The Disappearance of Hell
According to recent polls, some 81 percent of adult Americans believe in heaven, and fully 80 percent expect to go there when they die. By comparison, about 61 percent believe in hell, but less than 1 percent think it’s likely they will go there. In other words, a slight majority of Americans still believe hell exists, but genuine fear of hell is almost nonexistent.
Even the most conservative evangelicals don’t seem to take hell very seriously anymore. For decades, many evangelicals have downplayed inconvenient biblical truths, neglecting any theme that seems to require somber reflection. Doctrines such as human depravity, divine wrath, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the reality of eternal judgment have disappeared from the evangelical message.
The trend has not escaped everyone’s attention. Thirty years ago, for example, Martin Marty, religious historian, professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and critic of all things evangelical, delivered the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality at Harvard Divinity School. The title of his message was “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed.” Marty’s research had failed to turn up a single scholarly article dealing with the subject of hell in any significant theological journal over the previous century. Citing the dearth of attention being given to so large a topic, Marty suggested that if evangelicals really took seriously what Scripture says about eternal punishment, someone with a voice should notice.
Almost no one did. Eighteen years later, The Los Angeles Times featured a front-page article titled “Hold the Fire and Brimstone,” pointing out that many style-conscious evangelical church leaders were purposely omitting the theme of divine retribution:
In churches across America, hell is being frozen out as clergy find themselves increasingly hesitant to sermonize on … a story line that no longer resonates with churchgoers. [According to] Harvey Cox Jr., an eminent author, religious historian and professor at the Harvard Divinity School, “You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week, and you’d be startled even to hear a mention of hell.”
Hell’s fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism, and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell.
The article profiled an evangelical pastor who said he believes in hell, but (according to the Times) “you’d never know it listening to him preach… . He never mentions the topic; his flock shows little interest in it.” Asked why the doctrine of hell has gone missing, this pastor replied, “It isn’t sexy enough anymore.”
The article also quoted a well-known seminary professor who more or less agreed. Hell, he said, is “just too negative… . Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding.”
The article closed with a quote from Martin Marty, almost two decades after his famous lecture on the subject. He agreed that market-driven concerns are the main reason hell is being expunged from the evangelical message:
Once pop evangelism went into market analysis, hell was just dropped. When churches go door to door and conduct a market analysis … they hear, “I want better parking spaces. I want guitars at services. I want to have my car greased while I’m in church.”
Years of indifference finally paved the way for open hostility. In the first decade of the new millennium, certain prominent figures in the “emergent church” declared war on the biblical doctrine of hell. The groundswell seemed to crest a couple of years ago with the publication of Rob Bell’s bestselling book Love Wins. Bell argued that it’s absurd to think a loving God would ever damn anyone to eternal punishment. He portrayed God’s love as a force that clashes with and ultimately eliminates the demands of justice. In the storyline Bell envisions, God requires no payment or punishment for sin. The divine response to evil is always remedial, never punitive. Furthermore, the wages of sin are mild, temporary, and reserved only for grossly malevolent villains—mass murderers, child rapists, tyrants who engineer genocide, and (one supposes) Christians who tell unbelievers they should fear God. When it’s all over, everyone will be together in paradise.
In such a system, God’s righteousness is compromised, repentance is optional, atonement is unnecessary, and the truth of God’s Word is nullified. In other words, nothing of biblical Christianity is left. Once anyone sets out to tone down or tame the hard truths of Scripture, that’s where the process inevitably leads.
Only a few leading voices in the evangelical movement have lobbied boldly for a more orthodox approach to the doctrine of hell. They seem to be outnumbered by those who think the disappearance of hell is a positive development.
Some have proposed alternative ways to speak of sin and judgment in gentler, toned-down, and more refined and socially acceptable terminology than Scripture uses. Sin is deemed wrong not because it is an offense against the righteousness of God, but because of the hurt it causes others. Hell is described not as a place of eternal punishment but simply as a realm apart from God. In the reimagined eschatology of stylish evangelicals, no one is ever “sent” to hell; sinners actually choose to spend eternity apart from God—and the “hell” they suffer is merely an abundance of what they loved and desired the most. Hell is necessary only because God is reluctant to overrule anyone’s free will. Therefore, with a more or less benign acquiescence, He ultimately defers to the sinner’s choice. God’s righteous indignation has no meaningful place in such a scenario.
It is a serious mistake to imagine that we improve Scripture or enhance its effectiveness by blunting its sharp edges. Scripture is a sword, not a cotton swab, and it needs to be fully unsheathed before it can be put to its intended use. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The gospel is supposed to be an affront to fleshly pride, offensive to human sensibilities, foolishness in the eyes of worldly wisdom, and contrary to all carnal judgments.
No Christian teaching exemplifies those characteristics more powerfully than the doctrine of hell. It is an appalling truth. We rightly recoil at the thought of it. The doctrine of hell thus stands as a warning and a reminder of what a loathsome reality sin is. No reasonable or godly person delights in the reality of eternal damnation. God Himself says, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11).
Yet the severity of God’s wrath and the woes of hell are prominent in Scripture. The New Testament speaks more vividly and more frequently about hell than the Old Testament does. In fact, Jesus Himself had more to say about the subject than any other prophet or biblical writer. Far from smoothing over the difficulties that seem to embarrass so many evangelicals today, Jesus said:
Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4–5)
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:8–9)
We do no one any favors by downplaying the truth of God’s wrath or neglecting to mention the severity of His judgment. We certainly don’t eliminate the threat of hell by refusing to speak or think of it. If we truly believe what the Bible teaches about the eternal fate of unbelievers, it is in no sense “loving” to remain silent and refuse to sound the appropriate alarm.
What, after all, is the good news we proclaim in the gospel? It is not an announcement that no one really needs to fear God or fret about the possibility of hell. As a matter of fact, there would be no glad tidings at all if God merely intended to capitulate to the stubborn will of man and forgo the demands of His perfect righteousness.
The good news is even better than most believers understand: God made a way for His righteousness and His love to be fully reconciled. In His incarnation, Christ fulfilled all righteousness (satisfying, not nullifying, the demands of His law). In His death on the cross, He paid the price of His people’s sin in full (assuring the triumph of perfect justice). And in His resurrection from the dead, He put a powerful exclamation mark on His own perfect, finished work of atonement (thus sealing the promise of justification forever for those who trust Him as Lord and Savior).
That is the message we must declare to a worldly culture utterly lacking any real fear of God. We cannot do it faithfully or effectively if from the very outset we have omitted the harsh truth Scripture declares about “the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15).