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Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Ever Happened to Hell?

Recently I had a commenter go all silly on me explaining that there was no hell and any such thought was crazy. I didn't even post the comment. Too much nonsense. Imagine my surprise, then, when days after I wrote this piece about "nothing to say", Rob Bell releases a video promoting his new book entitled Love Wins in which, from all appearances, he plans to explain that "love wins" and there is no hell. And the Internet exploded with the conversation.

Dr. Al Mohler, in an essay entitled Doing Away with Hell, has begun his response. He starts with 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?
Now, I know there are some who were hoping to hear what I think about hell (it's a real place -- there, you have it) or maybe what I think about the controversy (see "it's a real place") or make some arguments on the topic. I'm not. At least not here. What I am wondering is ... what's all this then? What are these horrible things being included that Dr. Mohler finds so evil? I asked, of course, because I frankly didn't know. So I had to find out.

Universalism is easy. It is the belief that everyone goes to heaven. It is the belief that salvation is universal. Such a belief is, of course, problematic since there is so much in Scripture that contradicts it. Jesus Himself spoke more about hell than heaven. It wasn't some narrow-minded, mean-spirited, modern right-wing nut job who said, "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt 7:13-14). This idea of universalism finds pitiful support in Scripture and vast contradiction. But there are those who hold to it.

Conditional immortality was new to me. I had to research that one. Turns out that it is closely related to annihilationism, so let's do that one first. Annihilationism is very popular in certain sects. This idea holds that no one goes to "eternal torment". Those who don't go to heaven simply cease to be. And, as it turns out, this is the basic concept behind conditional immortality. The idea there is that souls are not inherently eternal. Those to whom God has given eternal life will continue eternally, and those to whom He has not will not. Simple! This idea is not limited to the non-Christian Jehovah's Witnesses or the more Christian Seventh-Day Adventists. Names like Greg Boyd, John Stott, and Clark Pinnock are flaunted as supporters. This view, of course, requires the re-definition of clear biblical statements about the eternal torment of those who do not believe. It also represents a failure to properly understand God's definition of "life" (John 17:3).

I can figure out postmortem evangelism even if I've never really heard of it. The idea is "second chances". Christ can give everyone a second chance after they die. "Here you are, faced with an eternity of heaven or hell. Which do you choose now?" The fact that this is favored largely by people I consider dangerously heretical and the glaring lack of any suggestion of such a possibility in Scripture renders this one as nonsense to me.

Inclusivism was a new term to me (in this context). Pluralism sees all religions as valid. "All roads lead to heaven." That kind of thing. On the opposite extreme, exclusivism claims that only by faith in the finished work of Christ can anyone be saved. You know, standard historical orthodox Christian teaching. Inclusivism would fall between these two. Some forms lean toward pluralism -- "It's not the religion you believe, but the God you worship that matters. God can save anyone regardless of their religion." (I hope you can see the distinction between that view and pluralism. It is different ... slightly.) Leaning away from "regardless of their religion", others might say that Christ is capable of saving whom He will however He will. That is, while the only way to heaven is through Christ, it doesn't necessarily require mental knowledge of the story of His death and resurrection and all to be saved. This, then, would be a means of including dead infants and the like who never get the chance to hear or decide or those fabled pygmies in Africa who never hear.

As it turns out, the biblical concept of Hell appears to be a problem. While the Church hasn't balked at the idea for its entire time and the Scriptures seem abundantly clear on the idea that God may choose to eternally torment those who commit Cosmic Treason against the Most High, many have decided to be more compassionate than God. "That will never do," they assure us and the shift from God's holiness, wrath, and justice begins. "All that really matters," they're quite sure, "is His love. The rest is expendable." Well, no, they don't say it, but it's there.


Dan said...

As you know, I always wonder if events are not in some way prophetic... you know... kind of like if the people hold their piece the rocks would cry out? Anyway, your thoughts make me think of the popularity of coming out of the closet. I'm wondering how many conservative leaning church leaders are closet liberals. Along those lines I wonder if the increased incidence of identity theft does not correspond to the identity theft of the real Jesus? Just a thought.

Stan said...

Like, "Will the real Christians please stand up?"