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CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS' VIEWS OF HELL:

TRENDS & IMPLICATIONS

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Shifting viewpoints:

bulletDecades ago, many preachers were famous for their hellfire and damnation sermons. They terrified their congregations. During these "fire and brimstone" speeches, they warned their parishioners about the horrors of Hell. Theologians of the past literally interpreted the Bible's descriptions of bindings, whippings, intolerable heat, thirst and darkness. They view Hell as a dreadful place - a place of eternal punishment and torture without hope for mercy or cessation. 
bulletSome conservative theologians still believe in the reality of Hell's punishment. Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School  in Birmingham, AL commented: "Historically, hell has been portrayed in evangelical sermons as fire and brimstone. The most we should say is that hell is a place of unexplainable mystery. The reality is probably far worse than our most vivid imaginations can conjure up. The reality of both heaven and hell are both greater than we can express.... While it's very important to teach and preach about the reality of hell, it should be done only with evangelical tears. There is sometimes a kind of gloating that people are broiling in hell. I don't think that honors God or reflects the love of Jesus. We should shed tears over those who are perishing. Sometimes that's been missing."  
bulletCurrent status: Pastors rarely mention Hell in recent sermons. "E.V. Hill of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles says that only a tiny minority of clergy in his community ever preach on the subject. 'The popular conception is that God is too good to allow a hell,' he says." 3 Systematic theologian and Evangelical author C.H. Pinnock commented frankly: "Their reticence is not so much due to a lack of integrity in proclaiming the truth [about Hell] as to not having the stomach for preaching a doctrine that amounts to sadism raised to new levels of finesse." 1, Page 38
bulletBritish Evangelicals: The Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth amongst Evangelicals (Acute), is a study group of five British evangelical theologians. It was created in 1996 by the UK Evangelical Alliance. 9 Acute has previously published two reports: "What is an Evangelical" and "Faith, Hope, and Homosexuality."  On 2000-APR-2, they issued: "The Nature of Hell" -- a 150 page report about Hell. 10,11 It conflicts with a statement previously released by the Church of England in 1996. That report had described Hell in terms of the annihilation of the human soul and permanent separation from God -- not a place of eternal torture. Some of the conclusions reached by the Evangelical group were:
bullet"...Hell is a conscious experience of rejection and torment."
bulletThose who reject Christ will suffer both physical and psychological torment.
bulletHell's punishment "awaits all who die without faith in Jesus Christ, with the possible exception of children who die in infancy, the mentally disabled and those who never hear the gospel." This presumably will include the four billion individuals (two thirds of the human race) who are non-Christians. 
bulletHell is for "...those whom the Bible calls 'impenitent', 'unrighteous', or 'wicked'."
bulletHell is the "domain of the devil and his hordes - a sphere of damnation, punishment, anguish and destruction."
bulletNot all will be treated equally in Hell. Those who have committed severe sins will experience higher levels of suffering.
bulletBiblical passages about Hell (referring to unbearable heat, thirst, fire, pain, whipping, weeping, gnashing of teeth, being eaten by worms, etc.) may be more metaphorical or symbolic than literal. However, they do depict real suffering.
bulletA significant minority of Evangelical Christians now believe in the eventual annihilation of the inmates of Hell, rather than eternal punishment.
bulletPastors should discuss more about Hell in their sermons. However, "fire and brimstone" sermons should be discouraged.
bulletBritish Seventh Day Adventists: Cecil Perry, president of the Seventh-day Adventists in Britain responded to the Acute report. He suggested that the traditional view of Hell should not be promoted by pastors in their sermons. He said that: "The message of hell is in stark contrast to the message of hope and love and tends to engender fear." 12 
bulletThe Southern Baptist Convention (SBC): The Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee reviewed past Baptist Faith and Message Statements.  They issued a report on 2000-MAY-26, recommending major changes to be voted upon at the denomination's general meeting in mid June. Perhaps the most radical is the prohibition of ordination of new female pastors. Concerning Hell:
bulletThe SBC 1925 statement referred to Hell only indirectly: "Those who continue in impenitence and unbelief are in his sight wicked and are under condemnation. This...will be made manifest at the judgment when final and everlasting awards are made to all men."
bulletTheir 1963 statement referred to Hell directly: "...Jesus Christ will return...to the earth; ...Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment."
bulletThe committee's year 2000 recommendations propose that the 1963 wording be retained. Hell will remain a place of eternal torture without any relief.

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Implications for evangelism:

A literal/metaphorical view of Hell makes evangelism more difficult. It is a major impediment to fulfilling the Great Commission: the salvation of all people and their conversion to conservative Christianity. These concepts of Hell will make teaching of the Gospel increasingly difficult as society becomes increasingly secular. Potential converts may well reject the Gospel because of the teachings about Hell that are imbedded in it. They might view their own system of morality as superior to that implied by the Gospel. Some of the objections they raise are:

bulletWe are all outraged whenever we hear of prisoners being maltreated in the torture cells of other countries. To secularists, a literal or metaphorical view of Hell implies that God is a sadist who is far worse than any human prison warden. God's punishment of inmates in Hell has no end; it goes on forever without relief. They view it as an infinite punishment for a finite error.
bulletThere are international organizations devoted to the release of "prisoners of conscience." These are non-violent individuals whose beliefs differ from those of their government, and who have been thrown in jail because of their ideas. Modern religious and secular concepts of justice punishes only those who have performed illegal acts, not those who simply have unorthodox beliefs. 
bulletWhy would God offer grace to some people while they live on earth, and yet refuse grace to those in Hell who genuinely repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness? If the soul is immortal, life is eternal, and death is only a simple transition between two stages of living. Then why are there two sets of rules for people at different times in their life?
bulletModern justice determines the duration of imprisonment according to the seriousness of the crime. But Hell is an infinitely long punishment for a finite sin - perhaps eternal pain for only single life decision. For example, conservative Christianity teaches that:
bulletIf a person brought up in a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, liberal Christian, or similar non-conservative Christian home, and
bulletIf that person accepts the religion of their parents instead of accepting the conservative Christian belief system, then
bulletThey will trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior; they will not be "saved," and they will spend eternity in Hell for that decision.
bulletThe United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the constitutions of many countries, and other government documents require people to be treated with dignity. There is no dignity for the inmates of Hell. 

Hans Küng, referring to God having created Hell, wrote: "What would we think of a human being who satisfied his thirst for revenge so implacably and insatiably?" 7 The gap between secular concepts of justice and the literal or metaphorical interpretation of biblical verses about Hell can only widen with time, and make evangelism increasingly more difficult.

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Who will go to Hell?

According to conservative Protestant beliefs, the world's population can logically be divided into three groups. 

  1. A minority of humans who have been saved; They they have repented of their past sins and have trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior:

    Most of these will go to Heaven after death. 

    Some who have engaged in forbidden practices will end up in Hell. Although Paul's writings contain lists of practices that will cause a person to lose eternal life in Heaven, only homosexual behavior is mentioned with any frequency today.

    The Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board conducted a study in 1993 which estimated how many Americans have had a born-again experience. They concluded that 30% of adult Americans have been "saved" and thus are going to Heaven; the 70% remainder are destined for Hell. The percentage of Canadians who are going to Heaven are presumably much lower, because of the relatively small numbers of Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants in that country -- probably about 8%.

  2. A much larger group of individuals -- those who have been exposed to the Gospel but have not been saved. They will spend eternity in Hell, unless, perhaps, they died as children below the age of accountability or were mentally disadvantaged. 
  3. Billions of people have never received significant exposure to the Gospel: They have not had a chance to learn about Jesus Christ and be saved. This group probably represents the majority of the human race, since about 66% of humans follow either no religion or a non-Christian religion:

    Some conservative Christians believe that since these individuals have not been saved, they will spend eternity in Hell. This conclusion is based on many passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) which state that all who are not saved will go to Hell.

    Recently, there has been a softening of this position, as many conservative Christians have gradually moved away from the necessity of being saved while alive. They believe that those who die without having heard the Gospel will be given some form of other opportunity to be saved -- by some unknown form of post-mortem salvation that is not mentioned in the Bible. This belief is largely based on the perceived immorality of a God of love and justice punishing people for their lack of knowledge -- a factor beyond their control.

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References:

  1. William Crockett, "Four views on Hell," Zondervan, (1992) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Amazon.com has a 25% price reduction on this book. This is one of the Counterpoint series of books published by Zondervan. Each book presents conflicting views by Evangelical leaders on basic Christian beliefs. 
  2. Greg Garrison, "Hell: Pope's speech stirs up ancient debate," Religion News Service. Published in Salt Lake Tribune, 1999-SEP-4. Online at: http://www.sltrib.com:80/1999/sep/09041999/religion/20803.htm
  3. "Contemporary preachers not so hot about Hell?" Charisma News Service, 2000-FEB-25, at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00/20000225e.htm 
  4. ReligionToday news summary for 2000-APR-4
  5. ReligionToday provides free newsletters to which you can subscribe at: http://www.ReligionToday.com. These summaries are part of GOSHEN.net, which also includes LiveIt.net, Devotionals.net, ChristianShareware.net, ChristianClassifieds.net, ChristianMessageBoards.net, BibleStudyTools.net, MediaManagement.net, WorldNewsToday.net, WebCastGuide.net, and ChristianCollegeGuide.net
  6. Billy Graham, "There is a real Hell," Decision 25, # 7-8, (1984-JUL/AUG) Cited in Reference 1.
  7. Hans Küng, "Eternal life, life after death as a medical, philosophical and theological problem," Doubleday, (1984), Page 136.
  8. C.S. Lewis, "The great divorce," Touchstone, (1996). Read reviews or order this book
  9. The UK Evangelical Alliance has a web site at: http://www.eauk.org/ 
  10. "Church report calls for greater emphasis on the teaching of hell," UK Evangelical Alliance press release, 2000-APR-2, at: http://www.eauk.org/press/releases/00/000402a.htm 
  11. Acute, "The Nature  of Hell," Paternoster Publishing. To be published on 2000-APR-15. 
  12. Religious News Service, April 2000. Cited by the Baptist Information Service's Weekly E-mail Update Vol. 4, Issue #22, 2000-JUN-5
  13. "Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee Recommendation," at: http://www.sbc.net/2000_report.html 

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Copyright © 2000 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-APR-4
Latest update: 2005-NOV-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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