October 19, 2017

Do Evangelicals believe in hell? Should they?

Dave at the really excellent blog Grace Pages, asks a question that makes the iMonk’s honesty meter go into the red zone: “Do evangelicals believe in Hell?”

I must confess that the day I stopped believing in hell — or at least the idea of hell as the eternal, conscious punishment of unbelievers my fundamentalist heritage had instilled in me — I did not do so on the basis of a study of Scripture. In fact, it was more a matter of intellectual integrity: I had already stopped believing in hell; I merely had to have the courage to admit it to myself. And the reason I had stopped believing was simply because it was a monstrous idea to me, a horrific notion unworthy of a religion that claims to talk about a loving, merciful God…

Many evangelicals who have turned to annihilation (John Stott and Clark Pinnock, to name but two prominent writers) confess to this same feeling. Their rejection of the doctrine of hell, as it had traditionally been set forth, began with an instinctive awareness of the sheer horror of such a doctrine, and of its incompatibility with the doctrine of a loving God. Critics of this view have leaped upon this as evidence that annihilationists have subjugated the authority of Scripture to their own emotions and reasoning, but such a charge only really works if it is assumed in the first place that annihilation is an unbiblical concept. Which of us does not feel instinctively that paedophilia is abhorrent long before he turns to the teaching of Scripture? Which of us needs an exegetical case from Scripture before dismissing child labour as intolerable?

Human beings must overcome huge obstacles, not least that of their own consciences, to be able to accept such a doctrine as eternal, conscious punishment. I also believe that even evangelicals who claim to believe in the doctrine must fight against their own consciences at every step in order to be able to retain their belief. Alternatively — and this is the main suggestion I want to put forward — could it be that most evangelicals dont really believe in hell after all?

In the original Pit Stop post, I said that I needed to come to my faith philosophically first, and if I do, the doctrine of hell is going to come up for discussion. Why? This very intuitive abhorrence that Dave mentions. Is it the fallen mind that recoils at the idea that God is so much different from any one of us that he would consciously torment sinners for eternity? Or is it dependable reason and reaction to what is truly abhorrent? In his sermon series “The Echo and Insufficiency of Hell,” John Piper states the classic evangelical way of looking at the subject.

I urge you to follow a process of thought about the Bible that is the reverse of the one common today. Instead of coming to the Bible and saying, “I feel that endless suffering cannot be just, and so the Bible cannot be teaching it,” rather say, “Since the Bible teaches it, it must be just and therefore, O how infinitely dreadful sin must be! How infinitely blameworthy it must be to treat the glory of God with contempt! How infinite must be the insult to God when we do not trust his promises! What infinite beauty and glory and purity and holiness God must have, that endless suffering is a just and fitting punishment for disobeying his word! Annihilationism reduces sin from high treason to a misdemeanor. Hell is meant to fill us with awe at the glory we have scorned.

But Dave’s question isn’t really about the existence or nature of eternal punishment, but about whether evangelicals really believe what Piper believes. (BTW- if any man on earth believes this and lives like it, it’s Piper.)

Do evangelicals really present a worldview that says every one of their neighbors and their neighbor’s children are going to hell? The urgency of Southern Baptist leaders about evangelism says that more than one kind of person has contemplated the issue. The church doesn’t appear to be an outpost of rescue from a fate worse than all the diseases and accidents ever conceived rolled up into one and stretched out forever.

Alex at the BHT reminds us that fallen human nature isn’t going to consider hell with the same emotions it does more understandable vices and punishments, such as pedophilia. That’s true, but Dave suggests that the very logic of scripture itself leads us to something less than eternal punishment, though I would suggest that even the New Testament writers couldn’t see all the way to this conclusion.

Robert Capon, who isn’t a universalist, but defines hell differently than Piper and evangelicals, suggests this logic of the New Testament in this passage.

… [The] image of the divine forgetting … (from Jeremiah 31:34, about the final covenant of mercy) suggests that even God is not above dropping the subject of sins. If you think about the death of God incarnate in Jesus on the cross, what is that if not the gift of God’s silence to the world? After millennia of divine jawboning about the holiness of justice and the wickedness of sin, God himself simply shuts up about the whole business. He dies as a criminal, under the curse of the Law — as if to say, ‘Look, I’m as guilty as you are in this situation because I set it up in the first place; let’s just forget about the blame and get on with the party.’

Is it God who tells us to affirm hell? Then why don’t we believe it, or at least act like it? Feel it? Or is it God who tells us hell went out of business in the person and work of Jesus? Is a wretched urgency about hell evidence that we don’t understand the Gospel in all of its horizons and wonder?

It’s a good topic. Thanks Dave.

Comments

  1. Those who truly believe in hell tend to pretty quickly get tagged as practitioners of “Wretched Urgency.” In fact, that is the answer given by Wretchedly Urgent people: But these lost people are going to HELL!

    If hell is everything John Piper believes it to be, then he is right in saying, “Don’t waste your life!” And you and I are wrong in trying to find a comfortable way to live in America peacably and quietly without bothering our neighbors, and in focusing so much of our attention on things here below.

    I’m willing to believe that Piper is right and I’m a loser. It would be far from the first time. I’d like Piper to be wrong, so that I can continue in my laziness.

    Oops, sorry, that’s some “Wretched Honesty”.

  2. “…for some people the fear of judgment may be the only motivation to consider trusting Christ as Savior. Now, to be sure, there are better reasons to come to God than to escape hell. But if fear is the only thing that will shake a person loose from his bondage to sin and cause him to consider Christ, then, for love’s sake, so be it. There are better reasons for a child to obey his daddy than the fear of a spanking. But if that fear is the only thing that will keep him out of the street, then, for love’s sake, so be it. I am not as hesitant as some to let people feel fear, for I have ringing in my ears the words of Jesus:

    “Do not fear those who can kill the body and afterwards have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into Hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him. (Luke 12:4,5)”

    http://BiggerGOD.com/finaljudgment.html