Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why People Go to Hell

One of the core elements of biblical evangelical theology is that people die and go to hell. While that doctrine is distasteful to many, and should be hard for anyone to preach gladly, it is what the Bible teaches and what the church has historically believed. It is hard to imagine that one will long be an evangelical after denying the reality of eternal conscious torment. However, my point here is not to address the reality of hell, but to think for a moment about why people go there.

It is common to hear people say something like, “People do not go to hell for their sins because Jesus died for all sin. They go to only only for their unbelief.”

Let’s consider this along two lines. First, the Bible plainly declares that people go to hell for their sins. For instance, Revelation 21:8 says, “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” It is hard to imagine that the list of sins is somehow not a part of the reason that they are there.

Second, unbelief is a sin (cf. Revelation 21:8 for starters). If Jesus died for all sin, then he must also have died for the sin of unbelief. Therefore, their unbelief, like all their other sins, would have been paid for. So why would they be in hell for a sin that was paid for?

If the sin of unbelief was not paid for, then unbelief is a sin that is atoned for by doing something, namely, by believing. That is to say that Jesus atoned for all sins but unbelief, and we atone for unbelief by belief. It becomes, in effect, a self-salvation, or salvation by replacement of one thing for another. One might as well deny the reality of hell as affirm the possibility of self-atonement.

“Well,” one might object, “unbelief is not a sin.”

Then we must ask why would one be punished in hell for eternity for something that was not even wrong to begin with? And why is it listed along with other sins in places like Revelation 21:8, Titus 1:15, and 2 Thessalonians 2:12.

People who usually make this argument do so, at least in part, as an argument about fairness, that it would be unfair for God to pay only for the sins of some and not the sins of others. The idea of fairness is crying out for a post, and perhaps shall have its own soon. But to entertain the argument, how is it fair for God to send someone to eternal conscious torment for something that was not wrong? It makes no sense.

Yes, this is, in some sense an argument for a limited atonement of some sort. Before you cry foul, remember that everyone (except universalists) limits the atonement in some way, either in its provision or its application or both.

But I think there are some who need to think a bit more rigorously about the idea that people do not go to hell for sin; they go for unbelief.

Hopefully, this might jumpstart a thought or two.


Scott Aniol said...

If I remember correctly, this is essentially the argument John Owen presents in defense of limited atonement.

Good thoughts.

Mark Ward said...

To suggest a 'limited atonement' is unfortunate for two reasons.

#1 "It is a defensive, restrictive expression: here is atonement (offerd by Christ), and then someone wants to limit it. The notion of limiting something as glorious as the Atonement is intrinsically offensive."

#2 "Even when inspected more coolly, 'limited atonement' is objectively misleading. Every view of the Atonement 'limits' it in some way, save for the unqualified universalist."
(I just quoted from D.A. Carson)

"Limited Atonement is a common Calvinist error - which accuses even those who say Christ died for all - of limiting the efficacy of the atonement because only those who believe are saved. On the contrary, the atonement is not limited by some rejectiong Christ's sacrifice on their behalf. The inheritance left by the deceased is not reduced in value because some heirs refuse their share."
(quote from "What Love is This?" by Dave Hunt)

By the way, Larry - perhaps you should get a copy of "What Love is This?" If you don't have a copy, I'll be happy to supply you with one. Sounds like you need to read the book! (Not to mention the Book of Books - the Bible).

Just a thought or two....

Larry said...


I agree that "limited atonement" is an unfortunate term, but it is a common one. "Definite atonement" is a much better one for a lot of reasons which I won't go into, but I agree with Carson (though I am curious as to which source you are citing).

With respect to Hunt, I have read part of his book. I couldn't take anymore of it. It was poorly written on top of being filled with all sorts of errors. Honestly, that book was an embarrassment, a travesty of epic proportion. It was so badly flawed, and my understanding is that people told Hunt that before he published it. Anyone who quotes Hunt is immediately dismissed by me. No offense intended but that is not a serious effort at anything remotely resembling an argument about the issue.

Please read this article by Dave Doran:

He outline errors along four lines. (1) poor research and documentation;(2)misrepresentation of its sources; (3) flaws of exegetical commitment and competence; and (4) repeated use of fallacious arguments. He clearly shows why Hunt's book cannot be trusted, no matter which side you are on.

As I have said before, if someone disagrees with me, I am fine with that. But using, trusting, or recommending Hunt stoops to a whole new level.

Please read the entire article. It is well worth the time.

Mark Ward said...

It's too bad you feel that way, Larry. You are my friend, and yes, I have Doran's article on the review. I was quoting D.A. Carson from his book "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God" Published by Crossway Books (Copyright 2000)

To suggest that I have stooped to a new level because I have read "What Love is This?" is a low blow. It only shows how strong people feel about Calvinistic theology. As my predictions hold, it is hard to convince a Calvinist that his theology is warped. Anyway, enough said. I have a few other books on my shelf that I'd recommend to you - but afraid to even suggest the titles, as my low-level theology may only get lower in your eyes. I love you man - and enjoy the debate. Just wish you were on a different side as it relates to the doctrine of Soteriology.

Larry said...

You are my friend as well.

The stooping to a new level wasn't reading Hunt. It was quoting it as authoritative. It isn't. I think Hunt's book was a lowpoint in the debate. As Doran adequately showed, it is flawed in many ways. And that is just in methodology, not it's point. I wasn't attacking your theology as "low level." I was addressing Hunt's book which is low level.

As for feeling strongly, you feel just as strongly the opposite way. Can I convince you your theology is warped? I think I have good biblical warrant for what I believe. I am sure you think you do. But I think arguments like Hunt's are not helpful at all. I am willing to be corrected, I think. But it will involve answering some pretty tough questions from the Bible, and so far, nothing I have found answers those questions.

As for other titles, I may have already read them. :)

My best to you, my friend.