When people ask me about hell, I will sometimes answer, "it depends on the day." Sometimes I think I am an inclusivist (sometimes people use the term universalist but universalism is a less specific term. In inclusivisim everybody gets saved but it's still Jesus who does all the saving and nobody else), sometimes I'm an annihilationist, sometimes I take a somewhat purgatorial perspective, and on one or two days of the year I might be a traditionalist/metaphoricalist (and I'm never a literalist). In any case I am never comfortable with the idea of an only partially redeemed eschaton which is, I'm afraid, what you get with any theology other than inclusivism/universalism. I'm never comfortable with the idea of God rejecting some people for eternity or being satisfied with some of the people whom he died to save suffering eternally. I'm not ok with a God who's ok with giving up on some people which he apparently must do if he is to stop pursuing after they die and go to hell. And if God does continue pursuing people then I'm not ok with the idea that he cannot defeat hell and eventually save all people.
But I'm also not comfortable with downplaying or even ignoring some scripture which I am afraid you must do if you are to be an inclusivist/universalist... so on those days I end up being an annihilationist... everyone who rejects God is destroyed. At least in annihilationism you can look at the eschaton (what remains) and say, "behold... God has made all things (which still remain) new." And there are still other days when I can basically ignore all my eschatological concerns and say that just as Pharaoh's army died with their king, people who die without Christ die the "second death" and go to eternal damnation. If I didn't believe in a totally redeemed eschaton, I'd have no problems with hell.
Can you see how conflicted I am on this hell issue?
So here's the big question: how do I talk to my students about hell? Well, when it has come up, I admit, I've probably been very vague with them (this probably isn't always a good thing). When it has come up, I tend to focus on the "hell" we see in our own backyard, the hell of which the gates cannot prevail against the church, and our calling to engage it and offer Christ's salvation wherever we see it. I focus on the hell people can go through without Christ and without faith. I focus on what it means to be a Christian here and now, while we're alive, rather than after we die. The bottom line of Christianity has been and should always be life before death rather than life after death. You could read the entirety of the synoptic gospels without ever really asking about weather or not one goes to heaven or hell after death... it's just not the point of Jesus' ministry.The most important thing in life is NOT knowing where you're going when you die... It's learning how to live the life that is truly life before you die.
But I had better be sure that I believe this because now I'm teaching kids and you just can't mess that up. So how do I teach hell to kids? I guess it's ok to be vague if the only other option is to be heretical (that's only a half-joke). I guess I will continue to teach the bible and talk about hell when it comes up. I guess I will continue to focus on what it means to be a Christian here and now and discuss damnation when it comes up. I guess I will continue showing them that life is just better with Jesus in it and I'll try to avoid using hell as a scare tactic and heaven as a carrot on a stick. We'll see what happens...
Please pray for me... and especially pray for the youth of our church.