In 2014, I attended the inaugural Rethinking Hell Conference, at which John Stackhouse Jr. gave an outrageously fine opening lecture (see more of the lectures at the Rethinking Hell youtube channel). But one of the breakouts that really affected me was a lecture by Anglican Ralph Bowles on Conditionalism and evangelism. This led me to the following incredible insights (to me, anyway) regarding the impact of our view of hell on evangelism.
1. Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) and Evangelism
The current majority position on hell is ECT – which claims that the unrepentant burn forever, consciously suffering in hell. Proponents of this view chafe at Conditionalism, in part because they rightly perceive it as presenting a less severe punishment than their view, and suspect that this will lessen the comparative appeal of the gospel.
I have previously argued that whether or not a more severe hell makes the gospel comparatively more glorious, the idea that a greater threat makes people more eager to repent is not only a bad way to measure if the idea is true or not (a type of utilitarian argument instead of a scriptural one), it just isn’t true, though it may have been in the days of frontier American when a more Christianized culture responded to such appeals to authority and fear manipulation. 1
But let me state at least two negative impacts of ECP on evangelism – forces that arguably do MUCH more harm to gospel acceptance than the proposed good of hellfire preaching:
a. The perceived injustice of ECT is a huge, instant door closer
Many people perceive the obvious problem of disproportionate punishment in ECT and reject our entire gospel saying “if God is like that (i.e. unjust), I want nothing to do with such a God.” This response is so common that it peppers the atheist literature like a heavy-handed and drunk chef. For example 2:
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. ~ Bertrand Russell from Why I am Not a Christian
So revolting to my moral nature is the creed of eternal punishment that it, more than any other cause, produces the most widespread unbelief. Compared with this, all objections to Christianity fade to insignificance. ~ Loren Anderson
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)
When all has been considered, it seems to me to be the irresistible intuition that infinite punishment for finite sin would be unjust, and therefore wrong. We feel that even weak and erring Man would shrink from such an act. And we cannot conceive of God as acting on a lower standard of right and wrong.– Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland), “Eternal Punishment,” Diversions and Digressions of Lewis Carrol
A civilized society looks with horror upon the abuse and torture of children or adults. Even where capital punishment is practiced, the aim is to implement it as mercifully as possible. Are we to believe then that a holy God—our heavenly Father—is less just than the courts of men? — Sidney Hatch
They say that when god was in Jerusalem he forgave his murderers, but now he will not forgive an honest man for differing with him on the subject of the Trinity. They say that God says to me, “Forgive your enemies.” I say, “I do;” but he says, “I will damn mine.” God should be consistent. If he wants me to forgive my enemies he should forgive his. I am asked to forgive enemies who can hurt me. God is only asked to forgive enemies who cannot hurt him. He certainly ought to be as generous as he asks us to be. – Robert Ingersoll
Given [this world’s many difficulties], I can not see how anyone, after they are dead, deserves “eternal punishment” as well. ~ Ed Babinski
People have suffered and become insane for centuries by the thought of eternal punishment after death. ~ Baron d’Holbach
Who will say with confidence that sexual abuse is more permanently damaging to children than threatening them with the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell? ~ Richard Dawkins
An idea, which has terrified millions, claims that some of us will go to a place called Hell, where we will suffer eternal torture. This does not scare me because, when I try to imagine a Mind behind this universe, I cannot conceive that Mind, usually called “God,” as totally mad. I mean, guys, compare that “God” with the worst monsters you can think of — Adolph Hitler, Joe Stalin, that sort of guy. None of them ever inflicted more than finite pain on their victims. Even de Sade, in his sado-masochistic fantasy novels, never devised an unlimited torture. The idea that the Mind of Creation (if such exists) wants to torture some of its critters for endless infinities of infinities seems too absurd to take seriously. Such a deranged Mind could not create a mud hut, much less the exquisitely mathematical universe around us. – Robert Anton Wilson
I argue that ECT’s impact on evangelism is a net negative, perhaps significantly, when considering the literature as well as the moral climate of modern culture.
b. Christians shy away from evangelism when shouldering the ECT message
One of the more profound conversations I had this week involved a man who confided in me that, though very evangelistic at heart, he had not wanted to share the gospel for years because of his lack of confidence in and shame over the doctrine of ECT. Even more surprisingly, when he shared his newfound confidence in Conditional Immortality (CI) with his wife, she told him that ECT was the reason that SHE had not wanted to share the gospel for years.
This impediment to sharing the gospel should not be attributed to fear of the world or shame over the gospel, but rather, the active intuitions of Christians who rightly doubt the doctrine of ECT, which their own consciences indicate is unjust. Not only that, most, having not studied the actual relevant scriptures, have been sold on this doctrine based on authority and tradition, not scripture. In my experience, an open minded person who hears the Conditionalist exegesis and that critical of ECT for the first time is amazed that their intuitions may have been well grounded in scripture.
2. Universalism and Evangelism
This will be a short section. For those who support the ideas of Universal Reconciliation (UR), or even post-mortem repentance, the pressure to evangelize is nearly zero. Naturally, Universalists have the same impetus to share God’s love as both ECT and especially CI supporters, but the urgency in light of an eventual eternity with God can not be very high.
And Ralph Bowles, who spoke at the Rethinking Hell Conference 2014, has had a lot of experience with this. He shared that, as an evangelical and leader in the very liberal Australian Anglican Church, where most of the leaders are Universalists, the prioritization and zeal for evangelism has become effectively nil due to the lack of any real consequence under the UR banner.
3. Conditionalism and Evangelism
There are many possible shifts in emphasis in our gospel presentation when we change from the ECT view to that of Conditionalism, but here are three profound shifts that I believe will have an incredible positive impact on evangelism.
a. The shift from disproportional to proportional justice
Almost every human moral and ethical code includes the idea that the punishment must fit the crime, and this law of proportionality is rightly perceived by many to be grossly violated by ECT.
Conditionalism does not avoid the idea of giving an account to God, but proposes that the justice of God is finite and proportional to one’s deeds. While most humans probably underestimate the degree of their transgressions, they would admit that if God were just, we WOULD have to give an account, and in some fashion, it would be just to make us pay for our transgressions.
In addition, the argument is easily buttressed by the concept that God can not leave the scales of justice undone in the case of those who never paid for their wrongs in this life. If God loves the victims of crime and hates injustice, surely he must bring some sort of reckoning to the unrepentant and selfish who harm others.
Under Conditionalism, the idea of God as a just judge rightly matches the intuition of the sensible person who realized that justice involves a proportional response. Conditionalism confirms what most people already reason and intuit about justice.
b. The shift from fear of hell to fear of loss of eternal life
While many evangelicals preach the goodness of God (Romans 2:4), that alone can not be preached, because many must also be awakened from their hardness by the real threat of danger coming in the form of the day of reckoning before God.
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.
An analogy that I like to use is that of a child that dies. We grieve the huge loss of their potential, and that they lived only a portion of their years. Now imagine that you are at the end of your short life, and you COULD have lived forever in a much more beautific universe, but instead, you are losing that future, and all you get is the short life you have spent.
THIS is the tragic picture we must communicate to those who are outside. Strangely, our lifelong exposure to ECT may make this privation of eternal life seem not that horrible, but I believe that we must regain our sensitivity and perspective to the awful emotional and practial loss this represents, and communicate that effectively to those seeking to overcome death.
c. The shift from fear of hell to fear of death
Let’s face it – eternal hell, or eternal anything is hard to imagine. When we suggest such a thing, we are suggesting something for which there is no direct proof. And so people just don’t care much about it.
But the fear of death, which is a verifiable reality, is a constant across humanity. If we are primarily offering a means to defeat death, we should have many ready listeners.
Tragically, this central theme of the gospel is lost in the ECT view, which relegates death to a secondary consequence, or more exactly, redefines it as separation from God.
But actual physical death, and actual physical resurrection ARE the central themes of the New Testament gospel, and the idea of overcoming death is the focus of a tremendous amount of human desire and ativity.
And Conditionalism, abandoning the myopic focus on ECT, can now focus on, not only the day of judgement, but life eternal.
If you doubt that his ought to be the focus of our evangelism, and not eternal conscious torment, consider these passages:
For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. ~ Romans 5:17
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. ~ Romans 6:23
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. ~ Romans 8:2
The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. ~ 1 Corinthians 15:26
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” ~ 1 Corinthians 15:55
but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel… ~ 2 Timothy 1:10
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. ~ Hebrews 2:14-15
In summary, when we examine the three views of hell and their impact on evangelism, I would argue that Universalism obviates it, Traditionalism creates a huge stumbling block, but Conditionalism contributes hugely to evangelism by confirming people’s sense of proportional justice and fairness, appealing to the desirability of eternal life, and refocusing the gospel on overcoming death, a major concern of every human being.
It may be hard to overstate the grave negative impact of the Traditional position on the reception of the gospel, as well as the tremendous positive impact that a Conditionalist understanding of hell would have on our presentation and the hearing of the gospel. May God convince us all of the importance of this issue.
- The Philosophical Arguments For Conditionalism 4: Proportional Justice and Traditionalism (wholereason.com) ↩
- Quotes on Hell (tentmaker.org) ↩