In the April 24, 2011 issue of Time, an article by Jon Meacham is titled "Is Hell Dead?" The issue's cover asks, "What if there's no Hell?" The article reports on the issues raised by Evangelical pastor Rob Bell's new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I have not read the book … yet. Meacham makes it clear that Bell is not denying the existence of Hell outright, but questioning its meaning and, particularly, who it is for and if it is permanent. (Note: The image is © Copyright 2011 Cipone, from Flickr, titled "Souls Rising to Heaven")
This is Easter Sunday, according to the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical calendar, followed by nearly all Protestants also. On a day commemorating such a joyous event, it is pertinent to ask, "Who is salvation for?" and "If heaven is for all, what is gained by receiving Jesus?" As I am musing here, this is not a theological treatise, and I'll quote Bible verses with little or no attribution; those who are interested can find the references at Bible Gateway. I quote the NIV.
Firstly, if Jesus is quoted accurately, and if he meant what He said, He plans to send some to eternal fire: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” I have read and heard a number of times that this verse in Matthew 25 shows that Hell is not primarily for humans but for angels (Satan is an angel), and that any humans that wind up there have chosen to follow the devil. But let us back up a little. This is the close of Jesus's discussion of sheep and goats. Here opinions differ. Some think that the sheep accepted Jesus and the goats didn't. However, Jesus makes it clear that the sheep took care of His persecuted followers and the goats did not. Neither the sheep nor the goats are followers of Jesus, but people who act out of common humanity to reduce the suffering of others, or do not. The sheep become citizens of the kingdom of God.
Think a moment. All the followers of Jesus are promised royalty, to be kings with Him. All the Old Testament saved ones, the descendants of Abraham by Isaac, are promised an eternal priesthood. If only these are in the heavenly kingdom, whom do the kings govern, and whom do the priests lead in worship to God? There need to be citizens who are not kings or priests. The sheep are at least one source of citizens, and it is a given that the citizens outnumber their rulers and leaders. Jesus also said, “…if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
Secondly, what and where is the eternal kingdom? In at least two places in The Revelation, it is stated that the New Jerusalem, that golden city with gem-adorned walls and pearls for gates, comes down from heaven to the Earth. Passages in the prophetic books speak of a city of God and of the “kings of the Earth” who bring tribute to it. Heaven is temporary. The City of God in Heaven is being prepared to become an earthly dwelling place of God and His people, the center of His government over all the Earth and its citizens.
Thirdly, consider the phrase “child of God.” You were once a child (maybe you still are). When a boy child grows up, he becomes a man; a girl child becomes a woman. Who or what does a God child grow up to be? Jesus is well known as the “only begotten Son,” but he is also called “firstborn of many brothers” in Romans. Many theologies do speak of the deification of believers.
These threads come together to show the following:
- Hell is probably permanent, but its human residents are expected to be few (I don't expect Stalin or Mao will ever get out).
- Citizenship in the kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) is earned by good works, particularly by caring for persecuted believers. This message is called the Eternal Gospel in The Revelation.
- This kingdom will be on the Earth, not in some off-Earth heaven.
- Those who receive Jesus do gain something special: Deification and Royalty. These can only be received by faith, but training for the faithful exercise of godhood and kingship takes a lifetime.