Can Anyone Explain To Me Why People Should BURN in Hell FOREVER?



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The debate around hell and damnation continues apace. Rob Bell is about to launch Love Wins, and the arguments about whether he is apostate or a Universalist or worse (filth, as one commenter puts it, an egotistical heretic as another says) are making one thing for certain: His Publisher Wins.

But one question keeps coming back to me: I simply don’t understand why God wants to punish people SO badly.

Let’s take Burk’s/Harris’ position for a moment. A person is born and lives a reasonable life. They are perhaps not especially religious, but live and love as most of us do. The have heard about the claims of Jesus but, in the context of a church full of hate for gay people and fighting for right-wing positions, they don’t believe it. They don’t violently reject it, they just don’t believe it.

And their punishment for this? Eternal pain and burning. For. Ever. In. Indescribable. Agony. As Burk puts it, ‘they are thrown into the lake of fire.’ OUCH! He continues:

To sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment…the penalty of hell–eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God–always seems like an overreaction on God’s part. If we knew God better, we wouldn’t think like that.

I just cannot accept this. The punishment just does not fit the crime. It is unjust, and unloving. Why should God want to put people into eternal pain? For what? For rejecting him? If someone chose to reject me, sure I would be hurt. But would it be right to want to punish them for rejecting me? Surely the hurt is mine if I love them, and I should not want to then hurt them for what they’ve decided.

But Harris et al want to accept a God that wants to hurt those who reject him, and continue hurting them forever. Not only that, they believe that God is justified in doing this because God is infinitely great. This, I believe, represents a serious flaw. What they are saying is that ‘sin’ is relative, and depends on the relative goodness of the person sinned against. So it is worse to hurt a very good person than it is to hurt a ‘nice’ person. This hierarchical view of the world order is, I believe, wrong.

This seems absurd, and the construct of a twisted mind that is so concerned with being right it creates a projection of terrible punishment for those that disagree. This is nothing like the gospel. ‘Hell’ might be an absence of God, but does that mean actual physical torture and pain and burning for the rest of eternity? What sort of God would create a world like that? Not one that I can believe in.

And yet this is the sort of ‘loving God’ that people like Denny Burke want to give us. A ‘loving God’ that wants people to vitriolically hate people who disagree, call them filthy heretics and send them into pain forever. Erm, no thanks. If God is infinitely great and glorious then God has no need to punish those who disagree. He’s above that.




16 responses to “Can Anyone Explain To Me Why People Should BURN in Hell FOREVER?”

  1. GrahamA

    Presumably it doesn’t just apply to your type of scenario either (individual who just hasn’t bothered to think deeply enough about it and makes a decision based on what could arguably be misconceptions about the Church). What about those people who have been actively hurt by the church or Christians & turned their back on Christ because of that hurt?

    I know they are stereotypes, but what of the son/daughter/wife beaten by a hyper-Calvinist (regardless of Calvin’s own views on such abuse) father & husband? The Irish orphan abused by a priest? Gandhi (since his name has come up in this argument already) being turned away from a church in South Africa because he wasn’t white?

    If I was in any of those situations, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to see through the pain and realise the truth of Christ’s message. Will God really condemn people because they were affected by the mistakes and sins of others?

  2. Good points.

    What is equally offensive is that Harris et al don’t really think we can do anything about it anyway: God has already predetermined who ‘He’s’ going to burn, and there is nothing we can do to add ourselves to the book of salvation. Of course, it’s only those who are pretty certain that they’re in the book who’ll tell you that…

  3. And yes, what God will do about the sins of others that affect us is worth thinking about. A very tricky thing to unknot!

  4. GrahamA


    It might just be naive or wishful thinking, but with any discussion on this, I have to confess to holding on to the picture of Emeth in The Last Battle – a devout follower of Tash who despite this, come judgment day, comes to recognise Aslan as the true redeemer.

    I suspect (or hope) God will surprise all of us…

  5. Sam Willis

    Thanks for this, It’s a good piece.

    I have had a few talks about this and somewhere in all of it started to fear the religiosity of fear that I indulged in so much growing up. I know I cannot go back to the god of fear. I read a great article on Christianity Today, while this debate is ancient and ongoing, many like Karl Barth, while landing on the universalist (if we must use the -ists of labelling) side of theology said that with this we must trust God, it is not ours to prescribe.

    And the God that I have encountered is one of the most mystical and captivating love. And not the in/out fear that only stifles life. Long Live Love!

  6. C Jones


    For people like Burk, Jesus dies to appease the wrath of God. What is the purpose of the Cross from your perspective Kester?

  7. That’s a huge question, which I probably don’t have time to do justice to right now, but would love to post on at some point soon.

    I do think that the idea of redemptive violence is abhorrent. It pervades so much of our film and literature that we appear immune to its core message: for good things to happen, people need to get hurt. I don’t accept that blood sacrifice is what God is after, even if we accept that God is effectively performing some kind of self immolation by shedding his own blood.

    So where does that leave the cross? I’d want to read (as I try to expand on in The Complex Christ / Signs of Emergence) it in relation to the cycle of gift, and with the interplay of dirt-work too. I’m also more leaning towards a reading (as I mentioned in the posts on heaven) that sees the cross as the locus not of the death of God – as Zizek would – but as the place where our ideas about heaven and utopia are put to death. It’s the place where we finally have to take responsibility.

  8. Sam Willis

    I can see the desire to see the cross in that way (the way Kester put it in the comment above) but then how do you read half of the New Testament? Don’t get me wrong, I find passages on the wrath of God equally hard to stomach, but what is it Paul drives at when he talks of being ‘under the wrath of God’?

    I always tried to understand that wrath as something we experience currently, the same for condemnation, i.e. we feel guilty when we are aware we’ve done something wrong. Without unconditional love we will experience life as condemning, shortcoming and it may feel quite like the wrath of an omnipotent deity; wrath is simply the absence of love. Perhaps that’s a little simple minded.

  9. Hi Kester, I don’t understand why you can’t just do away with the whole Christian narrative. Do away with Hell, great, but like Sam says, what do you do with the rest of the New Testament?

    It’s clear we are evolved primates, on a piece of rock orbiting a rather average star, no where in particular in a massive galaxy, which is itself nothing special and one of billions of other galaxies in the visible universe.

    I can understand if you want to see the Christian narrative as a helpful aid towards looking at the world through certain themes, but do you really think there is anything more to it than that? Do you really think the Christian God exists and Jesus was his only begotten son sent to save us?

  10. I think the first thing I’d have to say is that I don’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. Obviously that puts me outside of being a ‘proper Christian’ for many people already, but for me that means that I read the Pauline passages in a different way.

    Paul, as I’ve discussed in my books, was a complex character who drove Christian thought forward in the most amazing way. But I don’t think he’s infallible, and I do think that we need to read him – as we should try to read all texts – within the context of his culture etc. He was a ‘Pharisee of Pharisees’ and also a Roman citizen. This gives his words a distinct lilt.

    As for your last question – do I really think that the Christian God exists and Jesus was his only begotten son sent to save us – I’d have to say I’m not sure. I have doubts even about my doubts. But I’m committed to the journey, and part of that commitment means holding to the narrative I’ve grown up with and reading things from that. So yes, the Christian narrative is immensely important. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is unique. But I think I am moving more towards a theology that is committed to living well beyond the orthodox reading of faith, and I don’t think I’ve hit solid ground fully on that yet, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that a) I had and had a fully formed theological framework from which I was working or b) that I was somehow more orthodox underneath. I write here as honestly as I can; my thoughts and views develop.

    I’d love to have the time to write something in more detail about what this ’emerged’ theology looks like. Hopefully I will do over the next year or so. But there’s a novel to finish yet. Oh, and, damn, a job to hold down. Anyone got a cure for sleep?

  11. Um, I would have thought Heaven or Hell may turn out to be good cures for sleep…

  12. Hi Kester, thanks for your honest and considered response. Good luck with the journey and hope you get some sleep ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’d be real interested to hear more around the ’emerged’ theology you talk about so will look out for that.

  13. I think that we’ll begin to see some solid ground emerging here – and be able to move from an ’emerging’ theology to something more definitive. To an ’emerged’ church. That will very likely be rejected by the host body, as I think that some components of it are probably going to be too far outside of orthodoxy to be considered evangelical. But I do think it will be a distinctly Christian expression that will serve our culture well.

  14. Dana Ames

    Hi Kester, hope you remember me. I keep checking in and reading your always interesting posts. Hope all is well with you.

    This question became very serious for me. A few years ago I came upon an article that made me do a sort of “inward double take”. I had never heard any other Christian view on “original sin” and “hell” than the “standard” one expressed by both Roman Catholics and most Protestants: the burn in hell forever view. (I know Catholics would nuance it somewhat, but it boils down to the same thing.) I discovered there was actually another Christian view, one that did not require God to be a torturer and the source of evil, but that has always seen God as “good and the lover/friend of mankind”.

    It is the view of Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Reading N.T. Wright for several years had seriously (providentially?) prepared me to examine Orthodoxy, rather than write it of as “Roman Catholicism done in Greek”. It is far from that. Wright’s portrayal of Christianity from its roots in Judaism to how the early expounders of Christianity from Paul on interpreted the Christ Event led me directly to Eastern Orthodox theology. I was flabbergasted.

    Long story short, I was received into the Orthodox Church in June 2009. I had to seriously work through a couple of issues. However, I found everything I was looking for in the emerging church scene, and so much more.

    Not at all saying that everyone must follow me ๐Ÿ˜‰
    But I am saying that the “traditional” view espoused by Burk et al only goes back to the 15th century and is the product of medieval Western theology/philosophy rooted in Augustine’s ideas. The tradition handed on through Orthodoxy for 2000 years is a different sort of animal.

    Here’s the article:

    Best regards-

    Dana Ames
    Ukiah California

  15. Good to hear from you Dana – and good to hear an Eastern Orthodox voice on this too. You’re absolutely right – we in the West have rather blindly inherited a theology that is far from ‘original’ and very far from what Christ would have meant. I’m sure of that.

    I’d highly recommend the article to people – it’s a great read. Very interesting.

    As pervasive as the term original sin has become, it may come as a surprise to some that it was unknown in both the Eastern and Western Church until Augustine (c.354-430).

    Thanks for posting – good to see you back and well!

  16. The baffling thing about the punishment motif that run’s through much of Christianity is based on a concept of Justice that is failing us in the Western World now. It seems the work of Restorative Justice in our society is one of the most hopefull and helpfull developments of our age. However when I look at most Christian’s idea of Justice it seems based on a pretty barbaric concept that we’ve carried often unquestioned all the way from pre-pagan times and boils down to sanctified abuse.

    It seems to me this is all that Punishment is (or has become) a way for the system or society to force/corerce people into following laws (often unjust as well as just) and often a sanitised vehicle for the victim to abuse their abusers (the most worrying thing being the public push for this more and more). Frankly most of our Justice system falls far short of anything like Justice (if by that we expect the making right of things), rarely is a victim left in a better place by the law courts and also we have a huge re-offending problem.

    It just seems stupifying to me that this is the model of Justice that soo much of the church looks to apply to God where essentially he becomes an abuser of human kind subjecting suffering to those that didn’t meet the right criteria. For me Hell just doesn’t seem to be a possibilty in that it seems to ignore the example Jesus’ sets for righteous living and fail in any real redemptive aim. If we take Colossians 1:19-20 seriously then how does Hell not only restore the sinner to their right place and relationship with God but also how does it restore the relationships of those who have sinned to those who have been sinned against.

    Andrew Perriman has had some interesting stuff to say from a ‘new perspectives point sof view’ on this debate – his stuff on the wrath of God in the new testament is intriguing

    I can understand allot of where your coming from kester (not allways in agreement but appreciated allot of what you’ve said). I’m not sure I have the same commitment to the Christian narrative as you to me it feel more like a wound that can’t be lost or forgotten no matter what is done. So when less insane expressions are stumbled across they really pique my interest.