Hellfire: Divine mercy

by | Jun 2, 2024

Country singer Rodney Atkins in his hit song, “Going Through Hell,” suggests, “Keep on going, don’t slow down, if you’re scared don’t show it. You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.”

Supposedly, a Winston Churchill quote inspired his song. “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” And an old Irish toast, “May you be in heaven five minutes before the devil knows you’re dead.”

For some, hell represents those times when nothing goes our way. For others, hell is a place of divine punishment where bad people go after death. Regardless, I think most of us agree hell is not the place we want to be. Whether there is really hellfire, there is nothing about hell that sounds pleasant.

Hell doesn’t specifically appear in the Old Testament. Instead, God doled out divine punishment in one’s lifetime and passed onto progeny (think climate change). Although Daniel offers this insight, “Many of those who have already died will live again: some will enjoy eternal life, and some will suffer eternal disgrace” (Daniel 12:2).

In the gospels, we read Jesus used an Aramaic word translated into Greek as geenna. In English, it’s translated as hell. Geenna referred to a garbage dump, south of Jerusalem, where a fire constantly burned, known as Gehenna of fire. Elsewhere, Jesus used more descriptive phrases to describe what happens when we turn against God.

So who goes to hell?

The late C. S. Lewis said, “The doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Staying in Geenna may ultimately be a choice. But John tells us that Jesus came to save rather than condemn humankind.

For many, salvation comes only to those who specifically ask Jesus for grace and acknowledging Him as God’s only Son. Everyone else, according to their logic, goes to geenna, which they presume is correctly translated as hell.

But what about children who never reach an age where they’re able to ask Jesus for grace? What about adults whose cognitive abilities limit their understanding? What about persons unable to talk? What about persons abused by clergy or other church goers? How about persons understandably turned off by hypocrisy? What about persons who grew up in other faiths?

How can a God of love, a God of grace, a God willing to live humbly among sinful people condemn anyone to eternal punishment?

Is it possible many Christians are drawing conclusions with partial information or incorrect interpretations?

For example, Adam Hamilton, in chapter three of our companion book for this series, reminds us that Jesus offered grace to all who repented of wrongdoing. However, wrongdoing had nothing to do with whether persons believed Jesus is God’s Son.

In fact, Jesus doesn’t seem to focus on what we say. Rather, He looks deeper into our soul. Deep enough to recognize His own image buried beneath the surface.

Hamilton describes three general categories of Christian beliefs based upon how questions about divine punishment are answered. Exclusivism focuses on the personal acceptance of Christ for salvation. No other way is possible.

Universalism goes to the other extreme. God saves all people in the end whether or not they want saving.

Inclusivism also believes God offers grace to all persons regardless of their circumstances, the beliefs they held during their lifetime, or the havoc they caused. But some, even when confronted face to face with Christ after death, simply cannot let go of their arrogance.

For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its Savior.
John 3:17

Many of the early church leaders settled on this notion. Today, numerous Christians hold this view across most denominations.

Matthew offers the most comprehensive list of omissions resulting in eternal punishment. And the list focuses entirely on helping persons in need. Jesus emphasized the saved filled the glasses and plates of the thirsty and hungry. The saved clothed the naked, tended to the sick, visited the imprisoned and befriended the isolated. The unsaved face eternal punishment.

Hamilton writes, “What if hell is a place for the narcissists, the self-absorbed, the users and abusers, the cruel and unjust, those who loved the darkness more than the light, those who prefer self-love to selfless love—for those who, to the end, refuse God’s grace?”

What if hellfire is nothing more than the emptiness we all feel whenever we put too much distance between ourselves and God’s love for us or our love for others?

In my experience, Christians spend too much energy condemning others. Perhaps because of projecting our own brokenness. Instead, let’s be thankful that we know the love of God in Jesus Christ. And let us cherish every moment, every person, and everything God created as though it matters eternally.

You can join us each Sunday in person or online by clicking the button on our website’s homepage – Click here to watch. This button takes you to our YouTube channel. You can find more information about us on our website at FlintAsburyChurch.org.

A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to FlintAsburyUMC@gmail.com or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.

Pastor Tommy


Parts of our series was inspired by Adam Hamilton. Wrestling with Doubt, Finding Faith. Nashville: Abington Press, 2023.

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