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Pastor responds to columnist on reality of hell

A stained glass window inside Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas (Credit: Highland Park Presbyterian Church)Steve Blow is an award-winning writer for The Dallas Morning News and a good friend.  He wrote a column in last Sunday's paper that is generating a great deal of controversy.  It claims that the majority of Christians have given up belief in a literal hell and the necessity of faith in Christ, and seems to recommend that the rest of us change our rhetoric and commitments accordingly.

Dr. Ron Scates, Senior Pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, has written a response that is so outstanding, I asked his permission to post it on our website.  Ron is the closest pastor friend I've ever had.  I admire beyond words his courage, conviction, and compassion, and agree with every word that follows:

"God Plus One Person Equals A Majority"


I genuinely like Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow. Recently, Anne and I had the delightful privilege of sitting with him at a dinner. I believe that Steve—like myself—is genuinely embarrassed by certain public expressions of the Christian faith. That's obvious when you read his column in last Sunday's DMN entitled "Fear Of Hell Shifts With The Times".  But . . . just because most people today no longer fear hell, doesn't mean that hell is not a reality.

My mentor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA--Dr. John Leith--would often say, "Bad theology always hurts people." I guarantee you . . . any time you and I develop our theology based on majority votes from the surrounding culture—rather than by what God has revealed in His Word—inevitably, we wind up with bad theology. Steve says that because a majority of Christians today neither believe hell is a reality, nor that Jesus is the only way to salvation . . . we need to stop being hypocrites, get with the times, and abandon these doctrines that are more relic than reality . . . or act in ways that he believes are less than Christian.

I hear him. Occasionally, I feel the tempting tug myself. The problem is: politically correct theology is rarely good theology. Why? John Calvin nailed it when he said, "The human heart is a factory of idols." You and I can always come up with a god of our own fashion that is much more palatable than the One True Living God. We'd all prefer a god that is a cross between Big Bird, Santa Claus, and everyone's grandfather . . . rather than the angular, undomesticated, God of perfect holiness and justice that we encounter in Holy Scripture . . . but Who is also wildly—even prodigally—loving and gracious. Lion and Lamb. That's good theology. We prefer only what we do not fear: lamb.

"Aslan a man!", said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you, he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-The –Sea…" "Ooh!", said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion." "That you will, dearie, and no mistake", said Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly." "Then he isn't safe?", said Lucy. "Safe?", said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he's not safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you." (CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)

How you and I approach the Bible is key to forging a good theology. Is the Bible a spiritual cafeteria where we go through the line picking and choosing only what looks tasty and palatable to us? Or is the Bible a banquet to which we have been graciously invited, where the Author/Host sets before us a fare of His own choosing? At a banquet, guests don't try to change the menu. That would be bad etiquette. In the realm of faith, it equates to bad theology. Hebrew words usually have dual meanings. The Hebrew word for "faith" also means "tension". Good theology preserves the tension between John 3:16 and 2 Samuel 6:5-9. Both are true. Authentic faith doesn't discard either . . . but holds them together in tension.

Do I believe hell exists? Yes. Do I fear hell? No. I hold both those beliefs for the exact same reason that I believe that Jesus is the only way to eternal life: because He says so . . . and that if I be in Christ, hell is not my eternal destiny. In the gospels, Jesus talks more about the reality of hell than He does about heaven. It is Jesus Himself that makes the claim (as much a minority claim in the 1st as in the 21st century) that He alone is the way to the Father . . . and away from an eternity in hell (John 14:6). Good theology always takes Jesus at His Word . . . rather than extends a wet finger to the prevailing winds of culture.

Of course, good theology is always lived-out with humility and grace and love. No Christian should ever want anyone to wind up in hell. On a Sunday afternoon, an elderly Scottish pastor met a young Scottish pastor out walking on the moors. "Ay, lad, wat'd ye preach on this mornin'?"  "I preached on hell," said the young man. "Ay, laddie, did ye do it with tears in your eyes?" Good theology.

Steve's indictment of most Christians regarding our seeming lack of concern for the eternal welfare of others is spot-on . . . but it doesn't mean that we quit our jobs and assume "rat terrier" personalities . . . attacking people with the Gospel. Nor does it mean we abandon Biblical Reality. In 1 Peter 3:15, you and I are told how to best do evangelism : "…in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect."  In other words, if we truly live out a good theology (living transparently/publicly with Christ as Lord of every facet of our lives), people will begin asking us what's different about us. They'll be coming to us. We merely tell them the gracious Truth about Jesus as Lord and Savior.

None of this is new. The quest for culturally popular gods is as old as sin. Back in 1937, theologian Richard Niebuhr was disturbed by a similar call for "faith by majority vote" that he saw brewing in the mainline church of that day. He characterized that bad theology thusly, " A god without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

When all is said and done, good theology is a "revealed" theology . . . it comes from outside of ourselves . . . not something of our own making. Historically, the Church has always said that that source of revelation is God Himself . . . revealing Himself to us through His living Word—Jesus Christ—and His written Word—the Holy Scriptures. Good theology usually arises when you and I attend to, not contend with, the Bible.

Dr. Ronald W. Scates, Senior Pastor
Highland Park Presbyterian Church
Dallas, Texas


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