Hellfire—Flaring or Fading?
PROTESTANT preacher Jonathan Edwards used to strike fear in the hearts of 18th-century Colonial Americans with his graphic portrayals of hell. Once he described a scene in which God dangled sinners over the flames like loathsome spiders. Edwards rebuked his congregation: “O sinner, you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.”
However, shortly after Edwards delivered this notorious sermon, the flames of hell began, as it were, to flicker and fade.* The book The Decline of Hell, by D. P. Walker, notes that “by the fourth decade of the 18th century the doctrine of eternal torment for the damned was being challenged openly.” During the 19th century, hell’s flames continued fading, and by the middle of the 20th century, Edwards’ view of hell as a ‘furnace of fire where its victims are exquisitely tortured in their minds and in their bodies eternally’ had slipped from polite conversation. “Attacked by modern intellectualism and paled by the flames of Hiroshima and the Holocaust,” notes journalist Jeffery Sheler, “hell’s frightful imagery lost much of its fury.”
Many preachers had also lost their taste for fire and brimstone. Robust sermons on the horrors of hell disappeared from the pulpit rhetoric of Christendom’s mainline churches. For most theologians, hell became a subject too outdated for serious scholarship. Some years ago a church historian was doing research for a university lecture about hell, and he checked the indexes of several scholarly journals. He could not find a single entry. According to Newsweek magazine, the historian concluded: “Hell disappeared. And no one noticed.”
Disappeared? Not really. Surprisingly, in recent years the doctrine of hell has flared up again in some places. Polls taken in America show that the number of people who say that they believe in hell increased from 53 percent in 1981 to 60 percent in 1990. Add to this the worldwide proliferation of evangelical hell-preaching movements, and it becomes evident that hell’s sober comeback in Christendom’s thinking is a global phenomenon indeed.
But does this revival affect only the people in church pews, or has it reached the pulpits as well? The fact is that hellfire as preached by Jonathan Edwards 250 years ago never vanished from some of Christendom’s conservative pulpits. In 1991, U.S.News & World Report observed: “Even among some liberal mainline denominations, there are signs that theologians are beginning to think more seriously about the idea of hell than they have in decades.” Clearly, after years of neglect, hellfire is back on the religious map worldwide. Has it, however, retained its fiery features?
Theologian W. F. Wolbrecht had no doubts: “Hell is hell, and no human wish or thought will make any less of everlasting damnation.” Many churchgoers are not so sure. Though not doubting hell’s existence, they do have questions about hell’s nature. Admits another theologian: “For me too, hell is an unquestioned reality, plainly announced in the biblical witness, but its precise nature is problematic.” Yes, for a growing number of theologians and laymen, the question today is no longer, “Is there a hell?” but, “What is hell?”
How would you answer? What have you been told about the nature of hell? And why are sincere Christians troubled by this doctrine?
On July 8, 1741, Edwards preached the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
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Cover: Doré’s illustration of Tumult and Escape for Dante’s Divine Comedy
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Doré’s illustration of Devils and Virgil for Dante’s Divine Comedy