Are Sinners Hellbound?

KevinThis year we are presenting the Raven Award on November 12 to Kevin Miller for his documentary with a question for a title: Hellbound?. Autocorrect doesn’t like the question mark, especially when it’s followed by a period, but I’m glad Kevin used it. Because the idea of hell raises all kinds of questions, particularly about the relationship of God to sin. (For Adam, it raises questions about God’s justice – read his reflections here.) For me, the idea of hell raises questions about punishment, like these:

     Does God punish sin in this life and if so, how?
     Does God punish unrepentant sinners in the next life with eternal  suffering?

These questions have corollaries, of course:

                Does God reward the righteous in this life and if so, how?
                Does God reward a life of righteousness with eternal bliss?

You see, the question about punishment is also a question about being good. The opposite of being a sinner who deserves punishment is being a morally good person who deserves reward. If the wages of sin are eternal suffering, the wages of goodness are eternal bliss. These rules seem fair and just – we operate according to them in our communities, churches and social networks, don’t we? Think about it: criminals go to jail, law abiding citizens enjoy their freedom; disobedient children are grounded, good children earn extra privileges; good employees get raises, bad employees get fired; good waiters get big tips, bad waiters get forgotten, and so on. If fallen humanity manages to operate according to this system of justice, it only seems right that God would, too.

I was speaking with a friend of mine one day who adheres strongly to the idea of rewards and punishments. He was defending the idea that God punished sinners because evil deserves punishment. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be rewarded, and certainly not forgiven without some restitution being made, some contrition or commitment to repentance. My friend is a lawyer and of course, the idea of fair play, of punishment and rewards, of compensation for suffering and payment for wrongdoing, are all part of our legal system. I’m guessing many of you would agree with my friend that God is not only right to punish sinners, but justice requires it. So how would you answer these questions?

                Are you a criminal or a law abiding citizen?
                Are you a sinner or a saint?

If you are a law abiding citizen then you most probably agree that criminals should be punished. It only makes sense that those who are not as scrupulously honest and forthright a citizen as you should be held to account. But how do you feel when you have broken the law? When you get a speeding ticket or are fined for an error on your income tax filing? What if your child is expelled from school for a thoughtless prank or your boss docks your pay because you already used up all your sick days? From this vantage point, the accusation of wrongdoing stings and the punishment smacks of injustice. The system of rewards and punishments begins to feel a bit unfair, doesn’t it?

Similarly, if you are a saint, then hell makes infinite sense. Sinners should not get away with their sins, because that would make a mockery of your moral perfection. God is morally obligated to punish them and reward you. But what if you are a sinner? What if you have lied to an employer or cheated on a spouse? What if you have failed your child or neglected an aging parent? What if, like the Apostle Paul, you find yourself falling short of your best intentions: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”. (Romans 7:19) Then punishment for sin doesn’t seem so essential a thing for God to do, does it? Maybe God could find it in his heart to forgive you, to give you a second chance, to believe in your promises that you’ll do better next time.

Of course, it’s easy for us to think that our sins are not so bad. That it would be okay for God to forgive our sins and punish the sins of those we judge to be truly wicked. But before you settle too comfortably into that self-justifying position, please remember two things:

                There are no doubt people praying to God right now to forgive them their sins and punish yours.
                God loves the ones you pray he will punish as much as God loves you.

Let’s not put our God to the test, shall we, by forcing God to choose whose prayer to answer, yours or those sinful others. Instead, I suggest we abandon the whole punishment and reward project all together. Let’s give up on dividing the world into sinners and saints and follow the wisdom of Nadia Bolz-Weber who dares to proclaim in her book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint: “We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both, all the time.” I think that’s how God sees us. God doesn’t love us because we are saints or spend one ounce of brain power devising punishments for us when we sin. God just loves us, 100 percent of us, all the time. Honestly, what God has planned for eternity is a mystery. But whatever it is, I think it’s a safe bet that we will all be in it together.

Celebrate Halloween by joining a live conversation with Kevin Miller about hell. To participate, join the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement community on and register for the call here.

10 replies
  1. Dan B.
    Dan B. says:

    Suzanne, you wrote in reference to mankind’s destiny, “it’s a safe bet that we will all be in it together.” Yet Jesus taught us about a man who died and found himself in Hades, in torment, and was told by Abraham, “And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”

    Add that verse to countless others about eternal punishment for those who spurn the love of God, and you are found standing on one side publicly espousing an opinion totally contradicting the Word of God.

    I urge all who have read this article to read the Bible for yourselves so that you will never be deceived by anyone, now or in the future, whose teachings are opposed to God’s.

    God is infinitely good, and we cannot begin to comprehend all His ways, but we who know Him trust that there is no injustice with Him.

    • Suzanne Ross
      Suzanne Ross says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dan. You rightly point out that there are conflicting ideas on the Bible about punishment and mercy. I did not mean to ignore the ones about punishment, only to suggest that we need to take responsibility for our interpretative lens and not simply ignore the contradictions. Many of us choose to see God in our image, as judgmental and punishing. But I think God is actually calling us to a better place where we can love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute us. Yes, the Bible is filled with verses that can support your position and mine. We need to acknowledge the contradictions and then ask ourselves, where to we hear God’s voice coming through? You hear a punishing voice, I hear one of mercy.

      • Dan B.
        Dan B. says:

        You wrote that you believe there are “contradictions” in the Bible on the issue of whether human beings will one day end up in Hell, forever separated from God, and seem to assume that I agree with this assessment. I do not.

        Since you stated in your article that you believe we will all be together in eternity, I’m concluding that you do not believe the commonly accepted view of Heaven as the final destination for Christ’s true followers, and Hell as the eternal abode of everyone else. Correct me if I am wrong.

        Yet… yet you cannot, of course, deny that there are countless Scriptures which teach us in abundantly clear and picturesque language that the unrepentant wicked “shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matthew 25:46). You say you “do not mean to ignore” such verses, yet, in fact are you not only ignoring them, aren’t you blatantly contradicting them, telling your readers that, don’t worry, folks, no one is going to Hell?

        How can this be? Do you not accept the entire Bible as God’s revelation to us? Is that it? Have you thus excised all references to Hell being the only door for those who refuse to follow Jesus, or you are being disingenuous with your readers and with me, intimating that one can read and accept as truth the entire Bible yet somehow be intellectually honest in swallowing an elephant with the words painted on its side, “But, Hell isn’t really real… God put those verses there only to confuse us, and to give simple minds something to scare their children with”?

        You write about contradictions, yet you have not cited (and cannot cite) a single verse that teaches that we will all end up in the same place and/or that no one is going to Hell. So where are the contradictions? Where is the Scriptural basis for your contentions?

        In a decidedly unfriendly sentence you stated that I “hear a punishing voice” while you (and apparently not I) hear “one of mercy.” Yet I wrote that I know God to be infinitely good. So why paint me in such a dark light if not to attempt to sway your readers with a straw man?

        And what is your straw man? Your focus on God as a punishing voice, a perpetrator of punishment. But, what does the Word say? Is there any evidence therein that either God or some agent of His was created to “punish” human beings in Hell? No, there is no punishing voice. There isn’t a single verse revealing that God intends to “punish” anyone in Hell.

        In fact, He simply states that Hell will be a place of punishment, not that He will be doing the punishing, nor that He ever intended to punish a single human being there. For what does the Bible teach regarding the genesis of Hell? It was created NOT for human beings, but for the “devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). He never intended that a single soul end up there.

        Rather, He teaches us that He isn’t willing that “any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 2:9). People end up in Hell because they choose not to follow Jesus Christ. Their real and only punishment is the realization that they are forever separated from God and that they have no one to blame but themselves. Every single person in Hell will remember that the Light came to them (John 1:9) and they turned away, choosing to remain in darkness.

        Suzanne, you are free, of course, to believe and teach others anything you wish. But please, be straight. Add the disclaimers. Give us the fine print.

        That way, no trusting soul will be in danger of coming to the conclusion that what you are teaching is echoed in God’s Word.

        • Suzanne Ross
          Suzanne Ross says:

          Dan, thank you for your careful explication of your position. You are indeed very biblically literate and it’s obvious you are a careful thinker. I agree with your conclusion that Hell was not created for human beings, that God does intend that a single soul end up there, and that if we do end up in hell it is our own doing. However, I don’t agree with your method, which perhaps is not much of a disagreement at all! I do want to point out that one problem with your reasoning is that throughout the Bible we are presented with a God who punishes and judges, especially those he loves! Perhaps you think God corrects us in this life, in other words gives us a taste of hell on earth, to save us from eternal torment later, but I wonder if we should attribute the creation of hell on earth to God. When I said that you hear a punishing voice from God, I may have put it clumsily, but I was trying to say that my way of interpreting the punishing texts in the Bible is as a revelation from God about human sin. The Bible is not just a revelation to humans about God, you see, but a revelation to humans about the ways in which we blame God for our own sinfulness. When we punish, divide the world up into sinners and saints, the saved and the damned, we need to take responsibility for that as a human grasping after some assurance that God is on our side. However, God sends the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike and called on us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. I think it is a tragic error to focus so much on eternal punishment that we fail to notice the ways in which we are creating hell on earth for one another here and now. When the Bible presents us with a punishing God and not a merciful one, we are called not just to ask “What is God doing?” but “What are we doing?” That’s why when I hear a punishing voice in the Bible, I assume it’s mine and when I hear the voice of mercy I know that it is God.

          • Dan B.
            Dan B. says:

            Suzanne… I don’t understand why you aren’t simply responding to my request for the Scriptural basis for your assertion that no human being will end up in Hell since, as you wrote, whatever mankind’s final destiny will be, you believe “we will all be in it together,” a stance buttressed by your organization having given an award to Kevin Miller for a documentary that leads its viewers to the conclusion that no one is going to Hell.

            You have further made no attempt to explain why God gave us all the countless Biblical references stating that Hell is the final destination of all who choose not to follow Jesus Christ if, in fact, no one is actually going to end up there.

            And then, muddying the waters, in your last response you wrote in apparent agreement with me that “if we do end up in hell it is our own doing.” Suzanne, which side of the fence are you on? What do you actually believe? Can a person end up in Hell or not? Is there a Hell or not?

            You warn against focusing on eternal punishment, yet yourself are excessively focused on punishment and tend to express yourself in a manner that seems to be projecting the same viewpoint unjustifiably on others such as myself. You fault me for having problematic reasoning because I don’t see that we serve a God “who punishes and judges, especially those he loves!”

            What? Is that your experience? Didn’t you write in your first response to me in reference to God’s voice (and thus His dealings with you) that you “hear one of mercy”? Suzanne, I don’t serve a God who I feel is punishing and judging me, nor do I believe He gives me a “taste of hell on earth, to save [me] from eternal torment later.” Why in the world would you ask me if I believed that, as you did? Do you believe it? No? Then who does believe that? Don’t we all know that it was Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross and His resurrection that saved us?

            And who are you castigating for “creating hell on earth” for their fellow man? Who are these individuals who are focused “so much on eternal punishment”? Who are the ones who “blame God for [their] own sinfulness”?

            You talk about mercy, and you want us to believe there is no Hell, yet your writing has a distinct undercurrent of a decidedly dark presentation of a punishing, judgmental God and His followers who “divide the world up into sinners and saints,” etc.

            I am sorry, but I am left mystified as to where you really stand on all this, as to what kind of a relationship you are experiencing with God, and as to the foundation upon which you are basing your assertions.

  2. Suzanne Ross
    Suzanne Ross says:

    Dan, I really appreciate and respect where you are coming from. For me, the Gospel comes down to St. Paul’s statement Second Corinthians 5:19, that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” I don’t want to get into a war of Bible verses with you, Dan. The point is not what the Bible says, but how we interpret it. The verse I quoted is my key to interpretation. I think we understand each other, but disagree. Thanks for engaging so honestly with me in this discussion. Peace be with you.


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