CH Spurgeon was a great believer in hell. In his sermon The Resurrection of the Dead, he goes into considerable detail about it. “You have seen the asbestos lying in the fire red hot, but when you take it out it is unconsumed. So your body will be prepared by God in such a way that it will burn for ever without being consumed; it will lie, not as you consider, in a metaphorical fire, but in actual flame,” he says.
Spurgeon imagines the body joining the soul at the day of judgment, whereupon “thou wilt have twin hells, body and soul shall be together, each brimfull of pain, thy soul sweating in its inmost pore drops of blood, and thy body from head to foot suffused with agony; conscience, judgment, memory, all tortured, but more – thy head tormented with racking pains, thine eyes starting from their sockets with sights of blood and woe…” and all this for ever and ever.
It was to save people from such a fate that he preached conversion with such passion. “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies,” he said on another occasion. “And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay.”
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine anyone preaching hell with such conviction. As a doctrine, many evangelicals find it awkward or embarrassing. The idea that someone – in fact, the vast majority of human beings since the beginning of time – would suffer Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) for the crime of not believing in a God of whom they might never even have heard doesn’t ring true.
Nevertheless, the idea that nonbelievers will suffer an eternity in hell is the default evangelical position. But increasingly, it’s being challenged from within the evangelical constituency itself.
A National Geographic article from May 13 outlines a serious debate on the subject by scholars committed to the authority of the Bible. It cites Edward Fudge, who in 1982 wrote The Fire That Consumes, a book challenging the biblical underpinning for ECT, as the one who kick-started the debate. Fudge argued for annihilationism or “conditional immortality”, whereby people who don’t believe in Christ cease to exist after death.
According to Prof James Packer, it was two brief arguments from Anglican evangelical leaders John Stott and Philip Edgecumbe Hughes in 1988 that “put the cat among the pigeons”. If these impeccably orthodox evangelicals could do without hell, was it really necessary to believe it? Packer himself wasn’t convinced by their arguments, but many others have been. Among them is Rob Bell, whose book Love Wins, which suggested God would save everyone in the end, drew from conservative evangelical Bible teacher John Piper the notorious dismissive tweet: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
Can you be an evangelical and an annihilationist, or a universalist? One author, Preston Sprinkle, certainly believes you can. The author with Francis Chan of the book Erasing Hell, which argued that the Bible taught ECT and a literal hell. But Sprinkle says that the biblical arguments in favour of annihilationism, which he prefers to call “terminal punishment”, are much stronger than traditionalists have often admitted and that he only “leans toward” ECT. He says that “a terminal punishment view of hell is – for those of us to prioritise the Bible over tradition, who say we’re Protestant and reformed – an Evangelical option”.
There’s even a website, Rethinking Hell, whose rationale is “exploring evangelical conditionalism”, with excellent and honest summaries of the debate.
Click here to read more.