Family Notes 18/05/2016



For as long as anyone can remember, writers and photographers for National Geographic magazine have traveled the world to bring its readers illustrated stories of volcanos, geysers, and the like, so realistic that they almost singed the readers’ eyebrows.

On May 13, 2016, NG outdid itself with a superb article titled “The Campaign to Eliminate Hell”–indisputably the ultimate of all hot places. In almost 1800 words, author Mark Strauss describes the rethinking of hell movement now promoting doctrinal reform.

The motivation of this reform

Strauss correctly traces the rethinking of hell to a widespread and nagging sense among Christians that the traditional hell of unending conscious torment is inconsistent with the character of God. As such, it is “a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience.” The late Anglican clergyman John Stott is an example. ““I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice”” wrote Stott, a world-renowned evangelical leader until his death in 2011.

Traditionalists attribute the rethinking of hell to ulterior motives, but those seeking reform will have none of that. Strauss cites me as an example. “‘What if the muting of hell is due neither to emotional weakness nor loss of Gospel commitment?’ writes Edward Fudge, whose 1982 book, The Fire That Consumes, is widely regarded as the scholarly work that jump-started the current debate. What if the biblical foundations thought to endorse unending conscious torment are less secure than has been widely supposed?'”

“Advocates for annihilationism (or, “conditionalism” as some prefer) emphasize they are not guided by sentimentality” Strauss writes, “but are engaging in a careful exegesis of Scripture that has long been discouraged by orthodoxy. Nor do they claim to advocate for a version of hell that represents a soft view on sin or a low view of God.”

The hell described by these reformers is no easy way out. “”The fate that . . . awaits those who obstinately reject Christ is a fearful one”,” says Chris Date, an independent theologian who runs the Rethinking Hell website, helps produce annual conferences on the topic, and has co-edited two scholarly works on this subject. “”There is no greater human fear than death. We fight tooth and nail to preserve our lives at all costs.”

The future of this reform

Strauss sees the movement promoting a restudy of hell as having made a solid start. “The once taboo topic is being openly discussed, as well-regarded scholars publish articles and best-selling books that rely on careful readings of Scripture to challenge traditional views.”

What does the future hold for this reform? Preston Sprinkle is optimistic. Co-editor of the new edition of Four Views on Hell, Sprinkle was also co-author with Francis Chan of Erasing Hell, which was number three on the New York Times bestseller list.

“My prediction,” Sprinkle says, “is that even within conservative evangelical circles, the annihilation view of hell will be the dominant view in 10 or 15 years.” Sprinkle says he bases his prediction on “how many well-known pastors secretly hold that view.” For the glory of God and the advancement of the gospel, may it be so.

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