Hellfire, brimstone and John Wesley

Jun 2011    

NASHVILLE (Tennessee, US) – The debate over hell that has heated up Christian blogs and Facebook pages recently is almost as old as Christianity itself. And it is a dispute Methodism’s founder John Wesley in particular knew well.

Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference said: “Wesley had some of his fiercest, angriest words for any attempt to limit Christ’s saving work.

“Now obviously, not all those for whom Christ died respond positively to Christ or even know about His saving work. And on that score, Wesley just noted that with sadness. But then what does that mean about their ultimate fate?”

Wesley wrestled with that question in his own ministry, and it still makes headlines today.

The Rev Rob Bell, an evangelical megachurch pastor, has caused a stir with his take on hell in the best-seller Love Wins. And United Methodist student pastor Chad Holtz received international news coverage when his long Facebook post supporting the Rev Bell’s book resulted in his departure from a North Carolina congregation.

Both of them dispute the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of condemned souls. As Mr Holtz sees it, God can find a way to bring all the lost into his fold.

Like Mr Holtz and the Rev Bell, generations of Christians are haunted by the paradox: How do you reconcile a loving God with the image of billions of souls consigned to spend eternity separated from God’s embrace?

“In the biblical testimony, there is infrequent mention of hell, Gehenna, a place of retribution and a place of fire and torment,” said Bishop Willimon, who is also the author of Who Will Be Saved?

Who goes to hell?

Seventy-nine per cent of mainline Protestants in the United States believe people not of their faith – including non-Christians – can go to heaven, according to polls collected in the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Fifty-four per cent of evangelical Protestants take an equally expansive view of heaven, and a staggering 83 per cent of Catholics in the United States agree.

The Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s law book, does not make specific mention of heaven or hell.

However, the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which joined with the Methodist Church in 1968, states in its Confession of Faith: “We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.”

The Confession is part of The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards in The Book of Discipline.

The Rev Steve Manskar, Director of Wesleyan Leadership at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said that United Methodists should teach what Scripture and tradition instruct about hell.

“Scripture and tradition teach that hell is real and that it is to be feared,” he said. “It also teaches that God’s grace is responsible; it is God’s free gift of acceptance, forgiveness and healing delivered in the person and work of Jesus Christ.”

Ultimately, he said, people who reject God’s gift of grace send themselves to hell and eternal separation from God.

“We need to always balance God’s love with God’s righteousness and justice,” he said. “God’s love, which is a synonym for grace, is not cheap. It is a costly grace. It cost God the Father the life of his Son. God spilled God’s own blood in order that the world may be saved.”

The debate over who goes to hell stretches back to antiquity, when Christians were still a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. Origen, a theologian who lived around AD 185-254, challenged the idea of eternal punishment. He taught that hell is real but its fire would serve more to purify sinners than to torment them. Ultimately, Origen argued, God will restore all.

Contemporaries charged that Origen’s universalism would mean even Satan himself would be saved, and church leaders eventually ruled Origen’s ideas heretical. Nevertheless, his ideas had a lasting influence on Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant thought.

John Wesley mentioned hell as a distinct possibility in a number of his sermons, including one titled “Of Hell.”

But Wesley’s main insight into this debate was the concept of prevenient grace, said the Rev Timothy Tennent, a United Methodist elder and President of Asbury eological Seminary in Wilmore, Kuntucky. The Rev Tennent has been writing about Wesleyan teachings in response to the Rev Rob Bell’s book at his blog.

Wesley taught that God extends grace to people even before they believe in Christ. That grace enables people to engage their God-given free will to choose salvation. – United Methodist News Service.

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter with the United Methodist News Service.


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