(this began as a comment to jon, but it got too long, so i put it here in hopes of remaining polite.)
thanks for the excellent post jon. i really appreciate good, solid, probing questions. and i too would love to build a church with you and others with a mission to usher folks into the kingdom of God, and all that entails. reallly, let me know when we're going to start...
one thought: i have noticed that in our post-everything circles, just asking a question seems to put it in play. does that make sense? like, all you have to do to cast doubt on centuries-old doctrines is ask, "is there really a hell?" and all of a sudden scholarship emerges from the dustiest shelves of the libraries and we start dividing up into "camps" and, of course, finding a lot of scripture to support our side.
my small group is made up of quite a few people who would identify themselves as "modern" thinkers, and much of their world exists in black and white...which is fine (how very post- of me...). i think that they would likely refuse to even discuss certain questions, like "does God exist?" or "will, maybe, good hindus go to heaven?". i am not evaluating my friends, but rather imagining their reaction if faced with the "hell" question. they would likely dismiss it as foolishness or idle chatter.
i was reading this fundamentalist website the other day that proved the amy grant worshipped satan (they have pictures!) and they kept banking on the scriptures about how everyone will abandon right doctrine in the last days and that true believers will be hated by the world...it is like their badge of honor.
i hate that christians are hated, and i feel like for the most part it is our own fault, but is it? i mean jerry falwell blames 9/11 on feminists and homosexuals, pat robertson advocates assassinating a south american leader that doesn't agree with our foreign policy, well, you get the point... but what are we doing to live lives against the cultural grain? being hated by the world is a part of most of our eschatology, but hated for what? because we believe in hell? or because we keep telling everyone other than us that they are going there?
which leads me back to my original question about questions...do we really need to dialogue about the existance of hell? (feel free to recommend literature on the subject, i've read none) i've read great arguments for both sides of the eternal suffering vs. annihilation debate, but i've never questioned the existance of hell itself. i don't know, maybe i've just bumped into a theological stronghold that i'm not willing to question...which would be hypocritical of me. i guess i just feel like sometimes like our trampoline is getting pretty damn loose.