Controversy About Hell Continues
A 1999 Gallup poll showed that only 56% of Americans held a firm conviction in the existence of hell (1999, p. 30). When Pope Benedict XVI stressed that impenitent sinners risk “eternal damnation,” his remarks received coverage from many major media outlets (see Lyons, 2007). Perhaps modernity is so inundated by political correctness that it no longer concerns itself with the eternal consequence of sin, even though the Bible emphasizes it (Matthew 5:22; 8:12; 25:41-46; Mark 9:43; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
Now the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment is back in the news. On July 8, 2007, ABC’s Good Morning America reported that a well-known evangelical preacher, Carlton Pearson, lost his ministerial position at a large Tulsa, Oklahoma church because of his unconventional stance on hell. Pearson became convinced that hell is temporary and, in fact, not external to earthly existence. “I couldn’t reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that’s customized for unbelievers,” Pearson told ABC (quoted in “A Question...,” 2007). “You can’t be happy. And how can you really love a God who’s torturing your grandmother?” (“A Question...”).
After reaching the conclusion that the Bible is merely the work of uninspired, primitive men prone to “mistranslations” and “political agendas,” Mr. Pearson watched a news report about human suffering in the Third World and thought he heard God telling him that hell is earthly, human existence (“A Question...”; cf. Weir, 2007). Pearson summarized his newfound position: “We may go through hell, but nobody goes to hell” (quoted in Weir, 2007). “The bitter torment of the idea of an angry, visceral, distant, stoic, harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving, intolerant God is Hell,” Mr. Pearson concluded (“A Question....”). He proceeded to describe this notion to an ABC interviewer: “It’s pagan. It’s superstitious. And if you trace its history, it goes way back to where men feared the gods because something happened in life that caused frustration,” adding that people who believe in hell create it for themselves and others (“A Question...”).
Mr. Pearson’s story prompted ABC to develop a 20/20 report on various ideas about punishment in the afterlife. Bill Weir reported that when Mr. Pearson began teaching that hell is on Earth, “[i]t wasn't long before Christian magazines demonized him. The denomination that made him a bishop officially labeled him a heretic. His assistant pastors quit, and his congregation dropped from 6,000 to fewer than 300” (2007). Pearson enjoyed association with such prominent denominational ministers as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts, and a popular appeal that earned him the opportunity to counsel Presidents Clinton and Bush on faith-based initiatives (2007). However, Pearson so dedicated himself to an odd doctrinal position as to warrant his removal from an “evangelical empire built over a lifetime” (Weir, 2007).
The denial of eternal punishment certainly is unoriginal with Pearson. There always have been those who rejected the doctrine of hell by insisting that it in unreasonable. The idea that the souls of the faithful are immortal, while those of the unfaithful perish at their physical death is known as annihilationism. Gnostic groups have taken this position for hundreds of years. “There is no literal hell in the Gnostic tradition. It is a state that exists for people here” (Pierce, 2007; cf. Hoeller, n.d.). Certain Gnostics and other religionists may, like Mr. Pearson, have alleged that the traditional doctrine of hell is founded solely in the imagination of men, but their sentiments are antithetical to the plain teaching of Scripture.
In the July 1852 issue of Christian Magazine, a popular preacher from Nashville, Tennessee, Jesse B. Ferguson, asked: “Is Hell a dungeon dug by Almighty hands before man was born, into which the wicked are to be plunged? And is the salvation upon the preacher’s lips a salvation from such a Hell? For ourself [sic], we rejoice to say it, we never believed, and upon the evidence so far offered, never can believe it” (1852, p. 202). In a Christianity Today article titled “Fire, Then Nothing,” 135 years later, denominational scholar Clark Pinnock suggested that the souls of the wicked are annihilated at physical death (1987). In his book, The Fire That Consumes, Edward Fudge taught the same concept when he wrote: “The wicked, following whatever degree and duration of pain that God may justly inflict, will finally and truly die, perish and become extinct for ever and ever”(1982, p. 425). John Clayton, known for his numerous compromises of the Genesis Creation account, reviewing Fudge’s work, commented:
One of the most frequent challenges of atheists during our lectures is the question of the reasonableness of the concept of hell. Why would a loving, caring, merciful God create man as he is, knowing that man would sin, reject God, and be condemned to an eternal punishment? I have had to plead ignorance in this area because I had no logical answer that was consistent with the Bible.... I have never been able to be comfortable with the position that a person who rejected God should suffer forever and ever and ever (1990, p. 20, emp. in orig.).
Fudge’s influence was felt far and wide, and continues today. Writers such as F. LaGard Smith and Homer Hailey have propagated annihilationism, and Apologetics Press has dealt directly and decisively with the false idea that the Bible teaches a temporary punishment or instantaneous annihilation of the soul (see Lyons and Butt, 2005a; Lyons and Butt 2005b). Dave Miller discussed the numerous Bible passages that clearly teach the reality of “the vengeance of eternal fire” (2003a; Jude 7).
In the process of denying the eternality of hell, however, the disenfranchised Oklahoma preacher made additional, significant allegations against Christianity. Do Pearson’s emotionally-charged, philosophic complaints against divine punishment merit our endorsement?
Is the Bible merely a product of misguided mortals?
The Bible militates against Pearson’s doctrine about hell, so Pearson saw the need to discredit the Bible by stating that it is not from God at all, but rather from the pens of troubled men who were prone to make outlandish claims. For Pearson, a man claiming to be a minister of the Gospel, to deny the authority of the Scriptures out-of-hand is astounding, and contradictory to the mountain of evidence for the Bible’s inspiration. Among the facts about the Bible are the following.
It is a matter of historical record that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (see Lyons and Staff, 2003). Would Mr. Pearson challenge the character or ability of Moses, the historical giant of faith who led an entire nation for 40 years? Moses is far from being the only author of the Bible. It was written over the course of approximately 1,600 years by over 40 men from different places and backgrounds, and yet it flawlessly tells one epic story without once contradicting itself. Against which of these inspired men would Mr. Pearson hurl the accusation that his writings are the product of gross incompetence, frivolous emotionality, or political mindedness? Kyle Butt noted:
To say that the writers of the Bible were diverse would be an understatement. Yet, though their educational and cultural backgrounds varied extensively, and though many of them were separated by several centuries, the 66 books that compose the Bible fit together perfectly. To achieve such a feat by employing mere human ingenuity and wisdom would be impossible. In fact, it would be impossible from a human standpoint to gather the writings of 40 men from the same culture, with the same educational background, during the same time period, and get anything close to the unity that is evident in the Bible. The Bible’s unity is a piece of remarkable evidence that proves its divine origin (2007b, emp. in orig.).
For generations, men have attempted to find places in the sacred text where an inspired writer contradicted himself or another of the Bible’s writer, but they have come away empty (see Jackson, 1983; Lyons, 2003; Lyons, 2005). Unless Mr. Pearson can explain the unity of the Bible apart from divine inspiration, his allegations against the Bible crumble. Considering that no one in history has accomplished this, it seems infinitely unlikely that Mr. Pearson is up to the task.
The Bible contains scientific foreknowledge that would be absent if the men who wrote the Bible lacked divine guidance (see Butt, 2007a). One such instance of profound scientific foreknowledge centers around the administration of circumcision.
In Genesis 17:12, God specifically directed Abraham to circumcise newborn males on the eighth day. Why the eighth day?... On the eighth day, the amount of prothrombin present actually is elevated above one-hundred percent of normal—and is the only day in the male’s life in which this will be the case under normal conditions. If surgery is to be performed, day eight is the perfect day to do it. Vitamin K and prothrombin levels are at their peak (Thompson, 1993, emp. in orig.).
If the Genesis author (Moses) lacked divine revelation to inform him of the correct day on which to perform circumcision, how else could he have known it? Equally powerful examples of scientific foreknowledge abound throughout the pages of Scripture (see Thompson, 2003, pp. 48-62). Before Mr. Pearson dismisses the Bible’s inspiration, he will have to explain the scientific foreknowledge that leaps off its pages and convinces its readers. Mr. Pearson cannot. Furthermore, the Bible contains hundreds of predictive prophecies, all of which were fulfilled in every minute detail (see Butt, 2006; Thompson, 2003, pp. 42-48). Does this, or the fact that the Bible is completely accurate in its report of facts, jibe with Mr. Pearson’s contemptuous characterization of the Bible writers (see Jackson, 1991; Thompson, 2003, pp. 33-42)?
Is the traditional conception of hell only a product of medieval superstition?
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), considered by many the finest poet of the middle ages, created a vivid, poetic portrait of eternal torment in The Divine Comedy. While a literary analysis of Dante’s work is beyond the scope of this article, the multitudes of Dante’s readers, from medieval times until now, have understood that Dante’s use of poetic license means that the details of his comedy are figurative approximations of what hell may be like; not definitive explanations of the nature of hell. Dante clearly advocated the reality of eternal punishment. John Ciardi, in his essay titled “How to Read Dante,” which introduces his translation of The Divine Comedy, stated: “Dante writes of Hell as a literal place of sin and punishment. The damned are there because they offended a theological system that enforces certain consequences of suffering” (Alighieri, 2003, p. xiv). Those professing Christianity in the middle ages had a general understanding that hell represented separation from God (see Russell, 1968, p. 57).
Noting that Augustine (A.D. 354-430), Dante (1265-1321), and Milton (1608-1674) all wrote in the same general theological tradition, John Hick commented:
The doctrines which lie behind these great works of art were normative within the church until recent times and broadly represent what the rest of the world, looking at Christianity as a whole over its two thousand years of existence, sees as its teaching concerning the life to come (1976, p. 198).
So, while Christian writers throughout history have commented about hell with greater or lesser degrees of adherence to the biblical description of that place, their basic notion of eternal torment was derived ultimately from the Bible. The traditional conception of hell certainly was not a novel one. No medieval writer ever sat down and thought, “Today, I’ll invent a place where God punishes people,” because the existence and characteristics of that place already had been divulged in holy writ. Medieval thinkers thought about hell largely for the same reason we write about hell today: God has revealed certain details about it. It would be interesting to learn whether Mr. Pearson did serious research concerning medieval tradition prior to making his allegation that those in the middle ages concocted a new, terrifying notion of hell. Mr. Pearson is the one who seems extremely and irresponsibly creative with his theology.
Could an all-loving God punish people?
The Bible teaches that God is both loving and just. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy and truth go before Your face” (Psalm 89:14). A primary argument against the existence of the God of the Bible is that the biblical portrait of God is contradictory; an all-loving God could not punish people by condemning them to an eternal hell. Is it possible to reconcile the notion of eternal punishment with the God described in the Bible? Certainly. Consider, among others, these reasons:
Love does not require the absence of discipline. For example, a mother of a small child may punish a small child for mischievous and dangerous acts. Such correction may be painful, yet necessary. The problem of the magnitude of eternal punishment persists, however. Here, we must consider the justice of God, which Mr. Pearson has maligned and/or ignored.
While love defines God (1 John 4:8), he also is characterized by justice. Psalm 89:14 states that “righteousness and justice” are the foundation of His throne. Justice demands that each person gets what he or she deserves. Those of us who live in civilized society realize that order and peace are impossible without justice. If God had no way of carrying out spiritual consequences of disobedience, He would lack the quality of justice. Because God is a “righteous judge” (2 Timothy 4:8), and knows everyone’s heart (see Colley, 2004b), He makes no judicial errors (see Butt, 2002, pp. 129-130). Furthermore, God has given every guilty human the opportunity to avoid eternal punishment. God hopes that all humans will take advantage of the salvation He offers (2 Peter 3:9). God is infinite in love, mercy, and justice, so we may depend on His infinite capability to make righteous judgments and mete perfect punishments (see Colley, 2004a).
Does hell exist on Earth?
Mr. Pearson admits that his notion of hell existing on Earth came through what he believed to be a special, personal communication with God. It is outside the scope of this article to address whether God communicates directly and personally with people today, but we have proved elsewhere that He does not (see Miller, 2003b). Observe that Pearson offered no scriptural basis for his doctrine of a present hell. This is necessarily the case for, if Mr. Pearson studied the biblical data on this topic of hell at all, he should have realized that there is no scriptural basis for his doctrine. Furthermore, in order to tell Mr. Pearson that hell is not a real place, but rather a state of earthly frustration or disappointment, God would be forced to contradict what He already revealed (see Lyons and Butt, 2005a, Lyons and Butt 2005b).
There is, however, historical precedent for Mr. Pearson’s imaginative notion that hell exists on Earth. Unification Church members (popularly called “Moonies” due to their allegiance to Sun Myung Moon and his Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity) taught that hell exists on Earth and eventually will be transformed into the kingdom of heaven on Earth (“Building...,” n.d., Gruss, 1994, p. 196; cf. McDowell and Stewart, 1983, pp. 99-104). Hell becomes very inconsequential if it merely is mixed with the vast collections of experiences, thoughts, and emotions of which life consists, and eventually will transform into heaven. By partnering with the cult leader Moon in subscribing to this false doctrine, Mr. Pearson has opened the door even further to all manner of unscriptural approaches to fundamental theological principles.
Can saints be happy while sinners are lost?
Geisler observed: “The presupposition of this question is that we are more merciful than is God” (1999, p. 314). Christians wish damnation upon no one, but they also understand that God is perfectly merciful, desiring that everyone should be saved (2 Peter 3:9). Mr. Pearson has implied a distorted conception of Christian happiness. Christians are joyful not because souls are lost—or because of any negative circumstances such as sickness and death—but rather because Jesus has provided eternal salvation. Among other spiritual blessings, Christ offers providential care whereby even painful circumstances can be worked out for the ultimate good of His followers (Romans 8:28).
Christians certainly are not pleased by tragedies such as the eternal loss of souls. They mourn over sinful choices and consequences (Matthew 5:4). At the same time, however, their relationship to Christ brings the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Paul expressed this overriding, perpetual happiness: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). Paul suffered his share of disappointment, as he watched some of his companions forsake the Lord, and prophesied of a great apostasy (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 4:1-5). Yet, Paul maintained a joyful spirit: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). In the end, Christians will be happy in heaven, despite the fact that others, even loved ones, will be lost (see Revelation 21:4; cf. Jackson, 2003).
As Carlton Pearson’s arguments crumble before a consideration of biblical principle and historical analysis, we do not judge his motives, but rather pray that he will repent and obey the Lord (Matthew 7:21). If people such as Mr. Pearson are lost eternally it will be because they, having been warned about the danger of damnation, have chosen to live out of harmony with God’s will. Jonathan Edwards’ comment on this topic is pertinent:
It is a most unreasonable thing to suppose that there should be no future punishment, to suppose that God, who had made man a rational creature, able to know his duty, and sensible that he is deserving punishment when he does it not; should let man alone, and let him live as he will, and never punish him for his sins, and never make any difference between the good and the bad. . . . How unreasonable it is to suppose, that he who made the world, should leave things in such confusion, and never take care of the governing of his creatures, and that he should never judge his reasonable creatures (quoted in Geisler, 1999, p. 315).
Hell is devoid of grace, the saving power God extends while we live on Earth (Romans 1:16). We must encourage all to appropriate God’s grace to their souls by obeying the Gospel—the only way to avoid the vengeance of God (2 Thessalonians 1:8).
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