No, I’m not coming out of the gay closet. I guess you could say I’m coming out of what some people (not me) would call the Theologically Liberal-Heretical-Non-Evangelical-Anti-Scripture closet.
And I just had that mental image again.
So let me get this over with…I, Joshua Burkett, being of sound mind and prayerful and scripturally studied conviction, DO NOT believe that people will spend an eternity in the conscious torment known as hell.
* Cue the angry pitchfork bearing mob chanting “Burn the heretic!” *
Now, let me tell you my story before you start thinking that I’ve just made this decision based on the whole recent Rob Bell thing. My journey to this belief started when I was about 10 years old. Roll film!
I grew up in your typical Evangelical/Pentecostal church where the belief in an eternal hell was as common and factual as the sky being blue. I also grew up thinking that God could revoke your salvation at any time, even if you accidentally passed gas in church.
And that happened…probably more than once.
So God’s salvation, to me, wasn’t based on his grace. It was based on luck and timing. I could be a good little boy and if I just so happened to sin at the same time Jesus came back, I was in trouble. Luckily, I was taught that if you missed the rapture, you still had a second chance. But that came at a price. My Mom and Dad never sinned so if I was to miss the rapture, I would have been alone. Living for Jesus during that time could save you from hell but it meant constantly running from people who wanted to behead you for being a Christian. So I would have been a ten-year old with no family, no means in which to take care of myself, and, oh yeah, the world would want me dead. But even with that, even a lot of Christians would be deceived into worshipping the “Antichrist” and if they did, they’d go to hell. What if I would be one of the people who were deceived?
So because of all this, I was a really, really nervous kid.
At the age of ten, I started constantly whispering under my breath, “Jesus, I’m sorry, forgive my sins” throughout the entire day. It was this mantra, said over-and-over again, that was my ticket to escaping hell. And anytime I did something not 100 percent perfect, I’d have to say that mantra. Once I remember stepping on a rug and making it crooked. I said the mantra. Hey, better to be safe than sorry, right?
I wish I was making this up. It gets worse.
I then rationalized that I could also sin in my head. So any thought that wasn’t completely perfect was potentially sin. I remember once being at a local video rental store and seeing the cover of a horror movie called “Motel Hell”. The cover was a quasi-disturbing picture typical to the B rated 80s horror genre. But for this ten-year old, the very view of it was a sin. I quickly said the mantra but for some reason, the image of Motel Hell was stuck in my brain. And every time I thought about it, I was sinning.
Do you know how hard it is to not think about something, especially when eternal torment is on the line?
I remember trying so hard not to think about that stupid movie cover, which made me think about it, which made me sin; which made me in danger of splitting hell wide open. At one point, I was balling my eyes out and was so stressed, that the only thing that it could be defined as was a panic attack.
Age 10 . The summer before fifth grade. My own personal religion was a child abuser.
This kind of behavior went off and on for a few years. I would wake up frightened by train whistles because I thought they were “Gabriel’s trumpet”. I would often sneak into my parent’s room to make sure they were still there. I often had dreams about Jesus coming back and me being left behind. I remember once my older brother was preaching Sunday night service and had someone blow a trumpet in the background as an illustration. Almost wet my pants.
When I look back at this crazy, erratic behavior, the only word I can think of is “normal”. When eternal life and happiness or eternal fire and torment is contingent upon, at most, 90 years of how you behave, it almost makes sense to be that paranoid. Living any other way is too risky when eternity is the stake you’re playing for.
Think about it this way: If your soul only had a shelf life of a billion years, (which is still only a vapor of time in comparison to eternity) 90 years is exactly .0000009% of a billion. That’s a really small number. If the time I spend in the .0000009% of existence determines complete joy and bliss or eternal fire in the remaining 99.9999991%, it would be foolish NOT to be a little neurotic. I’m really surprised that we don’t see a lot more people taking Matthew 5:29 literally.
So let’s all chant the mantra together. Because the father up above is looking down in love.
And wrath. Mostly wrath.
By the grace of God, I grew out of that mindset and life became what it should have been for that time: all about girls and strange body hair and crazy emotions and boy/man insecurities. I had nearly forgotten about hell because I don’t think one’s God-given logical mind can keep up such an absurd notion for too long without going literally crazy. And life was good…
…until my Uncle Rob died.
My Uncle Rob spent years as a faithful pastor. He was a writer, singer, songwriter, poet, worshipper; he was a fantastic father, friend, Uncle and true servant of Jesus Christ. He had a heart the size of watermelon and everyone that knew him couldn’t help but to love him, because that’s exactly what he was doing to them.
And then Uncle Rob came out of the closet, the homosexual kind.
It’s incredible how the respect a man can build in his lifetime can crumble like house of cards when just one aspect of his life changes. Uncle Rob stopped being viewed as all the virtuous descriptions above and people started treating him as worldly, sinful, and dirty. By no means did he do everything perfect. His lifestyle started turning to the wild and unwholesome. But it’s hard to judge a man when he loses a lifetime battle only to have everyone he cared about treat him differently. And when well-intentioned Christians throw God into this mix of excommunication, people have to go somewhere to feel human again.
His Christian friends and family genuinely cared about his salvation and concern became dread when he died of a tragic mix up in medication. Even at his funeral, the question of his eternal fate heavily lingered in the air with foreboding. Was Rob in hell? It couldn’t be. Did he come back to Jesus before he died? Did all those faithful years of service count for something?
I never once worried about the fate of Uncle Rob’s soul. I never equated the struggles at the end of his life with his salvation. Uncle Rob went straight into the arms of Jesus where the love he so needed was granted in tsunamis of overabundance. How do I know this? Because Uncle Rob still loved God with all of his heart, soul and mind.
I know that fact as well as I know my own name.
But his death made me realize something. It’s easy for people to believe in hell when they’ve had no one close to them die that wasn’t a Christian. Even the people who thought Uncle Rob’s salvation was revoked just refused to accept that he was experiencing eternal torment. People stop believing in hell, at least for a little while, when someone they love dies. The mind was not designed to believe in such a thing.
This event was the seed that got planted in the garden of my thoughts. Could an eternal hell really exist? But good Christians did not ask these types of questions unless they wanted to chant the mantra. These kinds of questions were a sign of bad faith. These kinds of questions would land you in the very place you are questioning.
I was a freshman in Bible College when this all happened. Although the issue of hell was beginning to crawl to the forefront of my mind, I never brought it up with anyone. No one else thought the same way. Hell was part of the package deal of Christianity. But a year later, as luck (or divine providence) would have it, I took place in a brief conversation about hell with a classmate. I don’t remember its specific details, but the one thing I remember him saying rocked me. He casually said, “With hell, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime”.
I was incredulous. Really? You’re allowed to believe that way? You won’t get kicked out of Bible College?
There were others. They were just like me. They wanted to throw up in their mouths when they thought about eternal torment. But that still didn’t mean one should question it. It was in the Bible, right? Or was it? Looking through my Bible, there seemed to be a lot of talk about hell and weeping and gnashing and a lake of fire to boot. So I guess it was in the Bible. I didn’t have to like it, but I guess I had to agree with it.
I then I discovered that there were a lot of great Christian thinkers who argued that eternal torment wasn’t in the Bible; people who knew the Bible really well and were passionate about their life in Christ.
Why didn’t I hear this growing up? I didn’t hear many alternative views on scripture. Was this that thing called heresy? I didn’t know much about heresy either. Calvinism was heresy. Didn’t really know why. Guess someone told me that once. But what was this? I always thought that you can believe everything that’s in the Bible (I still believe that unequivocally, by the way). People actually reasoned that eternal conscious torment was not in the Bible. And it made sense.
But I still wasn’t sure. It was an important topic and I’m not the type to just believe something just because it makes me feel good…except the belief that one day Jesus will give me a pet lion that flies and speaks. I’m holding on to that one.
So I spent a couple of years praying and reading and thinking and questioning and annoying the other part of me that wished I’d just shut up and play video games. And I ultimately came to the firm belief that the concept of a hell where people cook forever and ever is completely unbiblical.
But I stayed in the closet.
This belief was the kind of thing that made Christians look at you like you’re crazy. This was the kind of thing that invoked heated debates and needless name calling. These kinds of beliefs caused you to reconsider a lot of what you thought about Christianity. So I stayed in the closet. It wasn’t that hard.
People didn’t like to talk about hell anyway…
…except for Kirk Cameron, who at one point made life really uncomfortable.
After three disaffected years at Bible College, I took a position as a youth pastor. I was being phased in to leading the youth while the old youth pastor was smoothly being phased out so he could do another ministry in the church. For a summer we ran the youth group together. I came on the job at the time he was laying the groundwork for the kids to learn the “Way of the Master” style of evangelizing. And my new stance on hell was not conducive to this.
The Way of the Master is this, for lack of a better term, tactic that’s produced by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron (yes, the guy from “Growing Pains”). In a nutshell, it’s a method of witnessing that involves going up to random strangers and asking them if they are a good person. Most people say yes. Then you ask them things like if they’ve ever told a lie before, stolen before; basically ever sinned before. Again, most people say yes. Then you basically tell them they’re going to hell unless they repent and follow Jesus.
It was about as successful as using only happy thoughts for birth control.
Everything within me screamed at the thought of evangelizing this way. It was invasive. It forced people to make a life (and beyond) decision that was based on fear and not love. It was something that Jesus never did (funny that it was called “Way of the Master”). And it was all based on something I didn’t believe in. I mean, I am all for Jesus’ command to spread the gospel everywhere, but I missed the part in the Bible where telling people who God loves them and they’re going to cook for eternity in the same breath was the way to do it.
We took the kids to the mall to do this. I should have said no. I should have said it was against my religion; that it was against THEIR religion. I should have said that regardless of one’s view of hell, that this was a bad idea. And then he would have asked me what I had meant about “view on hell”. And I would have had to come out of the closet.
So I stayed in the closet.
I took a group of teenagers into a mall to assault people by telling them they were going to hell. I hated it. I felt convicted. All of my logic pounded on the door of my brain hard enough to be felt in my heart that this was doing more harm than good. Rarely does anyone truly get converted this way. Jesus never said “Come follow me…or else”.
But I needed this gig. So I peddled fear of something that was about as real to me as Santa Claus. And I’m not proud of it.
It’s been years since that incident and I’ve been able to stay in the closet with relative ease. It’s not hard to dodge conversations about hell. You can’t dodge topics about meaningless pop-culture or politics, but discourse about the ultimate destination of the unsaved – that’s an easy one. Everything was going well. I was respected amongst my church, my Christian friends and my family. And then it all came crashing down.
Rob Bell writes a book.
Rob Bell’s new book, “Love Wins” is a semi-theological, incredibly poetical conversation about the extreme torrent that is God’s love. Rob Bell talks about a lot things in the book; the mission of the church, who all will be saved, how heaven and earth will be one, why we need to take care of the hell on earth now. He injects some theology that doesn’t totally mesh with your typical evangelical church, but ultimately, the book was primarily an incredibly beautiful portrayal of the irrepressible love of God. Even if someone didn’t agree with the theology, they could still enjoy the words that at times seemed to sing about God’s love.
But a lot of people didn’t see it that way.
The book was largely viewed as a textbook on doctrine and one of the biggest (and misguided) things that people extrapolated from it was that Rob Bell doesn’t believe in hell. Magazines, blogs, web articles and social media exploded with judgments on Rob Bell’s beliefs (or lack thereof) before the book was even out. All of a sudden, everybody who was anybody had an opinion and an invested claim on the theological landscape. Churches, denominations, pastors and their flocks chose sides and the battle began with the poor hipster’s words smack in the middle of the crossfire. And topics like hell were being talked about again. No longer could I dodge the issue.
Poo on you, Rob Bell – you and your beautiful book.
So this is me, coming out and saying that I don’t believe that people will be eternally tormented in hell. While I adhere to this belief with utter joy, I proclaim it with somewhat of a heavy heart. The very few times I have admitted this in the past, it was met with labels like “liberal”, and statements like “You’re following man’s intellect instead of God’s ideals”. I fear that this public declaration will change some of the variables in my ministry and how I can react with Christian colleagues. Perhaps my blogging will now be met with ad hominem judgment. Maybe I’ll stop getting requests to lead worship services and speak at youth groups. If I’m off on this piece of theology, what other things do I adhere to that could potentially deceive impressionable teenagers and disaffected bass players? I don’t say this to be a martyr. I hope this doesn’t happen! I don’t do well with loneliness.
At this point I would like to make myself clear that even though I don’t believe in eternal hell, my passion for spreading the gospel has not waned. In fact, it has increased. Now that hell is out of the way, I am free to share Christ’s love the way he intended for it to be shared. Not scaring the proverbial hell out of people and focusing on emulating Jesus’ methods is much more compelling to non-believers.
So if I don’t believe in eternal torment, then what do I believe in? I’ll admit that while I’m solid in believing that eternal torment is unbiblical, I don’t have all the answers. I lean towards the belief that hell equals destruction. There seems to be some good biblical grounds for that. But when it comes to who gets destroyed, that’s a complex discussion that involves thoughts on Christology and Eschatology and atonement and Old Testament prophecy and a slew of other things that I’ve not yet been able to give myself a satisfactory answer. But that’s for another day. I’m taking this one step at a time.
But what I do know is that God is too big to be assigned to a few adjectives and pages of theory. He’s too wise to be unstable in his plan. He’s too loving to be tyrannical to his creation. He’s too supreme to have his wishes and desires go unfulfilled. The aspects of God can be ontologically felt in our hearts, and all I feel in him is love and a peace that I don’t understand.