December 2023
If You Don't Believe in Hell

Our beliefs aren't isolated. They are linked. Take away one, and everything shifts.

Beliefs ripple. But we make a concerted effort to ignore that. Especially within the system of Christian faith, people can be tempted to pick and choose which doctrines they are "okay with" and which ones they leave behind. The problem lies in the ripples. Christians don't always see how disbelief in one thing affects belief in another. In this article, I want to use disbelief in the existence of hell as an example. Universalism has made a comeback, especially since the work of people like Rob Bell. Maybe the initial conservative horror at what he said in Love Wins has worn off after a decade. Maybe some Christians are favoring moral practicality or inner feelings over the authority of God's Word. I don't know.  

But what I set out below leads to a troubling conclusion: as a Christian, if you don't believe in hell, there's a very good chance you're lost and having a hard time identifying both who God is and who you are. And you may be drifting towards that ever-growing "religious-nones" category.

Rippling Doctrines

In a recent podcast series, Kevin DeYoung and David Briones talked about liberal Christianity of the early 20th century and its relation to what's commonly called "progressive Christianity" today. DeYoung made a passing observation that doesn't get near enough attention. In referring to the doctrine of hell as a staple of orthodox Christian faith, he noted how rejecting that doctrine requires that you redefine every other doctrine, too. This is what we might call the ripple effect of belief. And if people knew about this, I don't know that they'd be as quick to dismiss a biblical doctrine that has guided and steered the faith of the church for over two thousand years.

Here's what the ripple effect looks like. If there's no hell, then you have to revisit the doctrine of sin, since not repenting of sin is what lands people in hell (Matt. 7:23; 25:41; Mark 9:43; 2 Thess. 1:9). But then you have to look at the doctrine of Christ, since Christ came to "save" the world from sin (Matt. 1:21; John 1:29; Acts 2:38; Rom. 3:23; 5:8; 6:23; 1 John 1:7; 2:2). And if sin doesn't actually put anyone in hell, because hell doesn't exist, then why did Christ come? What did we need saving from if not sin? Or—dare you think it—did we even need saving?

The ripples keep coming. If we redefine Christ's mission, and Christ is the Son of God, then we have to redefine our doctrine of God, especially the notion of God's holiness. Who is this God that sent himself to a humanity that didn't need saving from a hell that doesn't exist? If holiness isn't an attribute of God, then what can we say about who God is? And if we're leaving behind Scripture as the authority on who God is, do we simply associate God with anything that we feel is loving, beautiful, or mysterious?

And lest you thought this was all speculation about supernatural ideas, we also have to revisit the doctrine of man, of who we are. If we were formerly understood as creatures made in God's image (Gen. 1:27), but we no longer have a clear understanding of who God is in terms of holiness, then who are we? What makes a human a human? As Christians, we can't answer that question without an understanding of who God is. The doctrines of God and man are inextricably linked; whatever you believe about one has direct implications for the other. That is, if you're still claiming to be a Christian. (More on that in a moment).

The ripple effect should be evident now. What started as a dismissal of a doctrine that feels uncomfortable or harsh—perhaps because it doesn't comport with contemporary, culturally-embedded views of God, sin, and self—ends up leading to doubts about basic questions of existence. Who is God, really? And who am I? What is a person? Do I really believe in this whole "made in God's image" idea?  

Lost in the Self

Some—especially those born and raised in the church—find questions like these liberating, encouraging the great human scheme of spiritual exploration. They may even feel unburdened by giving up the doctrine of hell. Why worry so much about a teaching that just doesn't feel right? Can't we just focus on moral living, on following Jesus instead of judging others? (Side-note: Jesus certainly believed in hell, so I guess you'll just have to follow part of Jesus?)

I see the sentiment. No one takes joy in the doctrine of hell, not even God. Jesus said his Father doesn't want any children to perish (Matt. 18:14). He wants all to repent and find themselves in him (2 Pet. 3:9). But people still have a free will. They can choose not to repent and follow God. And Scripture is clear about the eternal consequence of that decision—despite its ugliness and terror. Based on that same free will, people can choose to reject the doctrine of hell. The problem is twofold. One is the ripple effect. The other is that many Christians have lost all sense of authority beyond the self, and that's precisely where they've given way to secular culture, which prioritizes self above all else. This is clear in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age as well as Carl Trueman's more recent The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Let me be clear: there is always an authority for what you believe. For historic, orthodox Christianity, that authority is Scripture. For people in the "progressive Christianity" lane, the authority is self or culture, which has redefined the self according to secular and psychological sources. Authority is either what I feel about a given issue (self) or what a popular figure or movement says about it (e.g., Rob Bell in Love Wins).

Progressive Christianity isn't a form of Christianity; it's just a pit-stop on a road that leads to giving up faith in the biblical Christ altogether.

I would describe this latter position (the authority as self or culture) as "lost" because it's bound to wander. It has no stability, no foundation of truth, and (frankly) nothing keeping it from wholesale disbelief in other basic doctrines of Christianity. After all, if culture has told you that belief in hell is too harsh, won't they also tell you that belief in the resurrection is too childish? Ultimately, progressive Christianity isn't a form of Christianity; it's just a pit-stop on a road that leads to giving up faith in the biblical Christ altogether.

This is precisely what J. Gresham Machen argued against in his book Christianity and Liberalism (I've recently narrated the audiobook). The liberalism of his day in the 1920s bears uncanny resemblance to progressive Christianity in our day: it's not a faction of Christianity, not a variant of Christian belief; it's different religion. People don't think it is, but that's because they don't see the ripple effect. Whether they want to or not, they have to change other doctrines once they give up the doctrine of hell.

Some of them are okay with this. "Alright," they say. "I'll redefine sin, Christ, God, and self. I'll redefine all of it." To people in that camp, I have only two comments. (1) That's not Christianity. And (2) Whatever your source of authority is for making those decisions, it's going to lead you to some ungodly places, where you are indistinguishable from secular culture.

Finding True North in a Relationship

All of this breaks my heart for a deeper reason, though. We can often treat theological discussions like chess matches. The first to theological "checkmate" wins. And I believe this is why having apologetic discussions with people doesn't always have the effect we hope it will (though these discussions are necessary). If the discussion is perceived as a chess match from the outset, some people are happy to wipe the pieces off the table. "You and your mind games! Who cares? Jesus loved people! And that's what I do. You just want to act like you're better than others because of ideas you agree with."

Behind the whole theological chess match is something much more vital. Being a Christian is, at heart, having an active relationship with God—the loving Father, the risen Christ, the sanctifying Spirit. That's what establishes our new identity as creatures reborn in grace (John 3). Our sense of direction, our true north, is embedded in a living dialogue with God, and this takes three forms: Scripture, prayer, and worship. Each of these forms is about regularly communicating with the God we profess to love.

Our sense of direction, our true north, is embedded in a living dialogue with God.

If you're not doing these things on a regular, daily basis, then do you really believe in this God you profess? Would anyone be said to have a relationship with someone else if communication were absent?

And yet that absence of communication with God means the presence of communication from another source: self (internal thoughts and feelings) and culture. The question is never about whether we have an authoritative relationship leading our lives and defining our values. The question is, what or who is that authority for us?

If you have rejected the doctrine of hell—for whatever reason—then you have another authority guiding you. Do you know the places you're being guided to? And have you thought about the other beliefs you have that are being affected by that decision? It's worth more than a ponder.

Our truth north was always meant to be a relationship with the Trinity, who reveals himself in the world around us and in Scripture. If we give up the authority of that relationship, we're not practicing a different type of Christianity; we're practicing a different religion, and maybe even giving up religion altogether.

Want to learn more the truth north relationship for your life? Check out One with God!

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