“Hell disappeared. And No One Noticed” wrote Martin Marty, American church historian. In his Harvard journal article, Marty recorded some of the preaching on hell long ago by Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield: “George Whitefield spoke of people cast into hell, lifting up their eyes from the burning fiery Tophet that is kindled by the fury of God’s eternal wrath of this righteous Judge and head of the dreadful tribunal” (Martin Marty. Hell Disappeared. And No One Noticed. A Civic Argument. Harvard Theological Review 78:3-4 1985, 381-89).
Recent surveys confirm Marty’s thesis that preaching on punishment in the afterlife has all but disappeared from our churches. In a survey released this summer by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, just 59 percent of 35,000 respondents said they believe in a hell. That number is down from 71% in a 2001 Gallup survey. Hell has almost burned out.
In the August 14, 2008 edition of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life there was an article entitled “Belief in hell dips, but some say they’ve already been there.”
Charles Honey interviewed Mike Wittmer, professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. “In a pluralistic, post-modern world, students are having a more difficult time with (the idea of) people going to hell forever because they didn’t believe the right thing,” says Mike Wittmer. “That’s the biggest question out there right now: `Would God send someone to hell if they were someone as good as me, but didn’t believe what I believe?’” “It was easier to believe in hell 20 years ago when missionaries tried to convert people in far-flung places….” “In today’s global village, many live next to good, non-Christian neighbors and wonder why an all-powerful, loving God wouldn’t eventually empty out hell….” “I’ve noticed in the last five years how that view is making inroads even in conservative churches, whereas five years ago it wasn’t even uttered or discussed.”
In the same article, Honey wrote about Ernie Long who believes he has been to hell. He can even narrow it down to a particular moment. His mother was dying of cancer. As she lay on her death bed, he swiped her last $5 and the car keys from her purse, went out and got high. When he returned, she was dead. Long goes quiet, thinking about it in the chapel of Guiding Light Mission in Grand Rapids, Mich. When he first moved to the homeless shelter, he recalls, he would wake up in the night haunted by what he’d done. “The shame and guilt engulfed me,” he says quietly. “I couldn’t stop crying.” Today, Long is an intake supervisor for Guiding Light’s recovery program. He believes Jesus saved him from the pit of hell and wants other men to be saved too, here and hereafter. “I think hell is being in the absence of purpose,” says Long, 64, who was addicted to crack cocaine before coming to Guiding Light two years ago. “When I had no purpose, no direction, I actually felt like I was living in hell.”
Evangelicals are increasingly denying the doctrine of hell. There are four defective views held by evangelicals that air condition hell.
The first view is Universalism
“Universalism teaches that since Christ died for all people without exception, it follows that all will eventually be saved.” Early church father, Origen (A. D. 185-254), first taught this doctrine which was later condemned at the Council of Constantinople in A. D. 543 (Erwin W. Lutzer. Coming to Grips with Hell Chicago: Moody, 1990, 11).
A more modern advocate is Madeleine L’Engle in The Irrational Season: “No matter how many eons it takes he (God) will not rest until all of creation, including Satan is reconciled to him, until here is no creature who cannot return his look of love with a joyful response of love” (New York: Seabury Press, 1977, 97). According to Hebrews 2:14, the death of Christ was not for Satan’s redemption but his defeat. Also, John predicts the final and eternal destiny of Satan in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:10). Jesus preached that not all are going to heaven: “These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matthew 25:46).
The second view is Annihilationism
“Those who deny eternal conscious punishment often advocate ‘annihilationism,’ a teaching that, after the wicked have suffered the penalty of God’s wrath for a time, God will ‘annihilate’ them so that they no longer exist” (Wayne Grudem, Sytematic Theology, 1149). Some believe the unrighteous will be resurrected at the final judgment not to be sent to eternal conscious suffering but to be annihilation.
The third view is Conditional Immortality
“A variation of the view that God will eventually annihilate unbelievers (annihilationism proper) is the view called ‘conditional immortality,’ the idea that God has created people so that they only have immortality (the power to live forever) if they accept Christ as Savior. Those who do not become Christians, then, do not have the gift of immortal life and at death or at the time of final judgment they simply cease to exist. This view is very close to that of annihilationism, and I have not discussed it separately in this chapter. (Some versions of conditional immortality deny conscious punishment altogether, even for a brief time.) (Grudem, 1150). This is the view of John R. W. Stott in Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue and Clark Pinnock in The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent.
A fourth view denies the of Literalness of Fire in Hell
“All descriptions and depictions of heaven and hell in the Bible are symbolic and metaphorical. Each metaphor suggests one aspect of the experience of hell. (For example, ‘fire’ tells us of the disintegration, while ‘darkness’ tells us of the isolation.) Having said that does not at all imply that heaven or hell themselves are ‘metaphors.’ They are very much realities. Jesus ascended (with his physical body, mind you) into heaven. The Bible clearly proposes that heaven and hell are actual realities, but also indicates that all language about them is allusive, metaphorical, and partial” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God, New York: Dutton, 2008, 259). Tim Keller advocates this view in chapter Five: “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”
Since the end result of both Annihilation and Conditional Immortality are the same, the unsaved do not suffer consciously for eternity, I will refer only to Annihilationism. In Part Two, I will give the arguments for annihilation and Scriptural refutations.