If you follow the Christian blogosphere at all, you've seen a lot of traffic lately about the idea of the reality of Hell. (No, not the place Cubs fans live every year in October, but the place in the Bible.)
It was all generated by media releases on Rob Bell's new book that's coming out...one in which (according to the media push) he reveals himself to be a universalist. (Ironic what 'Bell' rhymes with...).
What's a universalist? Universalism is the theological position that claims everyone will end up in heaven after all is said and done. There are some creative ways to get there, but either now, later, or really later, everyone gets to paradise.
Can a believer be a universalist? I don't think so. Tim Challies posted this thoughtful blog entry this morning, and he says things more succinctly and thoughtfully than I usually do, so I'll point you to his post for the summary of why one can't be a universalist and a believer (at least, the way I think 'believer' is to be defined) at the same time.
Why do I believe in a literal hell? The primary reason I believe in a literal hell is that Jesus did. I haven't physically counted the references, but I've read in several places that claim Jesus mentioned hell more often than he mentioned heaven in the gospels in the New Testament. That seems to mean it is an important concept. If you look at the story of the rich man and Lazarus, you can't but clearly see Jesus thought of hell as a physical reality.
Isn't it unlike a loving God to condemn people to hell for eternity? This one's been around a long time, and still is (I've read it on blog comments just this week). Those who think this way are imposing a humanistic form of fairness on God. They understand neither the holiness of God nor the sinfulness of man; or for that matter, the ugliness of our sin before that holy God. I always recommend a particular book to them: The Holiness of God by R. C. Sproul. It makes as clear and concise a biblical statement on these issues as I think anyone has ever made in print.
So why do people deny a literal hell? In some ways, that question is hard to answer. On the one hand, I myself wish hell wasn't a real place...contemplating people who I'm pretty sure have gone or are going there is unsettling at best. On the other hand, there are certain people who seem to deserve it (Hitler and the usual suspects). But I have to constantly remember that the thing that separates me from Hitler in terms of deserving hell or heaven has nothing to do with the deaths of 20 million (plus) people. It has to do with the fact that I'm a sinner, just like he was; but I am a sinner saved by grace. I have no evidence he was. I don't know of anyone who does have that evidence.
I suppose the biggest reason people deny the existence of hell relates to my first idea...it is too terrible to contemplate. But not being thinkable doesn't make it go out of existence. The idea that Jesus would die on a cross for someone like me is too hard to contemplate as well, but it happened. That's the nature of God's grace. But for there to be anything called 'grace' at all, there has to be something called 'justice'.
The great irony of time is that the moment in history where God's grace is seen the clearest, at the cross, is also the moment in time where God's justice is seen in all its power the clearest. Grace and mercy come together with justice and wrath at the cross. Wow.