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Question the doctrine of hell at your peril. It could tear your church apart

Sam Hailes analyses the media’s recent focus on four Christian leaders who have questioned the traditional doctrine of hell

Hailing from four very different parts of the Church, Pope Francis, Steve Chalke, Carlton Pearson and Rob Bell don’t have that much in common.

But their views on hell have been the subject of much discussion in recent weeks.

Netflix’s brand new film Come Sunday is an intelligent and thought-provoking production based on the true story of how US megachurch pastor Carlton Pearson lost most of his congregation after preaching that because of Christ’s death on the cross, “no soul will spend eternity in hell”. Turning on the TV and seeing hundreds of thousands perishing in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda had convinced the Pentecostal pastor: God could never send these non-Christian people to hell.

A new documentary about Rob Bell entitled The Heretic is as well put together as the Netflix biopic. It tells the story of how Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins, which suggested God might eventually win everyone to glory, killed the pastor’s church-based ministry. Bell left his church in Michigan, moved to California and now preaches a different message (although it’s hard to grasp exactly what that message is, even now).

Then there was Steve Chalke’s recent announcement that heaven is not just for Christians. It didn’t come as a huge surprise to many in the Christian mainstream. The founder of Oasis has a track record of making statements which rile many of those who self-identify as evangelicals (see Chalke’s past comments on the atonement, the Bible and homosexuality).

Perhaps the most surprising of the four hell-related stories we’ve seen was Pope Francis’ comments to the 93 year-old Italian journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari. In the interview, the Pope appeared to endorse not universalism (the idea that everyone will be saved) but annihilationism (the belief that unsaved souls will perish in hell, rather than being tormented forever). The Pope was quoted as saying: “[The souls of] those, who do not repent and [therefore] cannot be forgiven, disappear. A ‘hell’ does not exist: what exists is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

Scalfari did not record the interview or take notes, as has become his custom when speaking to Pope Francis. Conveniently for the Vatican, this unusual method of conducting interviews has allowed them to deny the authenticity of any quotes attributed to the Pope. As the Vatican’s statement makes clear: “Everything reported by the author…is the fruit of his own reconstruction, in which the verbatim words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No direct report of speech, therefore, may be considered a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”

So either Scalfari is a poor journalist who has failed to accurately report the meaning of the Pope’s words…or the Pope really does believe the souls of the unsaved will cease to exist, rather than being tormented in hell. And let’s be clear. If it’s the latter, and the Pope is espousing Annihilationism of one form or another, then he's contradicting established Catholic teaching. The question 'Is the Pope a Catholic?' doesn't sound so silly anymore. 

Challenging the status quo

The stakes are high in this debate – and not just for Catholics. For many Christians, questioning the existence (or nature) of hell is tantamount to denying the gospel. “If everyone goes to heaven, then what was the point of Jesus dying on the cross?” they ask. And it’s a fair question.

Both Pearson and Bell ultimately lost their congregations by questioning the traditional view of hell. It demonstrates that those in the pews really do care about their leader’s theology. And it perhaps suggests that Christians are reading their Bibles for themselves and are not afraid to challenge what they regard as false teaching.

It’s also striking how quickly everything can change for church leaders who raise questions about eternal judgement. Carlton Pearson’s congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma was an inspiration to many. The graduate of Oral Roberts University had built a large racially mixed church. His reputation crumbled, he was excommunicated and labelled a heretic by his peers in 2004. All because he believed God had told him no one would go to hell.

Note the use of the past tense within his biography posted on his own website: “Carlton Pearson was one of the most beloved Pentecostal Christian personalities of his generation. Thousands would fill arenas and churches to hear him sing, preach and inspire. But things dramatically changed when he stood in his megachurch pulpit to proclaim a new doctrine”.

In Come Sunday, there’s a scene where Carlton’s fellow pastors, say they can no longer serve alongside their senior minister. One of them explains: “It’s not us who’s leaving. It’s you. You turned your back on us.”

Painful decisions

The film does well to capture the emotional turmoil and pain caused to all sides when prominent church figures express doctrinal positions which run counter to the mainstream.

Come Sunday places the audience in the shoes of Carlton’s friends and colleagues who are distraught at how their pastor, who used to preach the gospel to thousands on Christian TV, now seemingly denies Christ’s own teaching. But we’re also encouraged to identify with the pastor himself: What would happen if you honestly felt God speak clearly to you, but with a message which other people will reject? Could you push it down and ignore it? How would you feel if others began to accuse you of being “a messenger of Satan”?

In The Heretic documentary, director Andrew Morgan captures a normally cheery Rob Bell welling up with tears as he recounts the “death” he experienced immediately after Love Wins was released in 2011: “I did a club and theatre tour. I’ll never forget the booking agent saying tickets aren’t selling well. I’d go a town when last time I was there it would sell out with 1200 people. And I’d walk out on stage and there’d be 50 people huddled in the middle of this cavernous theatre. A friend of mine said ‘you lost your audience’. I had to make peace with ‘maybe you had your moment and now the rest of your life you’ll quietly fade’”.

Plenty of Christians have written off Bell as a heretic. Some believe he deserved to lose his audience and should never be allowed near a church again. But as you sit watching a tearful Rob Bell recount the story, you can’t help but empathise with his position - even if you believe he’s ultimately leading others astray.

Reclaiming empathy

Feeling sorry for church leaders who lose everything is not the same as agreeing with their new doctrinal positions. It’s even possible to be grateful congregants have left an environment where unbiblical teaching is espoused while still recognising or regretting the personal pain a pastor has endured because of his change of mind.

Hell is an emotive subject. One Christian musician recently told me that thinking about what eternal conscious torment actually means resulted in him struggling with depression and other related mental health problems. For most Christians, stories like this do not nullify their belief in the reality of hell. Some things are true whether like them or not. And no one is suggesting we should let emotion alone guide our theology.

But these films do reveal how theology really matters. Looking at what the Bible says is not just an academic exercise. It has real world consequences. Accepting or not accepting a particular belief can rip relationships apart in an exceptionally painful way.

So next time we hear one of our favourite Christian teachers is saying something we personally disagree with, it might be worth pausing before we morph into keyboard warriors, determined to announce THE TRUTH to whoever will listen (note: writing in all caps isn’t a great start if you want people to listen to you).

I’m not saying we should let bad teaching slide or give a free pass to people intent on leading the faithful astray. But these films do well to portray the inner battle of church leaders as they find themselves wrestling with their own beliefs. Neither Pearson nor Bell woke up one morning and thought to themselves “what heresy can I teach today?” Life is not that simple.

Theology matters. And for the majority of Christians, who hold to the traditional Christian view of hell, these matters really are about (eternal) life and death. It’s understandable that tensions run high on all sides of these issues. And while it might be tempting to believe that any serious doctrinal disagreement can be resolved if both sides simply listen to one another, sadly, that isn’t always the case. 

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