Posted by: L. E. Barnes | March 24, 2011

Pastor’s View about Hell Sparks Fiery Controversy

A Methodist minister in Henderson, North Carolina, found out the hard way that his congregation didn’t like his views about hell. An Associated Press article explains:

When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

“I think justice comes and judgment will happen, but I don’t think that means an eternity of torment,” Holtz said. “But I can understand why people in my church aren’t ready to leave that behind. It’s something I’m still grappling with myself”…

In the book, Bell criticizes the belief that a select number of Christians will spend eternity in the bliss of heaven while everyone else is tormented forever in hell.

“This 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 writes in the book.

For many traditional Christians, though, Bell’s new book sounds a lot like the old theological position of universalism β€” a heresy for many churches, teaching that everyone, regardless of religious belief, will ultimately be saved by God. And that, they argue, dangerously misleads people about the reality of the Christian faith…

Bell denies he’s a universalist, and his exact beliefs on what happens to people after death are hard to pin down, but he argues that such speculation distracts people from an urgent point. In his telling, hell is something freely chosen that already exists on earth, in everything from war to abusive relationships.

The near-relish with which some Christians stress the torments of hell, Bell argues, keep many believers needlessly afraid of a loving God, and repel potential Christians who might otherwise be curious about the faith’s teachings.

“The heart of the Christian story is that God is love,” he said. “But when you hear the word ‘Christian,’ you don’t necessarily think ‘Oh, sure, those are the people who don’t stop talking about God’s love.’ Some other things would come to mind.”

About the only thing everyone agrees on is that this is not a new debate in Christianity. It stretches to antiquity, when Christianity was a persecuted sect in the Roman Empire, and the third century theologian Origen developed a theory that contemporary critics charged would mean that everyone, even the devil himself, would ultimately be saved. Church leaders eventually condemned ideas they attributed to Origen, but he has had a lasting influence across the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions.

Those traditions often disagree, even internally, on what awaits souls after death. The Catholic Church, which has a formal process for identifying souls in heaven through canonization, pointedly refrains from saying that anyone is without a doubt in hell. Protestants reject the concept of purgatory, in which sins can be atoned for after death, but disagree on other questions. The lack of consensus is enabled partly by ambiguities in the Bible…

A married Navy veteran with five children, Holtz spent years trying to reconcile his belief that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross redeemed the entire world with the idea that millions of people β€” including millions who had never even heard of Jesus β€” were suffering forever in hell.

“We do these somersaults to justify the monster god we believe in,” he said. “But confronting my own sinfulness, that’s when things started to topple for me. Am I really going to be saved just because I believe something, when all these good people in the world aren’t?”

You can read the complete article here.

I have not read Bell’s book, nor do I have any interest in doing so. As a Catholic, I of course do not embrace universalism; however, I do not embrace the “hellfire-and-damnation” thinking of many of my Protestant brethren. Our duty is simply to proclaim the gospel, and the eternal destiny of those who–either by decision or by ignorance–do not become Christians lies in God’s jurisdiction, not ours.

Your thoughts?



  1. I have not read the book but any Protestant pastor in the South should have sense enough not to ruffle feathers needlessly. His goal may be good but might be better served by visiting with individuals who bring it up to him. As far as the Catholic Church not condemning anyone to hell, not quite sure where that comes from–since early centruies the Church has proclaimed “There is no salvation outside the Church” which seems to be pretty obvious concerning the destinations of non-Catholics. Only in recent decades have Protestans even become disjointed brethren of any kind. Honestly, your last sentense tends to sum up my attitude–God rules eternity, but I also know it is my duty and joy to share the Good News with the lost….ok there are my two bits…

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
      I wonder if that minister took the time consider the potential consequences of his actions. My guess is he didn’t…
      A number of people have taken the remark about ‘no salvation outside the church’ to mean that the Catholic Church teaches that anyone who is not Catholic faces eternal damnation for sure, but in fact that’s never been magisterial teaching. Protestants are accepted as fellow Christians, nd by the way, they’re referred to as ‘separated brethren’, not ‘disjointed’! πŸ˜‰

      True, we shouldn’t dismiss hell on the one hand, as eternal separation from God is an all too real danger. But the Church simply holds that it’s not for us to say if a person is in hell, as that’s for God to decide, not us.

  2. I’m not crazy about Rob Bell’s reported view of hell, but this comment: “The near-relish with which some Christians stress the torments of hell, Bell argues, keep many believers needlessly afraid of a loving God, and repel potential Christians who might otherwise be curious about the faith’s teachings.” ….I must admit that I think he’s absolutely correct in this. Sometimes people get so caught up in you’re going to hell if you don’t…. that they forget that Hell is just the absence of God. I wrote about this topic a couple of weeks ago: Hope you’ll forgive the shameless plug. πŸ™‚

    • No need to apologize for the “shameless plug.” πŸ™‚

      I agree with you. We shouldn’t downplay hell, acting is if it’s just a relic of a bygone, benighted era that we moderns have “progressed” beyond. But we shouldn’t get so focused on hell that we forget that God is love and desires our salvation and reconciliation with Him. And the Catechism refers to hell as the state (not location) of a soul separated from God, so yes, hell is ultimately about the absence of God, not “fire and brimstone.”

  3. (BTW I know you already read that post & commented on it, just thought I’d bring it up. Like I said, shameless. )

  4. It’s true that it’s not for us to say who is in hell.

    Speaking of hell itself though, Jesus Himself talks about eternal fire (think of the Abraham and Lazarus scriptures) and Gehenna; and, if you count years of Catholic tradition (small “t”) many seers and saints who have seen visions of hell talk about fire and torment. (I’m thinking here of the 3 children of Fatima and Saint Faustina, and others.) We shouldn’t talk about these things to scare people, but hell exists, it is a place of eternal suffering, and people need to understand that.

    There needs to be a balance. God is mercy and love for sure, but He is also a God of justice and there are (ultimate) consequences for our actions. So, for a Christian minister to say that there isn’t, then something is deeply wrong with his theology and scripture scholarship – besides the fact that he angered his congregants.

    • Balance is certainly the key. The New Testament has enough references to hell for us to take the possibility of eternal damnation (i.e., separation from God) very seriously. And for there to be any kind of justice, people have to be held accountable for there actions, if not in this life then in eternity. But I appreciate that the Catholic Church calls for balance and humility. We don’t get to say who is in hell, but we don’t deny hell either.

  5. I saw this story earlier this week. This is what comes from individual interpretation of Sacred Scripture absent a Magisterium.

    When I was a child, I was terrified of hell. As an adult and with a better inkling of what it means to be separated from God for all eternity, I am even more terrified. But this is good and not bad. If we spend our time on earth following the two great Commandments, when we meet Jesus at our particular judgment we will not fear.

    I was taken aback by his statement that we choose war and abusive relationships and that is hell. I think many people are victims and I was put off by his words. It’s important not to confuse situations which are aided and abetted by the demons of hell with hell itself.

    The more I contemplate God’s loving kindness and the need for us as Christians to be kind, the more I understand that unselfish kindness is what draws people into the Church. Yet it is an unkindness to refrain from teaching vigilance and the practice of virtue – self-sacrifice in order to advance along the way of Divine Love. Each of us is perfectly capable of falling and falling hard – and permanently.

    What this so-called minister has done with his theory is to eliminate the need for Jesus to have died on the Cross to redeem us. If there is no hell, or nobody goes there, they why do we need redemption? If we are all automatically going to heaven then why do we need Jesus in the first place?

    • “This is what comes from individual interpretation of Sacred Scripture absent a Magisterium.”

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! While I do love and respect our Protestant brothers and sisters, this incident demonstrates perfectly the need for a divinely ordained teaching authority to interpret scripture and establish doctrines for faith and morals; otherwise, you have the cacophony of a zillion personal opinions on issues such as this.

      Hopefully, Rob Bell and this Methodist minister from NC are not denying that a person can end up in hell (eternal separation from God). For if all will be saved, then indeed there is no reason for the Church to exist, or for Christ to have suffered, died, and risen from the dead. No plan of salvation was needed if God never intended to mete out any kind of eternal justice.

  6. I agree with what Barb said. Interesting discussion. I do not believe that God wants any of us to go to hell. That is why he sent Jesus. I think that it is people who choose hell over God. We have free will and some people choose hell. I cannot understand why anyone would, but it is a thought to ponder. I read that Mary told the visionaries at Medjugorje this. We need to pray that all choose God.

    • I’ve heard that the Orthodox Christian view is that hell is ultimately ‘self-imposed.’ Or as C.S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, hell is God’s way of telling a person “THY will be done”!

      I know little about the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje and what revelations were made. But the one you mentioned makes sense.

      “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.”

  7. I keep coming back to the “to him to whom much has been given, much will be expected”. If we reject Him, we condemn ourselves; if we never knew Him, how can we reject Him?

    • Good point!

  8. Heaven and hell are both real. Rob bell is confused and deceived by satan to write the book, love wins. Believe what God says in the bible, not what Rob Bell says. Hell is real.

    • I agree they are both real. I suspect people like Bell go too far in the way they view God’s love and mercy, for He is also just and has given us the free will to choose Him or reject Him. Whether Bell is “deceived by Satan” I can’t say, but I certainly must part company with him on this issue.

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