Most Don't Believe in Hell

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Pope Benedict used a mass in the suburbs of Rome, Sunday, to remind people that hell is a very real place.

"Jesus came to tell us everyone is wanted in paradise, and that hell, about which little gets said today, exists and is eternal for those who shut their hearts to His love," the 79-year old pontiff said.

But the latest research from Barna Associates shows that only 32 percent of adults see hell as, "an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death."

Why the low number? Some well-known evangelical leaders agree with the Pope that the Church has been ominously silent about hell.

Stroll the streets of America today and you'll find that eternal destiny is not a subject most people even want to talk about. When they do, their thoughts on the matter are quite diverse.

Question:  Do you believe there is a place called Hell?
Response:  Yes, sir.
Question:  Why do you believe that?
Response:  Basically, my belief in Christianity has taught me that.

Question:  Do you believe that all people, when they die, would go to heaven?
Response:  (pause) Hmmm. Good question. Yes.

Response:  I don't know, I think it would have to be something very, very, extremely bad to go to hell."

Response:  Honest belief? This is hell. We are in hell now. It has to be better in the next life."

That confusion doesn't surprise the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Paige Patterson. He lays the blame squarely on the church.

"You can traverse the entire United States on any given Sunday morning, and you very probably will not hear a sermon on the judgment of God or eternal punishment," he said. "Evangelicals have voted by the silence of their voices that they either do not believe in (the doctrine of hell) or else no longer have the courage and conviction to stand and say anything about it."

Author and theologian R.C. Sproul is even more direct.

"I think what we face in the church today is a virtual eclipse of the character of God," he said.

The irony is that evangelicals consider one sermon among the greatest evangelistic messages ever preached. It was delivered by Jonathan Edwards in 1741 during the height of the Great Awakening. The title: 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.'"

Edwards proclaimed, "O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: 'Tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell."

Why don't preachers preach like this today?

"I can't think of anything more politically incorrect to preach in 21st century America than the wrath of God, or the justice of God or the doctrine of Hell," Sproul said.

Even 30, 40 and 50-years ago years ago, sermons that addressed the consequences of dying apart from Christ were commonly heard. But in recent years, many evangelical pastors have bristled at the thought of being labled a "fire and brimstone" preacher and turned to a kinder, gentler approach.

"I don't think fear, as a tactic, really moves people toward faith these days," Willow Creek Pastor Bill Hybels said. "So, tactically, I think there are better ways to interest the uninterested in the claims of Jesus Christ."

Hybels is considered to be the leader of the "seeker friendly" church movement. His Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago has drawn thousands over the years and has spawned hundreds of similar churches.

Spring Branch Community Church in Virginia Beach, Va., is one of them. The church's website declares that one of the reasons people don't like church is that "pastors make people feel ignorant and guilty."

"I think pastors can sometimes do that very inadverdently by saying, 'You don't do this,' or 'you're doing this and this behavior is against everything that is in the Bible,'" Rev. Michael Simone said.

Simone believes the people who come to his church want to know how to improve their lives, their marriages. He has even delivered a sermon called, "Sex and the City." He says preaching a sermon like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" wouldn't work today, when most Americans seemingly have it all.

"Today, I think the title of that sermon would be, 'I Went on Vacation and Felt Empty Inside," he said.

Hybels points out that Jesus didn't use the same evangelistic approach with everyone he met.

"When He was with the woman at the well, He just started talking about water," Hybels said. "He didn't start talking about hell. He started talking about water. When He was with the rich, young ruler he talked about money. When He was with Nicodemus, he talked about matters of the Law. He always knew how to establish rapport first, and guide them into a discussion that would lead to the unfolding of the truth. We must do the same."

Critics agree, but add that discussion at some point must include the truth about the eternal destiny of those who reject the Gospel.

"The power of the Gospel is the Word of God," Sproul said. "It's not these methods and techniques whereby we hide the Gospel. But there's no need of a Gospel....Nobody needs a Gospel if there's no judgement; if there's no law. If God is not a God of judgment, If there's no such thing as hell, what good is the Gospel? The Gospel tells us that we're saved from the wrath that is to come."

"Are we responsible for teaching the whole message of the Gospel of Christ? Absolutely," Hybels said. "Anybody who doesn't, I think the Scriptures are clear, will stand accountable before God someday."

But even Hybels admits the subject of God's divine wrath is not preached from evangelical pulpits like it once was. So how can pastors deliver what is referred to as the whole counsel of God without being offensive?

"If you are their pastor, not just their preacher, but their pastor and they know that you're for them, then it's amazing how many of these hard sayings they're willing to listen to," Sproul said. "I mean, we're not supposed to add offense to the Gospel. But if we try to take the offense that is already there out, then we're offending God and we're offending Christ. And we're not proclaiming the whole counsel of God."

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Lee Webb serves as news anchor for The 700 Club, the flagship program of The Christian Broadcasting Network. He also anchors Newswatch, CBN News' 30-minute daily news program. As a 31-year veteran in the television news business, Lee brings a wealth of expertise and credibility to CBN News.  Follow Lee on Twitter @LeeVWeb and "like" him at Facebook.com/LeeWebbCBN.