Hellish doctrines

This is the second in a 13-part series wherein I give you Hell, a little booklet by the inimitable Dr. Jeff Obadiah Simmonds.

I was visiting a local Pentecostal church, and an elder was preaching. The subject was hell.

“I was talking to my next door neighbour over the fence,” he said. “His father had recently died after a long battle with cancer. ‘At least he’s at peace,’ the neighbour said. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘If he didn’t have Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour he’s in hell, and the pain he suffered here is nothing compared to what he’s going through now.'”

This guy had never read How to Win Friends and Influence People!

Many Christians feel uncomfortable about the idea of hell, and wonder how this eternity of punishment can be reconciled with the belief that God is a God of love. Perhaps most Christians avoid thinking and talking about hell, because it does not sit well with us. We prefer to talk about the more marketable aspects of our faith: love, grace and salvation.

The traditional view of hell seems, to many modern Christians, a little barbaric. Those who do not want to portray God as quite so vindictive often eliminate the idea of active punishment inflicted by God through fire and retain only the idea of exclusion from God’s presence. This makes the punishment of hell something which God is not actively involved in.

Therefore a popular Christian idea these days is that “hell” is simply the absence of God. Thus hell is not a place where God actively inflicts punishment on people, but rather a place where “God is not”. Those who do not choose to follow God will find themselves in a place of eternal separation from Him. This will be a place of torment only in the sense that people will be forever afflicted by the knowledge of what they have missed out on.

While this idea is appealing, it is not really a Biblical idea. God is omnipresent (present everywhere). There is no corner of the Universe where God is not. That means that He is present in hell also.

David says:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
  Where can I flee from Your Presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there;
  if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.
  (Psalm 139.7-8)

If God is present in Sheol, then hell cannot be absence from God or eternal separation from Him.

Another common response to the problem of hell is simply to ignore it, in the hope that it will go away. While preaching “hell-fire and brimstone” used to be popular, most preachers avoid the subject. There is a recognition that the age old doctrine of hell is problematic—it is difficult to reconcile our belief in a loving God with that of a place of eternal torture.

Still another solution to this problem has been to reject the idea of hell altogether. Numerous heretical Christian groups and sects have rejected the orthodox view of hell. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Herbert W. Armstrong’s World Wide Church of God (which recently returned to Christian orthodoxy) reject the doctrine of hell.

But the Bible does affirm that God will punish the wicked in the afterlife—a simple rejection of hell is not satisfactory. Some Christians have responded to this problem of hell by rejecting the traditional understanding of what hell is, and propose alternative interpretations—especially the idea of annihilationism.

There is a growing trend among Evangelicals to turn away from the traditional view of hell as an eternal torment. A number of Evangelical writers have advocated annihilationism—Clark Pinnock, John Wenham, Philip Hughes, Stephen Travis and others (see the bibliography at the end of this little booklet). Most significantly, Anglican John RW Stott, from All Soul’s Church London and a leading Evangelical, has declared himself to be an annihilationist in his book Evangelical Essentials : A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue.

A recent Commission of the Church of England has suggested that “it might be better to think of hell as a state of annihilation,” and that the traditional view of hell as eternal torment has “portrayed God wrongly in a sadistic manner” (quoted in Burge 29).

Clark Pinnock notes that the annihilationist position “does seem to be gaining ground among Evangelicals. The fact that no less of a person than J. R. W. Stott has endorsed it now will certainly encourage this trend to continue” (Pinnock [1990] 249).

Stott says:

I find the concept [of everlasting torment in hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. (Stott, 314-15)

However, unlike liberals, who deny the doctrine of hell (along with miracles, the deity of Christ, the resurrection and many other key doctrines) because it seems incomprehensible to them, evangelical annihilationists believe that their position is faithful to the teachings of Scripture. The question is not whether we like the doctrine of eternal torment, but whether this is what the Bible actually teaches. Evangelical annihilationists would say that it is not. Stott says the question is “not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?” (Stott, 314-315).

There is no doubt that belief in the eternal torment of the wicked has been taught by the Church throughout its history. At the same time, our allegiance is not to the traditions of the Church, but to the teachings of the Bible. The fact, then, that Christians for nearly two thousand years have believed in the eternal torment of the unsaved is of no consequence—it is only the teachings of God’s Word which carries any weight in terms of what we should or should not believe.

If, as Evangelical Annihilationists believe, the traditional view of hell is not Biblical, where did this doctrine come from?


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