U.S. News reports a variety of responses by clergy who were asked about their beliefs and preaching on hell. The Rev. Mary Kraus of Washington,D.C. says, "My congregation would be stunned to hear a sermon on hell." No doubt.
An interesting sideline is the reported differences among evangelical "annihilationists," who believe in the complete destruction of the condemned soul, and those who still view hell as a place of eternal torment for the damned. John Stott, Clark H. Pinnock, and the late Philip E. Hughes are numbered among the annihilationists. Like a college co-ed confronted with the gospel for the first time, Pinnock asks, "How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness [as to inflict] everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been?" Such a God, says Pinnock, is "more nearly like Satan than like God."
Of course, hell is awful, even to contemplate. The 19th-century American theologian R.L. Dabney, even while defending the doctrine of eternal punishment, said it is "so awful and solemn that it is with painful reluctance the Christian sees it made a subject of controversy ... It is presumed that there is not a right-minded man in any church who would not hail with delight the assurance that every creature of God will be finally holy and happy, provided only it could be given with certainty, and in a way consistent with the honor of God."
But it is the honor of God, ultimately, that justifies the doctrine of endless punishment. How? Consider an analogy in terms of debits and credits. All are debtors to God, born as we are in Adam's sin. This sin requires payment by a just God, whose mercy never operates in contradiction to His justice, since He is perfectly consistent in all His attributes.
But how can a creditor remain just, that is, exact what is rightly owed, and cancel a debt at the same time? It cannot be done. Once the debt is canceled, mercy has supplanted justice. This seems to be Pinnock's version. Then isn't it possible for God to extend mercy while remaining just?
Payment for the debt must be exacted; the debtor cannot pay. But what if another paid the debt in the debtor's place, reconciling the debtor's account with the creditor? The creditor would be satisfied, and the debtor would go free, although the one making the payment may be set back considerably. The Bible teaches that the creditor and the one putting up the payment are one. By receiving payment for the original debtor, the creditor's justice remains intact; by putting up payment on the debtor's behalf, the one incurring the debt himself demonstrates love that passes understanding.
Are all debtors? Yes, most certainly. Do all debtors have someone to pay their debt to the lawful creditor? No, not all do. But if they don't, they really can't complain, since they are the ones who owe the creditor, not someone else. However, if someone does step in to assume their debt, paying it in full, then the only proper response is thanksgiving, eternally.
Now, what about those who still owe the creditor but have no one to pay their debt? They owe. How will payment be made? It cannot be, since regardless of how much the debtor pays out -- even if it's the life of his soul-- it can never be enough to satisfy the creditor. There is such a great gulf between what he owes and what he can periodically pay out, that his account will always remain outstanding, and therefore, he will always have to be paying out. He won't be able to make a dent.
For the unredeemed debtor, final payment will never be made in full. He can never earn enough to square off with his creditor. But from the creditor's perspective, payment must be made, and so the unredeemed debtor pays, and pays, and pays, eternally, until (if it were possible, which it's not) the last farthing is exacted.
God's honor serves as a more reliable yardstick than our sensibilities for understanding Christian doctrine, whether it's the kind we would rather talk about or not.