Belief in eternal punishment in a literal hell is declining among Christians in America. By contrast, belief in heaven is in great shape.
In a National Geographic article published earlier this month and now making the rounds among Christians, writer Mark Strauss outlines the shifting Christian perspective toward believing that those who don't accept Christ die a spiritual death as well as a mortal one instead of being punished eternally in hell.
Noting a 13 percentage point drop over the past 20 years in Americans who believe in a fiery underworld, the author notes that the stats present "a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms billions of people to eternal punishment."
Nuances abound here, but generally speaking when it comes to the subject of hell, Christians usually fall into three camps. There are the traditionalists who believe that those who reject Christ will suffer forever in conscious torment; annihilationists (also called conditionalists) who believe that all those who do not acknowledge Jesus will die a sort of spiritual death and cease to exist; and universalists who believe that everyone, Christian and non-Christian, will eventually be saved and go to heaven.
Annihalitionism in particular is on the rise, and some thinkers and theologians believe it will replace the currently dominant traditionalist perspective. Preston Sprinkle, vice president of Eternity Bible College's extension in Boise, Idaho, offered a prediction in said National Geographic article that "even within conservative evangelical circles, the annihilation view of hell will be the dominant view in 10 or 15 years."
"He's probably right," said Fuller Theological Seminary theology professor Kutter Callaway of Sprinkle's prediction in a statement to The Christian Post, "but whether or not that comports with theological orthodoxy is another question entirely."
Sprinkle, who co-authored with Francis Chan a book called Erasing Hell (which debuted at #3 on the New York Times bestseller list), bases his projection on the number of "well-known pastors who secretly hold that view" who he knows personally, and believes that "we are at a time and place when there is a growing suspicion of adopting tradition for the sake of tradition."
None of these controversies, it should be noted, is new. In their earliest days, there was no clear consensus among Christians on the nature of hell. Scholar and early Christian theologian Origen Adamantius believed the wicked were punished after death, but just long enough for them to repent and ultimately be restored.
Modern theologians usually point to Irenaeus of Lyons as the forefather of annihilationism. His lengthy work Against Heresies contends that the soul is not immortal — everlasting life would be conferred upon the righteous with Christ's resurrection and the wicked would be left to die. Famous contemporary annihilationists include recently deceased orthodox Anglican theologian John Stott, who believed that it was the best conclusion one could draw from Scripture.
However, it was St. Augustine's influence, particularly his book City of God, which has shaped official doctrine for centuries. Augustine argued that the main purpose of hell was to satisfy the demands of justice, and that hell was a literal, lake of fire where unrepentant sinners exist forever in torment.
Perhaps the most famous modern exchange is the online dispute where popular writer and former megachuch pastor Rob Bell received a "Fare Well" tweet from traditionalist John Piper with regard to Bell's book, Love Wins, that promotes the universalist viewpoint.
For yet others, the whole question of hell remains a bit of paradox. Says Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, who calls himself a traditionalist "in some respects": "When it comes to heaven and hell, if God had wanted us to know definitively one way or the other, he would've made himself more clear...but he left just tantalizing hints about what might happen."