When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell? For many watching this, you will not remember when hell was the topic of the sermon or even discussed in your midweek groups. Hell is the awkward and potentially embarrassing side of Christianity, at its extreme, it is a sadistic side of Christianity we would rather hide. We don’t discuss it on courses that introduce people to Christianity lest we lose those we’ve worked so hard to invite. It is often ignored as a topic of discipleship and it is brushed over as quickly as possible if it does get discussed. It may be a little more usual to hear preachers use the language of Spurgeon, that if the unbeliever is to go to hell then they must do so over our dead bodies[i] but with limited explanation as to what hell is. It is very unlikely that you’ll hear the language of Jonathan Edwards as the preacher refers to sinners as those who are dangling over a pit of fire[ii].
Despite not many people talking about it, hell is a core belief of Christianity. To insinuate that you don’t hold to or that you are questioning the traditional view can bring calls of heresy before the arguments are even heard or the biblical texts even discussed. I thought I knew about hell. I found it uncomfortable but like a slight toothache, I ignored it hoping it wouldn’t get worse. I put the discomfort down to mystery and God being bigger than me. Sin was serious and sin against an infinite God requires an infinite punishment.
It wasn’t until a close friend asked me what I thought John 3:16 really meant that I started thinking I needed to read more.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
What does the word perish mean? Does the bible use a different definition than everyone else? What does it mean to have eternal life? How long is your explanation of what John meant when he used the word perished? How about your explanation for verse 36 at the end of the chapter where it says those who reject the Son ‘will not see life’:
“Whoever believes in the son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
It might be you are like me and you didn’t have a deep meaningful response. It might be that your instinct is to start talking about spiritual death as a state of consciousness. It might be that you just know that because God’s wrath remains on someone, they must be consciously aware of it. Whatever it is, my lack of response to these questions in the past has led to me researching and discussing hell with friends, family, fellow church leaders and acquaintances on the Rethinking Hell Facebook group over the last two years.
I am very fortunate to be surrounded by Christians who love me and encourage me to delve into the bible and see where it takes me. There are many who are not so fortunate. I regularly hear of people being kicked off leadership teams for questioning the traditional view of hell[iii]. The initial reactions I have when I do discuss my position on hell are most regularly to warn me of not letting emotions lead biblical interpretation, to be wary of philosophy and let scripture speak for itself. I agree with all of these warnings and I hope that through this channel you will note that I have heeded them.
I have not found all the answers, but I have found the bible to be clearer on the topic than I thought was possible. I have also found within the bible a clearer understanding of God’s justice that is in balance with His mercy and love.
As the reformation brought about a renewed understanding of God’s grace, I believe that scripture holds a refreshing view of God’s justice and mercy. This is a view that we can talk about openly, preach consistently on and bring clarity to the question of ‘why did Jesus die?’ It is a view that I believe brings a renewed sense of awe of the cross and even more joy when we read verses like 1 Corinthians 15:55:
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
In the words of John Wenham,
“from this point onwards I found I had a new freedom to teach the awesome judgments of God and the perfection of his love without having to represent him as the everlasting torturer.”[iv]
I am not a seminary trained bible scholar, but I help lead a church and preach semi-regularly having had training and discipleship throughout my life as well as being a trained secondary school teacher. Though the theology training I have had doesn’t give me a recognised diploma, it has helped me understand how to be careful with context, culture, themes and word studies. I am a believer in God’s word and its accessibility to all who are reliant on the Holy Spirit to bring revelation. I do believe God’s word to be the ultimate authority – truth can be found within it.
My final comment and prayer before I begin is that through following this channel, you might know more of God’s character and you may become even more in awe of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. With regards to the judgement, may it spur you on to share the gospel of salvation from death.
I hope you find the God who has rescued us from death and brought us life through His son Jesus. I’m Phil Duncalfe and this is where I defend the view that without Jesus, we’re all dead.
[i] From a preach called “The Wailing of Risca” preached in the Exeter Hall (during the first re-building of Spurgeon’s church) on Sunday morning December 9th, 1860.
[ii] Jonathan Edwards The Justice of God and the Damnation of Sinners: http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/je-justice.htm
[iii] Being a member of the Rethinking Hell Facebook group has shown that many have lost positions of leadership and even had to leave churches over differing opinions on hell despite Conditional Immortality being a recognised orthodox evangelical position.
[iv] Fudge quoting Wenham in TFTC