Hell Unraveled: 7 Questions about “Eternal Conscious Torment”

In her book, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, Rachel Held Evans writes, “Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell.” This puts into words a notion that has troubled me for as long as the “great hell debate” has been on my radar. Some will say that if you throw out the traditional view of hell, you may as well throw out the entirety of the bible. I vehemently disagree, but until now, I had little defense other than to point out that not all who follow Jesus take every word in the Bible as literal fact or as life’s constitutional guide.

My evolving view of scripture puts me squarely in the camp of reading the bible as a collection of literary works containing truth. I do not place the collection of scripture we know as the bible above God or even as equal to God. I feel there is a fine line between learning from, reading, and prayerfully consulting scripture and literally worshiping the bible. I wonder if we can become so entrenched in the words it contains that “bible believing” becomes its own form of idolatry.

To some, this makes me a bad Christian. Others use this to exclude me from their notion of Christianity all together. Since Jesus Christ never, himself, defined Christianity, I cannot speak to what it makes me or doesn’t make me. I will say this: I do my best to follow Jesus and allow Christ’s teachings to shape and change my heart. And, as far as I know, “right doctrine” isn’t the key to the Kingdom, anyway. As I continue prayerfully seeking God, loving, learning, and serving, perhaps the only thing I know to be true is this: it is well with my soul.

In this blog post, I do not aim to answer or fully engage the “great hell debate.” What I believe about “hell” hasn’t come into full view yet even to me. As a seminarian on extended break, I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject. All I aim to accomplish today is to ask some questions that I hope to address in future blog posts. That is, I am merely endeavoring to open a dialogue with myself, with others, and most importantly with God.

In no particular order, here are some of my pressing questions:

1. What is hell (eternal conscious torment, a literal place on Earth, a state of mind, ultimate destruction, “merely” the absence of God)?

2. Can the gospel really be “good news” if the majority of human beings (created in God’s own image) are going to hell?

3. Does God really want to “win” converts to Christianity using the threat of eternal damnation?

4. What does it mean to love and follow Christ without the fear of hell?

5. Can you still believe in the truth of the Bible and dismiss the traditional notion of hell?

6. Must a person have the intellectual knowledge of Jesus to follow him? (i.e. can someone live a Christ-like life and go to heaven even if they haven’t heard of Jesus?)

7. Is what we believe and do in this life the final word on our eternal souls?

I know these questions, like most of my questions and doubts, will ruffle some feathers. I also know, however, that I’m not the first to ask them and I won’t be the last. The God I seek to faithfully serve is big enough to handle these questions, so I will ask them and endeavor to find answers.