Bell? Hell? Well…


So the Christian blogosphere and twitterverse have been abuzz over universalism and hell. Why does this particular issue provoke such angst? It addresses important questions, obviously: “Does hell exist? And if so, who is there and who isn’t and why?”. But I’ve been thinking more about the functional importance of hell for many folks, and think this might be one of the key reasons Rob Bell stirred up such vitriol. What function does hell play in the story of our relationship with God?

I honestly think this is one of the key questions for which Quakers have something important to offer the rest of the evangelical world.

For many evangelicals, the story of us and God goes something like this. Each person is born with a death sentence on our heads. Whether it’s accumulated guilt from generations of sinful humanity, or our own selfish actions as the cause, we stand guilty, with an eternity in hell as our punishment. Unless and until we accept for ourselves the pardon extended to us through Jesus, the warrant for our souls stays on the books. With that story, the question is clear: if you died tonight, where would you spend eternity? How do you know? Do you want to be sure to never have to experience hell?

Several things stand out when this is the overarching story. “Salvation” is a future thing based on a one time decision now. When we as Christians share this story with the world, we have something they do not. We hold the power. God is active in the past, through what has been accomplished through Jesus. But now, it’s all up to us. We are the dispensers of all things spiritual to a bankrupt humanity on death row.

I think on the surface, the uproar over Bell questioning hell arises out of a fear that the fundamental motivation for salvation would disappear. At a deeper level, I wonder if the real cause is a fear of losing our place in dispensing God to the world.

Quakers have told a different story. Each person is born with a light, a seed, “that of God” within.*(see below) Different from our conscience, different from a pantheistic sense of a “piece of God” in each one of us, this is the person of God interacting with and influencing my person. I see this as incredibly hopeful and helpful. Within each one of us, whoever we are, wherever we are born, whatever we believe or do, God is at work, wooing us toward God’s self. Our natural human bent is to resist God’s direction, without exception. God is at work, but we resist, with current and eternal consequences. The essential question of this story is, “Am I responding to and obeying God’s direction and leading in my life?”

This narrative has different emphases. “Salvation” becomes present and future. When we share this story with those outside the faith, we are not the primary actors. We aren’t bringing salvation to others. Instead, God is the actor who is always there ahead of us. Our task is to cooperate with God on a very important mission. We name how we see God already at work in others. We build bridges of connection between God’s work in the other person’s life and God’s work in our own life. Most importantly, we connect God’s activity in that person’s life with the story told in the bible: God is reconciling the world through Christ. God** is the actor, the mover of all things. We don’t hold the power, but rather serve as witnesses, as bridge builders. Separation from God (hell) is a real consequence, but not the prime motivator for relationship with God. God’s very self is the wooing reason.

In this story, our choices and our response to God ultimately matter. Free will, as well as the consequences of our actions are not lost. We do lose “Christian superiority”, but we gain a present and active God with whom we partner! In this story, new possibilities are opened for those who live and die without hearing the name of Jesus, because the wooing presence of God was always with them. In this story, our role of bridge building becomes incredibly important, as we co-labor with God to help others understand how the stirrings within them are connected to God’s ultimate communication, the incarnation…when God joined humanity as Jesus, and shattered the power of rebellion and selfishness with selfless sacrifice.

This is a story evangelicals need, I believe. And in this story, we can dive into the bible and ask questions and discuss hell with a lot less fear and anxiety.


* We’ve argued among the different branches of Friends about what exactly that seed or light is, whether it’s connected with Jesus Christ or not. I’m among the group of Friends who see the seed or light intimately connected with the Holy Spirit Jesus promised after his death and resurrection. Our ability to respond is made possible because Christ’s death and resurrection have broken the power of sin.

** Quakers aren’t very precise in our systematic theology, and our trinitarian thinking is particularly sloppy. Which person of the trinity, whether the second person (implied in the Friends’ use of the term “living Christ”) or the third person of the Holy Spirit has been a question we haven’t given sufficient attention to.

15 thoughts on “Bell? Hell? Well…

  1. Bless you! Getting right to it, if there is such a ‘place/state’ as eternal torment in hell, than poor, insane Andrea Yates had it exactly right and all the rest are just B team player wanna be’s.

    If eternal torment in hell is real, we need only one page in the Bible and it says TURN OR BURN. I mean, why complicate things? (gee, thanks God!)

    When did “if you eat you shall surely die” morph into “you shall surely burn forever and ever in the torments of an eternal hell”?

    As far as universal reconciliation being an unBiblical, heretical, minority opinion goes …

    I think what is fundamentally at issue here is the concept of free will. Personally, my will didn’t have a shred of freedom until after God had boxed me in a corner and “made me” choose Him. Self-will, yes, but free? Not in the slightest.

    Why do humans demand they have a free will? Aren’t there more than enough scriptures that prove God is the one in ultimate control of everything, even the hearts of the kings? Why not just accept that and go for the ride?

    Oh, perhaps because of the hell issue? How can one truly rest if one believes there is such a thing as eternal torment in hell? Most would *have* to come up with elaborate “free-will, choice” scenarios in light of that.

    All I’ve seen the belief in a free will do in the evangelical community, is give them the “right” to manipulate and pressure folks into “choosing” Jesus.

    The only real issue to me is, what happens at THE END? The scriptures on my website bear out that GOD WINS in the end through Christ Jesus. If there is a ‘hell’, it can not be ‘eternal’. My own journey into hell is linked there as well.


  2. I agree with much of this but disagree with the note –

    “** Quakers aren’t very precise in our systematic theology, and our trinitarian thinking is particularly sloppy. Which person of the trinity, whether the second person (implied in the Friends’ use of the term “living Christ”) or the third person of the Holy Spirit has been a question we haven’t given sufficient attention to.”

    I think we get into much more difficulty than necessary when we try to fit into theological language one of the most profound teachings of early Friends. Christ has come in ALL offices – prophet, priest, king, etc. Why do we need to limit this to 3 “names?” There are limitless names from A to Z (or are we required to us the Greek alphabet as well?)


  3. Greg,
    This is really well written. I also feel that being compelled toward Jesus is so much more interesting and thorough than fleeing doom. I am so often sad about the way Friends theology was usurped in the generation before mine, and the impact it had on mine. So much fear based thinking. I like how you describe the prevailing view of the “death sentence on our heads”. It is such a great way of restating the revival tent preaching theology, and provides a great comparison for the compelling, wooing of Jesus as a contrasting theological description. It is the person of Jesus and my relationship with him that makes me want to work out my salvation in the here and now. I don’t want an easy guarantee of a non-hell future. I want a life filled here and now with Jesus encouraging me to be honest, courageous, and loving to my fellow human beings, like he was.
    The warmest of regards at you,


  4. Good stuff, Greg! I especially appreciate how you’ve highlighted the difference in emphasis between the Quaker theological narrative and the Evangelical theological narrative. I find the idea of universal reconciliation to be wholly compatable with Christian Quakerism. What we think about Hell has a powerful bearing on how we view God and how we value people.


  5. Thanks, all, for the comments!

    Susankps: Thanks for your thoughts. I’m still at a place in my life that I hold to human free will. I recognize there are issues with that; but given the place the bible holds in my life, I haven’t been able to release it yet. I wrestle with the constraining power of God all the time.

    Micah, thanks. I’m still digesting your excellent recent post. Good work.

    Tom Smith, thank you! Feel free to disagree…and also, I hope you’ll notice that most of this post is aimed toward the evangelical community, and the note you reference is most definitely aimed there, where systematic theology holds a much higher place. I felt it necessary to address the fact the Quakers tend to not think in those terms.

    Tom Magee, thank you! I’d like to figure out how to have this discussion with our preceding generation in our YM. I’m not sure if this post will help that or not.

    Danny, I agree that universal reconciliation could be compatible with Christian Quakerism. I do feel the need to state that I am not yet reconciled to universal reconciliation myself.


  6. Fine post, Gregg. Thanks. I continue to be amazed at God’s pursuing love. Whatever a person might say/conclude about universalism, I think it’s important to remember and tell folks that God pursues everyone with love, persists, will not give up. I think it’s fabulous. I have been reminded this week that the biblical character Jonah hated it.


  7. Thanks for your thoughts and a “Quaker” stance on this topic. I have been mulling this over and I think in the beginning, my salvation was very future-focused. As I grew, I came to love God (including Christ and Holy Spirit 😉 ) and salvation became a daily, not-just-trying-to-stay-out-of-Hell, thing. My relationship with Christ became the focus, not the avoidance of the separation from God (whether that be while burning in flames or ceasing to be doesn’t really matter to me). Are the questions of Hell; what it is, what those there do, who is there, who isn’t there, etc. a make or break for the Christian faith?


  8. I am not a Friend, although I spent some time on Friendly mailing lists, and have semi-regularly attended two online MfW in the past.

    This is what the Canadian Yearly Meeting info packet has to say, re: “the trinity” (I’m also not trinitarian, BTW), in the booklet “Friends and the Spiritual Message” by Howard Brinton (I’ve highlighted the relevant passage):

    “Puritans wished to “purify” the Church of accretions since the early days of Christianity. The Anglicans, being the most conservative, took out a few of these elements, the Presbyterians a few more, the Congregationalists a few more, the Baptists a few more, and finally the Quakers, being the most radical of the new sects, took out everything except dependence on the Divine Spirit for guidance and power. Quakerism was therefore a new revival of the old prophetic religion. The Spirit was not for them the third person of a Trinity, but God revealed inwardly, as God has been revealed outwardly through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the Word, Light, Life, Truth and Love in the language of John and “Spirit” and “the Christ in you” of Paul.”

    I certainly agree! I also agree very much with the earliest Friends’ writings on professing Christianity, and all the ills/evil contained therein; but the “emergent church” professing Christians who are trying to take over the RSoF in North America certainly don’t want to hear anything about that!


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