In today’s Christianity hell is the least favorite and least preached doctrine. I though it would be appropriate to write about this forgotten teaching and the ramifications of ignoring this most important teaching of Christ and His Church.
The Difficult Question of Hell.
Of all the doctrines in Christianity, hell is probably the most difficult to defend, the most burdensome for some to believe and the first to be abandoned. The critic’s case against it can seem very strong, and the believers duty to believe it seems unbearable. But in battle an army must rush to defend that part of the line that is most attacked or that seems the weakest.
Ten Issues at Stake in the Doctrine of Hell.
William James rightly reminds us that the first questions we should ask about any idea is whether it is important, that is, whether it makes a difference. If not, he refuses to call it “true” in any practical sense of the word. So why is hell important? What difference does it make? What happens if we drop it or as many Bishops and Priest’s have done, stop preaching about it?
Obviously, the difference between heaven and hell is by definition infinite. And the difference between a world in which there is no heaven or hell, and a world in which there is, is enormous. But what is the difference between a world in which there is a heaven but no hell, and a world in which there is also a hell?
Disbelief in hell involves three presuppositions and entails seven consequences that destroy the whole Christian faith. In other words removing hell is not like removing a stone from a pile and leaving the others untouched. It is like removing a vital organ from the body, all the others are affected and eventually die.
First, the three totally destructive presuppositions:
- To belief there is no hell presupposes that both the Scriptures and the Church lie, for both clearly teach the reality of hell. They are our authorities, our reasons, our premises for believing in hell. If they are wrong about hell, they could be wrong about anything and everything else.
- If Scripture and the Church do not lie about what Jesus said about hell, then it presupposes that Jesus is the liar. For He was far more explicit and adamant about hell than anyone else in Scripture. If there is no hell, the fundamental reason why Christians believe anything – the authority of Christ – is denied.
- If we drop hell because the though of it is unbearable to us, that presupposes the principle that we can change whatever doctrines we find unbearable or unacceptable. In other words, doctrine is negotiable. Christianity then becomes a human ideology and not divine revelation, a set of humanly chosen ideas and ideals. There is then nothing new or surprising to learn. Doctrine becomes a lump of putty to be twisted into any shape we choose. In other words truth becomes relative. Try this principle out in any other branch of knowledge and see whether it makes a difference. In addition to these three presuppositions, there are also seven disastrous consequences of dropping the belief in hell.Continuing on with my list:
- If there is no hell, life’s choices no longer make an infinite difference. Drop hell, and heaven becomes a bland, automatic anything and everything for anyone and everyone. The razor edge drama of life is blunted into a flat, safe plain. We can see the difference hell makes by comparing Hindu or Buddhist cultures. In Eastern religions there is no eternal hell, only temporal stages of existence or reincarnations. The difference this makes to life here on earth is striking. Drama, especially tragedy, is something the west has specialized in and excelled at because is has theological roots in the doctrine of hell. C.S. Lewis said he never met a person who had a lively believe in heaven who did not also have a lively belief in hell. “If a game is to be taken seriously, it must be possible to lose it” (C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain, ch. 8).
- If salvation is universal and automatic, then ultimately there is no free will. We would only be free to choose between one road to heaven or another, but we would not be free to choose destinations or direction on the road, forward verses backwards, up verses down, good verses evil, etc… It is no accident that the Eastern Religions that teach there is no hell also do not teach free will. Free will and hell go together, focus on the idea of free will and you will find underneath it the necessity of hell.
- The same Eastern Religions that teach there is no hell also teach there is no absolute morality, no real and objective opposition between good and evil. Morality becomes a sort of purifying the mind from all desire so that one can attain the enlightenment of seeing the truth of pantheism or the state of nirvana. If everything is God and in God, including evil , there can be nothing else, nothing anti God.
- If there is no hell to be saved from, then Jesus is not our Savior but only teacher, prophet, guru or role model.
- If there is no hell, a religious indifference follows. If faith in Christ is not necessary, we should recall all the missionaries and apologize for all the martyrs in the Church. What a waste of passion, energy and time not to mention life. If there is no such thing as fire, fire departments are a distraction and a waste.
- If salvation is automatic, Christ’s sacrificial death was not what Christ himself said it was, planned, the culmination of his whole earthly life and His reason for coming from heaven to earth. Instead, it was a stupid mistake, a tragic accident. (This idea is also found in C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce, ch 5)
- If there is no reason for believing in the detested doctrine of hell, there is no reason to believe in the doctrine of Christianity: that God is Love! The beloved doctrine is the reason critics most frequently give for disbelieving the detested doctrine, yet the two stand on exactly the same foundation.
So why do Christians believe God is Love? Not by philosophical reasoning. What logic can prove that the perfect, self contained, independent Reality, who has no needs, nevertheless loves these rebellious creatures of His so much that He became one of them in every way but sin, to suffer and die for them?
How do we know God is love?
Not by observation of nature, anymore than by philosophical reasoning: nature can be cruel at times and does not manifest love.
Not by science. No experiment has ever verified divine Love, or measured or weighted it or even observed it.
Not by conscience, for conscience can be hard as nails. Conscience tells us what is right and wrong and tells us we are absolutely obliged to do right and not wrong, but it does not tell us we are forgiven. The King’s laws imprinted on the walls of our conscience do not excuse, but accuse the law breakers. Only the King himself can forgive.
Not by history either. History does not move by universal love but by universal selfishness. In fact, history began to move only after universal love was dethroned in the Garden of Eden. Did you ever ask the question: “Before the fall, what happened? Adam and Eve loved each other and God. Hardly big headlines in today’s world. To us fallen creatures, evil and its conflict with good are necessary for anything dramatic and interesting.
There is one and only one reason why anyone ever came to the idea that God is Love, mercy and forgiveness, and only one good proof that this idea is indeed true. The reason is the character of God that is revealed in the Bible, culminating in Jesus Christ. The exact same authority that is our authority for believing God is Love also assures us that there is a hell. Either we accept both on the same ground or we reject both on the same ground, for they both stand on the same ground.
On my next blog post I will reflect on defining the doctrine of hell.
Thank you for reading. Please pass this on to friends and family.