Is hell part of the gospel? (Read all of this or don’t read any of it!)

Is hell part of the gospel? (Read all of this or don’t read any of it!) September 14, 2011

In the Al Mohler article I previously discussed in The Southern Seminary Magazine Mohler argues that hell is part of the gospel.  I disagree.

NOW, before someone goes off on a disinformation campaign to smear me (and by extension my denomination and the institution where I teach) let me be crystal clear: I DO BELIEVE IN HELL.

Contrary to many (notice I said “many”) fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalists, not everything revealed in Scripture or believed and taught by Christians throughout the ages is part of the gospel.  I am using “gospel” here in the traditional sense of the message of good news about Jesus Christ and salvation by grace alone.  I do not agree with those who think or claim that “the gospel” is another word for “what authentic Christianity teaches.”  Authentic Christianity teaches many things that are not part of the gospel itself–such as the Trinity.

Emil Brunner rightly argued in his Dogmatics that the Trinity is a defensive formula and not part of the kerygma–the gospel.  That does not make the Trinity unimportant; as a defensive doctrine it is necessary to protect the deity of Jesus Christ and the unity of God (monotheism)–two higher order revealed truths.  But the Trinity itself–as a doctrine–is nowhere spelled out in Scripture or revealed there; it is a doctrine worked out by early Christians in conflicts with denials of either monotheism or the deity of Jesus Christ (or the distinction between Jesus Christ and God the Father).

So what is “the gospel?”  Well, to find out again I read all the sermons recorded in Acts–by Peter, by Stephen, by Paul.  Not one directly refers to hell.  (I believe one mentions hades but not in a way that equates it with hell as “gehenna” or the lake of fire.)  Do I think the apostles didn’t believe in hell?  Not at all.  I’m sure they did.  BUT IF HELL IS PART OF THE GOSPEL why do they never mention it in their presentations of the gospel?

Sure, someone might point out rightly that it is implied in the apostles’ statements about judgment and exclusion from the people of God.  But that’s not the same as explicitly stating it which is what I take it people who insist hell is necessary to the gospel imply.  In other words, I am arguing that a complete account of the gospel of Jesus Christ can be given without mention of hell (or the Trinity).

On a different tack, let me offer a thought experiment to make my point.  SUPPOSE (I know some of you won’t) that hell disappeared from the Christian vocabulary, but everything else remained.  Would the gospel then disappear with hell?  Hardly.  The New Testament contains some presentations of the gospel; most do not mention hell.  Here’s one from 1 Timothy: “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” (3:16)

So what are the necessary parts of the gospel (as opposed to a full account of Christian doctrine)?  Well, certainly that Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we may be forgiven by God and reconciled with him and given eternal life because of his resurrection and our faith in him.  The “gospel” should be brief–something that can be memorized and written on a three-by-five card.

To continue the thought experiment.  If hell disappeared from Christian consciousness would the good news of Jesus Christ disappear with it?  How so?  I simply don’t get that.  Imagine (I know some of you will refuse even to imagine this with me imagining that I’m asking you to believe it which I’m not) that we know nothing of hell and therefore suppose that all people go to heaven.  Where would be the loss of “good news” in that?

In other words, what I am arguing is that hell is revealed in Scripture which is why we believe it, but we don’t believe it (or shouldn’t) because we think it is good news.  It’s very bad news (except in the sense that God lets us have our way which isn’t very good news in this case!).  It’s bad news not only for those who go there but also for God because it means God loses something; his perfect will is not done (because he permits that in his antecedent will–antecedent to the fall and sin).

Now, of course, if you’re a high Calvinist you’ll disagree.  And I think ONLY a high Calvinist can believe and say that hell is really, truly good news.  What do they mean?  They mean that hell is good news because it is necessary for the full manifestation of God’s glory–the complete revelation of all his attributes (as Jonathan Edwards argued).  But that can’t really be good news because it makes God a moral monster.

Hell cannot be part of the gospel IF the gospel is unconditional good news.  And the only way hell can be made compatible with the gospel as unconditional good news is to believe that it is “the painful refuge” God provides for those who refuse to be in his presence, worshiping him eternally (C. S. Lewis).  But hell does NOT have to be preached for the sermon to contain the good news that Christ died for sinners to enable them ALL (I said “enable,” not “assure”) to be saved.

So why believe in and teach the reality of hell if it isn’t part of the gospel?  Well, for the same reason we believe in and teach the Trinity–it’s either part of revelation or (as in the case of the Trinity) a necessary implication of what is revealed.  But there are many things revealed in Scripture that are NOT “the gospel”–unless you are going to claim that everything revealed is part of “the gospel” which would then mean that the apostle’s sermons in Acts were incomplete presentations of the gospel.

One of the hallmarks of fundamentalism (and neo-fundamentalism among postfundamentalist evangelicals) is the tendency to pack every Christian doctrine into the category of “the gospel.”  There is this tendency to equate “the gospel” with a systematic theology.  That is why many Calvinists (not all, of course) consider non-Calvinists “barely Christian”–because they think we deny something essential to the gospel.  That just reminds me of the old fundamentalists such as William Bell Riley (founder of the World Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919) who claimed that premillennialism is an essential part of the gospel!  I believe in premillennialism, but I would never, never claim it is part of the gospel just because I think it is revealed truth (or at least logically implied in what is revealed).

So, can a universalist who denies the reality of hell (or its everlastingness) still believe in and promote the gospel?  I’m sure that’s a question some are asking as they read this.  I believe (and I will attempt to prove it here at some time in the future) that Karl Barth was a universalist.  Anyone who would claim ON ANY OTHER ACCOUNT that Barth left the gospel out of his theology would, in my opinion, either be ignorant or asinine.  Barth was a powerful promoter of the good news of Jesus Christ.  So, yes, I believe a universalist can nevertheless believe in and promote the gospel.  What I do NOT think is that a universalist can be doing justice to the whole of what is revealed.

Hell is not part of the good news; it is its shadow.  My shadow is always there when I’m sitting or standing in light.  But my shadow is not me.  Anyone who would treat my shadow as part of me would be ludicrous.  I would say “Get away from me!” (if I thought they were serious).  So it is with hell.  It is the shadow of the gospel but not part of the gospel itself.

Now watch.  Some fundamentalist or neo-fundamentalist will take something I said here out of context and spread it around to claim that Roger Olson denies hell or the importance of hell.  They will do that NOT BECAUSE they really believe it but because they want to do damage to my reputation and to that of the institution where I teach.  This sort of thing (e.g., claiming I am an open theist because I defend open theists as not heretics) goes on all the time and I consider it a form of lying.  It’s only purpose is political–to promote their own organizational power at the expense of someone else’s.  I have made abundantly clear here that I believe in hell and nowhere have I said it is not important.  (If I were to stand in the light and not see my shadow I’d be very worried!  My shadow is evidence of my own substantial reality, but it is not part of me.  There’s a difference.)  Let me say right now that those who will no doubt claim here or elsewhere that I deny hell or demote its importance are either weak-minded or mean-spirited.  They should be ignored.

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