(RNS) Southern Baptists on Wednesday (June 14) called hell an "eternal, conscious punishment" for those who do not accept Jesus, rebutting a controversial book from Michigan pastor Rob Bell that questions traditional views of hell.
Citing Bell's book "Love Wins," the resolution urges Southern Baptists "to proclaim faithfully the depth and gravity of sin against a holy God, the reality of hell, and the salvation of sinners by God's grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, to the glory of God alone."
Several leaders during the Baptists' two-day meeting in Phoenix coupled warnings about hell with pleas for evangelism -- especially in areas where there are no churches or missionaries.
"Is hell real? Is hell forever? Did God really say sinners would perish in eternal torment forever and ever?" asked pastor and author David Platt of Birmingham, Ala. "Oh, readers of Rob Bell and others like him, listen very carefully be very cautious, when anyone says, `Did God really say this?"'
Bell's book, released in March, criticizes the "misguided" view that "select Christians" will live forever in heaven while the rest of humanity will suffer eternal torment in a punishing hell.
Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist-affiliated Lifeway Christian Stores quietly removed warning labels from certain books -- including Bell's -- that "could be considered inconsistent with historical evangelical theology."
"At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church has been the insistence that ... hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins," Bell wrote in "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived."
Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright prayed that Southern Baptists would take to heart the statement they passed on hell.
"Father, because the reality of hell is so real, the permanent separation from you is so real, and our hours here on this earth are so limited, we pray that you will give us a fresh sense of conviction of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ," he prayed right after the resolution was adopted.
On Tuesday, Baptists elected a black pastor from New Orleans as first vice president, the highest office in the denomination ever held by a black man. Pastor Fred Luter of New Orleans is already being talked about as a prime candidate for SBC president next year.
"It's a great feeling," Luter said in an interview Wednesday, comparing his election to the accolades he received when he was tapped as the first African-American to give the convention sermon in 2001.
The mostly white denomination, which traces its roots to Civil War-era defense of slavery, voted Tuesday on specific measures to increase the ethnic diversity of its top leadership -- which Luter cited as a genuine shift.
"I think the change is that the denomination is purposely at the point where we know we have to open up the doors for more ethnics to be involved in leadership roles in the convention," he said.
As for a possible presidency, Luter said he's not campaigning.
"I do hear the people talking," he said. "They talk to me about it. But I've been telling them, `Let's just take this one day at a time, one year at a time.' ... I'm praying about it and just praying that God will just lead us."
In other business, Baptists passed resolutions that:
-- Decried public "speech or activities" that bring "shame upon the name of Christ and his gospel," citing individuals and groups that have protested funerals, burned Qurans and prayed for the deaths of public officials.
-- Criticized any governmental "coercive measure," including restrictive zoning laws, that aim to limit religious speech or worship; Baptists also affirmed the liberty to "convert to another religion or to no religion."
-- Urged President Obama to force the Justice Department to "follow through on its constitutional responsibility" to defend the Defense of Marriage Act from legal challenges, and commended the House of Representatives for assuming responsibility of defending the 1996 law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.