Hell is empty and we should have no concern about our eternal fate, according to a recently elected Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) bishop.
Bishop-elect Paul Egensteiner of the ELCA’s Metropolitan New York Synod authored an account earlier this month of his visit to the New York City LGBT Pride Parade:
“A young man shook my hand and said something to me that, amidst the joyful noises around us, I didn’t catch. ‘Could you say that again?’ I asked. In a quiet, tentative voice he repeated, ‘You mean I’m not going to hell?’ I was stunned. ‘No,’ I said. (Along with Bishop Eaton, I believe there is a hell but it is empty, by the grace of the Father and the love of Jesus.)”
A tip of the hat to Lutheran blogger Dan Skogen, who highlighted this exchange. The church historically teaches – and most Christians today would reiterate – that God loves everyone and seeks their best interest. But does that love mean that Hell is, as Egensteiner asserted, empty?
Even among many liberal mainline Protestant luminaries, the doctrine of Hell is taken seriously today more so than in the past two generations. In 2008, the liberal Christian Century hosted a symposium on Hell. As IRD’s Mark Tooley reported somewhat surprisingly, most of the respondents seemed to believe in it. This stands in stark contrast to early and mid-20th Century liberal Protestants who rejected the existence of Hell outright.
This old Protestant liberalism was embodied by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. Tooley notes that Spong gained celebrity in the 1980s writing books denying supernatural Christianity and insisting rationalism was the only way to “save” the faith for younger people. Meanwhile, his Episcopal Diocese of Newark lost nearly half its members under his watch, and the seminars he taught in retirement attracted only the elderly.
Rarely today do Tooley or I encounter liberal Protestants similar to Spong who are under 60 (Egensteiner turns 62 next month). “Modernist” views are now passé, and liberal Protestants under age 50 typically believe in an afterlife and sometimes even Hell.
But Hell isn’t just about the afterlife. As I reported last year on an Anglican workshop that addressed preaching on the subject, the Doctrine of Hell has consequences today for the living including Christology, evangelism, human dignity and our “tone in life”.
“Universalism is the most sophisticated denial of the doctrine of hell,” Anglican Theologian Kendall Harmon stated at the workshop. Harmon contrasted an optimistic 19th century view that “people are too good for God to damn” with a more developed 20th century view following undeniable human atrocities that “God is too good to damn anyone.”
Mainline Protestants have identified exclusion as the ultimate problem, and, Harmon observed, “nothing is as exclusive as Hell.”
As Skogen notes, the Bible clearly speaks of people in Hell and warns about going there (see here). Teaching that Hell is empty is universalism:
“In this exchange between the young man and the ELCA bishop elect, a false assurance of salvation was given. Nothing was said about faith in Christ, repentance, grace by faith for those who believe, fleeing from sin, forgiveness, God’s Word or lovingly helping this man know the healing that God can provide him.”
Harmon put it succinctly:
“We’ve got to put people in an environment where choices matter. People understand that their financial planning has consequences, or whom they marry, or what college they go to. They go through the entire week knowing that choices matter, but we’ve determined that on Sunday the choice about God doesn’t matter.”
Bishop Egensteiner would do well to share this with his flock.