BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Just when it seemed to have cooled off, the topic of hell is back on the front burner — at least for pastors learning to preach about a topic most Americans would rather not talk about.
Only 59 percent of Americans believe in hell, compared with 74 percent who believe in heaven, according to the recent surveys from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
“I think it’s such a difficult and important biblical topic,” said Kurt Selles, director of the Global Center at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. “There’s a big change that’s taken place as far as evangelicals not wanting to be as exclusive.”
At the annual Beeson Pastors School, Selles led two workshops to discuss “Whatever happened to hell?” He asked how many of the pastors had ever preached a sermon on hell. Nobody had, he said.
“I think it’s something people want to avoid,” he said. “I understand why. It’s a difficult topic.”
Fred Johns, pastor of Brookview Wesleyan Church in Irondale, Ala., said after a workshop discussion of hell that pastors do shy away from the topic of everlasting damnation.
“It’s out of fear we’ll not appear relevant,” he said. “It’s pressure from the culture to not speak anything negative. I think we’ve begun to deny hell. There’s an assumption that everybody’s going to make it to heaven somehow.”
The soft sell on hell reflects an increasingly market-conscious approach, Selles said.
“When you’re trying to market Jesus, sometimes there’s a tendency to mute traditional Christian symbols,” he said. “Difficult doctrines are left by the wayside. Hell is a morally repugnant doctrine. People wonder why God would send people to eternal punishment.”
Speakers said the seriousness of Jesus dying for man’s sins relates to the gravity of salvation vs. damnation, according to Johns. “If you don’t mention God’s judgment, you are missing a big part of the Christian gospel,” Selles said. “Without wrath, there’s no grace.”
Pope John Paul II stirred up a debate in 1999 by describing hell as “the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”
Although the pope was reflecting official Roman Catholic teaching, some U.S. evangelicals expressed misgivings about the implication that hell is an abstract separation from God rather than a literal lake of fire as described in the Book of Revelation.
The pope’s comments on hell stirred up the ancient debate about whether hell is a real place of burning fire or a state of mind reflecting a dark, cold emptiness and distance from God.
Evangelical Christians have traditionally offered a sterner view of salvation and damnation. A Southern Baptist Home Mission Board study in 1993 estimated that 70 percent of all Americans are going to hell, based on projected numbers of those who have not had a born-again experience.
Human ideas about hell were still in ferment as the Bible was being written. The theological concept of hell has a rich cultural heritage, according to historian Alan Bernstein, author of “The Formation of Hell.”
The ancient Hebrews focused on the afterlife following their Babylonian captivity, when they experienced the torment of ungodly enemies who seemed to have an unjustifiably good life on Earth. During the Babylonian exile, Jews were exposed to Zoroastrianism, which asserts there is an eternal struggle between good and evil, with good triumphing
in the end.
The Hebrew concept of “Sheol” — the realm of the dead — may also have been influenced by the Greek mythology of Tartarus, a place of everlasting punishment for the Titans, a race of gods defeated by Zeus, Bernstein writes.
From about 300 B.C. to 300 A.D., those influences combined with Hebrew speculation about an eventual comeuppance to the worldly wicked.
In translating the Bible from Hebrew to Greek, the Greeks used the terms Tartarus, Hades and Gehenna. In Greek thought, Hades is not a place of punishment; it’s where the dead are separated from the living.
The term Gehenna referred to a ravine outside Jerusalem that was used as a garbage dump. It had once been a place of child sacrifice and became a symbol of pain and suffering, Selles said. As a garbage dump, it was probably often a place of fire as trash was burned, emphasizing the symbolism of the flames of eternal damnation, he said.
Jesus never soft-pedaled the concept of hell, Selles said. “It’s not metaphorical in Jesus’ mind; it’s a real place,” he said.
In 410 A.D., St. Augustine defined four states of afterlife: those so good they go to heaven; those so bad they go to hell; those who deserve some relief in their eternal torment; and those who deserve to be lifted out of torment after repenting for their sins. That set the stage for the doctrine of purgatory in 1237 A.D.
The Bible contains a litany of colorful images of hell as both fire and darkness, as in the Gospel of Matthew, which refers to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and “the outer darkness” where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
Either way, Selles said, pretending that hell doesn’t exist, or trying to preach around it, short-circuits the Bible.
“This is a doctrine, a teaching, that’s being neglected in churches,” Selles said. “It needs to be preached. It’s part of the gospel.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Garrison writes for The Birmingham News.)