John Stott, Hell and the Future of Evangelical Theology

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In the days following John Stott's death, I have read numerous reflections and eulogies on his impact on Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular. He has been lauded by the New York Times' Nicholas Kristoff as a foil to the dime-a-dozen "blowhard" evangelicals and has been honored by conservative evangelical writers as a defender of the centrality of Christ and of penal substitutionary atonement. He dialogued regularly with liberal mainline theologians, traveled and interacted with voices outside Europe and America, and spoke regularly at conservative evangelical institutions, such as Wheaton College. By all accounts, Stott was an irenic and convictional evangelical whose first loyalties were to Christ.

I was privileged to hear Dr. Stott speak and engage students in a Q&A session at Wheaton during the early 90’s. I recall that during a Q&A session with the students, Stott responded to a student who asked him about his controversial annihilationist position, a notion that the unredeemed will cease to exist after a period of judgment in hell (they will be "destroyed" in the fires of judgment). Stott modeled in his answer both a quest for the truth (he noted then that his annihilationist position was '"tentative") as well as a reverence for the authority of Scripture. But most impressively—for this young sophomore—was the pathos in his response. In 2003, some ten years later, Stott returned to Wheaton and answered the same question with basically the same, pastorally sensitive, heartfelt response: "We should never refer to hell without tears in our eyes."

In the controversial book referred to by that student (Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue), Stott wrote,

Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it . . . my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God's word say?

Stott articulated, all at once, that human emotions are real and significant and suggested, by implication, that they do play a role in our theologizing. And yet, Stott was also careful to say that human experience does not offer the final word. The Word often disrupts, corrects and guides our experience. While we cannot interpret Scripture apart from our experience, conversely we must allow Scripture to interpret and frame our experience.

Stott's passing from this life to the next provides us an opportunity to reflect on some questions about the future of evangelical theology. 

1. What will it mean for evangelicals to be "Biblicists"? More specifically, how much room will be given for divergence not only of theological interpretations but also of approaches to interpretation and methods of theology? Self-proclaimed evangelicals will likely always also be self-proclaimed "biblicists" of one sort or another. By that I mean that evangelicals will be sensitive to the importance of grounding belief and practice on the Bible as an authoritative text. Yet, we must keep in mind the difference between the Bible as a theological foundation and our interpretations of the Bible.

Stott's willingness to revisit the "traditional" notion of hell as "eternal, conscious torment" was a courageous performance of the belief that while tradition is important, it is not infallible. While Scripture is crucial to theology and practice, our interpretations are not inerrant. Claiming to be a Biblicist, in and of itself, gets you nowhere.

Stott's approach, which displayed close attention to relevant and disputed biblical texts, likely assuaged the worries of some his conservative theological colleagues that he was going off the deep end. I suspect that Stott's consistent reverence for Scripture and his stated desire to be faithful to biblical truth kept him in the generally good graces of prominent conservative evangelicals. J.I. Packer, who preached the sermon at Stott's memorial service, wrote years ago of Stott (and other annihilationists) that "it would be wrong for differences of opinion on this matter to lead to breaches of fellowship..."

8/9/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Evangelical
  • Theological Provocations
  • hell
  • John Stott
  • Christianity
  • Evangelicalism
  • Kyle Roberts
    About Kyle Roberts
    Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He researches and writes on issues related to the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture. Follow Kyle Roberts' reflections on faith and culture at his blog or via Twitter.