Introduction A. Introduction “You look like hell!” gasped a young woman to the wet and disheveled man who had just entered the room. This scene from a soap opera shown in a waiting room grabbed my attention and made me wonder. What did she mean? What did she think hell looked like? Did her empathy for his disheveled appearance justify her picturing him as looking like hell? What did the term hell contribute to her portrait? This was an example of the world’s trivializing a once powerful term merely to denote a man’s disarrayed appearance. B. Trivializing of Hell Terminology Examples of this frivolous use of the term hell saturate the English language. The word often pictures disagreeable circumstances such as war or prison (sheer hell), Parkinson’s disease (hell to live with), perilous surgery (hell of an operation), trouble (hell to pay), being furious (mad as hell), and our role in making our own hell here on earth. This partial list shows the diversity of usage of the term hell in describing various aspects of undesirable elements in human experience.1 Other examples of this trivialized usage are unclear as to what the term hell contributes to the thought. When a home run slugger knocked the hell out of the ball to win the game, he was excited as hell. His teammates exclaimed, “What a hell of a guy!” After the game they had a hell of a party at which they raised hell. They missed him like hell when injuries sustained in an accident on the way home knocked him out of the lineup. The pain and anxiety following his surgery made the month of his recuperation a living hell. When he planned to resume playing well ahead of schedule, his startled wife asked, “What the hell are you doing? You’re scaring the hell out of me!” When he hit a home run in his first game back, all hell broke loose in the stands. In 1948 a fiery, scrappy politician named Harry Truman fought his way to turn the tides of a presidential election that began by heavily favoring his opponent, John Dewey. The slogan that was designed as almost a theme for Truman’s campaign was, “Give ‘em hell, Harry.” It was somehow a desirable thing for him to accomplish. Undoubtedly there were some Christians who objected to the slogan but it was sufficiently accepted by the national voters to make it so Harry Truman easily won the election. In the early part of the 20th century, the very mention of Hell instilled fear because people generally recognized its horrible theological significance. When the term began to be used outside of a Christian theological setting, it was still shocking. It caught people’s attention. Both Christians and others vigorously condemned such usage as inappropriate. The non-theological use of the term hell became less rare in the 1940’s and 1950’s, occurring with increasing frequency since the 1960’s. Its shock value diminished to virtually nothing. The same is true for the term damn. Clark Gable’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” in the 1939 film, Gone With the Wind, startled the American public, but now the terms, hell and damn, occur so often in the entertainment media that most people scarcely notice them. This trivializing of the words, hell and damn, is tragic. People apply the term hell to virtually anything but Hell! The term hell has been spread so thin that it no longer conveys any distinctive concept. It merely expresses whatever ideas people arbitrarily inject into it. In most of the above examples one could delete the term hell without changing the thought. It merely occupies space in a sentence while contributing little or nothing to its meaning. This distracts people away from serious consideration of what the biblical doctrines of Hell and eternal damnation really involve. For precision, in this book, Hell designates the biblical doctrine of eternal damnation associated with that term, and hell refers to its trivialized meanings or non-sense functions that are common in contemporary usage. Unfortunately, today Hell is rarely understood in its true function as described in the Bible. We often hear hell, but rarely Hell. C. Decline of Belief in Hell Belief in the orthodox doctrine of Hell as eternal damnation dominated Christian theology throughout the first centuries of the history of Christian thought. Yet, belief in that doctrine has declined steadily since the 17th century.2 The growing tendency of liberal theologians to deny the existence of any life after death made this trend prominent. Since 1800, no Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment. 3 After examining the indices of several scholarly journals from 1889 to 1989 and not finding a single entry on Hell, Martin Marty, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, drew his famous conclusion: “Hell disappeared and no one noticed .”4 Alan M. Linfield drew a similar conclusion: “It is not too fanciful to suggest that if Christians who believe in the reality of hell were wild animals, they would long ago have been declared an endangered species.”5 With a diminished awareness of the reality of Hell, it is only natural that frivolous uses of the word hell should multiply. Since the 1950’s even some evangelical theologians have begun to soften their position on Hell as eternal punishment. While recognizing its existence, they have been debating its nature and its duration. Many evangelical pastors who do believe in Hell nevertheless so minimize its importance that they rarely preach it. This decline in both the belief in and preaching of Hell as unrelenting suffering grievously nullifies God’s emphatic warnings concerning the horrible fate awaiting the unsaved. As Gerstner has written concerning the ironic dilemma of the unregenerate: Their enemies assure them that they are not going to hell. Their friends warn them that they are. Foolishly, they make their enemies friends for telling them lies. They make their friends enemies for telling them the truth, though with the kind of friends they have, they need no enemies.6
Eldon Woodcock earned his PhD from Duke University and ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary. His extensive Bible/theology teaching career ended with thirty years at Nyack College.