Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Mohler’s chapter is broken into sections as listed: Background: Hell in Christian History, Hell as Question: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Hell As Scandal: The Victorian Crisis of Faith, Hell as Myth: Twentieth-Century Theology and the Problem of Evil, Hell As Reality…,Hell in the Balance: What is at Stake?
I want to make some comments on most of these sections and then a summary comment on the chapter as a whole. I am not sure whether I will look at each chapter this way, but for right now I think I should. These authors are all heavyweights in the Christian world and there is, at least for now, much to point out concerning their views. Let me start with the first section, Background: Hell in Christian History.
Mohler begins his chapter by lamenting that the traditional view of hell (as I use the term hell, unless otherwise noted, I will mean a place of conscious eternal torment) is disappearing and suddenly. He states, “Take out the doctrine of hell, and the entire shape of Christian theology is inevitably altered.” He states that the doctrine of hell is based in the New Testament texts and the earliest preachers and theologians believed hell as God’s judgment on sinners. Jesus explained hell and the early Christians followed what He taught about it. A quote is given by Thomas Oden from Oden’s Systematic Theology stating that the patristic fathers were agreed that hell was eternal and God created it to destroy sin completely and forever.
Oden notes in that same volume that eternal fire and eternal punishment are very common and though being tested through the years, still have not been redefined. Augustine is then quoted from Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, as saying that Matt 25:46 supports the concept of eternal punishment and eternal life.
Mohler then shares a few paragraphs about Origen, how he leveled the first major challenge to the doctrine of hell. He states that Origen was a universalist who believed that ultimately all people would be saved and that God’s punishment was restorative not retributive. And then, we are taken directly to the Council of Constantinople in 553AD where the council deemed universalism to be anathema. Since Origen held to universalism, he was anathematized by the council as well.
Mohler goes on to state that this view was held all the way through the Reformation by the majority of the church. Jonathan Edwards was lauded for his fiery sermon on hell (The Torments of Hell Are Exceedingly Great in Sermons and Discourses) and Robert Schuller is now becoming the norm in Christianity today with his steadfastness against hell and eternal torment.
The reason I wanted to spend a little more time on this opening section is because of the foundation that Mohler is trying to lay. In a few short pages, in summary, he proclaims that hell (remember conscious eternal torment) was preached by Jesus, the Apostles, the disciples, patristic fathers and codified in 553 AD by the Council and subsequently believed by most of the church up to and beyond the Reformation. He seems to imply that there was a lone voice of dissent (Origen) though not specifically stated (though no other examples of ante-Nicene nor post-Nicene fathers who believed in universalism). In Mohler’s defense, he does state on page 17 that Origen “was the pioneer of a form of universalism” and maybe by this statement one could assume that others followed.
I understand his space was limited, but that, I believe, is a major problem with books such as this. The disappearance of hell is looked at in a shallow way, with really no scriptural support given for the view of eternal torment in a place called hell. There is no tracking of universalism through those centuries (mostly the Dark Ages) to contrast with the “majority” belief in hell, nor are other views such as annihilationism contrasted either. My hope is that as the book proceeds, the reader will be given insight into the definitions of such key terms as eternal, hell, everlasting, punishment, etc.
My challenge is several. Should a believer, especially a new one or a nominal one, take these statements by Mohler, Oden, Augustine or others as truth? How were these conclusions arrived at by Mohler? Where can the reader go to find out what the actual early believers thought about hell, the patristic fathers, those who served on the councils? My suggestion is for the reader to go online and download many early texts from sites such as www.earlychristianwritings.com. Reading the materials offered at these types of sites is not without caution. We must realize the texts are not scripture. However, they can give valuable insight into the thoughts of some during the early days to help form a broader picture of Christianity and beliefs held in those early years.
Another challenge is this: Why jump from Jesus and a few passing comments about the early fathers (with no substantiation) to nearly 500 years after Jesus’ time? History records seven ecumenical councils that were held from AD 325 – 787. The one Mohler references the one in 553 AD being the fifth, Constantinople I. He states that universalism was deemed a heresy at that council. So, if universalism was such a heresy, blasphemous enough to warrant anathemas on the belief and all those who held it, why was it not addressed earlier? Origen lived from around 184-253 AD and wrote between 203-250 AD. Why would the church take 300 years to deem universalism anathema?
As I will write about in forthcoming articles, I believe the reason for the lack of support and lack of a verdict for so many years is that many, if not most, of the early church (Apostles, disciples, early fathers, etc) believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all mankind to the Father. As you read some early works for yourself, and read the New Testament without traditional denominational glasses on, I believe you will find a different story or outlook on “hell” than what you have been taught.
I encourage you to look into the beliefs of such men as Eusebius, member of the Council of Nicea AD 325, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory Nyssa, members of the Council of Constantinople I AD 381 and Council of Ephesus AD 431 respectively.. This should give you plenty to study and then, if adventurous, comment to this post and I will send you some links to other works that I will be writing about in the future, but ones that you could read now.
Mohler continues the chapter citing events and beliefs by various groups from the 1600’s forward to the 20th century. He shows how English society changed and began finding the belief in hell uncouth for a civilized society. He shows the rise of the Socinians and Arians and how the Enlightenment produced philosophical thought that denied hell.
One notable point he made referred to Victorian society. He states, ” The Victorian cult of the family featured a particular ideal of the father as a loving, respected, upright, reserved pater familias. Such a father would discipline his children, but never too severely. Eventually the sentimental indulgence of the father would bring punishment to an end, leading to reconciliation. When this vision of fatherhood was extended to God, hell as eternal torment became unthinkable.” Now, my point is, isn’t this pretty much the way the Father is spoken of by Jesus and Paul and the writer to the Hebrews? (Matt 7:11/Luke 11:13; 2 Cor 1:3; Rom 8:15-17; Eph 4:6; Heb 12:9, et al.)
Charged language, such as the description of a quote by John Wenham decrying unending torment as sadism, not justice, is met by Mohler as impassioned, almost hysterical language. Those like Mohler believe that what is at stake is nothing less than a challenge to the authority and supremacy of God and His justice. Mohler asks the question, “What’s at stake?” He says, “The answer MUST be found in understanding the impact of cultural trends and the prevailing worldview on Christian theology.” My answer would be to understand the text of scripture and see how the ealry Christians lived out their beliefs. Did the early believers live in fear of eternal torment and with joy about the afterlife and their own final redemption and reconciliation with God? So far no case has been made from scripture (by this I of course mean the Bible, most specifically the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures, Septuagint, and Greek New Testament, particularly and any modern versions that literally translate those texts instead of church tradition) nor from any believers from the first 500 years of Christianity, except a quote or two from Augustine. If you read Augustine’s life and history you may not be so prone to quote him and depend on his theology so heavily.
“What happened to evangelical convictions about hell?” Mohler gives three issues in answer to that question. First, he says the evangelical view of God changed He laments that God’s love is no longer holy. In other words, it is more important today to have a God of love, ooey-gooey love, the kind that would never pass out a retributive justice or send someone to eternal torment in hell. Second, is the very issue of justice. He says retributive justice has been under attack for a long time. Criminals no longer need justice, they need correction, he states. He says evangelicals have bought into the idea that criminals need a cure, not prison sentence. Third, the problem is modern psychology. Modern psychology has made everyone a victim and no one responsible for their own behavior (sins). Fourth, he says that the current understanding of salvation has no place for a fear of hell like it used to have, He says people used to be afraid of going to hell and so would do what they could to avoid it by living more chaste lives. Salvation is now a release from bad habits, not inherent sin. He finally states that this redefinition of hell has changed our concept of God and the gospel. And these authors apparently must rescue God and his hell from those who would diminish it.
What offends me about his broad brush is that my views, and the views of many like me, are swept aside, lumped together with all manner of unbiblical philosophies and discounted because they offend the majority of believers today. I have heard the statement so often that if you come up with an understanding of biblical text that no one (meaning more often than not, few) has ever held, you are most likely misunderstanding the text and are in dangerous (hear, heretical) territory. At that point you MUST fall in-line with the traditional rendering (meaning the denominations’ take on the text by their preeminent scholars) or face discipline and/or expulsion. Well, if Jesus had succumbed to this same illogical thinking we would never have had a Savior who went to the cross to pay mankind’s penalty for sin. We would have had a weak-spined, defeated man who just sat down and shut up when it came to the Pharisee’s teachings.
Well, so much to say, so little space. I will continue the review soon. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to ask away. I cannot guarantee that I will respond immediately, but I will get to each one as soon as possible. Until next time, adieu, auf wiedersehen, God bless you.