People of the Restoration Movement know the declaration well. These days I hear it quoted by many in the church worldwide. I use it when I introduce our doctrinal position to the new members at our welcome event. Most attribute the statement to St. Augustine. This 1,500-year-old declaration remains powerful in its simplicity: “In essentials, unity. In opinions, liberty. In all things, love.”
Nothing has the potential to divide us so much as differences over doctrine and theology. We take different stands regarding the end times and the “rapture.” We still have debates over speaking in tongues.
There are significant land mines here. What one person holds as essential doctrine, another believes to be an area of opinion. Anyone who invests significant time studying a biblical teaching that results in an opinion finds it challenging to hold that opinion lightly.
Too Little Addressed
Let me address a doctrinal topic that I believe has aspects of opinion: Hell. Maybe Hell is on my mind more than most because I live in Tucson, Arizona, where the summer heat reminds me of the Hell Jesus describes.
Fewer and fewer teachers in the church address the subject of Hell these days. I recently delivered a message on Hell, and a good number of people said they had never heard any teaching on the subject. There are several valid concerns and reasons why we avoid the subject of Hell. First, it is not a sermon topic that is easily communicated in 30 minutes to someone who’s exploring faith in Christ. Even fewer are willing to do a whole sermon series on Hell. Second, we assume many have had bad experiences in churches that misused the fear of Hell as a way to manipulate and control, and we don’t want to drive people away from the grace of God.
I decided I couldn’t avoid the subject of Hell because Jesus clearly wasn’t afraid to address it. In fact, he spoke of it quite often. So I bought books from every perspective.
Some were books declaring that Hell can be understood only as a place of conscious, never-ending punishment. Some of these authors were so pro-Hell that I wondered if they enjoyed scaring the hell out of people.
Then there were books arguing that Hell is not a real place at all, but just a metaphor. Some suggest that Jesus will save everyone from Hell, which means functionally it doesn’t exist. I was surprised to discover a myriad of perspectives about Hell.
I read the books. I also looked at every significant reference to Hell in the New Testament. After a fairly lengthy study, I finally came to my own conclusions about Hell. My first conclusion is that Hell is, in fact, a real experience and not just a metaphor.
The second part was far more challenging. If Hell is real, then what is it like? I discovered two legitimate interpretations regarding the nature of Hell among serious Bible-believing scholars. The more I studied, the more I was convinced that both views could be applied to the scriptural texts on Hell and thus, any final decision would be, in fact, an opinion.
A New Opinion
The opinion I came to differed from the one I had known and previously held. I suspect my opinion is probably a view held by a minority of the Christians I hang out with. Knowing that my new view was not in the traditional mainstream, I was concerned about teaching my opinion about Hell to our church in the weekend services. So I decided I would talk with our elders about this before I taught about the nature of Hell.
I presented the elders with the two views that seemed to be consistent with the teaching of Scripture. We had a lively and healthy discussion. There was no disagreement that Hell was a real place. In the end we came to a very wise conclusion about what Hell is like. Together we agreed that I would not teach either view as dogma, but to present both perspectives and allow people to go to the Scripture themselves to determine which position they would hold.
In other words, we would allow people to form their own opinion on a subject that is disputable. While some might consider this as wishy-washy theology and leadership, I was thrilled that our spiritual leaders had the wisdom to acknowledge a legitimate difference of opinions on the serious subject.
Here are the two views of Hell I presented to our elders and, later, the congregation. The first is seen as the traditional view, where Hell is a place of conscious eternal torment. This view holds that the wicked, or unsaved, will experience eternal and final conscious punishment and be aware of it and experience it forever.
The second view, the one I came to embrace, is sometimes called annihilationism. This view holds that Hell is real and permanent, but a soul experiences a temporary punishment that ends in destruction rather than eternal torment. Hell is not an eternal torture chamber for the lost, but its fires destroy the soul so that the unbeliever is eternally separated from God. The unredeemed are punished for their wrongs and then cease to exist.
The Bible clearly teaches that the unbeliever will die and face Hell, or punishment, that will end his life. This is also called a second death (Revelation 20:6, 14). Hell is something we need to be saved from because we are in danger of losing everything there. In Hell, we lose all of life, and especially, we lose eternal life with God. I came to see Hell as a place of “eternal punishment” because God’s divine judgment and destruction cannot be reversed and a person will be eternally punished—separated from God forever.
The traditional understanding of Hell says that the sinner suffers for eternity in the fire of Hell. Annihilationism says that the work of the fire is eternal, not the suffering of the individual as the fire destroys the person. As I looked at all of the texts from the New Testament, both interpretations are reasonable and possible. The interpretive question is this: Does the fire of Hell torment or consume? I choose the later. It is my opinion. It does not contradict the Scripture and maintains the justice of God while not making God out to be a torturer.
There are books that present good arguments for the view I hold, and I won’t take the time here to attempt to further prove the validity of this view. There are also books that argue well for the other side. And that leads us to the crux of all theological debate in matters of opinion.
We ultimately go to Scripture to form our opinion and we allow and respect that others might hold a different opinion. Further, we determine not to judge each other in these disputable matters (see Romans 14 and 15). Finally, we are willing to engage in godly and healthy discussion over matters of opinion, being open to potentially hearing and learning more than we previously understood.
I’m pretty sure there are genuine Christ followers who will read this and be sure that my opinion of Hell is heresy. Some will even see my opinion about opinions as heretical. It won’t be the first time I’ve been called a heretic! But that is the very point of this article and the articles that will follow in this series on opinions. Serious Christ-following people will go to the Bible they mutually and totally trust and come out with honest differences of opinion.
I believe our emerging nonbelieving world is looking for true followers of Jesus who hold clear and strong opinions while refusing to burn each other at the proverbial stake. It is in how we respond to the opinions of others that we have an amazing opportunity to love each other and point others to Jesus.
In opinions may we truly exercise liberty and always love.
Glen Elliott is lead pastor with Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona.
Have an Opinion? Share an Opinion!
We welcome readers’ submissions to this new feature, “In Opinions, Liberty.” Tell us how you feel about an issue, idea, or practice in today’s church. Submit your 1,000-1,400-word essay to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Opinion” in the subject line.