What did the Reformers think about Hell?
The definitive statement is taken from the Westminster Confession, dating from 1646.
… but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power. (Chapter XXXIII, Of the Last Judgment)
In other words, it’s a straight-forward Biblical understanding. Jesus would have concurred. Remember, the Reformers believed in Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, and, as uncomfortable it may be to say so, Jesus’ thoughts on the reality of Hell are clear and unambiguous. Any deviation from this Sola Scriptura approach to the understanding of the doctrine of Hell will not come from anything that the Bible has to say about the subject, but rather what subsequent commentators have to say about the truth of the Bible and the character of God.
The Age of Enlightenment and the rise of humanism, as you would expect, brought about vast changes in the perception of such matters. Being a movement that put man at the centre of everything and relegating God to the sidelines at best, the idea of Hell would be the first Christian doctrine jettisoned. And so it was. Therefore it wasn’t an issue for anyone other than mainstream Christians and the fringe cults.
But this is not to say that Christians in modern times have been in agreement as to what exactly happens in Hell. Far from it. Variations on the theme have given us a Hell that has many faces, depending on what tradition you follow. Let us see …
We start with the Roman Catholics.
To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “Hell”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
This may be vaguely religious but only a half truth. Yes, Hell is a place of separation from God, but what about the punishment?
Pope John Paul II seems to have stepped even further back from what the Bible says, when he said, the images of Hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.
Rather than a place? Interestingly, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI seemed to have got the Catholics back on track, if an article in The Times in March 2007 is to be believed, reporting on a meeting in Rome:
Hell is a place where sinners really do burn in an everlasting fire, and not just a religious symbol designed to galvanise the faithful, the Pope has said … Hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more”, he said.
The Vatican seemed embarrassed by this. A Church historian Agostino Paravicini Bagliani gave a glimpse of the party line. He stated that the concept of Hell had been misused in the Middle Ages to scare the flock. He also said,
“The problem is not only that our sense of sin has declined, but also that the world wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th Century created a Hell on Earth as bad as anything we can imagine in the afterlife.”
Jesus gave us a perfectly good idea of Hell, a place of total darkness where one undergoes severe discomfort for eternity. No Hell on Earth is ever going to compare with this!
So who do we go with; the infallible pope or the Catholic spin-doctors? As the latter represent official Catholic policy we can make the following conclusion about their view on the doctrine of Hell.
Let’s scare the flock a little bit but there’s no point terrifying them too much, or we’ll start losing more of them.
I decided to have a brief look at the main UK Protestant denominations, by visiting the main website of each and reading their doctrinal statements. What I found was interesting, disturbing and probably worth examining in another book. Every website was designed to appeal to the eye, to show social relevance and cultural insights. But what do these people actually believe – the original raison d’etre of the denominations after all – was either very well hidden or totally missing. I found no doctrinal statements for the Church of England or the Methodists and, if I wanted to know more about what the Baptists believe I would need to post them a cheque for 14.50 pounds for their full constitution!
If I can’t access this information as someone with professional experience of working with websites, then how is the general public meant to find what should be basic and freely available information?
Why is it so hard to find out what today’s denominations actually believe? Is it because some doctrines are in our politically-correct, spiritually-correct and ecumenical age considered too divisive or even undefendable for them?
So, as the front doors were locked, I went through the back door …
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)
What does the Catholic church now think about Hell?