The traditional way of describing the fate of non-Christians, in more conservative evangelical circles, goes something like this:
All who are not members of the Christian community at the time of their death will be tortured in hell for all eternity.
This approach is often called “exclusivism,” because it holds that the only people who are spared from hell are those who are expressly and consciously a Christian at the time of their death.
I have come to believe that there is little or no scriptural support for the exclusivist position. The reason for this is pretty simple to understand, if you know something about cheesy TV shows and movies during the 70s and 80s.
Back in the day before cell phones, word processors, and hacks who tried to falsify military documents to make presidential candidates look bad, your typical kidnapper in a TV show or movie had a real problem – how to create a ransom note without giving yourself away. After all, you can’t make the note in your own handwriting, can you?
The solution to this problem was to put on a pair of gloves and then cut and paste individual words or letters out of a magazine or newspaper until you spelled out what you wanted. Here’s an example of typical message of this nature:
Exclusivists, I’m convinced, have to do a lot of cutting and pasting to reach their conclusions. They have to take a text which says that someone who does not “believe” will be “condemned” from some place like this, and then equate “condemnation” with hell in a place like this.
Problem is, what John is saying about condemnation in the first text may have little or nothing to do with what Matthew is saying about hell in the second one, and vice versa. You can only come to an exclusivist position by equating things that were written in different times, to different people, in different contexts, addressing different issues.
To put it another way, none of the direct references to hell (whether the original word is “Ghenna” or “Hades”) ever state anything that is close to the exclusivist position: that hell is a place for all non-Christians. Instead, in each case, they describe only one action (or a small list of particular types of action) that put one in jeapordy of hell.
I’ve also noticed that the pattern in the description of hell-bound people relates directly to another important theme in scripture: power and oppression. That is, the hell-bound people are the powerful who are using that power to oppress others. This is the thing from which God, time and time again, says he will save us.
Hell, then, is not the thing from which we will be saved. Rather, it is an integral part of God’s saving work. Unless God tosses “out” those who make the world a miserable place, those who are in the world can never be saved.
I realize that this may turn a lot of things that you have always heard on their head. But I’m convinced that it is necessary to thoroughly digest this idea before you can gain appreciation of hell that is consistent with that of the New Testament writers.