The truth about Hell Summary

 

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  • A true story told by a London bus driver was reported recently by the BBC. In the interview he said:  “A bloke got on the bus and started screaming and shouting: “We’re going to ‘ell. We’re going to ‘ell.” I told ‘im: “No, we’re not goin’ to ‘ell. We’re goin’ to Ilford.” This is certainly not the way to deal with the subject of Hell but at least the man was not avoiding the issue, unlike many Christians today.
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  • It was also reported that a Norfolk church had put up a notice with the slogan “If you think there is no God, you’d better be right” - with flames underneath the message. Someone reported it to the police who said: “National guidance required us to investigate the circumstances and the matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Having spoken to the pastor of the church, it has been agreed the poster will be taken down.” The person who complained said: “It is my basic understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature. The message being displayed outside of the church could not be further from the often uttered phrase ‘love thy neighbour’.”
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  • Again, this is not a helpful way of communicating about Hell. But, far from being a hate crime, if Hell is a reality, it is profoundly unloving not to warn people but in more sensitive and compassionate ways. So Pope Francis was exemplary when he warned the Mafia about Hell in March 2014.
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  • But is Hell a reality? Is there a place of everlasting conscious suffering for those who reject the Gospel?

  • The “wrath of God”

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  • The idea of the wrath of God is alien to our modern, easy-going, pluralistic age where human rights and individual freedom dominate. So the church often preaches a grandfatherly god who likes to indulge his “grandchildren” (human beings). This god has given us written instructions as to how we should and shouldn’t live. But he doesn’t take any action (in this life or the next) if we don’t follow them. In fact, we Christians often order our lives on a secular pattern, especially influenced by our powerful media.
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  • Some scholars tone down the Bible’s references to the “wrath of God”, saying it means “an impersonal process of cause and effect, the inevitable result of sin.”
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  • Other scholars disagree and explain that the wrath of God is not bad temper or an emotional or vindictive outburst but rather a settled, holy reaction against sin. It is, of course, ascribing human characteristics to God or, more specifically, attributing human emotions to God, but so is saying that God is loving.
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  • Martin Luther called God’s wrath his ‘alien work’ and his love as his proper work.’ It is appropriate to say ‘God is love’ but not ‘God is wrath.”
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  • It is not just the Old Testament which speaks about the wrath of God, the New Testament teaches about it too.
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  • The teaching of Jesus

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  • Jesus teaches more about Hell than all the other NT writers. He spoke twice as much about God’s wrath as his love.
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  • In summary Jesus taught that:
  • ·         People with wrong attitudes towards a brother/sister are in danger of Hell (Matt 5:22).
  • ·         People who persist in sin are in danger of Hell (Matt 5:29-30, cf. 18:9).
  • ·         Hypocritical religious leaders who harm their followers are in danger of Hell (Matt 23:33).
  • ·         Hell for the unrighteous is conscious agony (The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:23-28. There is, of course, symbolism in this passage but it is very unlikely that Jesus would have told such a story which is based upon the terrible concept of conscious agony in Hell, had he not believed in the reality of Hell).
  • ·         The wicked will finish up in the “blazing furnace” of Hell (Matt 13:40-42).
  • ·         The unrighteous will go away to eternal punishment (Matt 25:41-46).
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  • It is very difficult indeed to believe that Jesus would have taught all that if Hell is unreal and there is no conscious punishment.
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  • The teaching of the rest of the New Testament

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  • The wrath of God is a theme recurring throughout the rest of the New Testament. Paul taught that people who persistently reject the truth will incur God’s wrath (Rom 1:18; 2:5, 8; 9:22). So will persistently immoral, impure or greedy people (Eph 5:6 cf 2:3; Col 3:5-6).
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  • He writes that when Jesus returns “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:8-9).
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  • Hebrews warns that “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb 10:26-27).
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  • Jude says that seriously ungodly people who had slipped into the church face “the punishment of eternal fire” and “blackest darkness has been reserved for ever” Jude 7, 13).
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  • On the other hand, Paul speaks of Jesus saving believers from God’s coming wrath (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10), rescuing us from the wrath which the law brings (Rom 4:15).
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  • Will everyone will be saved in the end?

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  • Some people believe that everyone will be saved and get into heaven in the end. This is called universalism (universal salvation). They say the Bible teaches the cross leads to “justification and life for ALL people” (Rom 5:18). God will “have mercy on them ALL” (Rom 11:32).
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  • But elsewhere Paul clearly contradicts such an interpretation. He says “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ (Rom 2:6-16) and adds “for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Rom 6:6-12).  He predicts that Jesus will “punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:7-10).
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  • It seems clear, therefore, that Rom 5:18 means that justification and life is available for all people (but, of course, some do not accept it). Similarly, Rom 11:32 teaches God wants to have mercy on all, but some will not accept the gospel.
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  • Similarly when Paul says “in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22), he is referring to believers. When he writes to Timothy that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4) but that does not mean that all will do so.
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  • Critics of universalism say that it undermines the importance of faith, the seriousness of sin, the significance of divine judgment and the urgency of evangelism.
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  • Will there be a second chance to turn to Christ after death?

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  • Peter writes that after his resurrection Jesus preached the gospel to those who had died (1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6). In the second passage it refers to those who had lived in the time of Noah. There are numerous interpretations of these difficult passages. It doesn’t seem likely that Jesus preached only to Noah’s generation or that he was proclaiming judgment to fallen angels (which is how some people interpret them). The main question is whether Jesus preached to all the dead, giving those who had been disobedient a second chance after death to accept the gospel.
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  • Another passage sometimes said to speak of a second chance after death is John 5:28-29 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” However this is a misunderstanding. It is simply referring to the Lord ‘commanding’ the resurrection of the dead – both of believers and unbelievers. It says nothing about Jesus preaching the gospel to the dead.
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  • The idea of there being a second chance after death to turn to Christ contradicts Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. In it Abraham says to the rich man: “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26). True, this is a story but I do not think Jesus would have conveyed such a solemn idea that there was no chance of repentance after death had it not been in fact true.
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  • In my view the most likely interpretation of the passages in 1 Peter is that Jesus descended to Hades (deemed to be the place of all the dead in OT times) and announced the gospel to the OT saints – those who were already believers but hadn’t heard the gospel.
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  • Is Hell everlasting conscious punishment?

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  • This is the traditional view and is held by many conservative Christians today. It was held by many leading Christians in history and some Evangelical scholars teach it today. They point out that Jesus spoke of “eternal fire” (Matt 18:8) and he parallels eternal punishment and eternal life (Matt 25:46). Paul speaks of “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess 1:9). Hebrews speaks of “eternal judgment” (6:2). John says the smoke of the torment of those who worship the Beast (Antichrist) “will rise for ever and ever” (Rev 14:11). He adds that “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” together with the devil, “beast and false prophet,” death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:10-15). Although the passage only specifies that the devil, “beast and false prophet” “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever”, the implication seems to be that those whose name is not in the book of life will suffer the same fate.
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  • Whereas we can take the fire and lake as symbolical, it seems that the NT predicts Hell as eternal conscious physical and mental torment. It is understandable that to many this seems a clear conclusion.
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  • However there are a significant number of scholars, including evangelical scholars, who believe that, whereas Hell is real and is the destination of those who persistently reject the gospel, it is not everlasting.
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  • Is Hell temporary conscious punishment?

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  • Those who believe Hell is temporary include prominent evangelical scholars like John Stott, John Wenham, Tom Wright, Anthony Thistleton and Philip Hughes. Michael Green refers to the “savage doctrine” of eternal suffering. The Evangelical Alliance’s Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE) published a report entitled “The Nature of Hell” in 2000 which accepts that evangelicals are divided in their opinion. Most accept that Hell is eternal but a large minority believe it isn’t, so it isn’t a fringe opinion. The report pleads for unity in diversity and mutual respect. It is well worth reading.
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  • You could be forgiven for thinking that those saying that Hell is temporary are simply ignoring the plain teaching of Scripture quoted in the previous section. But why do these evangelical scholars, who respect the authority of Scripture as God’s Word, think otherwise? The fact is that the issue and the interpretation of Scripture is not quite as straightforward as it may seem. We need to examine the arguments.
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  • In passing, we should note that some people think that unbelievers are simply annihilated at death – they pass out of existence. However annihilationism, as it is called, seems obviously contrary to Scripture. Jesus speaks of the rich man being in conscious torment in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). This is not a literal story but I cannot believe Jesus would have made such a clear statement about the consciousness of departed unbelievers if it were not true in principle.
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  • Then passages we looked at in the previous section clearly teach the reality of Hell as conscious suffering. The query as to whether Hell is eternal does not undermine that truth.
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  • Problems with Hell being everlasting

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  • A.      Biblical language

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  • “Eternal”: The Greek word translated “eternal” in our English NT basically means “of the age” or “age-long.” So it relates to the age to come and refers to the new quality of life in the age to come. It can be used not meaning ‘everlasting’. The meaning has to be determined from the context (surrounding passage). Dr Dick France, commenting on Matthew 25:41 about the ungodly going “into the eternal fire” says the word could be used meaning ‘belonging to the age to come’. Or it could mean ‘going on for ever’ i.e. the fire goes on for ever but the “fuel” (ungodly people) don’t last forever: they are destroyed. So this passage doesn’t settle the question is Hell everlasting conscious punishment? Other scholars agree. What they are saying is that eternal punishment could be destruction which lasts for ever. So it is eternal in its effect not in the consciousness of the person so condemned.
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  • “For ever and ever”: But what about passages which use the term “for ever and for ever.” Scholars point out that even this doesn’t always mean “everlasting.” For example it is used of the destruction of “Babylon” (meaning the godless world system) in Rev 19. Verse 3 says “The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” but the destruction of the godless world system would hardly seem to go on for ever, despite the term “for ever and ever”. What it means is that it is destroyed for ever.
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  • “Destruction”: Jesus speaks of the ungodly being destroyed (Matt 7:13: 10:28). So does Paul (Rom 9:22; Php 3:19). He says “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:9). John Stott comments: “It would seem strange … if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed; and … it is difficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing.”  However, as we noted in the section about the Destruction of the Earth, destruction does not always mean total annihilation.
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  • “Fire”: Some that it would be perfectly possible for God to limit the ‘physical’ effect of fire to intense heat and discomfort…” This sounds like special pleading. The idea of fire speaks of annihilation.
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  • “Immortal”: Are human beings essentially immortal, i.e. do they exist for ever, whether ultimately in heaven or Hell? Or is immortality a gift given to believers? This latter view is called Conditional Immortality. If it is true, then we must allow for the ungodly surviving death and experiencing judgment and Hell, even if only for a short time. The NT says that God alone is immortal (1 Tim 6:15-16) and suggests immortality is a gift for obedient human beings (Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Tim 1:10). It seems the NT doesn’t exclude the idea that humans are not essentially immortal.
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  • “The second death”: This is when the ungodly are “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14 cf. 21:8).
  • Some scholars, including evangelicals see this as a reference to annihilation. Others point out that a few verses earlier “the lake of burning sulphur” was where the devil, the beast and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev 20:7).
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  • In conclusion, it seems that the language the NT uses about the duration of Hell is not clearly conclusive.
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  • B.      Divine justice

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  • The doctrine of Hell (and of Heaven) is important with respect to divine justice. So often in this life the innocent and godly suffer unjustly and the wicked thrive. Believing in Heaven and Hell puts this in perspective. Life after death corrects injustices and belief in it helps to cope with the injustices of this life.
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  • However the idea of an everlasting, conscious torment in Hell raises serious questions of justice. It’s not just that the ungodly vary considerably in how they have sinned. The big question is: how can EVERLASTING conscious torment be deserved by any human being however ungodly?
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  • People have attempted to answer this in various ways. Some say it’s not the nature of the sinful lifestyle that matters so much as the fact that it is against God and that to sin against the everlasting, infinite God warrants an everlasting punishment. The greatest sin is to reject Christ. Far be it from me not to take sin seriously. We all deserve Hell. But I do not find these explanations convincing.
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  • I believe firmly in Hell as conscious torment. But how can God, who is love, who is merciful and compassionate, who teaches us to forgive our enemies possibly condemn anyone to EVERLASTING, conscious torment (unless that person continued to rebel for all eternity)? That seems to me to be a very strong argument to believe in EVENTUAL annihilation of the ungodly.
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  • C.      Divine victory

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  • Another serious question is that if the devil and his angels, plus the ungodly exist for ever, does this not mean that God’s victory is incomplete? God’s aim is to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph 1:10). Christ is the one who “fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:22-23). There is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). Christ ascended “higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph 4:10). How is this consistent with the everlasting existence of the devil, his angels and millions of ungodly people endlessly suffering torment in Hell? Surely eventual annihilation would be a greater victory.
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  • D.      The perfect joy of Heaven

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  • A third serious question is, if believers are aware that the ungodly suffer for ever in Hell, how could heaven be a place of complete joy where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more … mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”? (Rev 21:4). Some argue that God could blot out awareness of the suffering of people, including loved ones, in Hell. Others have said that the saints will rejoice in God and his justice, including in the reality of an everlasting Hell. I do not find these arguments convincing.
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  • What is the “fire” of Hell?

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  • Some believe it is literal but it seems clear to me that it is symbolic. We don’t have the details in Scripture but I see Hell as a God-forsaken place (effectively chosen by those who reject God) which means it is “burning” with intense dread, total self-loathing, utter loneliness, complete hopelessness, bitter regret, endless frustration, simmering rage, unceasing hatred and impenetrable darkness. It is too horrible to think about. It should cause us to re-double our prayers and witness to those who have not yet received eternal life through faith in Christ.
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  • Are there degrees of suffering in Hell?

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  • Justice surely requires that very evil people (the Adolph Hitlers of this world) will be punished more severely than those who are far less evil. The NT seems to say that there are degrees of punishment in Hell. Jesus said it would be more bearable for the predominantly Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon than the Jewish villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida who had refused to repent (Matt 11:22) and even for the wicked city of Sodom than for Capernaum” (Matt 11:24). He said the more a person knows the more he will be punished for disobedience (Luke 12:47-48).  Heb 10:26-29 and James 3:1 say the same.
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  • It is possible that people will experience different lengths of time of God-forsakenness (before their annihilation) according to how sinful they have been. But this is speculation.
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  • What happens to those who have never heard the gospel?

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  • It is one thing to believe in Hell as conscious torment for the ungodly who die. It is quite another to think that we know who has gone to Hell. I personally have known someone who committed his life to Christ in what could have been the final seconds of his life.
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  • Paul teaches that judgment will be according to the spiritual light a person has received (Rom 1:18-20; 2:12-16). It would appear that if people have genuinely not heard the gospel in a way which “got through” to them, they will be judged according to how they have responded to the spiritual insight they have received. God will not judge people for unavoidable ignorance (although there is the issue of culpable ignorance, when a person deliberately chooses not to find out about the gospel). Those who, through no fault of their own, do not understand the gospel (including the mentally disabled or educationally handicapped as well as those too young to understand) are in the same category of being judged according to how they have responded to the spiritual insight they have received. We should remember that the OT saints did not know the NT gospel but those who obeyed what they did understand will be saved as Hebrews 11 makes clear.
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  • There is only one way of salvation, through faith in Jesus, but God alone knows the hearts of individual human beings and he judges with mercy and compassion. People who don’t know the gospel but who in God’s sight obey the spiritual light they have received will be saved. But it is only through Jesus – his death and resurrection - that they will be saved.
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  • Conclusion on the duration of Hell

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  • I have tried to explain the pros and cons of the views on this issue.  I have no doubt that Hell is a possibly extended time of conscious punishment. I have carefully considered the biblical passages used by those who believe Hell is everlasting and have noted that that interpretation is not as clear as it might seem. With my high view of Scripture as the Word of God I don’t want to ignore anything it says. However it is crucial to look at passages in not only the immediate context, but also in the context of the whole of Scripture. After all, it is quite possible to prove from NT passages that slavery is acceptable.
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  • The slavery issue is helpful because we all know it is not acceptable on the basis of general theological and moral principles. Yet it is not condemned by the NT. I see a parallel with the idea that Hell is not everlasting. It is not only the issue of biblical interpretation. I find it extremely difficult to believe that EVERLASTING conscious torment can be deserved by any ungodly human being. It would seem to conflict with the perfect justice of God who is also perfectly loving and merciful. I am not being dogmatic but I am very strongly inclined to the view that Hell is a possibly extended, but not everlasting, conscious punishment. I am aware that this can weaken the strong incentive to turn to God which everlasting punishment is in theory. But that consideration cannot remove the theological problem I have with it. I might add that, in practice, Hell doesn’t prove to be a strong incentive today anyway. Nor was it used as such in NT evangelism.
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  • How should we Christians respond to the truth about Hell?

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  • We should apply ourselves urgently to prayer for and witnessing to those who are not yet believers. The Evangelical Alliance report states: “Although the gospel is fundamentally ‘good news’ about the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, it is appropriate that Christian witness should also include the message of divine judgment and hell.”
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  • Clearly this has to be done with great care, compassion, balance and sensitivity. It has been pointed out that Jesus made most of his references to Hell in addressing the disciples, rather than the general public. However he did tell the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) with its picture of the weeds being burnt, to the crowds (although interpreted it only to his disciples). Peter mentioned God as judge in preaching to Cornelius and his friends (Acts 10:42). Paul did the same preaching to the Athenians (Acts 17:29-31).
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  • I think therefore that the Evangelical Alliance report has got it right to say that the message of divine judgment and hell should be included alongside an emphasis on the love of God in our evangelism.
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