Should we still speak about hell?
About twenty years ago I was involved in some correspondence with one of South Africa’s foremost theologians (who has since been appointed as professor at a university in the Netherlands). He was my professor in Hebrew and was absolutely outstanding as lecturer. At that time he started writing articles on the devil and hell and was widely criticised for his viewpoints. In an attempt to try and get an understanding of his way of thinking, I wrote him a letter (that was long before email!) and asked him to explain what he meant. He was quite thankful that I was willing to enquire about his meaning before criticising him (which was an important lesson to learn).
Being mainly an Old Testament scholar, he maintained that the Old Testament does not really know of anything about hell and knows very little about the devil and he felt that these were concepts which were developed much later under influence of certain philosophical thoughts at the time when the New Testament was written.
In short, I disagree with him on this point. I do, however, believe that there had been a huge development in the way in which Satan is regarded in the Old Testament to the way in which he is described in the New Testament. In the Old Testament he is described, almost as a mischievous being, making trouble here and there (as in the story of Job), but not really causing much harm.
In the New Testament, on the other hand, Jesus considers Satan as His great adversary which has to be driven out of people. Paul sees Satan and the evil spirits as something we have to withstand and, of course, when you read the book of Revelation, it becomes clear, especially when reading the second part of the book (chapter 12 onwards) that, behind the scenes, there is a mighty war going on between Christ and Satan which ends when Satan is thrown into the lake of burning sulphur (20:10).
Having said all that, one of the lessons I did learn from my esteemed professor, was that one cannot get someone into heaven primarily because they don’t want to go to hell. For too long the church has made people afraid of hell and then, based on that fear, given them the alternative, which is to accept Christ and go to heaven.
And then Matt Stone recently asked the question on his blog: Why don’t we talk about hell anymore? And he included a video clip of N T Wright in which he says that this repulsion to speak about hell started after the First World War, when people had almost experienced hell on earth and then came to the conclusion that God would never allow anything like that to exist in the future. You can see the clip here:
As with so many other topics in theology and in missiology, we have made mistakes in the past: Focussing on evangelism at the cost of social involvement. Focussing on hell at the cost of God’s love. And then the pendulum swung to the other side. Then we spoke about social involvement and disregarded evangelism. And we spoke about God’s love and remained mute about hell.
And I can’t help wondering why we always have to go to extremes to make our point. Can’t we preach about God’s love while also mentioning the result of rejecting God (as Jesus, Paul and John did?) Can’t we preach about evangelism while also preaching about the consequences of following Christ for our social lives, ecology, etc? Do we always need to choose either the one or the other, or can we preach the one “without neglecting the other”, if I may misuse Luke 11:42 in this context?
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This is a blog where I would like to share some of my ideas about contemporary mission. I have more than 25 years experience as a full-time missionary in Swaziland, have done a PhD on the theology of mission – specifically on the relationship between mission and eschatology – and am presently specialising in the problem of HIV/AIDS and how the church should approach this problem. You are welcome to respond and share your ideas on this blog.
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