In the October issue of the Reformed Journal, Prof. L. B. Smedes writes briefly on his reason for believing in hell. We quote the article in full.
Would you, Reader, be upset were everyone to go to heaven? Would it unsettle you to discover that, by amazing grace, no one was damned? Do you need to be reassured by the doctrine that some souls are surely not going to be there? Or do only theologians suffer the sort of insecurity that is relieved by the doctrine of hell?
Why do theologians and preachers flee universalism and insist on the realities of hell? As you may know, Karl Barth among theologians is not very clear on the point. It is sometimes hard to know whether he is sure that all men will go to heaven or whether he thinks God’s grace only gives him ground for hoping so. At any rate, he has been taken to task by more than one theologian for being at least a reluctant universalist — or, better, a happy universalist and a reluctant subscriber to some cryptic doctrine of the possibility, at least, of some sort of hell. Why do conservative theologians take him to task for this?
Robert McAfee Brown, who usually is one of the most delightful and fairest of American theologians, suggests one answer. He writes: “Many conservative theologians criticize Earth for tending toward universalism, a belief that in the ultimate providence of God all men will be saved.” True enough. But why? The answer: “Such men seem to need the reassurance of believing that other men (not themselves, but other men) will be damned.” (In his Introduction, p, xxx, to G. Cassalis, Portrait of Karl Barth, 1964).
How know, Brown? Do you really want to dig into our conservative psyches? And do you really want to pin our doctrine of eternal punishment on the insecurities of our pious little egos?
Now, maybe there are people too eager to have a population explosion (via immigration) in hell. Maybe some rugged free enterprisers would feel cheated if, having “sold some of their goods to feed the poor,” they woke up to find those who kept everything got eternal blessings too. Maybe some people would think it not worthy “fighting the good fight” ‘if others who failed got a prize in the end anyway. Maybe, I say, there are such old guard Pharisees hiding among the conservative theologians. If they are there, they are going to be fooled — when they get to heaven and “know as they are known,” they will be most surprised of all that the Lord had grace even for the likes of legalists like themselves.
Maybe, too, there are insecure people of nobler mind who are worried about God’s character. They may suppose that somehow God’s zeal would be unrewarded if no one were punished. What, they may suppose, of God’s pleasure in the death of the wicked? What, they may wonder, of the glory that God presumably gets from the anguish of the reprobate? Not for their own, they may argue, but for God’s glory, hell must be decently populated. But, of course, Brown would say, this is all rationalizing; at the depths, these theologians are only trying to overcome their insecurity.
Brushing aside the inner anxieties of conservative theologians, why should they insist on the real possibility of hell? Why do they criticize Barth for his cryptic universalism? Each critic must, of course, answer for himself. For me, it goes somewhat as follows.
Hell is a real possibility because human choice is very significant. Heaven is possible because of God’s electing grace. Hell is possible because of man’s awful power of decision.
George MacDonald said once that hell is the greatest compliment ever paid to man. He meant that hell shows how serious a man’s choice is when he is confronted with Christ. A human decision is a thing of consequence. Hell is the last proof of the weight of a man’s choice. When Christ confronts a man, the chips are down, the issue is joined. And a man cannot escape without consequences. To rid the future of the very real possibility of hell is to emasculate history of genuine decision.
God allows us, I am sure, the same desire that He has — that not “any should perish.” He will not frown at a human hope for an empty hell. Should it turn out to be so, we shall be as glad as Karl Barth will probably be. And, with him, we should give all praise to the victory and the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
We do not like to think, Dr. Brown, that our criticism of Karl Barth is so dubiously based as you suggest. At least we are sure that our pleasure in heaven will not be enhanced proportionately to the number of souls in hell. And we are sure that men do not go to hell to add to divine glory. If a man is in hell, he knows that hell is where he, at bottom, chose to be. God only gives men their choice. Not because we are insecure— I like to think — but because Jesus opened up this awful situation: “I was in prison, and you did not visit me.”
We are not very appreciative of the light-handed way in which Smedes treats such a fearful subject as the doctrine of hell. He seems to write with facetiousness, a manner wholly out of keeping with the subject upon which he pens his thoughts. But let this be.
Nor are we interested at this point in either Barth’s views or Brown’s views on the doctrine of eternal punishment. But Smede’s views do concern us, for he belongs to a Reformed and Calvinistic denomination. What troubles us very much is that he openly rejects the doctrine of hell as being necessary to God’s glory. And he gives as his reason for believing in hell the fact that only hell gives seriousness and meaning to man’s decision to accept or reject Christ. And, within this context, he, claiming to be on God’s side in this matter, hopes for the salvation of all men.
What troubles us particularly on this whole matter is the fact that there is really only one reason for believing in hell. Not the reason of Smedes surely. But the firm teaching of Scripture in this respect. If God says there is a hell and that men shall go there, then we believe this doctrine. And we believe it for no other reason than that God tells us that this must be an article of our faith. If Smedes would only believe in hell also for this reason, then he would not become so Arminian in this doctrine. Then he would find that Paul did insist that hell is for God’s glory after all. Does not Paul write in Romans 9:22, “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.”
And he would find that this is also the teaching of Calvin. Calvin wrote on this passage:
. . .(Paul) briefly shows, that though, the counsel of God is in fact incomprehensible, yet his unblameable justice shines forth no less in the perdition of the reprobate than in the salvation of the elect….
There are vessels prepared for destruction, that is, given up and appointed to destruction: they are also vessels of wrath, that is, made and formed for this end, that they may be examples of God’s vengeance and displeasure. If the Lord bears patiently for a time with these, not destroying them at the first moment, but deferring the judgment prepared for them, and this in order to set forth the decisions of his severity, that others may be terrified by so dreadful examples, and also to make known his power, to exhibit which he makes them in various ways to serve; and, further, that the amplitude of his mercy towards the elect may hence be more fully known and more brightly shine forth; —what is there worthy of being reprehended in this dispensation?
This example of Calvin’s teaching on this subject could be multiplied. The trouble really is that Smedes has rejected the doctrine of reprobation; and has, very really, denied the truth of eternal punishment.
The trial of Bishop Pike, which we reported in the last issue of the Standard Bearer is not over. The House of Bishops before which body the charges against Pike were first brought, came to its decision. But this is not the end of the matter. The presiding bishop, fearing the harm a heresy trial would have, appointed a committee on the case. The committee denounced Pike’s views in some very strong language. It characterized Pike’s teachings as “irresponsible”; and said: “his writing and speaking on profound realities with which Christian faith and worship are concerned are too often marred by caricatures of precious symbols and at the worst, by cheap vulgarizations of great expressions of faith.” It criticized Pike for speaking disparagingly of the trinity and chided him for denying a truth which was such an integral part of the worship and liturgy of the church. In conclusion the statement said: “We do not think his often obscure and contradictory utterances warrant the time and the work and the wounds of a trial. The Church has more important things to get on with.”
It was hoped that this rather severe reprimand (although no disciplinary action was taken against Pike) would be sufficient. The statement passed by a vote of 103 to 36. But Pike himself was not satisfied. No sooner was the vote taken than Pike rose to submit a document to the body in which he asked for a formal trial and a full investigation to clear his name. In part his request read:
There are in circulation rumors, reports and allegations affecting my personal and official character, namely (a) that by the Bishop of South Florida to the bishops and to the press; (b) the charges of the Bishop of Montana in the Chicago Tribune; (c) the conclusions drawn by the ad hoc committee with three of my accusers as members, without opportunity for me to be in dialogue with them and to present data and by the censure of the House of Bishops.
A committee was to be appointed shortly which would determine whether the charges (if they can be proved) constitute an offense meriting church discipline. If this is found to be true, an inquiry must be made to decide whether Pike should be put on trial. Then the question would be brought before the court of bishops to make final disposition in the case.
To some this may appear as rather severe action. But the fact remains that, in the light of the seriousness of Pike’s heresy, this was extremely mild treatment. As one bishop himself declared: the church is far more interested in her image than a heresy trial. We might add: than in the truth of God’s Word.
Pike has threatened to carry the case into the civil courts if necessary where, presumably, he would act as his own attorney since he has a degree in law. What will be the outcome of this controversy will not only prove to be interesting, but of significance for the American church and the ecumenical movement.