In the last week there has been a media storm over heaven and hell. The Blogo-sphere and Twitter-verse exploded with comment, debate and opinion on the question of whether a loving God will send people to hell. It was provoked by Rob Bell's promotion of his new book “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived”. See other blogs below for some examples.
Similar ideas derailed the Primitive Methodist movement over a century ago. From the mid 1870s various Methodist groups were affected by the acceptance of liberal theology, which included a new and radically different concept of heaven and hell.
Robert Currie notes that after 1875 the concept of hell was increasingly modified. Primitive Methodists noted the concealment of hell in ‘soft and dainty phrases’.
In 1900, Joseph Ritson noted,
‘At the opening of the [nineteenth] century the doctrine of eternal punishment was held almost universally and in its most literal and absolute form… It is still in the creeds, and in some form it is still held by many in all the churches; but it cannot be denied that comparatively little is heard of it in the pulpit.’
The Primitive Methodist pioneers preached a confronting message, namely “flee from the wrath to come”. With the advent of liberalism, the concept of God’s wrath, or righteous anger was downplayed.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was not a lot to flee from and the realities of heaven and hell became much more vague concepts. A Ranter preacher had no message to proclaim.
The idea of progress led Methodism to reconstruct its concept of the deity. A Primitive Methodist writing in 1900 saw the most significant change in nineteenth century theology as that from ‘the Divine Sovereignty’ to ‘the Fatherhood of God’…. The all-loving father figure disposed of hell.
Time will tell how the current debate over Rob Bell's book will play out.
A hell of a storm
What UK evangelicals think
Heaven and hell: an inconvenient truth?
Doing a U-turn
Going off track (1)
Going off track (2)
Going off track (3)
Going off track – heresy
Simple Gospel or Social Gospel?
 Robert Currie, Methodism Divided, (Faber and Faber, London, 1968), p119, quoting the Primitive Methodist magazine December 1900, pp. 823-824
 Robert Currie, Methodism Divided, (Faber and Faber, London, 1968), p122