The following is a dialogue between myself and “Bob,” an Evangelical Christian, about the subject of hell:
Bob: Hi, I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.
Me: Sure, why not? What’s up?
Bob: If you were to die today, do you know for sure where you’d end up?
Me: Creepy question, but okay. I’d probably end up in a coffin or an urn.
Bob: What I meant was, do you think you’d end up in heaven or in hell?
Me: I’d have to say heaven.
Bob: That’s good to hear. Does that mean you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?
Me: I have, and I also do all sorts of good works.
Bob: But don’t you know that salvation is by grace through faith, and not of works?
Me: Of course, Ephesians 2:8 and 9.
Bob: Then how can you believe that you’re going to heaven based on your good works?
Me: When I read about the subject in the Gospels, I notice that Jesus seemed to teach that there are a few reasons one goes to hell, as well as a few ways to avoid going there. The Bible says He taught that those who were rich and those who said that the work of the Holy Spirit is actually the work of the devil and those who didn’t help the helpless and those who didn’t amputate body parts that offended them were the ones who had to worry about going there. He also seemed to tell us that the way to escape this fate is to feed the hungry, to give something to drink to the thirsty, to invite strangers into your home, to give clothing to those who need it, to take care of the sick, to visit those in prison, to cut off body parts that offend you, to be poor rather than rich, and to never say that the work of the Holy Spirit is actually of the devil. Avoid those things, and Jesus tells us we’ll avoid going to hell and instead we’ll go to heaven, at least based on a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Bob: Yes, it does seem that Jesus taught those things, at least if we take them at face value without properly interpreting them. Since the apostle Paul taught us that salvation is not by works, but is by faith, then obviously Jesus didn’t mean for us to interpret those things literally.
Me: So you’re saying that He meant for us to interpret those passages figuratively, then?
Bob: We’d have to, in light of what Paul said.
Me: Okay, fair enough, the passages are figurative. I assume you’re going to be consistent and interpret the whole of the passages figuratively, right?
Bob: What do you mean?
Me: Well, if we’re going to interpret the passages figuratively, to be consistent we’d have to say that the “everlasting punishment in hell” part is meant to be figurative as well, right?
Bob: Well, um…
Me: Because there’s nothing in those passages that gives us any reason to believe that Jesus suddenly went from figurative speech to literal speech when He went from talking about how to escape from the punishment to talking about what the actual punishment itself is, right?
Bob: I don’t know. Are you saying that hell isn’t real?
Me: I’m just saying that, to be consistent, one can’t just choose to interpret half of a Bible verse figuratively and the other half literally for no good reason. Wouldn’t you agree?
Bob: Technically, yes… but Jesus spoke more about hell than He did about heaven, so it must be real.
Me: First of all, I never said hell wasn’t real. Secondly, Jesus is recorded as having spoken about everlasting torment in hell a grand total of three times, according to my concordance. That’s many, many times less than He’s recorded speaking about heaven. Thirdly, that has nothing whatsoever to do with what we’re talking about, which is being consistent in our interpretations of Scripture.
Bob: Okay, then what about Ephesians 2:8 and 9? You agreed that it says that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works.
Me: I did, which means that salvation and escaping from hell must be two completely different things if we’re going to remain consistent in our interpretations, at least according to the traditional methods of interpretation.
Bob: But that doesn’t make any sense. Everyone knows that salvation is about escaping hell and going to heaven.
Me: Do they now? Whether that’s true or not, how do you explain the fact that it would be inconsistent to interpret it that way?
Bob: I don’t know. I just know that this is what I was taught. Are you saying that my pastor is wrong?
Me: Are you saying that your pastor is incapable of being wrong?
Bob: Well, no. But that’s what Christians have always believed. Isn’t it?
Me: Actually, no. Many Christians have had a completely different take on heaven and hell than what you’ve been taught, from today going all the way back to the early church.
Bob: Really? Like what?
Me: These Christians believe that the passages talking about how to avoid everlasting torment in hell are indeed meant to be taken figuratively, but they remain consistent and interpret the whole passage figuratively, not just the first half. They believe that judgement in hell is not everlasting, but is only temporary, and that eventually everyone will end up in heaven.
Bob: You’re talking about Universalism. We know that can’t be true since the Bible teaches that hell is eternal.
Me: Only if one is inconsistent in their interpretation of the three places Jesus spoke about “everlasting torment in hell,” which we just covered.
Bob: But that would mean that everybody gets the same reward. That means that all the good works I do, and all the sin I avoid, is for nothing, because someone who lives a life full of sin is going to heaven anyway. What was the point of all my good works?
Me: Good question, you tell me. Didn’t you just try to tell me that salvation isn’t based on good works?
Bob: Well, yeah, I guess. But still, what’s the point of living a good life if you’ll just go to heaven anyway?
Me: Because living a good life is its own reward, perhaps? Certainly not so you’ll go to heaven, since salvation isn’t by works, right?
Bob: I suppose. But these people didn’t choose Christ, so why should they get to go to heaven?
Me: When you quoted Ephesians to me earlier, you left out a vital part of the passage. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Our faith in Christ is not of ourselves, it is entirely of God. We don’t choose to have faith in Christ, God chooses for us by giving us the faith.
Bob: You’re talking about predestination.
Bob: Okay, but whether they choose it for themselves or are elected by God, the Bible still tells us that only those who have the faith are saved.
Me: Actually, no, it doesn’t. It tells us that God is the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe. It doesn’t say “particularly those who believe,” or “only those who believe,” it says especially. If a teacher were to say at the end of the school year, “everybody passed this year, especially Lisa who got an A+,” we’d know that while nobody else got an A+, they still passed, since “especially” doesn’t mean “only.” To try to say this passage doesn’t teach that everyone gets saved is reading one’s own doctrinal bias into the passage, particularly since there’s no good, biblical reason to believe otherwise, as we’ve already covered.
Bob: Okay, but what about the Lake of Fire?
Me: What about it? We know that it isn’t hell, since the book of Revelation tells us that hell will be emptied and then cast into the Lake of Fire itself (hell, that is, not the people in it).
Bob: But aren’t people whose names aren’t written in the book of life thrown in there as well?
Me: Revelation does say that, yes, but you’ll notice that it doesn’t say that they’ll be in there forever. Neither does it say how one’s name gets put in the book of life. In fact it doesn’t even say that anyone’s name won’t be written in the book of life, just that if someone’s name isn’t in there they’ll be cast into the Lake of Fire for an unspecified length of time. Add all that to the fact that Revelation is entirely figurative up until this point, and, just like Jesus’ warnings about hell, there’s no reason to assume that this passage is suddenly meant to be interpreted literally after 20 chapters of symbolism either.
Bob: Hmmm. What about the other passages that warn about hell?
Me: Which ones? We’ve already covered every warning in Scripture about “everlasting torment in hell.” There are other warnings about everlasting destruction and things like that, but we’d have to read these passages figuratively to read them as referring to everlasting torment in hell since they don’t literally say that, they say things like “destruction.”
Bob: Interesting. Do you have any more information on this subject? I obviously need to do some more research on the subject.
Me: Definitely. Check out my website at www.ChristianHeretic.com where you’ll find writings by all sorts of Christian Universalists over the last two centuries or so.
Bob: Thanks. Can I follow up with you if I have any more questions?
Me: Of course.
The preceding was a combination of discussions I’ve had online and offline with various different Evangelical Christians. I hope you all enjoyed it.