A UMNS Feature
7:00 A.M. EST April 5, 2011
“The Descent to Hell,” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Panel
from the Maesta Altarpiece of Siena, 1308-11.
The debate over hell that has heated up Christian blogs and Facebook pages this spring is almost as old as Christianity itself. And it’s a dispute Methodism’s founder John Wesley in particular knew well.
“Wesley had some of his fiercest, angriest words for any attempt to limit Christ’s saving work,” said Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference.
“Now obviously, not all those for whom Christ died respond positively to Christ or even know about his saving work. And on that score, Wesley just noted that with sadness. But then what does that mean about their ultimate fate?”
Wesley wrestled with that question in his own ministry, and it still makes headlines today.
The Rev. Rob Bell, an evangelical megachurch pastor, has caused a stir with his take on hell in the best-seller “Love Wins.” And United Methodist student pastor Chad Holtz received international news coverage when his long Facebook post supporting Bell’s book resulted in his departure from a North Carolina congregation.
Both Bell and Holtz dispute the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of condemned souls. As Holtz sees it, God can find a way to bring all the lost into his fold.
Like Holtz and Bell, generations of Christians are haunted by the paradox: How do you reconcile a loving God with the image of billions of souls consigned to spend eternity separated from God’s embrace?
“In the biblical testimony, there is infrequent mention of hell, Gehenna, a place of retribution and a place of fire and torment,” said Willimon, who is also the author of “Who Will Be Saved?”. “One thing that impresses me is how seldom it is mentioned… . There is good reason to say that it is a possibility, but there is no reason to say it is a significant part of following Christ.”
Who goes to hell?
Most Americans would tend to agree. Seventy-nine percent of mainline Protestants in the United States believe people not of their faith — including non-Christians — can go to heaven, according to polls collected in the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” Fifty-four percent of evangelical Protestants take an equally expansive view of heaven, and a staggering 83 percent of Catholics in the United States agree.
The Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s law book, does not make specific mention of heaven or hell.
A close-up of the façade of The Cathedral of Orvieto,
in central Italy, depicts the torment of the damned in
stone in a carving dating back to the late Middle Ages.
A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
However, the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which joined with the Methodist Church in 1968, states in its Confession of Faith: “We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.”
The Confession is part of The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards in the Book of Discipline. Church doctrine can only be changed through a constitutional amendment process, which requires approval by a two-thirds majority of General Conference and a three-fourths majority of all annual conference members present and voting.
The Rev. Steve Manskar, the director of Wesleyan leadership at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, says United Methodists should teach what Scripture and tradition instruct about hell.
“Scripture and tradition teach that hell is real and that it is to be feared,” Manskar said. “It also teaches that God’s grace is responsible; it is God’s free gift of acceptance, forgiveness and healing delivered in the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
Ultimately, he said, people who reject God’s gift of grace send themselves to hell and eternal separation from God.
“We need to always balance God’s love with God’s righteousness and justice,” Manskar said. “God’s love, which is a synonym for grace, is not cheap. It is a costly grace. It cost God the Father the life of his Son. God spilled God’s own blood in order that the world may be saved.”
A longtime debate
The debate over who goes to hell stretches back to antiquity, when Christians were still a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. Origen, a theologian who lived around A.D. 185-254, challenged the idea of eternal punishment. He taught that hell is real but its fire would serve more to purify sinners than to torment them. Ultimately, Origen argued, God will restore all.
Contemporaries charged that Origen’s universalism would mean even Satan himself would be saved, and church leaders eventually ruled Origen’s ideas heretical. Nevertheless, his ideas had a lasting influence on Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant thought.
What the Bible says about hell
The Old Testament does not say much about what happens after death. When it does, it usually mentions Sheol, also called The Pit. This subterranean land of the dead is not exactly happy, but it’s also not a site of perpetual anguish. According to Psalm 139, God’s presence can be felt even in Sheol.
Instead, “Gehenna” is the word most English-language Bibles translate as “hell.” Gehenna appears in the Bible a dozen times — mostly in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s clearly the place or state where the wicked are punished. On many of these occasions, Jesus warns his disciples against committing sins that would lead to Gehenna.
Gehenna takes its name from the valley of Hinnom (sometimes called the valley of the sons of Hinnom), an area south and west of Jerusalem notorious for being the place where the unfaithful kings of Judah practiced human sacrifice by fire. An early Christian tradition holds that by Jesus’ day the land was used as a smoldering garbage dump. This history probably contributes to Gehenna’s fiery image.
Revelation also mentions a Lake of Fire where various wrongdoers are cast after the Final Judgment.
Still, the image of hell as a place where God eternally tortures people has more to do with Christian folklore than Scripture, said the Rev. Ted Campbell, author of “Methodist Doctrine: the Essentials.”
It’s hard to know how to interpret descriptions of Gehenna and Revelation’s Lake of Fire because no living person knows exactly what the language refers to, he said.
“Also, the notion that only a few people will be saved places us in the position of knowing something that, in my view, only God can know,” Campbell said.
It’s perhaps worth noting that Jesus and Paul both mention salvation far more often than potential punishments in the afterlife.
In John Wesley’s day, the big debate among Protestants took place between two theological schools: the Calvinists and the Arminians.
The Calvinists took their name from John Calvin, the 16th century reformer who taught that God predestines the elect for salvation and foreordains eternal damnation for others. Calvin emphasized God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge.
The Arminians take their name from Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch priest who was born around the time Calvin died. Arminius criticized Calvin and his followers for limiting God’s salvation. Arminius taught that God gave humans the free will to accept or reject God’s love. John Wesley was firmly in the Arminian camp.
By today’s standards, some would consider John Wesley a fire-and-brimstone preacher. The same could be said of Wesley’s Calvinist contemporaries.
Wesley mentioned hell as a distinct possibility in a number of his sermons, including one titled “Of Hell.”
But Wesley’s main insight into this debate was the concept of prevenient grace, said the Rev. Timothy Tennent, a United Methodist elder and president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. Tennent has been writing about Wesleyan teachings in response to Rob Bell’s book at his blog.
Wesley taught that God extends grace to people even before they believe in Christ. That grace enables people to engage their God-given free will to choose salvation.
Is universalism kind?
While Wesley rejected universalism, there are United Methodists who regard themselves as universalists.
The Rev. Kalen Fristad, a United Methodist pastor in Iowa, leads Destined for Salvation Ministries. He has traveled the United States sharing his view of Christian universalism.
“We all have free will and exercise it every day,” Fristad said. “But we do not have total freedom when it comes to the issue of where we will spend eternity. If people were able to resist salvation forever that would mean they are more powerful than God, who wills that everyone be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).”
The Rev. Ted A. Campbell, associate professor of church history at United Methodist-affiliated Southern Methodist University, does not see universalism as quite so benevolent.
“It implies that in the end, whether you really love God or not, God will force you to love God,” said Campbell, author of“Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials.” “That doesn’t seem either kind or just to me, but if you allow even the possibility that someone can finally reject God — and I think we do have to allow that possibility — then one way or another, you’ve got a hell.”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.