Is Hell Empty?

I am preaching a sermon about heaven and hell this week to answer a person’s question, “Is Heaven an imaginary place.” I feel like I am on the verge of heresy here and I am needed some deep footing either way. Let me walk you through my thoughts and you tell me if I am heading in the wrong direction or not.

Heaven is real, it is being in the presence of God. But I know I will need to get deeper than that and answer the questions behind the questions. For example, if heaven is being in the presence of God than what is hell? Hell is the absence of God is my answer. Who will be in hell? That one is more difficult for me to answer…because I want to say no one.

I know Shakespeare says that “hell is empty because all the devils are here,” but really who is in hell? When we die and we are facing judgment, when we stand in the presence of God and feel the grace, mercy, joy and love in real and tangible ways…will people be able to say no to that? Will God’s agape love and the salvation that is open to all people in Jesus Christ be so overpowering that no one denies it?

Geoffrey Wainwright in his book Doxology says this:

That God wills the salvation of all is not a thesis which depends simply on formal traffic in isolated scriptural texts. as for example 1 Timothy 2:3….The substantial argument resideds in the inconceivability of the opposite intention towards any of his creatures on the part of a Creator whose motive in creation is irreducibly love. A love which took self-giving to the point of suffering crucifixion is likely to be deep enough to persist while ever there is any chance of response. God’s grace may then be expected to assume and develop even the slightest human motion towards love. Considerations of theodicy will point to particular divine care for those individuals whose own capacity for love has been intolerably restricted by nature or society. It may be that the only way to fail salvation is by willful refusal. Programmatic universalism would be totalitarian threat to the freedom which must characterize any human response in kind to the love of God towards us. Deliberate closure to the love of God to the point of irretrievability spells death. That such death should be subjectively experienced, permanently and eternally, makes no sense. Hell will be empty, though God may continue to bear in his heart the wounds he incurred through taking the risk of love in creation.

The fact that God so loved the world that he became flesh, died the horrific death on the cross, taking all of humanity’s sins with him, defeated death, and rose again, wouldn’t that be a waste if even one human being wasn’t next to God’s side for eternity? Why would God stop with our earthly proclamation of denial of his love? If God is relentless in his task to save us all from sin and death, than hell should be empty, right? Why do we assume our last breath’s decisions are the last one when we are told final judgment is to come.

This will get people mad because they believe in the punishment of our sins. The truth is they want to see people rot in hell, but is that God’s wish? Does God want one of his children to spend eternity away from him? The fact that we cannot fathom being in heaven next to Hitler may be more our problem than God’s.

Is this heresy? Are there others out there, beyond Wainwright, that have a theology like this? I don’t want to slip into universalism but I don’t know where the line is either. I believe in judgment (God’s not what we do on a daily basis), but it is amazing to think that God’s love is too powerful to resist when you come face to face with it.

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8 thoughts on “Is Hell Empty?

  1. Tom

    Hi,

    how is what you've said not universalism? It may be a refined version of it, or a wellargued version of it but it still seems that way to me.

    Three quick points…
    1)Matthew 25 has Jesus explicitly state that not everyone will enter into heaven. The 'goats' are nto given a second chance. They even ask “'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'” but Jesus does not say, “I now fogive you”. They are lead away to hell.

    2) I know descriptions of judgement day in the Bible are not very detailed but where do you get the impression that there will be a chance to come to faith at that point? I can't see it in any of the decriptions of that day.

    3) This last point is more controversial but why do you assume hell is conscious and eternal punishment? Looking at a respected evangelical like John Stott I find his remarks useful – the Bible sometimes seems to indicate that it hell is annihalation and you will no longer exist, sometimes an eternal conscious torment. I don't think you can be dogmatic either way but I go towards annihalation.

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  2. I agree with the commenter above. Wainwright (and your) stance seems to be one based entirely on an emotional committment to a certain view of God that essentially rules out a number of Biblical texts on the premise that the other ones in tension with them (the ones about God's love) are preferred.

    I'm no Calvinist who defends double-predestination or the idea of the reprobate, mind you. But I do see the importance of not abandoning one set of Biblical teachings (the reality of eternal separation from God, i.e. 'hell'/'Gehenna'/'lake fire') just because they don't suit our view of the others.

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  3. I've preached about the reality of Hell a few times. One text is here.

    A related question is, what happens when we die? I believe, based on New Testament teachings, something close to Luther's concept of “soul sleep.”

    That means that the hope of our faith is not that we are promised life after death, but that we will live again after we die. That is, the resurrection of the dead, of which Christ is, says Paul, the “first fruits.”

    Yet it is not very well indicated from Scripture that God's saving grace is still offered at the rresurrection, for it is appointed for us “to live but once, and after that the judgment.”

    I'll offer an excerpt from my sermon text that is online.

    >>I have come to understand hell not as a place, but as a state of ongoing rejection of God. C. S. Lewis described hell as the “skid row” of creation, where souls have become so intoxicated by sin that they no longer even try to break the chains that bind them there. Their dilemma is that they are captive there because they choose to be. They would rather have their freedom (as they define it) than salvation. Their delusion, wrote Lewis, is that if they glorified God, they would lose their personal identity, but their choice has really ruined their human greatness. Hell, Lewis said, is “the greatest monument to human freedom.”

    >>Pope John Paul II wrote that hell “is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life 'hell.'” Hell “is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject” God's mercy.

    Damnation as addiction

    >>The closest analogy to hell I can think of is that of addiction. Not long before I wrote this, the local news told of 29-year-old Latisha Lewis, who confessed murdering 90-year-old Ella Gilbert, whom she did not know, to steal her money to buy drugs. Addiction can become so powerful that it overwhelms the faculty of reason and distorts our will beyond self-control. Latisha Lewis's tragedy is that she became an addict by her own free will. The first hit of narcotics she ever took was her choice.

    Hell is a sinner's crack house, a state of being that is hopelessly beyond self help. It is a perversion of the will so strong that God is not even hoped for, much less sought. Salvation may be technically possible because God's grace is still offered, but effectively impossible, because it is not even recognized.< < Just a thought experiment, not a dogma.

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  4. JMS – what set of Biblical teachings am I abandoning? I believe there is a hell, whether it is like what Tom or Donald describe…who knows. It is in some form or another being separate from God's presence. I believe in judgment, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.”

    But how do we deal with, like Wainwright quotes, 1 Timothy 2:3-4; “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” If God's desire is for all people to understand his gift of salvation, why do we think God will stop striving for that at our death? Death hasn't stopped his grace before?

    Tom – the Sheep and Goats picture is spot on and it is that story and more like it that tell me to reconsider this position. Like I said, I am just trying to work through this.

    What makes this position uncomfortable? or “an emotional commitment to a certain view of God”?

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  5. Anonymous

    I found the sheep and goats passage to be particularly apt because of our current struggles over health care for all citizens.

    And on the universalism point, noting that far more secular countries do a better job of being merciful to the least of these.

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  6. 1. The Matthew 25 passage (parable?) of the goats and sheep is decidedly a “works righteousness” passage – those who tend to Jesus are the sheep who get in and those who do not are the goats that are cast out. Nothing in the passage is about our faith in Jesus. How do we reconcile that with God's grace? Maybe Jesus' point of the story lies elsewhere?

    2. A professor once asked the posed this scenario about hell. A person totally and willfully rejects God's grace and lives life in total depravity and self-centeredness. When he dies, where is the most agonizing place that person could spend eternity if not surrounded by the total love and grace of God's presence? They would spend eternity with the knowledge that their life was one of sin and hell.

    Just some random thoughts. Hope it helps.

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  7. Noel

    There is a real hell, it is design for satan & his followers, but let us not forget that we have a God of love & a God of justice.
    remember our bible verse when we were still a kid, John 3:16…that whosoever believed in him.., meaning you have to believe in God in order to be in heaven, John 3:3 unless a man be born again… , unless means there is nothing else to substitute.
    A reality that there is nothing we could do, accept Jesus now before its too late for we do not know the time or date of ones death.
    Let us be clear about it, people need to know even it is offending to them, bec. it will also lead them to repentance.
    Don't worry if your worst enemy or who knows even Hitler(only if he accepted Christ in his heart of course) went to heaven, pls study Matt.20 it answers it. God Bless

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