Do Evangelicals Really Believe in Hell?
By David L Rattigan

(2003)

So there's these two churches I heard of down in Texas. Outside the Presbyterian Church is a sign: "There ain't no hell." And just down the road is the Baptist Church, with the sign outside: "The hell there ain't!"

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.

Two things provided the occasion for this sudden honesty: The death of two local teenagers in a car wreck, an event which rocked the small British Columbian town I was living in at the time; and my prayers for a close Christian friend who was struggling (and always had struggled) intensely with his doubts about God. Through tears I confessed that I simply could not believe that my friendís continual relapses into sin and earnest inner war between faith and doubt would eventually condemn him to eternal suffering, nor that two teenagers, cruelly snatched away from friends and family less than a year after their graduation, were both destined for endless and unimaginable torment.

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 donít really believe in hell after all?

A journalist, Mike Bryan, immersed himself in the life of a fundamentalist Bible college in the American south for a semester, and wrote the book Chapter and Verse about his experience. In it he makes an interesting observation:

I had asked several people at the school why, if they believed I was so wrong in my beliefs and I am going to hell, I didnít feel this condemnation on anything but an intellectual level. Why wouldnít it interrupt a friendship and, for that matter, the whole flow of living in the wide world in which most of the people encountered were going to hell?

In other words, these fundamentalists assented mentally to such distinctions, but their actions seemed to be informed by something much deeper. On a much more profound level (an emotional level, perhaps), these fundamentalists did not appear to recognize such a difference. This all begs the question: Did these fundamentalists really believe what they were preaching?

A tale is often told of a preacher who said that if there really was an eternal hell, he would crawl on his hands and knees along broken glass the entire length of Britain to rescue a single sinner from such a fate. It makes sense: If such a vision of the future really were true, the Christian would want to do anything she could to spare even a single human being such a destiny. But what do we in fact find among evangelicals who proclaim a message of eternal, conscious torment for all who reject Christ?

Gary Dorrien, the church historian, tells the story of the early liberal pioneer, William Ellery Channing. His father took the young boy along with him to a meeting featuring a well-known revivalist preacher:
 

Channing listened intently to the preacherís words. The theme was familiar from his church experience, but not the grandiloquent manner in which it was delivered and pressed home. Young Channing was transfixed by the evangelistís lurid picture of "the lost condition of the human race rushing into hell." It seemed to him that the entire world as being swallowed by the horror and darkness of hell. With dramatic flourishes, the evangelist warned that salvation from the endless torments of hell was only available in the arms of Jesus, "who was described as wounded and bleeding at the hand of an inexorable God, who exacted the uttermost penalty due to a world of sinners."

Channing was stunned. He felt the terror of his condition as a condemned being, but also a twinge of skepticism about the entire performance. After the meeting his father greeted an acquaintance with the pronouncement: "Sound doctrine, sir." The words struck Channing hard, because they seemed to answer the question whether the preacher spoke the truth. Neither of them spoke as they began their journey home, but on the way, incongruously, the elder Channing began to whistle. Nothing was said about how the family should attempt to flee the wrath to come. When they reached home, instead of speaking some words to his family about their apparently terrible plight, Channingís father pulled off his boots, propped his feet before the fireplace, and calmly relaxed with his newspaper. The scene was a revelation to Channing: His father didnít believe it!

It is true that actions speak louder than words. I am not entirely convinced that, for all the hellfire preaching and lip-service paid to a gospel of eternal damnation, most evangelicals really believe in hell, at least as they define it. If I knew that my neighbourís house was on fire and that my neighbour was tucked up in bed, oblivious to his pending doom, I would not goose-step around the issue with him, nor sit back and let the poor fellow make up his own mind. I would probably run into the house myself and positively drag him out of bed. But the attitude of so many evangelicals today who claim that a far worse fate awaits their neighbour is nothing short of complacency. Is it too much to ask, in the absence of any evidence that evangelicals are merely sadistic or cruel, whether they actually believe the very doctrine they promote so zealously?

There is something of a disparity between the eagerness of many evangelicals to share "unconditional love" with their neighbours, to reach out with great mercy to the lowliest of the low, and the claim that these very same neighbours are destined for an eternity of conscious punishment. I write this having returned from a Christian missions conference. I passed exhibition stands on which were pictured third-world orphans, and could not escape a feeling of irony that the very same evangelicals who so earnestly wanted to embrace these orphans and outcasts with total acceptance and love, and urge us to do the same, were also telling us that these same ones were condemned to never-ending torment at the hands of an angry God. I wondered if evangelicals had ever thought through the implications of this disjunction between a God who condemned sinners mercilessly to unending suffering and their own desire to accept and love without condition. Would this, I wondered, make them more compassionate than God? Or did they simply believe two different, indeed conflicting, things about this God, one with their heart and one with their head?

At one time not so long ago-indeed, probably up until the point that I sat down to write this essay, I thought perhaps many evangelicals simply were cruel and sadistic, with some selfish need to proclaim condemnation for everyone but themselves. But actions speak louder than words, and I think our judgments need to take into account both. What I find is this: For all the evangelical rhetoric, many evangelicals are indeed reaching out with an unconditional love that appears to me quite incongruous with the message about God they are proclaiming. They say, "God will only accept you if --", but in reality they are themselves ready to pour out love and compassion on anyone without condition. They might pay lip-service to the idea that their fellow human beings are condemned, that God is furious over them to such an extent that he will punish them eternally unless they repent, but the reality is that they strive in their actions to accept and love without bounds. Either they are more compassionate than the God they believe in or they donít truly believe in such a God at all.

Do evangelicals really believe in hell? I doubt it.

 

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