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Do virtuous non-Christians go to hell?

Written by
Peter Smith

“How could Gandhi be in hell?”

I wish I had a nickel for everyone who asked that question in explaining why they have a hard time believing in the traditional Christian concept of hell.

Mahatma Gandhi seems to be the stand-in for the ultimate example of a virtuous person who, though influenced by Jesus, never embraced him as a savior.

But the conflict predates Gandhi. Even the poet Dante, who put his vivid literary imagination to work in depicting the tortures of the damned in his “Inferno,” placed noble pagans in the cushiest part of hell he could imagine. (If there had been air conditioning in the Middle Ages, he would have had it installed for them.)

These matters come to mind in the wake of the Southern Baptist Convention’s June passage of a resolution, “On the Reality of Hell.”

It follows the recent publication of the controversial book, “Love Wins,” by author and pastor Rob Bell. He asks whether the unsaved are damned to never-ending hell.

“Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?” he asks in a promotional video.

In the book, Bell stops short of embracing a form of universalism, in which everyone gets saved. But he contends that there are Scriptures and Christian theological traditions affirming such a view and that it’s OK to hold them in tension with others affirming unending punishment.

“We don’t need to resolve (such tensions) … because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires,” he writes. But the overall gist is that a loving God offers all kinds of second chances to people in the Bible.

The Baptist resolution, passed at the convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix, affirms “eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate in Hell.”

It continues:

“Orthodox Christians have affirmed consistently and resoundingly the reality of a literal Hell” and that “the Bible clearly teaches that God will judge the lost at the end of the age.”

It resolves that, “out of our love for Christ and His glory, and our love for lost people and our deep desire that they not suffer eternally in Hell, we implore Southern Baptists to proclaim faithfully the depth and gravity of sin against a holy God, the reality of Hell, and the salvation of sinners by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone….”

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And, here is some wisdom from the pages of The Urantia Book regarding the issue of life after death:

(40 :5.19) As to the chances of mortal survival, let it be made forever clear: All souls of every possible phase of mortal existence will survive provided they manifest willingness to co-operate with their indwelling Adjusters and exhibit a desire to find God and to attain divine perfection, even though these desires be but the first faint flickers of the primitive comprehension of that “true light which lights every man who comes into the world.”

As to a "hell," The Urantia Book does not teach - nor did Jesus teach - the existence of such a place. Instead, The Urantia Book teaches that there is something called "extinction of being." Rather than a place, extinction of being is a state which is arrived at following complete identification of a person with sin and iniquity. And, rather than God condemning a person to an eternal state of suffering and anquish, the burden is placed - as it should be - on the person's own decision.

2:6.8 God loves the sinner and hates the sin: such a statement is true philosophically, but God is a transcendent personality, and persons can only love and hate other persons. Sin is not a person. God loves the sinner because he is a personality reality (potentially eternal), while towards sin God strikes no personal attitude, for sin is not a spiritual reality; it is not personal; therefore does only the justice of God take cognizance of its existence. The love of God saves the sinner; the law of God destroys the sin. This attitude of the divine nature would apparently change if the sinner finally identified himself wholly with sin just as the same mortal mind may also fully identify itself with the indwelling spirit Adjuster. Such a sin-identified mortal would then become wholly unspiritual in nature (and therefore personally unreal) and would experience eventual extinction of being. Unreality, even incompleteness of creature nature, cannot exist forever in a progressingly real and increasingly spiritual universe.

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