If you are going to carry on a conversation about hell and the way it is presented in the Bible, it helps to begin by considering who actually – in the words of Jesus – is going to hell. Surprisingly (to some), Jesus doesn’t describe the denizens of hell as people who don’t profess faith in him or who refuse to say a sinner’s prayer.
Hell, we are told, is for bad people.
You know, people who, for whatever reason, never buy into God’s idea of justice.
They never feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or care for the sick and imprisoned (Mt. 25). They ignore beggars that they pass by every day (Luke 16). They abuse their religious authority, burdening people with pointless rules and teachings to reinforce their own importance and power, and luring them into the same sense of smugness (Mt. 23).
Before you get into a hell-related conversation, then, be clear: whatever hell is, the Bible tells us that people are sent there because of what they did (Rev. 20). Hell is never, to my knowledge, associated with something that someone believes.
[Another interesting feature: Even among those who survive the cut, we are told, there is a great deal of complaining about how others didn’t do enough, or got in on the whole thing too late. That is, some of the hardest “workers” will apparently have a much more narrow view of who should be “in” and who should be “out” than God (Mt. 20).]
So…wait a minute! Aren’t we saved by grace through faith? How can we be judged by works, yet saved by grace?!
That, to me, is the million dollar question.
Paul, in his letters, talks quite a bit about salvation through grace. He also talks about God’s judgment and wrath. Never about hell itself, however. We should be careful about conflating the two concepts. When Jesus talks about hell, he is talking about God’s judgment; but we shouldn’t assume that, every time Paul mentions judgment or wrath, he is talking about hell.
One way of answering the works/judgment versus grace/salvation question is to say that faith in Jesus provides a sort-of “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Just keep it tucked in your wallet or purse, then pull it out on judgment day. But the Bible’s accounts of hell aren’t stories where everyone is condemned, but then a few manage to slide by because they have one of the Jesus coupons. They are stories about good people and bad people. And it’s the bad people going to hell. Good people don’t.
Which has made me wonder, for a very long time: What if judgment by works and salvation by grace aren’t two diametrically opposed things? What if its not one or the other? What if God does both of these things to and for each of us? And what if the message of the Bible is this – while God can and must do both of these things, it is his grace, in the end, that is supremely triumphant?
Questions like that seem to point in a better direction, and I hold to some speculations about how all of this might work out in a wonderfully spectacular way. But many of the ideas I hold to are just that. Hopeful speculation about the next world.
What I can say for certain, in the meantime, is that Jesus is intensely interested in what we do in this life. If we want to avoid hell, he tells us, its time to start doing works of justice.