Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

7 Reasons Why Sharon Baker Wants to Raze Hell


Do you believe in hell? 59% of Americans do, including 92% of weekly churchgoers. If you do believe, what does hell look like for you?

Sharon Baker, a professor of theology at Messiah College, found out she was going to hell when she was 26 years old. She listened, transfixed, as a pastor described the eternal torment non-Christians like her would someday experience. Young and impressionable, she converted on the spot.


Twenty-five years later, Baker has re-evaluated some of her old notions of hell. In the new book Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment, she doesn’t claim that hell does not exist, but she does propose a new theory of what hell might be. You’ll have to read the book for that part, but for this blog she’s agreed to highlight seven of the reasons why the traditional image of hell as a place of eternal suffering for the wicked needs to be reconsidered. The traditional notion of hell, she says, is fraught with at least seven significant problems:

“1. Hell doesn’t avenge evil or reveal the goodness and power of God–in fact, the exact opposite! By holding on to the doctrine of eternal hell, we in essence hold to the belief that in the end God’s will to save all people goes unfulfilled, which puts God’s power and goodness in doubt. We also suggest, however inadvertently, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were limited, not effective enough to save everyone without condition. See the contradiction? God’s good purpose and will is to redeem the world. God has the power to do so. Yet God goes against the divine will to save all and creates, preserves, and populates a place of punishment where the wicked and the unrepentant dwell, unredeemed, unreconciled, and unrestored for all eternity.


2. Hell begets eternal hopelessness: Traditional theories of hell exclude any hope for redemption, reconciliation, and restoration to God and to others. Once a person dies, that’s it. Even if that person never heard the name of Jesus, even if that person rejected the good news without truly knowing what it meant, he can abandon any hope for salvation. Suffering in hell for all eternity means that souls burning there forever will exist without any hope of redemption. Without being aware of it, we also hold to the belief that God withdraws unconditional love once a person’s body dies. God’s compassion dies once our body dies. Somehow, then, God’s love for us is tied to the physical body and the temporal realm, and grace disappears for unbelievers after the physical life is gone. Our traditional beliefs about hell also force us to believe that people we love are eternally beyond grace.


3. Hell generates eternal evil: The problem of hope also confronts us when we contemplate the notion of eternal punishment of the wicked in hell. The Bible tells us that, in the end, God will abolish evil. A new heaven and a new earth will take the place of the old. No more tears, no more death, no more pain, no more suffering, no more evil (Rev. 21:1-4). Yet if hell exists, evil exists. Somewhere, in the universal expanse of God’s perfect peaceful kingdom, evil still survives–eternally. Many souls still suffer, still experience pain, still cry, wishing they could die. Evil lives on.

4. Hell places justice in opposition to love: Lurking behind the traditional theories of hell is the ghost of a punitive father, haunting the image of unconditional love and forgiving grace. We unintentionally conjure up a cruel father who demands that unrepentant sinners spend eternity in the flames of hell, finding endless torture an agreeable way to achieve justice–which is a far cry from the God who loves with an everlasting love. Yet God is love. We develop a picture of a God who promotes eternal punishment as positive, as part and parcel of divine love and justice. This perspective creates an artificial tension between love and justice. We try to relieve these tensions by appealing to God’s love and mercy on the one hand, and to God’s justice and wrath on the other, assigning split personalities to God, as if God were a character like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Such a view of God’s love, mercy, justice, and wrath leads to the conclusion that to love is to punish eternally and, therefore, to punish eternally is just.



5. Hell portrays God as eternally violent: Traditional theories of hell not only keep evil in eternal existence; they also keep the cycle of violence in motion for all eternity. Through loving every enemy, through the life and resurrection of Jesus, God interrupts and, I believe, eventually ends the cycle of violence with that love. But not if we hold to our traditional views of hell.

6. Hell portrays God’s justice as only retributive: We often focus on retributive readings of the Bible, and believe that the wicked justly suffer for all eternity as a divine requirement. But we more often see a theology of divine protest against violence and a divine movement toward restoration and reconciliation. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” so that all people might be reconciled to God through the cross. While we were still enemies of God, as opponents, still steeped in our sin, still unrepentant, deserving nothing but evil in return for our rebellion (retributive justice), God reached out to reconcile us through Jesus (restorative justice). Now this is justice!


7. Hell executes eternal punishment for temporal sin: Is eternal punishment for temporal sin just? In other words, does sin committed during one short, temporary life span deserve an eternity of punishment? Even in our own society, we strive to make the punishment fit the crime. We make laws, elect judges, appoint juries, hold court sessions, and try offenders in order to “prove” guilt and pass sentence on a just punishment for the guilty. In contrast to this, we cling to traditional views of hell, in which our loving God exacts eternal punishment for temporal sin–an extreme case of the punishment not fitting the crime–and we consider this to be ‘justice.'”

  • Alan

    I’ll be glad to offer the first comment. Ms. Baker’s argument is a classic case of recoil against the holy and just judgment of God. People who hold this position are still convinced that there are levels of sin which merit levels of punishment (see #7), and that man is basically good….just disordered. This, then, denies the concept of imputed sin and its consequent judgment. “All are sinners, and have fallen short of God’s glory.” We all deserve eternal punishment, according to God’s Word. We need to remember that sin is a “condition”, and that the “levels of sin” are simply expressions of that condition.
    As for her argument that eternal torment doesn’t fit the crime, let me remind her that in our own system of justice many American citizens spend their entire lifetime in prison (is that fair?….apparently!). She might argue that the taking of a life merits such a punishment; I will argue that the condition of sin merits eternal punishment…and the Bible states this as well.
    The problem with Ms. Baker’s argument is that it is a philosophical approach to God’s Word rather than a deductive approach. The Bible is very clear on issues of hell and its eternity, which is why Christianity has held to “the horrors of hell” position for so many centuries.
    Finally (and I wish I had the time to write a proper rebuttal to her whole argument) Ms. Baker has incorrectly and blasphemously assigned evil to God (see #3). Somehow she has equated suffering with evil, totally ignoring the classic definition of evil as that which contradicts an established moral code (in this case….both a universal and providential one), and which can often lead to suffering. She also seems to insist that suffering in hell is not justice from God, but rather a demonstration of His hypocrisy and contradictory character.
    I suggest she go back and review her theology again, and stop allowing her emotions to guide her arguments. The Bible is crystal clear on the existence and conditions of hell, and I get so tired of folks like Ms. Baker working overtime to deconstruct Scripture in order to fit their own paradigm and arrogance.

  • DMc

    For Alan,
    Regretably very little in the Bible is crystal clear. No one knows if the fire and brimstone said to be in Hell is literal or symbolic. There is a symbolism asssociated to the “lake of Fire” and “spirit prison.” Spirit prison is associated with the spirit staying in the grave until Christ’s resurrection, which aligns with the Greek and Roman misconception of the underworld. Dig a pit in the underworld and you eventually reach magma. You then have a pit and a lake of fire. I haven’t seen Hitler or anyone else pop out of a volcano to say hello so maybe the pit and lake of fire are symbolic of being as far away from heaven as possible. Gee golly, how did Jesus know earth’s core was molten, 2000 years ago? Also, If someone’s heart burns within them at the realization of truth concerning the gospel (I think that is located near the end of Luke) then how hot will the spirit burn, after one dies, upon realizing it sinned too much. Nothing is “crystal clear” where symbolism is concerned. Especially if it is not clear you are dealing with symbolism.
    I think it will be interesting to read an academic’s point of view on this subject. Ms. Baker makes some well thought out points. Joseph Smith had similar doubts but his questions were answered by Christ. Punishment is not actually eternal as in never-ending but Eternal as in belonging to God. God’s name is “Eternal”. We just do not have words to convey this idea properly. Hell will not last forever, for anyone.
    I understand such concepts are blasphemous to non-LDS.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Jana, thanks for this enlightening summary. Clearly, Professor Baker has described a numnber of the reasons why many Christians have been concerned about what has become the traditional concept of eternal punishment in hell. One of the reactions is Universalism. Another reaction has been the interest in ways in which at least those who are innocent of knowing rejection of Christ can be saved from infinite suffering, including a revival of the ancient Christian belief in the “harrowing of hell” during Christ’s three days in the grave, which is discussed by Peter in his First Epistle. The Apostle’s Creed also supports this belief, a belief that still had currency among Christians for the first thousand years of Christianity. Post-mortem evangelization is supported by a number of Protestant theologians, and they have published books on the topic.
    This is just one of the several examples where the Mormon doctrines that are most frequently attacked by certain Protestants of a traditional mindset actually demonstrate a sensibility to significant issues in modern Christianity and reach the same conclusions that other Christians get to with much detailed theologizing. As with a number of these issues, Mormonism has, since over 150 years ago, staked out positions that only in more modern times are being identified as rational and more consistent with the actual text of the Bible (e.g. “death and heall shall deliver up their dead”) than many of the traditional beliefs they conflict with.
    Anyone who is interested in the issue of how to reconcile hell with God’s justice and mercy owe it to themselves to consider the solution offered by Joseph Smith, especially in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the record of a joint revelatory vision that Smith experienced jointly with Sidney Rigdon in the presence of a dozen other men. Passages in the Book of Mormon also make it clear that the suffering experienced in hell consists primarily of the realization and remembrance of one’s own guilt and unworthiness to stand in the presence of God, rather than pain inflicted by God, Satan, or any other being.

  • letha

    I read some of the comment and as usual we think people with titles behind their name can write a book and make it sound good. but what it boils down to is what the holy spirit tell you. remember all true knowledge that we have come from the holy spirit. if we stay in the word then the word will be given to us. If ever in doubt about whether or not hell exist keep living a sinful life without asking fo forgiveness and you will find out one way or another.
    I would also recomment that you find a good teaching church that can break down scripture by scriptue in revelation and you will have your answer. if God say there is a hell and there a hell where you will spend the rest of your life.
    Please remember Christian that have their name written in the book of life know there is a hell.
    there is a story in the old testament where the guy went to hell and he wanted to relay to his family not to come here. again if God say it is a hell and it will not be picnic so or speak. then take him at his word. he said in his word do not add or take away from the word of God.

  • Jo Ann

    Why is it that everyone who has been deceived by Satan forgets that there is also a wrath side to God? He will turn you over to yourselves (reporbate mind) where you will not be able to here from him. Be not surprise people if you read your Bible you will see where it speaks of false prophets, false teaching that will turn a great many from God. What don’t people get that Satan and his follows were thrown from heaven without a chance for redemption and he mad because we do have that chance. So he is going to take as many as he can with him. You can debate all day on why a loving God would supply such a place, but you best believe that there is such a place.

  • Miguel

    There is no eternal punishment!!Grow up!!

  • janicelbaker

    Thank you-I have argued for reasoning for so long in over 7 decades of life and it has gotten no place beyond what the tradtional mind set will allow it- if we believe in good god then how can that be that we have an evil one-and if there is one all powerful ever present and all knowing god and all forgiving one -then who then is Satan and if the one god is in heaven for good folks then who is this other god who is in hell for the bad folks? Also its said that all sins are fogivable but for the denial of god-and yes if Jesus is the only begotten son of god then died as human sacrifice which had been ended in Semitic tribes of Abrahamic beliefs by the Isaace substitute on Mount so that all have redemption and salvation then how then does he condemn those to goats to hell and award the sheep to heaven- all these contradictions which so many dwell on devalues for most modern people the whole morals of the book which is we all should try to live the better life which is of service to others and
    self responsibility for our acts- an no Saul/Paul and Martin Luther are not right that faith alone saves due to grace of god- for also like the older Hebrews service to others /acts and obediences to laws
    are important-SaulPaul also stated Faith without works id dead- again one of those many contradictions esp if read out of context or quoted naked and alone- and earlier version of 1Corn 13 had not LOVE
    for there were different words for that one alone in other languages
    not one simple one like modern USA English-charity do unto others as you would have them do unto you- love your enemy as well as friend
    or family- etc- for that is near to loving self not hard to do love or sacrifice for loving another-
    Thanks its time someone stepped up and took on the hard things and
    showed the ancients translated into moderns can too often be misread
    and misleading and old traditions can also be more harmful than helpful- doing something because its always been done this way is not always the wisest rule to follow in life

  • g

    It seems that the academic approach to the realities of Heaven and or Hell overlook some very simple truths about the world that are easily observable.
    The magma and the iron core of the Earth’s is a main reason why we even exist. It is the electromagnetic field created as the magma spins around the iron core that keeps the cosmic radiation from leaving the earth as a burned out cinder of nothing.
    So then Hell(?) is the reason that the Earth is supporting life?
    And what about the lost and evil God present in their atoms/molecules and spirit and other parts of their created being?? If so, how does God cast His essence into an eternal Hell? If not, then how can it be said the God is omnipresent? If God isn’t in the devil, then there is a place where God “isn’t” which means he is not omnipresent.
    Remember, there is no ‘Up’we only move towards a center of gravitational field or away from it. Nothing goes ‘up’ to Heaven nor ‘down’ to Sheol. It is just an appearance and a convention of ‘direction’.
    When the Bible/Torah says, God created the Heaven’s and the Earth, remember that the earth isn’t the floor of some domed creation as the writer’s believed. THERE is only the HEAVEN’S, and EARTH IS IN the HEAVENS.
    If you are on Mars and you die, where do you go up to?? The EARTH? If you are on the moon, then I guess you ascend to the EARTH.
    Time to leave the world of the fairy tale Harry Potteresque belief and accept the reality and burden of maintaining our existence without appealing to childish beliefs.
    As children, it was ok to believe in tooth fairies or Santas, or Bunnies, but there came a time when our parents said, OK Time to leave the fairy tale world and take up your part in the struggle of life.
    Maybe G*d is saying that to us. We have evolved, we have ‘grown-up’ now leave the fairy-tales behind and take our responsibility for our world and life and actions and stop thinking we can destroy it and some mythological messiah will step in at the last minute and rescue us and fix our mess.
    Heaven? Hell? Tooth Fairy?

  • Steven J Silva

    Whatever God does is just and righteous…including eternal punishment. He doesn’t make any mistakes!

  • David

    Sorry But You Can’t Have Your Cake And Eat It Too!!!

  • Matt

    Look a little closer at the examples in the word of God. Analyze the accounts of how a holy God dealt with sin. Let’s not forget that God is holy, and holiness demands certain action. Salvation is available to all to escape hell. God does not think the way we do.

  • William D Simpson

    To be a professor of theology and religion, Sharon Baker has, as so many people do, failed to understand the reason for Jesus’ life, death and ressurection.
    GOD is holy. YOU are not. A fallen, evil humanity cannot approach God on their terms. As Creator, GOD has determined how what was created will know His presence.
    To the suprise of many, HELL is the subject referred to most frequently in the Gospels by Jesus, who is GOD. No person can explain away the reality of HELL just because the idea is unpleasant and makes GOD out to be some vindictive monster.
    A price had to be paid in the redemption of humanity. That price was GODs own deity in the person of Jesus. A life that knew no sin, became sin in place of a sinful humanity. Jesus is the substitute that turns away GODs wrath from the person who cries out to GOD for salvation.
    If there is no repentance, then there is no substitution. This is the account of GODs love for His humanity. To reject what GOD has done through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, is to reject GOD. And the penalty is eternal seperation from the presence of GOD.
    If you want the truth, my book will give you a bibically accurate definition of this subject. I don’t tell you what you want to hear. I tell you what GOD has said.

  • Deb

    William Simpson is right on target.
    While I understand what Sharon is saying –
    scripture and saints past and present are
    making know to us the truth – our salvation
    comes through our Lord, Jesus Christ – our
    faith AND works will determine our eternity.
    I would highly recommend readers look into
    Our Lady’s appearances at Medjuggorie and
    her messages of Repentance – Prayer – Fasting.
    God bless you all. Debbie

  • Tim

    I suspect that this theologian, Sharon Baker is merely a symbol of the problem. People who aren’t holy, have no clue as to what is a just judgment from a holy God.
    The unholy do not understand “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” They seem to think “I am not so bad.” along with “I’m OK and so are you” or “You aren’t that bad”. The proper Christian response is “We are all sinners.” As though we are both 2 starving mice but one knows where the cheese is.
    God is holy. That which isn’t holy cannot endure the presence of his holiness. That is the separation from God that lasts all eternity.
    I understand that I am not holy enough for my God. I will pray that the quoted theologian quit reading commentaries and actually read scripture. If she needs to stimulate her mind, try it in the original Greek and Hebrew. Whenever I feel my ego is out of control, I go to the local Greek Orthodox church for some humility. I occasionally visit a synagogue for the same reason. When children easily outstrip my knowledge, it makes me feel humble, and lazy.
    The simple understanding that people get from commentaries, and other bible based books, tend to lead them away from the scriptures, and make them lazy. I guess since I had that fault once, Now, I find this problem one that is easy to recognize and avoid. Now I have to work on the Lord’s temple. I don’t want it to end up a cathedral….

  • Ronald Murphy

    Go to the excellent book on this subject “Hope Beyond Hell” found at . You can read it free online or order copies for a nominal price. Find out how a former Calvinist missionary found this truth, as I did, through a correct “literal translation of the bible” and much church history research of what theologians have done to pervert the truth of God’s Word over the centuries. Get the true “Good News” of the final restoration and reconciliation of all God’s fallen creation truly showing God’s eternal essence of Agape Love and His other blessed attributes. Find out the multitude of scriptures, rightly translated and interpreted, that prove this.

  • Ronald Murphy

    I wonder how long it will take before my comment of 9/9/10 will be posted?

  • Ronald Murphy

    Why hasn’t my first blog of 9/9/10 been posted yet—is the editor afraid that the final universal restoration and reconciliation is true?

  • Jana Riess

    Hi Ronald, please rest assured that no one is editing or un-publishing your comments. I have not yet deleted a comment on any of my Beliefnet blog posts. However, there have been a few instances in which the blog software has automatically flagged a comment as potential marketing spam, so I have to go back later and authorize the comment to be published (which I just did in your case). This happens sometimes when a comment uses words like “price” or tells people where to buy or find something, as yours did.
    Please do not take it personally; no one is trying to censor your opinion.

  • Enlightener

    The argument really makes sense from both sides. It makes sense that there would be a place of eternal punishment. Think of it this way: you don’t make a completely separate prison for those with life sentences as for those who will only be there for five years, but there are separate blocks (C Block, D Block, etc.) In like fashion, the same Hell serves as everyone’s “jailhouse,” but not everybody will spend the full eternity there. It is sensible that the angel which disobeyed God and tried to overrule his authority on Earth (I think we all know who…) would be cast into eternal torment, simply because of the magnitude of the crime. In like fashion, Jesus did nothing wrong except live and die, according to Scripture. Hence, he only spent 3 days in Hell. I think 3 days is pathetically small a time compared to eternity, and so there probably is the case where a person only spends as much time in Hell as is required to purify the soul. (Jesus probably required 3 days of purification after being in a corruptible shell.) An exception to this that I can see is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: in that, you essentially damn the God-given wisdom that you had and live a life of moral debauchery. In that case (and I have no claim to the incomprehensible knowledge of God), I think God would think “Hmm… Well, let’s see. You didn’t care at all. So, why should I let you, who refused to listen to good counsel, into Paradise? Perhaps you should be purged until further notice…” That would be, “until you’ve learned your lesson completely,” which, by our very nature, humans never normally do.

  • John

    “God doesn’t think like we do” are the words of one commenter. That is Baker’s point. Traditional perceptions of hell tend to center on our need for our kind of justice and retribution.
    I haven’t made up my mind about the new hell she describes. However, I am grateful for the chance to take time to (re)think these things through. Every time I try to come up with a rebuttal it seems I end up questioning the love of God. So, we’ll see what happens.
    Stay blessed…john

  • Brennen McBride

    My only comment is thus,
    If God is not a God of confsion, shouldn’t Jesus’ voice of urgency be enough to show that we should warn people of hell? Why is it that we must be servants that question our Master’s orders? Is it the ambassador that makes the suggestion to others that maybe God isn’t everything the testimony of others make Him out to be? Be warned that there will be those that say “LORD LORD, I taught people about hell, because they didn’t understand it, they put you in a box” and The LORD will say “I told you what to do, and your record shows no evidence of loving my Son enough to trust His word. After all He is the WORD.” After all, most theology and information regarding hell is derived from Jesus’ words. I want to be apart of a church that seeks and saves that which is lost (quote by Jesus), and so far most of what is called the church body for some reason still argues who is lost. Jesus said take the plank out of your own eye first. What if your words caused someone to leave that faith? What if our God theories don’t help the lost to be found, but wish to be more lost in hope of leaving behind and unreasonable people? Pray that God’s people would do what they do out of love for God.

  • Dewey

    Lord, please bring salvation to sharon baker and brian mclaren and all the false prophets of today. we love you and thank u that you made a way to enter the Holy place. You would be perfectly just to send us to Hell, but you endured suffering to be able to save us. Help us to endure suffering to speak your truth. Love you and amen.

  • Webminotaur

    Since I have not read Sharon’s book, I cannot comment on her concept of what Hell may be like. I would like to read the book, but will only be able to do so if someone sent me a copy. What I can comment on, though, is what is posted here.
    First off, God is God; He can do or be whatever he wants. We, his creation, have nothing to say about it. That is brought out in both the Old and New Testaments (see for example the several references to the potter and the clay). How we conceive of God, or any of his doings, has no effect on what is or will be.
    Secondly, most of our modern concepts about what the Bible says, including Hell, originated during the Dark Ages. During this time Greek philosophy and religious concepts entered the Christian tenets. The religious leaders of the time cast people in prison, or burned them at the stake, for possessing even a small portion of the Bible. They also persecuted and excommunicated those who still held to the belief that the world was round, not flat. While rejecting what these “leaders” said about the physical world, people cling tenaciously to their religious teachings, even when the Bible does not support them.
    What I see here is a case of the Pharisees condemning the Sadducees for not believing as they do. Both of these camps (and in-betweeners) all use scriptures to defend their positions. I use the terms Pharisees and Sadducees to show just how old this type of argument really is. Even Jesus had to contend with them. You may notice that Jesus did not support any of the popular religious positions.
    I read here that the Bible supposedly makes the existence and conditions of Hell clear; that the commentaries and other books cloud the issue. I can only speak for myself, but it is the commentaries and other books supporting the modern concept of Hell that caused my doubts. I looked up the references cited and asked, “Where did he/she get that?” It was reading the Bible itself that raised my doubts of what is generally accepted and taught.
    As for different levels (or cell blocks) for different types of sinners, that is just human thinking. It is man that says one sin is worse than another (murder is worse than theft or adultery). To God one sin is the same of any other (breaking one commandment is breaking them all). In God’s eyes the person who takes a pen or pencil home from work, or uses the business computer for personal purposes, or pads his/her expense account, or claims extra deductions on the income tax, etc., is the same as the mass murderer. The person who eats one piece of candy while shopping is the same as Hitler in God’s eyes.
    Most of the posts seem to make the belief in Hell a condition of salvation. I cannot find anything in the Bible to support this idea. Both the Old and New Testaments show that it is faith in God that leads to salvation.
    Personally, I don’t really know if Hell exists or not, or if it does, what it will be like; and I don’t care. That is none of my business, as I do not intend to be there.
    We are told to go forth and preach the “Good News” of Jesus Christ, not the bad news of hell-fire and damnation. Yes, hell-fire and damnation are often effective tools in leading others to Christ (snatching them from the fire, as Paul said). But that does not mean we have to believe in these things, just that the hearers believe in them. That is how Jesus taught. He used common ideas and concepts (that is, parables) to illustrate the point he wanted to make. The fact that he used these ideas and concepts does not make them real, just that they were things the listeners could relate to. So, whether or not I believe in the current concepts of Hell, I can use them on those who do accept them.
    Instead of condemning those who disagree with your concepts, or praying for the salvation of those who think differently about some theological point, pray for your own love and understanding. Paul says that we are to have different points of view, and that such is good. They should not lead to divisions, though, but to a better understanding of what is really important.

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