The interpretation of Hell as eternal conscious punishment is the one most widely attested by the Church in its historic formulation of doctrine and in its understanding of Scripture. But this is no longer the dominant evangelical position these days, neither is it the dominant position in the wider Christian community. For a start there is the universalism of Origen, as introduced in the last article. These are the people who believe that a God of love doesn’t want anyone to end up in Hell and that everyone will be saved. There are some who still take this position, or a variation of it, but they are not a significant number.
Then we have the current position of the Catholics and most evangelicals today and that is a Hell with the heat turned down, just a hint of darkness and a bit of discomfort (unless you’ve been particularly rotten). This is a Hell palatable for modern man, an acceptable Hell that the evangelists can work with, a Hell that doesn’t embarrass our view of a loving God who wouldn’t hurt a flea, a Hell that doesn’t bracket you with medieval superstitions or, even worse, the fundamentalists! It’s a Hell that you can sell to potential converts, to convince them that today’s Church is made up of nice people worshipping a nice God, not one who is going to condemn all non-believers to eternal conscious torture. It’s a very British Hell. It’s a Hell where you are separate from God (which is correct) and where you are free to contemplate how bad you’ve been.
Others of the same sensibilities take a different approach. It’s a “gone in a puff of smoke” type of Hell, annihilationism. This is the party line of the Church of England and of many evangelicals. In this scheme people are utterly destroyed at some point after death and judgement. They just cease to be, no eternity in Heaven or Hell. Similar to this is the idea of conditional immortality which states that only the saved have eternal lives, presumably making it easier to annihilate the wicked! Annihilationism is also believed by fringe Christian groups/cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians.
So that’s where we are with this horrible doctrine. The traditional position believed by Jesus, the apostles, the early Church Fathers, Augustine and the medieval Catholics, the Reformers and today’s “fundamentalists” (though I would prefer to call them “Biblical Christians”), is in decline. It is not because God has changed His mind or that Christians have misinterpreted the words of Jesus, but rather that the World has moved on. Nowadays Christians do not rely solely on the Bible for doctrinal instruction; instead other factors from outside are brought to bear, never more apparent than in the case of the doctrine of Hell. This brings me to the recurring theme of agendas. What agenda is followed by those who follow a particular interpretation of the doctrine?
Again the default agenda for those who take the traditional position of Hell as eternal conscious punishment is the desire for Sola Scriptura, for the Bible alone to inform your opinion. For the Christian who has sincere concern for the lost and just cannot fathom the thought of such a fierce fate for unbelievers their agenda may seem to be compassion, but it is mixed with denial. It’s a Christian sentimentalism, that is happy to go along with the nice doctrines but wishes the bad ones would just go away. As C.S. Lewis once said: There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than [Hell], if it lay in my power … I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully: ‘All will be saved.”
And what about the root of this sentimentalism? It’s not real love because it is not based on Biblical truth. As Hell is the default destination of all humanity because of our sin nature, Jesus’ promise of Heaven through faith in his death and resurrection is our only escape from this fate. Any sugar-coating of this fate just serves to minimise the importance for the salvation provided by Jesus. Some people (albeit jokingly) insist they would be quite happy for an after-life separated from God as they have managed to live their lives in the same state. Others insist that annihilation holds no fear for them, as they wouldn’t be around to think about it. Yet if the real truth of Hell was still preached by all Christians, the fear of Hell would become significant. Not that we should scare people into Heaven, but we should always give people the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In the 19th Century, the infamous murderer, Charlie Peace, on the way to his execution, noticed that the prison chaplain had been reading some Bible verses about Hell. Peace remarked, “if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!”
One thing still troubles me about this whole matter. This concerns myself, but perhaps you too. Given that we are to believe the words of Jesus in this horrible eternal punishment for the auntie Jeans of this World, shouldn’t this provoke in us an insistent relentless heart-felt desire for evangelism? Wouldn’t the saving of souls become our highest priority in life? I have searched my soul and, to be perfectly honest, I do not find this passion to any higher degree than the occasional prayer for the specific lost and some half-hearted and clumsy attempts at evangelism. Can’t we see where these people are going? Why aren’t we doing more about it?
Is it the usual cop-out of there are others out there who have specific giftings to do the intercessions and the evangelism? Or have we taken on unconscious heretical ideas that our families and loved ones are saved by proxy because of our own beliefs? Or, even worse, perhaps our deepest thoughts have been more affected by the prevailing current Christian worldview than we would care to admit. Perhaps we have, at our deepest level, taken onboard universalism or annihilationism as safer, less problematic options and we are just paying lip-service to the Biblical position?
This worries me. It should worry us all. What worries me even more is when this doesn’t worry me! We ought to be worried.
Let’s pray that God can save us from unbelief and error and provoke us to a fresh passion and concern for those who surround us travelling on the road to Hell.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)
Shouldn’t the fear of Hell encourage us to reach the lost?