I don’t really like this question. No, let me be stronger: I hate this question. Please forgive me. I understand the question and empathize with it on just about every level, no matter what it’s source may be (philosophical, biblical, or emotional). However, when you ask me this question you put me in a difficult position. I want to be as honest as possible, yet remain aware of the pastoral nature that addressing this subject requires. In other words, it is not an impossible question, and should never be seen as such.
This question, and others like it, are becoming more and more common today.
- If I become a Christian, do I have to believe in Hell?
- Do I have to believe that those who have never heard of Christ are going to hell?
- Does God really elect some people to go to heaven and not others?
- Do I have to believe in inerrancy, a six-day creation, the sinfulness of homosexuality, or the reality of a literal being named Satan? Really?
Don’t get me wrong, not all these questions have equal gravity. Some are more debatable than others. Moreover, there are many questions similar to these which leave me relatively unsure that I have the best answer. Therefore, it is not so much the questions themselves that are most important. The difficulty comes down to the fact that we are often tempted to give people a loophole to theological issues that may be, otherwise, too intellectually or emotionally unpalatable. Often, for the sake of peoples’ acceptance, we will reduce the tenets of Christianity down to a minimal set of truths that are the easiest to swallow.
In some ways, it is not unlike another question that I don’t like: “If I commit suicide, can I still go to heaven?” I was asked this by my sister in 2003. I was asked this by my very depressed sister in 2003. I did not want to answer. At least I did not want to answer honestly. I believed my answer would somehow give her permission to do something we all feared she was about to do.
Technically speaking, whether or not one believes in an eternal hell, a literal Satan, or whether or not God used evolution to create man, these issues, while important, are not cardinal issues of the Gospel. What I mean by this is, if you push my back against the wall, I would not say that someone who says they don’t believe in a literal Satan is not a Christian. Nor would I say that all the other questions, including the one concerning the existence of an eternal hell, is so doctrinally central that a denial of such is a damnable offense (or evidence of one’s retribution). This would include the question of suicide. Suicide is not an unforgivable sin, nor does it keep people outside the gates of heaven. (Though I would often rather this to remain a secret.)
So, if someone asks me these theological questions in a more academic or objective sense (which is almost never the case), I am comfortable—indeed obligated—to say that their respective positions regarding such beliefs do not evidence or determine their status as a child of God (as I was with my sister who, as some of you know, did commit suicide in 2004). But I am not a fan of making Christianity “palatable enough” for anyone to accept. In other words, my goal is not to win you to a Christ that is necessarily easy to believe or follow. And I am afraid that some of those who are attempting to be theologically astute wind up becoming academically agnostic. That is, they are agnostic enough to find every place where they don’t have to take a stand, which allows them to remain neutral for the sake of evangelism.
However, if you were to look at the life and ministry of Christ, you would never find him lowering the bar of doctrine or life in order to make people feel more comfortable. Rather, at every turn he seems to close loopholes, up the ante, and make the Gospel not less difficult, but more difficult to believe.
In the Gospel of John, for example, we frequently find Christ gaining a significant following. A good thing, right? Then people begin to question some of his more difficult teachings. In John 6, Christ claims to have come down from heaven (John 6:41-42). I mean, who does he think he is? This is a hard teaching. However, Christ does not make things easier. In fact, he makes it a lot harder, pushing those who may be on the fence in the opposite direction. He basically tells them that they are having trouble believing that his is the bread that came down from heaven because the Father is not with them. Notice: “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). When they raise another eyebrow and further question him, he not only says that he is bread that came down out of heaven, but his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Again, the doctrine becomes harder to accept, not easier. Additionally, upon their misunderstanding of his statement (thinking that he meant they would literally have to eat and drink his body), he does not correct their misunderstanding (which is characteristic of Christ cf. Luke 8:10; John 2:18-21, John 3:3-4, John 4:31-33, John 12:40).
Therefore, if Christ is unconcerned that people get tripped-up by non-cardinal hang-ups, we don’t really see much evidence of this in the Scriptures. From Christ’s perspective, when one believes God he believes God. That is, becoming a believer is not the simple act of believing one or two not so difficult things about God, but of having one’s life immersed in the belief of everything that God says, no matter how hard, no matter how difficult. It is in the trusting that God’s knowledge and understanding are perfect, and that our emotions, will, and intellect always bow to his revelation.
So when someone asks whether or not they can reject an eternal hell and still be saved, the most important thing for me to attempt to discern is the underlying reason why this person is asking such a question. More times than not, people reject hard doctrines such as this due to an emotional allergy toward it. They end up putting God on the stand and presume to pass judgement. “I would never believe in a God who allows people to suffer in Hell for all eternity!” As I said at the beginning, it is not that I don’t empathize with such emotional reactions (Lord knows, I do.), but do you really want the alternative? Do you want to believe in a God who ultimately bows to your preferences? Do you want God to seek your permission before he can claim something to be true? At this point, it is much more important to deal with your definition of what it means to be “God.” The biggest problem in your theology is not likely within the individual discipline that gave rise the the question, but the epistemological approach to authority in your life.
Having said this, it is important to realize that I am not asserting the opposite view. It is not as if (as in the discipline of textual criticism) “the harder reading is preferred.”I am not saying that we should always be looking for the least palatable option. Neither am I saying that because the palatability of a doctrine does not determine is veracity, that palatability will not have some voice in the decision-making process forming our theology. After all, while we are fallen and our moral compass is damaged, it does not follow that the palatability of a doctrine does not work at all. We are still in the image of God. Therefore, our emotions should often guide us and inform our understanding of God and his attributes.
Technically speaking, people can be saved and have all sorts of wrong doctrine (after all, I do). But that is not the right question. It all comes down to whether or not we are allowing God to have the right to reveal and have his revelation be the authority even when the truths of his revelation do not sit well with us, emotionally. I would never ask anyone to blindly believe in an eternal hell, unconditional election, the doctrine of the Trinity, the authority of the husband over his wife, or any number of emotionally difficult doctrines. Neither am I saying that those who disagree with me concerning these issues are doing so based on their emotions, or that there are no valid logical or biblical reasons for rejecting the traditional doctrines. What I am saying is that, more often than not, I find that these questions and the persistent rejection of traditional views in these areas are based on the premise that we have permission to create God in our image rather than forming our understanding of him according to his revelation.