By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The concept of hell is mystical, but belief in hell has moral and political implications. Christians and Muslims who believe that God condemns those of other religions to eternal damnation in hell cannot love their unbelieving neighbors unless they consider that trying to convert them is an act of love. But proselytizing other believers implies that their religions are false, and that’s an insult. Is such proselytizing an act of love? Hell No!
The greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—including neighbors of other religions—is supposedly a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It begs the question of whether God condemns all those who are not believers in the one true faith, whichever it is, to eternal damnation. That would include most people. Does a God of love and mercy condemn most people to hell? Hell No!
In Love Wins, Rob Bell has convincingly argued that there is no credible scriptural evidence in the Old and New Testaments for a Dante-style hell of eternal suffering. Hell is a creation of the church and has been a powerful negative incentive to attract converts; but it conflicts with the concept of God as a universal and eternal power of love and mercy.
In the Hebrew Bible God rewarded or punished his chosen people in this world, not the next, based on their obedience to Mosaic Law. Jesus was a Jew who spoke of how sin can cause misery and suffering in this world, but not of eternal damnation. Like the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an emphasizes that God’s rewards require compliance with holy law, but unlike the Hebrew Bible, God’s rewards and punishments come after death in either an eternal heaven or hell.
If the greatest commandment is indeed a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, then it is God’s will that people of all religions and races are reconciled and redeemed by the transforming power of God’s love and mercy. Satan opposes the will of God and uses the fear of hell to divide and conquer. Unfortunately, Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his most convincing work in the church, mosque and in politics.
Satan may preside over the dark forces of evil in this world, but there is no Biblical evidence that his dark powers extend into the next world. Hell is real, but it is of our own making here on earth. We can be assured that after we take our last breath our eternal spirits will be beyond Satan’s reach. Dante’s Inferno may well have been inspired by the Qur’an, which, unlike the Bible, repeatedly describes hell as a place of eternal damnation for unbelievers.
Throughout the history of Christianity and Islam, each of those religions has asserted that God condemns all unbelievers to hell. It appears that most Christians and Muslims continue to believe that God condemns those of other religions to hell; and if God does it, so can they. The result is dangerous religious and political polarization in a world of increasing religious diversity.
A caveat to the above is that any assertion about the existence and nature of hell is informed speculation that should be based on scripture interpreted by tradition, experience and reason. Christians have more flexibility than Muslims on belief in hell due to the ambiguity of Biblical language on the subject, compared to the specificity of language in the Qur’an on hell.
Experience and reason dictate that people of faith say Hell No! to religious exclusivism and the condemnation of unbelievers to eternal damnation since that contradicts God’s greatest commandment to love our neighbors of other religions as we love ourselves. That love command is a common word of faith and a shared religious value that can reconcile and redeem all people of faith in the family of God, and defeat Satan’s will to divide and conquer.
On Bernie Sanders crusade against—believing in hell, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/bernie-sanderss-crusade-against----believing-in-hell/2017/06/12/80d854ac-4f9f-11e7-91eb-9611861a988f_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
The Theological Task for United Methodists requires interpreting scripture based on tradition, experience and reason. See pages 80-91 in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016 (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville Tennessee), posted at https://www.cokesbury.com/forms/DynamicContent.aspx?id=87&pageid=920.
Related commentary posted at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/:
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/4/15) Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation in the Family of God http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/religion-and-new-beginnings-salvation.html
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(2/8/15) Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(7/26/15): Fear and Fundamentalism
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Differenthttp://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/10/faith-and-religion-same-but-different.html
(11/22/15): Dualism: Satan’s Evil Versus God’s Goodness
(1/2/16): God in Three Concepts
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(5/13/17): Voices of Reason and Hope in the Cacophony over Religion, Human Rights and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/05/voices-of-reason-and-hope-in-cacophony.html
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html