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Eternal Damnation Doctrine Seldom Heard

Conservative evangelical preacher also raises questions.

A recent cartoon pictures a woman exiting from the church door. With extended hand to the robed clergyman, she exclaims, “I really liked that stuff you were saying about all of us being sinners and how we’re damned for eternity.”

One is reminded of John Steinbeck feeling exhilarated and dignified after attending a service in New England where the minister delivered a Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God” sort of sermon.

The cartoon’s humor is two-fold: One, that she felt good being so excoriated.  Secondly, there is  humor in the notion that such a judgmental message would have been offered in a high church pulpit.

Certainly the teaching is in the tradition: “For sin pays a wage, and the wage is death.” (Bible, Romans 6:23, REB) The Lutheran Augsburg Confession reads, “The Gospel says that all men are under sin and are worthy of eternal wrath and death.” (The Book of Concord, c. 1959, p.115, para. 62) Reformer John Calvin wrote, “How great and severe ... is the punishment, to endure the never ceasing effects of his [God’s] wrath.” (A Compendium of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, c. 1939, p. 147)

The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession reads: “The punishments of sin in the world to come are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever."

A worshiper, in all likelihood, will not hear this sort of “orthodoxy” from pulpits in Los Gatos. There may be some exceptions. 

Perhaps one would hear such teaching at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Lost Gatos. Adventists teach that Christ “paid the penalty we deserve for our hateful choices toward God.” (www.adventist.org/beliefs) But the payment applies only to believers.

At The Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah Witnesses there will be a denial of the traditional Christian view of hell.  Rather hell is said to be the “common grave of mankind”  (www.towerwatch.com/Witnesses/Beliefs)  where they are not conscious, while true Jehovah Witnesses will rise in the resurrection.

The occasion of this reflection is your correspondent’s recent reading of the widely-selling book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, an evangelical body in Grand Rapids, MI. Bell says that the teaching that a “select few Christians” will gain heaven while “the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell” is a “misguided and toxic” doctrine.  This is radical stuff issuing from a conservative pulpit, though it coincides with the silence on the subject in many circles.

For some time now it has seemed to this writer that a moral God when issuing discipline should do so in a rehabilitative, not merely punitive, manner.  Furthermore, what balance exists in an endless retribution for mischief done in the space of a few years? And then there’s the good question: If God is sovereign and God’s nature loving, will the divine purpose for anyone always remain thwarted?

But someone may ask, “Is hell not exactly what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., deserve?”  It’s a good question. What say you?

bc June 27, 2011 at 05:41 AM
the afterlife is a ridiculous concept, regardless of its nature or tenure. note that most world religions harbor some faction that holds that non-believers in their faith go to hell by default. so according to someone out there, you're going to hell. and they really believe it. but your mom just couldn't be happy in the hereafter without her kids, so you're also going to heaven, assuming mom herself is going to heaven. and the rules just keep changing! god is apparently omniscient, with his once-proclamation of the wealthy having an easier time of passing through the eye of a needle, but now your megachurch pastor might just drive a bentley. killing is apparently a ticket to hell, unless you are in the army, then it is absolved. god apparently has a deal with the recruitment center. the concept of afterlife is a relic of humanity's ancient ignorant worldviews, yet we cling to these views because many of us are too child-like and cowardly to accept the finality of our own mortality. one wonders if those motivated by the concept of the afterlife can be considered genuinely moral at all...they are making decisions based not on an inherent concept of good and evil, but the impact it will have on their own reward scheme.
David B. Bowman June 28, 2011 at 12:30 AM
bc: I'm pleased skeptics are among the readers. But your skepticism contains tones of contempt for those who believe. You, for example, call the notion of "afterlife" a "ridiculous concept." But could not a believer respond that he/she sees "intimations of immortality" within and without? Could not the person call your position "ridiculous" with at least equal justification? On various matters we agree. (a)there's not much scriptural warrant for renewal of old friendship in the beyond; (b)the "prosperity gospel" varies from true religion; (c)the celebration of war among the faithful needs reexamination; (d)we like pithy, pungent humor. I wish we could have coffee some time. Be in touch if you are so inclined . . . dbb01@comcast.net. Shalom, David B. Bowman
bc June 28, 2011 at 03:14 AM
a believer may see "intimations of immortality", but wishing for the afterlife does not imply it will be realized. we all daydream. as to the suggestion that a believer could, with equal justification, claim that my position is absurd is also false. given the proliferation of views of the afterlife, this individual has an extra burden of proof...not only that i am wrong, but that their model of the afterlife is also correct given the multitude of contradictory models that people around the world hold true. in olden times it was simple - people with a different model were heretics and were going to hell. presuming that is now accepted as ridiculous, the second proof burden exists. since no one may have sensory perception beyond death, i can obviously provide no irrefutable proof that i am right. but that does not imply that any fantastic tale an opposing view might concoct is therefore valid. otherwise i might simply say god is a leprechaun on the same basis...that it is impossible to prove me wrong.
zocolo fishing June 28, 2011 at 10:23 PM
The general church goer has enough trials and tribulations in their life. Their life is extremely busy, and full of fire and brimstone. So when the time comes, they they take time out for church: Do they want to be lectured about going to 'Eternal Damnation'? No. 2Tim 4:3 - So the message of the old-time religion has been watered down. Because pastors realize that if they speak of such things, they will not hold the attention of the audience. In the past, people felt they had to be there. Now, people do not feel so compelled. They must apeal to other things. Now I will switch it up a bit: I will say that the reason that the idea of Hell works in the first place. Is based on an immortal soul. If one has an immortal soul... different religions need to imagine a place to put that soul or spirit after they die. But imagine something different: That the soul or the body dies. That you lose consciousness, and you go to sleep. That you await a resurrection. - 1Cor 15:6 "After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep." --Here the Apostle refers to some of dead men as Asleep, not in Heaven. Thanks
David B. Bowman June 29, 2011 at 06:42 PM
bc: The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, a skeptic in many respects, speaks of having "eternity placed in his heart" by the creator. Tennyson caught the intimation by a "flower in a crannied wall." And so forth and so on. Are there really a "proliferation of views" or only three with minor deviation in two of them? Either bless or torture or oblivion. I suppose reincarnation offers another variation. There are, as you say, "no proofs" for immortality or oblivion. I would simply argue that it's excessively dogmatic to call the other side ridiculous and childish. Shalom, David B. Bowman
David B. Bowman June 29, 2011 at 06:45 PM
zocolo fishing: Your point about the pragmatism of the pastor, as a reason for silence about hell, is interesting. We may be close together in our personal views. The Christian faith does not presuppose immortal souls, though a majority of Christians think it does. Neither then does orthodox teaching point to a soul flying off into eternity. Once again Greek philosophy blots out biblical teaching. You are indeed correct. If you want to understand Christian teaching on the hereafter, turn to St. Paul in I Cor. 15. Shalom, David B. Bowman
bc June 29, 2011 at 08:18 PM
david bowman: world religions vary profoundly with regards to beliefs in the afterlife: http://www.religionfacts.com/big_religion_chart.htm once again, for a believer in a particular vision of the afterlife, they must not only demonstrate that my supposition (no afterlife) is wrong, but that each of the other beliefs listed here is also wrong as to my determination that such a belief is "childish", this is once again a matter of mainstream vs. nonmainstream supernatural beliefs. consider that many religious systems outlined in the link above were once derided and even punishable. yet once enough people followed such a system, it entered into the mainstream and was now beyond reproach, having lapsed from gibberish into religion. but your comment is one i hear often...that atheists are insulting. yet we excuse and indeed embrace religious belief systems around the world that openly advocate or support the killing of nonbelievers in their scriptures. the world would be better off with mere insulting.
James July 01, 2011 at 12:09 AM
Seventh-day Adventism teaches that the lost are consumed--no eternal suffering in hell.
David B. Bowman July 08, 2011 at 08:50 PM
James: Thank you for your comment. I am surprised and informed by your assertion. I intend to find out more about that for myself. David B. Bowman
AAA February 09, 2013 at 01:35 PM
If there was no heaven or hell, then what all that Jesus did was in vain. If the punishment at the end is annihilation, how would one know that it has happened. People need to remember Malachi 3:6 "For I am the LORD, I change not" Man does not want to be held accountable for their sins, for they are not "That Bad" Increasingly, society today is adhering to New Age philosophies, with the central teaching being that not one person or group can be 100% correct about God. Thus, the Biblical claim that Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to Heaven is adamantly rejected by the New Agers. Many have a difficult time with certain truths the Bible teaches, not because they are difficult and unclear, but because they are only too clear, and many don’t like the implications. If you will not hear Jesus on hell, then why pretend to hear Jesus on anything else ?

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