Q. 10 (Pt 3) Why Do We Have Such a Hard Time with Hell?

10. Will God suffer such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?

By no means,1 but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as our actual sins, and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity, as He has declared: “Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them.”2

1 Hebrews 9:27. 2 Deuteronomy 27:26; Galatians 3:10; * Romans 1:18. * Matthew 25:41.

One of the more difficult doctrines for the modern mind to accept is the doctrine of divine punishment.

The modern creed has three or four points, one of which is universalism, i.e. the doctrine that all are saved. All dogs (and people) go to heaven. It is axiomatic for modern folk that God may not distinguish between human beings. It’s true that God is no respecter of persons, meaning that God doesn’t favor the rich over the poor (indeed, there is a good lot of biblical evidence to suggest that the relations are the other way round!), he doesn’t favor ethnic groups as such and so on. The modern creed, however, holds much more than that. The modern creed holds that God cannot distinguish or treat one human being differently than another. Since this is axiomatic, it’s a nearly universal assumption among contemporary evangelical and especially among liberal Christians. This is what most folk mean when they say “justice” or “fairness.” This is the a priori that lies behind the belief that Jesus made salvation possible for all (he wrote the check) and it’s up to us to appropriate that salvation by faith (or by faith and works), i.e. it’s up to us to “cash the check.” Among modern liberals (and particularly my old friends the Unitarian Universalists) the idea that God should have divided humanity into classes of elect and reprobate is one of the most horrific notions of historic Christianity that, in their mind, justifies their utter disgust with it.

A closely related corollary to the modern rejection of any idea of reprobation is the modern rejection of the doctrine of hell and punishment. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me “I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell.” It must be nice to be able to define your own god — on reflection, maybe not! Of course these same people also believe that they are basically righteous. They don’t accept the essential premise of the doctrine of hell and punishment: that, after the fall, God alone is righteous and that human beings deserve to be punished. Most people today don’t really accept the very idea of sin (transgression of or want of conformity to God’s law).

The pre-modern church, by contrast, had relatively less difficulty with this doctrine because they accepted the doctrines of divine righteousness and human sinfulness. In the modern period, after the Enlightenment, the proportions of people who accepted and rejected these doctrines were reversed. There were probably always some who rejected the doctrines of sin, hell, and punishment. That number certain grew during the Renaissance and was fueled by a series of theologically deviant movements in the sixteenth century. All those who have rejected the doctrines of sin, punishment, and hell have one thing in common: rationalism. Whatever Scripture seemed to say, the ratiionalist KNOWS that it couldn’t possibly be so because he KNOWS what justice is. Whereas the Christian begins with divine revelation, the rationalist intellect intersects with ultimate rationality or some universal rational principle to which all beings (god and humans) must assent. “Christian” rationalism has often posited that the human intellect intersects with the divine. Pagan rationalism sets up some version of autonomous rationality by which all other authorities (including Scripture) are levered. In the Enlightenment they set out to explain how it is that they KNOW that it couldn’t possibly be the case and it was on that basis that they openly sat in judgment over Scripture.

As the Enlightenment rationalism began to infiltrate into the church there were some who openly articulated the rationalist ground for rejecting reprobation, punishment, and hell. Others, liberals, accepted that rationalist account but tried to re-shape Christianity along more “Enlightened” lines without saying openly what they were doing. They thought it was okay if the little old ladies in their parishes thought that we all still believed the faith. This the sort of thing that provoked J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. The liberals routed the “conservatives” and swept the board. They took control of the institutions, boards, and committees and within a decade or two mention of reprobation, punishment, or hell could only provoke disapproving clucking from the illuminati. Today it’s more likely to bring charges and some sort of academic star chamber proceeding on many campuses.

Progressively, since the 1970s, neo-evangelicals and their children have been making peace not only with the mainline but with the liberalism of the mainline, including the rationalist rejection of reprobation, punishment, and hell. Many of today’s evangelicals are the children and grand children of angry, purple veined, white-shirted, sweaty fundamentalists. They reacted by trading one form of doctrinal and ecclesiastical minimalism for another. Never did they give the Reformation a serious look because they just assumed the identity of the Reformation with their fundamentalist background. Now, sitting in a polite, latitudinarian, Anglican service, where everyone and everything is O so sweetly reasonable and where doctrinal pluralism is the order of the day and where (perhaps) the prayer book and personal religious experience are the only two universals really does change “plausibility structures.”

When John Stott (whom I don’t know but whose writing has been a great help to me) and John Wenham (whom I did know, and whose writing has been equally valuable) criticized and rejected the doctrines of hell and eternal punishment, that was the signal for many evangelicals that it was now okay to adopt, in effect, the liberal view on these topics. When I interviewed at a Christian College some years back an administrator asked me if I believed in hell. I said, “yes.” He asked, “Is anyone going there?” “Sadly, yes” I replied. He told me that they were having a difficult time finding candidates who still believed the doctrine of hell or eternal punishment.

There is much more to say and we haven’t even touched the doctrine of temporal punishment yet. One final thought for this post. We late moderns should not assume that our pre-modern forefathers (and foremothers) had an easy time with the doctrines of reprobation, punishment, and hell. In his commentary on this question, Zacharias Ursinus (the primary author of the catechism) wrote, in part, “In the exposition of this Question, we must consider the evil of punishment, which is the other part of the misery of man. In relation to this we are taught that God punishes sin most severely, justly, and certainly.”

Unlike some, who seem positively to revel in the doctrines of reprobation, punishment, and hell, Ursinus strikes two chords: 1) he regarded the reality of punishment and hell as an “evil,” 2) he affirmed them anyway because he (and we with him) understood them to be biblical truths (not mere medieval fancies) and theological consequences of our doctrines of the righteousness and holiness of God and our doctrine of sin. The difference between Ursinus and moderns is that Ursinus regarded Scripture as the final authority for faith and life, whereas moderns assume that we are the principium cognoscendi (the beginning of knowing) and the final authority. Ursinus believed in sin. By and large, except when discussing corporate entities (e.g. society) moderns do not. Ursinus believed in fixed law and righteousness. Moderns do not. Ursinus feared God. Moderns do not. They won’t have a god they must fear.

More next time on eternal and temporal punishment.

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  1. Great article Dr. Clark. I have a question that is a mere sub-question (really): Does J. Stott really believe that there is no such thing as hell? If so, I’ll have to re-visit “Cross of Christ” and take a closer look at it. But, I’m curious as John Stott is, like you, an author who is very valuable to me in terms of his insights regarding Scripture and Theology.

  2. Dr. Clark, thanks for the link to the Packer essay, I have often wondered myself where John Stott had stated his departure from a doctrine of eternal punishment, now I know.

  3. Thank you for this article. Its refreshing to hear someone tell it like it is and not go along with what the worldly churches believe. We long for Jesus return.

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