A revolution in thinking about the hereafter may be sweeping the evangelical community, at least if one popular Christian blogger has his way. Writing in TIME magazine, Benjamin L. Corey offers an out-of-the-mainstream perspective on hell — the state or destination for those who die outside of Christ, as traditionally held by all Christians. Drawing on a lesser-known tradition popular among Reformation-era radicals, Corey challenges fellow believers to reconsider accepted beliefs about the eternal destiny of the damned, suggesting most Christians have gotten it wrong since the time of the Apostles.
An Anabaptist author disillusioned with the idea of damnation, Corey explains to TIME readers why “more and more Christians are beginning to reject the traditional view of hell which states the unjust will experience ‘eternal, conscious torment.’” Author of the Letting Go of Hell series on Patheos.com, Corey hits many of the same notes as Rob Bell, a former emergent megachurch pastor now partnering with Oprah Winfrey and other New Age paragons. Bell, who put flame to gasoline several years ago with his book Love Wins, argued that a loving God couldn’t send people to hell, and would never give up on rebellious sinners. Many evangelicals quickly identified this teaching with its historic name, Universalism. And while Corey doesn’t appear to deny that some will finally and fully reject God, he follows Bell in rejecting the well-known image of unrepentant sinners perpetually burning in the Lake of Fire
“The assertion that God himself would not only torture people but take great pleasure in it,” asserts Corey, “is something that many of us in Christianity are finding utterly offensive.”
Arguing that everlasting misery is not only excessive punishment for sinners, but is inconsistent with God’s very character, Corey scours the Bible, hoping to explain where the traditional Protestant and Catholic view went wrong.
“When we look at the entire testimony of scripture, we most often see the disposition of those who refuse to enter into God’s love described as a ‘second death.’”
From this premise, he reasons that God must simply extinguish the consciences of those who die in rebellion rather than subjecting them to unending punishment, which he views as “sadistic.” The concept Corey invokes here is called “Annihilationism,” an interpretation of Scripture that’s long been a staple of Anabaptist theology. But the linchpin of his argument for annihilation is an intuition, not the text of the New Testament itself:
“If Jesus commands that we love our enemies,” reasons Corey, “refuse to use violence, and that we actually do good to those who hate us, yet — eternally tortures his own enemies — he’s guilty of hypocrisy.”
This argument, of course, requires a slew of assumptions. First, we must assume that when Jesus said “love your enemies,” he meant to imply normative nonviolence. This would make it difficult to explain how his apostles could write approvingly of violent justice administered by earthly governments (Romans 13:4).
In order to accept Corey’s reasoning, we must also assume that everything forbidden for human beings is forbidden for God. But this poses a challenge when explaining how God can kill, which the authors of Scripture report him doing on countless occasions (the account of Ananias and Sapphira, for example — Acts 5:1-11). Corey’s argument thus requires that we forbid God, who stands apart from us as Creator and Redeemer, from exercising his role as Judge. And if God is nonviolent, requiring no punishment for sins, it raises the question of why Jesus was crucified “for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3), “according to the plan” of God the Father (Acts 2:23).
Finally, Corey ignores the host of passages in the New Testament — many spoken by Jesus himself — that deal with hell and teach an eternal, conscious punishment.
“If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out,” said Jesus. “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:47-48).
Similar passages can be found in Matthew 3:12, 25:4, Revelation 14:10-13, and 20:10-15. The point in all is the same: Jesus came to save us from a richly-deserved punishment without easy escapes. And minimizing the reality or eternality of hell requires more than just ignoring Scripture. It requires that we minimize the scope and cost of Christ’s atonement and the salvation He won as a result. In other words, without damnation, there is no salvation. Accepting heaven means accepting hell.