The doctrines of Christian denominations seldom make the national news. But there it was, on page A-1 of one of the major newspapers in the nation’s capital.
The big news was that the Southern Baptists believe in hell.
This startling piece of information was uncovered when the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention released its “Evangelistic Index Study,” a national religious census giving county-by-county estimates of how many people need salvation. The statistics are intended to help the denomination determine where to build new churches and find new converts.
But when the secular media got wind of the census, the fur began to fly. It seems that the very notion of people being saved and unsaved-the very idea of taking hell seriously at all-makes some folks indignant. In street interviews, several people denounced the Southern Baptists as arrogant, presumptuous, and divisive.
Well, that last one is right anyway. If hell is real, as Christians claim, then we have to admit that being divisive is the whole point of it, rude as that may sound to modern ears. When Jesus described the final, climactic scene in human history, it was chiefly about God dividing people, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.
I recently visited England, where I gave an address at a meeting attended by the eminent historian Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times. At the end of my talk, Johnson looked at me, with his ruddy Irish face, and said, “I think the biggest problem facing the modern age is what to do about the doctrine of hell. What do you think?”
I was taken aback; the question had nothing to do with my talk. But as Johnson explained, I realized how right he was. When the church does not clearly teach the doctrine of hell, society loses an important anchor. In a sense, hell gives meaning to our lives. It tells us that the moral choices we make day by day have eternal significance; that our behavior has consequences lasting to eternity; that God Himself takes our choices seriously.
When people don’t believe in a final judgment, they don’t feel ultimately accountable for their actions. There is no firm leash holding back sinful impulses. As the Book of Judges puts it, there is “no fear of God” in their hearts, and everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
The doctrine of hell is not just some dusty theological holdover from the middle ages. It has significant social consequences. Without a conviction of ultimate justice, people’s sense of moral obligation dissolves; social bonds are broken.
People who have no fear of God soon have no fear of man-no respect for human laws and authorities.
So I don’t know how accurate the Southern Baptists’ statistics are, and whether County X has 37 percent unsaved residents or 45 percent. Those are things only God knows. But I do know that the Baptists are right to take hell and damnation seriously.
And all other Christians ought to do the same. At stake is the health of society here and now . . . and the salvation of individuals in eternity.