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Are We Really Saving People from Hell?

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Atlanta, Georgia

August 8, 2008

In a conversation about the Roman Road and the influence of nineteenth-century evangelism on soteriology an aquaintance talked about people perishing in flames and such if the gospel were not shared with them or if they did not accept it. Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that Almighty God is planning to condemn four billion (five billion? six billion?) people to an eternity of agony and torment because they either did not hear or were not persuaded that they were sinners and that Jesus died for them?

Before anyone asks, no, I do not ignore those texts where Jesus or others warn about perishing in a fiery afterlife. When those texts come up, I preach them faithfully. Nevertheless, I can't help but notice that those texts are generally directed as warnings to believers, and I think they serve best that way. In other words, Hell works best as a prod to keep us as Christians seeking the narrow path that leads to life rather than as an assumption about the eternal destination for the vast, vast majority of humanity.

Somewhere in the union of Western individualism with revivalist evangelism salvation ceased to be about the singular divine act of mercy in Jesus and became a question of individual status. We stopped talking about "God's salvation of humanity" and started talking about "Jesus dying for you." Instead of asking people to join in the divine drama of salvation and sanctification, we started asking, "Are you saved? Is she?"

The biblical record is incredibly ambiguous and even contradictory on how salvation works and who is or is not saved. The Church as a whole, likewise, usually comes up with a new dominant model of salvation for each major era of Western thought (and I suppose a new one is forthcoming as we move into postmodernism), so it's obvious that we don't and never will fully understand the concept of salvation in this life. Certainly, my own ignorance causes me to significantly mistrust the value or power of human consent or understanding in the process of salvation. Perhaps more importantly, I am aware that Jesus' strongest warning about the dangers of eternal torment are directed at his followers who think they are safe.

For me, then, Hell should be primarily a concern for believers. Evangelism, then, is not about saving the unwashed hordes from Hell; it is about inviting people to have their lives transformed by joining into a relationship with their Creator who, taking human form and suffering as they suffer, died out of love for them to save them and who was resurrected on the third day offering them and us all hope of eternal life.

Is this "another gospel" because it does not emphasize the threat of Hell? (Please note that I'm not denying the threat of Hell, just blanket pronouncements which ignore how it is used in Scripture and which direct the focus outward.) I don't think so, because such a gospel does not deny: the reality of our sinfulness, the consequence of sinfulness, the deity of Jesus, the uniqueness and perfection of Jesus as both the answer to and the antidote for sin and its consequences, or the reality of Jesus' death and resurrection.