There’s nothing new being said about hell

The other Sunday I was at my parents house and as I always do, I was perusing Dad’s shelves for books. This time I went searching for books on hell and found this gem.

Is there a Hell? A Symposium by Leaders of Religious Thought. The only notable contributor whose name I knew was FB Meyer. Published by Cassell in 1913.

Here are the chapter headings:

  1. The History of Hell
  2. What is Hell Like?
  3. Hell and the early Fathers
  4. The Certainty of Hell
  5. The justice of Hell
  6. The absurdity of a material hell
  7. Making the punishment fit the crime
  8. No warrant for eternal damnation
  9. Hell that is man-made
  10. Hell a philosophical necessity
  11. Hell through the love of God
  12. Hell completes the universe
  13. The Catholic Standpoint
  14. Hell as conceived by the Jews
  15. A socialist’s view
  16. A defence of the Hell of the Bible

1913. Let that date sink in for a moment. Nearly 100 years ago they were debating hell. Before the internet, before TV. Before Rob Bell’s grandmother got her freaky painting (you have to read the book), before two world wars, before even sliced bread for heaven’s sake – there were debates about the nature of hell. Evangelicals then did not agree and funnily enough, they still don’t. Plus ├ža change.

I’ll try and post some quotes because it’s absolutely fascinating to realise that in some senses 100 years later we’re having the exact same argument. There are some interesting common themes and differences amongst all the contributors. For most heaven and hell is a spiritual and not material place, so in heaven we are disembodied souls and hell likewise. Even defenders of hell struggle with the idea of God ‘tormenting’ souls or conceiving it as active punishment. A common refrain is that heaven is a state not a place. We hear the observation that hell is not preached much in sermons and behind all of the questions from all of the authors is the one big question that Rob Bell asks:

‘What is God like?’

A few observations. It becomes harder to argue that there is one classical, historical, undebated evangelical view of hell. Not all of the contributors to Is there a hell? were evangelicals but a good many were. There have been, there are and there will be anxieties, questions, doubts and uncertainties about hell. We should get over that, allow there to be space for both the questions and some degree of latitude in the answers because it seems to me that good faithful Christians have not come to the same conclusion. I’m not at all sure that hell should be an issue of division for us.

Rob Bell is not saying anything new, we’ve been here before – we can handle this debate better. One good example of a gracious response is this quickly published book by Michael Wittmer (HT: Challies).


One thought on “There’s nothing new being said about hell”

  1. Tracey Soko says:

    Funny how hell is somewhere we don’t want to believe in yet in media now with Osama Bin Laden’s death so many people express hope that it is real. We all struggle with wanting justice to be done yet we don’t like to think of it being done to us!

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