justice revealed in the gospel. I insist that to believe in the gospel entails disbelieving in the justice of hell. It entails moving from law to grace, moving from an inferior understanding of justice based on retribution to a superior and more morally developed understanding of justice based on restoration and love. So you might say I do believe that hell exists, but I do not believe that hell is good. I believe that the gospel reveals that hell is what God fights against, not for. To believe in the justice of the gospel is to disbelieve in the justice of hell.

What Victor Hugo wrote in the introduction of his brilliant novel Les Misérables epitomizes for me what it means to have Christ's heart for the lost,

“A society that tolerates misery, a religion that tolerates Hell, a humanity that tolerates
war, is to me an inferior one. With all of the strength of my being I want to destroy this
human deprivation. I damn the slavery, I chase away the misery, I heal the sickness, I
brighten the darkness, I hate the hatred. ”

I believe that love is stronger than hell. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Kevin Davis said...

Fascinating analysis, Derek. But the obvious question is about Jesus' own views on justice. How do you explain Jesus' "lower form of justice," as you would have it, in regard to the false teachers and millstones? How do you explain Jesus' seemingly straightforward retributive justice in Matt 25? We could also bring-in the latter prophets, like Amos and Micah. This is, of course, important if we consider Jesus to be the very form of God in flesh and, therefore, the full manifestation of God and his attributes in the flesh.

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

We can see that in places the NT does appeal to the idea of retributive justice. Girard has called this "text in travail" and I think it represents how we can observe within the NT a people growing away from the assumptions of retributive justice towards the way of restoration. That was Paul's journey. It was my journey too.

This may be hard to take, but consider the story of Jesus calling the Gentile woman a "dog" where she causes him to repent and show God's love towards her. Is that an example of how Jesus changed his view, moving towards grace shown even to enemies? Can our Christology handle the idea that the human Jesus grew morally? That's not a rhetorical question. I struggle with that one myself.

Without question, many places in Matthew's Gospel do uphold the idea of retribution. Looking at parallel passages in the other Gospels, it is pretty easy to argue that this reflects more Matthew's view than it does the view of Jesus. It's pretty odd that Matthew basically says "practice the way of radial forgiveness and grace or God will punish you in the most unmerciful ways imaginable!" That's a message that seems in need of an update to me.

It may be that the problem with Matthew is more Matthew than it is Jesus. But at the same time, I think it is simply a fact that even Jesus was limited by the blinders of his time to some degree. Jesus thinks sickness is caused by demons, like everyone else did that the time, rather than seeing sickness as we do now in scientific/medical terms. Jesus does not directly advocate (or likely even imagine) people like Gandhi or MLK applying his teachings as a means of mass social protest and change. Similarly the NT does not directly advocate or imagine the abolition of slavery.

The question is whether our application of the way of Jesus should lead us to abolish slavery and nonviolently advocate for human rights like MLK did? Or must we assume that whatever the NT advocates on-the-page is the final word, meaning we keep slaves and we keep the idea of retribution (and we cast out demons of people who are sick, rather than giving them medicine)?

I think that would be a bad reading to keep slaves, but if that is true then we cannot have a "whatever Jesus says must be right" way of reading the Bible. That's an authoritarian way of reading, a way that does not look to what we can recognize as good, but that simply looks at who the author is.

Jesus was anti-authoritarian. So am I. I therefore maintain that we need to learn from Jesus to question in the name of compassion like he does, to recognize and understand why what he says is good so we can run with it, and further develop it.

So from that I can say that Amos and Micah and Matthew, when they advocate retribution, are being short-sighted. There is a better way, and we can observe that it is better.

At 9:21 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

I grew up in a church that spent a huge portion of time talking about hell, and judgement, and vengeance. The unrighteous would get theirs, it was often said. I think the moment I started moving away from that was when, as a teenager, my Sunday School teacher said AIDS was God's punishment against gays (he used a different word for gays.) Didn't sound much like good news to me. I'll take my Messiah riding on a donkey instead of a white horse. Thanks, Derek ...

At 5:40 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

My takeaway quote: "In [the] economy of retribution we all lose. In the economy of grace we all win."

It reminds me of what a friend said after his marriage failed, "You can choose to be in a relationship or you can choose to be right and alone." He then lamented that he had made the wrong choice.

At 7:57 AM, Blogger theFlakes said...

Thanks Derek

Hell, tacitly at the least, allows us to hold onto our retributive desires; that base satisfaction to think our perceived enemies will get their's in the end (I see this expressed too often from Christians). I do not know if there is a God or if Jesus was God but I do know that the only practical answer I can find in this world is the one of forgiveness and enemy love, even as hard as those answers may be.

If there is a God I have to believe that when we speak of his love we are also at the same time speaking of his justice. I cannot see how in a perfect being they can be held as vying virtues. If this is the case then I have to also conclude there are some serious theological conclusions to be drawn that necessarily lead us away from our current Christian cultural orthodoxy.

At 8:55 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This is similar to a question I am struggling with. How do I see my boys, 4 and 8, turn from tit for tat payback to longsuffering desire not to hurt but not standing by while weaker are bullied by the strong. How do I see the desire to protect others but not at the expense of seeing others be hurt, getting their just desserts? How do I see myself, bullied all throughout school age, living in fear and intimation, able to stand up to the bullies of my world and demonstrate a commitment to lay my life down for the weak (supposedly the pure desire of those who hold on to guns that protect family) and yet not be filled with no concern for those who woud hurt others and or my family if they were desperate enough. Where does Jesus lead me so that I continue to remain empowered, wise as serpent, gentle as dove, but able to boldly stand against bullies and intimidation? I dunno. It is stuff I chew on often as I think of my kids. What does love look like as active protection and yet not be active desire to hurt those everyone says has it coming? I dunno.

At 12:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for your continued contribution to the view of non-violent retributive God. Raised on the doctrine of hell I have seen its devastating effect on those who hold to the view of a literal hell and those we've tried to convince. The turn or burn gospel cheapens the gospel of Christ, simply making it about a decision on where one spends eternity. That view only made me judgmental, had me living in a "who's in and who's out" world, left me in a spiritual ghetto, and didn't produce true love. The gospel isn't an economy of exchange, nor a simple transaction. I thoroughly enjoyed your book "Disarming Scripture"... I encourage everyone to read it. There is a trajectory of love in the scriptures and Jesus beautifully models it as the true human.

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love doesn't mean not standing up for yourself or others, not calling out wrong doing, and letting someone hurt you. I think there is a moral difference between kids fighting or protecting yourself or family vs. a principled stance of nonviolence as a protest against injustice. Sometimes the only way to restrain someone from doing harm is through physical means.

At 7:30 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


It appears that you are creating a dichotomy where either one acts with violence in order to work for justice or one is passive. Those are not the only options.

What we need to consider is what the consequences of the options are, and look to see if we can find better more effective means of reaching the goal of keeping everyone safe.

You say "Sometimes the only way to restrain someone from doing harm is through physical means." But would you also say "Sometimes the only way to be happy is to get divorced" or "Sometimes the only way out is suicide"?

Perhaps we might say those things, but I would suggest that it would be more helpful, rather than looking for how to justify things that we should all be able to admit are undesirable, that we instead seek to find out how we can make a hurting marriage healthy and good again, how we can help someone who want to end their life to love their life, and how we can find ways to work for peace.

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Brad, those are good questions. I have found it is best to start small. For example teaching my kids how to resolve conflicts. There has been a lot of new stuff people have discovered about conflict resolution in the last decade or so, so there is a ton of good into out there about it. One book I'm reading now is The Whole Brain Child

At 9:01 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Tim. Good to see that you have found the trajectory of love. I truly believe that is the narrow road Jesus was speaking of. The broad road (that leads to destruction) is the road of pursuing justice via wrath. Many are on that road.

At 9:02 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Totally relate to what you wrote. Good word.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

I don't even want hell for missionaries that abused me from kindergarten thro grade 11 at boarding school. But maybe hell is seen in people who reject God and who are ultimately forced to live in the glory of God's goodness and they still want to abuse little children. That tends to be the kind of reason that I lean towards conditional immortality. DaveW

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

" So you might say I do believe that hell exists, but I do not believe that hell is good. I believe that the gospel reveals that hell is what God fights against, not for. To believe in the justice of the gospel is to disbelieve in the justice of hell."

Derek we've never met but I can honestly say I love you bro. Perfect word. Wanting a retributive hell is a hell of its own. Crowder says that there must be a "hell" for those who insist on one. Funny in a way. Sometimes I wish I had one of those blue pills to give away. The truth sets us free, really free.

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- I think helping someone to work out a marriage or avoid suicide is different than dealing with Isis or a serial killer. Physical force IS loving in these situations in order to prevent tremendous harm from continuing. What would you say to a police officer who faces untold scenarios where deadly force is needed in order to protect??? I think genuine love can include these things as opposed to letting violence occur.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think the analogy holds Robert. Divorce is an unfortunate outcome that, while it may be justifiable, we should try to avoid. Killing another human being is also an unfortunate outcome that, while it may be justifiable, we should try to avoid.

The point is that we should not be looking to find ways to justify things that are undesirable, rather we should be looking to find ways to reduce harm as much as we can.

I want you to also notice that when you go strait to imagining "Isis or a serial killer" what you are effectively doing is creating a monster that we imagine. The question is "is it justifiable to kill that monster?" Yes, it is. But now imagine that instead it is a 14-year-old black kid who has stolen $35 worth of stuff from a convenience store. Should he be shot dead if he runs?

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- I agree with you about seeking to reduce harm as much as we can 100%. My point was not to make us imagine monsters, it was to show a very real scenario which we may face. I would only want the monster killed if it was the last resort to protect as many as possible. My father was a cop. He worked during the Newark riots in 1968. I know he had to be on the lookout for snipers or ambushes all the time. Never should deadly force be used against a black kid stealing, or any other color. Cops should only use deadly force WHEN it is justifiable. No clearly unarmed person, nor anyone with a non-deadly weapon should ever be shot and killed. The difficult part is when the cop has no idea if the person has a concealed weapon, so when they make a movement with their hands other than compliance, it could be a life or death judgment call.

At 7:07 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

But Robert what you are describing is the bare minimum. We need to be seeking to do better than the status quo. Clearly looking at how often police kill innocent people in our country (usually people of color) there is a need for reform and improvement. It's not good enough. We need to move towards justice.

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- again, totally agree with you!!! Black lives matter, Dept of justice investigations and more need to keep happening to bring MORE justice. My point is just to show sometimes there are cases where what is considered violence is actually a loving action. In a small comment i have to be minimal to an extent. As jesus followers, yes, we always need to seek to go beyond the staus quo whatever it may be on anything.

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Killing someone may be the lesser of two evils. But it is not loving or good. I think most cops would agree. It's not the kind of thing you should call "good".

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Not trying to be nit-picky here. I think it's a really crucial ethical distinction. Bonhoeffer is big on this point.

At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- I am not trying to say killing is loving or good ever in itself. I was trying to show how in a certain situation it may be the most loving response anyone takes in order to achieve the highest good. I like Bonhoeffer alot and agree with the distinction. As you know he was involved in a failed plan to kill Hitler based on seeking the greater good. The intent of the action is my point, not the action itself.

At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Don said...

There is no place of eternal torment for people. The Jews did not teach of any such place. Jesus never mentioned it nor did the Apostle Paul. You would think something that important would be as least mentioned. There are four different words translated into the word Hell in the Bible. None are a place of eternal torment. What a scam. Jesus was a world redeemer and left no one out. If there was a place called Hell it would be empty. Jesus got the heathen for his inheritance which is everybody who doesn't believe and those who think they believe. Isaiah 54:3 It's called the Gospel of Grace and Peace.

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

In certain situations yes it may be the best action we can see. If I were a cop and there was a mass shooter, I would kill him if I could not stop him any other way.

However our situation is not that we have a police force that is hesitant to use lethal force and needs to be told that it is okay, rather we have a police force (and a politics) where they are far too quick to use lethal force when it is totally unnecessary... swat teams shooing 6-year-olds in their bedrooms, police confronting lawfully protesting citizens with tanks and military assault gear. It's out of control.

Here what we need, right now in our country, is not to say "sometimes there is no other way," but "far too often there are lots of other ways to handle things, and what is happening is not okay".

At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

I fully agree Derek. Ehe call for change, the methods available to us to produce change must be turned to constantly. The times we are in now resemble confronting societal evils in the past like Nazism,racism,prejudice,violation of womens right and so on. With you on every front Derek.

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Robert. Appreciate the dialog!

At 10:27 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Excellent post! Well said. I second Floyd's comment, too.

I did want to ask a question regarding a couple of your statements to Kevin in your first comment in this thread.

You wrote:
"This may be hard to take, but consider the story of Jesus calling the Gentile woman a "dog" where she causes him to repent and show God's love towards her. Is that an example of how Jesus changed his view, moving towards grace shown even to enemies? Can our Christology handle the idea that the human Jesus grew morally? That's not a rhetorical question. I struggle with that one myself."

Allowing that you admit to be sincerely (and not just rhetorically) asking a question and that you struggle with the concept of moral development (in this sense?) for Jesus (I do, too), do you see more hermeneutical options than:

1) the fundamentalist which would seem to require we accept Jesus' words at face value and conclude Jesus (God) valued (at least in a provisional sense) the Jew over the pagan Gentile and didn't want Jesus to share His spiritual gifts with the Gentiles because it wasn't yet the time here and that the woman actually influenced Jesus to "repent" of his initial intention toward her?


2) the liberal, which would require us to believe also Jesus' words are to be taken on face value (as a direct embrace of bigotry) and conclude the same thing, except that we allow we know more than Jesus did at this point and, being further morally enlightened, can reject the perspective He embraces initially in this encounter?

I am aware of a third option (though I cannot now remember which Church Father offered this explanation). The explanation I remember reading is that Jesus' articulation of the common Jewish prejudice wasn't a reflection of his own view (which was rooted in spiritual reality, not nominalistic Jewish understandings of it), but rather gives voice to that of his Jewish disciples. He does this intentionally to confront their prejudice (that the Kingdom and the Messiah is only for the Jews) and elicit the full expression of the Canaanite woman's humility and faith in order to authoritatively recognize and honor it.

I find this patristic exegesis, though it creatively looks below the surface of the text, eminently more plausible (for many reasons contained right within the book of Matthew previous to this passage) than anything resembling either the modern fundamentalist or the liberal options. What do you think?

My last question concerns your (seemingly skeptical) statement to Kevin that, "Jesus thinks sickness is caused by demons.” Derek, where are you coming from here? You do recognize, don't you, there are many instances where the sick are healed by Jesus in Matthew's Gospel without any reference to demons on Jesus' part or Matthew's? My understanding is that in the Jewish and Christian traditions, both medical physicians and exorcists have been recognized as legitimate resources for the variety of ills that can and do afflict human beings. Also, the classical Christian doctrine of God's creation of the world "ex nihilo" pretty much assumes a material result can have a spiritual cause, does it not? Can you amplify your perspective here?

At 2:34 AM, Blogger NightFlight said...

Of course there is a hell; its called "life". When you consider the suffering of people and animals that is the norm, its not much of a stretch to conceive of more suffering after this life.

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


The issue of Jesus' statement calling the woman a "dog" is a rich and complex one. So I think rather than addressing it here, I'll address it in my next blog post. There I'll have more space to work out my answer. Hope it's worth the wait :)


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