How do you sell God in the 21st Century? More Heaven; less Hell

I came across this article in today’s Guardian online. The piece recounts a conservative Evangelical journey away from their faith. It outlines the story of somebody growing up in an Evangelical baptist family, going to Moody Bible Institute (a conservative, Evangelical seminary), engaged in evangelism and yet becoming increasingly disaffected with theodicy and theology of Hell. In many ways, it is a common story of an Evangelical unable to square what they see in scripture, the apologetic arguments and theology they are taught and their own internal sense of what is just, fair, moral and right. Though lengthy, the article is certainly worth reading.

Nevertheless, the article’s emphasis isn’t really autobiographical. The writer isn’t ultimately trying to share how they became disaffected with Evangelicalism (though they do share that and do so – in my view – in a way that still exhibits fondness for Evangelicals if not for Evangelicalism nor Evangelical theology.) Rather, the writer is trying to address why the perception of Hell – and certainly the formulation of the doctrine of Hell at a popular level – has changed over time.

The article contends that 30 years ago – whilst the writer was growing up in Evangelical baptist circles – Hell was taught in, what would now be considered, an anachronistic way. It was all fire and brimstone, eternal torment and attempts to scare folk into Heaven. It notes a shift in emphasis, focusing on the preaching and writing of Bill Hybels, toward less of a focus on Hell itself. Certainly when Hell was mentioned, it was brought into focus by empathetic appeals to sin and evil existing in all people. The writer then considers how this has changed again, focusing on the writing of Rob Bell. It argues Hell is now either (a) something to be experienced here on Earth; or, (b) a purgatorial refinement leading to ultimate, universal reconciliation and the end of Hell itself.

The article misses the mark in various respects. Principally, it argues the way to avoid Hell, according to protestant Evangelical theology, is to say the sinner’s prayer. It states “For contemporary evangelicals, it’s solely this act that separates the sheep from the goats.” Though there are undoubtedly people who hold this view, most at a personal level, it is not mainstream Evangelical belief. 

Paul Washer, a well-known conservative Evangelical couldn’t be clearer when he states “We call men to repent and believe. And if they repent and believe, truly in that moment they are saved in that moment. But the evidence is more than just the sincerity of a prayer. It is a continuation of the working of God in their life through sanctification.” He has also argued “We have taken that truth [that if you truly believe and you confess Christ, even if it costs you your life, you will be saved]… we have taken that beautiful truth and reduced it down to, “If you pray a little prayer before a bunch of people in a church in America, you can be guaranteed you were saved if you think you were sincere.””

Denny Burk – Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (Southern Baptist seminary) and associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church – has published this comment by David Platt – president of the International Missions Board, the mission agency of the Southern Baptists (a conservative Evangelical denomination). Platt states:

Do I believe it is “wrong” for someone to pray a “prayer of salvation”? Certainly not. Calling out to God in prayer with repentant faith is fundamental to being saved (Romans 10:9-10). Yet as I pastor a local church and serve alongside pastors of other local churches, I sense reasonably serious concern about the relatively large number of baptisms in our churches that are “re-baptisms”—often representing people who thought they were saved because they prayed a certain prayer, but they lacked a biblical understanding of salvation and were in reality not saved. This, in addition to a rampant easy believism that marks cultural Christianity in our context (and in other parts of the world), leads me to urge us, as we go to all people among all nations with the good news of God’s love, to be both evangelistically zealous and biblically clear at the same time (Matthew 28:18-20).

Plenty of other conservative Evangelicals can be found stating categorically that nobody is saved simply because they prayed a “sinner’s prayer”. Though a prayer of repentance may be an outward expression of the repentance that has already taken place in the heart of a believer, it is this ongoing state of repentance and trust in Christ’s atoning work that saves.

However, the article is helpful in pinpointing where the boundaries of belief lie. It quite rightly sees the arguments advanced by Rob Bell as demonstrating “the potential pitfalls of the church’s desire to distance itself too quickly from fire and brimstone.” As the writer comments:

Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil. Along with hell, the new evangelical leaders threaten to jettison the very notion of human depravity – a fundamental Christian truth upon which the entire salvation narrative hinges.

The issues for the writer were plain enough. The Bible teaches the doctrine of Hell. An internal sense of that which is just and merciful couldn’t accept the doctrine of Hell. One either accepts the teaching of the Bible or rejects it. Bell’s attempts at “disneyfying” the doctrine seemed too hollow and shallow for credible belief.

What the article helpfully states in the clearest terms is the following:

what made church such a powerful experience for me as a child and a young adult was that it was the one place where my own faults and failings were recognised and accepted, where people referred to themselves affectionately as “sinners”, where it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, but still you held hands and lifted your voice with hers as you worshipped in song. This camaraderie came from a collective understanding of evil – a belief that each person harboured within them a potential for sin and deserved, despite it, divine grace. It’s this notion of shared fallibility that lent Hybels’s 9/11 sermon its power, as he suggested that his own longing for revenge was only a difference of degree – not of kind – from the acts of the terrorists.

Without a clear and defined understanding of the doctrine of Hell the message of the gospel is liable to be lost. No amount of rebranding is going to help. For a reformulation of the doctrine of Hell means the gospel, the message of salvation in Christ, ultimately loses its power. No Hell soon leads to a watered down, or non-existent, statement of sin. No sin means no need of salvation. No need of salvation means no need of Christ. No need of Christ makes Jesus a pitiable character indeed.

Efforts to rebrand Hell, or to push it to the sidelines, are misguided at best. That is not to say our preaching must be fire and brimstone every week. Nor is it to say Hell must be the centre of all our gospel presentations. It is to say, that to pretend it doesn’t exist or to speak of it in such ways as it seems little more than trifling irritant – like a small wart on God’s created order – is to undermine the gospel.

A right view of sin – to see it as God sees it – lends credence to the existence of Hell. To do anything other than present Hell as scripture presents it damages our understanding of sin, salvation and the work of Christ. Whatever else the article made clear, it is apparent that changes to the doctrine of Hell were ultimately unconvincing and – despite the title of the piece – more Heaven and less Hell doesn’t do much to win anybody. If anything, it undermines the achievement of Jesus on the cross and the reality of our standing before a holy God.