Hell: An Ongoing Dialog

If you're someone who keeps abreast of popular Evangelical discussions, then you're probably aware of all the recent controversy that has swirled around Rob Bell's newest book, Love Wins. And if you're a Christian who cares about the integrity of the gospel, then the chances are, you've formed some sort of an opinion about the whole matter one way or another. I think Bell has some valuable insights, some good questions, and some bad answers. But I'm mostly grateful for how his book has put some vital questions on the table for discussion. My goal in this post is not to give another pedantic review of Love Wins, which has already been done a thousand times over, but to set some markers down for my own journey and create a space where more dialog might occur.

Paul told the church at Thessalonica to "test all things, and hold fast to what is good" (1 Thess 5:21). This exhortation stands as a constant reminder to me on two accounts: first, it gives me courage to always seek the truth and never shy away from asking the big questions, however unpopular those questions might be; and it also challenges me to never ask questions purely for question's sake, but to truly seek answers to those questions and to carry those answers with conviction. In epistemological terms, it calls me to be a "critical realist". That said, I think discussions like this one are immensely valuable. They force us to ask questions we might not have asked otherwise, to take a good look at the underlying reasons why we believe what we do, and perhaps even to revise some of that in the process.

Pertaining to the subjects of hell and final judgment, here are some of the online discussions which I've found most helpful over the past few months:

Jeff Cook recently wrote an article for Relevant Magazine briefly covering the current debate. He compares the main historical positions with respect and humility. I think this is a great place to start if you're just getting familiar with the whole debate.

Jeff also gave some valuable thoughts on the Jesus Creed blog in response to Francis Chan and Preston Sprinke's new book, Erasing Hell (one of many new books written in response to Love Wins). In one post he asks the question, to which Chan and Sprinkle give an affirmative answer, "Does God’s immense power and knowledge give him 'the right' to do whatever he wants?" There are many other questions that should grow out of this one, like "Is God's character consistent?" The comments after that post are valuable reading as well.

In a related post Jeff looks at the unavoidable role which the intellect plays in our reading and making sense of Scripture, particularly with respect to the doctrine of hell. Everyone who thinks they are just objectively reading "what the Bible says", without any subjective or interpretive element on their end, should read this post and heed its warning. And again, more good discussion ensues.

Personally, I haven't bought into the prevalent Western understanding of hell as "eternal conscious torment" for quite some time, but I've been torn over the last couple years between a creative view which N.T. Wright proposes in his book Surprised by Hope (chapter 11) and a more traditional alternative known as "annihilationism". I've come to believe that the prevalent portrayal of hell has its roots more in the middle ages and in Dante's Inferno (a picture painted as the opposite of the cartoonish heaven with harps and clouds and so forth) than in the Bible itself.

Wright's main point in Surprised by Hope is that since a disembodied "heaven" is not our hope, according to the New Testament, but instead a fully embodied new heavens and new earth, and a resurrected, renewed humanity within that picture, then what does the opposite of that picture look like? In his view, what we would call "hell" will not be populated by fully functional and cognitive human beings with perfectly enhanced capacities to feel and contemplate their own eternal torment, as is often assumed. Rather, since the destiny of the wicked is often portrayed in Scripture as being the opposite of the resurrection to life and as the logical end of those who give themselves over to dehumanizing lusts, he thinks that the souls who end up there are probably best described as creatures that once were human but now are not, beastly things that gnash their teeth and can thereby elicit neither hope nor pity for their fate. That's very different from the popular portrayal.

But recently, through studying the subject out more fully, I've been drawn more towards the annilationist perspective. I’m not completely settled about it, but it’s where I stand provisionally. In this regard I’ve been greatly helped by Gregg Boyd and the late Clark Pinnock, as well as by my good friend Mark Edward. The main points that persuade me are (a) that eternal life is something that, biblically speaking, belongs only to God and to those whom he gives it, that humans are not innately immortal beings, and (b) that the vast majority of the language which Scripture uses to speak of the fate of the wicked is annihilation-type language, i.e. "death", "perish", "destroy", "burn up", "consume", "end", "vanish like smoke", etc, etc.

Also, I'm just not sure I can follow the logic of "justice" into the justification of "eternal conscious torment". Is that really justice? Are the finite transgressions that we commit in our few years on earth really deserving of infinite and eternal punishment? I don't mean to belittle the severity of sin, but really? Infinite, unending, eternal torment, night and day, forever and ever, without relief, and without distinction? I freely admit that I have a hard time swallowing this. But according to the traditional view, what is it about God's righteousness and man's sin that I'm just not getting?

For many people, of course, it's just absurd to even question the prevailing doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment. Clearly, this view of hell has become one of the main fault-lines of American Evangelicalism, a theological boundary-marker of conservatism over against the ever-encroaching tide of liberalism. But as Pinnock puts it, "if the best reason for holding to everlasting torment is tradition, then we had better reconsider because it is not a good enough reason."

For others, however, the question is settled right away by the many "Gehenna" passages in the gospels. I've often heard it said that "Jesus spoke about hell and eternal punishment more than anyone else in the Bible." Often the line is added at the end, "...more than everyone else in the Bible put together!" But there are quite a few interpretive assumptions going into such a claim.

Of course Jesus spoke to his contemporaries about judgment, but do any of those occurrences of judgment-language qualify as eternal torment after death? Or is the intended meaning more often (or perhaps even always) concerned with temporal judgment resulting in death (as in, perhaps, Matt 10:28)? And as a sub-question to this, is Jesus' use of the word "Gehenna" intended to be (a) a picture of eternal torment after death, (b) a picture of the finality of God's postmortem judgment, or (c) a picture of the temporal fate of Jerusalem if it did not accept his offer of peace (i.e. the Roman armies would come and turn the city into a smoldering rubbish heap)? Or perhaps a combination of these?

There are many other questions to be asked, both of Scripture and of the way we read Scripture, but I think this is a good start. There are so many resources on this subject from godly men and women, and so much good discussion taking place (two books on my list to read are The Fire that Consumes, by Edward Fudge, and Hell: The Logic of Damnation, by Jerry L. Walls). I trust that the Lord will lead us into all truth as we partner with each other in humble dialog and prayer.

I welcome all comments and questions.