In their 2004 book, Hell Under Fire, general editors, Christopher Moran and Robert Peterson write,
A business was opening a new store, and a friend of the owner sent flowers for the occasion. The flowers arrived at the new business site, and the owner read the card, inscribed “Rest in Peace.” The angry owner called the florist to complain. After he told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, the florist said, “Sir, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry, you should imagine this: Somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note that reads, “Congratulations on your new location.”
They then add,
Hell is under fire. In one sense that is nothing new. It has been the case ever since the Enlightenment, but the past fifty years have seen a noteworthy turn of affairs. Attacks on the historic doctrine of hell that used to come from without the church are now coming from within.
If we believe the message sent by the contemporary media, the “new location” of everyone who dies is heaven. At first glance, popular polls seem to disagree with that conclusion, for they reveal that a large majority of Americans believe in the existence of hell. However, the same polls show that almost no one thinks that he or she is going there. Everyone hopes for heaven.
In his book, Souls and Bodies, David Lodge, puts it succinctly, where our contemporary mainstream opinion of hell is concerned:
“At some point in the nineteen-sixties, Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t.
No one in their right mind enjoys talking about the biblical doctrine of hell.
Although many were disappointed at Osteen’s cowardice, he does remind us of what is largely true: no one likes talking about hell.
I wish it wasn’t in the Bible.
But it is.
Further, if the Bible is our sole authority on life and the afterlife, we do not have the right to address a clear teaching of the Bible based on how we feel about it. To quote the reformer, Martin Luther – “I am bound by the Scriptures…and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
So, to the Bible we go…
First of all, according to the Bible, hell certainly exists.
Based on the clear testimony of scripture itself, even a cursory reading of the New Testament presents the existence of hell as fact in crystal clear fashion. The gospels, alone, are replete with references. (cf. Matthew 5:22; 8:12; 23:33; Mark 9:48; Luke 3:17; John 15:6)
There is simply no getting around it.
Manipulating the Bible
“Manipulating the Bible” means making the Bible say what we want it to say rather that what it actually says.
Certainly, one may try to explain it away the biblical doctrine of hell or even ignore it. But choosing to twist a clear, biblical doctrine into something that better suits our mere human logic, reason and intellect doesn’t remove or lessen what Jesus says about it.
Rob Bell became a popular teacher and author due to his engaging speaking style. Granted, he does often teach sound doctrine. But, on hell, he lost his way. Badly.
In his best-seller, Love Wins: A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived, Bell writes,
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love…
“…Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves…If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or of the few who escaped this fate?… What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: what kind of God is that?”
Bell’s words are dangerous on a number of levels. First, his logic contradicts every single passage about hell in scripture. Second, many people believe what he writes.
And Satan is loving it.
“But we shouldn’t ‘scare people into heaven’.”
The above argument is a common one. And has some truth to it. But, to swallow it whole exposes an ignorance of the Bible.
Jesus had no problem “scaring the hell” out of people.
Search the gospels and you’ll discover Christ talked about hell more often than heaven – no doubt as a dire warning to those who would reject him.
As Jesus was warning his disciples of the persecution to come, he encouraged them not to be afraid of what man can do to them, rather focus your reverent fear on the terrifying God. In other words, don’t let your fear of man outweigh your fear of God:
But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! – Luke 12:5
If Jesus fails to get our attention in the gospels, the last book of the Bible, Revelation, clearly describes the final destination of those who choose to reject Christ as the lake of fire.
And the following must be mentioned.
Even some pastors/authors today are “softening” hell by suggesting its horror and punishment is merely temporary, not eternal. They use the term “annihilation,” meaning those who go to hell suffer for a brief season and then are simply terminated from existence. In other words: “Even if I end up in hell I’ll just have to suffer a little bit, and then it’s over.” But Jesus taught just the opposite:
[Jesus said], Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… And these will go away into eternal punishment. – Matthew 25:41-46
The 4th century theologian, Augustine, commented on the above passage:
Moreover, is it not foolish to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is without end? For Christ included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when he said, “So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life.” [Matt. 25:46] If both are “eternal,” it follows necessarily that either both are to be taken as long-lasting but finite, or both as endless and perpetual.
What Augustine is rightly saying is that we can’t have it both ways. Either both heaven and hell are eternal, or they both aren’t. Jesus makes it clear both are eternal.
A closing word:
Recently, I ran across an article written as a warning to church leaders titled, Question the doctrine of hell at your peril. It could tear your church apart.
The author, Sam Hailes, cites the demise of celebrity pastors, Carlton Pearson, Steve Chalke and Rob Bell, as well as others. He rightly asserts,
For many Christians, questioning the existence (or nature) of hell is tantamount to denying the gospel. “If everyone goes to heaven, then what was the point of Jesus dying on the cross?”
I will confess to you: there are things in the Bible I do not understand and, as such, I wish were not in there. But, I’m not God. My logic is fallen and corrupt while he is perfect, holy and righteous.
Hailes also does a wonderful job of helping the reader to have compassion on, and pray for, those who would attempt to rewrite scripture – including church leaders. No one in their right mind loves the biblical doctrine of hell. Nonetheless, as Hailes bluntly writes,
Some things are true whether we like them or not.
Soli Deo Gloria, Nick