Questions

This posting is mostly just me rambling tonight; the structure is poor. I am one of those annoying sorts of people who is rarely wholly satisfied with an answer–since most answers don’t really take care of all the questions I have. All too often, I see problems and I don’t find good answers. Telling me simply, “well, that’s the way it is” ain’t enough. Nor do I take kindly to being told to just sit down and shut up and stop wondering about stuff that no one should be wondering about. We already know the answer, so just accept it. I am not one to be told: “see that fenced off area? You can go in there, but don’t touch anything; most certainly you are not allowed to move any of the patio furniture, and don’t ask about the recipe for the potato salad.”

Frankly, when it comes to pursuit of the truth, I don’t think anything should be off limits.

Admittedly, for many, theology is merely a matter of learning rote doctrine. All too often it is simply a set of beliefs clung to without thought or wondering. And you’re certain to get in trouble with some people if you ask too many questions or challenge any of the sacred cows. A certain institution that I taught at briefly viewed theology as a list that the students were expected to memorize. Asking hard questions, or really, any questions at all, or offering alternative viewpoints, or leaving some questions as unanswerable was simply not acceptable. At all.

If you doubt anything that “everyone” has “always” believed, then you are a heretic for sure. The thing is, in science, in engineering, in most disciplines, asking questions, doubting pat answers, focusing on the problem areas and picking at the loose threads is, at least, theoretically praiseworthy. Of course, in real life, challenging pet dogmas in any realm of human knowledge can cause problems.

This is not to say that all questions are necessarily equally worthwhile or reasonable. If you question the spherical nature of the Earth, or cast doubt on well documented historical events, or posit insane conspiracy theories, you can expect to have the weight of more knowledgeable people descending on your stupidity. Your questions must be knowledgeable and face the actual data. Of course, if you’re seven and you wonder about how the earth can be round, that’s not quite the same as if you’re thirty.

And so, I get myself into trouble sometimes over the things I ponder.

For instance, I have a lot of questions regarding this thing called Hell. I know a great number of Christians who have no questions at all about it and are quite happy with the concept. I know a few who seem rather gleeful about it–which I find a bit disturbing, to be honest.

And so, here are my questions–questions that I believe need to be faced regardless of where you finally end up in your concept of Hell. Some of these questions are more easily answered than others, of course:

If salvation is by grace, and if Jesus died for the sins of all, then why are not all then saved? Is atonement limited to only those who are elect? What about the status of those who never hear, or cannot hear (those who die in infancy or before, the mentally handicapped, and so on)?

So, is it possible that the purpose of spreading the gospel, and getting people “saved” is not to rescue them from eternal Hell, but to rescue them from the “hell” of a life not lived in freedom from the burden of guilt and the law? Isn’t it enough to bring enlightenment and joy? The gospel after all is considered “good news.” How good is it if the message, as commonly proclaimed throughout history, is “believe or go to Hell forever?” And come to think of it, where in the Bible do we see anyone preaching like that?

When Jesus says that he is the way, the truth, and the life, is he describing what he has done, or demanding a prescriptive act on our part? If the latter, how is that consistent with the notion of grace? But then why the call to repent, to believe, and the importance of faith in all of this? What about the clearly expressed “judgment of God” both in times past, in a temporal sense and the seeming more significant “cosmic” and eternal sense that is apparently indicated by several passages?

How do we put all this together and make sense of it? If salvation is universal does this mean that truth is relative and you can and should believe any fool thing you want, do anything you want, because in the final analysis it doesn’t matter what you do, think, say or believe, in the end you’ll get to go to heaven? If knowing the truth matters only if it keeps us from hellfire, then what’s the point of all the schools that we have to educate young people? Why bother? Do we correct stupid notions, fight ignorance and insist on accuracy only because it benefits us in the afterlife?

Another problem with the traditional notion of Hell: if Hell is as we have generally believed it, then why is there no fire and brimstone preaching in the Bible? Why did God wait until the NT to let people know about the danger? Are we to assume that in OT times people willy-nilly went to Hell in huge numbers, but in God’s progressive rollout of information about himself and his ways, he didn’t think that was important enough to bother mentioning to anyone until about 2000 years ago?

Does this make any sort of sense at all? Does it work with our notions of God being loving? I may not be able to explain clearly to my two year old about the dangers of playing in the street, but he sure as hell gets warned about it really quick.

Certainly on the face of it, there are several New Testament passages that seem to best fit a more traditional notion of Hell. My question is: are we reading these things correctly? Or is there another way of looking at it? And so this is the source of my puzzlement on the whole issue of Hell. The Bible seems to me clear in indicating the reality of Hell; but reconciling all these questions, making sense of the whole thing–that’s a bit more difficult. So if there is a Hell, what really is it like? What is it’s purpose? How does it work? Given that discipline in the Bible is generally redemptive in purpose, are we certain Hell is merely and only punitive?

I think it is important to realize something here. Theology is mostly about asking questions. It’s not mostly about dogma. As the preceding paragraphs illustrate (I hope): we know much less than we think we do, and things are not always as easy as we may at first think them to be. And I think it would be good, especially at the academic level, that people be able to discuss questions such as this without being afraid that they are going to have rocks tossed at them, or that they will be chased out of town on a rail and denounced as a heretic. Academic freedom should mean something even for those who happen to be theologians. We should be able to travel anywhere in the pursuit of truth, without worrying about getting in trouble.

If you believe something only because someone told you to believe it or else, do you really believe it at all? Shouldn’t we know why we believe what we believe? Shouldn’t you be able to wonder?

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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