Concepts of Hell Reflect Social Views on Punishment
Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Hell is an eternity of torment or it is final destruction, depending on which theologian is asked.
The fires of hell have stirred a new debate in Christian theology, while the hot social topic in America continues to be whether fear of punishment curbs crime.
The religious dispute is highlighted by the current cover story of Christianity Today, an evangelical monthly, and a new book, "Two Views of Hell."
The book "is selling like hot cakes," said co-author Robert Peterson, a theologian at Covenant Theological Seminary.
In the cover story, Mr. Peterson reports also on a new British document, "The Nature of Hell," which he calls "a model of how evangelicals can agree to disagree."
This debate follows a dramatic pronouncement on hell last year by Pope John Paul II and a 1996 Church of England report that hoped to revive the classic belief.
None of these faiths espouses "universalism," or that everyone goes to heaven, but they are divided on whether hell is eternal pain or "annihilation" of a person.
The Church of England document, called "The Mystery of Salvation," rejected hellfire for being "used to frighten men and women" and leans toward "total non-being" as the punishment.
"Hell is not eternal torment, but is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God," it said.
In his book, Mr. Peterson argues the traditional view against theologian Edward Fudge, who denies eternal torment and says the Bible supports the idea of "annihilation."
That idea, Mr. Peterson said, "seriously undermines the pains of hell" and thus weakens evangelism. "Indeed, the lost would rather be annihilated because their suffering would be over."
Hell is central to the Christian argument that humans are responsible for evil actions or for rejection of God and for presenting a case of final justice in the universe.
Some preaching still focuses strongly on the risk of going to hell upon sudden death - a strong incentive to immediate conversion.
Polls show that from 52 percent to 67 percent of Americans believe in hell. More people believe in an afterlife in general and in their likelihood of reaching heaven. …