As the Evangelical churches continue to follow in the path of their Mainstream brethren, they are starting to question the existence of Hell. Is it real? Does the Bible really teach that? Can I and my loved ones be saved when our lives are indistinguishable from those around us?
Okay, I threw that last one in there, but it’s important. What happens when a church, which has traditionally seen itself as a moral leader—the moral leader—starts taking its cues from the world around it? Doctrines of election and Hell start to become a problem. Who is saved and what happens to those who aren’t?
The traditional Reform answer follows a determinist understanding of God and the universe. Even before creation, God determined who would be saved and they cannot be unsaved. By implication the rest are unsaved, were always unsaved and cannot be saved. These days Protestants don’t make too much of this. It’s not a popular idea. It’s been said that most Protestant clergy are determinists and most Protestant laity are Arminians; that is, they believe in free will. (In Pentecostalism both our clergy and laity are Arminians.) Imagine a Venn diagram. There is one big circle and one much smaller circle. The smaller one is almost eclipsed by the larger one, but a little of it sticks out. Mark the big one U, the area of the small one within the big one H, and the part of the small one that sticks out S. The U represents the unsaved, the S saved, and the H those who think they’re saved, but aren’t. The H stands for hypocrite—though to be fair many of these are just ignorant. They earnestly believe they are doing the Lord’s work, walking the walk, but they aren’t (Matthew 7:23).
Now some may object to this characterization and I would reply that, first off, for a summation of less than 200 words, it’s not bad, even if it misses some subtleties. More importantly, it is not misleading. Arminianism sprang from the realization that the Reform view of election produced a God at great odds with the one of the New Testament. A God that condemns people to Hell for sins they had no choice but to commit. Arminianism teaches free will, not to praise human agency, but restore to us an understanding of God that loves, and died for, everyone.
If Reform Christians are uncomfortable with their determinist heritage, adopting an Arminian perspective would seem an obvious alternative. Instead, two other ideas have been popularized. One is called Eternal Security. The Classic Reform view recognized that not everyone who said they were Christian truly was, and that the truth would show itself in their lives. Sociologist Max Weber argued that the psychological unrest caused by this teaching gave rise to the Protestant work ethic. Referring you back to the mental Venn diagram you’ve drawn in you head, advocates of Eternal Security want to erase the line between the Saved and the Hypocrite. All you have to do is accept Jesus as your saviour and you’re saved. Nothing else matters. The other idea is called Universalism. Now if Reform theology teaches that if it’s not God will that any perish (2 Peter 3:9), yet people do, then God’s actual will must be that none of His elect perish and cannot but be saved. Universalism takes this idea a step further. If it’s not God’s will that any perish, then no one perishes. Human agency and the life you lead are irrelevant. There is just one big circle marked S.
The important thing here isn’t to save Hell. It is to save the scripturally based teaching that the life you lead matters. Just as Jacob Arminius realized that the Reform view of election produced a morally stained conception of God, we have to realize that in a world without consequences most people will never do more than they feel they have to. No more than what everyone else is doing. Ironically, while these teachings proclaim God’s grace, they deny its ability to transform the lives of believers. The Church is meant to be a city built on a hill, a light unto the whole world, and holiness is not meant to be something for the special few.