Today there is a bit of a theological revolution going on as many Evangelicals are questioning the ECT (eternal conscious torment) view of hell, in favor of an annhilationist view, or purgative view, or some other form. To me, it seems odd how dogmatic people are on something that is, frankly, not clearly answered in Scripture.
Often, when something is not clearly
answered in Scripture, I believe there is a reason. Perhaps we are becoming fascinated with a topic that we are not supposed to be fascinated by. Maybe we are not supposed to be fascinated with Hell. Maybe we are to know it is where we don’t want to be, and then seek somewhere else.
Of course, the temptation for some is there… with Jonathan Edwards and other well-known “hellfire preachers” of the 19th century following the pattern of morality plays of the Middle ages, giving graphic imagery to some dark imagination. In this they are following Dante, except lacking the political and social satire. The great industrialist Andrew Carnegie decided he was an atheist after hearing a very graphic impassioned sermon on a hyper-Calvinistic God who arbitrarily sends many dead infants to suffer eternal torment in Hell. (It does make one wonder what the purpose of sharing such a controversial doctrine to a congregation would be.)
The fascination with Hell, historically, can rival present fascination with focusing on End-time events. This is despite the dearth of specific details, as well as statements inthe Bible that clearly point us towards focusing on living faithfully now rather than seeking to work out the timing.
Today, fascination for Hell has generally subsided except in cartoons. Some of the lack of fascination is due to disbelief. But even where there is a belief in Hell, global culture tends to move mysteries into abstractions, so belief often is more of a simple adherence to a doctrinal statement.
An exception to this downplaying of hell is in many of the the Evangelism methods out there. Many incorporate strong imagery of hell, while some even seem to seek to “scare the ‘hell’ out of you.” “Hell is Real” on youtube, some versions of the Bridge Illustration, and others often put a very strong emphasis on Hell. Walking around Baguio City here a few years back, I found a gospel tract lying on the ground called “The Burning Hell.” It had a picture of faces in agony surrounded by fire, with a strong message of condemnation, with a related message of hope at the end.
Now I believe in teaching the whole counsel of God. And I certainly believe that salvation is not just a “save to” process, but a “save from” process. Still, it did get me thinking about actual presentations of the Gospel in the New Testament. In most of them, it seems to me that there was a much greater focus on being “saved to” something than “saved from.” That is not always the case, but it does make me wonder about the focus of some presentations.
- John 3:1-20. This message to Nicodemus emphasizes the necessity to be “born from above.” The focus is on how God grants eternal life to those who believe on the Son of God. Hell is not mentioned, except perhaps implied in that there is a choice to be born from above or not. Later in the passage it is clear that an alternative to such salvation is to have his (or her) evil deeds exposed, be condemned, and then perish. The message overall, focuses on the positive aspect of responding to the Gospel, with the results of refusing given in only vague terms. (Of course, Nicodemus was a Jewish scholar, so giving details may not have been necessary.)
- John 4:1-26. Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman. In this passage there is no real clear condemnation listed, although it is arguably implied. Since the Messiah saves and grants eternal life, there is presumably an alternative. There is no condemnation of the Samaritan woman, and only the slightest condemnation of the Samaritan people. Jesus says that the Samaritans worship what they do not know, and apparently worship where they should not worship, but in the future, such boundaries will disappear. The message here is almost completely positive.
- Acts 2. Peter’s message to the people at Pentecost is spoken of in almost all positive terms as well. The dangers of rejection of Christ are only hinted at. The central message is here, Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” -Acts 2:38-40. There are negative repercussions hinted at, but overall, the message is on the blessings of responding to Christ.
- Acts 8. Philip’s messages to the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian are very limited. The first is described as the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” The other was described as the “good news of Jesus Christ.” The only condemnation mentioned was for Simon the Magician… who was actually described as an immature believer, not an unbeliever.
- Acts 10. Peter’s message to Cornelius. This message is also almost totally positive. The only condemnation listed is implied in the statement regarding Jesus… “He is the One appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead.“
- Acts 14. Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. “Men! Why are you doing these things? We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. In past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way,” -Acts 14:15-16. The curious thing here is that Paul really underwhelms in terms of condemnation. In fact, he suggests that God has overlooked their rebellious behavior, rather than condemned it… at least for now.
- Acts 17. Paul in Athens provides an interesting attempt to contextualize the Gospel. He does, actually, note condemnaton: “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. -Acts 17:30-31. The strange thing here is that although God is definitely judging, the passage also notes God overlooking past sinfulness, because of their ignorance, muting to some extent the condemnation.
You can look up other presentations yourself. What to make of this? Do we remove all references to Hell? Perhaps not. What about judgment of condmenation? No. In fact, most of these presentations at least imply judgment.
However, Hell does not appear to be central to most presentations of the Good News in the Bible. The Good News is more a message of hope than condemnation. Does that mean that we put the gospel into a form that is all sugary and pleasant? Not necessarily, but presentations that focus on condemnation don’t appear to be any more Biblical than those that ignore judgment.