On the subject of hell

Is there a hell? Are those who don’t accept Jesus going there? If so, could this really include those devoted to other faiths, nonbelievers, and those who do great good but may have never even had the opportunity to know of Christianity?

Age-old questions like those have been finding their way into new debate. One reason is Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It’s not too much to say that this recently published book by Rob Bell, an evangelical minister from Michigan, has rocked a large segment of the Christian world, suggesting as it does that “every person who ever lived” may partake of Jesus’ redemption—and share a place in heaven. 

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Many people are put off by the idea that a bedrock tenet of Christian history may be crumbling. For some, even the questioning of such a doctrinal linchpin as hell’s necessity, as the ultimate check on human sinning, has produced crises of confidence, even a virtual chain collision on the highway of faith. If there’s no hell, then what’s the incentive for doing good and resisting evil? If everyone’s going to heaven, then what was the point of Jesus’ mission? Without judgment, where are the boundary lines between right and wrong? Why would we even need church at all?

Eternal damnation and the possibility that only some will attain heaven are insupportable doctrines. 

Those who have read this magazine for any length of time have likely already gleaned a sense of what Christian Science has to say on this topic. Of course it’s impossible to address all those interrelated issues and questions in the space of a single page, but we want to point out here that satisfying explanations are at hand, supporting Mary Baker Eddy’s observation that “the divine Science of man”—which she discovered solely from studying the Bible and Jesus’ teachings—“is woven into one web of consistency without seam or rent.” The sentence that follows is important: “Mere speculation or superstition appropriates no part of the divine vesture, while inspiration restores every part of the Christly garment of righteousness” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 242).  In this day and age, the topic of hell may appear murky or unpopular, but the understanding of this theological concept’s importance, if stemming from divine inspiration, can only be profitable for humanity.

Christian Science certainly does not teach that hell is a place to which people who fail in God’s sight are banished. Eternal damnation and the possibility that only some will attain heaven are insupportable doctrines. At the same time, Mary Baker Eddy did not deny the existence of hell as a condition of mortal thinking, which at some point in every human life appears real and insurmountable—as “mortal belief; error; lust; remorse; hatred; revenge; sin; sickness; death; suffering and self-destruction; self-imposed agony; effects of sin; that which ‘worketh abomination or maketh a lie’ ” (p. 588). There is actually no way for any individual to circumvent the requirement of proving, individually and alone with God, that these hellish evils are not real in His sight—and therefore impossible for even one of us, His precious sons and daughters, to be subject to. Such individual proof, or demonstration, characterizes the full scope of what it means to attain heaven, and it leaves nobody out. It illustrates St. Paul’s command to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

Note that the word self appears twice on the above list. So much of hell involves an erroneous concept of who we are—the mortal, material identity discussed in Genesis from chapter 2 forward, in which Adam and Eve sinned and were banished from paradise. But “the divine Science of man” settles the question about hell as a reality, by returning us to perceive the full truth of our spiritual identity, created in God’s image for all time, destined to glorify only Him. This perfect creation is fully described in the first 36 verses of Genesis. In the words of another command attributed to Paul, we avoid hell as we “put off the old man with his deeds” and “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Col. 3:9, 10).

Those tempted to think that Jesus preached a literal message of final judgment and damnation can consider the sum total of his message, and his unparalleled works: regeneration, redemption, compassion, patience, gentleness, healing, unconditional love. True, John the Baptist declared that Jesus would gather the wheat and burn the chaff “with fire unquenchable” (Luke 3:17); truth has this very effect on error. Jesus himself spoke of the devil as “him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). But he also declared that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the rock-solid truth and love of his teaching (Matt. 16:18).  

Questioning hell’s existence as God-ordained marks a healthy sign that the Christ—God’s message of love for His creation—is leavening public thought and pointing people toward understanding more and more clearly that their lives are forever under the control of divine Spirit. This progress is ongoing and unstoppable. In fact, it is leading us, all of us, to heaven. 

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June 27, 2011

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