Summary: This talk examines two common alternatives to the traditional idea of hell: universalism and annihilationism.
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Heard ANYTHING like this from the pulpit recently? It’s a sentence from one of the most FAMOUS sermons in history: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It was PREACHED on 8 July 1741 by the American preacher, Jonathan Edwards.
It’s easier to JOKE about hell than face the cruel reality. MARK TWAIN wrote, ‘Go to heaven for the climate, Hell for the company’. ‘If there is no hell’, someone once quipped, ‘a good many preachers are obtaining money under false pretences’ (William A. Sunday).
A lecturer in a theological college asked his STUDENTS to participate in ‘a little experiment’. He asked each person to RATE themselves on a scale of one to six, as to HOW much they doubted their faith. A SIX indicated a lot of doubt; ONE meant very little or no doubt. How would YOU rate yourself? Does the idea of hell diminish your faith?
It’s a TOUCHY subject—hell. It’s prime, religious CRINGE material. It affronts a good many people. Hell is politically incorrect. It CHALLENGES our view of God. We prone NOT to read passages which speak about hell. It moves us to TEARS when we consider the fate of our unbelieving family and friends. What about my unbelieving mum and dad? What about my friend who accidently fell to his death? Hell is ALMOST too bad to be true. It’s a touchy subject—hell.
For over 2,000 years the mainstream Christian church has AFFIRMED the doctrine of eternal punishment. However, in the last FIFTY YEARS, a big shift has occurred amongst Bible-believing Christians. The influence has come from within and without the church. Philosophers like Bertrand RUSSELL claim that any person with any SENSE of decency cannot believe in everlasting punishment. Men such as John STOTT and John WENHAM are saying that we ought to embrace a wider range of interpretations.
This morning we shall consider TWO alternate views of hell. Because if we are to BELIEVE the traditional view—if the Bible really promotes eternal, conscious punishment—then we need to be certain that the ALTERNATIVES fall short of the scriptural evidence. The most important question we can ask is, ‘What is the mind of God on the subject of hell’?
The first alternative is UNIVERSALISM. This is the view that God’s love is so big and so wide and so EMBRACING, that he cannot and will not send people to a place of eternal torment. Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins, tries to bring UNIVERSALISM back into mainstream thinking.
At funerals we are often told that the DRUNKEN, womanising wretch is now safely in the hands of a loving God—or at least he’s with the rest of his MATES in hell having an eternal booze-up. So DESPERATE we are at funerals to accept the death of a loved one, that the world RATIONALISES and says, ‘He is happy now. He’s gone to a better place’. This is a form of universalism.
Universalism argues that humanity will ULTIMATELY be saved through Jesus whether or not FAITH is professed in him. They usually complain about hell with QUESTIONS such as these ones:
‘Is God really going to send most of humanity to hell’?
‘If most go to hell, doesn't that mean that Satan wins? Since God only gets a few and Satan gets the majority who are lost’?
Rob Bell asks similar questions in Love Wins:
‘Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?’ (Bell, Love Wins, 2).
I’m sure Bell is not the first to make this point. Surely God CAN’T be like this? Surely God’s not this ANGRY, this MEAN and this UNLOVING? And while you’re asking questions, DON’T forget to ask this one, ‘What does God say about hell in his Word’?
There are verses that plainly teach that not everyone is saved:
John 3:36, ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him’.
Matt 7:13–14, ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it’.