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The Disappearing Doctrine of Hell

Belief in hell is fast disappearing in Scotland, according to press reports. Reporter Donald MacLeod points to the fact that one third of Scottish clergy “still believe in the existence of hell.” Of course, that means that the other two-thirds have decided against hell.

From MacLeod’s article in The Guardian [London]:

Eric Stoddart, a lecturer in practical theology at St Andrews University, surveyed 750 randomly selected clergy and found that 37% believed in hell, although this was more marked in the Highlands and Western Isles, where conservative, Presbyterian congregations predominate.

“The doctrine of hell is downplayed by most of today’s churches even by those who still believe in it. It isn’t viewed as very politically correct even by a new generation of more theologically conservative ministers,” said Dr Stoddart, who commented that there was a conspiracy of silence on the subject.

This is consistent with what is happening in the United States as well. Hell has become an odium theologicum — an odious doctrine that is just too politically-incorrect for modern taste. Many preachers just find a way never to mention it. Or, as one wag has observed, they just air-condition hell, denying that it is a place of everlasting torment.

Look at this fascinating section of the article: Dr Stoddart is interested in how belief in hell affects everyday life and is keen to hear from ordinary Christians as well. He said: “I’m interested in how people handle their belief in hell. If you believe (or are told you should believe) your grandmother is going to hell because she is not a Christian, how do you deal with that? Do you dehumanise her or psychologically distance yourself in order to accept her fate? How is it possible to go about daily life while believing that a loved-one has entered eternal suffering? When most hell-believing Christians are likely to encounter the death of ‘non-Christian’ loved-ones it is striking that it is a subject rarely tackled. No one talks about this aspect. There is something of a conspiracy of silence.”

Dr. Stoddart is interested in how the relational aspects of human life influence an individual’s belief in hell — and vice versa.  At the Web site for his research project, Hell: The Pastoral Implications, he comments:  I concluded that the pain that arises from believing in hell whilst suspecting that your loved-ones might already be there is something that churches fail to recognise. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence when it comes to acknowledging that it might apply to real, actual people rather than just an anonymous group called ‘the lost’.

The knowledge of what hell really represents is a humbling consciousness that leads to heartbreak and serves as an impetus to evangelism. Those who deny the reality of hell will bear some real responsibility for the fact that so many will be found there.

And at the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.” [Ezekiel 3:16-21, English Standard Version]