Repenting From Hell

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Let’s talk for a moment about infernalism – the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment – and how it connects with the evangelical doctrine of faith.

Sadly I think many evangelicals are taught that the very definition of faith is not doubting or questioning what we were taught. So there is extreme church-culture pressure to (as a bare minimum) act utterly certain about our dogma.

And perhaps even more than a desire to please God, I think there is a deeper underlying motivation involved here: being an accepted part of the tribe. I think many people fear being shunned during this life more than they even fear their own perceived definition of hell. So conformity prevents questioning the dogma.

In my opinion, this is why the doctrine of infernalism is so horrible: it uses fear of eternal non-belonging to force conformity. (And let’s face it; non-belonging is a fate worse than torture for many people, right?) This enforced conformity acts suppress any critical thinking or even listening closely to the Holy Spirit outside our predefined expectations: we’re too afraid that letting ourselves think outside the box will end up with us expelled from our tribe. As a result, infernalism works really well against the in-group members, to enforce conformity.

But infernalism doesn’t work so well against outsiders, against non-members. Evangelicals describe infernalism to themselves as an essential witnessing tool – in other words, they believe that telling people that they can escape hell if they turn to Jesus is a good way to convert them. I mean, if someone already believes in hell, then fine, it’s a fair sales pitch. But statistically, in the US fewer people believe in hell than in heaven, and both numbers are actually smaller than those who already consider themselves Christian. Few people outside the faith believe in heaven or hell, and some Christians don’t even believe in heaven or hell. So functionally, nobody outside the existing in-group of Christians is worried about going to hell: they don’t believe the entire system of theology, and hell holds no threat to them. To motivate someone to escape hell, first you have to convince them that hell actually exists, or at the very least you have to play on their uncertainty and whatever innate sense of need for eternal security they may already have.

So infernalism is far more of a boundary-enforcing tool than an evangelistic tool. For evangelism, it’s a lousy starting sales pitch. But somehow evangelicals don’t see that, or forget it, and constantly try to use hell as a fear lever to get people to accept Jesus.

Thus, the only value I can see in preaching about hell is tribal boundary enforcement. It keeps the tribe members in line, and scares them away from even thinking closely about their dogma, lest they be seduced by “did God REALLY say” and thus find themselves on the slippery slope to hell.

I remember sitting in Baptist and nondenominational church services as a youth, listening to such fear-inducing preaching, watching people go forward for “salvation,” and realizing that pretty much everyone at the altar was already a long-term attender of that church anyway, and probably had responded to similar sermons many times in their life. I was one of them – saved at age 5, and I went up more than a few times in subsequent years. Thus, few of those “salvations” were new conversions. They were just longtime members going up to ensure (once again) that they were truly saved.

This tells me something important: the “gospel” to which I and my friends were frequently responding wasn’t providing the very thing that we craved: certainty about our future. That “gospel” was instead providing fear. And that is a very anti-biblical thing. So much of the genuine gospel – the good news – includes statements like “fear not” and “perfect love casts out fear.” But infernalism says “unless you get this all absolutely perfect, you’re going to hell.”

Perhaps the worst outcome of all this is that infernalism totally shuts down people from listening with an open spirit and mind to the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit. It’s impossible to hear that still, small voice softly whisper “you might be wrong about that dogma,” when your entire socio-religious group is constantly warning you against even thinking about even considering questioning the teachings of your spiritual overseers. Because in that worldview, doubt will lead straight to hell.

The result is a studied refusal to repent, a denial of a repentant posture before the Lord. Sure, you’ll repent of whatever sin you know about – but your dogmatic doctrine? “Hell, no.” Because the only way to stay “safe” from hell is to be dogmatically certain of your faith and doctrine. As such, any willingness to change your doctrine will send you straight to hell, in this infernalism faith-based-salvation worldview.

Repentance in the infernalist culture is thus, to quote a pastor friend of mine, about things, not thoughts.

But the very original meaning of the very first gospel calls – from the wilderness cry of John the Baptist to Jesus’s continued call to his closest followers: “Repent. Change your mind. You have heard X said by your religious leaders, but instead I say Y to you. Come into alignment with how you perceive the Kingdom, because right now you’re missing the mark of your Father in heaven.”

And I now realize that most of the Bible’s calls to repent were not to pagans, but to God’s own people. Jesus was talking to fellow Jews and especially to their leaders when He said “repent.” Why would we not see that in the same way today the call to repentance by the Spirit would similarly be to God’s own people, not the world around them? It’s exactly like 2 Chronicles 7:14 says – “if MY PEOPLE, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways.” It was never “if the world around them will repent.”

So maybe the most sinful thing, instead of a failure to follow a set of rules about how we behave, is instead a failure to change our minds, a failure to draw closer to a higher truth than we can currently perceive.

In my mind, this all goes back to infernalism, this focus on fearful cowering in our caves of dogma.

So maybe it’s time to rethink infernalism, and finally recognize the horrible fruit that it bears, and repent of this false and harmful doctrine, and let the Holy Spirit show us a different way of reading the scriptures and of defining faith. Let’s see what different fruit might appear in our lives, and the lives of those with whom we share that infinitely better good news.

So: I repent of hell. I’m sorry that I believed a lie about God and how God deals with humanity. I see how that was harmful to both me and to others, and I’ll change and do better in the future.

If this is all new thinking to you, and you don’t quite buy it, I did a very deep dive into infernalism on this blog and in a series of four YouTube video presentations, talking about where the doctrine of hell came from, how it differs from actual Bible teaching, and the three different ideas about the eternal destiny of humanity that can be found in the Bible. Also, I’ve read and reviewed a number of books on the topic.

Cover art from YongL at (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives Works 3.0 License)

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