Syncretism-the assimilation of cultural values and social agendas-has long defined mainstream Christianity. Biblically assigned days of worship were set aside centuries ago in favor of Sunday, Christmas and Easter.
Similarly, popular tradition long ago replaced the biblical teaching about hell. Recently, beliefs about hell have begun to change again. A recent poll reveals an amazing shift in opinion among the American populace as to what hell is. True to historical form, major religious organizations are adjusting their teachings accordingly. The latest version could be called "hell lite" or a "kinder, gentler hell."
According to U.S. News and World Report, in 1997, the majority belief among U.S. citizens was that "Hell is a real place where people suffer eternal fiery torments." Now, 53 percent believe "Hell is an anguished state of existence eternally separated from God" ("Hell Hath No Fury," Jeffrey L. Sheler, January 31, 2000, p. 47).
The change has been gradual and is attributed to several factors. "Lampooned by modern intellectuals and increasingly sidelined by preachers preferring to dwell on more uplifting themes, the threat of post-mortem punishment of the impenitent in an eternal lake of fire all but disappeared from the religious mainstream by the 1960s. Theological discourse on the subject at the nation's divinity schools almost evaporated. And while polls showed that the majority of Americans professed to believe in hell's existence, almost no one thought he would go there" (ibid.).
The reasoning behind the shift often paints punishment as a childish fear tactic that is no longer valid or needed by mature adults. Others reason that a good God couldn't possibly punish people forever, as that would be against His very nature. " 'Once we discovered we could create hell on Earth,' says John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University in Chicago, 'it became silly to talk about it in a literal sense' " (ibid., p. 50).
Authenticating this modern interpretation for Catholics, Pope John Paul II stated last summer that "rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God." In so doing, he described hell as something figuratively portrayed in the Bible as a "pool of fire" or a "second death" (ibid., p. 45).
Catholic funeral masses have been changed to reflect this view. White priestly garments have replaced black ones and prayers like Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), which describe the torture of the wicked, have been set aside in favor of ones dealing with hope and the resurrection.
In concert with this socially-driven change, "The doctrine commission of the Church of England recently recommended a hell of 'final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God' instead of medieval fire and torment. And the newest Presbyterian catechism hardly mentions the subject at all.… [Even] among evangelicals, hell as a subject from the pulpit is less ubiquitous than before" (USA Today, "Churches Give Hell a Makeover," Gerald L. Zelizer, February 21, 2000, p. 15A).
The modern religious consumer
In an effort to explain recent changes in teachings about hell, Gerald Zelizer, who is the rabbi of a conservative congregation in Metuchen-Edison, New Jersey, offers three reasons he believes hell is being refashioned. First is the religious consumer's needs-based view that he or she is more in need of positive things, such as love, hope, peace and marriage enrichment, than being saved from hell. Second is the American psyche that feels people are entitled to be happy and successful. Third is ambiguity within Christianity over what Matthew meant when he said that evildoers would be "cast into a furnace of fire."
In an age where the religious consumer drives the market, churches are now not only striving to meet the individual where he or she is emotionally and intellectually, but are also adjusting doctrines to attract and retain such people. Like a technician who can't resist the urge to tweak the knobs of an already operating system, theologians and parishioners alike have a record of regularly adjusting doctrinal teachings to fit their changing perspectives. Jesus' first-century condemnation of substituting "the commandments of men" for the teachings of God (Matthew 15:9; Mark 7:7) has gone unheeded.
Yet, strangely, some theologians paint their revisions as honorable, carefully thought-out methods of taking the gospel to contemporary culture. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit journal America, reasons that today's gentler hell, based on relationships and psychological experiences like loneliness, wouldn't have made sense to earlier generations.
Jeffrey Sheler notes that this most recent change in hell is similar to other changes in Christian teaching. "It took the Christian community 300 years to come up with the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and an additional 125 years to articulate the dual nature of Christ at Chalcedon."
But not everyone agrees with such humanly devised changes of biblical teachings.
The history of change
Today, evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics (who comprise much of the 34 percent of Americans who still hold to the traditional view that hell is a literal place of eternal punishment) do not accept the kinder, gentler hell. Yet, many of those resistant to the recent change are unaware of the fact that their traditional beliefs represent societal revisions of the biblical teaching made centuries ago.
Surprising as it may sound, the idea of hell as a literal place where evildoers are punished for eternity did not arise until centuries after Jesus Christ's life on earth and subsequent crucifixion. As Rabbi Zelizer explained, "In the Hebrew Bible, there is no mention of hell at all, but only a deep ravine of rocky earth outside the Old City of Jerusalem, where the Israelites burned garbage and emptied sewage, and Sheol, a non-descript underworld into which both the good and the bad descended after death."
So, where did the idea of hell as a place of eternal punishment come from?
In Mark 9:43-48, Jesus spoke of hell as a place where "the fire is not quenched." Did He mean that evildoers would be punished forever? Or, did He mean that the fire would not be put out until the wicked are completely consumed? This question has left many confused, as have the disagreements among third- and fourth-century theologians over whether the punishment was sensory or only symbolic of separation from God.
Origen, another theologian of the period, offered this theory: hell was remedial in nature, a place where sinners could be rehabilitated. The Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D rejected Origen's view. From this time forward, people were divided between two perspectives: the majority believing in a never-ending punishing of the wicked, the minority believing in a one-time punishment of the wicked-that they would be annihilated.
Little changed until the 14th century when Dante presented a fictional description of hell in his work The Divine Comedy. Using vivid imagery of the horrors associated with a multi-leveled subterranean chamber, Dante galvanized popular opinions about sensory punishment.
However, the doctrinal evolution did not end there.
"Two hundred years later, leaders of the Protestant Reformation rejected the terrifying depictions of hell in art and literature. While Martin Luther and John Calvin regarded hell as a real place, they believed its fiery torments were figurative. Hell's worst agonies, they said, were the terror and utter despair of spending eternity cut off from God," wrote Jeffrey Sheler.
Given the various options, what should one believe? Is there no definitive, biblically based answer? One often overlooked passage sheds enormous, clarifying light on this entire debate.
The biblical explanation
While many have noted Christ's references to punishment for evildoers in Mark 9:43-48 and Revelation 20:15, few have seen the connection between this subject and Malachi 4. Written approximately 400 years before the birth of Christ, Malachi's book has been mistakenly assumed by many to be simply a historical record of that time. Yet, the last two chapters of this book (Malachi 3 and 4) focus on Jesus' second coming.
Malachi 4:1-3 explains what will happen to the wicked: "'For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,' says the LORD of hosts, 'That will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,' says the LORD of hosts."
The punishment that evildoers will receive is to be burned up. This is not a case of eternal punishing but of eternal punishment. The wicked will not burn forever. Indeed, they will be reduced to ashes. Similarly, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus said the wicked "will go away into everlasting punishment" and "the righteous into eternal life." The punishment will be eternal in the sense that it has eternal consequences-no one will return to life, once punished. However, the punishing is instantaneous.
The idea that one can work his or her way out of this punishment is also a mistaken concept.
The understanding that the wicked will be destroyed is called "annihilationism."
Addressing this understanding, Sheler reports, "A small but growing number of conservative theologians are promoting a third position: that the end of the wicked is destruction, not eternal suffering. Evangelical scholars such as Clark H. Pinnock, theology professor at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario; John R.W. Stott, founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; and Philip E. Hughes, a noted Anglican clergyman and author, contend that those who ultimately reject God will simply be put out of existence in the 'consuming fire' of hell," Sheler wrote.
These noted theologians rightfully point out that, as Sheler writes, "the traditional belief in unending torment is based more on pagan philosophy than on a correct understanding of Scripture. They base their belief on New Testament passages that warn of 'eternal destruction' (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and 'the second death' (Revelation 20:14) for those who reject God, and on the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel's admonition that 'the soul that sins shall die' (Ezekiel 18:4).
"They also raise ethical arguments. 'How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness' as to inflict 'everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been?' asks Pinnock in the Criswell Theological Review. A God who would do such a thing, Pinnock argues, is 'more nearly like Satan than like God.' "
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