The Southern Baptist Convention, in June of 2011, passed a resolution stating that they “do hereby affirm our belief in the biblical teaching on eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate in Hell…” The resolution specifically targeted Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.”
Such resolutions are deeply saddening.
It is important to honor, first, that many (most?) Christians – from Baptists to Catholics to those in the New Church – are sincerely motivated to share their faith as a way of helping others find salvation, find resurrection, find new life. God clearly blesses that motivation. If we are not sharing our faith – holding it tight out of the mistaken belief that others neither (a) need it or (b) want it – we are far afield from true Christianity. Christianity does not flourish when we believe we somehow possess it.
And, we in the Christian New Church need to clearly say that the idea of a God who inflicts “eternal and conscious punishment on the unregenerate” is misguided at the best, and calamitous at the worst.
Imagine that kind of God – a God who created a world where – for ALL TIME – individuals who struggle with belief are tortured – actively and consciously – due to their non-belief. That makes no sense. That speaks to a pagan, tribal God motivated by conditional love and hatred towards those who fail to offer the proper sacrifice.
It is hard to imagine an image of God more starkly at odds with the image of God presented in Jesus.
The resolution calls the belief in eternal, conscious torment as Biblical. But is it? There certainly is room for counterarguments. Many of those Jesus “healed” and “saved” in no way fit the description many contemporary Christian faiths formally hold of what salvation entails. The Roman soldier asked Jesus to heal his daughter. This pagan occupier of the holy land neither underwent baptism, nor declared Jesus his “personal Lord and Savior.” He simply had faith that Jesus could heal. And that faith “made him whole.” Go to a fundamentalist Christian church, ask for their list of what salvation entails and then go to the Bible and see how many times Jesus did that to those he healed. The answer will surprise.
Statements of course can be pulled from the Bible to create the image of an angry, vengeful God. Our lives our similar – one could take “sound bites” out of our lives to create any image – from loving to hate filled – that one wished. And that is why I believe Jesus consistently expounded the Gospel and then returned to the touch stone of love, period.
A loving Jesus and an angry God cannot exist together just as “Hatred and Charity cannot exist together.” (New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine). It is wrong, and dangerous, and deadly.
Is hell eternal? From a New Church perspective, Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that hell was our choice, not Gods. The torment that accompanies that choice is self inflicted, not God inflicted. And those who choose hell are loved, are held closely by God, as He seeks to pull them as close to Himself as they will allow. God’s work then of salvation goes on to all eternity. That is the God of love – Jesus Christ – not the God of punishment.