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By Dr. Riley Case

Hell is in the news these days, especially in the evangelical world. Rob Bell, pastor of the 10,000 member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan has written a book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book asks some important questions about eternal destiny, but in the end posits something close to universalism, the belief that in the end all persons are saved and there is no eternal hell.

When Zondervan heard the book was in the works it severed its relationship with Bell. Since he had written some other bestsellers, it set off a bidding war among publishers for a book that promised record sales. The book is being published by HarperOne. The bloggers weighed in, as did the Twitter world. CNN covered the debate, as did USA Today. Huffington Post got into the action and Christianity Today devoted a major article to the subject. Baptist preachers around the country had their sermon topics lined up for several weeks (in case they were running low on ideas).

What about the United Methodists? Well, not so much interest. Apparently in official circles we believe we are above the fray. No news stories from UM News Service except one about a student pastor in North Carolina who blogged about his skepticism on hell with the result that his congregation asked that he be relieved of his pulpit. This probably is considered newsworthy because normally people in the pews are not supposed to get excited about theological things. United Methodists, at least the leadership, if United Methodist News Service offers any clue, are mostly taken by discussions on the sins of Israel, the responses to various disasters in the world, places where diversity is being practiced, and pronouncements by bishops.

That is too bad. A good discussion on hell, especially as it relates to why United Methodism is seen by some as a pretty dull church, would be insightful and helpful.

Some observations:

1) It is difficult to make a case for Christianity without assuming that hell exists and the fires are quite hot.

Some years ago I was having conversation with a professor from one of our seminaries. I asked him about how strong the evangelism emphasis was on his campus (this was in the days before the seminaries got funds from the Foundation for Evangelism to fund evangelism chairs). The professor thought a moment and then replied something like this: “Since we gave up on hell there does not seem to be much interest in evangelism.” I appreciated his honesty and wanted to ask him who exactly the “we” was who had “given up on hell.” Was it he and his friends, or the seminary he taught at, or all the United Methodist seminaries, or the whole Protestant world? Whatever, the response offers an insight into why much of United Methodism continues to plummet down the path of irrelevancy as far as the common person is concerned.

The professor was right in this sense. If there is no hell, that is, if references to hell are but vague metaphors that refer mostly to our present suffering and not the real possibility of our eternal destiny, then the ideas of judgment and the wrath of God have no meaning, except in some vague metaphorical sense. And if there is no wrath of God and no judgment then the idea of atonement, that Christ died for our sins, also has no meaning. And if there is no real atonement and no wrath of God and no judgment, why bother? Evangelism then is reduced to an effort to try to get people to enlist in our club.

And if that is true we might as well all be progressives. Christianity might be helpful as a social action movement to promote the progressive values of acceptance and inclusivity and relativity, but it makes little difference in the end. We all go, or don’t go, to the same place, wherever that might be

2) It is difficult to make the case for historic United Methodism without assuming that hell exists and that the fires are quite hot.

The movement on the part of some to relativize hell is only about 100 years old. It came in with liberal theology and infected some seminary professors and some preachers who were disciples of those professors, but it was a minority view among most United Methodists and still is in vital congregations and in places where the church is strong.

The impetus behind the forming of the Methodist societies (see the Discipline, p. 72) was to advise persons “how to flee from the wrath to come, which they (persons groaning for redemption) saw continually hanging over their heads.” When the first preachers at the founding conference of Methodism in 1784 were told they “had nothing to do but save souls” the understanding was that souls were being saved from wrath, judgment, and hell. What was true for Methodist was also true for United Brethren and the Evangelical Church. The Confession of Faith in our present Discipline (from the former EUB Church) has an article on Judgment and the Future State which states:

We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation. (p. 70)

When the Methodists on the frontier were involved in debates, their most fierce debates were not against Calvinists, or Quakers, or New Light Christians (baptism) but against Universalists. One of the first serious books on theology by an American Methodist was A Discussion on Universal Salvation In Three Lectures and Five Answers Against That Doctrine, by Timothy Merritt (1836). One of the more significant of the Methodist bishops of the nineteenth century, S. M. Merrill, authored The New Testament Idea of Hell (1878).

The 1905 official hymnal of the M.E. Church and the M.E. Church South struck one of the earliest blows for skepticism and against hell in Methodism. The hymnal simply deleted the section on “Depravity,” as well as the hymns on “Judgment and Retribution.” Within a few years the baptismal ritual would delete references to “all men are conceived and born in sin” with language which assumed that children were already members of the Kingdom. At the time these changes were made Methodism’s market share of U.S. population was 8%. From there on it has been all down hill until today the United Methodist percentage of the population is 2.5%.

3) It is appropriate that we (the United Methodist Church) have a serious discussion on the subjects of judgment, wrath, and hell. Dr. Larry Hollon, head of United Methodist Communications, is one person who has blogged on the Rob Bell book. He suggests that issues around hell are not on the cutting edge of theology (it would be interesting to know what IS on the cutting edge of theology in his mind). He says discussions on hell represent the hindquarter of the late 19th and 20th century debates between liberals and fundamentalists. He hopes that Bell’s book represents a maturing of evangelicalism so that evangelicals “will begin to realize that faith must be more adaptable to the challenges life presents us if it is to be relevant.”

The question is, relevant to what or to whom? To the secular world? To the atheists? To the academic subculture? To the cynics of the age? To MoveOn.org? Progressives have an unusual hierarchy of values, where “important” people in academia and in the “intellectual” word are the ones who matter most in life and faith issues and whom the church needs to influence. But such people seem singularly unimpressed. If they were Christianity would thrive at the university level. Lesser folk–common, ordinary unenlightened persons-don’t matter as much. They, supposedly, will some day “catch-up” and join the ranks of the enlightened. This can be labeled elitism. Most common, ordinary people care very much about life, death, salvation, and eternal destiny.

Furthermore, Hollon’s reference to the “hindquarters” of the fundamentalist-liberal (modernist) debate implying that the liberals won the debate and everyone is now agreed hell is demythologized, is a poor reading of the situation. The areas of the country and of the world where Christian faith is strong and growing are areas that accept a Biblical worldview where sin, demons, evil, judgment, and hell press in on every side but are overcome by the intervention of God through Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins. If liberals won the debate why are they in such decline?

The truth is that progressive Christianity has never been able to win a large following for Jesus. Just in this generation, we’ve witnessed the steady and dramatic shrinking of liberal Protestant churches, while Pentecostal and evangelicals churches-which preach substitutionary atonement, hell, and other doctrines supposedly offensive to modern ears-have been exploding in growth worldwide.

As for progressive Christianity? H. Richard .Niebuhr described it well in 1937 (Kingdom of God in America):

a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

Does anyone want to discuss this?

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