How Can United Methodists Believe in Hell?

By William O. Reeves

Isn’t it supremely ironic that the ones who preach on hell shouldn’t, and the ones who have the theological basis to do so don’t?

The conservative evangelical world, most of whom derive their theological heritage from Reformed theology (also called Calvinism), has recently been set on its ear by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Church, a large, multi-campus ministry based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. To many readers, the book presents the argument for universal salvation—that a God of love would not consign anyone to eternal punishment because it would be against God’s nature. Bell says the belief in conscious, eternal torment is “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” He has been criticized by a number of conservative scholars and theologians.

But Bell has the logic right. Reformed theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God. The Almighty is all-powerful. Salvation is accomplished by God’s action in Jesus Christ and by God’s election of those who are to be saved. God chooses the elect.

If God is a God of love, and God has ultimate power, then everyone should get saved, because that’s what God wants. Not to do so would be contrary to the loving nature of God. Therefore judgment and subsequent punishment are meaningless. Hell is not an option. Everybody wins!

The problem with universal salvation is that it is not consistent with Scripture. Jesus spoke many times about the judgment of God and the fate of the wicked. The Book of Revelation describes a lake of fire reserved for the Devil, his angels, and sinners. Universal salvation historically has encouraged antinomianism, the rejection of morality in the light of irresistible grace, an attitude which was anathema to John Wesley.

John Wesley had no problem talking about the horrors of eternal punishment with his 18th-century audiences. And our current Book of Discipline affirms that “we believe in the resurrections of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.”

Once again, I am glad to be a Methodist! Those of the Wesleyan heritage, sometimes called Arminians, emphasize human free will in partnership with a loving, yet powerful God. Salvation is not totally God’s choice; faith is a human response. Therefore salvation is not a divine decision but a relationship between God and people.

God is love, so God limits divine sovereignty in order to allow the human response of faith, hope and love. This divine self-limitation enables a relationship through the incarnation of Jesus Christ—God made human.

Salvation as relationship allows human choice and also requires responsibility.  God loves us first, but humans must choose relationship with God. God’s grace is primary, but we are justified by our faith. We are forgiven by God’s mercy, but we are responsible for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). The continuing relationship between God and a person is the process of sanctification, a particular emphasis of Wesleyan Methodism.

However, being endowed with free will, humans can choose not to relate to God or to stop relating to God. Bell says, “We are terrifyingly free to do as we please.” We can turn away and even fall out of a relationship with God. Again, Bell: “We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.”

Ultimately, unfruitful branches are cut off and thrown into the fire, Jesus said. We can persist in our resistance against grace until we die, at which point we will experience the judgment of God. In addition to the quality of love, God is also just and holy, and these attributes do not allow a relationship with sin. If we turn to God in faith, this is not a problem; God forgives us. But if we persistently choose badly, we will be separated forever from God.

Separation is not God’s choice or desire, quite the opposite. As C. S. Lewis said, the doors of hell are locked from the inside (The Problem of Pain). For one of God’s children obstinately to refuse God’s grace must be very sad and painful for God, like a father with a prodigal son. God is always open to our return, but if there is no turning, God must let us go.

So as a Wesleyan Christian, I believe hell is real. The Biblical imagery conveys the horror of separation, and to use Niebuhr’s phrase, it should be taken seriously, but not literally. Indeed, a “lake of fire” and “outer darkness” are mutually exclusive. But you get the point.

The discussion of eternal punishment inevitably brings up other religions. Unrepentant sinners we can understand being separated from God. But what about sincere believers in other faiths? In fact, the precipitating incident for Bell’s book was a sticky note attached to a painting depicting Mahatma Gandhi. The sticky note said, “Gandhi is in hell.” Bell’s response was, “Really? We have confirmation of this?”

How can we communicate the Gospel in a world of many faiths, yet stay faithful to the Christ who said, “No one comes to the Father except through me”? Surprisingly, Bell echoes the idea of the cosmic Christ working even through other religions, an idea espoused by United Methodist scholars Bishop Scott Jones and Dr. Billy Abraham and others. Commenting on John 14:6, Bell says, “What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”

Again, C. S. Lewis has a helpful analogy (Mere Christianity). He says that there is only one right answer to an arithmetic problem, but there are some answers that are not as wrong as others. 2 + 2 can only equal 4. But 2 + 2 = 5 is closer than 2 + 2 = 25. Among the varied spiritual systems of humankind, the only absolutely wrong answer is to reject all answers or not to attempt an answer at all.

It is important to maintain respect for and dialog with people of other religions, yet to remain true to our Christ-centeredness. When confronted with these deep tensions of faith, I prefer to say that the eternal salvation or punishment of any person is a Management decision. I am in sales and customer service!

As a United Methodist pastor, I do not preach about hell. I emphasize the good news of grace and love. Wesley himself only had a couple of sermons on the subject. My lack of attention to eternal judgment is in part a reaction against the emotional manipulation of “hellfire and damnation” preaching. It is also a choice to focus on the positive relationship of faith.

If salvation is relational, there are two implications for Christians: (1) We are responsible for our relationship with God (Philippians 2:12-13). Prevenient grace ultimately should lead to holiness. (2) There should be an urgency in our witness.  It is critical that we share the good news of Jesus, because those who do not turn to God can be lost from God forever.

Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.”  That is the tragic possibility. But the rest of the verse is good news: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal separation from God is possible, but by the grace of God and our responsible witness, nobody inevitably has to go there.

Dr. William O. (Bud) Reeves is the senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas. A version of this article first appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist.