Rethinking Hell (Progressive Christian Resources)

Some Christians insist on the scriptural reality of a Dante-esque hell of eternal horror. Some of us, however, have a hard time reconciling the idea of a loving God with traditional doctrines of hell, or we have objections to fear-based theology or to belief systems that over-emphasize the afterlife and turn Christianity into little more than a religion of requirements and rewards. As it turns out, there are biblical alternatives to the hellfire and brimstone approach.

There are scriptural arguments to support not only the belief in eternal conscious torment for the unrepentant in a literal fiery hell, but also the belief in annihilationism or conditionalism (that those who are unreconciled to God are simply annihilated, rather than existing eternally) and even the hope for universalism (that all souls are eventually reconciled to God). In his documentary Hellbound? Kevin Miller claims that the amount of scriptural support for these three positions is roughly equal (see his list of scriptures here, and find a link to the documentary website below).

What this means is that we don’t have to accept an understanding of hell or the afterlife that is inconsistent with our understanding of a loving God who through Christ is reconciling the world (all of it!) to Godself.

Below are resources to listen to, watch, or read that present various arguments for annihilationism/conditionalism and universalism, beginning with an excellent and thorough discussion from the podcast That God Show. If you are looking for alternatives to eternal conscious torment, here are some places to begin:


 “The Biblical Alternative to Hell” (Podcast) That God Show, Episode 17 with Benjamin L. Corey and Kurt Willems. Synopsis: “Most of us grew up believing that those who reject God will spend eternity in a literal place called hell, where they are consciously tortured day and night, for ever. But is that what the Bible actually teaches? Not quite– in fact, the Bible doesn’t teach hell as we were taught it at all. In this episode, BLC sits down with Kurt Willems to talk about hell, and the theology of “conditionalism.” If you’ve ever questioned hell, but didn’t want let go of something that was in the Bible, this episode is for you– you’ll walk away with your Bible intact, and a totally different view of hell.”

“The What the Hell Show” (Podcast) from The Moonshine Jesus Show. Mark and David tackle the topic of hell. They aren’t as thorough as Benjamin and Kurt, but in my opinion, the MJS is always worth a listen.


Hellbound? A Documentary by Kevin Miller (Currently available for instant viewing on Netflix). Synopsis: “If God is our pure, all-loving creator, can he really turn his back on sinners and allow them to suffer for eternity in hell? Where did this vision of hell come from? Is it possible we’ve got hell wrong? Or are recent challenges to the traditional view merely an attempt to avoid the inevitable? “Hellbound?” is a feature-length documentary that seeks to discover why we are so bound to the idea of hell and what our views on hell reveal about how we perceive God, justice, the Bible and, ultimately, ourselves.”


Benjamin L. Corey’s “Letting Go of Hell” Blog Series. This series has some excellent, easy reads that make great starting points for exploring biblical alternatives to eternal hellfire and brimstone. The post “What Jesus Talked About When He Talked About Hell” is particularly eye-opening for people who have never been taught about the actual Greek words translated as “hell” in the New Testament. BLC also gets down to the nitty gritty of whether eternal conscious torment is “biblical” with “25 Bible Verses that Disprove Eternal Conscious Hell.”

“What [the] Hell? Is Annihilation Within the Bounds?” This is another Biblical case against eternal conscious torment, from Prof. Ed Christian.

Rob Bell, Love Wins. In this controversial book (which was influential enough to cause the Southern Baptist Convention issue a resolution to double-down on the reality of eternal conscious torment) Rob Bell makes a scripturally-based argument for a kind of Christian universalism. The book references C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which offers another alternative take on hell. You can also find Rob Bell discussing his views in youtube videos like this one.

Kurt Willems also has a blog series on hell: “Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares?”, and more recently he suggested that Christians give up the doctrine of hell for a year to see how it could revolutionize our relationships with others. Food for thought: “Giving Up Hell for a Year.” 

Mark Sandlin, in “Hell: Yeah, I’m Going There -or- Hell yeah, I’m Going There,” has a different take on hell that overlaps somewhat with Rob Bell, but with a unique spin on how we’re all going to hell (but that’s not the end of the story!).

Rethinking Hell: Exploring Evangelical Conditionalism: This website put together by a variety of evangelical Christians contains blog posts, podcasts, and other resources related to beliefs about hell, particularly conditionalism.

Ellin Jimmerson: Baptist Minister. Liberation Theologian. Immigrant Advocate. Film Maker. LGBTQ Ally. Craft Cocktail Connoisseur.

I’m caught this week in a crazy rush of pre-spring break grading and other tasks, so in lieu of the usual post, I thought I’d give a quick shout out to my amazing friend Rev. Dr. Ellin Jimmerson, who is a tireless advocate for justice, a theology nerd like me, and a mixer of most excellent margaritas.

If you don’t already know who she is, Rev. Jimmerson is an advocate for immigration justice and more recently she has been in the limelight for another cause: marriage equality for same-sex couples. She made headlines as one of the first ministers in Alabama to perform a same-sex wedding last month when Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional.

Rev. Jimmerson has written articles for about immigration and LGBTQ issues, but as of this week she has her very own blog, which I highly recommend that you hop over and check out. Her debut post “What is Q?” draws an intriguing connection between the “Q” in LGBTQ and the biblical “Q” source, and I look forward to reading more of what she has to say!

Rev. Jimmerson is also the writer and director of the award-winning immigration justice documentary The Second Cooler. If you are interested in immigration issues you need to see this eye-opening documentary! Borrowing from the documentary’s website, “The Second Cooler is a documentary about illegal immigration shot primarily in Alabama, Arizona, and northern Mexico. The premise is that Arizona is the new Alabama, the epicenter of an intense struggle for migrant justice. The documentary’s purpose is to bring basic immigration issues into focus. Those issues include the impact of free trade agreements on migration, the lack of a legal way for poor Latin Americans to come to the United States, the inherent abuses of the guest worker program, the fact that many migrants are indigenous people, anti-immigrant politics, the reality of thousands of migrant deaths at the border, and an escalating ideology of the border.”

The Second Cooler has only been available at limited showings around the country at film festivals, churches, and universities, but beginning April 17, it will be available online and on DVD. So if you haven’t been able to see it, your opportunity is on the way!

Follow Rev. Jimmerson’s blog or look her up on Facebook or Twitter to keep up with news about The Second Cooler and her other advocacy work.


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Why I am Pro-Choice (and Pro-Life, and a Whole Bunch of Other “Pros”)

Last week I hosted Isabel Montoya-Minisee’s essay about how she considered terminating an unplanned pregnancy–and even visited Planned Parenthood for information–and how that experience transformed the way that she related to women who face hard choices about pregnancy and abortion in their lives. She realized that instead of preaching against abortion, her time would have been better spent helping women in difficult situations bear their burdens.

Like Isabel, at a personal level I am decidedly pro-life. I have an unplanned kid as proof of that position. Finding out that I was pregnant again, while still nursing a ten-month old and on the tenure-track in a full-time university position (and without the benefit of grandparents nearby) completely freaked me out, even as a married woman with a stable income. It took me about three months to chill the &^#@ out. It took me even longer to get over the guilt of not being happy about the pregnancy in those first weeks. That’s part of the reason that Isabel’s story, with its intense feelings of shame, affected me deeply.

Of course, despite his unexpectedly quick arrival, I wouldn’t trade my second son for anything. However, the circumstances of his arrival did push me, a Christian feminist sitting the pro-life/pro-choice fence, over into the “pro-choice” camp. If I experienced so much stress over an unplanned pregnancy in my relatively privileged position, how much more difficult is a similar situation for a woman who has trouble feeding the children she already has? Or for a teenager who made a bad choice about sex?

And then there are other situations that are more troubling: what about the woman who is raped or abused, or the one who wanted the baby but then learned that it has a defect that is incompatible with life? All of those women have stories, like mine and like Isabel’s, that deserve to be heard on their own terms, and all of those women deserve to have a say in how their story plays out. It is not for politicians or preachers (or me, or you) to make or to be responsible for their choices, or to heap shame and condemnation on top of the burdens that they already have to bear.

So, while personally I am pro-life, politically I am pro-choice. But really, it is much more complicated than that.

My pro-life/choice stance is made up of a bunch of other “pros” that deconstruct the hard boundary that some people draw between these two positions. Ironically, many pro-lifers hold stances that actually lead to a higher rate of abortions, such as an insistence on abstinence-only sex education or a resistance to easy access to birth control or other programs that support women and children. If we are serious about preventing abortions and the unfortunate situations that lead to them, we have to do better than that.

That is why in order to be “pro-life” in multiple and meaningful ways, I’m also . . .

– Pro-Sex Education: There were things I did not know about my body and fertility until I was thirty years old and reading up on how to maximize my chances of having an academic-calendar friendly pregnancy. That is unacceptable. Studies have shown the positive effects of comprehensive sex education (not abstinence-only education) both in terms of teenagers delaying sex and using contraception. Smarter sex choices = fewer unwanted pregnancies = fewer abortions = A win for the pro-life camp.

– Pro-Contraception: And more than that, I’m pro-cheap and easy access to it, because access to reliable contraception radically reduces abortion rates. This is a no brainer, right? As many other critics of the pro-life movement have noted, putting barriers in the way of access to contraceptives shows that some pro-lifers are really more concerned with policing the bedroom activities of other people than they are with preventing abortions.

– Pro-Empowerment of Victimized Women (and Pro-Prevention of Intimate Partner Violence and Rape): I strongly feel that women who are raped or abused should not be further disempowered and violated by being forced to carry a pregnancy to term against their wishes. Women who want to end a pregnancy are seven times more likely to be abuse victims than other women, and denying them access to abortion can hinder their ability to escape further abuse. On the flip-side of this topic, to be pro-life and pro-women, we need to be advocating for better prevention programs for rape and domestic violence–and not just avoidance-advice for women, but programs that teach boys and men to respect women from the get-go.

Pro-Economic Empowerment of Women (and other disadvantaged groups): – 69% of women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged, with around 40% living below the poverty line. In one study, three-quarters of women having abortions gave financial reasons including the need to work to care for children or other dependents. For these women, going through with a pregnancy can mean slipping deeper into poverty. If we want to decrease abortion rates, we need to support increased educational opportunities, better wages, and a social safety net that ensures that parents can feed their kids. So that part of my stance is also . . .

– Pro-Children: As in, taking care of the children who have already been born (over 15 million of whom live in food-insecure households here in the US). A complete pro-life stance must take into account the lives and well-being of children who have already been born, not just those in the womb. In addition, a true pro-life stance must be . . .

– Pro-Women’s Lives: The lives of women are no less valuable than the lives of the babies that they carry. This is probably the central reason that I cannot support the political pro-life movement. It devalues women at the expense of babies, or worse yet, fertilized eggs. Pro-life advocates may disagree, but the thrust of pro-life political machinations is clear: the lives of adult women are more disposable than the life of a fetus or even a fertilized egg. Consider that for some women, becoming pregnant is medically dangerous, yet some pro-life groups seek to limit access to contraception. Consider that for some women, pregnancy complications can become life-threatening and require the termination of a pregnancy, yet in multiple states, pro-life politicians have put forth legislation that if passed, would allow medical staff to refuse care for a woman in that situation. Any true pro-life stance should value the life of mother, unborn child, and existing child at least equally. Sometimes hard choices have to be made, and sometimes there are tragic, no-win situations. I believe we need to leave those choices to the families and doctors who are directly involved with them.

– Pro-Choice(s): To sum up several of the “pros” above, I support empowering women and men to make and implement good choices about sex and contraception. I support the availability of safe and legal abortion because sometimes it is the best, or only choice. I choose to not force my ideological views on women in difficult situations and to trust them to make and be responsible for their choices. I am not pro-abortion, but I know that making abortion illegal or highly restricted is not the answer.

In fact, making abortion illegal does not lead to lower abortion rates. It simply makes abortion less safe and puts more women at risk. What lowers abortion rates is education, availability of contraception, and social and economic empowerment. If the pro-life movement is serious about reducing abortion rates, it needs to stop over-simplifying the issue and get down to addressing the underlying problems. It needs to stop vilifying the people involved–patients and providers–and work to alleviate the conditions that back women into corners where there is, as Isabel wrote, no easy way out. 

And finally, my last “Pro.” I am . . .

– Pro-Love and Grace, Rather than Shame and Condemnation: When women do find themselves in positions where they need (or require) an abortion, we need to be willing to hear their stories, withhold judgment, and support them in the best way that we can. That may mean helping them see–like Miss Julia did for Isabel–that there is a way forward without terminating a pregnancy. But it may mean something very different: supporting a victimized woman as she leaves an abusive relationship or recovers from rape; mourning a baby that was wanted, but that could not survive or have any quality of life; helping a mother who is struggling to care for her existing children, or helping a woman forgive herself for making mistakes or hard decisions so that she can move on with her life.

 As I mentioned above, Isabel’s story resonated with me in part because of the shame and condemnation that she felt. An online friend of mine, John Berry, read what Isabel had to say and commented, “It is staggering the burdens we put on people when we should be helping them during the difficult times in life.” Both Isabel and John are onto something: Instead of heaping shame and condemnation on women, we should be helping them to bear the burdens that are already on their shoulders.

And we can start simply by listening. 

Here are some places to begin:

“Congressman Tim Ryan Changes Position on Abortion after Talking to Women”

John Shore: “From a Christian Woman who Chose Abortion”

Shauna Armitage: “Abortion: A Choice I Never Knew I’d Have to Make”

“Stories about Abortion”

“Women who had Abortions after Twenty Weeks Explain Why They’re Necessary”

Lynn Beisner: “I Wish My Mother Had Aborted Me”

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You Don’t Have to Keep It: Finding God at Planned Parenthood (Guest Post)

The following is a personal essay by Isabel Montoya-Minisee that continues my series on listening to each other’s stories until they echo with our own and become avenues for grace and compassion. In this case, Christian and pro-life Isabel unexpectedly became the protagonist of a story that she never thought she would tell: a visit to Planned Parenthood to request information about having an abortion. Here is her story. I will follow-up in my next post with some of my thoughts on the topic. 

Unexpectedly Expecting 

Isabel Montoya-Minisee

This drive to Planned Parenthood feels like the longest trip I’ve ever been on. I know it’s just for the information, but how can I be considering such a thing anyway? What kind of person must I be? Why did they close the Planned Parenthood in my city? Actually, the truth is that I don’t think I would’ve gone to that one if it were open. What if somebody were to see me walking in? Me, one who champions the cause of abused and neglected children, seen walking into Planned Parenthood. Me, the one who has always voted first and foremost on the issue of pro-life. Me, former wife, former church leader, former children’s advocate board member considering abortion. How did I get here?

I am scared. I wonder what the clinic will be like. I bet it’s mostly feminists giving a lot of propaganda about how a baby is a fetus until it is born and “my body, my choice—that type of thing. I bet they’ll try to convince me that the choice for abortion is a liberating choice and comfort me and make me think that it’s all going to be ok. But it’s not going to be ok. I wonder if there will be protesters holding signs outside like on TV, those doing God’s work. I wonder how many lives they’ve saved by doing that.

I am so scared. I wish I had one friend to turn to, just one. Just a few years ago I had more friends than I could count, when I was married, when I was in church, back then.

Actually, I do have one friend. I tried to open up to her. I told her what I was thinking about, but she said it was selfish and the easy way out. There isn’t anything easy about this and there is no way out, only either or. I don’t want to share with her about it anymore. Please God, help me! Why can’t I just go back two months? I will do everything right, I promise. Please God, help me!

I haven’t stopped crying for weeks since I found out. I still can’t believe it. Why did the doctor say I couldn’t have children after surgery? This doesn’t make any sense. Yet here I am, pregnant, unmarried, and at my age! Here I am.

Oh my God, I don’t want to get out of this car! There are protestors. But they’re not the reason I don’t want to get out. I grip the door handle with all of my strength as if some unseen force were trying to open it. I do all I can to hold it closed. How can I be doing this? I know I’m just here for the information, but how can I have even come this far?

I am the worst person in the world. I am so ashamed. My feet are heavy as I walk this walk of death, death for my baby, death for me.  I know if I do this deed I will never be the same. I will exist only for the sake of others. I will be a shell of myself and my new vision will be in shades of gray. Blue skies and green grass, red rose petals and purple hydrangeas will exist only in my memory. A genuine smile shall never grace my face again. I feel the life in me slipping away with every step I take. My feet feel like blocks of concrete. I keep my head down not so much from the intimidation of the protestors as they hold their signs and Bibles, but because the weight of my shame bears down on it.

I do glance their way, looking, hoping for any hint of you, God. I don’t see you there and I don’t feel you there, I only feel condemnation and I am more ashamed. Aren’t you coming to rescue me? I am searching desperately where you are supposed to be. Have you abandoned me all together now, now that I have come this far?

I can hardly raise my head to sign in and tell why I’m here. My voice is a whisper and I struggle to manage a faint smile. I hope she doesn’t make me say it twice. It’s so cold in here. Not on the outside of my body, but on the inside. It feels like ice, my arms feel heavy. I swallow hard and sit down. There are a few other women here. There is one very young girl with her mother. She looks up for a brief second and our eyes meet. She looks as scared as I feel. I wonder about her. I want to empathize and ache for her but I don’t have the strength today. Any other day I could, but today I barely have the strength to breathe. I notice that hardly anybody has their head raised and everyone is sitting far apart. I understand. I feel alone too and I wrap my arms around myself in consolation.

I always wondered what it was like in here. So now I know. I wish I didn’t.

Remember the woman I was two years ago, Lord? Before I lost myself? I chuckle in my mind. Lost myself? I don’t think I ever really knew myself. I was an actor. Performing for others, performing for you. I lived my life aspiring to the perfection I thought was required to be loved and accepted. Well, I’m not perfect anymore and everyone has turned away from me. Will you now turn away from me too?

“Ms. Byrd.” The call startles me back to the present. I stand and follow slowly behind a nurse.  I want to turn and run out, but I don’t. The hallway seems narrow. It feels like I am walking to the electric chair. This is the end. How can I hold life or death in my hands? Who am I? I wish my mind would slow down. I am exhausted.

“We’re just going to take some blood today and then you’ll have your counseling.”

Well, that wasn’t too bad, but needles never have bothered me. On to waiting room Number Two. Wow, this is a small room for all six of us. The chairs are arranged so that we are sitting directly across from one another. We can’t be more than three feet apart. Still, nobody speaks a word much less makes eye contact. I am so used to speaking to people everywhere I go, but this is like being in a mausoleum and words would be an affront.

All of our eyes are glued to the small television playing a video. I am taken aback. It is showing a baby in the womb. A soothing woman’s voice is telling what stage the baby is in and what it will be doing this week, before moving on to the next one. “In week seven” she continues, “The fetus’s tiny heart begins to beat, other major organs like the liver and kidneys have begun to develop and the fetus’s arms and legs begin to grow from tiny buds on each side.”

I am shocked! This is so unexpected. The video plays and replays the entire nine months of pregnancy. It takes what little strength I have to hold back the tears. I place my hand gently on my stomach. I think of my baby.

“Hi little one, it’s mommy. Do you know where we are? Are you afraid? I am so sorry! I am so sorry! Do you know? Will you ever forgive me? How can you ever forgive me? God will never forgive me. I will never forgive myself! I promise if I do this I will never live another joy again. I promise!”

I watch the video three times before my name is called. It is time for my counseling. I sit in the chair at the side of the desk. The woman across from me is looking through her paperwork. She is a black woman in her early sixties with a soft character. She is stoic as she starts to speak, while I am nervous.

“Are you here on your own accord? Nobody forced you to come here today?” she says.

“No, ma’am, nobody forced me.”

“Nobody here is going to encourage you to have an abortion. That is your decision. Now,” she continues, “Your options for this pregnancy are termination, carrying the baby to term and giving it up for adoption or carrying the baby to term and keeping it.”

I can’t take it anymore. I burst. I weep. I cannot stop myself. I don’t want to. The pain and fear and shame have overtaken me and I cannot control it.

“Oh honey!” Miss Julia says as she comes from around the desk and takes me in her arms. “It will be ok. You can have this baby. She will just be the baby of the family. I had my daughter when I was forty-one and she is at the Art Institute of Atlanta right now.  You can do this honey. God will make a way. I know it’s scary and it seems hard and like you can’t do it, but honey, God will make a way!”

I raise my head. I look into her eyes. The countenance of peace is unmistakable. God, you are here! You were waiting for me inside all along. You didn’t abandon me! Miss Julia gives me a hug and I feel His spirit inside of her. Then she hands me my paperwork.

“Honey, I told you that nobody here was going to encourage you to have an abortion, I didn’t say we wouldn’t encourage you to keep it. Now they’re going to make you an appointment up front, but you don’t have to keep it.”  She looks deep into my eyes. “You don’t have to keep it.”

I didn’t keep it. I did keep her. The story is a little longer but I will give you the short version. My water broke when I was twenty-three weeks pregnant and I spent the next six weeks in the hospital on complete bed rest. When I say complete bed rest that is what I mean. My bed was my living room, my kitchen, my bedroom and my bathroom for six weeks. My feet did not touch the floor the entire time and I never left that room.

I had to fight for my daughter. I had to fight hard. I fought through loneliness and depression. I fought through sickness. I fought through overdoses of medication that paralyzed me. I fought through knotty veins that made the nurses have to stick me in five to eight places every time they changed out my I.V. I fought through heart issues where they brought the paddles in, yes, the paddles. And I am glad.

I am glad for my daughter to know that I did and do and always will want and love and fight for her. She is amazing! This story is not about the women who have had abortions or those that condemn them for it. This story is about me and how I have learned that the woman I want to be is the woman that Miss Julia is. In the face of my fear and shame, she was shameless and unafraid. It is my story about hoping against hope and still unexpectedly expecting God to come to my rescue. And he did.

I am still ashamed. I am ashamed when I think of how I wore the red pro-life bracelet and failed to show love to a scared pregnant single mother. I am ashamed that I shouted amen to the preaching about abortion and never once rocked a drug-addicted baby whose mother abandoned it in the hospital. I am ashamed that I walked a Right to Life courthouse walk and never bought diapers and milk and clothes and took them to a struggling father and mother working two jobs to keep things a float. I am ashamed that I stood in the church vestibule in my “leadership” role talking about how abortion is a selfish, easy way out decision.

Yet, I never once held one of these scared, weeping women in my arms and told her that it would be okay and that God would make a way. I am ashamed. I have heard it said be careful with what measuring stick you judge by, for by it you will be judged. I know that I need a very long stick.

My arms are still heavy these days, too heavy even to lift a small stone.