Read an Excerpt
IS HELL FOR REAL OR DOES EVERYONE GO TO HEAVEN?
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIS HELL FOR REAL? R. ALBERT MOHLER JR.
On the whole, the disappearance of Hell was a great relief, though it brought new problems. David Lodge, Souls and Bodies
The rejection of Christianity's historic teaching on hell has come swiftly in our culture. It is now routinely dismissed as an embarrassing artifact from an ancient age—a reminder of Christianity's outdated worldview.
Yet the disappearance of hell within the church's walls, at least in some circles, presents a kind of mystery. How did such a central doctrine come to suffer widespread abandonment among some Christians?
The answer lies in the history of Christianity in the modern world, and it warns of further possible compromises on the horizon. For as the church has often been reminded, no doctrine stands alone. Take away hell, and the entire shape of Christian theology may be altered.
HELL BEFORE THE MODERN WORLD
The church developed its teaching on hell during its very first centuries. Based on New Testament passages about eternal judgment and the afterlife, early preachers taught that hell was God's just judgment on sinners who did not put their faith in Christ. It was seen as real and eternal, characterized by fire and torment.
The first major challenge to this view came from a theologian named Origen, who taught that everyone and everything would ultimately be reconciled to God. He reasoned that God's victory could only be complete when nothing was left unredeemed, and that hell would not be eternal and punitive but rather temporary and purifying.
Origen's teaching was rejected by a church council held in Constantinople in AD 553, however, and the church's consensus on hell continued to be widely held for another thousand years. Rejections of hell during these years were limited to sects and heretics. Indeed, hell was such a fixture of the Christian mind that most persons understood all of life in terms of their ultimate destination. Men and women longed for heaven and feared hell.
The stark contrast between our modern distaste for hell and the premodern fascination with hell is evident in our sermons. A medieval Italian preacher warned his congregation against hell in this way:
Fire, fire! That is the recompense for your perversity, you hardened sinners. Fire, fire, the fires of hell! Fire in your eyes, fire in your mouth, fire in your guts, fire in your throat, fire in your nostrils, fire inside and fire outside, fire beneath and fire above, fire in every part. Ah, miserable folk! You will be like rags burning in the middle of this fire.
Jonathan Edwards, colonial America's great theologian and preacher, spoke similarly:
Consider that if once you get into hell, you'll never get out. If you should unexpectedly one of these days drop in there; [there] would be no remedy. They that go there return no more. Consider how dreadful it will be to suffer such an extremity forever. It is dreadful beyond expression to suffer it half an hour. O the misery, the tribulation and anguish that is endured!
Few congregations would hear such warnings today. A preacher who spoke so graphically about hell might be considered eccentric or worse. This change in churches' sermons and in the sensibilities underlying them began during the periods of Western history that historians call the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
QUESTIONS ABOUT HELL
During the seventeenth century, even as Europe continued to be a largely Christian continent, various streams of atheism and skepticism emerged.
The Socinians, for instance, taught that Jesus was not fully God and that his death was not needed for the forgiveness of sins. They also questioned the eternality of punishment in hell, teaching instead that the wicked would be destroyed in hell—a view that has come to be known as annihilationism. Eternal torment was an unjust penalty for a short human lifetime of sins, they reasoned.
Groups like the Socinians were far enough outside of the mainstream to have little influence on the larger church. However, their thinking resonated with the educated elite. Many came to doubt hell's existence, even if they felt it was a useful teaching to maintain social order.
As D. P. Walker has written in The Decline of Hell:
People who had doubts about the eternity of hell, or who had come to disbelieve in it, refrained from publishing their doubts not only because of the personal risk involved, but also because of genuine moral scruples. In the 17th century disbelief in eternal torment seldom reached the level of a firm conviction, but at the most was a conjecture, which one might wish to be true; it was therefore understandable that one should hesitate to plunge the world into moral anarchy for the sake of only conjectural truth.
In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment skepticism took center stage. Philosophers began arguing that hell should be viewed metaphorically, not literally. Alternately, Thomas Hobbes suggested in Leviathan that hell might be eternal, but the torments of the unsaved were not—another version of the Socinians' annihilationism. Voltaire and the other atheistic philosophers rejected Christianity entirely.
A CRISIS OF FAITH
These stirrings against Christian doctrine remained largely outside the church, however, until the Victorian era, a period of time in the nineteenth century often sentimentalized for its Christian vitality. Queen Victoria of England was an emblem of Christian devotion, and Christianity was part of the very fabric of the expanding British Empire. Attendance at churches both rural and urban reached an all-time high, with great churches such as Charles Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle drawing thousands.
Yet Spurgeon's traditional doctrines were not shared by all Victorians. Indeed, during a famous sermon at Oxford University in 1833, John Keble lamented the era as a "discouraged epoch, where the faith is completely dead or dying." Though many Britons of the nineteenth century maintained a robust faith, historian Jaroslav Pelikan has written that the age also produced "radical doubt" and "the negation of dogma."
Among many Victorians, hell became something of an obsession. A rejection of the church's traditional view extended throughout the leaders of society, including statesmen like the high-churchman Prime Minister William Gladstone, who asserted that hell had been "relegated ... to the far-off corners of the Christian mind ... there to sleep in the deep shadow as a thing needless in our enlightened and progressive age."
The story of Leslie Stephen, the father of novelist Virginia Woolf, captures well the spirit of the age. An ordained clergyman in the Church of England, Stephen lost his faith, renounced his ordination, and became a man of learning. Various strains of philosophy had undermined the foundations of Christian conviction for him, and he came to see Victorian Christianity as hypocritical:
The average Cambridge don of my day was (as I thought and think) a sensible and honest man who wished to be both rational and Christian. He was rational enough to see that the old orthodox position was untenable. He did not believe in hell, or in "verbal inspiration" [of Scripture].... He thought that the controversies on such matters were silly and antiquated, and spoke of them with indifference, if not with contempt. But he also thought that religious belief of some kind was necessary or valuable, and considered himself to be a genuine believer.
Other literary figures shared Stephen's rejection of hell. Consider Lewis Carroll, for instance, the famous author of Alice in Wonderland. Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—Carroll was a pen name—he was the son of an Anglican minister. Though in other respects a faithful Anglican, Dodgson held what one biographer called an "instinctive repugnance" for the doctrine of everlasting punishment.
Influenced by new critical views of Scripture, Dodgson declared that if the Bible really taught the doctrine of everlasting punishment, "I would give up the Bible." After his death, Dodgson left behind an unpublished manuscript entitled "Eternal Punishment," in which he presented what he thought was an airtight logical case against hell. He argued that the goodness of God is preeminent and that biblical teaching on hell can be discounted because the idea that God inspired the Bible's very words "has been largely modified in these days."
One of the most popular Victorian preachers acknowledged that his congregation had "learned to smile" at the idea of an eternal hell, for "in bodily awful intolerable torture we believe no longer." A chaplain to Queen Victoria went so far as to label hell a "blasphemy against the merciful God."
By the end of the Victorian era, poet Thomas Hardy could imagine himself observing God's funeral. The Victorian crisis of faith spread throughout the aristocracy and the educated classes, and theologians and preachers added their voices to the calls for changes to traditional Christian teaching. Hell was at the center of their attention. Whereas preachers in earlier eras were concerned to save persons from punishment in hell, many Victorian preachers wanted to save their congregations from the fear of hell.
One other aspect of the Victorian mind-set is important. The Victorian ideal of family life featured a loving, respected, upright father. Such a father would discipline his children, but never severely. Eventually, he would bring punishment to an end, leading to reconciliation. When this vision of fatherhood was extended to God, hell as eternal torment became unthinkable.
Yet like the Enlightenment elites before them, Victorians wanted to retain and reinforce moral order in society, and belief in hell was considered to be a key restraint on what is now commonly called antisocial behavior. For this reason, some Victorians retained hell as socially important, even when they no longer believed it to be real. As historian Geoffrey Rowell has written, "the need of hell as a moral sanction, and the underlying sense that, however crudely expressed and distorted the doctrine might be, it did attempt to state something of importance about ultimate ethical issues, meant that it could not be quietly discarded."
Throughout the Victorian era, currents of theological change were also evident in America. Growing numbers of Deists and Unitarians rejected the idea of God as judge. In certain circles, "higher criticism" of the Bible undermined confidence in it as God's revelation, and pastors increasingly treated hell as a metaphor. The nation's seminaries and mainline churches became marked by a liberal theology that denied historic doctrines. Influential Brooklyn pastor Henry Ward Beecher, for instance, rejected the old orthodoxy specifically for what he called its "spiritual barbarism" and "hideous doctrines"—doctrines like the eternal punishment of the unsaved in hell.
Victorian-era doubts about historic Christian beliefs were not limited to hell, though. As Western nations colonized countries around the world, Westerners confronted other people's gods, practices, and worldviews. This discovery led some Victorian thinkers to emphasize the universal fatherhood of God, and they came up with ways to soften Christianity's claim of salvation through Christ alone. In Germany, a "history of religions" school of thought treated Christianity as just one form of human religion alongside others, with all religions understood to be human inventions.
Above all, when they thought about God, Victorians increasingly came to the conclusion that he was universally benevolent. This concept of a humanitarian God would have doctrinal repercussions in the twentieth century.
HELL IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
"The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character," declared German theologian Rudolf Bultmann in the mid-twentieth century, and such a mythological worldview is "unacceptable to modern man whose thinking has been shaped by science." According to Bultmann, Christianity therefore needed to revise its claims in order to better fit the modern mind-set—including any claim that hell was real and a threat.
Simultaneously a time of great technological advancement and great evil, the twentieth century saw many Christian theologians focused on making Christianity relevant to modern humanity's worldview and needs. The interminable trench warfare of World War I had established new benchmarks for carnage on the battlefield, bringing the nineteenth-century's faith in human progress to a collapse. What World War I did not destroy, World War II took by assault and atrocity. The battlefields of Verdun and Ypres gave way to the ovens of Dachau and Auschwitz as symbols of the century.
At the same time, the technological revolutions of the century led to an outlook that gave science and the natural world preeminence, with spiritual truths relegated to mere personal or speculative interest. As a result, the place of religion was diminished in the public sphere. Secularization became the norm in Western societies, alongside advanced technologies and ever-increasing wealth.
Both heaven and hell thus took on an essentially this-worldly character for liberal Christians. If the atrocities of the Holocaust represented hell on earth, what fear did secular moderns have of a hell to come? If the blessings of material abundance were so readily available to some, what solace was promised by the hope of heaven? Theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr came to see hell in the impoverished ghettos of inner city America. Karl Barth held out hope that the victory of God in Christ would lead to universal salvation. Jürgen Moltmann wrote, "Salvation is not another world in the 'beyond.' It means that this world becomes finally different." Thus, heaven became liberation and hell oppression for many liberal Christians.
By the end of the century, many liberal Christians had abandoned claims of exclusivity for the Christian faith. In accommodating themselves to the secular and antisupernatural worldview of the times, belief in a literal hell became incredible and unacceptable—an embarrassment to the Christian faith.
A FEW EVANGELICALS JOIN THE DEBATE
Despite Victorian-era questions about hell and twentieth century reimagining of it, evangelical Christians tended to believe and preach the traditional doctrine. What Charles Spurgeon preached about hell in 1855 would have been upheld by most evangelicals a century later:
Suffice it for me to close up by saying, that the hell of hells will be to thee poor sinner, the thought, that it is to be forever. Thou wilt look up there on the throne of God, and it shall be written "For ever!" When the damned jingle the burning irons of their torments, they shall say, "for ever!" When they howl, echo cries "for ever!"
Spurgeon was hardly unaware of the denials of hell common in his age. He had seen his theology parodied in the novels of George Eliot and Charles Kingsley. He knew that many Victorians viewed hell as nothing more than a metaphor, but he would not have it:
Now, do not begin telling me that that is metaphorical fire: who cares for that? If a man were to threaten to give me a metaphorical blow on the head, I should care very little about it; he would be welcome to give me as many as he pleased. And what say the wicked? "We do not care about metaphorical fires." But they are real, sir—yes, as real as yourself. There is a real fire in hell, as truly as you now have a real body—a fire exactly like that which we have on earth in everything except this—that it will not consume, though it will torture you.
Excerpted from IS HELL FOR REAL OR DOES EVERYONE GO TO HEAVEN? Copyright © 2011 by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.