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After reviewing the rise of the modern age, the Italian literary critic Piero Camporesi commented, “We can now confirm that hell is finished, that the great theatre of torments is closed for an indeterminate period, and that after 2000 years of horrifying performances the play will not be repeated. The long triumphal season has come to an end.” Like a play with a good run, the curtain has finally come down, and for millions around the world, the biblical doctrine of hell is but a distant memory. For so many persons in this postmodern world, the biblical doctrine of hell has become simply unthinkable.
Have postmodern westerners just decided that hell is no more? Can we really just think the doctrine away? Os Guinness notes that western societies “have reached the state of pluralization where choice is not just a state of affairs, it is a state of mind. Choice has become a value in itself, even a priority. To be modern is to be addicted to choice and change. Change becomes the very essence of life.” Personal choice becomes the urgency; what sociologist Peter Berger called the “heretical imperative.” In such a context, theology undergoes rapid and repeated transformation driven by cultural currents. For millions of persons in the postmodern age, truth is a matter of personal choice—not divine revelation. Clearly, we moderns do not choose for hell to exist.
This process of change is often invisible to those experiencing it, and denied by those promoting it. As David F. Wells comments, “The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now dammed by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself.” He continued: “To be sure, this orthodoxy never was infallible, nor was it without its blemishes and foibles, but I am far from persuaded that the emancipation from its theological core that much of evangelicalism is effecting has resulted in greater biblical fidelity. In fact, the result is just the opposite. We now have less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks.”
The pressing question of our concern is this: Whatever happened to hell? What has happened so that we now find even some who claim to be evangelicals promoting and teaching concepts such as universalism, inclusivism, postmortem evangelism, conditional immortality, and annihilationism—when those known as evangelicals in former times were known for opposing those very proposals? Many evangelicals seek to find any way out of the biblical doctrine—marked by so much awkwardness and embarrassment.
The answer to these questions must be found in understanding the impact of cultural trends and the prevailing worldview upon Christian theology. Ever since the Enlightenment, theologians have been forced to defend the very legitimacy of their discipline and proposals. A secular worldview that denies supernatural revelation must reject Christianity as a system and truth-claim. At the same time, it seeks to transform all religious truth-claims into matters of personal choice and opinion. Christianity, stripped of its offensive theology, is reduced to one ‘spirituality’ among others.
All the same, there are particular doctrines that are especially odious and repulsive to the modern and postmodern mind. The traditional doctrine of hell as a place of everlasting punishment bears that scandal in a particular way. The doctrine is offensive to modern sensibilities and an embarrassment to many who consider themselves to be Christians. Those Friedrich Schleiermacher called the “cultured despisers of religion” especially despise the doctrine of hell. As one observer has quipped, hell must be air conditioned.
Liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have modified their theological systems to remove this offense. No one is in danger of hearing a threatening “fire and brimstone” sermon in those churches. The burden of defending and debating hell now falls to the evangelicals—the last people who think it matters.
How is it that so many evangelicals—including some of the most respected leaders in the movement—now reject the traditional doctrine of hell in favor of annihilationism or some other option? The answer must surely come down to the challenge of theodicy—the challenge to defend God’s goodness against modern indictments.
Modern secularism demands that anyone who would speak for God must now defend Him. The challenge of theodicy is primarily to defend God against the problem of evil. The societies that gave birth to the decades of megadeath, the Holocaust, the abortion explosion, and institutionalized terror will now demand that God answer their questions and redefine himself according to their dictates.
In the background to all this is a series of inter-related cultural, theological, and philosophical changes that point to an answer for our question: What happened to evangelical convictions about hell?
The first issue is a changed view of God. The biblical vision of God has been rejected by the culture as too restrictive of human freedom and offensive to human sensibilities. God’s love has been redefined so that it is no longer holy. God’s sovereignty has been reconceived so that human autonomy is undisturbed. In recent years, even God’s omniscience has been redefined to mean that God perfectly knows all that He can perfectly know, but He cannot possibly know a future based on free human decisions.
Evangelical revisionists promote an understanding of divine love that is never coercive and would disallow any thought that God would send impenitent sinners to eternal punishment in the fires of hell. They are seeking to rescue God from the bad reputation He picked up by associating with theologians who for centuries taught the traditional doctrine. God is just not like that, they reassure. He would never sentence anyone—however guilty—to eternal torment and anguish.
Theologian Geerhardus Vos warned against abstracting the love of God from His other attributes, noting that while God’s love is revealed to be His fundamental attribute, it is defined by His other attributes as well. It is quite possible to “overemphasize this one side of truth as to bring into neglect other exceedingly important principles and demands of Christianity,” he stressed. This would lead to a loss of theological ‘equilibrium’ and balance. In the specific case of the love of God, it often leads to an unscriptural sentimentalism whereby God’s love becomes a form of indulgence incompatible with His hatred of sin.
In this regard, the language of the revisionists is particularly instructive. Any God who would act as the traditional doctrine would hold would be ‘vindictive,’ ‘cruel,’ and ‘more like Satan than like God.’ Clark Pinnock has made the credibility of the doctrine of God to the modern mind a central focus of his theology: “I believe that unless the portrait of God is compelling, the credibility of belief in God is bound to decline.” Later, he suggests, “Today it is easier to invite people to find fulfillment in a dynamic, personal God than it would be to ask them to find it in a deity who is immutable and self-enclosed.”
Extending this argument further, it would surely be easier to persuade secular persons to believe in a God who would never judge anyone deserving of eternal punishment than it would to persuade them to believe in the God preached by Jonathan Edwards or Charles Spurgeon. But the urgent question is this: Is evangelical theology about marketing God to our contemporary culture, or is it our task to stand in continuity with orthodox biblical conviction—whatever the cost? As was cited earlier, modern persons demand that God must be a humanitarian, and He is held to human standards of righteousness and love. In the end, only God can defend himself against His critics.
Our responsibility is to present the truth of the Christian faith with boldness, clarity, and courage—and defending the biblical doctrine in these times will require all three of these virtues. Hell is an assured reality, just as it is presented so clearly in the Bible. To run from this truth, to reduce the sting of sin and the threat of hell, is to pervert the Gospel and to feed on lies. Hell is not up for a vote or open for revision. Will we surrender this truth to modern skeptics?
Dr. Mohler is the author of a major essay published in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, published by Zondervan. Dr. Mohler’s essay, “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell,” is the first chapter in this important new book, available at your local bookstore.
The doctrine of hell has recently come under vicious attack, both from secularists and even from some evangelicals. In many ways, the assault has been a covert one. Like a slowly encroaching tide, a whole complex of inter-related cultural, theological, and philosophical changes have conspired to undermine the traditional understanding of hell. Yesterday, we considered the first and perhaps most important of those changes—a radically altered view of God. But other issues have played a part as well.
A second issue that has contributed to the modern denial of hell is a changed view of justice. Retributive justice has been the hallmark of human law since premodern times. This concept assumes that punishment is a natural and necessary component of justice. Nevertheless, retributive justice has been under assault for many years in western cultures, and this has led to modifications in the doctrine of hell.
The utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham argued that retribution is an unacceptable form of justice. Rejecting clear and absolute moral norms, they argued that justice demands restoration rather than retribution. Criminals were no longer seen as evil and deserving of punishment, but were seen as persons in need of correction. The goal—for all but the most egregious sinners—was restoration and rehabilitation. The shift from the prison to the penitentiary was supposed to be a shift from a place of punishment to a place of penance, but apparently no one told the prisoners.
C. S. Lewis rejected this idea as an assault upon the very concept of justice. “We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.”
Penal reforms followed, public executions ceased, and the public accepted the changes in the name of humanitarianism. Dutch criminologist Pieter Spierenburg pointed to “increasing inter-human identification” as the undercurrent of this shift. Individuals began to sympathize with the criminal, often thinking of themselves in the criminal’s place. The impact of this shift in the culture is apparent in a letter from one nineteenth century Anglican to another:
“The disbelief in the existence of retributive justice . . . is now so widely spread through nearly all classes of people, especially in regard to social and political questions . . . [that it] causes even men, whose theology teaches them to look upon God as a vindictive, lawless autocrat, to stigmatize as cruel and heathenish the belief that criminal law is bound to contemplate in punishment other ends beside the improvement of the offender himself and the deterring of others.”
The utilitarian concept of justice and deterrence has also given way to justice by popular opinion and cultural custom. The U. S. Constitution disallows “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the courts have offered evolving and conflicting rulings on what kind of punishment is thus excluded. At various times the death penalty has been constitutionally permitted and forbidden, and in one recent U. S. Supreme Court decision, the justice writing the majority opinion actually cited data from opinion polls.
The transformations of legal practice and culture have redefined justice for many modern persons. Retribution is out, and rehabilitation is put in its place. Some theologians have simply incorporated this new theory of justice into their doctrines of hell. For the Roman Catholics, the doctrine of purgatory functions as the penitentiary. For some evangelicals, a period of time in hell—but not an eternity in hell—is the remedy.
Some theologians have questioned the moral integrity of eternal punishment by arguing that an infinite punishment is an unjust penalty for finite sins. Or, to put the argument in a slightly different form, eternal torment is no fitting punishment for temporal sins. The traditional doctrine of hell argues that an infinite penalty is just punishment for sin against the infinite holiness of God. This explains why all sinners are equally deserving of hell, but for salvation through faith in Christ.
A third shift in the larger culture concerns the advent of the psychological worldview. Human behavior has been redefined by the impact of humanistic psychologies that deny or reduce personal responsibility for wrongdoing. Various theories place the blame on external influences, biological factors, behavioral determinism, genetic predispositions, and the influence of the subconscious—and these variant theories barely scratch the surface.
The autonomous self becomes the great personal project for individuals, and their various crimes and misdemeanors are excused as growth experiences or ‘personal issues.’ Shame and guilt are banned from public discussion and dismissed as repressive. In such a culture, the finality of God’s sentencing of impenitent sinners to hell is just unthinkable.
A fourth shift concerns the concept of salvation. The vast majority of men and women throughout the centuries of western civilization have awakened in the morning and gone to sleep at night with the fear of hell never far from consciousness—until now. Sin has been redefined as a lack of self-esteem rather than as an insult to the glory of God. Salvation has been reconceived as liberation from oppression, internal or external. The gospel becomes a means of release from bondage to bad habits rather than rescue from a sentence of eternity in hell.
The theodicy issue arises immediately when evangelicals limit salvation to those who come to conscious faith in Christ during their earthly lives and define salvation as anything akin to justification by faith. To the modern mind this seems absolutely unfair and scandalously discriminatory. Some evangelicals have thus modified the doctrine of salvation accordingly. This means that hell is either evacuated or minimized. Or, as one Catholic wit quipped, hell has been air-conditioned.
These shifts in the culture are but part of the picture. The most basic cause of controversy over the doctrine of hell is the challenge of theodicy. The traditional doctrine is just too out of step with the contemporary mind—too harsh and eternally fixed. In virtually every aspect, the modern mind is offended by the biblical concept of hell preserved in the traditional doctrine. For some who call themselves evangelicals, this is simply too much to bear.
We should note that compromise on the doctrine of hell is not limited to those who reject the traditional formulation. The reality is that few references to hell are likely to be heard even in conservative churches that would never deny the doctrine. Once again, the cultural environment is a major influence.
In his study of “seeker sensitive” churches, researcher Kimon Howland Sargeant notes that “today’s cultural pluralism fosters an under-emphasis on the ‘hard sell’ of Hell while contributing to an overemphasis on the ‘soft sell’ of personal satisfaction through Jesus Christ.” The problem is thus more complex and pervasive than the theological rejection of hell—it also includes the avoidance of the issue in the face of cultural pressure.
The revision or rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell comes at a great cost. The entire system of theology is modified by effect, even if some revisionists refuse to take their revisions to their logical conclusions. Essentially, our very concepts of God and the gospel are at stake. What could be more important?
The temptation to revise the doctrine of hell—to remove the sting and scandal of everlasting conscious punishment—is understandable. But it is also a major test of evangelical conviction. This is no theological trifle. As one observer has asked, “Could it be that the only result of attempts, however well-meaning, to air-condition Hell, is to ensure that more and more people wind up there?”
Hell demands our attention in the present, confronting evangelicals with a critical test of theological and biblical integrity. Hell may be denied, but it will not disappear.
Dr. Mohler is the author of a major essay published in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, published by Zondervan. Dr. Mohler’s essay, “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell,” is the first chapter in this important new book, available at your local bookstore.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER, the Reverend William Aitken, who was the Presbyterian Minister of Newcastle, New Brunswick, from about 1860 to 1900, often preached sermons on the terrors of hell. One Sunday morning he was warming to his familiar theme, advising his congregation that in hell there would be “wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Sitting in the front pew was an infirm but rebellious old lady who could stand it no longer. So through her toothless gums she muttered in the direction of the pulpit: “Not for me. I haven’t got any teeth.”
“Madam, in hell teeth will be provided,” retorted the Minister.
This story may be apocryphal but it illustrates an attitude that is increasingly familiar. Hell has become a bit of a joke. For most people, including many good Christian people, do not believe in hell anymore. All that eternal fire and everlasting damnation stuff seems completely over the top. Liberal theologians ridicule it and promote their view of universal salvation, while many religious conservatives feel that the horrors of hell are largely symbolic. A loving God, so the argument goes, could not possibly behave in the cruel and punitive way those 19th-century Scottish preachers, not to mention their equivalents in other denominations down the centuries, used to assert.
The modern reluctance to think about hell comes from living in an age of easy believism. Pastors like to be popular. Old-fashioned subjects such as the day of judgment and the wrath of God don’t fill the pews. Sermons on hell would empty them double quick.
Yet whatever the prevailing religious fashion, we cannot get rid of hell by overlooking it, let alone joking about it. Although virtually unmentioned in the Old Testament, hell is vividly and specifically depicted in the Gospels. Jesus spoke many times about hell. In the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25: 31-46) he portrays a frightening judgment scene in which God says to those who have failed him: “Depart from me you cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels.”
These famous words, taken in conjunction with Jesus’ many other references to the fate of the damned using metaphors such as outer darkness, tormenting thirst, everlasting fire, a growing worm, and gnashing teeth, have established a theological doctrine of hell which is not easily gainsaid. Pope John Paul II in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope discusses the question of whether a loving God can possibly condemn any human being to eternal torment. But the Pope concludes: “Yet the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go into eternal punishment.”
The clarity of Scripture on the doctrine of hell is a considerable obstacle to the doubters and jokers. Yet there are serious arguments in favor of ameliorating, if not totally amending, the doctrine. Origen, the greatest theologian of the early Church, held that the punishments of hell might not last forever. Among other Church fathers, on the side of Origen were Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nysaa, who spoke as though in the end, all will be saved. This is known as the universalist view and has become well supported by 20th-century theologians.
For example, the Jesuit Karl Rahner claims that no one ever goes to hell. He regards Jesus’ words on this subject as admonitory rather than predictive. While not ruling out the possibility of eternal damnation for the worst of sinners, such as Judas, Rahner prefers to believe in “the truth of the omnipotence of the universal salvific will of God, the redemption of all by Christ, the duty of men to hope for salvation.” From the Protestant corner, the Church of England’s 1938 Doctrine Report stated that “the love of God will at the last win penitence from all.” Even the neo-orthodox Karl Barth can be read as universalist. Among modern writers on religion and theology hell has become a hard sell.
THE OPTIMISTS’ DOCTRINE OF UNIVERSALISM is attractive, but is it right? Those who believe in the supremacy of Scripture (who of course have no truck with purgatory, which does not get a single mention in the Bible) do not think so. Yet even the most hard-line of Hades believers have a problem reconciling the God of love with the God of hell. The most scholarly attempt to make such a reconciliation has been put forward in an outstanding book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? by Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Balthasar rejects the idea that hell will be emptied at the end of time and that the damned will be reconciled with God. He does not assert that all will be saved. But he does suggest that Christian believers have a right to hope and a duty to pray that all sinners will be saved. For even the worst sinners may be moved to repentance by God’s grace and granted salvation by God’s mercy. The opposite is also possible, concedes Balthasar, since anyone can use his free will to reject the grace of God. The question of who may, or may not, go to hell is therefore an open one.
Cardinal Avery Dulles, in an article on hell published last year in the magazine First Things, implied that in his view, and in a recent change of view by the Pope, Balthasar is probably right. As Dulles puts it:
The position of Balthasar seems to me to be the orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils of definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive. Balthasar’s position, moreover, does not undermine a healthy fear of being lost. But the position is at least adventurous. It runs against the obvious interpretation of the words of Jesus in the New Testament and against the dominant theological opinion down through the centuries, which maintains that some, and in fact very many, are lost.
How many people will go to hell is another continuous issue. Jesus’ words on the subject are somewhat ominous. Throughout his time on earth he offered his hearers only two options after death. Everlasting happiness for those chosen to dwell with God. Everlasting misery for those who reject or are rejected by God. “Many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14), he declared, repeating the point about the high failure rate with metaphoric references to narrow gates and camels having difficulty in passing through the eye of a needle. These statements were traditionally interpreted to mean that the majority of those who die will be lost and will go to hell.
My 19th-century ancestor the Rev. Aitken and his ilk would have approved of the tradition and disapproved of the loss of it in the 21st century. But I agree with Avery Dulles when he wrote: “The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile... it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all or nearly all are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved we would be caught in an unholy rivalry.”
Actually, there’s been plenty of holy rivalry on the subject of hell. Yet despite all the fire and brimstone that’s been thrown down from pulpits about it across the centuries, nobody has a clue who will be going there. Even Judas may have repented in the nick of time. We just don’t know.
My guess is that hell does exist and that its population will be full of surprises. The only sure way of not having to find out more about those surprises is to obey Jesus’ first words recorded in the Gospels, “Repent and believe the good news.”
Jonathan Aitken, The American Spectator’s “High Spirits” columnist, is the author of seven books, including Nixon: A Life. This article appeared in the March issue of The American Spectator.
By J.I. Packer
Won’t heaven’s joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell?
—William P. Bunnell, Redlands, California
First, I resonate with the question to the depths of my soul. Loved ones of my own, some living, some dead, have not shared my faith in Christ. That is painful.
Second, belief in the outright annihilation of nonbelievers after final judgment (as opposed to an eternal punishment) seems to me biblically illegitimate. I suspect some Christians whose loved ones die without accepting Christ are tempted to embrace the annihilationist view. Scripture, however, seems to show that one aspect of human dignity is that we are built to last. Whether for joy or for sorrow, our souls are eternal.
Third, Scripture and good biblical theology indicate that none will be in hell who did not effectively choose it by following in the footsteps of Adam and preferring their own way to God’s. In some fashion, God reveals himself and his will to everyone, and everyone responds in one way or another (see Rom. 1:18–2:16). But nonbelievers universally make the anti-God choice, and hell is God giving people what they chose. That is reality—retributive reality—and an abiding consequence of following our heart and doing what we want to do; I wish I could persuade more people to face this seriously.
Now pose the question in its toughest form. Imagine a believing spouse or parent who loved, prayed for, and agonized over a dear one who resisted the gospel and died suddenly in an accident. There are no grounds for thinking that this or any other memory will be erased in heaven. So how can it not keep the bereaved one from heaven’s total joy?
Significantly, this is not a Bible problem; instead, Scripture rules out all thought of it ever becoming anyone’s problem. For it tells us that God the Father (who now pleads with mankind to accept the reconciliation that Christ’s death secured for all) and God the Son (our appointed Judge, who wept over Jerusalem) will in a final judgment express “wrath” and administer justice against rebellious humans. God’s holy righteousness will hereby be revealed; God will be doing the right thing, vindicating himself at last against all who have defied him, and there is no hint that this hurts the Judge more than it hurts the sinner. (Read through Matt. 25; John 5:22–29; Rom. 2:5–16, 12:19; 2 Thess. 1:7–9; Rev. 18:1–19:3, 20:11–35, and you will see that clearly.) God will judge justly, and all angels, saints, and martyrs will praise him for it. So it seems inescapable that we shall, with them, approve the judgment of persons—rebels—whom we have known and loved.
That sounds appalling; how can it be? Remember, in heaven our minds, hearts, motives, and feelings will be sanctified, so that we are fully conformed to the character and outlook of Jesus our Lord. This will happen at or before our bodily resurrection. How we shall then think and feel is really beyond our knowing, just as a chrysalis could not know what it feels like to be a butterfly till it becomes one.
But certainly the promise that God will wipe away every tear from believers’ eyes (Rev. 7:17) will find its fulfillment as one aspect of this transformation. In heaven, glorifying God and thanking him for everything will always absorb us. All our love for and joy in others who are with us in heaven will spring from their doing the same, and love and pity for hell’s occupants will not enter our hearts. Their hell will not veto our heaven.
Granted, this sounds to us more like hard-heartedness than Christlikeness, yet Christlikeness is precisely what it will be. Our difficulty is that we cannot now conceive the heavenly condition in a full way.
Wrote Richard Baxter: “My knowledge of that life is small, / The eye of faith is dim; / But it’s enough that Christ knows all, / And I shall be with him.”
J.I. Packer is an executive editor of CT and a professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver.
Belief in hell is going to you-know-where. And belief in heaven is in trouble, too.
That’s the concern of some Christian thinkers, including Jeffrey Burton Russell, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new book “Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It” (Oxford).
Russell and other fretters aren’t impressed by fads like the sudden popularity of the girl’s name Naveah (heaven spelled backward) or polls that show most Americans believe in some sort of heaven.
The growing problem, according to Russell and others, is that the way U.S. Christians conceive of both heaven and hell is so feeble and vague that it’s almost meaningless – vague “superstition.”
It’s “not that heaven is deteriorating,” he says. “But we are.”
Gallup reported in 2004 that 81 percent of Americans believed in heaven and 70 percent in hell. An earlier Gallup Poll said 77 percent of ever-optimistic Americans rated their odds of making heaven as “good” or “excellent.” Few saw themselves as hellbound.
“The percentage who say they believe in heaven has remained pretty constant the past 50 years, but what people mean by it has changed an awful lot,” Russell said in an interview.
Some people are so confused they believe in heaven but not God – “I suppose a New Age thing,” Russell said.
But if today’s notion of paradise is off base, and sentimental images of clouds, harps and cherubs are the stuff of magazine cartoons, then what’s the best way to think of heaven?
“For Christians, basically, heaven underneath all of the decorations means living in harmony with God and the cosmos and your neighbors and being grateful,” said Russell, who studied hell and Satan for 15 years before first turning his attention to heaven in a 1997 book.
To Russell, it’s healthiest to see heaven as starting on earth, not an existence that “suddenly happens when you die.”
What about hell and its fire and brimstone? “There is a tendency to over-dramatize hell in order to get (it) across to people,” he said, but it’s simply “the absence of God, the absence of heaven.”
“Heaven has gradually been shut away in a closet by the dominant intellectual trends,” Russell writes. Likewise with hell: Russell cannot remember the last time he’s heard that unhappy subject treated in church or in religious literature.
What happened? Russell’s book is largely a heartfelt appeal against “physicalism,” the modern claim that knowledge comes only through the physical senses and empirical science.
Such an outlook is arrogant and unproveable, Russell believes, because it ignores humans’ moral sense and the supernatural – including heaven and hell.
Among Protestants who share Russell’s angst, perhaps the most outspoken is the Rev. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. He has spent years bemoaning the erosion of Christian teaching, through books like last fall’s “Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World.”
Wells said in an interview that western Christianity is on the defensive against religious skepticism, secularism, materialism and consumerism.
He said that when Christian truth collides with the dominant cultural belief, promoted by psychology, that individuals should choose whatever they want, then “something has to give. And in our world today, in America and much of the West, what is giving is Christianity.” That includes the faith in “ultimate right and wrong” that undergirds heaven and hell.
So, many who say they believe in heaven are “projecting from their very best therapeutic experiences into eternity,” not meeting God “on his own terms,” he thinks.
A related question is who enters heaven.
On that, Americans are predictably expansive. A Newsweek/beliefnet.com poll last year asked, “Can a good person who isn’t of your religious faith go to heaven or attain salvation?” Fully 79 percent said yes, with somewhat lower percentages among evangelicals and among non-Christians.
In Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) declared that persons who do not know the Christian gospel but sincerely seek God “can attain to everlasting salvation.” The church decided that requiring explicit Christian faith was too pessimistic, said U.S. theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, writing in First Things magazine.
But now, he cautioned, “thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error,” with many Christians mistakenly assuming that “everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved.”
Christians are permitted to “hope that very many, if not all, will be saved,” Dulles said. Still, the New Testament teaches “the absolute necessity of faith for salvation” and says that each of us faces just two possibilities, either “everlasting happiness in the presence of God” or “everlasting torment in the absence of God.”
ROME — Hell is a place where sinners really do burn in an everlasting fire, and not just a religious symbol designed to galvanize the faithful, the Pope said.
Addressing a parish gathering in a northern suburb of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to “admit blame and promise to sin no more,” they risked “eternal damnation — the Inferno.”
Hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more,” he said.
The pope, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of Catholic doctrine, noted that “forgiveness of sins” for those who repent was a cornerstone of Christian belief. He recalled that Jesus had forgiven the “woman taken in adultery” and prevented her from being stoned to death, observing: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
God had given men and women free will to choose whether “spontaneously to accept salvation ... the Christian faith is not imposed on anyone, it is a gift, an offer to mankind.”
Vatican officials said that the Pope — who is also the Bishop of Rome — had been speaking in “straightforward” language “like a parish priest.” He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God,” to be understood “symbolically rather than physically.”
Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a Church historian, said that the Pope was “right to remind us that Hell is not something to be put on one side” as an inconvenient or embarrassing aspect of belief.
It had been misused in the Middle Ages to scare the impressionable with “horrific visions” of damnation, as described in Dante’s “Inferno.”
It had a pedigree, however, that went back to Ancient Egypt and the Greek idea of Hades, and was described by St. Matthew as a place of “everlasting fire” (Matthew xxv, 41).
“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,” Professor Bagliani said.
In 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that Heaven was “neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but that fullness of communion with God which is the goal of human life.” Hell, by contrast, was “the ultimate consequence of sin itself ... 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.”
In October the Pope indicated that limbo, supposed since medieval times to be a “halfway house” between heaven and hell, inhabited by unbaptized infants and holy men and women who lived before Christ, was “only a theological hypothesis” and not a “definitive truth of the faith.”
“From here are to be heard sighs, and savage blows resound: then the scrape of iron, and dragged chains. Aeneas stopped, terrified, and drank in the din.”
— Virgil, “The Aeneid”
“Outer darkness . . . there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
— St. Matthew
“A whirling storm that turns itself / for ever through that air of endless black, / like grains of sand swirling when a whirlwind blows.”
— Dante, “The Divine Comedy”
Angels “rolling in the fiery gulf” of “ever-burning sulfur.”
— Milton, “Paradise Lost”
“Locked forever in a small room with two other people”
— Jean-Paul Sartre, “Closed Doors”
A whopping 95 percent of those who responded to a new poll by ChristiaNet.com believe there is, indeed, a hell.
“God’s Word makes it clear that there is a place after death where people are separated from Him for eternity,” ChristiaNet President Bill Cooper noted.
About 1,300 people visiting the organization’s website recently took the poll, affirming with overwhelming numbers they believe hell exists.
“Because the Bible said so,” was the most cited reason. “Jesus taught about it in Luke 16:19-31,” was another response.
ChristiaNet.com, the world’s largest Christian portal with more than 12 million monthly page loads, said three percent of the respondents said they were unsure.
“I don’t really know if there is or isn’t, I’m not dead yet,” said one. While a few had trouble defining “hell.”
“I don’t know whether or not there is an actual place of hell, or if the soul is just tormented without God,” wrote one.
Another two percent did not believe in hell. “God can’t be the essence of Love and allow this to happen,” said one.
Author Jack Kinsella, writing on a website maintained by WND columnist Hal Lindsey, noted the New Testament affirms the “rich man” who died and was “in torments,” saw Abraham and Lazarus the beggar, and asked for help.
“Lazarus the beggar died PHYSICALLY, but his spirit was carried by the angels into Paradise. The rich man died PHYSICALLY and was buried, but his spirit was very much conscious in hell,” he wrote. “The rich man was conscious of his torment, was capable of addressing Abraham, and was aware of Lazarus. Abraham was equally conscious of HIS surroundings, as well as those of the rich man, and was capable of giving reply.”
Commentators note that there are several dozen references to “hell” in the Bible, including the Hebrew word “Sheol,” which means “the grave,” as well as “Hades,” which also means “the grave,” “gehenna,” which means the “place of burning,” and “tartarus,” which means “darkness.”
Pope Benedict XVI also proclaimed earlier this year that hell is a place where sinners burn in an eternal fire, and is not just a religious symbol.
He said during a visit to a Rome parish earlier this year that God’s mercy and love are great, but those who reject him should know that hell “exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.”
One of the larger Christian ministries in the U.S. today, Focus on the Family, also confirms the existence of hell.
In response to a question about teaching children right from wrong, the organization advises, “The best approach is found in the instruction given to the children of Israel by Moses more than 3,000 years ago. He wrote, ‘Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hand and bind them on your foreheads…’
“This commandment provides the key to effective spiritual training at home. It isn’t enough to pray with your children each night, although family devotions are important. We must live the principles of faith throughout the day. References to the Lord and our beliefs should permeate our conversation and our interactions with our kids. Our love for Jesus should be understood to be the first priority in our lives. We must miss no opportunities to teach the components of our theology and the passion that is behind it.
“The reason this is such a critical responsibility is that the world will be giving your children very different messages in the days ahead. It will take them to hell if not counterbalanced by a firm spiritual foundation at home. This is one task about which we can’t afford to be lackadaisical,” the ministry said.
More than a century ago, the famed minister Jonathan Edwards used a fear of hell to warn people to accept Christianity.
“Those wicked men who died many years ago, their souls went to hell, and there they are still; those who went to hell in former ages of the world have been in hell every since, all the while suffering torment,” he wrote. “They have nothing else to spend their time in there, but to suffer torment, they are kept in being for no other purpose,” he wrote.
Edwards, whose most famous oration is a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” also said, “The world will probably be converted into a great lake or liquid globe of fire – a vast ocean of fire, in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed, which will always be in tempest in which they shall be tossed to and fro, having no rest or night, vast waves or billows of fire continually rolling over their heads, of which they shall forever be full of quick sense within and without, their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins, and their vitals shall forever be full of a glowing, melting fire, fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and they shall also eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torments; not for one minute, nor for one day, nor for one age, nor for two ages, nor for a hundred years, nor for ten thousands of millions of ages, one after another, but forever and ever, without any end at all, and never, never to be delivered.”
Some of the minority segments of the poll submitted comments such as, “To me, we are in hell right now.”
Out of 1,500 Christians who responded to that poll, 48 percent believe that Christians could, in fact, have a demon within. Most of this group stated that the devil was very real, and Christians could be demonized.
Others felt that by sinning, they were allowing a demon to enter their soul.
In that poll, 38 percent of Christians who took the poll felt that a “true” Christian could not be demonized, citing John 4:4 “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.”
The underlying theme for this groups’ opinion was that Christians belong to Christ and Christ alone, no one can break that ownership, “You can be harassed and tempted, but demons cannot get inside of you and control you if you belong to Christ,” they wrote.
The other 14 percent said they didn’t know.