What the ... ?
In case you haven't heard, there's a campaign to eliminate hell.
No, it's not a platform of Donald Trump. In fact, I can't outright dismiss the possibility that Trump might be Satan. (I kid. I kid.)
But seriously, National Geographic reports on changing evangelical attitudes toward hell in a recent feature story:
I love the lede.
See is this opening doesn't grab your attention:
Hell isn’t as popular as it used to be.
Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who believe in the fiery down under has dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent. Heaven, by contrast, fares much better and, among Christians, remains an almost universally accepted concept.
Underlying these statistics is a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms billions of people to eternal punishment.
"Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die," wrote the late Clark Pinnock, an influential evangelical theologian.
While religious philosophers have argued over the true nature of hell since the earliest days of Christianity, the debate has become especially pronounced in recent decades among the millions of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals. The once taboo topic is being openly discussed as well-regarded scholars publish articles and best-selling books that rely on careful readings of Scripture to challenge traditional views.
It's interesting that the writer — a science correspondent — pitches the doctrinal debate in terms of "recent decades," whereas most mainstream news outlets tend to focus on issues occurring in "recent days."
National Geographic is, of course, a different animal, and this piece has more of a scholarly feel than you'd see on, say, the Associated Press wire. Moreover, the first direct quote in a more general news outlet probably wouldn't come from a deceased theologian, but it works in this piece.
After the lede highlighted above, the story turns to the concept of "annihilationism":
“What if the muting of hell is due neither to emotional weakness nor loss of Gospel commitment?” writes Edward Fudge, whose 1982 book, The Fire That Consumes, is widely regarded as the scholarly work that jump-started the current debate. “What if the biblical foundations thought to endorse unending conscious torment are less secure than has been widely supposed?”
Fudge is among those who endorse an alternative doctrine, known as “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality,” which holds that, after death, sinners simply cease to exist, while those who are saved enjoy eternal life under God’s grace. Although it’s not a positive outcome for the wicked—in fact, it amounts to spiritual capital punishment—it’s deemed a far more merciful and just fate than an eternity of torture.
Traditionalists are pushing back at this doctrine, which they view as heresy born out of misguided sentimentality. But, annihilationists believe they have already made significant inroads within the evangelical community.
I screened "Hell and Mr. Fudge," a low-budget film about the Church of Christ minister's life, at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., in 2012. A Religion News Service correspondent interviewed Fudge about the film (trailer above) that same year:
ATHENS, Ala. (RNS) Black and white. Heaven and hell. Right and wrong.
Blur or question those lines, and, well, all hell can break out.
At least it did for Edward Fudge in the early 1980s in in this small northern Alabama hamlet.
Fudge was a young preacher who also worked in his father’s publishing company. When he began to teach a doctrine of hell that contradicted the traditional view of a place of eternal fiery torment for the damned, a quick succession of events cost him his job and his pulpit.
"You do know that Seventh-day Adventists have been on the right side (annihilationism) of this issue since our early days, right?" asked former GetReligionista and Godbeat veteran extraordinaire Mark Kellner, who referenced Fudge in this post last November.
Back to the National Geographic piece: If I have a criticism — and I've entered the territory of nitpicking — it's the occasional use of broad, vague generalizations, i.e., "but traditionalists are pushing back" and "traditionalists remain steadfast."
But overall, this is an easy, compelling read, one that doesn't require a graduate degree in theology to understand. And if you're new to the subject matter, it's certainly a nice primer.