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Hell

2009 December 31

Long after I’ve forgotten anything else Jimmy Allen ever taught me, I’ll remember his sermon on hell. It frightened me to death as a teenager; it lingers in my imagination as an adult. I’ve never heard anyone preach with more certainty than Jimmy did about hell — its reality, its eternity (described in a series of images . . . an ant walks around a metal orb the size of earth and by the time it begins to wear a path around that orb eternity has just begun . . .), and its torture. More medieval imagery than scripture, it was the opposite of Ambien: it could keep you awake all through the night.

It wasn’t until many years after I first heard that sermon — and I’ve heard it many times! — that I realized that there are other understandings of hell by “Bible-believing Christians.” Here are three options:

First, there is the literal interpretation that Jimmy presented. Hell is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is eternal, conscious torture. To some, it is because of God’s sovereign choices (Calvinism); to others, it is because of our choices (Arminianism).

Second, there is a view called Annihilationism. This is the position ably staked out by Ed Fudge in The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. This view understands that hell is eternal, but not conscious. Those who are lost are destroyed/annihilated.

And third, there is Universalism. In this view, the scriptures about hell are to be believed — but not literally. They are images, drawn from the garbage heap of Jerusalem (named Gehenna), of a world where the reign of God is opposed. In the words of N. T. Wright:

“The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. His message to his contemporaries was stark, and (we would say today) ‘political.’ Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms…Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smouldering rubbish heap.”

Universalists believe that nothing is more powerful than the love of God, and that in his final triumph all will be reclaimed. Recent posts by Scot McKnight and Richard Beck might serve as an introduction to this reading of scripture.

56 Responses leave one →
  1. David U permalink
    January 9, 2010

    On Good Friday of 1965 I was in the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis listening to Jimmy Allen preach his “What is Hell Like” sermon……..all of 9 years old. When the invitation song began, I must have looked like Carl Lewis (or maybe Mark Ingram) headed down the aisle. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew ONE thing………..I DID NOT want to go to HELL ! Later, as a student at Harding, I was re-baptized.
    As I recall, my good friend Craig Jones was also baptized at that same Gospel Meeting in Memphis.

  2. January 9, 2010

    David,

    I was there too, and about seven and a half. I still remember it well. It was the closest thing I have ever seen to a Billy Graham Crusade among Churches of Christ. That was a thrilling time even if I would today frown on some of the sermons preached. Just the fact that we could gather that many of us together for anything was a feat probably never to be repeated, at least in the Memphis area.

  3. Deb permalink
    January 9, 2010

    I was about 9 or 10 years old when I first heard Jimmy Allen’s sermon on Hell. I had nightmares for a long time. We didn’t have positive behavior management or assertive discipline in our schools back then: I don’t remember cool behavior charts with loads of neat stickers or Behavior Bingo. Do you think Jimmy would have played Behavior Bingo if he believed in Believer’s Purgatory and they played it there?

    Back then a trip to the Principal’s Office only meant one thing, and so did a trip to Hell. We usually had one parent who spanked much harder than the other one, and we always held out for the choice to choose our preferred parental form of torture. In those days I was too young to know the difference between being Arminian and being Armenian, but being Arminian sure sounds kinder in that situation than being Calvinist! No wonder I was taught that Calvin was a heretic. From the way the grown-ups talked, he was in Jimmy Allen’s Hell. I saw him on the Reformation Wall in Geneva when I was 11, and he for sure looked like he was in Hell! Bless.

    We have sticker charts now and much, much more. I like to think about the discussions God has with all those Reluctant Agnostics during a round or two of Behavior Bingo, as they waver between that Golden Gate of Heaven and that, well…I don’t think there is a gate to Hell, is there?

  4. March 7, 2012

    Counterpoint regarding Jimmy Allen. In contrast to his famous/ infamous “Hell” sermon, I credit Jimmy Allen with introducing me to “Grace”. Though, in hindsight, it seems to me that he held (at that time) a rather legalistic understanding of grace, he, nevertheless, started me on a journey for which I am deeply indebted 40+ years later.

  5. david keddy permalink
    July 7, 2013

    i read the the mans sermon, then I read the comments from other people, only for as long as I possible could though, till I had to write this comment to all the comments that attempt to change , to water down , to lessen the sermons message, and I guess if possible, if they could somehow even explain it all away in their own mind sets, that would be perfect for them. so my comment is for the comments that do such as stated above. YOU TRULY WONT FIND OUT IF YOUR RIGHT OR WRONG UNTILL YOU DIE IN THIS LIFE WHAT IF JESUS MEANT IT EXACTLY AS HE SAID IT. YOULL BE IN HUGH TROUBLE, AND WHATS EVEN WORSE, IS THAT THEN YOU WILL KNOW THE TRUTH BUT CAN DO NOTHING ABOUT IT. YOULL HAVE TO SAY THEN, JESUS WAS RIGHT ALL THE TIME AND I JUST DIDNT BELIEVE HIM. I JUST DIDNT TAKE HIS WORDS LITERALY, I JUST DIDNT TAKE HIM SERIOUS ENOUGH, AND HIS WORDS. you see youll know why your in hell. better to receive Christ now, and be born again like John Chapter 3 says.

  6. July 24, 2013

    For more resources on evangelical annihilationism, check out http://www.rethinkinghell.com.

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