Modernism 1922 from Clare SparkThe days have long passed since the doctrine of hell has been preached in church.

A few bold and righteous pastors such as John MacArthur do so now and then, but hell is considered anathema to most clergy.

Following on from my post summarising MacArthur’s explanation of hell, today’s entry looks at the widespread 20th century decline of the doctrine of hell.

Quotations below come from Way of Life‘s ‘Taking the Fire out of Hell’. Emphases mine below.

Although by the end of the 20th century, hell became a dirty word and unthinkable concept, the decline began in the 19th century. The widely-quoted Baptist preacher from London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, had this to say in 1865:

There is a deepseated unbelief among Christians just now, about the eternity of future punishment. It is not outspoken in many cases, but it is whispered; and it frequently assumes the shape of a spirit of benevolent desire that the doctrine may be disproved. I fear that at the bottom of all this there is a rebellion against the dread sovereignty of God. There is a suspicion that sin is not, after all, so bad a thing as we have dreamed. There is an apology, or a lurking wish to apologize for sinners, who are looked upon rather as objects of pity than as objects of indignation, and really deserving the condign punishment which they have wilfully brought upon themselves. I am afraid it is the old nature in us putting on the specious garb of charity, which thus leads us to discredit a fact which is as certain as the happiness of believers.

The nature of hell shifted from the biblical fire and brimstone to various beliefs: annihilation, symbolism, a void or no hell at all.

What follows is a potted history of quotes from clergy, theologians and evangelists of the 20th century.

1930s

George Buttrick, who was the President of the Federal Council of Churches (precursor to the World Council of Churches) wrote in 1935:

A God who punishes men with fire and brimstone through all Eternity would hardly be Godlike. He would be almost satanic in cruelty an childlike in imagination — like a nasty little boy pulling off the wings of a fly. The Christian faith is that God and hereafter is like Christ.

1950s

In 1951, Gerald Kennedy of the Methodist Church USA said in NAE magazine:

Speaking of eternal punishment of an everlasting state of agony for the wicked, I can say that I am sure that God is at least as good and merciful as men. I certainly would not banish any man to a place of punishment forever because of his faults or his state of mind when he left this life. I am sure God is not less fair or merciful than I.

The following year, theologian Nels F S Ferré wrote in Theology Today magazine:

According to the very meaning of sovereign love, however, God both can and will have all to be saved. The Bible, in its largest and deepest logic, also affirms that with God all things are possible and that He would have all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Among the numberless unthinking people an immature and unworthy eschatology espousing eternal hell is unfortunately still prevalent, vitiating Christian ethics at its very heart.

1960s

In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr told Ebony magazine:

I do not believe in hell as a place of a literal burning fire.

1970s

Fuller Theological Seminary revised their position on hell in 1971:

Fuller Theological Seminary’s new doctrinal statement departs from its original position on eternal punishment for believers, simply saying that the wicked shall be separated from God’s presence.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, a Southern Baptist evangelist, said in Christianity Today (caps in the original):

The Bible DOES NOT teach that we experience hell after we die, we experience it before we die.

1980s

In 1983, Billy Graham said that hellfire is figurative, not literal:

I think that hell essentially is separation from God forever. And that is the worst hell that I can think of. But I think people have a hard time believing God is going to allow people to burn in literal fire forever. I think the fire that is mentioned in the Bible is a burning thirst for God that can never be quenched.

and

Jesus used three words to describe hell. … The third word that He used is ‘fire.’ Jesus used this symbol over and over. This could be literal fire, as many believe. Or it could be symbolic. God does have fires that do not burn. And also there is the figurative use of fire in the Bible. … I’ve often thought that this fire could possibly be a burning thirst for God that is never quenched. What a terrible fire that would be never to find satisfaction, joy, or fulfillment!

In 1986, the Houston Chronicle quoted Lutheran religious scholar and professor Martin Marty as saying:

The passing of hell from modern consciousness is one of the major if still largely undocumented modern trends. … most theologians today maintain hell is not just damnation, but a positive punishment, beyond which everything else on this profoundly mysterious question is only speculation. If faith has survived the decline of hell, then it may be the result of an accent on the love of God for God’s own sake. If so, the new situation is an asset.

In 1987, Neal Punt, a British pastor in the Reformed Church, wrote in his Unconditional Good News: Toward an Understanding of Biblical Universalism that clergy should not warn sinners about the dangers of eternal damnation.

That same year, a survey of the American Baptist Convention revealed:

that only 59.8% agreed that “Hell is just punishment for sinners.” 17.1% disagreed and 23.1% were “not sure.”

The August 1, 1989 edition of Calvary Contender reported that the Anglican John R W Stott

revealed that he was a proponent of conditional immortality, or annihilationism, a view that denies eternal punishment in hell for the unsaved.

1990s

The Criswell Theological Review featured theologian Clark Pinnock who had this to say in 1990:

Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine. … How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely, a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.

The December 15, 1991 edition of Calvary Contender reported the Reformed Anglican J I Packer‘s perspective:

Christianity Today senior editor J. I. Packer says he does not believe that ‘the essence of hell is grotesque bodily discomfort.’ That idea, he conceives, ‘misses the deeper point of the lurid wordpictures drawn by Dante and Jesus, and the New Testament writers.’ He says: ‘The essence of hell is surely an inner misery of helpless remorse, with recognition that in assigning one to an eternity of self absorbed unwillingness to receive and respond to divine goodness, the unwillingness that in life one was always cultivating God is being totally just and had done what is entirely right. Selfhated and Godhated will feed each other in Hell forever’.

In 1993, a controversy about hell arose at the Grand Rapids Baptist College and Seminary, which is affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). One professor, Michael van Horn, had to resign because of his views on heaven and hell. He denied a literal heaven and a literal hell. On the latter, he told 22 Michigan pastors there was no ‘literal fire’ in hell. D A Waite’s ‘Four Reasons for Defending the King James Bible’, published in Bible for Today that year, wrote that the GARBC’s Council of Eighteen:

refused to state in their resolution on hell that there was ‘literal fire’ there. Dr. Clay Nuttall was present as a witness. In his written report, he mentioned that when a man suggested ‘literal fire’ be inserted in the GARBC resolution on hell, a Council of Eighteen member said they couldn’t do that because many of the Pastors and people of the GARBC fellowship do not believe there is ‘literal fire’ in hell. Now, if that isn’t the first step in the direction of absolute and total apostasy in the GARBC, I don’t know what is!

That same year, the retired Anglican Bishop of Durham David Jenkins was quoted as saying:

I am clear that there can be no hell for eternity; our God could not be so cruel. However, I think for some people who have wasted every opportunity for redemption, there may be extinction.

Interestingly, the Church of England moved to a position of annihilation — and nothingness — in 1996. The National & International Religion Report explained:

The Church of England has redefined hell. Rather than a place of eternal suffering, hell is a state of nothingness, the church said. The church said it was concerned that people were terrified into becoming believers and consequently suffered ‘searing psychological scars.’Nevertheless, everyone still faces a day of judgment, according to the Anglican document The Mystery of Salvation. Those who fail the test are annihilated. Hell is described as the final ‘choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is nonbeing’.

In 1997, Bill Phipps, the then-Moderator of the United Church of Canada told the Ottawa Citizen:

I have no idea if there is a hell. I don’t think Jesus was that concerned about hell. He was concerned about life here on earth … Is heaven a place? I have no idea.

And so it continues in the 21st century. Rob Bell‘s 2011 book Love Wins comes to mind. By 2014, Rob Bell had left his ministry at Mars Hill. He no longer attends an established church.

More to come this week.

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