A new report to be published this month calls for a greater emphasis on the teaching of hell in schools, theological colleges and from the pulpit. The Nature of Hell warns that after death, all people will be resurrected to face God's final judgement and that those who have rejected Christ will be condemned to hell. There is no other way to salvation and eternal life apart from through Jesus Christ.
The 150-page report acknowledges the traditionalist view of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment but states that, amongst a significant minority of evangelical Christians, there has been a shift towards a belief in the eventual annihilation of people condemned to it. The report says: "It should be acknowledged that both of these interpretations preserve the crucial principle that judgement is on the basis of sins committed in this life, and that when judgement is to hell, it cannot be repealed."
|The Church would fail to be loving if we didn't talk about [hell] as a reality.|
The Nature of Hell is a report by Acute, the theological commission of the Evangelical Alliance UK, and has taken two years to produce. It seeks to answer a simple question - what happens when we die?
The introduction to the report states: "In the Christian context, [this question] has traditionally been answered in terms of a decisive contrast - the contrast between heaven and hell. The gospels teach that heaven is the realm of God from which Jesus himself came to earth, and to which he returned after his death and resurrection. Jesus' own teaching also stresses that heaven is the eternal reward of all who believe and follow him.
"Yet however exactly we depict the fate of the redeemed, it is a fate which stands in stark contrast to that faced by those whom the Bible calls 'impenitent', 'unrighteous', or 'wicked'. The 'hell' that awaits such people is the domain of the devil and his hordes - a sphere of damnation, punishment, anguish and destruction."
The general director of the Evangelical Alliance, Rev. Joel Edwards, said: "The increasing pluralism of Western culture has made hell more of a stumbling block than ever. It would be no exaggeration to say that both within and outside the church, many now see the doctrine of hell as indefensible and obsolete."
He added: "The Church has an enormous responsibility to be sensitive to our culture whilst remaining true to our convictions. The question of hell makes this very acute. The Church's first and greatest task is to point people to a God who loved them enough to die for them. That's the Easter story we will celebrate in a few weeks time.
"But love and judgement are only contradictions in our minds. Personally, I would rather not talk about hell: it is an awful embarrassment in an age that prides itself on tolerance. But Jesus and the Bible took it seriously and so must we.
"Until someone better than Jesus returns from death with an assurance that hell is all a hoax, the Church would fail to be loving if we didn't talk about it as a reality. Our ultimate responsibility is to respond to God's love and to live as though we are all ultimately accountable to him.
"The Nature of Hell is a clear, well-researched guide to the arguments. It will inform those who have not yet thought through the issue, but also offers those with strong convictions an opportunity to test their stance once more against biblical witness rather than against tradition or culture alone."
Throughout the last decade or so, hell has become a significant focus of theological disagreement among evangelicals. In 1994 the Evangelical Alliance began a series of informal discussions, leading up to 1998 and the setting up of the formal Acute working group responsible for The Nature of Hell report. That report was presented to the Evangelical Alliance's Council of Management in September 1999 who commended it for "study, reflection and constructive response."
Traditionally, evangelical Christians have understood the Bible to teach that hell is a place of unending physical and psychological punishment that awaits all who die without faith in Jesus Christ, with the possible exception of children who die in infancy, the mentally disabled and those who never hear the gospel. In holding this view, evangelicals have followed a tradition articulated by early church fathers like Tertullian, Jerome and Augustine, by medieval theologians such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, and by the mainline protestant reformers. Latterly, however, this view has been challenged by alternative explanations which, though traceable to previous periods of church history, have begun to influence evangelicalism to an unprecedented degree.
Rev. Dr David Hilborn, theological adviser to the Evangelical Alliance UK and convenor of Acute, said: "Scripture presents images of both protracted punishment and of perishing or destruction. It is important that those who hold opposing views on this issue should not make their differences a cause of separation nor a test of general evangelical soundness."
The Nature of Hell looks at other beliefs on hell, including purgatory, reincarnation, universalism and 'post-mortem' repentance and concludes that these concepts are untenable from a biblical perspective. What is clear that all who die will be resurrected to face the judgement of God, and that this judgement will be to either heaven or hell.
As well as addressing biblical and doctrinal issues, the report looks at the place of hell in relation to the Church's pastoral ministries. While emphasising that hell is a subject to be approached with the utmost sensitivity, the authors say it should play its due part in evangelism and discipleship. In the report's recommendations, the authors "urge church leaders to present biblical teaching on hell to their congregations and to relate it to their ongoing ministries of personal visitation, evangelism and social action."
The report's authors warn that the church's mission and witness may be compromised because this difficult subject is too often avoided. They call for theological colleges and related Christian organisations to train church leaders to a high standard of biblical preaching, teaching and pastoral care in matters related to hell.
In addition, they say that evangelicals involved in religious education in schools should ensure that modules on Christianity include presentations on death, judgement, heaven and hell.
David Hilborn added: "Above all, while recognising that hell is a clear and present danger for those who reject the gospel, the report stresses that this threat is lifted for those who by grace have faith in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, only God can know whom he will save, but Christians have a responsibility to present Jesus as the only way revealed by God through which people can be redeemed. The prospect of hell may not be a primary motive for mission, but neither should it be ignored in the life and work of the Church."
Commending the report, Ian Howard Marshall, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Aberdeen said: "This is quite simply the best short, yet comprehensive, guide to the matter". Dr Mary Evans, Lecturer in Old Testament at London Bible College said the report was "Written with clarity and integrity, an excellent resource". And Dr David Smith, Co-Director of the Whitefield Institute, said: "This report may well provide us with a model for the future as evangelical theology confronts an emerging agenda in the twenty-first century".