Flames, worms and the gnashing of teeth may be less prominent in sermons today, but hell is still real, according to a report sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance UK (EAUK). And hell as a place of eternal punishment remains "the dominant understanding" among evangelical Christians.
But the report, The Nature of Hell, produced by five experts, also acknowledges a growing belief among evangelicals in "conditionalism," according to which, after judgment, sinners will be annihilated—something that is seen as a more merciful fate than the pit of unending torment.
The Nature of Hell accepts that both options—annihilation and eternal punishment—are consistent with evangelical belief, which claims the Bible as the supreme authority. It calls, however, for greater clarity in the EAUK's Basis of Faith, from which reference to "eternal punishment" was dropped in 1970.
Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance UK, said: "The increasing pluralism of Western culture has made hell more of a stumbling block than ever. It would be no exaggeration to say that both within and outside the church, many now see the doctrine of hell as indefensible and obsolete."
"The church has an enormous responsibility to be sensitive to our culture, whilst remaining true to our convictions," he said. "Until someone better than Jesus returns from death with an assurance that hell is all a hoax, the church would fail to be loving if we didn't talk about it as a reality."
The Nature of Hell was welcomed by Roman Catholic spokesman Monsignor Kieran Conry, who told Ecumenical News International (ENI): "The report will keep an important theological debate alive. It focuses on the reality of the afterlife and the fact that our actions in this life have consequences." He added that the Catholic Catechism described hell as a separation from God rather than physical torment.
The report has strong words for "universalism," a belief held by some theological liberals, according to which all humans will be saved by God. Universalism "may suit the spirit of our age [but] it is inconsistent with evangelical faith," according to The Nature of Hell.
The extensively researched, 148-page report is the fruit of two years' work by ACUTE (the Alliance Commission of Unity and Truth among Evangelicals). It is in part a response to an intensifying debate in the churches about hell. (Four years ago the Church of England Doctrine Commission produced a declaration that hell was a "state of non-being." The Anglican report, The Mystery of Salvation, stressed the reality of the Final Judgment, with the risk of losing everlasting participation in the life of God. Although widely seen as giving a traditionalist line, the report was criticized by many evangelicals for removing the flames of hell.)
The Nature of Hell accepts that physical torment represents only one form of traditionalist belief. Hell may also consist of eternal conscious spiritual torment or eternal separation from God. Spiritual torment, according to advocates of this belief, may be worse than physical torment. Another sort of hell is eternal separation from the divine, since humanity was created for communion with God.
David Hilborn, the five-member panel's convener and EAUK's theological adviser, told ENI: "Hell is part of the Christian story, although a difficult and distressing part. It should not be neglected in teaching for believers."
"In the report, we were not arguing for the traditionalist view vis-a-vis the conditionalist view. Both are evangelical positions."
"In fact, there are intriguing hints in the new physics around the science of black holes that these apparently opposite positions may ultimately be reconcilable."Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.
Read the EAUK's press release about The Nature of Hell and coverage of the report in Australia's national newspaper The Age.Recent ChristianityToday.com articles on Hell include:Books & Culture Corner: Who in Hell? | Theologian John Sanders considers the eternal fate of non-Christians. (Apr. 10, 2000) CT Classic: The Perennial Debate | Christians have never agreed on the salvation for those who have never heard of Christ. By John Sanders (Apr. 10, 2000) Is Hell Forever? (Oct. 5, 1998) Can We Be Good Without Hell? (June 16 1997)Leadership Journal offers an article for pastors, " Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age | Brimstone for the broad-minded."
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