September 14, 2007
The doctrine of hell has always been a significant part of historical Christian theology. Yet, many still wrestle with its complexity.
Hell is generally thought to be eternal, and to include both punishment (poena sensus) and separation from God (poena damni).
For Justin Grindstaff, Worship Pastor at Believers Church in Johnson City, TN, hell is real. “Hell is very significant. According to God's Word, we will spend eternity in either heaven or hell,” he said. “It seems that the world views hell as either fake, or if they do believe it, they believe it's going to be one huge party. This contradicts what the bible says about it (being eternal torment, constant burning, etc.). I believe hell is real, and I believe that simply because the Bible teaches that, and Jesus taught that.”
Pastor of Life & Light Christian Fellowship and author Larry Walkemeyer said, “I teach the reality and eternal nature of both heaven and hell. Hell is eternal separation from God with the Biblical images being metaphorical and therefore, difficult to understand literally.”
He further referenced Matthew 25:46: "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. The word 'eternal' in both places is aionios, which means 1) without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be; 2) without beginning; 3) without end, never to cease, everlasting. The word 'punishment' is the word kolasis and it means 'to punish, with the implication of resulting severe suffering - to punish, punishment.'"
Walkemeyer says, "Hell is a place of punishment for the sin of rejecting God's love and the salvation found in Christ. It is a spiritual place prepared by God for Satan and (his) followers. It is an eternal place where there is no escape from the regret of rejecting God. What it will be like can only be imagined due to the metaphorical nature of the references to it (Matthew 14:41-42, Revelation 20:15)."
His teachings on hell and other important Christian topics have resulted from years of studying the Bible and through experience in his own ministry. He also released a new book this month from Regal Books entitled, 15 Characteristics of Effective Pastors: How to Strengthen Your Inner Core and Ministry Impact. The book addresses the basic and common characteristics necessary for pastors to be effective. It also talks about how lay people can better partner with pastors in building and maintaining a healthy church. Readers have the opportunity to learn from nine experienced pastoral leaders, who discuss the basic characteristics that exist in effective pastors.
In regard to current trends, “It would seem that people are moving away from a belief in hell if you were to judge by their actions, the prevailing intellectual philosophies and the media portrayals,” Walkemeyer said.
Yet the Baylor Religious Survey of 2005 showed that 53% believe in hell “absolutely” and 18% believe in hell “probably.
According to a 2004 Gallup Poll, 70% of Americans believe in hell. Belief in hell is highest among regular churchgoers: 92% of those who attend church weekly believe in hell, as do 74% of those who attend nearly weekly.
In regard to heaven and hell, The Barna Group's research shows, “There is a tendency to believe if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn a place in Heaven. In 2006 the public decided on the matter: 54% agree, 40% disagree. This represents little change since 2002 when 55% agreed and 38% disagreed; 1996 when 54% agreed and 38% disagreed; or 1993, when 56% agreed with this notion,” as noted on Barna.org.
Experts also agree that media can have a profound influence on the average person’s perceptions about popular subjects, such as hell. “People tend to think by association…'who believes what' instead of searching out the original sources of authority. When the media discounts, denies, or paints hell as a religious delusion then it has a decaying influence upon the spiritual perceptions of the general population,” Walkemeyer said.
For many, the idea of hell is only one facet of the Christian doctrine. "Luckily, as a musician, I can choose to sing about the love of God, what He has done in my life, etc.." commented Kelly Eldridge of The Kelly Eldridge Band, a Kernersville, North Carolina based Christian/Jazz/Funk group. "I'm not a senior pastor who has to settle on a doctrine to share with the flock. So how do I evangelize if I don't feel confident in saying, 'or else you'll burn in Hell'? I think the main point is that God is personal, wants a relationship with you, and forgiveness is available because of Jesus. Most people probably want a right relationship with their Creator with or without a threat, right?” .
For Grindstaff, it’s a matter of biblical truth: "I believe the bible is the literal Word of God. And as simple as it sounds, for people that do not believe in hell, I would say that they need the love of Jesus. I believe God's Word and the Holy Spirit will convict and teach the truth. So people that don't believe in hell simply need Jesus."
When it comes to hell and other common concerns, everyone has similar questions related to life and a curiosity about the afterlife. "They want to know how to make life work, how to deal with pain and suffering, how to gain prosperity of life. They also are interested in the unseen realm, the spiritual realities that have impact upon their daily lives. Non-Christians are less motivated to seek these answers in the Bible, yet they still have the same questions," Walkemeyer concluded.
Larry Walkemeyer has been in ministry for 28 years. For 15 years, he has been the lead pastor of Light & Life Christian Fellowship, a multi-ethnic church in Long Beach, California. Walkemeyer has been the visionary force in growing Light & Life and in starting or rebirthing nine churches in the United States and seven churches in Ethiopia. As an effective communicator and ministry practitioner, Walkemeyer has frequently spoken at pastoral conferences nationally and internationally. In addition, he was selected as one of the top 100 graduates in the 100-year history of Azusa Pacific University.