The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 1, What If There Was No Heaven?

Last week it was my honor to participate in a talkback with filmmaker Kevin Miller after a viewing of Hellbound?.

This week on my blog I’ll have four posts coming out to work back through some of the Q&A Kevin and I hosted, the queries we fielded and some of our answers regarding UR. I’m going to be cross-posting those posts here on the EU Forum. Fair warning: these posts are fairly rudimentary (except the last one) dealing with questions that have been extensively discussed on the EU Forum. But some new twists to old arguments might be found here. Plus, it’s always good to go back to basics for those new to the conversation and the Forum.

The first installment is about heaven and hell as motivating forces in the Christian life.

Specifically, Kevin and I were asked the question, to paraphrase from memory, “If there is no hell what’s the point of being a Christian?”

It’s always surprising how often this question comes up. And it’s always startling that people need to ask it.

First, as you well know, most of those who espouse evangelical universalism actually do believe in hell. As Kevin pointed out, the issue isn’t hell per se but if hell is an end in itself or a means to an end.

Setting that aside, the question really has to do with human motivation and the role of punishment. That is, the question assumes that if there isn’t some really bad punishment out there then why would anyone become a Christian and keep at it?

Such a theory of motivation is pretty scary and sad. It suggests that, at root, Christianity is a fear-based religion. And no doubt it is for many people. Which is why so many Christians are violent. Where fear is the motivation violence of all sorts soon follows.

By contrast, Kevin and I talked about–surprise, surprise–love and joy being the motivation for the Christian life.

But along with those comments I went on to pose a question that I’ve heard attributed to Tony Campolo. I said this, “Why don’t we flip this on its head. Rather than asking about why you should be a Christian if hell didn’t exist, let me ask this: Would you still be a Christian if heaven didn’t exist?”

We can see the thrust of Campolo’s question. By taking other-worldly punishments and rewards off the table we are forced to consider this-worldly motivations for being followers of Jesus.

And that completely reconfigures how we understand the motivations of the Christian life.

I don’t think we’re told in scripture that we’ll go to “heaven” when we die. Jesus said, “and this is eternal (aionios) life; that they may know You and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So “eternal” life is to know God. Knowing God IS heaven, and the better we know Him, the closer we approach heaven. In fact, the Jews often said “heaven” in an effort not to overuse Ha Shem. Even today if you correspond with a Jew online, s/he will often type G-d just to avoid even the common use of the generic term referring to Ha Shem. IMO, heaven and knowing Father are synonymous. Based on that, I’d have to say that no, I probably would not – probably COULD not be a Christian without hope of heaven.

As for hell, yes – imo there IS a hell (albeit a temporary one) to shun. Shunning this hell is, to me, far different from following a fear based religion. (Although I agree with your assessment, understanding that you mean the common view of hell). Let’s say that you have a wonderful father, and you’re young enough that you are still under his authority. You trust your father absolutely and you know that he has your best interests in mind at all times, and that he is wise and KNOWS what your best interests are. Still, he does expect you to obey him and will chastise you as appropriate and necessary to bring you to maturity. We DO have such a father, and it would be foolhardy not to fear His just wrath. Why should we fear it? Because first and most important, we desire to please Him; not to disappoint and anger Him. Second, because we want to be like Him, and the things He does not do, we also desire not to do – and vice versa. So we fear to take advantage of some other brother or sister (“saved” or not) or to treat another unkindly in any way. I fear to sin (although I fall as often as anyone) because I dread disappointing Him and I want to move toward Him; not away.

Heaven is His presence, life, approval. Hell is His absence (and/or His presence burning away our sin), the death we have wished for ourselves in clinging to our sin, His disapproval (but not His lack of love – certainly not His hatred!)

Love, Cindy

Whether it is heaven or hell, the motivation should be the same. Getting closer and closer to Father IS heaven just as moving away from Him IS hell. (Or in another sense, moving toward Him, while cherishing sin, would be hellish as well!)

for me the Kingdom of Heaven is about today…and tomorrow. but more about today: specifically bulding justice and mercy. so heaven is a key part. i was 3 when i became a Christian, so i don’t really know what my motivations were…but what kept me coming back was …actually not sure about that either! :laughing: i don’t think it was one specific thing. but one thing i draw courage from is that we are building God’s Heaven now. yes i believe in an end to all suffering and sin in a future place, but the important part is here and now, and to me that view of heaven is what it’s all about…so i couldn’t really be a Christian if i didn’t hold onto some hope of that.

as for hell avoidance…the more i think about it, the more i think that is an inherently flawed bit of reasoning. Perfect love casts out fear…and i can’t imagine God trying to start a relationship with His creatures through fear (ie terror) of Himself! it might start that way for some, but it’s the relationship that counts…and that must be love, not fear…not intimidation or bullying or anything else you want to call it.

Hi (again!) Richard:
You’ve talked about this elsewhere too. And it is rattling to me when this comes up because the answers seem so obvious!

Two illustrations…
Say that I live on a road which is well traveled and just up the road is a bridge. Well, I discover some night that the bridge has washed away and to drive this road unaware of this is to ensure severe injury. So what should I do? Well, seems kind, and compassionate, and Christlike even, to stand out on that stormy night (state troopers are otherwise detained) waving a lantern and warning of the danger ahead.
Now suppose I have knowledge (somehow) that no actual fatalities will result from the certain crashes and wrecks that will come from ignoring the warnings; instead, “mere injuries” and suffering will result…
So do I stay inside, comforted by the fact that “no one will die”??
No, actually, I will take the potential suffering and pain of the wreck victims very seriously! Seriously enough to stand and WARN them!!

(So this is how I see God’s warning of hell; He loves us so much He wants to warn/spare us of the inevitable suffering that results. For it is utterly unnecessary! He knows we shall eventually all be well, but that doesn’t mean the intervening suffering is therefore not worth warning about!!!)

Second, suppose I discover (some mind scan or something) that my wife, whom I love dearly and have been married to for 34 years, has sworn an oath that she will love me no matter what and will never leave me no matter what the circumstances.
Elated at this discovery, I immediately embark on indiscriminate sexual indiscretions with any and every willing woman. After all, I’ve been forgiven ahead of time and risk nothing by way of my marriage.

That such a thing is utterly and transparently absurd and unthinkable readily comes to the mind of any sane person. The purpose and comfort and joy of knowing you are unconditionally loved and accepted is so that you can LIVE in the joy of being unconditionally loved and accepted!!! Sneaking off for a dalliance is, in this paradigm, is literally “unthinkable”.