Many mainline Protestant denominations see Christianity as being less about obtaining a ticket out of hell through faith in Christ as one’s personal savior, and more about emulating Christ’s example of unconditional love — expressing and realizing their own faith through living by Christ’s “golden rule” (treat others as you would like to be treated) and “two great commandments” (love God, and love your fellow humans). For such Christians, gospel references to “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” refer not to some heavenly afterlife paradise, but instead to realizing the reign of God in the hearts of human beings in the here and now, rather than in some hereafter.
Some Christian theological liberals who are openly critical about biblical literalism and biblical inerrancy (stances or assumptions often taken as unquestionable “articles of faith” by many theological conservatives) go so far as to call into question the very doctrines of heaven and hell, per se. They may argue, for instance, that heaven and hell as alternative afterlife destinations do not even appear anywhere within the entire Old Testament (instead, everyone — good and bad alike — simply went to sheol, a rather dim and grim postmortem abode, which was certainly nothing to look forward to).
They may further suggest that traditional Christian notions of heaven and hell might ultimately have pre-Christian Persian origins, pointing to Zoroastrian afterlife beliefs regarding eternal rewards in a heavenly paradise and fiery punishments in hell. Such ancient Persian beliefs pre-date the New Testament, and some suspect that these Persian Zoroastrian beliefs may have influenced Judaism (and, through Judaism, also early Christianity) during the inter-testamental period.
Be all of that as it may (and it is certainly not without controversy, or outright disagreement), the fact remains that heaven and hell have been a big part of traditional Christianity throughout the centuries, and in many quarters they remain a big part of Christianity today.
But for still other contemporary Christians, the doctrine of hell itself constitutes a major philosophical and theological problem — one that relates in some ways to the perennial theological “problem of evil.” For such Christian thinkers, a belief in hell as a place of eternal torment seems to directly clash with belief in God as both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
After all, their thinking goes, if God is really all-good and all-loving, then such a God would absolutely want to spare everyone form eternal torment in hell. And if God is also really all-powerful, then it logically follows that it absolutely lies within God’s power to ensure that not so much as a single soul need ever be consigned to so dire a fate as eternal punishment. All of this being the case, they ask, why would such an all-powerful and all-loving God ever sentence anyone to eternal hell?
(For that matter, why would an all-good and all-loving God even choose to create such a place of eternal suffering, in the first place? And how does a finite human lifetime, amounting to only a handful of brief decades of finite sinning, morally justify God in condemning such a sinner to a literal eternity of endless torture?)
Their answer? A genuinely all-loving and all-powerful God would never — could never — do such a heinous thing.
This, of course, leads to the Christian theological position of “universalism,” according to which salvation applies universally to all, and with exception to none. Universalists maintain that any God who is truly both infinitely good and infinitely powerful simply would not tolerate the loss of even a single soul to eternal hell, but would instead somehow ensure that all souls are ultimately “saved.”
According to universalists, then, no one is eternally “lost.” To affirm otherwise would be, in effect, to deny that God is both all-loving and all-powerful.
Many conservative Christians often insist that faith in Christ as one’s personal savior is the one and only way to salvation, the sole and exclusive path that leads one to heaven, instead of to hell. But other Christians just as insistently ask: would it be fair — would it be moral — of an infinitely loving God to condemn to eternal hell all who simply lack such faith?
(Granted, the precise definition or meaning of “hell” may be hotly debated even by those who believe in its reality, and may range from actively and explicitly agonizing eternal torment, to merely a vaguely non-committal “eternal separation from God,” to outright annihilation of the soul as a kind of “mercy killing”; however, whatever the nature of hell might actually be, the full force of this question still stands.)
Would a truly loving Heavenly Father flatly reject from eternal heavenly bliss all those who, through no fault of their own, perhaps never even heard of Jesus? Or those who simply lacked the ability, for whatever reason and again through no real fault of their own, to first fully comprehend, and then fully accept, Christianity’s unique claims about faith in Jesus as savior as being the one and only way to heaven? Or those who, merely by using their own presumably God-given reasoning faculties, have genuinely come to their own logical conclusion that such faith is unwarranted, because in their honest opinion Christianity’s claims about such matters seem to be without merit?
What about infants, and very young children, who are just far too young to understand Christianity, much less make any sort of conscious decision to accept Christ as their savior? What about the mentally ill, or the mentally challenged, some of whom are simply incapable of even comprehending the uniquely Christian claims about Christ and salvation, and who are therefore just not sufficiently mentally competent to make an informed faith commitment or “come to Christ” as savior?
Granted, certain exceptions to the general rule that one must believe in Christ in order to be saved might be argued for, in at least some such special cases; but if so, based on what — if not upon beliefs about God’s supremely fair and ethical nature (which is precisely what universalists also argue for, in arguing that God would not “lose” anyone)?
Even if babies and the mentally incompetent might conceivably be excused from the torments of hell, what about those non-Christian adherents of other religions altogether? Do they deserve hell for the sin of simply (mis)placing their faith in the “wrong” religion? And what of those who simply do not believe in any religion (or in any religious claims) whatsoever? Do they also deserve eternal torment for simply maintaining their own intellectual integrity, their own honesty with themselves, and their own sincerely held beliefs (or lack of belief)?
Only approximately one-third of the total world population self-identifies as Christian. That means that roughly two-thirds of the human race is non-Christian. Does this mean that, of the 7 billion people currently living on this planet, a majority of them — some 4.6 billion souls — are already bound for hell?
(Even the remaining 2.3 billion nominally Christian souls may not all qualify for heaven, since according to some fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants, not all Christians are genuinely “born again” — and hence heaven-worthy — “true” Christians. For example, of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians, half are Catholics; but some ultraconservative Protestants don’t think the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are actually “saved” at all.)
The reality is that, for a great many people (perhaps, in fact, for the majority of the world’s population), the particular religion that one happens to follow is usually less a matter of thoughtful or even conscious deliberate choice, and far more a matter of a mere “accident of birth.”
After all, if one is born in India, then the odds are overwhelming — statistically speaking — that one will be born a Hindu, raised a Hindu, live one’s life as a Hindu, and die a Hindu. Likewise, if one is born in southeast Asia, or in Tibet, then it is also overwhelmingly likely that one will be born and live and die a Buddhist. If one instead just happens to be born in Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Iran or Pakistan, then again it is exceedingly likely — and again, purely as a matter of simple statistics — that one will, in all probability, be born, live, and die a Muslim.
Many wonder: is it fair — is it even logical — for an infinitely loving God to condemn a billion Hindus, and a billion Muslims, and billions of others to eternal hell, essentially for an “accident of birth” that resulted in their being born in the “wrong” country, and therefore inevitably raised in the “wrong” religion?
Regardless of whether hell is conceived of as eternal torment, or as mere eternal separation from the divine, or as simply utter and hence eternal annihilation, wouldn’t the infinite power and unlimited loving benevolence of God be seriously called into question if that “loving” God were to condemn all currently living 4,600,000,000 non-Christian souls (not to mention the possible additional 1,200,000,000 billion Catholics, according to many Protestant fundamentalists, together with who knows how many more likewise-unsaved “false Christians” of whatever sorts) to eternal hell?
And that’s just the number of hell-bound souls who are currently still alive today. What about the truly immense numbers of all of the previous generations of souls, going all the way back to the dawn of human history, who either never had the chance to hear the Christian gospel at all, or who heard it but simply didn’t understand it, or who heard it but but simply and honestly just didn’t “buy” it — or, for that matter, who simply lived prior to the advent of the Christian era itself? If all of that staggering number of “lost souls” are currently in hell, then what does that say about the infinite goodness of God?
Both right now as well as for its entire history, Christianity has never been the majority position among the earth’s populace. That means, according to traditional and conservative Christian theological views, that the vast majority of the human race has always gone, and is still going, literally straight to hell. If ultimately a divine Creator created everything, then it would seem that the real responsibility for this prevailing set of sad circumstances must ultimately rest with that Creator.
If a majority of all humans who are living now are all going to hell, and if the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived have already gone to hell, then it would seem that God’s “plan of salvation” — at least as traditional Christianity has long understood it, and as much of contemporary conservative Christianity still understands it today — isn’t doing a very good job of saving people.
That being the case, some former Christians have simply given up on Christianity altogether — abandoning it either for another religion, or for no religion at all (whichever option makes the most sense to them), since the very idea of an all-loving and all-powerful God who nevertheless loses the majority of his beloved human creations to eternal hell simply no longer makes any intellectual or moral sense to them whatsoever.
Still other Christians have instead explored other theological options available within Christianity itself. It has come to seem, to many thoughtful Christians, that either God has seriously botched things up by losing so many people to hell (in which case his goodness, or his power, or his competence, is seriously called into question), or perhaps the population inhabiting hell has actually been grossly exaggerated. Perhaps, they suggest, it is actually hell itself — rather than God’s goodness or his power — that is truly questionable.
Universalists questioned hell, and summarily rejected it. Other Christians also question hell, and have proposed other possibilities. And of course, non-Christian religions have always had altogether other theological alternatives to hell.
(To be continued, in Part Three.)