This post is part of a series.
Having responded to my friend’s initial list of scriptures, I had hoped to get a detailed response, or perhaps a concession (!). Ahh, my naivté! I got a short response with one more Biblical citation:
I’m listening to Jesus in Luke 16, the rich man and Lazarus and that is not at all the idea he conveyed. I’ll continue to stand with historical Christianity here.
So, what happened here? It seems like communication on this issue has just collapsed. Let me make a few observations about this short interchange, and generalize:
- Too Much Information: It’s easy to overwhelm traditionalists with overly detailed discussions, even if the Conditionalist explanations are good. Not many people want to delve that deeply into ANY doctrine.
- Trust in Tradition: Trusting in tradition is something we all do, and we don’t easily consider alternatives, since the alternatives are often likely to be heretical or cultlike. It’s just easier to not venture outside of tradition.
- Not a Priority: The topic of hell is not a priority for most Christians. We consider ourselves safe from it, so the stumbling block of disproportionate and cruel torture does not seem that big a deal to us.
But let me elucidate why these reasons are really bad excuses for not considering our doctrine of hell and the harm it may be doing.
1. Is Hell an Essential Doctrine?
There is a well known aphorism from Protestant reformer Rupertus Meldinius:
In the essentials, UNITY;
in the non-essentials, LIBERTY;
in all things, CHARITY
But the question arises, what ARE the essentials of faith that we insist upon in order to include or exclude others from our definition of faith? The longer we make that list, the smaller our circle will become, and for the sake of unity and inclusion without sacrificing what is essential, we must make that list as short as possible. One prominent writer has suggested 7 Essential Doctrines, but hell is not included in his list.
Should we include one’s doctrine of hell as inclusive or exclusive? For example, influential Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler has suggested at least that our doctrine of hell is a barometer of our liberalism regarding the scriptures in general, and he cites Annihlationism as the step right above hardcore denial of the Bible:
Liberalization of the Doctrine: Changing the doctrine from eternal to denying that hell is everlasting, arguing for a form of annihilationism, or conditional immortality.
When pressed, I would say that most evangelicals would admit that you can be a Christian if you are a Conditionalist or a Universal Reconciliationist, but they would probably NOT want to fellowship with someone so liberal, and would put you in the same category as someone who thinks you can be gay and Christian.
So my point is, it is nearly essential, but perhaps not, among Evangelicals. However, it seems like, at least indirectly, the author of Hebrews might include it. See this list of basic (essential?) doctrines in Hebrews 6:1-3 (NLT):
So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.
It would seem that the teaching we hold on eternal judgment is a basic, and by extension, essential teaching – at least, here it is in the same list as other essential doctrines like ‘repentance from dead works and faith towards God.’
So maybe our doctrine of hell SHOULD be considered more important than just a side note.
2. The Impacts of Our Doctrine of Hell
There are at least three important impacts that our doctrine of hell can have, all of which should increase our concern over the correctness of our stance on the issue.
a. The traditional view is a major stumbling block
Many of the most notable atheists, and many unbelievers want nothing to do with the Christian God for this primary reason – any God who is ‘cruel enough’ to torture people forever for not believing is inherently an unjust being, and so not of the truth.
I have lately taken to read the New Testament which I assure you is a very good book; but there is one article to which I cannot accede; it is that of the eternity of punishment. I cannot comprehend how this eternity is compatible with the goodness of God! ~ La Fontaine (1621-1695)
And this objection has merit IF the traditional view of ECT is ethically and morally unjust. I have made arguments from the Bible itself as to why this view of hell violates even the Biblical definitions of justice.
Commonly, this rule of retributive justice is known as ‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘the punishment must fit the crime.’ In philosophy, this principle is called by the Latin term Lex Talionis. This concept is central to the Old Testament view of justice (Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21), and forms the basis of what is arguably God’s measure for the administration of justice by humans.
b. The traditional view often focuses more on avoiding hell than gaining eternal life
This leads to all kinds of spiritual malformations, including conversions based on fear manipulation, as well as a negative view of the gospel. It is notable that in the book of Acts, none of the Apostles preached about hell. In fact, our doctrine of hell has serious impacts on evangelism.
The Traditionalist emphasizes that the great terror to be avoided is an eternity in hell – that is,the avoidance of something negative.
The Conditionalist, while not neglecting the reality of giving an account to God and receiving a finite, proportional penalty, will emphasize the potential loss of something GOOD – an eternity with God, and without pain, sorrow, or loss.
c. Universalist and Conditionalist views seem to lighten the penalties of unbelief
Speaking of evangelism, what about the fact that Conditionalism reduces the penalty for sin to essentially nothing – that is, some finite punishment followed by non-existence, the latter of which is what atheists already believes awaits us after death? There are two problems with this objection.
First, if ECT is disproportionately great (it is infinite!), then reducing it is the only direction we can go to bring it back into the realm of justice. The unseen accusation here is that somehow we are lessening our judgment on sin, and so being worldly or somehow excusing sin. However, we are actually lessening the penalty, not to the point of there being no penalty (though Universalism could be accused of that), but to a still severe penalty that is finite and proportionate.
The second problem here is that the implication that atheists already believe this, and therefore it is wrong, is engaging in the logical fallacy of guilt by association. It does not matter what they believe, it matters if it is true.
And, of course, Conditionalism posits that although atheists may enter into non-existence, it is THROUGH a painful judgment, which includes the knowledge that they lost out of eternal life. And that is no small loss, except to those steeped in the infinite penalty of eternal torment.
3. The Dangers of Trusting in Tradition
Let us not think that just because we are Protestants, we can’t make the same error as the Catholic Church from which we emerged – trusting our traditions over a correct divining of the Scriptures. We should recall that even the great reformer Martin Luther failed to reject paedobaptism and anti-semitism, and that his Lutheran movement persecuted those like the Anabaptists who continued to reform theology based on the principle of Sola Biblia.
In fact, the modern Conditionalist movement sees itself as a reformation movement.
4. Our Concern for The Unsaved Should Arouse Our Doctrinal Interests
People often ask me why I am passionate about this issue. While it is not my raison d’être (I have more prominent concerns like discipleship in the Church), this doctrine interests me because it causes so many to reject the gospel, and if we are wrong about hell in this manner, how bad would that be? Consider this relevant passage:
If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. ~ Matthew 18:6
Disregarding this issue is not only wrong for Christians because it may be an essential doctrine, but being wrong on this may be keeping people out of heaven and bringing guilt upon us. That is reason for concern.
In the next post in this series, I will answer the objection to the parable of Rich Man and Lazarus, and the picture of torment in the afterlife given there.
NEXT: Part 4