Time for the H Word

What do you say when asked, “Is Hell real?”

“So, youth, what do you want to learn about?”

 “Revelation, angels, and Satan?  Where do we go when we die?  Okay, sure, we could do that.  Oh wait, look at that shiny thing over there!’

I must confess something I am not very proud of — For years, I have been a professional controversy avoider.

It’s sad really.  It’s just that I would rather stay on subjects I feel comfortable with, so for years I’ve gently sidestepped all sorts of tough subjects.  You know, subjects that, if you took a theological stand on them, some parent might be calling your office on Monday to figure out what in the world you were thinking.  (Or more likely, they’d be calling your boss’s office after talking to all of their friends…but that’s a different article altogether.)

So, instead of talking about potentially controversial things like what the Bible says about hell or damnation, I’ve leaned toward happier, safer things like discerning spiritual gifts and helping your neighbor.  I’ve avoided Hell and Satan as topics…and even angels for that matter.  Really, I’ve avoided as many confusing, tough topics as possible.  (To the youth I’ve served, I apologize for that.)

I’m done avoiding the tough stuff.  It’s time to take on the H word – Hell.

Enter two popular youth ministry speakers: Rob Bell and Francis Chan.

Like many youth workers, I’ve known the work of Rob Bell for years.  His nooma videos have been great conversation starters.  His style has almost become a household name, with people donning “Rob Bell” glasses to look hip and everything.

Last year, Rob Bell opened the door on Hell with his popular book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  Basically, he proposes that, if the nature of God is love,  how could this God of love condemn millions of non-Christian people to hell?  Is Ghandi, as a nonChristian, condemned to hell for eternity?  Bell would say no.  Bell suggests a universal salvation – that every single person will embrace Jesus – if not in this life, then certainly in the next.  He writes:

            “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most depraved sinners will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.”  (Love Wins, 107)

Yet another compelling and popular speaker at youth events, Francis Chan, responds to Rob Bell’s theology in his book, “Erasing Hell.”   Chan and coauthor Preston Sprinkle explore references to Hell in Scripture and try to explain what the Bible has to say about gehenna, hell.

            “So I decided to write a book about hell.  And honestly – I’m scared to death.

I’m scared because so much is at stake.  Think about it.  If I say there is no hell, and it turns out that there is a hell, I may lead people into the very place I convinced them did not exist!  If I say there is a hell, and I’m wrong, I may persuade people to spend their lives frantically warning loved ones about a terrifying place that isn’t real!  When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong.  This is not one of those doctrines where you can toss in your two cents, shrug your shoulders, and move on.  Too much is at stake.  Too many people are at state.  And the Bible has too much to say.” (Erasing Hell, introduction)

Chan explains that while we might not want to believe in a God that would condemn non-Christian people to eternal suffering, we might need to come to terms with God being a God whose ways we don’t fully understand.  Hell is real.  God’s judgment is real.  Like Bell, Chan refers to Scripture to explain his conclusions.

So what does the United Methodist Church officially believe?  Here’s what I found from umc.org:

Does The United Methodist Church believe in universal salvation?

The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church includes a section titled Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, which records the official theology of The United Methodist Church.

The section on Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases includes a description of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. When a Christian, by the grace of God, accepts God’s “pardoning love,” he or she enters into a transformational process whereby there is every assurance of salvation….

While these statements of doctrine state that salvation is AVAILABLE to all persons, they stop short of saying that salvation is GUARANTEED to all persons. There is the stated or implied condition that, while God’s grace is necessary for salvation and that humankind cannot in any way attain salvation without God, that there is certainly an element of awareness and cooperation on our part to order our lives after the image of Christ if we have the capacity to do so.

There are persuasive arguments that include the faithful, thoughtful, and respectful use of Scripture on both sides– affirming and denying universal salvation. The Book of Discipline, which is the only official printed voice of the UMC, does not make a statement specifically about universal salvation. This places the question in a possible gray area, but the Discipline says what it says. One must read the doctrine there and attempt to understand it as well as possible.  (www.umc.org, Rev. Dr. Diana Hynson, 
Director of Learning and Teaching Ministries in the Congregation,
General Board of Discipleship)

Do United Methodists believe that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary to go to heaven?

Yes, United Methodists do believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way the Bible gives as clearly God’s gift and way of salvation and heaven.  God can save anyone that God chooses to save and we cannot decide whom God will save.  We simply trust the plain teaching of scripture.  See John 3:16, Acts 4:12 and many other texts.

Our belief in this unique path of salvation can never be used to put down other religions and the gifts that they have to give to the world, even to Christians.  That we have a gospel to proclaim is not grounds for hurting others.  We can and must be friends with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others. In dialogue with them we learn and they learn.  In a time when religion is so much in the news and on our minds, we need to be vigilant against our own hostility and follow Jesus in the way of love.

Our Book of Resolutions says, “While we as Christians respond faithfully to the call to proclaim the gospel in all places, we can never presume to know the full extent of God’s work in the world, and we recognize the reality of God’s activity outside the Christian church. It is central to our faith that salvation is accomplished not by human beings, but by God. We know that judgment as to the ultimate salvation of persons from any faith community, including Christianity and Judaism, belongs to God alone.” 
 (Rev. Dan Benedict, 
Center for  Worship Resourcing
, General Board of Discipleship)


So how do you as a youthworker, navigate through these opposing theologies about Hell?  How do you answer youths’ questions about hell and salvation?  Personally, I want Bell to be right.  I want God to embrace all people in the end and for no one to suffer for eternity.  I want “love to win” in the end.  But I also want to be responsible in what beliefs I teach youth.  We have but a short window to minister and teach the youth in our care…it’s time to wrestle with the tough stuff.

Where do you stand on this issue?

How do you delve into tough subjects with your youth?

Click here for “Talk About Hell” – a Discussion Guide to talk to your youth about this subject.


Be blessed,



  1. “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin: a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God…True religion is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves; and in that love abstaining from all evil and doing all possible good to all. – John Wesley

  2. Having read Love Wins twice, I’m not certain anymore on where I stand on the issue. Rob Bell did what he does best with Love Wins – he raised a lot of questions that got me thinking.

    I’ve downloaded Erasing Hell but haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so it’ll be interesting to read the flip side of the argument.

    A few things I would say about what Rob Bell says in Love Wins:

    * He believes there is a hell
    * He says that not everyone will be in heaven
    * He doesn’t say Ghandi’s definitely in heaven. Instead, he questions other peoples’ ironclad certainty that Ghandi is in hell. As he says in the book (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) “Are you absolutely certain he’s in hell? Have you been to hell? Have you seen Ghandi there?”
    * Most of what people say Rob Bell declares as fact he doesn’t – he actually asks open questions to get people thinking, rather than making declarations of Universalism

    In terms of how we approach this with young people, I think it’s good to be open and honest. If we’re not sure, we should say so. If we’re questioning and researching and hoping and investigating but don’t have certainty – say so. Youth will respect this – after all, there’s a very good chance they’re feeling the same way.

    I know youth ministers are in a very important position of responsibility when it comes to teaching, but if we don’t know the answer, I think it’s worse to teach as though we do know.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents. Thanks for the article though – it was nice to read something about Love Wins that’s so balanced!

    • Thank you for your feedback, Stephen. I especially appreciate what you said about being open and honest with youth. There are a lot of issues we’ll never have all the answers on – I think youth appreciate adults who are honest about it.

  3. The idea of a hell locked from the inside has been around for some time. However, it does deserve consideration. Dante’s vision has too long been the only view on hell. CS Lewis and others have brought the option that is a lack of good much like cold is the lack of heat. You don’t “create” cold you eliminate heat. You don’t create hell but you eliminate good. Most notably, you eliminate God.

    The assumption is that there are many people who reject good and reject God. They feel uncomfortable with any world other than one that has themselves and their desires as god. These people would not feel comfortable in eternity with God. If there were no hell for them they would have to create one. It would be locked from the inside, not as Dante implies from the outside.

    One errors in playing God and coming up with candidates for such a place. However, it makes sense that such a place would exist in an eternity of free will. The other option is, as you present the obsurdity , that eternity with God is guaranteed to all.

    Hope this creates thought.

    • Great food for thought – thanks, Thomas. I’m looking forward to hearing what the youth have to say about all of this. I’m sure they will each bring their own ideas to the table.

  4. Update: I’m talking about hell tomorrow night at senior high Bible study. And purgatory. I’ll be sure to post something on my personal blog (www.umyouthworker.com) to let everyone know how it turns out.

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