I cannot remember the name of the TV program, but I will never forget this snippet of dialogue, which went something like this:
Anxious Parishioner (AP) to Wise Old Priest (WOP): “Tell me, Father, do you believe in hell?”
WOP: “Of course I do.”
[AP looks simultaneously relieved that WOP is orthodox and worried about the implications of what WOP has just said.]
WOP continues: “But don’t think I’d be foolish enough to think anyone actually goes there!”
[Universal relief on the faces of AP, audience, et al.]
This brief exchange surely expresses a key dilemma facing the church today. The traditional understanding of God’s nature, and therefore the traditional understanding of our position before him, has become unpalatable to the modern mind. Consequently, the traditional understanding of the gospel message as one of salvation from a punishment imposed by God is being replaced by a subtly different message—more acceptable to our generation but, ultimately, wrong.
As early as 1948, CS Lewis observed this problem among the popular audience of his day. In his essay titled ‘God in the Dock’, he wrote,
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the rôles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God in the dock.
Such an accused God would, of course, have no right to condemn his judges to an everlasting hell. Indeed, the very notion of hell is itself one of their charges against this God.
A new situation
This judgement of God by man was no doubt commonplace among theological liberals in the West long before 1948. What is new is the permeation of the rejection of hell throughout what has hitherto been regarded as orthodoxy and evangelicalism. Consequently, some modern evangelicals no longer present the gospel as a message of salvation from judgement, but rather as the gateway to life improvement. This is how one popular tract produced by the UK church, Holy Trinity, Brompton, addresses the question as to why we need Jesus:
You and I were created to live in a relationship with God. Until we find that relationship there will always be something missing in our lives. As a result, we are often aware of a gap … Jesus … is the only one who can satisfy our deepest hunger because he is the one who makes it possible for us to be restored to a relationship with God.1
There is no fundamental disagreement with what is being said here, but notice the emphasis: here, the gospel exists to address a felt need. Jesus “satisfies our hunger” for three things: “meaning and purpose in life”, “life beyond death” and “forgiveness”. Without forgiveness, in particular, “there is a self-centredness about our lives which spoils them”. Hence,
By his death on the cross Jesus made it possible for us to be forgiven and brought back into a relationship with God. In this way he supplied the answer to our deepest need.
Such a representation of the gospel, though it speaks of a relationship with God, actually rests upon an appeal to a person’s self-centred nature. My relationship with God supplies the answer to my need. This is typical of how evangelicals often describe the gospel. We are being lured into the individualistic, consumer mindset—even in our attempts at evangelism. And it is not surprising that hell, judgement and God’s righteous wrath are being shifted further and further away from the action, since they lack ‘sales appeal’.
Some might complain that this is theological nitpicking. The Holy Trinity tract is, after all, aimed at an audience with precisely the ‘God in the dock’ attitude that CS Lewis was talking about. And as Lewis observed, “It is generally useless to try to combat this attitude, as older preachers did, by dwelling on sins like drunkenness and unchastity”. Surely, it might be argued, the important thing is to get them converted first—and this tract rightly begins from where they are?
However, the phrasing of the tract makes one question whether it is indeed undergirded by a biblical doctrine of sin and salvation. And if not, then this weakness must ultimately prove fatal. In this respect, it is perhaps significant that a few years ago, Holy Trinity, Brompton, gave a platform to Clark Pinnock, editor of a symposium titled ‘The Openness of God’.2 Pinnock is from an American evangelical background, but has been steadily moving towards what many would regard as straightforward liberalism. The concept of God’s ‘openness’ is an attempt by Pinnock and others to resolve the ‘freewill versus predestination’ debate through a synthesis of self-limited divine sovereignty and controlled human freedom. This way of thinking about God also calls into question the way in which God will choose to deal with unbelievers. It is common for those holding ‘openness’ ideas also to modify, remove or simply ignore the nature of God the judge.
Most modern evangelicals believe they are united around the gospel message that Jesus died to save us from our sins. But in fact, this is a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ notion to which even most liberals would assent, provided they could give their own meaning to “save” and “sins” (not to say “Jesus”). There is a developing tendency among confessed evangelicals to back away from the traditional understanding of salvation as salvation from hell. Those who would claim to be theologically orthodox are increasingly unwilling to state clearly what happens to those whom Jesus does not save from their sins. The biblical understanding is that they are lost forever, and that their being lost is the result of a divine verdict issuing in a divinely imposed punishment for their sins. The modern evangelical, however, tends to play this down in favour of the benefits gained from a right relationship with God. Hence, though we still talk of being saved, it is no longer clear from what peril we are being saved.
To talk of salvation solely in terms of heaven without mentioning hell may be palatable to the modern mind, but is not the whole truth. Consequently, those responding to such a message are already crippled in their Christian lives, and indeed may not be Christians at all, since there is no real appreciation of who Christ is when there is no understanding of that from which he has saved us.
Putting hell in its place
No doubt many will feel that the doctrine of hell is one that we would do well to downplay, or, better, to abandon entirely, on the grounds that it produces, at best, a negative form of Christianity and, at worst, a thundering, hellfire-and-brimstone triumphalism. And certainly this doctrine has its dangers—but that is true of all doctrines. However, the truth is that without a proper doctrine of hell, we have a debilitated gospel—albeit one that is more palatable to the human ear.
Currently many evangelicals present the gospel as if the choice is between a relationship with God, which leads to eternal life, and no relationship with God, which leads to continuing ‘lostness’. The result of this, however, is that since sin is not given its true weight in terms of leading to God’s wrath and condemnation, salvation is also denied its true weight in terms of the astonishing love of God for his enemies and the completely unmerited nature of his grace. Moreover, without a proper awareness of the significance of sin, while the life of the believer remains focused properly on improving one’s ‘relationship’ with God, the means to this through ruthlessly putting to death sin in our own lives is undermined. In short, many evangelicals are preaching the ‘gospel minus’ they so readily decry in liberals, and are producing semi-Christians who, in some cases, may be no Christians at all.
Why has this situation arisen? What theological or cultural pressures have led to this reduction of emphasis on the message of judgement within the message of the good news? I suggest that it has come out of an unwillingness to allow that justice and goodness are deferred truths, rather than immanent truths. That is, if we want peace, justice, happiness and the good life, we are going to have to wait.
There is an insistence in Jesus’ teaching that the messianic hope must largely be deferred. Regarding the righteous, this life consists of crosses rather than crowns. Similarly, regarding the wicked, judgement is delayed into the future, rather than experienced now. Indeed, in this life the wicked may feel vindicated by the absence of any consequences for their actions:
But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things …” (Luke 16:25)
“When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” (Matt 21:34-35)
Jesus’ preaching of deferred justice only makes sense if indeed both aspects of justice—the vindication of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked—are finally evidenced. The beatitudes can overthrow conventional theological wisdom precisely because a future vindication is assured. But by the same token, the gospel advocates losses now on the grounds that a future loss faces those who will not respond to its message:
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:24-26)
Jesus taught that the “life” that one must lose is the “world” others seek to gain. Yet only at his coming in glory would the exchange be seen as worthwhile. By contrast, much modern evangelism seems to turn this on its head, offering “life” to the believer now (“the joy and excitement of being properly related to God”), and a studied agnosticism about the future of those who are ashamed of Christ in this world.
The practical result of this distortion is to produce what Martin Luther described in the Heidelberg Disputation as the “theology of glory”, which actually keeps people from true faith:
He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.
Such a theology of glory will result when we move the benefits of the gospel from the future to the present. People will seek God in manifest goodness, not the daily cross, and so there will inevitably be a tendency to fall away when confronted by “the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things” (Mark 4:19). Indirect evidence of this effect is to be found in the book No Sex Please, We’re Single (written, incidentally, by a member of Holy Trinity, Brompton):
If years of being part of the Christian community have failed to produce any prospect of a marriage partner, then hope begins to die and despair drives people from the church.3
As one who has been a single Christian all his life, I have had some sympathy with such feelings. Nevertheless, one is left wondering at the extent to which a subtle version of ‘prosperity teaching’ is producing ‘theologians of glory’ who ultimately have no roots. By contrast, the theology of the cross, and its accompanying message of salvation from hell, must surely produce disciples who will endure to the end, even though, in Luther’s words, “they take our life, goods, honour, children, wife”.4
The truth of hell
We must not retain a doctrine of hell simply on the grounds that it is the best way to persuade people to become and remain Christians. The doctrine of hell and its corollary of salvation as salvation-from-hell must be preached because they are true. And since they are true, they make the best sense of reality. One reason why we find the doctrine of hell so uncomfortable is that we cannot imagine our late Aunt Amy, or whoever, belonging there. Yet by the same token, we should hardly imagine ourselves belonging in the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, Scripture tells us that even those who have this hope are far from achieving what they will then become:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God (Rom 8:19)
… we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another … (2 Cor 3:18)
None of us sees ourselves as we really are—from God’s perspective. We do not see the horror of sin; we underestimate the wrath of God at the sinfulness of his creatures. We also underestimate what it means to be sons of glory who will rule with Christ in the last day. Were we to have this insight, we would not fail to preach hell alongside heaven, for it is part of the justice and the love of God. It may sound bizarre, but a theology without hell is not only untrue and therefore ineffective, it is also a theology that undermines the true glory of heaven. If our evangelism is to communicate the love of God truly, it must at the same time preach the reality of judgement.
This material first appeared in a longer form as two articles in New Directions earlier this year.
1 Nicky Gumbel, Why Jesus?, Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne, 1991.
2 Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1998
3 Ian Gregory, No Sex Please, We’re Single, Kingsway Press, Eastbourne, 1997, p. 26
4 As the final verse of ‘A safe stronghold our God is still’ puts it.