Thursday, June 30, 2011

History and Hell: Why We Will See the Controversy Again

Rob Bell is only the latest to question the traditional evangelical understanding of hell as eternal, conscious torment.  There have been others and there will more in the future.  Robert Morey in his book Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984) provides some insightful analysis on this topic:
There is a discernible historical cycle to the Christian Church's attitude toward the doctrine of hell.  The cycle begins with a long period of time during which it is acknowledged that the Scriptures clearly teach the intermediate and eternal punishment of the wicked.  It is assumed by all that this was and always shall be the doctrinal position of historic Christianity.
After acknowledgment comes indifference.  The "negative side" of the gospel in which sinners are warned to "escape" and "flee" from "the wrath to come" (Matt. 23:23; Luke 3:7) is ignored and often downplayed, while the "positive side" of God's love in Christ is overemphasized to the exclusion of anything else.  The doctrine of hell is acknowledged to be true but rarely preached.
After indifference comes ignorance.  Because the biblical theme of God's judgment is ignored, the people in the pew do not know why they are expected to believe in hell.  There is no instruction given on the subject, and the issue is avoided because no one wants to be characterized as a "hell-fire and brimstone" preacher.
After ignorance comes doubt.  Since no one is told why he should believe that there really is a hell, doubts begin to creep into people's minds.  It becomes fashionable to speak of the doctrine of hell as being "unkind," "unloving," or "negative."
After doubt comes denial.  The cults are quick to put forth either Universalism or annihilationism as the answer to the "horrible" doctrine of hell.  Many books are published and distributed which directly attack the orthodox position.  Since orthodox teachers have not instructed their people on the subject, the Universalists and annihilationists succeed in convincing many people and generating controversy in many churches.
After denial comes irritation.  When the pressure from the Universalists and annihilationists is first felt by orthodox theologians, they respond by saying or thinking, "I don't have time to deal with this issue right now," "Wasn't this issue solved one hundred years ago?" or "If we ignore them, maybe they will go away."
After irritation comes affirmation.  When the Universalists and  annihilationists don't go away but multiply drastically, the orthodox theologians take up the defense of historic Christianity and demonstrate that the Bible does indeed teach the doctrine of eternal punishment.  God's people are once again instructed as to why they should believe that there is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain.  The subject is preached and taught with boldness.  The Universalists and annihiliationists are thoroughly discredited and refuted.
After affirmation comes acknowledgment.  The Christian church reaffirms its historic position, and it is universally acknowledged that the Scriptures do teach the intermediate and eternal, conscious torment of the wicked.  The controversy passes and the church returns to its dogmatic slumbers.
Then the cycle starts all over again!  After a long period of acknowledgement, indifference will set in and the other phases will follow.  (pp. 15-16)
We would, of course, be in error to see the above as some sort of iron-clad, cyclical view of history.  There is, however, enough truth in Morey's words to be aware of this historical dynamic.  This cycle can be played out in the larger Church, individual denominations, local churches, and even in an individual's life.  Add to this the aspect of the internet and other social media and it is possible we may see a shortening of the cycles due to the fact that error can take on new life and blaze across cyberspace very quickly.