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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Whatever Happened to Hell?

Once discussed often, the topic is mostly missing from Christian conversations

By John W. Kennedy
July 18, 2010

As the 20th century drew to a close, the subject of hell came up quite a bit, both in and out of churches. Street preachers and crusade evangelists delivered fiery sermons about the flames of Hades. Self-proclaimed prophets and futurists speculated the end of the millennium would culminate in the end of the world. Christian moviemakers and authors focused on the Rapture and those left behind. Congregations sponsored Hell Houses, which in a sequence of live tableaux depicted the fate of unrepentant sinners.

What a difference a decade makes. Hell has fallen off the radar screen, both from the pulpit and in the media. Many pastors, partly in reaction to the earlier dominance of the topic, are stressing the benefits of heaven rather than the threats of perdition. Fewer people now believe in hell — or at least in the possibility they will end up there.

Early in his 30-year ministry, Assemblies of God evangelist Sam Farina often preached about the realities of hell and the escape plan for Christians. Farina, who is based in Huntersville, N.C., and is national coaching facilitator for the AG Church Multiplication Network, says pastors no longer are too interested in the topic, preferring to focus on discipleship and spiritual formation.

But if hell is dismissed as irrelevant, Farina insists, it both trivializes Jesus’ atoning death and renders biblical teaching erroneous.

“What do we do with Jesus and His cross?” Farina asks. “It is the place of redemption from hell.”

Ed Rybarczyk, associate professor of historic and systematic theology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif., says postmodernism and multiculturalism have played large roles in making hell an unpopular topic in America.

“Postmodernism disdains ultimate truth claims,” Rybarczyk says. “Many view a God who they believe would make unnecessarily divisive and unfair judgments as imperialistic.”

Rybarczyk appreciates that his pastor during childhood willingly preached on the difficult topic of hell.

“We still need to proclaim that those who violate God’s laws or ignore Jesus Christ will be judged,” Rybarczyk says. “But we don’t need to yell or psychologically manipulate. We need not try to pretend to be the Holy Spirit.”

Scare tactics
Many pastors pragmatically have opted not to broach a subject that might risk driving away congregants. Likewise, laypeople infrequently raise the subject of eternity out of fear of being offensive to friends and relatives.

Melody Palm, director of counseling programs for Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo., believes many pastors in their 20s and 30s view the fear-based messages they heard as children as an ineffective way to spur people to accept Jesus as Savior.

“I’ve talked to significant numbers of young adults who have childhood traumas from being in church and hearing about a mean God who will throw them into a lake of fire,” says Palm who also is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and a licensed minister. “It caused significant psychological distress.”

While short-term results of fiery messages may have filled altars with confessional youth, the recurring impressions they had involved nightmares about demons, fire and physical torture, she says.

Students have told Palm they have felt manipulated by such tactics and that fear doesn’t provide a lasting motivation to live an authentic holy life based on a relationship with Jesus.

Overcoming misperceptions
Belief in an everlasting hell is dwindling. Two years ago, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that 59 percent of Americans considered hell real, compared to 71 percent in a 2001 Gallup opinion poll.

While the majority of Americans still believe hell exists, most think they will avoid it in the hereafter.

“There’s a misconception that ‘because I’m good — or at least not as bad as some others — I’ll be OK,’ ” Farina says. “But you can’t make God love you more or less by your actions.”

“Those who do believe in hell think it is reserved for Hitler, Stalin and Chairman Mao,” Rybarczyk says. Even some Christian college students succumb to nonbiblical thinking that good behavior will spare family members, he says.

Rybarczyk believes there is interest in learning about hell, both in academic and church circles. He teaches a theology elective on hell in Scripture at Vanguard University, an Assemblies of God school.

“Jesus has more to say than anybody else in the Bible about hell,” Rybarczyk says. “Jesus wasn’t just warning about hell because He didn’t want people to go there; He also wanted to inform people the way to live their lives now.”

Hell has a place
One of the 16 fundamental truths of the Assemblies of God deals with the final judgment.

“We’re ignoring a reality of Scripture if we do not talk about it,” Farina says. “There needs to be an understanding that God did make a place called the lake of fire reserved for Satan and those who follow him.”

The challenge today is for Christians to find ways to lovingly share the truth so that people are enlightened about the reality of hell, Farina says. He notes that Jesus lovingly approached those who didn’t know Him.

“To be a true disciple of Christ, it’s very important that we share truth and have open dialogue and discussion with those who don’t believe in hell, or at least don’t think it’s a reality for them,” Farina says.

Rather than stress the physical discomfort, Palm recommends that Christians point out an equally disturbing reality of hell: separation from God for eternity.

“To be complete, biblical theology should clearly articulate that hell is never having peace,” Palm says.

Bumper stickers depicting hell as a great party destination are wrongheaded, according to Rybarczyk.

“One is cut off from a relationship with not only God but all other human beings,” Rybarczyk says. “The good news is that Christ has come to save us from sin, death, Satan and hell.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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