Welcome to Ekklesia’s Interactive Hell Week Blog

Purpose of this Site

This blog is not intended to endorse or promote any particular theological position on the subject of Hell.  We would like for you to engage in prayerfully considering the topic as you engage scripture, logic, and your fellow brothers and sisters over this topic.  This blog is intended to serve as a landing place for whoever is interested in further engaging the conversation we started on the nature of Hell in Christian Theology.  We hope it will provide some resources for you to further investigate what you believe and why you believe it.

Rules for this Site

The rules here are simple, go wherever you want on the site, as often as you want, and interact (comment etc.) as many times as you want.  We ask only that your comments are respectful and that all rhetoric is based in love and respect for each other.  In that vein we ask that if you leave comments you do so under your actual name – we tend to be more kind we we are not anonymous.

How do I navigate this site?

For now we have posted page link across the top of the page relating to 3 general Christian approaches to Hell  (Traditional, Evangelical Universalist, Annihilation). Understanding that there a virtually limitless variation within and outside of these categories, they should serve as a good launching point for those of you beginning the investigation

POSTS ARE IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER and can best be explored by category (category list is in the right hand column of this page)

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Posted by on March 15, 2011 in Uncategorized


Jeff Cook on the intellect’s role in thinking theologically

                                * copied from Jesus Creed
Jeff teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado, pastors Atlas Church (Greeley), and is the author of Seven: the Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes (Zondervan, 2008) and Everything New (2012).

Hell is making us all think really hard about God. In order to push our thinking I am working through a few big ideas in Dr. Preston Sprinkle and Francis Chan’s recent book,Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and What We Have Made Up. I have deep admiration and respect for these two men. They strike me as kind and thoughtful, and their book is worthy of our careful reading and engagement.

In the ad for the book, Chan said, “When we make statements like, “Well God wouldn’t do this would he?” Do you understand that at that moment you are actually putting God’s actions in submission to your reasoning?” And Dr. Sprinkle, in a recent comment on this blog, said, “I almost get the sense that, according to your posts, [taking God at his word] is not necessarily a good thing if his word doesn’t sit well with us. But this seems to be a crazy high view of our intellect.” These two statements summarize well an attitude many of us have when reading the Bible. Isn’t the Bible written to common people like me? Isn’t the message clear? If I read the Bible with a right heart aren’t the Bible’s truths easily understood and unavoidable?

In order to advance its most important claims, Erasing Hell applies such a perspective to the traditional interpretation of passages on hell. It says, “Scripture is filled with divine actions that don’t fit our human standards of logic or morality…We need to stop trying to domesticate God or confine Him to tidy categories and compartments that reflect our human sentiments rather than his inexplicable ways. We serve a God whose ways are incomprehensible, who thoughts are not like our thoughts” (135).

Lumping together both what the authors see as the “incomprehensible” horror of divinely mandated genocide and the “incomprehensible” goodness of the crucified Jesus, the writers say, “It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God’s plan of redemption, even though it doesn’t make sense to us. Neither should we erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with us. As soon as we do this, we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for [created beings] to do” (136).

Is this right? Can the intellect be set aside? Can we avoid putting God’s word/actions/character in submission to our reasoning when reading the Bible? I don’t think so. Let me give an example of why we must think hard about *how* we read the Bible, or else we will lose the proper understanding of the Bible.

In American Christianity, one school of thought says that the Bible ought to be read as a narrative. That is, we engage the scripture as the ever-moving story God is telling about himself. Another school of thoughts suggests we read the Bible as a legal document—that the binding truths articulated in the flow of the text apply to all people at all times. Still another school suggests we read the Bible through our stories, our situation, allowing the language to be God’s personal word to us. Of course, these schools can read the Bible in similar and complementary ways, but they will eventually hit some disagreements. For example, when asking whether or not women should speak in church, those affirming the narrative-reading may say that passages restricting the speaking of women were teachings for a specific community, in a specific city, that had specific problems. The legal document Bible reader may object that rejection of such passages is unacceptable for it is a clear teaching in the text. The one reading the scripture exclusively in light of their own situation may go either way depending on the women in her community and how much they annoy her.

How we choose to read the Bible deeply affects what the Bible says. There are no theory independent readings of the Bible. Our theories will move the text despite our best efforts. So what should we do? This is where the intellect is vital and to minimize it in our arguments is to leave the meaning of the scriptures susceptible to those with a bully pulpit, immense charisma, or more sinister still—our own misguided desires for the text to say something it does not (as Sprinkle rightly cautions).

Since arguing about “how” we ought to read the scripture is both good and unavoidable, we can reject the claim that “As soon as we [erase eternal conscious torment], we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for [us] to do” (136). This is a self-defeating misstep. The authors are asking us through reasoning about God’s actions to reject reasoning about God’s actions.

As such, those who affirm the unavoidable role of the intellect in Bible reading and rejectErasing Hell’s conclusions might say: I see an argument clearly that affects my reading of scripture as significantly as the arguments for valuing author’s intent, or reading the Bible as narrative, or even the arguments for seeing the scripture as God’s inspired word. The argument goes something like this:

1.     If God exists, he is exceedingly generous, compassionate, and creative.

2.     If God exists, he knows the future of any world he actualizes.

3.     A being who is exceedingly generous, compassionate, and creative will not actualize a world he knows will culminate in the everlasting incarceration and torment of a human soul.

Given 1-3, If God exists, he will not actualize a world in which a human soul will suffer in torment for eternity.

Because the intellect is unavoidable in our reading of scripture, and because eternal conscious torment is logically inconsistent with God’s attributes in the argument above—it seems obligatory to reject the traditional interpretation of passages showcasing hell. If such arguments are valid, the Bible *must* be teaching something different than eternal conscious torment, or else the Bible is not displaying the God who is real.

There is a  lot to commend in Erasing Hell—the advocation of annihilationism, the first and second century analysis of non-biblical texts, the pastoral heart and care for the damned, the honest wrestling with a massively difficult topic that has real consequences. All these are praise-worthy! And given the arguments above, I can conclude my review with the same hermeneutically-informative line as Erasing Hell.

“Will not the judge of the earth do what is just?”


How serious a heresy is Universalism?

How serious a heresy is universalism?

Roger E. Olson | rogereolson | July 30, 2011 11:09

I have called universalism “the most attractive heresy.”  For a lover of God’s love, universal salvation might seem to be necessary.  (I guarantee you that some neo-fundamentalist will take that sentence out of context and attribute it to me without acknowledging what follows.)

However, I’m not a universalist.  On the other hand, I’d rather be a universalist than a true Calvinist (i.e., a five point Calvinist who believes in double predestination).

Someone once asked me whether I would still worship God if somehow I became convinced the Calvinist view of God is correct.  I had to say no.  Sheer power is not worthy of worship.  Only power controlled by love is worthy of worship.

If somehow I became convinced that universalism is correct, would I still worship God.  Yes, but….

I would have to wonder how a God of love can enjoy love from creatures that is not given freely.  Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann).  I would just call that optimism.  There’s no way to believe that true other than a leap of optimistic hope.

Everyone harbors some heresy in his or her heart and mind.  The only question is–how serious are the heresies one holds?  Of course, nobody thinks they harbor any heresies (in the sense of theologically incorrect beliefs).

I agree with Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (and others) that universalism is heresy.  It is unbiblical and illogical.  However, that does not mean a person who holds it is not a Christian.  I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct.  Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface).  That’s true for me as much as for anyone else.  If I thought I held no heresies, I’d think I had already arrived at the fullness of truth–something even the apostle Paul did not claim.

I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism.  (See my earlier post here about why universalism should NOT interfere with evangelism.)  I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it?  If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious.  Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.”  The term is usually associated with liberal theology.  In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.

Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy–according to all major branches of Christianity.  The Catholic church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it.  But, of course, as Luther demonstrated, all branches of Christianity can be wrong.  That is why I reject paleo-orthodoxy and any appeal to absolute authority of tradition.  Tradition gets a vote but never a veto.  The Bible trumps tradition.

When universalism is believed on biblical grounds (as in The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald–a pseudonym), it is much less serious than when it is believed as part of a liberal theology that denies the wrath of God and the sinfulness of all human beings (except Jesus Christ, of course).

(Sidebar regarding neo-fundamentalism: A neo-fundamentalism is someone who will take what I have written here and claim I have affirmed universalism or at least given aid and comfort to heretics.  A neo-fundamentalist, like a straightforward fundamentalist, is a person who cannot distinguish between non-absolute condemnation of error and error itself.  Count on it.  Some probably Southern Baptist heresy-hunting neo-fundamentalist will pick up on this blog post and spread it around as “proof” that Roger Olson harbors sympathies with universalism.  That is, however, evidence of either a weak mind or ill will.)

So, what is my final word on universalism?  I don’t have a “final word” on it because “it” is not all that clear.  What kind of universalism?  Based on what?  I consider all positive affirmations of universal salvation that include denial of everlasting hell heretical.  But not all are equally bad or condemnable.  Some are based on confusion.  Some are based on liberal theology.  Some (e.g., Karl Barth’s) are based on the logic of God’s love and electing grace (viz., “Jesus is victor!”).  All are wrong, but not all are equally bad.

Let me be clear.  (This is necessary because of the power of neo-fundamentalists within evangelicalism today!)  I am not a universalist nor do I sympathize with universalism.  I am simply trying to get people to consider the possibility that not all versions of universalism are on the same level of error.  There is egregious error and there is simple error.  One kind of universalism (based on denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness) is egregious error.  Another kind (based on confusion about God’s love requiring his overriding free will) is simple error.  I hope I don’t hold any egregious errors, but I’m sure I hold some simple errors.  I am open to having those pointed out to me.


Rob Bell & CS Lewis by Jeff Cook

Rob Bell, CS Lewis, and the Real Argument at Hand

After a couple of weeks of dialogue it is clear to me that the primary issue in the debate over Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is not about what Bell is saying, but how he says it.

I suspect many felt poked in the eye by the way Harper and Rob decided to market Love Wins. I suspect Bell intimidates some because he is part of a culture they do not understand and cannot control (that culture is urban, postmodern, and discovers the truth more naturally through questions, sarcasm, and intuition than through the systematic presentations of the top Christian publishing house).

And let’s not kid ourselves, I suspect the fire behind the debate is often about envy and resentment of a very talented man, about our own inability to get a hearing in the public square, and about the fear that new ways of talking about Jesus might trump what some have preached for decades.

These issues are big, but they are not only about doctrine. The issues at hand are about culture and control, about how the theology of emerging Christians will be defined, and about the continuing fight between postmodern and modern expressions of Christianity. This seems clear to me now, for I would like to defend the following claim:

There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, CS Lewis.

Lewis and Bell hint at a number of theological possibilities in their writings that cut against what we might call the majority opinion, including: the possibility that those in hell might journey toward the grace of God after death, the possibility that those who have not heard the name of Jesus might find salvation in and through the image of Christ in their own pagan stories and myths, the possibility that some will eventually receive God’s grace freely after death, the possibility that hell is about bigger things than God’s wrath, the insistence that the metaphors describing what Jesus’ cross accomplishes and how his work is applied to us are culturally subjective, and that some ancient pictures of the atonement may be too confusing to help us right here, right now. All of these lines of thought were in Lewis’s writings before they were in Love Wins.

Let’s look at one example. Though I [Jeff Cook] do not hold the following position (I’m an annihilationist regarding hell), consider how Lewis, like Bell, advances the possibility that those in hell might one day journey toward the grace of God after death. Lewis writes, “I would pay any price to be able to say ‘All will be saved’ but my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’” Notice in this and other quotes like it, the salvation of a soul is not dependent on God’s will, but the will of the damned. In the same vein, he wrote, “I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given” (The Problem of Pain, 110). This is a confession that God wants to save all and would provide such roads if God thought they’d work.

As such, Lewis’s leaves the gates of heaven wide open through the way he structures reality in The Great Divorce. He frequently insistented that Hell is locked from the inside, and continually insists that hell is self-chosen—all of these point to the possibility that one day some of the damned may choose to be restored, and that God may welcome them like a prodigal son through the saving work of Christ. In fact, both Bell and Lewis argue, “Humanity is already ‘saved’ in principle; we individuals have to appropriate that salvation” (Mere Christianity 156). As such, I see every reason to think that Rob has an identical ontology of hell to CS Lewis, Rob however has more faith in the ability of some to eventually repent, that is the only real difference between them—and it is a belief about people not about God and God’s desires.

So I ask, Is there one idea in Love Wins that is not already grounded in word or metaphor in the writings of evangelicalism’s best-selling author? If not, then certainly Lewis—a far more substantial and influential thinker than Rob to modern American Christianity—has been worthy of our fire for decades now.

But that’s just it. The debate over Love Wins is not actually a fight only about doctrine. It is about angst caused by different cultures and philosophical precommitments. It’s about language and how we articulate what is real. It’s about the acceptance or rejection of postmodern ways of expressing what is most vital to us. It is about two cultures crashing together like a cold and warm front and causing a storm. Sure Rob is throwing theological hand grenades in that trailer and on the back cover, but as he rightly says in the intro to Love Wins, he’s not claiming anything new. We would be wise to pursue the real dialogue—the more important dialogue—at hand in American Christianity. We need to openly converse about postmodernity and modernity, their effect on doctrine, andespecially how Christians who assume very different epistemologies can actuallychampion each other instead of drawing pistols every time they disagree in this new century.

Jeff Cook is a professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and the author of Seven: the Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes. *


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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Misc Entries re: Hell


Scott Mcknight’s posts On Eastern Orthodox Theology & Hell

Scott McKnight has offered the following three posts regarding the Eastern Orthodox Church’s theological contributions to the concept of Hell.  Here are the links

Eastern Theology and Hell Part One

Eastern Theology and Hell Part Two

Eastern Theology and Hell Part 3

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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Uncategorized


Chad Holtz on what he gained and lost when he changed his mind on hell


(Originally posted here)
by Chad Holtz

While surfing through the deluge of posts and comments surrounding Bell’s approaching apocalyptic book, Love Wins, I started to think about the fears that are present on both sides of the conversation. Those defending the more traditional view of hell do so because they care very much about something they are convinced is true. I do not doubt their sincerity. Nor do I doubt the reality that whenever we shift paradigms with our beliefs, we lose something. It may be things we did not know we had.

I was raised in the church. From the time I could talk I believed in an eternal hell and that it would be full of people. This all changed about 3 years ago for me for a variety of reasons. But for 33 years I knew nothing else.

For the past few years I have given some thought to what I lost by losing hell. No doubt, there have been some major casualties. Here is a brief list of the big ones for me along with a description.

1. I lost the idol of belief.

Most of my Christian life I believed that I was saved because of what I believed. Yes, of course, I knew it was Jesus that made it possible for me to believe what I believed, but at the end of the day it was my good fortune (to be born a pastor’s kid in a predominately Christian culture) and my good sense that assured me a place in heaven versus hell. While I could not and would not have named it as such at the time, I idolized my belief of belief. When I lost hell, I also lost the the notion that I could secure anything about God’s future for myself through right (or wrong!) doctrine.

2. I lost a very powerful and useful motivator: Fear.

This was one of the hardest loses for me. Fear operated not only on others but on myself. No longer could I motivate myself to do good, to pray more, to go to church more, to be more charitable, etc., because a tormented eternity awaited me if I did not. I admit, for a long time that was a compelling motivator. It’s one I use on my kids probably far too often (not hell, although the fear of losing their Wii rights is a form of hell for my boys).

I also lost the ability to use fear as a tool to manipulate others to believe as I did. No longer could I get the satisfaction of seeing a crowded altar full of fearful, repentant sinners because I delivered a sermon that painted a picture of a very hot, miserable eternity if they died tonight without a belief in Jesus. Fear has worked wonders for getting people saved. It worked for me when I was 12 (and 13, and 14, and 15, and 16…). I had to find another motivator.

3. I lost the right to hate my enemy.

Yes, it’s true. Yes, I am well aware that Christians are supposed to love their enemies and pray for them. I’m aware that we are to love others as ourselves. But I have to confess that in my heart of hearts, that place where I worshiped a God whom I knew would send all His enemies to an everlasting hell, I really hated my enemies. Yes, I said with my lips that I “loved the sinner but hated their sin” (forget for the moment that our sinfulness is so ingrained in our person-hood that I, a sinner, am terrible at separating the sinner from the sin) and that I loved them with Christ’s love, but deep down I had a smug satisfaction that one day they would get theirs. This gave me comfort. And I can’t imagine that this deeply ingrained attitude of condescension was not obvious to those I sought to convert.

4. I lost my place in a tribe.

This is probably obvious given the many smear-blogs happening today. John Piper’s flippant, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” says it all. When I lost hell I lost my place in a “holy huddle” where I felt safe, secure and respected because I believed just like everyone else in the huddle. Losing hell made me an outcast to the sort of places I called “church” for 33 years, making me more like a nomad among Christiandom, with no real place to lay my head.

These are some of the things I have lost losing hell. I’m sure there are more. There are also some things I have gained, which perhaps I will write about at another time.

In the meantime, what have you lost when you lost hell? OR, what are you afraid of losing if you did?


by Chad Holtz

Last week I wrote a note titled “What I Lost Losing Hell.” The discussion both there and on my page has been fantastic and I appreciate everyone’s contributions. Keep them coming! In that note I said I’d jot down some thoughts about what I gained by losing hell. Here are those thoughts. What are yours?

1. I gained a more profound faith

As I reflect on the years when I believed in a literal, eternal, tormenting hell I have to confess that I was a pathetic witness. While I claimed to believe in hell and that it would be quite full of people and I would happily make this belief known in my “holy huddle” (church), this belief did not translate to my every day life. For had I truly believed it, and had I truly loved my neighbor, I would have been telling every person I ever passed on the streets that hell was in their eternal future if they did not repent. So I have to conclude that at least one of two things was true about my belief in hell: > I didn’t really believe it and > I didn’t really love my neighbor (let alone my enemy).

As you might imagine, this tied me up in knots with guilt and anxiety. I worried all the time about all the billions who never would hear the name “Jesus” in their lifetime. I worried all the time about my friends and loved ones who believed differently from I because they were not fortunate enough to be born in my family. And I even worried about the people who claimed to be Christians but they didn’t act like it or they didn’t believe quite like I did (for instance, they didn’t believe in a literal, eternal hell). My anxiety over the future state of their souls, while doing nothing to really compel me to warn them incessantly, seemed to serve as a sense of assurance about my own eternal destiny. If I am concerned about you burning for eternity than I must be OK.

What I gained when I lost hell was a profound sense of trust that God, in Christ, has “all things,” including all the people I once worried about. I gained freedom from worry. After all, didn’t Jesus teach us not to worry? (Matt. 6). If I could trust God with my own eternal fate, perhaps I could trust God with the fate of all of Creation. For the first time in my life, I began to experience what I think is real trust. I no longer trusted my faith to set me free but I trusted in Christ and Christ alone to set us all free.

2. I gained a new boldness in evangelism/preaching.

When I lost hell, the Gospel became not just potential Good News for some but radical, scandalous Good News for all of God’s Creation! This gave me a boldness in my preaching and interactions with other people that before I did not have. It is a powerful thing to come to the realization that my arguments about God, my beliefs about God, or my ability to conjure the right amount of fear in the hearer or my well articulated and rehearsed presentation of the “Way of the Master” did not matter one iota. It was all skubalon.

Instead, I could preach grace. I could say to someone along with Saint Paul, “You ARE reconciled to God in Christ, therefore, BE reconciled!” (2 Cor. 5:12-21). Salvation was no longer reduced to fire insurance in the afterlife but became Good News to the oppressed, the broken, the sick, the poor, the sinner and the saint. The Gospel took on a power that I had never known before. No longer did it tell me and others what you could be if X, Y and Z are done but rather, it told us the truth about ourselves – it tells us whose and who we are! Rejection of this truth is not a sentence to hell in the afterlife but a denial of who you already are. In other words, to reject Christ is to live a lie today. Paul said, “Today is the day of your salvation! So….wake up!” I am far more motivated to tell people to wake up to what is already real today than I am of trying to convince them to believe in X or pray this prayer so that they can eat cake after they die.

3. I gained a new found humility

Yes, I am aware of the joke, “I’m the most humble person here.” What I am attempting to say here is that losing hell helped me recognize a profound truth about myself and every human alive: We are contingent beings relying solely on the grace and mercy of God.

Before I lost hell I thought my beliefs or actions somehow secured, for good or ill, my eternal fate. Yes, Jesus did something 2000 years ago that was important, but my belief about that event was even more important. My faith or lack thereof unlocked the doors to either heaven or hell. Because of this bedrock belief, it is easy to see why belief itself became everything (and Jesus became the object of belief to haggle over).

But Paul says something in Romans 11:32 that levels all of us. He makes the outrageous claim that God has imprisoned ALL in disobedience so that God may have mercy on ALL. Not some – ALL. This included even me with my “right” beliefs. I am just as disobedient and in dire need of mercy as the person who never heard of Jesus. Disagreements today became less about a judgment from the Sorting Hat for eternity and more about appreciating the multiple flavors we all bring to God’s table.

That being said, I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong about every thing I believe. We all live into a story, however. My beliefs are not what earn me merit with God but rather enable me to live either well or poorly into the story God is already writing, with or without me. My future, my very breath, is entirely a gift from God.

4. I gained a new motivation: Love.

I was once asked by a friend, “If you take hell out of the picture, why follow Jesus? Why not just live however you want?” I responded with a question of my own: “Do you serve and honor your wife because you fear divorce?”

When I realized that it was not my beliefs about Jesus but Jesus himself who has saved and is saving the world, I began to fall in love with a person and began to release the idol of my ideas. I do not serve and honor Jesus as my Lord because I fear an eternity in hell. I love him because he first loved me. Period. No agenda.

When I loved Jesus for an agenda (getting out of hell) I found that I also loved people with an agenda (getting them out of hell). My love for them was conditional. When they rejected my agenda I rejected them (“Farewell, Rob Bell”).

God loves because this is who God is. God does this perfectly, and perfect love casts out all fear. I’m called by my Lord, whom I love, to be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect. While I stumble and fall more times than I care to admit, I’m thankful that it is into my Father’s arms I fall and not a fiery pit.


Albert Mohler on “Doing away with Hell”

Doing Away with Hell? Part Two

Originally Posted Here

The doctrine of hell has recently come under vicious attack, both from secularists and even from some evangelicals. In many ways, the assault has been a covert one. Like a slowly encroaching tide, a whole complex of interrelated cultural, theological, and philosophical changes have conspired to undermine the traditional understanding of hell. Yesterday, we considered the first and perhaps most important of those changes — a radically altered view of God. But other issues have played a part, as well.

A second issue that has contributed to the modern denial of hell is a changed view of justice. Retributive justice has been the hallmark of human law since premodern times. This concept assumes that punishment is a natural and necessary component of justice. Nevertheless, retributive justice has been under assault for many years in western cultures, and this has led to modifications in the doctrine of hell.

The utilitarian philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham argued that retribution is an unacceptable form of justice. Rejecting clear and absolute moral norms, they argued that justice demands restoration rather than retribution. Criminals were no longer seen as evil and deserving of punishment but were seen as persons in need of correction. The goal — for all but the most egregious sinners — was restoration and rehabilitation. The shift from the prison to the penitentiary was supposed to be a shift from a place of punishment to a place of penance, but apparently no one told the prisoners.

C. S. Lewis rejected this idea as an assault upon the very concept of justice. “We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.”

Penal reforms followed, public executions ceased, and the public accepted the changes in the name of humanitarianism. Dutch criminologist Pieter Spierenburg pointed to “increasing inter-human identification” as the undercurrent of this shift. Individuals began to sympathize with the criminal, often thinking of themselves in the criminal’s place. The impact of this shift in the culture is apparent in a letter from one nineteenth century Anglican to another:

“The disbelief in the existence of retributive justice . . . is now so widely spread through nearly all classes of people, especially in regard to social and political questions . . . [that it] causes even men, whose theology teaches them to look upon God as a vindictive, lawless autocrat, to stigmatize as cruel and heathenish the belief that criminal law is bound to contemplate in punishment other ends beside the improvement of the offender himself and the deterring of others.”

The utilitarian concept of justice and deterrence has also given way to justice by popular opinion and cultural custom. The U.S. Constitution disallows “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the courts have offered evolving and conflicting rulings on what kind of punishment is thus excluded. At various times, the death penalty has been constitutionally permitted and forbidden, and in one recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, the justice writing the majority opinion actually cited data from opinion polls.

The transformations of legal practice and culture have redefined justice for many modern persons. Retribution is out, and rehabilitation is put in its place. Some theologians have simply incorporated this new theory of justice into their doctrines of hell. For the Roman Catholics, the doctrine of purgatory functions as the penitentiary. For some evangelicals, a period of time in hell — but not an eternity in hell — is the remedy.

Some theologians have questioned the moral integrity of eternal punishment by arguing that an infinite punishment is an unjust penalty for finite sins. Or, to put the argument in a slightly different form, eternal torment is no fitting punishment for temporal sins. The traditional doctrine of hell argues that an infinite penalty is just punishment for sin against the infinite holiness of God. This explains why all sinners are equally deserving of hell, but for salvation through faith in Christ.

A third shift in the larger culture concerns the advent of the psychological worldview. Human behavior has been redefined by the impact of humanistic psychologies that deny or reduce personal responsibility for wrongdoing. Various theories place the blame on external influences, biological factors, behavioral determinism, genetic predispositions, and the influence of the subconscious — and these variant theories barely scratch the surface.

The autonomous self becomes the great personal project for individuals, and their various crimes and misdemeanors are excused as growth experiences or ‘personal issues.’ Shame and guilt are banned from public discussion and dismissed as repressive. In such a culture, the finality of God’s sentencing of impenitent sinners to hell is just unthinkable.

A fourth shift concerns the concept of salvation. The vast majority of men and women throughout the centuries of western civilization have awakened in the morning and gone to sleep at night with the fear of hell never far from consciousness — until now. Sin has been redefined as a lack of self-esteem rather than as an insult to the glory of God. Salvation has been reconceived as liberation from oppression, internal or external. The gospel becomes a means of release from bondage to bad habits rather than rescue from a sentence of eternity in hell.

The theodicy issue arises immediately when evangelicals limit salvation to those who come to conscious faith in Christ during their earthly lives and define salvation as anything akin to justification by faith. To the modern mind, this seems absolutely unfair and scandalously discriminatory. Some evangelicals have thus modified the doctrine of salvation accordingly. This means that hell is either evacuated or minimized. Or, as one Catholic wit quipped, hell has been air-conditioned.

These shifts in the culture are but part of the picture. The most basic cause of controversy over the doctrine of hell is the challenge of theodicy. The traditional doctrine is just too out of step with the contemporary mind — too harsh and eternally fixed. In virtually every aspect, the modern mind is offended by the biblical concept of hell preserved in the traditional doctrine. For some who call themselves evangelicals, this is simply too much to bear.

We should note that compromise on the doctrine of hell is not limited to those who reject the traditional formulation. The reality is that few references to hell are likely to be heard even in conservative churches that would never deny the doctrine. Once again, the cultural environment is a major influence.

In his study of “seeker sensitive” churches, researcher Kimon Howland Sargeant notes that “today’s cultural pluralism fosters an under-emphasis on the ‘hard sell’ of Hell while contributing to an overemphasis on the ’soft sell’ of personal satisfaction through Jesus Christ.” The problem is thus more complex and pervasive than the theological rejection of hell–it also includes the avoidance of the issue in the face of cultural pressure.

The revision or rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell comes at a great cost. The entire system of theology is modified by effect, even if some revisionists refuse to take their revisions to their logical conclusions. Essentially, our very concepts of God and the gospel are at stake. What could be more important?

The temptation to revise the doctrine of hell — to remove the sting and scandal of everlasting conscious punishment — is understandable. But it is also a major test of evangelical conviction. This is no theological trifle. As one observer has asked, “Could it be that the only result of attempts, however well-meaning, to air-condition Hell, is to ensure that more and more people wind up there?”

Hell demands our attention in the present, confronting evangelicals with a critical test of theological and biblical integrity. Hell may be denied, but it will not disappear.





Catholic News Agency article on Rob Bell’s Book

Originally posted here

Controversial book on salvation has Catholics and evangelicals asking for clarity

By Benjamin Mann

Denver, Colo., Mar 24, 2011 / 06:22 am (CNA).- “Love Wins,” a new book by prominent evangelical pastor Rob Bell, was creating controversy weeks before it was released on March 15, for its non-traditional proposals about eternal salvation and God’s judgment. Now, Catholic and evangelical voices are calling for clarity in discussing the issues it raises.

Bell’s latest work – subtitled “A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” – was promoted through a video that provocatively asked whether Gandhi, and the majority of the human race, had been eternally condemned by God for their lack of Christian faith.

While the book raises more questions than it answers, some reviewers have interpreted it as an argument for universal salvation, a position most evangelicals would regard as not biblical. Bell also suggests that there could be an opportunity for faith and repentance after death, and that God’s condemnation of some individuals may not be final.

The Catholic Church denies the possibility of either post-mortem repentance or a temporary hell, and most Catholic theologians have regarded universal salvation as an impossibility. Pope John Paul II wrote that the “silence of the Church” was “the only appropriate position” on the question of whether any particular person was saved or lost.

Bell also speculates that some non-Christians may reach salvation through a type of implicit or unconscious relationship to Christ. The Catholic Church accepts this notion as a possibility, in instances where individuals have failed to receive the Gospel message by no fault of their own.

John Michael Talbot, a Catholic recording artist with close ties to the evangelical world, told CNA that all Christians must be careful in approaching the subject of death, judgment, and the afterlife – particularly those who rely upon “scripture alone,” without the Church’s definitive teaching authority.

Talbot, who left evangelicalism and founded a Franciscan brotherhood, described many contemporary evangelicals as feeling “a hunger for something less legalistic, more mystical and intellectually rich,” than the “rather shallow answers” they are often given in response to questions about salvation and judgment.

But Talbot said Bell, and other like-minded evangelicals, “lack the full set of tools to find those deeper answers” – which Catholics are given through  “sacred scripture, apostolic tradition, and the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the church.”

He indicated that Catholic teachings on salvation could provide more definitive answers to the kinds of questions that led Bell to write “Love Wins.”

“Those who have never had the good news of Jesus written on their hearts by the Spirit are only responsible for what they know,” Talbot said, paraphrasing what the Second Vatican Council taught in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

“Therefore,” he stated, “those who are not Christians may be saved.”

But he pointed out that this possibility “does not negate the need to proclaim that Jesus alone is the fullness of God’s revelation to humanity, and opens the doorway to salvation.”

Talbot said that the Catholic understanding of salvation portrays God’s character more accurately than the common Evangelical teaching that assumes all non-Christians are damned.

Catholic teaching on salvation, he said, “is like a rich oil painting of Jesus, as compared to a black and white line drawing or even a cartoon. It has the basics found in the line drawing, but with subtle colors, shades, and hues not found in the other approach.”

But Talbot concurred with Bell’s evangelical critics in rejecting the notion of universal salvation.

“The mystery of iniquity is that some will actually choose to turn from God for eternity,” he said. “This seems inconceivable to most of us, but scripture and tradition says that some will.”

Dr. Douglas Groothuis, an evangelical philosopher and apologist who teaches at the non-denominational Denver Seminary, gave CNA his perspective on several subjects where Bell takes an unconventional turn in “Love Wins.”

“Some evangelicals hold that while salvation is through Jesus Christ alone, some in the New Covenant era may be saved by Christ without having known of the Gospel as such, if they fulfill certain conditions.” But, Groothuis said, “others deny this.”

Many evangelicals are committed to the principle of salvation by “faith alone,” which teaches that no human act other than believing in Christ has any bearing on one’s salvation.

But Groothuis said “most evangelicals” would accept the possibility of God making a “final offer” of salvation to individuals at the threshold of death. Catholic teaching holds that this could occur, although it is impossible to know whether or not it actually happens.

“Love Wins” also contains a passage in which Bell expresses anxiety for the fate of those who die suddenly and unexpectedly, without having become Christians.  He indicates that the notion of an immediate and final judgment after death makes God turn from “kind and compassionate” to “cruel and relentless, in the blink of an eye.”

But Groothuis said that this issue of death and judgment required a clearer understanding of God’s providence, a subject on which evangelicals largely concur with the Catholic Church.

According to Catholic teaching, God has complete sovereignty over the beginning and end of life, and complete foreknowledge of human decisions. From these principles, it can be inferred that no one dies “before his time,” meaning that all those who die are either prepared to face God and be saved – or else, would never have chosen to be saved even if given additional time.

Groothuis agreed with this traditional understanding of God’s providence, and said it could help both evangelicals and Catholics to understand the logic of an irrevocable judgment immediately after death – because, he indicated, every person is either prepared to face the judgment, or would never have prepared themselves in any case.

“God is sovereign over life and death, “ he stated. “Nothing surprises God.”

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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Uncategorized