By Craig Branch

“Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try—no hell below us, above us only sky.” John Lennon, Imagine (1971)

In 1995 British Bible teacher and evangelist, John Blanchard, authored a book titled, “ Whatever Happened to Hell? That same year, Robert Peterson, systematic theology professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, wrote a book, Hell on Trial. The next year Zondervan published Four Views on Hell. Most recently, Chris Morgan and Robert Peterson edited Hell Under Fire. All of these books were written because of a wide-spread trend in the culture, and even in the church, away from the traditional Christian belief in eternal punishment.

The common objection involves the question of fairness. How can a good, loving, and just God allow eternal torment to people like a parent who never accepted Christ, or a “good” Jew, or Mother Theresa, or Christopher Reeves, or Benjamin Franklin. And what about those who have never heard the gospel? If they went to hell without having a chance to hear about Christ, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? Moreover, many people in our culture have embraced religious pluralism, the view that all religions are equally valid pathways to God. So, don’t all religions eventually lead to heaven? The implications of the existence and fairness of a literal, eternal, tormenting punishing and separation from God are imbedded in these objections.

There are numerous more overt denials of the Biblical doctrine of hell. Certain cults like Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unity School of Christianity, Christian Science, some old Worldwide Church of God splinter groups, and Mormonism deny the doctrine. Add millions of Hindus, Buddhists, and myriads of new agers who deny the Biblical doctrine of hell, teaching instead forms of reincarnation.

Modern liberal theology, while often denying Biblical inerrancy, has also embraced the humanistic, philosophical objections to hell. Prominent theologians in this movement are Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, John Hick, and John Shelby Spong. In addition to this continuing modernist rationale, we are experiencing a tidal wave of postmodernism which denies our ability to know absolute truth and thus accepts both pluralism and universalism. Hell has no place in this mindset.

Data on Hell’s Decline

Research surveys demonstrate the erosion of the traditional belief in hell, corresponding to the growth of modernism and liberalism, as well as postmodern relativism. In 1978, the doctrine of eternal punishment was believed by 70% of the U.S. population. In 1988, a Newsweek poll reflected a drop in that belief to 58%. In that same year, that belief was held by 39% of Australians. A 1989 Gallup poll revealed that only 24% of Britain’s population believed in a traditional hell. Barna’s 2003 research showed that the percentage of American’s believing in an eternal hell fell from 58% in 1988 to 32%.

This decline in actual belief in hell is reflected (and perhaps fueled) by the many common usages of the word “hell” in everyday conversation. Consider common expressions like “I went through hell,” “I knocked the hell out of the ball,” “That was a hell of a party,” “Hell of a chance of that happening,” “Raise hell,” or “angry as hell.” I even recently saw an advertisement for a Christmas holiday party dip called “Heluva Party.” Such expressions demonstrate a casualness, a watering down, a dulling of our conscience on the actual state of hell. And we should also note that even among Christians who say they believe in hell, there is a decided avoidance of the topic. When, for example, was the last time you heard a sermon on the topic of hell?

Evangelical Retreat From Hell

The apologetic need regarding hell goes beyond those deceived by certain cults and world religions. There are also a small number of respected evangelical theologians who struggle with the philosophical dilemma over the fairness of a loving God who would establish an eternal state of horrific punishment for people who are far less hideous and deserving than Hitler or Stalin. Prominent evangelical figures who have retreated from hell include John Stott, Philip Edgcombe Hughes, John Wenham, F. F. Bruce, and Clark Pinnock. These theologians either embrace annihilationism (sometimes called conditionalism) or claim to be tentative or agnostic on the topic. Some, like John Stott, attempt to argue their case for annihilationism from Scripture. J.I. Packer responds to Stott and others: “Respectfully, I disagree, for their biblical arguments are to my mind flimsy special pleading, and the feelings that want conditionalism (annihilationism) to be true seem to me to reflect, not superior sensitivity, but secular sentimentalism.”1

In Robert Morey’s excellent expositional and apologetic book, Death and the Afterlife, he describes the historical cycle within the Church and culture on the doctrine of hell with a series of “after ____ comes ____” propositions.2 He concludes, “After acknowledgement comes indifference,” when hell, the negative side of the gospel, is acknowledged, but seldom referred to in comparison to the “positive side” of heaven.

“After indifference comes doubt,” Morey continues. Since hell is not taught and understood, human doubts begin to emerge with thoughts that hell is unkind, unloving, or unfair. Then “after doubt comes denial.” This is demonstrated in the rise of liberalism, contemporary cults, universalists, and even a few controversial orthodox embracers of annihilationism or other theories denying hell.

As the number of those who deny hell multiplies drastically, as we are seeing today, the pressure grows to defend the Scriptural teaching on hell. So Morey notes that, among those who believe in hell, “after denial comes irritation” and then “affirmation,” and he exhorts the Church to teach and defend the doctrine, lest “the church return to its dogmatic slumbers.”

In This Issue
In this issue of Areopagus Journal, we address the objections noted above. The first article, “Eternal Punishment: The Biblical Evidence,” by Ray Clendenen sets forth the biblical exposition of hell. He demonstrates the consistency of both the Old Testament revelation and the New Testament on this issue. This is important because many try to make a case that the Old Testament teaching is in conflict with the condition of the lost in the New Testament. Clendenen responds to the claim that Paul is silent on the topic as well. Clendenen’s article also sets forth the case that a consistent and true exposition of Scripture negates belief in annihilationism and universalism. Those who do not agree with the doctrine of hell do not have the support of Scripture.

The next article, “Can a Just and Loving God Send People to Hell?” is written by ARC’s Dr. Steve Cowan. His article responds to the emotional and philosophical objections to eternal punishment. Dr. Cowan begins with the theological rationale for the doctrine of hell and proceeds from there to address the question of how a just and loving God could send people there.

The Journal concludes with Gregory Cochran’s, “Hell, No: Why Preaching Hell is Insufficient for Saving Faith.” Cochran’s purpose is to make sure there is a biblical balance maintained in the way we emphasize or proclaim the doctrine of Hell. He is concerned that an overemphasis on hell creates the wrong motive to respond to the gospel—a selfish motive. Focusing on the famous evangelistic content of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons, Cochran maintains that, even though Edwards clearly taught the existence and danger of hell, he never prioritized the topic of hell in his messages. As Cochran writes, “Hell is not, on its own, sufficient for saving faith”, and “avoiding Hell is not the point of the gospel.”

The Reincarnation Alternative

One apologetics issue on the afterlife not addressed directly by our contributors is a response to belief in reincarnation. As mentioned earlier, there is a significant growth of Hinduism and Buddhism in the U.S., either by immigration or conversion. In addition, there has been a significant influence and growth of the New Age Movement, or eastern mysticism, which is often derived from Hinduism and Buddhism. And there are many followers of cults and the occult like Christian Science, Unity, Wicca, Oprah’s frequent parade of New Age celebrities, as well as popular movements like transcendental meditation and yoga, which often lead to eastern mysticism and its underlying belief in reincarnation. The growth of these movements has clearly impacted our mission field in the U.S. and Europe. Gallup and Barna polls in 2003 both found that 18-20 % of Americans believe in reincarnation, including 10 % of “born-again” Christians. A late 2007 Harris Poll found that 21% of Americans believe in reincarnation while 29 % were “not sure.”3

Briefly, the doctrine of reincarnation operates under the “law of karma” that one’s good works (however defined) must outweigh negative works in order to progress spiritually. So, after death, karma determines in what state one will return. In Hinduism, this process is called “transmigration of the soul,” where one’s soul returns to inhabit a newborn human or animal life. In other eastern expressions, one returns in another human body in a condition based on earned benefits or deficits.

The ultimate goal is “moksha” or “nirvana”, where one escapes the cycle of rebirths and is fully absorbed into the Absolute or Divine (pantheism or panentheism). This process can take many, many lifetimes.

This belief is obviously at odds with Christianity, which holds that there is one true, perfect, Being—God—and that “it is appointed for man to die once and then comes the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and perfection is a once for all imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness through faith in His finished work.

Reincarnationists often attempt to validate reincarnation with the Bible. Common passages (mis)used to attempt to support reincarnation are John 3:3, Matthew 11:14, and John 9:1-3. In John 3:3, Jesus tells a Jewish leader, Nicodemus, that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The argument is that the necessity to be born again refers to reincarnation. But, when one applies normal rules of interpretation, the immediate context must be considered as well as the use of a word or concept in the rest of the Scripture. To be “born again” is a spiritual rebirth that has already happened when a person is converted to Christianity by the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:3, 23; Gal. 4:4-7; Rom 8:1-11). In Nicodemus’ response to Jesus, he does not envision anything like reincarnation, and Jesus responds that He is talking about a spiritual rebirth only, not a physical one.

Another popular passage used by reincarnationists is where Jesus points to John the Baptist, saying “He is the Elijah who was to come” (Matt. 11:14). They say John is the reincarnation of Elijah. They also point to the prophecy in Malachi 4:5: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” Therefore, it is argued, John must be Elijah. But, again, when one checks other related Scripture (and the entire message of Scripture), there is a better understanding. Reading 2 Kings 2:9 and Luke 1:17, we see that having the spirit of Elijah refers to the prophetic nature of his ministry, not the identity of his personhood. John specifically denied being Elijah (John 1:21). Also, Elijah did not die but was assumed into heaven like Enoch (2 Kings 2:11), and even later appeared with Moses as himself, not John, on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3-4).

In John 9:1-3, reincarnationists hold that since the Jews asked if a man was born blind because he sinned, then they must believe that he accumulated negative karma (sinned) in a previous life. But even if some Jewish rabbi had speculated that a baby could sin in the womb, Jesus corrected them in His response that it was not his sin, nor his parents, thus eliminating any reincarnation option.

Some point to past life recall as evidence of reincarnation but objective studies have demonstrated far too many inconsistencies with details and facts recalled, as well as suggestions made by an involved “psychic.” From a Christian standpoint, any factual information given in so-called past life recalls can easily be attributed to demonic activity.4

The demise of the biblical doctrine of hell and its substitutes do not do justice to the infinite distance between the perfection of the Holy God and the sinfulness of man. Neither does it do justice to the grace and mercy of God. Even though hell is not an essential doctrine on which the Church stands or falls, to deny it or reconstruct it seriously compromises the essential doctrines of sin and the atonement. Christians must embrace and teach the doctrine of hell because of its prominent place in Scripture and our worldview.

Along with the love of God, it also should motivate us to share the grace of the cross with those outside of Christ.

1Kenneth Kantzer and Carl Henry, Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, 1990).
2 Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984), 15.
3See “The Religions and Other Beliefs of Americans” (Nov. 29, 2007) (accessed at www.harrisinteractive. com).
4 See Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 238ff.

Craig Branch is Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama.


Recommended Books

Whatever Happened to Hell
John Blanchard
, (Crossway Books, 1995).

Crucial Questions about Hell Ajith Fernado, (Crossway Books, 1991).

Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, (Crossway, 1998).

Hell Under Fire
Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson
, eds., (Zondervan, 2004).

Hell on Trial; The Case for Eternal Punishment
Robert Peterson
, (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995).