published with permission from Dr. Albert Mohler
After reviewing the rise of the modern age, the Italian literary critic Piero Camporesi commented, “We can now confirm that hell is finished, that the great theatre of torments is closed for an indeterminate period, and that after 2000 years of horrifying performances the play will not be repeated. The long triumphal season has come to an end.” Like a play with a good run, the curtain has finally come down, and for millions around the world, the biblical doctrine of hell is but a distant memory. For so many persons in this postmodern world, the biblical doctrine of hell has become simply unthinkable.
Have postmodern westerners just decided that hell is no more? Can we really just think the doctrine away? Os Guinness notes that western societies “have reached the state of pluralization where choice is not just a state of affairs, it is a state of mind. Choice has become a value in itself, even a priority. To be modern is to be addicted to choice and change. Change becomes the very essence of life.” Personal choice becomes the urgency; what sociologist Peter Berger called the “heretical imperative.” In such a context, theology undergoes rapid and repeated transformation driven by cultural currents. For millions of persons in the postmodern age, truth is a matter of personal choice–not divine revelation. Clearly, we moderns do not choose for hell to exist.
This process of change is often invisible to those experiencing it, and denied by those promoting it. As David F. Wells comments, “The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now dammed by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself.” He continued: “To be sure, this orthodoxy never was infallible, nor was it without its blemishes and foibles, but I am far from persuaded that the emancipation from its theological core that much of evangelicalism is effecting has resulted in greater biblical fidelity. In fact, the result is just the opposite. We now have less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks.”
The pressing question of our concern is this: Whatever happened to hell? What has happened so that we now find even some who claim to be evangelicals promoting and teaching concepts such as universalism, inclusivism, postmortem evangelism, conditional immortality, and annihilationism–when those known as evangelicals in former times were known for opposing those very proposals? Many evangelicals seek to find any way out of the biblical doctrine–marked by so much awkwardness and embarrassment.
The answer to these questions must be found in understanding the impact of cultural trends and the prevailing worldview upon Christian theology. Ever since the Enlightenment, theologians have been forced to defend the very legitimacy of their discipline and proposals. A secular worldview that denies supernatural revelation must reject Christianity as a system and truth-claim. At the same time, it seeks to transform all religious truth-claims into matters of personal choice and opinion. Christianity, stripped of its offensive theology, is reduced to one ’spirituality’ among others.
All the same, there are particular doctrines that are especially odious and repulsive to the modern and postmodern mind. The traditional doctrine of hell as a place of everlasting punishment bears that scandal in a particular way. The doctrine is offensive to modern sensibilities and an embarrassment to many who consider themselves to be Christians. Those Friedrich Schleiermacher called the “cultured despisers of religion” especially despise the doctrine of hell. As one observer has quipped, hell must be air conditioned.
Liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have modified their theological systems to remove this offense. No one is in danger of hearing a threatening “fire and brimstone” sermon in those churches. The burden of defending and debating hell now falls to the evangelicals–the last people who think it matters.
How is it that so many evangelicals–including some of the most respected leaders in the movement–now reject the traditional doctrine of hell in favor of annihilationism or some other option? The answer must surely come down to the challenge of theodicy–the challenge to defend God’s goodness against modern indictments.
Modern secularism demands that anyone who would speak for God must now defend Him. The challenge of theodicy is primarily to defend God against the problem of evil. The societies that gave birth to the decades of megadeath, the Holocaust, the abortion explosion, and institutionalized terror will now demand that God answer their questions and redefine himself according to their dictates.
In the background to all this is a series of inter-related cultural, theological, and philosophical changes that point to an answer for our question: What happened to evangelical convictions about hell?
The first issue is a changed view of God. The biblical vision of God has been rejected by the culture as too restrictive of human freedom and offensive to human sensibilities. God’s love has been redefined so that it is no longer holy. God’s sovereignty has been reconceived so that human autonomy is undisturbed. In recent years, even God’s omniscience has been redefined to mean that God perfectly knows all that He can perfectly know, but He cannot possibly know a future based on free human decisions.
Evangelical revisionists promote an understanding of divine love that is never coercive and would disallow any thought that God would send impenitent sinners to eternal punishment in the fires of hell. They are seeking to rescue God from the bad reputation He picked up by associating with theologians who for centuries taught the traditional doctrine. God is just not like that, they reassure. He would never sentence anyone–however guilty–to eternal torment and anguish.
Theologian Geerhardus Vos warned against abstracting the love of God from His other attributes, noting that while God’s love is revealed to be His fundamental attribute, it is defined by His other attributes as well. It is quite possible to “overemphasize this one side of truth as to bring into neglect other exceedingly important principles and demands of Christianity,” he stressed. This would lead to a loss of theological ‘equilibrium’ and balance. In the specific case of the love of God, it often leads to an unscriptural sentimentalism whereby God’s love becomes a form of indulgence incompatible with His hatred of sin.
In this regard, the language of the revisionists is particularly instructive. Any God who would act as the traditional doctrine would hold would be ‘vindictive,’ ‘cruel,’ and ‘more like Satan than like God.’ Clark Pinnock made the credibility of the doctrine of God to the modern mind a central focus of his theology: “I believe that unless the portrait of God is compelling, the credibility of belief in God is bound to decline.” Later, he suggested, “Today it is easier to invite people to find fulfillment in a dynamic, personal God than it would be to ask them to find it in a deity who is immutable and self-enclosed.”
Extending this argument further, it would surely be easier to persuade secular persons to believe in a God who would never judge anyone deserving of eternal punishment than it would to persuade them to believe in the God preached by Jonathan Edwards or Charles Spurgeon. But the urgent question is this: Is evangelical theology about marketing God to our contemporary culture, or is it our task to stand in continuity with orthodox biblical conviction–whatever the cost? As was cited earlier, modern persons demand that God must be a humanitarian, and He is held to human standards of righteousness and love. In the end, only God can defend himself against His critics.
Our responsibility is to present the truth of the Christian faith with boldness, clarity, and courage–and defending the biblical doctrine in these times will require all three of these virtues. Hell is an assured reality, just as it is presented so clearly in the Bible. To run from this truth, to reduce the sting of sin and the threat of hell, is to pervert the Gospel and to feed on lies. Hell is not up for a vote or open for revision. Will we surrender this truth to modern skeptics?
Current controversies raise this issue anew among American Christians, and even among some evangelicals. Nevertheless, there is no way to deny the Bible’s teaching on hell and remain genuinely evangelical. No doctrine stands alone.
I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AlbertMohler.
A version of this essay first appeared in the Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Zondervan, 2004). I recommend this book to readers interested in knowing the background to current debates over the biblical doctrine of hell.
Samuel G. Freedman of The New York Times took a look at the resurgence of pagan religions and practices in postmodern America. He found Michael York, a serious-minded pagan who observes Samhain, “the autumnal new year for Pagans,” and the historic precursor to the modern holiday of Halloween. Reading the names of his ancestors while facing a pagan altar, Mr. York remarks that, on Samhain, “the veil between the worlds is understood to be thinnest.”
Freedman also found the Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister and high priestess of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church in Barneveld, Wisconsin. Rev. Fox won a major legal battle when the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to allow the Wiccan pentacle on the gravestones of dead Wiccan soldiers. “Our symbol was literally being carved in stone and taking its place alongside the symbols of other religions,” she said. “Our religion was at last getting equal treatment. It was one of those crossroads moments.”
The most significant feature of Samuel Freedman’s report is his recognition of how ancient paganism experienced a resurgence in postmodern America — now claiming as many as 500,000 to 1 million adherents of one sort or another:
In several ways, though, Paganism was waiting for modernity to catch up with it. The emphasis on the worship of nature in virtually all variations of Pagan faith, and the embrace of a female divinity in many, situated the religion to mesh with the environmental and feminist movements that swept through the United States in the 1970s.
Exactly. The resurgence of paganism in our times is not the recovery of ancient traditions simply reasserted in a new age, but a selective New Age embrace of pagan symbols, themes, and practices in order to add “spirituality” to ideological movements such as feminism and the radical ecologists. The gynecological and pantheistic focus of ancient paganism is exactly what Judaism and Christianity rejected in full — and the embrace of these ancient heresies is further evidence of the widespread rejection of Christianity.
“From academia to the military, in the person of chaplains and professors, through successful litigation and online networking, Paganism has done much in the last generation to overcome its perception as either Satanism or silliness,” Samuel G. Freedman writes. Well, whatever you want to call it, the resurgence of paganism is a keen reminder that old heresies never die; they just fade away only to return once again.
See, “Paganism, Just Another Religion for Military and Academia,” by Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times, Saturday, October 31, 2009.
Guest: Bob DeWaay, author, The Emergent Church: Undefining Christianity
You have probably heard the old saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”
Well, there’s a whole new generation of professing Christians that would keel over at the “arrogance” and “certainty” of making such a statement … and some of them are most likely in your church.
Bob DeWaay, pastor of Twin Cities Fellowship Church and author of The Emergent Church: Undefining Christianity will join us in Hour 2 of The Christian Worldview this Saturday to discuss what post-modernism is and how it has infected both our culture and a large swath of the evangelical church. Interestingly, Pastor DeWaay says the errant eschatology of the Emergent Church has led to a place where Read more
Postmodernism comes in all kinds of shapes and expressions. This sort of variety can make it difficult to understand. Further, postmodernism resists categories and distinctions, and this makes it more difficult to nail down as a worldview. There is a larger intellectual history that must be understood in order to grasp the uniqueness and significance of postmodernism as a worldview.
Ideas Have Histories: How We Lost Our Minds…
While dividing history into distinct time periods is not an exact science, there are two major historical transitions that can help us clarify the emergence of postmodernism: (1) the transition towards modernism, typically dated around the 1700s and (2) the transition away from modernism which began in the late 20th century.
The transition from what is often called the pre-modern period into the modern period corresponds with the influence of Enlightenment thinking and the scientific revolution. Prior to the Enlightenment, there was a dominant cultural belief in the existence of the supernatural. This was due in large part to the rise of Christianity and specifically the Roman Catholic church as the most powerful cultural presence in medieval times. This was a world of authority, and authority rested in the hands of traditional institutions, especially the church, since it was entrusted with interpreting and communicating this truth to the common person.
With a belief in God came a strong belief in the concept of revelation, that God not only existed but had revealed Himself and His will in the Bible. This revelation was considered the primary source of truth, and could be trusted to unlock God’s metanarrative (or, “Big Story”) for the world. Believing was the starting point of real knowledge. St. Anselm, typifies a pre-modern perspective on truth: “For I seek not to understand in order that I may believe; but I believe in order that I may understand, for I believe for this reason: that unless I believe, I cannot understand.” This view of revelation and authority did not fare well during the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was a movement among European intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the decades leading up to this time, the church’s authority had been successfully challenged politically (reactions against corruption), theologically (Luther, Calvin and the Protestant Reformation), philosophically (downfall of scholasticism), and scientifically (Galileo, Copernicus, and Baconian method). There was a growing disillusionment with the traditional educational, political and religious institutions, as well as their authoritative sources.
During the Enlightenment, authority shifted from traditional institutions to human reason. A scientific approach to the world yielded tremendous advances in medicine, technology, and communications and challenged the centrality of theology and religious belief as the paradigm for learning. Free from the restrictive shackles of traditional beliefs (thus, modernism), progress seemed inevitable. Immanuel Kant described this period of time in this way: “Sapere aude! ‘Have the courage to make use of your own mind!’ is thus the slogan of the Enlightenment.” 
The modern period had begun. The growing skepticism in regards to anything supernatural was matched by growing faith in human ability to know the world, control it, and reap the inevitable benefits. The “Big Story” of the world was not given by revelation; rather, it was to be discovered and perhaps even determined by science, reason and technology. This major transition was at the heart of the modern period.
However, from our 21st century perspective, it is clear that the predictions of utopia guaranteed in the modern period never materialized. Instead, modernists became disillusioned as military increase brought world wars; failed development policies led to class oppression and colonialism; economic idealism resulted in communism and the Cold War; and our best science created nuclear weapons and the threat of global devastation.
Postmodern writers, beginning with Nietzsche, began to question the integrity of modernism’s metanarrative of progress. In fact, the main casualty of a postmodern perspective is the very idea of a metanarrative. Postmoderns are skeptical of any and all claims to an authoritative comprehensive worldview, absolute truth about reality, and an overarching purpose to the human story. Postmoderns embrace local narratives, not metanarratives; a multitude of stories, not a “Big Story.”
In short, it could be said that religious metanarratives were dismissed by modernism. Man-made ones are dismissed by postmodernism. This is what Myron Penner and others have referred to as “the postmodern turn:” postmodernism is a turn away from the certainty and optimism of modernism. As Jean Francios Lyotard wrote: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”
Answering the Postmodern Challenge
Postmodernism’s impact on Western culture is hotly debated, and various thinkers and writers- including those coming from a Christian worldview- have offered diverging opinions of it. Some see it as a passing fad; others see it as long-lasting paradigm shift. Some decry it as dangerously destructive; others embrace its destruction of the oppressive structures of modernity.
The most helpful contribution of postmodernism is, first, that it has successfully challenged the reigning paradigm of the modern period, which was based largely on naturalistic humanism. Modernism, in seeking to arrive at absolute knowledge through empirical investigation, separated matters of “faith” from matters of objective knowledge about the real world. Postmodernism confronts this dichotomy in ways that are helpful for the Christian worldview.
Second, postmodernism has cast a large shadow of skepticism (and has offered a strong dose of humility) on the modern belief in the efficacy and near inerrancy of human reason. As was seen during the modern period, human reason can be quite productive, especially in the arenas of science, medicine, and technology. However, human reason can also be manipulative and destructive, especially when it produces the totalizing ideologies (e.g. communism, Nazism, colonialism, etc) that characterized the modern period.
Third, postmodernism has demonstrated that objectivity and certainty are not exclusive to the realm of science as was claimed during the modern period. In fact, science is often quite biased and agenda-driven, and is therefore in no place to claim to be the final arbiter on all matters of knowledge. This is especially helpful for Christians, who often feel the burden to play by the rules of modernism and empirically demonstrate every aspect of Christian truth.
Fourth, postmodernism rightly reminds us of the power of our culture, and especially the language of our culture, in creating our frames of reference. The modern period demonstrated that this power can be used to marginalize and oppress others at the personal and the systemic level. For the Christian, then, care should be taken to distinguish Scriptural teaching from our cultural perceptions.
Finally, the emphasis of postmodernism on story and narrative fits (to a limited extent) with the way the Bible presents God’s interaction with the world. The Bible is, on the whole, a narrative through which God gives us the Truth about Himself, humanity and the world. Of course, for the postmodernist, no story is to be considered true in this absolute sense over and above any other story, and propositions from one interpretive community are irrelevant for others.
The Bible does not present a God whose story is one among many, but a God whose story is the story above all others. So, in dealing with the postmodern mind, evangelicals face a difficult situation. For the past several centuries, modernity has relegated Christianity to the category of an unscientific, unrealistic worldview that is simply not believable for thinking people. Some Christians are tempted to settle for having Christianity accepted as a truth rather than face the prospect of being dismissed due to dogmatically claiming to be the truth, and abandoning the concept of worldview seems to be a small price to pay for having at least some claim to “truth.”
Although the dethroning of humanistic scientific reason is attractive to battle-weary Christian intellectuals, the postmodern denial of all objective truth is unacceptable. Further, it is important to note that none of the positive contributions of postmodernism originated with postmodernism! In fact, the Christian worldview has always attested to the limitations of unaided human reason, the effect of the fall on objectivity and certainty, the tendency of humans towards marginalizing others, and the role the concept of story plays in our experience.
Despite the popularity of postmodernism among many Christians, the Christian worldview and the postmodern worldview cannot co-exist without one capitulating to the other. One could argue that we are chronologically “postmodern;” but ideologically, we cannot become “postmodernists.”
- Immanual Kant, “An Answer to the Question ‘What is Enlightenment?’” available online at http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~lyman/ english233/Kant-WIE.htm.
- David Wells, Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2005), 74–90.
- Myron Penner, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views, 19–28.
- Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, in Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10 (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984).
- Note: This article is an adaptation and abrdigement from the second chapter of Making Sense of Your Wolrd: A Biblical Worldview by Gary Phillips, William Brown, and John Stonestreet.