National Geographic has an interesting article on the doctrine of Hell. Chris Date, Preston Sprinkle, Clark Pinnock, and Edward Fudge are all quoted in the piece. The gist of it is that evangelical belief in the traditional doctrine of hell is in decline.
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…
Annihilationsists believe they have already made significant inroads within the evangelical community.
“My prediction is that, even within conservative evangelical circles, the annihilation view of hell will be the dominant view in 10 or 15 years,” says Preston Sprinkle, who co-authored the book Erasing Hell, which, in 2011, debuted at number three on the New York Times bestseller list. “I base that on how many well-known pastors secretly hold that view. I think that we are at a time and place when there is a growing suspicion of adopting tradition for the sake of tradition.”
Four thoughts about this:
1. I don’t know about this prediction. Christianity in America is bedeviled by false teaching on every side. It may very well be that belief in annihilationism is on the rise. But still, the “dominant” view? Dominant among whom? Bible-believing Christians? Bible-believing Christians around the world? I don’t think so. In the entire 2,000-year history of the Christian church, the near consensus view has been the Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) view. The recent decline of that view in the West may simply be a sign of Christianity’s decline in the West. I’m not convinced it’s a sign the Christian church is undergoing some historic shift in its doctrine of Hell.
2. Western “Christians” who forsake the traditional doctrine of Hell tend to be drifting in other crucial areas of doctrine as well. I do not claim this is true in every individual case, but it is true in many cases. What we believe about Hell is fundamentally a reflection of what we believe about God, his character, and his justice. Revisions in the doctrine of Hell, therefore, are often accompanied by other revisions that undermine orthodox evangelical faith. I have in mind someone like Clark Pinnock, who is featured in the article as an “evangelical” proponent of annihilationism. But everyone who knows Pinnock knows that he was way off the evangelical reservation in his doctrine of God.
3. I know, I know. This is where all the annihliationists vociferously object, “But what about John Stott? Don’t you know he was an annihilationist? Don’t you think he was an evangelical?” Yes, I think he was evangelical. But I also believe that he had a patently unbiblical view of Hell. He was wrong. Really wrong. And his error on this point is the gift that keeps on giving, so to speak. Over the last couple of decades, his otherwise impeccable credentials have provided cover for others who have drifted away from the traditional view. Honestly, I wonder if there would even be any serious evangelical consideration of this view if it weren’t for him. In my estimation, it is not the legacy of Fudge that has given this view such staying power. It’s Stott’s legacy. And that is sad.
4. At the end of the day, this is a question of biblical interpretation. What does the Bible teach? I am in agreement with the overwhelming testimony of the Christian church over the last 2,000 years. I make the case for that view in my chapter of Sprinkle’s book (which is also mentioned in the article). If you want to read it, you can order it here. I would also commend Robert Peterson’s contributions in Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment and Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue.