There are some things people say that just make us cringe, right? The awkward moments we would do just anything to avoid. What about with regards to the Christian faith? Something we’d really rather not have to deal with, or confront head-on?
There have been recent discussions amongst Christians bringing to the fore again that four-letter word it’s not polite to say in mixed company – hell. It’s a sensitive topic; a bit taboo; not the sort of thing we’re eager to be asked about by those investigating the claims of Jesus; not something we’re keen to remind one another about as Christians.
Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? is a book that’s been offered into the discussion trying to expose the issues at stake and make clear what truth God reveals about hell in the Bible. It seeks to answer its titular question in five main parts:
• tracing the understanding of hell through modern history
• returning to the words of Jesus concerning hell
• considering the pictures of hell in the rest of the New Testament (outside of the Gospels)
• examining the idea of hell in light of other key Christian doctrines
• confronting the claim of universalism (the idea that everyone will be saved)
Each of these come in the form of short chapters by different contributors.
Is Hell For Real? R. Albert Mohler Jr.
The book’s opening chapter seeks to give an overview of how Christians have responded to, handled and taught the idea of hell in the modern world. Going back far prior to this time though, we see that as early as 6th Century AD theologians started putting forward teaching subverting the beliefs held by the Christian church from the beginning. Nonetheless, Mohler attributes the significant worldview changes brought on in the Western World during the Renaissance and Enlightenment for a growing confidence to deny the reality of an eternal hell. As Enlightenment scepticism grew, cultural trends carved an even easier path for believers and non-believers alike to reject the claims of the gospel on their lives and concerning the world around them.
Moving forward in time, Mohler argues that the Victorian era in the 19th century, whilst often “sentimentalised for its Christian vitality”, actually saw growing rejection of the truths of God’s word concerning hell in some quarters. Even whilst denying it’s reality, some religious and social leaders appreciated the value of the teaching in restraining social decay and thus were disinclined to throw it out altogether.
Considering the 20th century, the Bible’s words on hell came under threat against the backdrop of growing globalisation and relativism that rose up in the face of exposure to a plurality of religions and worldviews. A supposed animosity between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ also further undermined some Christians’ confidence to find truth about the world we see, as well as unseen realities, in scripture.
As we come to the 21st century, many Christian teachers continue striving to preach and teach the gospel in its fullness according to God’s word. At the same time, questions continue to be raised as to the scriptural truths about hell – in part or in whole. Disagreements arise even between evangelicals about exactly what is at stake for the future of people who reject Christ.
Whilst Mohler’s discussion of these movements through time is extremely brief (this really is a very basic introduction to the topic), there are a couple of striking factors that run as common threads over time. Firstly, the way our cultural surroundings shape our worldview can be deep and profound – sometimes affecting us in ways we are unaware of. The way Christians have grappled with the question of hell has been distinctly shaped by their culture – and sometimes this can be dangerous. The call to discernment is crucial to heed: we need a self-awareness about how the community we find ourselves in shapes the way we understand ideas, and how that may help or hinder us as we seek to submit to God’s words about his world.
Secondly, our response to one area of doctrine reflects our response to God himself and his work in the world. We are again in a dangerous position if we try to compartmentalise claims of the gospel such that we can pick and choose as we please. This puts the challenge to us not to avoid the question of hell itself, or to avoid the truths God has revealed in answer to that question. Also, we must remember to have the discussion in its proper place- starting with who God himself is.
After this first chapter in Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? we are yet to see a concrete sketch of what the Bible actually says about hell, and the interplay between this idea and other gospel truths. Hopefully there will be greater clarity as these are addressed in the next chapters.
We’ll have to keep reading!
About our contributor:
Laura Southam is thankful for the way God has made a world with meaning and beauty in words, language and stories; and she loves sharing in that with others – makes sense that bookclubs are one of her favourite things! (she is currently a part of four!) Amidst reading whatever she can get her hands on, she is currently working her way through first year studying at Moore College. After spending the last 8 years studying/ministering/working at Sydney University, she's enjoying finally living in Newtown. She's also part of the church family at Campbelltown Baptist Church.