Who the Hell is going to Hell?

  • Question from MF, USA

    When we say we are certain of God’s will (“Hitler/Liberals/Suicides are all in hell”) are we not taking the knowledge of God upon us, and thus sinning?

    In an excellent study of Christianity on the cusp of post-modernism, Brian McLaren makes one of the characters in his dialogues state the bold comment that: “It’s none of your business who goes to Hell”. McLaren then outlines the different doctrines about hell as a continuum stretching from Universalism on the one extreme, through Inclusivism (‘anonymous Christianity’) towards Exclusivism (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, Jossey-Bass 2001, p124ff). Regrettably, some Christians tend to make it their life’s work to decide exactly who is going to hell.

    Within Christianity there has always been a tendency towards the politics of exclusion. This is partly because early Christians set themselves over and against the prevailing pagan religions of the time and also due to the isolationist mindset carried over from Judaism; the idea of being a people called out and chosen (“citizens of Heaven” – Philippians chapter 3, verse 20). Given the historical precedents, it should come as no surprise that Christians find it easier to define themselves ‘against’ something, be it other religions, scientific humanism, secular liberalism or any of the other ‘foes’ of the faith.

    Christianity has only ever stagnated as a movement during the medieval period, when it had few heretics within and only political enemies outside (there was little serious theological discourse with Islam during the period of the crusades). It took the Renaissance, sectarian Reformers and the growth of science that culminated in the Enlightenment to kick-start theological creativity. Christians need enemies, it would seem. At present, this ‘defining against’ is, of course, more likely to happen in authoritarian structures (e.g. fundamentalist Protestantism), which discourage questions and discourse with the unbeliever. After all, if you talk to your sworn enemy, you might find out they’re not so bad after all. The decline of liberal theology can be traced to the fact that liberals wanted to propose ideas, not impose them.

    Of course, there is a New Testament precedent for saying exactly who will come under judgment and end up in Hell. In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul states that the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunks, slanderers, or swindlers will not inherit the Kingdom of God (verses 9-10). But he adds a caveat, telling the Corinthian Christians that they had been people just like that (verse 11). They had been ‘washed and sanctified’, meaning they could enter the Kingdom, but deep down they were no better than the sinners around them. According to Paul, there is no cause for pride in being saved; it is a case of literally ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. That’s a humbling warning not to be too keen to declare anybody as bound for Hell, because they are not so different from us.

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