The Nature of Hell is a report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) published in 2000. It outlines points of agreement and disagreement among evangelical Christians in the United Kingdom about “whether hell is a realm of everlasting conscious punishment for each individual who goes there, or whether the suffering of the unredeemed in hell will eventually result in their extinction” (pp. xiii–xiv). The former position is named “traditionalism” and the latter “conditionalism.”
Historically, traditionalism has been the majority position in Christianity generally and evangelicalism specifically. However, in the decade prior to the report, some evangelicals in both the U.K. and America had begun to advocate conditionalism, most prominently John R. W. Stott and most prolifically Edward W. Fudge. ACUTE argues that one can be an evangelical in good standing and advocate either position, even as it urges both sides to come to agreement on doctrine.
Although the report is by U.K. evangelicals for U.K. evangelicals, it is a worthwhile read for American evangelicals too. The topics and authors on both sides of the debate are the same, after all. What I appreciated most about the report is its calm, measured consideration of complex issues, its irenic tone, and its call for evangelicals to continue working together to achieve one mind doctrinally, rather than “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” (p. 135).
Here is the table of contents for the book:
- Introduction: Evangelicals and the Debate About Hell
- Background Issues in the Hell Debate
- Hell in Scripture: Identifying the Relevant Texts
- Traditionalism and Conditionalism in Church History
- The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: I. Defining the Main Positions
- The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: II. Key Exegetical Issues
- The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: III. Key Theological Issues
- Practical and Pastoral Aspects of the Hell Debate
- Hell and Evangelical Unity
- Conclusions and Recommendations
Here are the 22 specific recommendations the report makes (pp. 130–135):
- All human beings must face death….
- After death, all human beings will be resurrected to face the final judgment of God….
- God has revealed no other way to salvation and eternal life apart from through Jesus Christ….
- In his sovereignty, God might save some who have not explicitly professed faith in Jesus Christ…e.g., the unevangelised [sic], children who die in infancy, or those who have severe mental disabilities…. In particular, we can find no convincing warrant in Scripture for ‘post-mortem’ or ‘second chance’ repentance. We also reject the teaching of universalism, which holds that all will be saved regardless of their commitment to Jesus Christ….
- Bearing 4 in mind, Christians should conduct mission and evangelism on the basis that proclamation and demonstration of the gospel are the definitive means by which God intends to save people and make disciples of all nations….
- Hell is more than annihilation at the point of death….
- As well as separation from God, hell involves severe punishment….
- There are degrees of punishment and suffering hell related to the severity of sins committed on earth….
- The Bible describes hell as a realm of destruction. Evangelicals, however, diverge on whether this destruction applies to the actual existence of individual sinners (eventual annihilation), or to the quality of their relationship with God (eternal conscious punishment)….
- Evangelicals diverge on whether hell is eternal in duration or effect….
- God’s purpose extends beyond judgment to redemption of the cosmos….
- We urge church leaders to present biblical teaching on hell to their congregations, and to relate it to their ongoing ministries of personal visitation, evangelism and social action.
- We commend sensitivity and discernment in presenting the message of hell—particularly to those for who commitment to Christ is uncertain or unrealised [sic]….
- When Christians have died, we encourage declaration of their heavenly inheritance in pastoral care of their bereaved relatives and friends, and in the conduct of their funerals or cremations.
- Where the relationship of a deceased person to God has been unclear, or even apparently hostile, we would caution against explicit pronouncement on that person’s eternal destiny….
- We encourage theological colleges and related Christian organisations [sic] to train church leaders to a high standard of biblical preaching, teaching and pastoral care in matters related to hell….
- We urge evangelicals involved in religious education in schools to ensure that modules on Christianity include presentations on death, judgment, heaven and hell.
- We recognize that the interpretation of hell as eternal conscious punishment is the one most widely attested by the Church in its historic formulation of doctrine and in its understanding of Scripture. We also recognise [sic] that it represents the classic, mainstream evangelical position.
- We recognise [sic] that the interpretation of hell in terms of conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view. Furthermore, we believe that the traditionalist-conditionalist debate on hell should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary issue for evangelical theologians….
- We understand the current Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith to allow both traditionalist and conditionalist interpretations of hell….
- We…recognise [sic] that the majority of those who have published as ‘evangelical conditionalists’ have strong evangelical credentials, and have in particular demonstrated a genuine regard for the authority of Scripture.
- We encourage traditionalist and conditionalist evangelicals to pursue agreement on the matter of hell, rather than merely acquiescing in their disagreement….
In the nineteen years since this report was published, conversations about hell have continued among evangelicals. Unfortunately, traditionalists and conditionalists have not arrived a doctrinal unity in this matter. It may be that “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” is the most that can be hoped for, just as the debate between Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals has not made any fundamental progress since the Sixteenth Century.
Also, since 2000, universalism has made inroads among evangelicals, largely through the influence of Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, and other “evangelical universalists” who believe that all will eventually come to faith in Jesus Christ, either in this age or the age to come. Hell, according to them, is rehabilitative rather than retributive. These universalists make both biblical—especially Pauline—and theological arguments for their conclusions. Were ACUTE to issue a new report in 2019, it would have to pay more attention to this development.
The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (London: ACUTE, 2000).
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