Forgive me for this, but I will have to doing a bit of name-dropping within this post.
I have been wrestling with the doctrine of hell for a long, long while now and seem to have adopted every one of the interpretations of this doctrine at some point in the past few years. This shakiness is due to my current weakness of simply getting swept along by anyone who has a strong enough conviction to make me think otherwise.
I've gone from exclusivist, to inclusivist, to annihilationist, to universalist, to Brian McLarenist, to inclusivist again and I'm currently persuading myself that I actually need to take myself out of the argument for a while and focus on other things. This is primarily because I see the need to develop a much broader, wider theology than simply have a knowledge of one very small drop in the theological ocean.
The most helpful account of the doctrine of hell that I have come across recently comes from the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright's helpful little book 'Following Jesus'.
In a nutshell he spells out that everyone is invited to partake in worship of the living God, in which faith and baptism are crucial. This results in us reflecting God's image more and more and thus becoming more truly human. The opposite is to persistently refuse to worship him and thus take on the image of other things that we worship, e.g. money, sex, power etc. This results in us eventually losing the image and ceasing to be human. This results in final loss. Now I must state that Bishop Tom also believes that by making the whole subject on hell simply about personal eternal destinations is to miss the larger theme of larger-scale judgment, especially within the consequences of whole nations sinning and seeing disastrious results come about.
We take the fact that Jesus warned the nation of Israel that if she kept on the way she was, she would suffer great loss. AD70, 40 years on after Jesus said this, proved the point. Israel was totally sacked.
Now I sent an email to Bishop Tom today to ask him for some advice for what to do if a young person were to say to me for example 'my cousin died last year and she's not a Christian. I'm afraid she is in hell'. It is pastoral issues like this that I struggle with when discussing the doctrine of hell.
To my pleasant surprise, he graciously replied this evening!:
Thanks for this. I understand the problem! The main thing is to assure
people that God knows everyone's hearts and that his love is all-powerful. I
know this begs the question but in any case the key thing is in any case to
direct peoples' attention to God rather than anyone, however beloved. It's a
tough call. I am certainly not a universalist but I do suspect that some of
our over-clear categories are unhelpful.
That's probably as good as I can do! There is another book coming out in
about 6 months called Surprised by Hope which has a slightly fuller
discussion of the whole question...
Warm greetings and good wishes
Now thats encouraging on two counts:
1) That it can smash the preconceptions of those who think someone of Bishop Tom's renown would not reply to such an email.
2) That he doesn't skip the question, admits that it is a tricky subject and offers some good, sound advice.
This doctrine is never going to be a comfortable one to discuss, but I think I've currently reached a place where I can comfortably put it to bed for the time being.
Lord help us to realise how ultimately loving, forgiving and gracious you are. I hope we start to take seriously the consquences of our sin, individually and globally and importantly realise that you can transform us, however low we think we've fallen. Amen.