So the Pope said there is no hell. Or maybe he didn’t. The story came out one way one day and came out the other way the next.
Now I don’t know if he did and I don’t know if he didn’t and I don’t care either way. But I do know some in our modern times have said that. A well-known and celebrated young pastor wrote a book which basically said that; the book argued for what is called universalism, that is, everyone is saved and “goes to Heaven” in the end (I think it did, anyway; I read the book but found the assertions vague). There was a movie about Hell on Netflix which said that as well. Most telling to me, a guy I was talking with once said the same thing. A group of us were together. One young lady in the group said she couldn’t believe in a God who would send people to hell. This guy responded by saying, “I have good news! There is no hell!” This guy then proceeded to tell the young lady about annihilationism, the notion that people who don’t “go to heaven” are just obliterated rather than tormented for eternity.
So the notion is there. And I have a few thoughts about that notion. These thoughts don’t take that notion on directly; I’m not going to try to prove that Hell is real. But they do contribute to a proper understanding of it the notion. In particular, they show that the notion is meaningless, that it not good news and does not (or at least should not) affect the way a person lives and things. Here are those thoughts:
1. Jesus’ message was not about escaping Hell and/or going to Heaven. It was about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ first public message, which I call His “inaugural” or “thematic message”, was not that people could escape Hell. It was also not that people could go to Heaven. It was that this thing He called “the Kingdom of God” (“kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew, which is why some people mistakenly think He is talking about the life to come) being near (that is, near in space, not near in time).
In the Model Prayer of Matthew 6, Jesus further defines this Kingdom of God concept:
The “good news” or Gospel, then, was not people could go to Heaven/not go to Hell when they die. It was that God’s perfect and good will was beginning to be done on earth (was invading and overtaking earth, actually), and people could be a part of that, entering and furthering that kingdom. It was a good news not just for now but for later, not just for the hereafter but the here.
That is what the good news still is, and that is how the good news should be understood. It should be understood more as a partnership than a business deal, more as marriage than as a beneficial arrangement. My wife and I married in 2005. When my wife came down the aisle, she told me she loved me. Can you imagine if she said something else? What is she said, “Now you’re sure that if I marry you I get to live in your house, right? If I go through this wedding, I get to stay at your place?” How mercenary and stupid that would be. I wasn’t offering her a place to stay in return for her hand in marriage (though that of course did happen; she did come to live with me). I was offering to share my life with her, asking her to join my in my life’s work (which she did!).
It is the same with God. Going to His house after the wedding ceremony (that is, going to Heaven) and not being left outside (that is, going to Hell) are part of the process but not the parts that are emphasized that much. They are givens. What God really wants and really offers is something far superior: a chance to share His life and work. To someone who thinks this way (that is, the proper way), the existence or non-existence of a Hell is really meaningless. Such a person would walk with, serve, and obey God regardless of whether there really was or was not such a place.
2. There will be loss for those who don’t participate in the coming of the Kingdom of God whether they go to Hell or not. Let’s say there is no Hell. Let’s say there is no annihilation, either. Let’s say everyone, from committed follower of Jesus to militant atheist and everyone in-between, gets to go to Heaven when they die. That means everyone wins, right? Everyone gets the same thing.
Not at all. Those who have not walked with, served, and obeyed God as I described above, those who have not entered and advanced that Kingdom Jesus talked about, will still lose. Even if they are in the same place as those who did enter and advance the Kingdom, they will lose. I think Paul describes something like this in 1 Corinthians 3:
Some think Paul is talking about “degrees of rewards” there. And that may be true. There may be such a thing as degrees of rewards in the life to come. However, even if there are not such formal degrees of rewards (that is, even if God doesn’t put ten stars on one person’s crown (to use an old-time image) and only two on another person’s), there will still be some sort of informal degree of rewards. Even if everything is the same across the board for everyone, there will still be those who enjoy or appreciate the life to come more than others. A militant atheist, for example, would spend eternity with the knowledge that this eternity is the very thing he spent his life working against, while a person who entered and advanced the kingdom would spend eternity with the knowledge that this is the very thing he spent his life working for.
So even if Hell is off the table, there is still a risk of loss here. There is still the reality that a person loses something if they don’t enter and advance the Kingdom as Jesus invited them to. And thus there is still reason for a person to enter and advance the Kingdom even if universalism was true.
3. The idea that you would accept annihilationism rather than pursue eternity is bizarre. This is a different train of thought, but one I find equally legitimate and convincing. Whenever this notion that there is no Hell, even if the alternative to Hell is annihilationism, people seem to be relieved and comforted. They seem to think annihilationism is an acceptable future, in fact. They seem to say, “Hey, I won’t go to Heaven, but I won’t go to Hell, either. I’ll just cease to exist, and I’m fine with that.”
My question is, “Who would be fine with that?” Who would be fine with annihilationism, and why would they be fine with it. The opportunity to exist forever in the paradise for which originally intended is right there. It is not hard to seize that opportunity; all you have to do is believe in and love Jesus. Why would anybody not do that? Why would anybody choose annihilation over that?
Imagine someone went to the doctor and was told they had a disease that would kill them in six months but could be cured by a simple pill. Imagine further this person said, “No, I’ve had 50 good years. I’ll just take that and be happy.” Wouldn’t we seriously question this person’s actions? Wouldn’t we seriously question their thought process and value system?
It is the same here. Shouldn’t we seriously question the thought process and value system that says, “I’m not interested in pursuing an eternal existence. I’ll be happy to take my 80-or-so years and leave it at that”? I think we should. I think we certainly should question it if we are operating on it.
On the first day of seventh grade, my math teacher asked the class how many of us would be satisfied with a B. None of us raised our hands. He told us half of the previous class had raised their hands. I couldn’t understanding being satisfied with less when it came to a grade or an academic career. And I seriously can’t understand being satisfied with less when it comes to existence, to your very person and life. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ famous statement:
There is good news, but that good news is neither universalism nor annihilationism. The good news is that Jesus has invited us not just to live in His house but to contribute to His kingdom. He has called us not just to go to Heaven when we die but to join Him in bring Heaven to earth.