Is the doctrine of hell an essential part of Christianity?

October 2, 2012

The scripture I preached on last Sunday, Acts 4:1-22, includes these words from Peter, which go against the prevailing Oprah-fication of American culture: “Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved” (v. 12).

If it’s true that salvation is found in no one other than Jesus, then our mission as a church couldn’t be more urgent. Toward the end of my sermon, I expressed this urgency as follows:

If we don’t start speaking and acting and praying and inviting, don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love will miss out on the opportunity to enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might die without having given their lives to Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might be eternally separated from God in hell.

To our shame, we United Methodists rarely talk about hell, even though Jesus himself talked about it frequently. We often avoid it like the plague, although we may do so for the best of reasons: none of us, after all, wants to be judgmental.

How exactly is it judgmental to warn people about the possibility of hell? We Christians don’t have any biblical warrant to say who goes there: God is the judge, not us. What we can say—and what we ought to say loudly and confidently—is that through faith in Jesus Christ we will avoid hell. An important part of what it means to be saved from our sin is to be saved from hell.

Of course, we can also avoid talking about hell for the worst of reasons—which is, we don’t really believe it exists. If so, we should heed the words of theologian Thomas Oden, a United Methodist, reflecting on both scripture and the church’s traditional understanding of the doctrine:

The stark words “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire” [from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats] have withstood numerous attempts at generous reinterpretation, but they remain obstinately in the received text (Jerome, Ag. RufinusFC 53:109). The text remains resilient against our attempts to soften it. Every mitigating theory is wrecked on these words, which are “not as doubtful or ambiguous as represented; and even if they were, the rule is to interpret the obscure by the plain” (Banks, MCD: 362). The problem is not that the words are obscure, but that they are all too plain (Augustine, CG 21:23; Kierkegaard, On Self-examination).[1]

To fail to believe in or emphasize hell, as theologian Jerry Walls, another United Methodist, points out, is to risk trivializing the gospel.

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.

If Christianity is indeed primarily about salvation, and if salvation comes to mean something very different when hell drops out of sight, then the doctrine of hell is an important part of Christianity. Indeed, it may be essential, at least in some form, if Christianity is to avoid trivialization.[2]

I don’t think Walls would argue that the gospel doesn’t also mean personal fulfillment, or a positive self-image, or a better outlook on life. I have certainly experienced it that way, and I preach that. But long before we get there, the gospel must mean salvation from sin, death, and, yes, hell.

1 Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 827.

2 Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

One Response to “Is the doctrine of hell an essential part of Christianity?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Totally agree. “Salvation” means to be saved from something, and Jesus says, as you say, that this is, among other things, eternal fire. “And being in torment,” it says of the rich man. Revelation 20 clearly says that all those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be cast into the Lake of Fire. No way to avoid Hell if someone takes the Bible seriously, as opposed to “pop theology.”


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