Evangelical Christians have engaged in a robust, rancorous debate about hell in the past year. As I wrote in USA Today shortly after Osama Bin Laden’s death, this debate was precipitated partly by indiscreet comments about Bin Laden’s eternal destiny, and, more importantly, by the publication of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Bell’s book strongly implied that because of the power of God’s love, no one would be condemned to everlasting torment in hell. [See my Patheos review of Love Wins here.]
As with so many theological issues, this debate is not entirely new. Universalism, of the Rob Bell variety, began to appear in the eighteenth century. But in researching my biography of the great English revivalist George Whitefield (due out in 2014 with Yale University Press), I was struck recently by Whitefield’s involvement in a more narrow debate about what happens to those who go to hell.
For the young, combative Whitefield, it was crucial to maintain the doctrine that hell torments lasted for eternity. One of his chief theological opponents, Archbishop John Tillotson, suggested that the hell-bound might be annihilated and cease to exist.
Tillotson had died in 1694, twenty years before Whitefield was born. But he still exerted a dominant theological influence in Whitefield’s Anglican Church. In a 1690 sermon before Queen Mary, Tillotson had argued that God, in his mercy, might destroy sinners instead of having them languish in everlasting torment.
Whitefield, along with his American contemporary Jonathan Edwards, found Tillotson’s concession appalling. It was one of the reasons that Whitefield wrote in 1740 that Tillotson “knew no more about true Christianity than Mahomet.”
Whitefield not only believed that eternal torment was taught in the Bible, but he also thought it was one of the greatest incentives for sinners to repent and accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness. As brilliant a preacher as Whitefield was, he thought it required “no great art of rhetoric to persuade any understanding person to avoid and abhor those sins, which without repentance will certainly plunge him into this eternal gulf” of hell.
The weight of evangelical opinion has stood with Whitefield and Edwards, not Tillotson. However, there have been important exceptions, including the late British evangelical luminary John Stott, and Asbury Seminary professor and Patheos blogger Ben Witherington. Stott’s contemporary J.I. Packer argued that while annihilationism was not an acceptable evangelical doctrine, it should not cause more traditional believers to break fellowship with its advocates. I’ll let readers assess, if they like, how serious the difference between these camps is. (I fully understanding that those outside the traditional Christian fold may find the whole debate disturbing or downright nutty.) But as Edwards wrote in The Distinguishing Marks (1741), if there is a hell, it is important to know as much as we can about “the dreadfulness of it.”