Who Goes To Hell? image

Who Goes To Hell?

Just as the World Vision brouhaha was kicking off a few weeks ago, and conservatives and progressives were taking it in turns to denounce each other online, I noticed a left-right fault line that I'd never seen before. It concerns the answer to the question, "who goes to hell?"

Conservative answers to that question will usually include all those who do not believe the gospel, and zero in on lifestyles of idolatry, sexual immorality and greed. Progressives, if they believe in hell at all, will be much more non-committal - who are we to say? - but will generally talk about hell as judgment for injustice, a lack of compassion for the poor, and so on. World Vision’s initial (and happily reversed) announcement became a lightning rod for this difference in perspective, because it showed righties that lefties don’t care if they’re leading others to hell (by affirming ungodly sexual relationships), and it showed lefties that righties don’t care if they’re leading others to hell (by telling them gay marriage is more important than helping poor children). Unsurprisingly, when two groups of people think the other is hellish, the conversation heats up pretty quickly, so we had a “Farewell, World Vision” and the description of Rich Stearns as a false teacher from Denny Burk, a Matthew 23-style “woe to you” from Rachel Held Evans, a groundbreakingly odious “parable” from an anonymous Anglican blogger, and a mountain of other unsavoury comments. (There were many encouraging exceptions, of course; Kevin DeYoung’s and Matt Anderson’s articles stood out).

Anyway: this prompted me to do a quick study of all the New Testament texts I could find in which hell language was used, to find out who is described as (or threatened with) going there in each case. I restricted myself to texts in which relatively explicit hell-language was used - weeping and grinding of teeth, outer darkness, eternal destruction, wrath and fury following the day of judgment, the fiery lake, and so on - which obviously both limits the sample and prioritises Jesus and Revelation over Paul and Acts. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting list, and gives plenty of fuel for both conservative and progressive fires:

Whoever says “You fool!” to his brother (Matt 5:22).

Israelites who reject Jesus (Matt 8:12).

All causes of sin and all law-breakers (Matt 13:41-42).

Those who are evil (Matt 13:49-50).

The man who enters the wedding feast without proper clothing (Matt 22:12-13).

Scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites (Matt 23:29-33).

The wicked servant who presumes the master isn’t returning, and beats other servants and gets drunk in the meantime (Matt 24:48-51).

The worthless servant who buries his talent (Matt 25:24-30).

People who see the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned and do not help (Matt 25:41-46).

Those who do not take sufficiently drastic action to get rid of sin (Mark 9:43-47).

Those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness (Rom 2:8).

Those who persecute believers, don’t know God and don’t obey the gospel (2 Thess 1:6-9).

Whoever deliberately keeps on sinning after receiving knowledge of the truth (Heb 10:26-31).

False teachers (2 Pet 2; Jude).

The beast and the false prophet (Rev 19:20).

The devil (Rev 20:10).

Death and Hades (Rev 20:14).

Anyone whose name is not found in the book of life (Rev 20:15).

The cowardly, faithless, detestable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars (Rev 21:8).

Grouping them together like this begs a lot of questions, obviously. It assumes that Jesus, Paul, the writer to the Hebrews and John are all talking about similar things: an experience of post-mortem judgment. It assumes that the very fiery and evocative language about hell, which is much more likely to be found in parables and apocalyptic writing, somehow takes precedence in our theological reconstruction over the vaguer language of destruction, condemnation and perishing which we find in (particularly) Paul. It assumes that Jesus, in particular, is not merely using hyperbole but speaking about an actual reality, however metaphorically or symbolically expressed, which will befall people. It implicitly assumes that systematic theology should start with explicit statements and work out from there. (Personally, I think most of these assumptions are justifiable, but that is not my point here.)

But even with all that said, three things stand out to me. The first is that nobody is said to be sent to hell for not believing the gospel. (This conclusion may or may not be justified by a synthesis of these and other texts, but it isn’t stated explicitly.) The second is that the basis for judgment in every case we know about is ungodly behaviour rather than ungodly beliefs (unless we should read apistoi as “unbelievers” rather than “faithless”). And the third is that almost all of the texts focus on a specific group of people or sins, rather than referring to humanity in general as heading for hell unless they are rescued from it (Revelation 20:15 is the exception). None of which is conclusive, and I am certainly not saying that it means the progressives are right on this - let alone on the right response to World Vision - but it needs to be borne in mind, I think.

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