Paul Egensteiner

Lutheran Bishops and an Empty Hell?

on July 23, 2019

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.

  1. Comment by Eternity Matters on July 23, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    He’s a typical hate-filled “Christian” Leftist, teaching the opposite of the Bible so that the world will love him. Even if you hold to the deluded, anti-biblical notion that homosexual behavior isn’t a sin, you’d still tell people to repent of their other sins and to believe in Jesus. But these guys are universalist wolves.

  2. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on July 23, 2019 at 12:29 pm

    Agreed that he’s departed from Christian orthodoxy, but I’m not sure if he is “hate-filled”. On the contrary, he may just have bought into a form of moral therapeutic deism. There are many exit ramps from orthodoxy, and a person can be well-intentioned and still find themselves on one of them.

  3. Comment by Dan on July 23, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    Then again there are Lutherans who are “not that kind of Lutheran.” See this video for details –

  4. Comment by td on July 23, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    Logic is simple on this. If hell is empty, then it doesn’t exist. Jesus was clear that hell exists.

  5. Comment by Steve on July 24, 2019 at 7:19 am

    Still doesn’t resolve the problem with progressive theology: why go to church if it makes no difference if you do or don’t. And of course they don’t tell everybody stuff like this, just confidentially on the side to a few preferred people, they’re content to misrepresent their actual beliefs to the vast majority of people.

  6. Comment by David on July 24, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Even at the time of Jesus, there were those who did not even accept the concept of an afterlife and this is mentioned in the New Testament. Obviously, if there is no afterlife, there is no Hell (or “Heaven.”) Traditionally in Judaism, the wicked were punished and the good rewarded in their lifetimes. However, we see a change in this thinking in the Book of Job. Job’s friends were insistent that he must have done something terrible to deserve his misfortunes, but the ending implies this was not necessarily the case. That bad things happen to good people is troublesome to religion and talk of “testing” and “my ways are not your ways” is not so convincing to modern humans. This god comes over as a nasty old white man with a beard who lags in moral development. The late Bishop James Pike preached that God has to be better than man and that concepts to the otherwise cannot be true.

  7. Comment by Dave B on July 24, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    David you say that my ways are not convincing to the modern human mind. I don’t think that it is incumbent upon God to meet your standards, but rather for you (or any other person) to meet His standards. There is an interesting book titled “Erasing Hell” by Chan and Sprinkle that addresses this idea. One part talks about Let God Be God.

  8. Comment by Loren J Golden on July 27, 2019 at 10:40 am

    “This God—his way is perfect (or blameless);
    the word of the LORD proves true;
    he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.” (II Sam. 22.31, Ps. 18.30)
    God has existed for all eternity, and He will still exist long after we are gone (Ps. 90.2, 102.12, I Tim. 1.17).  He is all-knowing (Job 37.16, Prov. 15.3, Lk. 16.15), all-wise (Rom. 11.33, 16.27, I Cor. 2.7, Eph. 3.9-10), and all-powerful (Gen. 17.1, Heb. 1.3, Rev. 4.8), and as He said through the Prophet Isaiah,
    “My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
    “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55.8-9)
    Because God is perfect in all of His ways, He does not change.
    “God is not a man, that he should lie,
    or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
    “Has he said, and will he not do it?
    Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num. 23.19)
    “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
    “They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    “You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end.” (Ps. 102.25-27)
    “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3.6)
    “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (Jas. 1.17)
    Process Theology is a form of idolatry, imposing on God its mandate that He should be open to change, believing falsely that through His interactions with humankind, He has somehow become less judgmental and more gracious toward us over time.  This is simply not true.
    First, He is no less judgmental now than He was in the Beginning.  He destroyed the antediluvian world and later the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (and likely Admah and Zeboiim also) for their wickedness (Gen. 6-8, 18-19).  He struck down with fire Nadab and Abihu, the two elder sons of Aaron, for having “offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them.” (Lev. 10.1-3)  He struck down Uzzah for putting his hand to the Ark of the Covenant, to stabilize it when the oxen pulling the cart carrying it stumbled, presuming that his unholy hand was somehow worthier to touch the holy Throne of God than was the ground (II Sam. 6.6-7).  He struck down Ananias and his wife Sapphira, after the two of them had “lied to the Holy Spirit”, claiming to the Church that they were donating the whole proceeds from the sale of a piece of property, while they were, in truth, keeping back a part of the proceeds for themselves (Acts 5.1-11).  And at the end of human history, just before the Lord Jesus returns to make all things new, the Lord will pour out His wrath in judgment on our world, through terrible and awful natural calamities and a horrific world war the likes of which have never before been seen in human history, after which He will consign the wicked who do not trust in His Son to eternal torment and death in Hell (Rev. 6-20).
    Second, God was no less gracious in the Old Testament than He is in the New.  Out of the antediluvian world, He spared Noah, and out of the cities of the plain, He spared Lot, together with their families (Gen. 6-8, 19).  He showed grace to Hagar, after she had fled from the harsh treatment of her mistress, Sarai (Gen. 16.7-14).  He showed grace to Jacob’s unloved wife, Leah, opening her womb (and closing Rachel’s) and allowing her to bear six sons and a daughter, before Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, bore her first, and then He showed grace to Rachel, opening her womb, taking away her reproach, allowing her to bear a son (Gen. 29.31-30.24).  He showed grace to Jacob, turning aside the wrath of his brother, Esau, after Jacob had stolen his birthright and blessing (Gen. 32).  He showed grace to Rahab the prostitute, sparing her and her family during the destruction of Jericho, for having shown kindness to the two Israelite spies (Josh. 2, 6.22-25), even giving her a place of honor in the lineage of the Lord Jesus (Mt. 1.5).  He showed grace to David, after his sins with Bathsheba and Uriah (II Sam. 11-12).  He showed grace even to wicked King Ahab, after his sin against Naboth (I Kg. 21).  And there are many more such examples.
    Therefore, sir, I implore you, for the sake of your immortal soul, to repent of your idolatry in worshiping the imperfect god of Process Theology, and seek the forgiveness of the perfect and unchanging God, whom you have offended by your idolatry, and whose Son died for the offenses of sinners like of you and me.  For the eternal Son of the unchanging God draws all people to Himself (Jn. 12.32), offering forgiveness, eternal life, and the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit to all who repent of their sins and put their faith in Him alone for salvation from sin and death (Mk. 1.15, Jn. 11.25-26, 14.1,15-17, 17.3).

  9. Comment by Stephen Moore on March 7, 2020 at 9:01 am

    Sir… the bible clearly says God alone is immortal… the human soul does not exist after Gods breath departs… the wages of sin is death… you are buying the devils lies thou shalt not surely die

  10. Comment by David Miller on July 24, 2019 at 8:56 am

    I have to ask. Is this Bishop even preaching Christianity?

  11. Comment by Steve on July 24, 2019 at 10:23 am

    Seeing as how we’re on the subject of hell, I seem to remember in one of Lewis’ Narnia books after the last battle everybody was in heaven but there was a subset of characters seated in a circle, refusing to get out of the circle, refusing to believe they weren’t in hell. So the circle sitters pretty much lived in a hell of their own making.

  12. Comment by jim on July 24, 2019 at 10:40 am

    Speaking of C.S. Lewis, his “The Great Divorce,” is an excellent piece on the existence of hell with the very clear and clever examples that each human being makes their choice about heaven and hell.

  13. Comment by Jim on July 24, 2019 at 10:41 am

    I should have said, “makes their choice about where they will spend eternity.”

  14. Comment by Wes Woodell on July 24, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    Well, glad we cleared that up.

  15. Comment by Mike on July 24, 2019 at 6:48 pm

    I’m not a Lutheran or an Anglican but I see in my own denomination this insidious creep toward universalism, especially among clergy. Very dangerous. When you start choosing which parts of the Bible to ignore you set yourself up as God, which is idolatry.

  16. Comment by MikeS on July 25, 2019 at 12:03 am

    Given the rise of the nones and the increasing abandonment of traditional Christianity in this country, I wonder why Spong style modernism is not more popular except among the elderly. A few years ago a church in my city had Marcus Borg come for a lecture series. I attended to hear what he had to say. It seemed that the average age of attendees was 65.

  17. Comment by Steve on July 25, 2019 at 6:12 am

    Maybe the problem is, Spong style modernism isn’t actually Christianity. Maybe boomers wanted to attend their parents church without subscribing to the creed. More recent generations have better options. Its probably a good thing assuming it means a higher percentage of people attending church actually want to be Christians.

  18. Comment by MikeS on July 25, 2019 at 10:37 pm

    Yes, certainly the Spong style is not orthodox Christianity. But it is still Christian-ish, in terms of using some of the same words. I guess younger people are saying, why bother with the ‘-ish’? Either go full-metal orthodoxy, or sleep late and do yoga. Lately I’ve started to view mainline Christianity as essentially a drag show. People in pretty robes speaking traditional-sounding words, but when push comes to shove, they don’t really believe the words or at least don’t act like it, in terms of energy and priority.

  19. Comment by Steve on July 29, 2019 at 6:32 am

    Maybe Spong’s a victim of his own success. He basically got his way on everything during the baby boomer generation and subsequent generations aren’t interested in hearing various excuses for how and why we got here, where the norm is for most people avoid most challenges. Taken out of its context (loosening the restraints of the baby boomers’ parent’s religion), Spong’s philosophy is opposite of challenging/interesting. Baby boomers may want repeated reassurance that their destruction of religious norms was ok, subsequent generations don’t feel the need.

  20. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on July 26, 2019 at 11:04 am

    I have — easily — been the youngest person at every Jack Spong or Jesus Seminar event I have attended. Once Mark Tooley sent me to Drew University’s lovely campus to cover a Spong lecture. While searching for the building, I spotted an elderly couple and decided to simply follow them. They were, unsurprisingly, headed to the same lecture. On a University campus otherwise teeming with young people, not a single person at the lecture was under 40 (aside from me), and almost every attendee was clearly well into retirement.

  21. Comment by John Smith on July 29, 2019 at 6:56 am

    Could it be the elderly are attending the Spong lectures since, for them especially, death is very real and present, and they are seeking answers and comfort that are not available elsewhere?

    Have you noticed how vacuous our funeral services are? A celebration of life since we must not mention sin and death and what follows. When was the last time we heard about death, guilt and hell from the pulpit? Dare we talk of those who have died? If we do hear of death its always a passing reference. A momentary event, a ticket to a heaven that the hearers are assured they are entering.

    Your grandparents and parents are dead. Your siblings and classmates are dying, perhaps you’ve outlived a spouse or children. Are you getting answers at your church?

  22. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on July 29, 2019 at 10:11 am

    John, agreed that many memorial/funeral services today are lacking or euphemistically styled “a celebration of life” — as though death is not real and something we need not grieve. But with Spong, the aged followers of his writings embrace a modernist viewpoint that doesn’t allow for the supernatural (Spong regards himself as a “non-theist”). In contrast, younger progressive Christians seem to be okay with the supernatural. When Spong spoke at Virginia Theological Seminary (not known as a bastion of orthodoxy), students there were far more skeptical of his modernism and pushed back at they way he approaches scripture.

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