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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  • Dr. Olson,
    I love your “shadow of the gospel” analogy, it’s right on. Is this your own or did you glean that from somewhere?

    • rogereolson

      I humbly claim it as my own. However, I’ve done that before with terms, illustrations, etc., and later found out someone else beat me to it. But right now I’m not aware of anyone else having used it.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Excellent, Roger. I agree that in the Gospel, some parts of truth are simply not very important. An additional place I look to find the “core” of the gospel is in Galatians – as Paul responds directly and forcefully concerning the nature of the gospel as he sees it. And as I recall, there is little to nothing there about hell – except certain people should be “condemned to hell” who preach a gospel from the one he preaches (Gal 1:8-9). Clearly, Paul does see hell as some type of reality, but I don’t see him explain it as a central part of the Gospel.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    The question that your article begs is this: can someone believe just the Gospel (here, narrowed to exclude other important truths about God and reality) and be saved? It is the age-old question of “parameters of belief” for the people of God. For with the category of the Gospel, you exclude the Trinity – long considered a vital belief to any Orthodox Christian. What shall we say about those who preach Jesus, but shy from Trinity? I’m not sure your addition of the category, “beliefs central to the Gospel”, helps us address these kinds of questions more clearly.

    While you address the specific topic of hell, one certainly could bring up Creationism, Sacraments, or venial sins (as you addressed a number of weeks ago) in this light. I do think that the rubber meets the road with the issue of Trinity, however.

    • rogereolson

      Well, here I have to bring up an important distinction that I must work with: Christian is not exactly the same as saved and saved is not exactly the same as Christian. There is a sense in which “Christian” means believing the right things and living the right way–as a disciple of Jesus Christ. A newly saved person who may or may not yet be “Christian” may only have responded to the gospel; hopefully as they mature and grow in the faith they will come to see the importance of doctrines like the Trinity. Should they mature in the faith and reject it, I would probably doubt their status as a Christians, but I would not be so arrogant as to pronounce upon their salvation.

  • Dr. Olson, it’s sad that you deny the importance—or even reality—of hell!

    I kid 🙂

    In one obvious sense, judgment is bad news, and is therefore not part of the good news by definition. In a broader sense though, the good news attains its highest and most significant meaning when placed in its proper context, and that context includes the natural and inescapable consequences of rejecting God’s grace.

    On a related note, I do wish we would all be more biblical in our use of language and start speaking of final judgment/future punishment as opposed to “hell.” The English word “hell” is loaded, I think, to the point of no longer being helpful in doctrinal/evangelistic discussions. As you rightly point out, the evangelists in Acts do not once mention “hell” (gehenna), but they do speak of future judgment and the need for forgiveness. There is little similarity between how the average 1st century Jew understood gehenna and how the average 21st century English-speaker understands “hell.” Gehenna is a proper noun and should be transliterated, not translated. /rant

  • Hell is only important to those who choose not to spend eternity with God.

  • Marc

    Dr. Olson,

    First I want to commend you for bringing this up. Interesting. While I mostly agree with you, I’d still like to point out some differences and disagreements. Hopefully we can get some fruitful dialog going.

    Olson: “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).”

    I think a sufficient account of the Gospel can be given without the mention of hell; not a complete one. What is it we are saved from? What are the long term effects of the Gospel? Eternal life, destruction of evil, no? Hell, according to my vocabulary, is the second death. I assume this is what we mean by hell. Hell, to me, is not Hades or Sheol, or any other intermediary state. Rather, it is the lake of fire. I know I’m putting my cards on the table here, but I do believe in an intermediary state, before the resurrection, judgment, and the New Heaven and New Earth and the second death. To me those two concepts are what constitute heaven and hell. This may be part of where I’m (hopefully respectfully) disagreeing with you. I don’t know.

    Olson: “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.”

    John 3:16 is almost cliché in Christianity, but to me it’s programmatic for the good news:
    1. God loves the world
    2. He sacrifices His son so that we may not PERISH, but have eternal life

    This is good news indeed! And it includes that we will not perish. I understand that it does not say hell, but it is implied. Maybe it is our definitions of the gospel that cause the disagreements?

    I mean, Jesus talked about perishing and eternal fire more than anyone else. To me, this means that I need to include hell to give a complete account of the gospel.

    Mark 9:43

    Matt. 25:41

    Olson: “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.”

    Agreed, but what are we saved from? That is important to me. Ohh we are saved, saved from what? The second death! We’ve gained eternal life. I agree, when it comes down to it, we can proclaim the Gospel without saying the word hell. But, you can’t preach the gospel without implying that hell exists and that we’re saved from it. By the way, the statement would still fir on a 3×5 card if you added “and not perish” or “and not suffer in hell” after “given eternal life”.

    Olson: “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?”

    I cannot follow your thought experiment fully here because heaven and hell are results of the fact that there is an afterlife in which there are two outcomes. Also, to me hell is important because that’s where the enemy will end up. Perhaps I am too influenced by what Boyd calls “warfare theology”, but part of the good news to me is the end of evil. Hell, after all, is prepared for the devil and his angels. Who ever ultimately rejects God will share their fate.

    Olson: “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.”
    I agree; this is sufficient. I think this is way more boiled down than your previous statement. This is minimalistic, but still sufficient. You’d have to write big to fill out a 3×5 card here 🙂

    Olson: “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.
    My shadow is evidence of my own substantial reality, but it is not part of me. There’s a difference.)”

    Very nice illustration. But I’d like you to elaborate of those differences. I mean, you without a shadow is unnatural, or incomplete. If you’re in the sun and cast no shadow, are you real? Do you have substance? I do think we should talk about what we’re saved from; the evil one, death, and agony. Does the good news not get better if we include this? Do you not seem more genuine and real if you cast a shadow, and include the shadow in who you are?


    • John Inglis

      Marc’s approach seems much more doctrinal than Olson’s. Olson is basing his claim on the Biblically recorded presentations of the gospel. What the Bible records as being presented as the “gospel” does not include hell. It appears to me, then, that in the Biblical presentation “sufficient” does equate to “complete”.


      • Marc

        It may be that my view is more doctrinal. I don’t know. I will still hold that Dr. Olson presents a sufficient gospel, but not a complete one. It’s a matter of defining gospel, and a matter of defining complete. The way Dr. Olson presents his view I agree that it is sufficient. It’s just not complete.

        I’ve already given John 3:16 as an example of perishing or hell being a part of the gospel.

        In all other places where the gospel is proclaimed, even though perishing or hell is not mentioned directly, it must be an underlying presupposition. Jesus taught about perishing, a lot.

        We proclaim that we are saved, that others are saved, that we are forgiven, that we have eternal life. Well, that means that we at one point weren’t saved, not forgiven, and not meant to live (in a much more full meaning than just breathe) forever.

        To me this is inescapable.

        If I preach that someone is saved via Christ, he might say:
        “saved from what?”

        Well, you’re just saved.

        This just does not make sense to me. One must repent and believe the Gospel. Mk 1:15, and 6:12. Repent from sin, and this sin is what separates you from God. And ultimate separation from God is hell.

        How is it not an underlying assumption that sin separates you from God, and that unless you believe in Christ you will perish? How is this not part of the complete Gospel? Without this, it seems to me the gospel is not complete. Sufficient, yes, complete, not so much.

        • rogereolson

          If someone asks me “saved from what?” my first response will be “saved from your own misery apart from God.” If someone says, “Well, many people don’t feel miserable apart from God” I will retort that many people today don’t fear hell either.

          • Marc

            I and would say people do not fear hell because people often think it is a place where they get to “chill” with Satan and have fun (get to do what Christians consider sin). Hell is not understood as a place without God, without life, fellowship, community, love, etc.

            We’re brought into a life of fellowship with God, both now and in the hereafter. And we’re saved from misery apart from God now, and in the hereafter.

            I just don’t see why we want to separate the now and hereafter. Yes, we can. I just don’t see the benefit, nor can I understand it as complete. Complete means exhaustive, and I just cannot go there unless we somehow re-define complete.

          • Marc

            I just want to state (if it has not come across earlier) that I do consider the gospel, as you have written it out, as sufficient for salvation.

            Perhaps I’m nitpicking here, and I kinda don’t want to do that.

            I just believe the afterlife is a powerful motif in the NT and that it is implied in the gospel. The good news is that we are reconciled now, and forever. Without that reconciliation there’s a consequence; life without God = hell.

            I don’t think hell, afterlife, should be used as a tool of evangelism to beat down on people and yell at them stating that they’ll go to Hell. But I just don’t see why we’d want to remove it, or not somehow included it to present the gospel fully/completely. Jesus did not shy away from it, and I don’t think we should either. But I think we can present it as a part of the gospel in a way that is beneficial.

  • Nicolas

    Roger Olson denies hell !

    There, I’ve said it ! But I know you don’t deny hell, really, and I know exactly what you mean — how people insist on making false statements.

    As a Christian Universalist, I would like to share, in a similar way, how Christian Universalism is continually being mis-represented, especially how the bad example of John Hicks is always dragged out to give universalism a bad name.

    You say: “So, can a universalist who denies the reality of hell (or its everlastingness) still believe in and promote the gospel?”

    I feel very few universalists have ever denied hell, but as your brackets rightly indicate, it is the never-ending-ness of hell which is at issue. This is where further thought is needed on the Biblical text. A good place to start is understanding the “olam” of the Old Testament translated into “eis ton aiona” etc in the LXX, and it’s continuing use in the New Testament.

    A good study of this is “Life Time Entirety” by H Keizer, the whole work available on Google Books.

    Otherwise, many thanks for your helpful article above — a good perspective.

  • Hmm tricky question, is hell part of the Gospel? Well the Gospel is the good news about Christ and what he has done is it not? And one of the thing he has done is for sure rescuing us from the judgment of God, that is seperation from him in hell. So perhaps you might say that even if hell is not the good news about Jesus hell at least seem to be a backdrop and background to why it is good news that Jesus died on the cross. Even so I think you made good points in the post.

  • Blake

    The need for all of the pre-emptive disclaimers is an unfortunate thing — all the more unfortunate because I expect you’ll be selectively quoted by the neo-fundie crowd anyway.

    Perhaps a future posting making the case in support of, “Do I think the apostles didn’t believe in hell? Not at all. I’m sure they did.”? Given the marked difference between the OT descriptions of sheol and the handful of NT references to gehenna, it is not so clear to me why one should believe they did.

  • K Gray

    Is what Jesus said about sin, death and hell true?

    • rogereolson

      The very fact that you ask me that raises serious doubts in my mind about your sincerity. I have said nothing that would indicate otherwise. May I ask why you come here? It seems mostly to heckle me.

      • K Gray

        That was a rhetorical question! Rhetorical questions are, of course, one way to make a point. The point was that Jesus also spoke of hell. That does not mean hell must be on the forefront of gospel presentations, of course; rather that current trends toward minimizing hell (that is my overall impression upon looking at the landscape of Christian blogdom, publication, sermons, etc.) in my opinion risk some loss of truth which Jesus did not hesitate to state, particularly to the comfortable and arrogant (e.g., Pharisees).

        Embedded in most of these trends is a common theme that orthodox-believing or conservative Christians, as represented by Al Mohler, are seen as a problem: either arrogant or ignorant. Well, I’m one of them. And I’ve suffered publicly for it. Sometimes I respond with reason rather than grace. For this I apologize, because it is not love.

        • rogereolson

          Excuse me, but I have never said Al Mohler or anyone else is arrogant or ignorant because he is “orthodox-believing” or because he is a conservative Christian.

  • Folks like you (and like me in my better moments) like to be precise in what we affirm, what we deny, what we are certain about, what we are uncertain about, what we believe more likely than not but nowhere approaching certainty. Some folks can get impatient with folks like you (and me), wanting clear and concise commitments. Were we see ourselves as cautious and saying no more than the evidence permits, they see us as unduly skeptical or cowardly hesitant. Having sensible, calm, dare I say “rational,” discussions with such folks just confirms for them their suspicions. Fortunately for me heresy-sniffers can’t do me much harm by trying to smear my reputation with others, and that for two reasons. I don’t have the kind of career or position worth smearing, and my reputation is not good enough to worry about smearing. So I can ignore them. You, on the other hand, have to continue to be very precise about what you claim. And that is something I appreciate about reading your posts.

  • I absolutely agree. The purpose of Christianity is not hell-avoidance, but to become unified with God in terms of our character, maturity and intimacy with him: we are to become the bride of Christ.

    Preach hell-avoidance and you get pew-sitting converts all too easily.
    Preach unification and communion with God as the goal and you get disciples all to easily.

    • Mike Mc

      Indeed…Jesus is clear we are to make disciples of all nations. What these means is subject to further exploration but the charge to the disciples at the end of Matthew contains to explicit or implicit reference to saving others from hell.

      • I’m don’t understand your last sentence.

        Matthew 28 has no explicit references to saving people from hell. I’m not sure how one could suggest it has an implied reference to saving people from hell without choosing to suggest it implies other fanciful things either.

  • Greg Farra

    Well said, Roger. As humans, we tend to take simple things and add to them.

  • Matt

    “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.”

    This (unfortunately) is a very accurate statement. When I served as a pastor, I took our youth group to a very popular annual event in Eastern Canada sponsored by a neo-fundamentalist para-church organization, who think that their systematic theology is the gospel! A naive interpretation of Genesis was the appetizer because to them everything is/has to be included in the gospel. Ironically, that presentation of the gospel was not good news but boring and irrelevant to the teens, and I was embarrassed to have taken them. Never again.

    I appreciate your blog and the lectures that formed the basis of “Reformed and Always Reforming” – I was a student at ADC at the time.

    • rogereolson

      I especially enjoyed my time at Acadia Divinity College. The principle, Lee McDonald, was my NT professor in seminary. He had the distinction of being the only professor to give me less than an “A.” We have become friends and I greatly admire and respect him. I probably deserved the grade he gave me even if I didn’t think so at the time.

  • First, let me say that I think this is an excellent post and I am in complete agreement with your thoughts and frustrations here.

    Here’s my question…

    Is hearing the name ‘Jesus’ NECESSARY in a presentation of the gospel? I’m asking because you have stated that the sermons in Acts are perfectly adequate presentations of the gospel even though they don’t mention Hell (and I’m in agreement with you on this), but when I look at those sermons, I notice a time or two when Paul doesn’t even mention the name ‘Jesus’ – like when he’s preaching at Mars Hill in Acts 17. In fact, he seems almost purposely to AVOID the name, calling Jesus ‘the one whom God has appointed.’

    What do you make of this? And do you think the name ‘Jesus’ is necessary to hear the gospel and be saved?

    Thanks for your blog, this post, and your general love for the gospel!

    • rogereolson

      I take it the apostles only failed to mention Jesus by that name when they knew their audiences knew whom they were talking about. No, I don’t think a sufficient presentation of the gospel can omit mention of Jesus, although I don’t think (as did my stepmother) there is anything magical about the sound of the name “Jesus.” After all, it will sound differently in different languages. “The Savior,” “God’s Son,” “The Messiah,” and other ways of referring to Jesus are okay in my book.

  • A: “Jesus will forgive you of your sins and you can be saved.”
    B: “I don’t need it. You die and that’s it. I am not a sinner, I am a good person, and even if I were a sinner there is no afterlife.”
    A: More explanation of what all this means.

    It is as you say possible to present the gospel initially without mentioning hell, but in lengthy conversations it is a part of biblical teaching (as you agree).

    That we can be saved is the gospel – but saved from what? From sin in this life, and from its consequences in the next.

    • rogereolson

      My point was/is that EVEN IF (hypothetical) I were a universalist (I’m not) I would still present the same gospel in the same way. To me, the gospel is about abundant life through Jesus Christ EVEN IF there’s no hell.

      • CarolJean

        The death of Christ on the cross to save mankind from the wages of sin seems to be the greatest argument against universalism and a pretty good argument for the existence of hell.

        • rogereolson

          How so? Karl Barth believed in universal atonement and drew the conclusion that all must be saved. (I intend soon to post a message about Barth’s universalism here. I know many Barth scholars disagree, but I am convinced that the logic of his doctrine of election necessarily leads to universalism and that he saw it and embraced it without quite saying so definitively.)

          • CarolJean

            If everyone will be saved and some without believing the gospel, then Christ’s death was not needed.

            Christ’s atonement is an argument for the existence of hell (whatever you want that to mean) because why an atonement or propitiation if there is no punishment to escape from namely, hell.

          • rogereolson

            Have you read Karl Barth? 🙂

          • CarolJean

            I haven’t read Karl Barth. What book of his would you recommend?

          • rogereolson

            Church Dogmatics IV/1–one of the greatest volumes of theology ever written. A true masterpiece.

  • Simon

    Great post Roger!

    I think there are a few underlying beleifs which are usually silent, or at least unexplained in many presentations of “the Gospel”, and which lead to mistaken, and quite unbiblical conclusions.

    One is the idea that there must be some sort of symmetry between the fate of the “saved” and the “unsaved” – I think this is probably a Platonic idea, and while it might be possible to stretch a few verses to fit the model the underlying assumption is just foreign to the preaching of Jesus and the early church.

    A second is the idea that all people are in a sense immortal, or at least that some aspect of them is, usually labelled the soul. Better ancient historians than I could plot the roots of this idea, but it doesn’t feel very Hebraic to me, and is certianly well established before Plotinus’ very clear exposition of it as a theory, which seems to have been swallowed by the c4 church, if not before. I would hazard Egyptian roots for the belief, but I defer to anyone better read. Most importantly though I do not think it is a NT concept, even again if one can strip out a few verses to match this framework.

    Leading from this are questions, raised by some of the other commentators above about “what then is the Gospel for?”, “what are we saved from?”. I think to answer these we need to first go back into the world of 2T Judaism(s) and pose the question “what did most people think was the problem with the world?” before we can hear what Jesus gave as his novel take on the question and its answer (i.e. the Gospel). Whatever we agree his answer was, I don’t expect an immaterial afterlife, with a choice of two locations, was a very big part of it.

    Oh and I believe in Hell too, although I also agree with the poster above who (at the risk of introducing more jargon) recommends transliterating all of the hell words in the NT. I think when a c21 speaker or preacher says “hell” there is just too much cultural baggage to unpack.

    I sincerely hope that those who feel threatened by your questions do not feel licensed to attack you by misrepresentation, and feel that that is a Christian way to behave.

  • Louis White

    I found this article very intriguing! I am interested in reading more. Do you have any books or more articles that I can view?

    • Louis White

      Never mind….just answered my own question!!!!

    • rogereolson

      Not on this subject (hell) in particular. You can see a list of my books on the first page of this blog. (There’s a link there to the list.)

  • Lydia Goossens

    I am saddened that this gentleman, the denomination he is a part of, and the institution he is affiliated with have been attacked and slandered (and, probably from the sound of it, don’t want to leave anything out, have had libel directed against them.)

    At the same time, how did it help us readers to repeatedly read his barbs against these individuals? I can understand it being annoying and hurtful amongst other things, and maybe he was making these comments in a tongue-in-cheek manner. At the same time, they were honestly a little distracting to me and came across as a little petty.

  • Dr. Olson, it is good that you own a flak jacket because heaven knows you need it!

    I agree with your position according to this nuance of yours: “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 my opinion they do imply it if not outright state it.

    I take the theme of Romans to be the gospel of the resurrected Son. For a long time I have argued that the term “gospel” should be as broad as Paul makes it in Romans. In Romans 2:16 he associates judgment with his account of the gospel: “This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (Rom 2:16 NIV 2011). You are absolutely right in saying that “hell” need not be explicitly mentioned, but I think Rom. 2:16 shows that judgment is part of the biblical gospel.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post!


  • Myron

    Interesting post. Something I do think that we should come to grips with concerning evangelism: Jesus and his disciples without question proclaimed the Day of Judgment when proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. For many Jews around the time of Christ and the Church’s infancy, the Day of Judgment entailed an implicit belief in Hell (eternal, conscious torment), even when it was not stated explicitly. Jesus proclaimed the Day of Judgment and Hell in some of his parables. I’ll grant that this Day of Judgment had a double edge in that he conflated the 70 AD fall of Jerusalem with his end-of-the-age Second Coming (though many scholars choose one or the other, I think we can have our cake and eat it too here!). However, in Acts, we see that the apostles refer to the Day of Judgment in conjunction with evangelism at times. Peter does this when he evangelizes Cornelius (Acts 10:42). Paul does this when evangelizing the Athenians (Acts 17:31). Admittedly, these are only two verses, but this still demonstrates precedence. Also, for many Jewish people–Christian and non-Christian alike–God’s call for repentance from sins carried with it an implicit understanding of eschatological divine judgment for sins one hand and divine mercy on the other. With respect to judgment, Hell was understood to follow.

    In doing evangelism, I found great benefit in speaking of the Day of Judgment. The greatest benefit is that when speaking of the Day of Judgment I’m pointing to God Himself as the Judge, rather than me. In post-Christendom Western culture, when you give standard gospel presentations, it sounds like you’re saying Christianity is Coke and Buddhism (for example) is Pepsi–and for some odd reason, choosing Pepsi lands you in hell. Of course, this isn’t what we mean, but a consumerist culture hears our gospel presentations this way.

    To sum up, while I’ll grant that our “hell-talk” needs more fleshing out (which I think the Day of Judgment does for us), I don’t know if I can agree that (1) Jesus and the apostles didn’t speak of hell at all when presenting the Good News or (2) contemporary believers shouldn’t speak of hell when presenting the Good News.

    • rogereolson

      I never suggested (2).

      • Myron

        Fair enough. I’ll be sure to read more carefully next time.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Olson: “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.

    I think I know what you’re trying to say, Roger, but the above statement does raise some other issues. For instance, in the full disclosure of sunlight: if there is no you, there is no shadow. One cannot exist without the other. Your shadow is only and always an image of your own substance (never someone else’s). But, perhaps more importantly, if “hell is not part of the good news,” how, then, can the ‘good news’ cast such a grotesque and unrepresentative ‘bad news’ shadow, i.e., hell? I would say, “Impossible!”

    Others ask: “What are we saved from, if not hell? Well, were saved from our fallen Adamic nature, i.e., ourselves! Look at the mess we’ve made of God’s original creation: spiritual confusion, broken human relationships, estrangement from God, ignorance, poverty, pollution of our habitat, famines, wars, sickness and, finally, physical death with no prospect of a life beyond this life. (By the way, God never mentioned or even threatened “hell” to Adam and Eve. Obviously he didn’t believe in it). But, the real question we should be asking is: “What are we saved to?” We are saved to the ultimate restoration of EVERYTHING lost to humanity by the fall of Adam and Eve. As it is written: “For as in Adam ALL die, so in Christ ALL will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). But, here’s some ‘frosting on the cake’: the scope of the restoration of ALL humanity will exceed the loss of the Garden fall. There is no scriptural evidence that Adam ever had hope of life in the heavenly realms. He was of the earth, earthly. But, restored humanity is promised eternal life in the heavenlies with Christ. Is this good news, or what?

  • John Inglis

    Here is an example of the gospel error that Dr. Olson refers to:

    In the Sept./Oct. 2010 issue of the IX Marks eJournal, which focusses on hell, there is an article that states, “here are five biblical statements about hell which, taken as a whole, demonstrate why hell is integral to the gospel.” For those interested, here is the address:

    The use of the word “integral” very strongly suggests that one needs to understand the concept of hell in order to be saved.

    I note, however, that the presentation is entirely doctrinal. That is, the author provides no evidence from the Bible that the Bible itself, or God, holds that the doctrine of hell is integral to the gospel. Furthermore, the article notes that the doctrine of hell motivates people to witness and that it also gives God greater glory. Those concepts, regardless of truth value, have nothing to do with what the Bible presents as the gospel. The gospel, though it gives glory to God, is not directly about his glory. Motivation to witness is not the gospel itself. Hence, it seems just as Dr. Olson observes, “gospel” is often illegitimately extended used as a shorthand for “correct beliefs that all true Christians should hold”, rather than being properly restricted to the good news of Jesus Christ.

    John Inglis

  • John Inglis

    Here’s an analogy that I’ve thot of: A curative medicine is good news to those that are dying of a deadly disease. Now of course the medicine is needed to cure the disease, and without the disease there would be no need for the medicine, and further, without knowledge that one had the disease one would not take the medicine. However, none of the forgoing truths make the disease part of the good news. No, the good news is good all on its own and without needing to incorporate the disease as somehow integral to the cure per se / intrinsically.


  • Timothy

    Two related contributions, good or otherwise.
    1. There is a new book on the gospel by Scot McKnight. It is being blogged on over at the Euangelion site. This makes a case for a gospel in which the issue of hell would be quite alien.
    2. The gospel that seems to be in view in the posting above and in the comments on it, and I apologise if I am misrepresenting anyone, seems to present a narrative in which we are born on earth but then sin (and/or are born in sin) and thus if we are to go to heaven when we die, we need a saviour. One problem with this gospel as Scot Mc Knight and Tom Wright and Chris Wright point out is that it has little or no place for Israel and yet the bible has a huge place for it. Obviously there is debate about what that place is but clearly there should be an important place and in current discussions it is lacking. Another problem with this gospel is that it presents the future in terms of heaven or hell. The earth seems to have been forgotten. Yet there is an argument for seeing our eternal future as being on earth. And if the gospel does include something about our eternal future, then surely this is more central than any issue about hell nd this in any case imply something important about the nature of hell missing from ‘traditional’ ideas about hell, traditional but not necessarily biblical.

  • Roger, I have enjoyed your posts and even quoted you on a blog article I wrote regarding Rob Bell’s book –

    I certainly agree with you that “Hell” is not an essential part of the “gospel,” but I also think, as one of the above comments noted, that it is important to remember that the English word “Hell” is a loaded term that does not at all represent what Jesus referred to when He spoke of Gehenna. Also, the English word “eternal” does not do justice to the meaning of olam or aion.

    When I was in seminary (graduated in 1978), I wrote a research paper on the subject of endless punishment and was surprised to discover how much historical and scriptural evidence there was in support of a belief that God would ultimately restore all of His creation to its intended perfection. Because of the controversial nature of the idea, I kept it as a private hope for many years. About 4 years ago, I decided to look more deeply into the issue and have since written a .ms for a book on the subject.

    Gabriel Fackre, the Samuel Abbot Professor of Christian Theology, Emeritus at Andover Newton Theological School, read my .ms and graciously gave the following endorsement:

    “A universal homecoming? This work is an exegetical tour de force in support of that prospect. George Sarris has traced in meticulous detail the biblical rhythms of sin and grace that point toward apokatastasis, with a history of testimony adduced, as well, from various church fathers to contemporary evangelical universalists. Double destination critics who seriously confront the argument found here will find their case harder to make. Sympathetic readers will struggle with the question of whether the ending of hell can be an article of faith, as the author contends, or Karl Barth’s more modest article of hope. For all that, Sarris is a voice that should be heard in the Christian conversation about things to come.”

    Would you be interested in looking at the .ms? If so, I’d be happy to send it to you. I think you have my email as a result of this reply.

  • Crai Wright

    Technically, the word “hell” is not in the Bible. The English word comes from Norse mythology referring to “Hel”, the goddess of the underworld, as opposed to Valhalla. I agree that transliterating Hades and Gehenna might help us keep things clear.
    This also makes it more evident that hell is not discussed in the Gospel of John, The book of Acts, nor in any of Paul’s writings. We read hell into the passages about judgment. In John 3, the word for “condemnation” is also the word for “judgment” as the NASV translates it. That takes out all the stuffing for “God damn you.”
    In John 3: 16, the word for perish is the same Greek used for the three lost things in Luke 15, but they were all found and restored.
    I taught an 8 week lesson on this subject, catalyzed by Rob Bell’s book, and not only learned a lot about the subject of hell and salvation, but also a lot about people. In reading several books that responded to Bell, I realized that although we are using the same book (the Bible), we did not just come to different conclusions due to interpretation, but not every one was careful and thorough in their use of Scripture. The second thing I learned is that what bothered some people is the idea of a second chance. This leads me to think that a number of Christians think that they, themselves, are getting what they deserve (entrance to heaven) because they did the right thing and made the right choice. The third thing I came to realize is that not all Christians take seriously the idea that God is love. One other point I came to learn is that there are presuppositions in the choice of English words that are used in translations.

    • Craig Wright

      My name is Craig Wright, not Crai.

  • John Inglis

    Further to Timothy’s comment above, McKnight has concluded (over the course of three books) that the gospel is neither the same as, nor even coextensive with, the plan of salvation or the preaching thereof. One address to use to find the various posts at Euangelion is

    It would seem that not only is Olson on the mark, but that he is also in good company.


  • “In other words, what I am arguing is that hell is revealed in Scripture which is why we believe it,”

    Comment: But it’s really NOT revealed in scripture. No word in scripture equates to the modern definition of hell. Neither the apostles, nor the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have equated Gehenna with eternal postmortem torture. Such an idea is not taught in the Old Testament.

    “…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!).”

    Comment: The angels said the gospel would be good news for ALL PEOPLE. Did the angels lie? How can it be good news for all people if most people have lived and died never hearing it?

    “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).”

    Comment: So in the end the sovereign God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Ti.2:4) will lose? His perfect will is NOT DONE? Because why? He messed up and allowed sin in the world? Oh please. Is Jesus not the propitiation for our sins, and not just ours, but the sins of the WHOLE WORLD? Where in scripture do you find evidence that God can’t accomplish all of His desires? Where in scripture does it say God permits sin to cause Him to lose? Nothing is impossible for God and love never fails.

    • John Inglis

      ?? Then why is there sin and evil? Because sin and evil are part of God’s perfect will? I don’t get it.


      • rogereolson

        As I’m sure you know, traditional Calvinists of the “high” sort insist on a distinction between God’s “decretive will” and God’s “preceptive” or “prescriptive will.” The former is what God decrees shall happen (including sin and evil); the latter is what God commands. Thus, a single human action such as a murder can be in God’s decretive will while violating God’s prescriptive will. Thus, as Calvin himself said, a single act may be both against God’s will and in God’s will. Then how is God not the author of sin and evil? Ah, because God’s motive in decreeing the evil act (murder) is pure–to bring glory to himself by overcoming it and judging it. The sinner’s motive in violating God’s prescriptive will is wrong–it arises out of hate. But the question no Calvinist will answer is where the first evil motive came from. However, given their doctrine of providence, there can be only one answer–ultimately from God (even if only indirectly). According to Edwards, for example, the first sin arose from the weakness of our first ancestors’ nature and was inevitable when God withdrew or withheld the grace they needed not to sin. The result is, of course, that God is still the author of sin in the same sense that I, as a teacher, would be the author of a student’s failure in my class if I withheld the support he or she needed (and that I could easily give without violating any code of honor) to pass. Who would believe me if I responded to the student’s complaint that I did it to demonstrate how seriously I take academic standards? No one would.

  • Jeff

    I have two thoughts on this growing trend of “re-thinking” the gospel truths:

    First, the bible clearly says the Jesus is the way, truth and life. No one gets to the Father but through Jesus. When it time and time again speaks on jesus saving us, that clearly points to saving us from something very bad.

    If hell does not exist and jesus is just a value added benefit for better life, why all the decision talk and sobering words of judgement? I feel all of this leads to my second point:

    It also says that in the last days people would no longer hold to sound doctrine creating a false alternative to embrace. Im my entire lifetime i have never seen so much talk about how now to repackage age old truths.

    Like it or not Jesus is not optional for eternal life. Life is a choice to embrace His extended love or go your own way. But in the end its not his responsibility to force salvation just to be seen as nice, or as you said a monster.

    This whole dialog is miguided in title. Its like saying Do you believe in prison? No judge could ever send a person there – oh how awful and unheard of. Who would ever do that? Prison is not real because nobody deserves prison.

    The focus should be on the Judge and the eternal laws that are in place
    regardless of they make somebody feel.

    To sum it all up: i believe God is the perfect balance of grace and truth. Any sway to either extreme and there will be trouble.

    • rogereolson

      Your analogy shows how profoundly you have misunderstood my post about hell not being part of the gospel. I anticipated responses like this one and so was extremely careful to say that I do believe in hell. Did you even read the whole post? For those of you who thought my caveats and qualifications were not necessary–here’s a perfect example of why there (but also of why they don’t do much good when people read uncharitably or without understanding).

      • The question I have is why are so many Christians so absolutely infuriated by any examination of the subject of hell? It’s almost like they WANT it to be true and would not tolerate a God who intends to restore rather than torture. Are we really that reprobate?

  • Johnathan Pritchett

    I think hell is good news and I am not a Calvinist. The reason I think so is that it does indeed demonstrate God’s attributes of holiness and justice. I think this is why Jesus speaks so much of it. If God were not in the business of punishing evil…one may as well say He is indifferent to it.

    I think it is the right track to say it is implied that salvation from sin and judgment implies the sort of punishment Jesus spoke of. I think the “hell is an eternal place of shame not flames and torture” anyway, so I don’t worry as much about the “God is a moral monster” business. Which is down right silly to assert in any case. Rejecting the grace of God in Christ’s accomplishment for the forgiveness of sins when sinners didn’t deserve such grace makes hell the most fitting and just punishment for offending God’s honor in both the sin and rejection of grace.

    I follow Scot McKnight in thinking the Gospel is what we call “the Gospels” and not some latter century of outlining Pauline theology (usually wrongly understood in any case…at least from Augustine on)…So it is comprehensive on the one hand (make disciples and teach them everything) and boils down to “Jesus is Lord and Messiah” on the other. That comprehends both salvation and hell. There is nothing in Acts’ recounting of sermons that causes me to see them containing the full transcripts of the sermons presented. Perhaps an argument from silence, but I take Jesus to be the premier evangelist, preacher, teacher, and theologian of the New Testament and view the rest through that lens…so judgement and so forth entail that in my opinion. Of course, Jesus saves us from lots if things, but I mention his mentioning of it as it is relevant to the topic.

    If anyone is still reading…having said all that and the last sentence, do I think “hell” must come up in every presentation of the Gospel…no. But sin and judgment should. I also think other things from which Jesus saves us from, like failing to please God to being able to or from continued turmoil to peace and joy, or from continuous folly to Spirit-filled holiness living, etc. are all welcome in our presentations of the Gospel sans hell…or if time permits, get all of it in. Further discipleship afterwards can get to the details, but certainly “Gospel presentations” don’t have to be either comprehensive or one dimensional.

    They weren’t in th Gospels and they weren’t in Acts either.

    • rogereolson

      God did punish sin and evil on the cross of Jesus. That’s part of the gospel. Hell isn’t.

  • Mark Anderson

    I haven’t read the entire thread (I tried because it’s so good but I eventually lost track among the digressions) so I don’t know if this was already addressed- but…
    I believe we are created in the image of God for the purpose of reflecting God and his Kingdom in this world. Because God is blameless he cannot abide where sin exists and so, to use an analogy from C.S. Lewis, we as Christians are continuously “polishing our mirror” to more clearly reflect God in this world. When we turn our back on God, his presence in our lives diminishes; when we endeavor to live according to the example of Christ, his presence in our lives increases. I therefore believe that Hell is simply a state of an irredeemably diminished relationship with God.
    It’s not God’s wrath that condemns a person to hell; it is their own actions within the context of the laws of God’s Kingdom. For example, my daughter knows that if she hits her sister, there are certain consequences that automatically arise from that action. I set those consequences initially long ago, but she has the power to hit or not hit as she sees fit. If she hits, she knows the consequences are not retribution on my part; they are simply a result of her action within the framework of our household and the way we’ve defined our relationship with one another.
    I believe this theology helps us to better define the question of good works as well. We don’t strive to be good and God-like in order to earn our way into heaven, but rather because we embrace God and the vision of his Kingdom here on earth and we strive to be better vessels through which God can do his work here. I’m not an intellectual by any stretch (as many of your contributors here obviously are- and I don’t mean that facetiously) but that particular piece of theology has resolved so many of my former complaints against Christianity and even the existence of God. So many times those outside of our faith (as I was for so many years) simply don’t comprehend this true nature of things and so their questions arise from a very superficial understanding of what we actually believe. I hope this makes sense. I think it’s actually the first time I’ve written these thoughts down.

    On a lighter note, I have a friend who is attending school in Jerusalem. A couple of years ago they had a freak snowstorm that covered the city. All of the students rushed out to take pictures of the Hinnom Valley (the former site of the Gehenna midden) and posted them online with the caption “Hell freezes over”.

    • rogereolson

      Excellent comments. I agree completely.

  • Seeking Wisdom

    Regarding the existence of Hell:

    In Matthew 7:19, Jesus, referring to false teachers and prophets, makes a very clear statement about how not everyone who comes to Him will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul also touches on this subject a couple of times in letters he wrote to churches in which he says that if you continue to commit sin (he provides a long list of examples), then you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Hebrews 10:26-27 are verses that refer to anyone who has knowledge of the truth of Jesus Christ and yet continues to sin, negates the sacrifice by Jesus and possibly face the “feerful prospect of judgement and a flaming fire…”
    If Jesus claims that not everyone will enter the Kingdom of Heaven as well as Paul the apostle, then where could one possibly go if denied entrance to Heaven? In my opinion, I feel the bible clearly describes and even warns us of eternity in a place where God is not – Hell.

    • rogereolson

      IF this is meant as a response to my post “Is hell part of the gospel?” it misses the target completely. Did you even read my whole post? I clearly affirmed my belief in hell.

  • Dr. Olson The Gospel fundament’alized’ in this tract is not principle’ized’ but boils down to a person,indeed,the Savior Himself. Hence Hell is a part of the essential gospel not a valid yet supportive revelation. Whether or not the gospel is per se unconditional good news can be shown in brief as false by Colossians 1:23. That the gospel takes the fullstep to a Person and not merely principle is found in brief; 1 corinthians 3:11

    • rogereolson

      I don’t get what comes after the “Hence….”

  • jdriesen

    I completely understand the fact that God is both loving and just. However, I don’t see how that matters. God is love, but the idea of Hell is absent of love. I fully comprehend the typical evangelical theology surrounding Heaven, Hell, salvation, redemption, sanctification, etc etc. But at the end of the day, when I think about it and am honest with myself, I seriously do not believe in Hell at all. Because I see love here on Earth, and I know it is nowhere nearly as amazing as the love that is in God. His absolute love would never even consider allowing anyone to be tortured for eternity. It is not something that he would have ever been created, let alone something that a person could choose to be sent to. I’m not here to say I am right, or say anybody else is wrong. This is just where I stand, after being a Christian for many years; studying, praying, going to church -this is where I stand today in my personal perspective on the Bible.


    • Roger Olson

      You seem to be captive to only one understanding of hell. Please read C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. Hell does not have to mean what you seem to think it means.