The Fire That Consumes | Book Review


Edward William Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes (3rded.) makes an exhaustive—and occasionally exhausting—biblical and historical case for a conditionalist understanding of hell. Traditionalism teaches that “God will make the wicked immortal, to suffer unending conscious torment in hell.” By contrast, conditionalism teaches that “the wicked will finally and truly die, perish, and become extinct forever, through a destructive process that encompasses whatever degree and duration of conscious torment God might sovereign and just impose in each case.” According to Fudge, the duration of hell’s torments is the only issue that divides the two camps.

The biblical component of Fudge’s case occupies the first 23 chapters of the book, in which Fudge surveys passages from the Old Testament, intertestamental literature, and New Testament that bear on his argument. The historical component occupies the next 11 chapters, starting with the Apostolic Fathers and ending with late-twentieth century conditionalists. Chapter 35 summarizes the argument of the entire book, and chapter 36 offers several brief thoughts about how the debate should be conducted going forward.

Though summarizing a nearly 400-page book is a hazardous endeavor, it seems to me that Fudge’s cumulative case makes the following basic points:

    1. The Bible is the final authority to settle theological debates about hell.
    1. The Bible promises “eternal life” and “immortality” to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.
    1. By contrast, the Bible portrays the fate of the wicked as “destruction” and “death.” Since the Bible does not teach that the wicked have “eternal life,” the images of destruction and death are best understood as “extinction forever.” This coheres with the image of “fire” often used to describe hell, for fire consumes what it burns.
    1. Applied to the fate of the wicked, the adjective “eternal” points not to an everlasting process of being punished, as traditionalists argue, but to the everlasting result of a terminal process of punishment.
    1. Though church history is not the final authority in the debate over hell, it does indicate that conditionalism was a widespread view among church fathers prior to Augustine. Since Augustine, traditionalism has been the majority position.
    1. At the present time, conditionalism is gaining adherents among evangelical theologians. Even traditionalists argue that many of the conditionalists—Fudge himself, John Stott, John Wenham, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, and the like—are otherwise evangelicals in good standing. In other words, the issue at stake in the debate is not biblical inerrancy, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, or other first-level Christian doctrine, but rather a second-level doctrine, namely, how long hell endures.

The bulk of Fudge’s book centers on points 2 and 3 above, which can be summarized quickly but takes a long time to document.

Whether or not one agrees with Fudge, The Fire That Consumes is essential reading for anyone interested in a biblical doctrine of hell. This is admitted by traditionalists themselves, who often take Fudge’s writings as the point of departure in their critiques of conditionalism. For the traditionalist view, I would recommend the multi-author Hell Under Fire, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. It interacts with an earlier edition of Fudge’s book, and Fudge’s third edition replies in turn to its critiques.

Book Reviewed
Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rded. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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Two Views on Hell | Book Review


Two Views of Hell is a debate between Edward W. Fudge and Robert A. Peterson about how long hell lasts. Fudge is a leading evangelical advocate for conditionalism, which teaches that the wicked will be destroyed body and soul in hell. He is the author of The Fire That Consumes, now in its third edition, the best single-volume treatment of conditonalism. Peterson is a leading evangelical advocate of traditionalism, which teaches the eternal conscious torment of the wicked in hell. He is the author of Hell on Trial, probably the best single-author treatment of traditionalism from a Reformed or Calvinist perspective currently available.

The debate follows a point-counterpoint format. Fudge opens Part One of Two Views on Hell with “The Case for Conditionalism.” Peterson then offers “A Traditionalist Response to Conditionalism.” Part Two reverses the order. Peterson makes “The Case for Traditionalism,” then Fudge offers “A Conditionalist Response to Traditionalism.” Each author makes his case on the basis of exegesis of relevant biblical texts combined with systematic theological considerations. Peterson also makes an argument from the testimony of leading theologians, but with Fudge, I don’t think such an argument is persuasive as to the truth of Peterson’s case, though it certainly explains why traditionalism is traditional.

To oversimplify the debate, the crucial issue is the meaning of the words deathand destruction on the one hand, and eternal on the other. (I’m sure Fudge and Peterson would blanch at my simplification, for they bring many more arguments to bear than just disputes over these words. But, I think my admitted oversimplification helps illuminate the essence of the debate.) For Fudge, the words death  and destruction, which constitute the bulk of the Bible’s descriptions of the fate of the wicked, mean the literal cessation of bodily and spiritual existence. At the Final Judgment, God will pronounce sentence on the wicked and they will be annihilated, for lack of a better term. By contrast, Peterson understands the same words in terms of separation, loss, and ruin, not annihilation. Fudge argues that traditionalism assumes an unbiblical doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Because the soul exists immortally, whether it is saved or damned, hell must last eternally.

Peterson, on the other hand, believes that hell is eternal because the Bible speaks of “eternal punishment.” He cites ten biblical texts—two from the Old Testament, eight from the New—that lay the biblical foundation of the case for traditionalism: Isaiah 66:2–4; Daniel 12:1–2; Matthew 18:6–9; 25:31–46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 5:1–10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9–11; and 20:10, 14–15. Although these are not Peterson’s or Fudge’s analogies, the tradtionalist hell is like life imprisonment without possibility of parole, while the conditionalist hell is like capital punishment. Both are final and irreversible, but whereas one is an eternal process of punishment, the other is a temporal sentence with eternal consequences.

If you’ve read any contemporary books on hell by evangelical authors, this book contains no surprises. Each author treads a well-worn path of argumentation. Each author makes the standard arguments for his position and the standard relies to his opponent’s. To me, despite the rigor of his arguments, Peterson came off a bit tetchy in his reply to Fudge and a bit dismissive of Fudge’s previous writings when he made his own case. By the end of the debate—that is, in his reply to Peterson—even Fudge seemed a bit peeved. One of the frustrating things about debates such as this is the mutual stupefaction each expresses at how the other could possibly believe what he does.

While I appreciate the scholarship Fudge and Peterson bring to their respective cases, this is not the book I would recommend if you’re looking for only one book about the evangelical debate on hell. I would start with Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., edited by Preston Sprinkle (2016). It’s more recent, contains an argument for universalism and hints at a case for something like a traditional view that is more amenable to Arminians. If you’re collecting a library on the debate, however—as I seem to be doing—include this one.

Book Reviewed
Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed. | Book Review


Four Views on Hell presents a point-counterpoint debate between advocates of the three main interpretations of the doctrine of hell among evangelical theologians. Denny Burk makes the case for “eternal conscious torment,” John G. Stackhouse Jr. for “terminal punishment,” and Robin A. Parry for “universal salvation.” Jerry L. Walls’ argument for a Protestant version of Purgatory rounds out the “four views,” but while interesting, it is out of place in this book, since Purgatory—whether in its Catholic or Protestant version—is heaven’s antechamber, not hell’s.

In his argument for hell as eternal conscious torment, Burk begins by telling a “parable” about a how people would respond if they came across a man pulling the legs off a grasshopper, frog, bird, puppy, or baby. Most people would respond with increasing horror to these incidents, and that horror would increase their desire to intervene in the situation. Burks argues that this parable demonstrates “the seriousness of sin is not measured merely by the sin itself…but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against” [emphasis in original]. That is why “to sin against an infinitely glorious being [i.e., God] is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinite heinous punishment.”

Burk recognizes that this parable represents a “theological conjecture” not explicitly taught in Scripture (though consistent with it). So the bulk of his argument identifies ten key biblical texts that “deal explicitly with hell and with the final state of the wicked”: Isaiah 66:22–24; Daniel 12:2–3; Matthew 18:6–9, 25:31–46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 1:6–10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9–11; and 20:10, 14–15. He argues that each of these texts presents hell as “final separation” from God, “unending experience,” and  “just retribution.” Burk nowhere appeals to the immortality of the soul in his argument. Instead, in his discussion of the Isaiah passage, he infers that “this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for an unending punishment.”

Stackhouse makes the case for what he calls “terminal punishment,” which is also known as “conditionalism,” “conditional immortality,” and “annihilationism.” Stackhouse’s term, it seems to me, is more apt than these others because it clearly identifies both the nature (punishment) and duration (terminal) of hell in distinction from the eternal conscious torment position.

The core of his biblical argument focuses on the meanings of the words eternal, destroy, and death. Regarding the first word, Stackhouse distinguishes “an event or action that occurs for only a segment of time” and “the result of that event or action.” Advocates of eternal conscious torment believe hell is eternal in the first sense, the segment of time being everlasting. Stackhouse argues, however, that it is the result that matters. “Eternal punishment” is not an eternal process of being punished but a terminal punishment that has eternal consequences. He goes on to argue that second and third words “speak of the destiny of the lost as termination, end, disappearance, eradication, annihilation, and vanishing.” Such terminal punishment rules out the doctrine of the soul’s immortality. Stackhouse also discusses terminal punishment in terms of the finite duration of Christ’s death on the cross and of the goodness of God.

Parry makes the case for universal salvation, “the view that in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ.”. This is “not some new-fangled liberal theology,” he writes, but rather “an ancient Christian theological tradition that in the early church stood alongside annihilation and eternal torment as a viable Christian opinion.” It should be distinguished from the version of universalism that teaches all religions are salvific. It is Christocentric, not pluralistic.

Parry argues that “a universalist doctrine of hell makes good sense” of “the biblical metanarrative, the grand story that runs from Genesis to Revelation”: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. He cites Colossians 1:16–20 as one of many examples of what he takes to be universalist reasoning. He also responds to prooftexts commonly interpreted to be anti-universalistic: Mark 9:42–50; Matthew 25:31–46; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10; Revelation 14:9–11, and 20:10–15. If God finally saves all in Christ, then what is hell? It is “judgment followed by restoration” [emphasis in original]. It is ultimately “restorative,” even if “retributive” for a time. Obviously, universalism requires a commitment to “post-mortem salvation,” which Parry acknowledges is consistent with Scripture, though not taught explicitly by it.

Of these three views, eternal conscious torment is the majority tradition of Christianity, while terminal punishment and universal salvation are minority voices. Each position can find advocates in the first few centuries of the church’s existence, but each one is exclusive of the others. If one is right, in other words, the other two are wrong.

My goal in this review is simply to introduce the main positions in the current debate. I would like to register one more caveat, however. (The first was that Walls’ argument for Purgatory was out of place in this debate.) The second also relates to Walls. Burk presents one version of the traditional view of hell, in which eternal conscious torment is warranted because sin is an offense against an infinite God. In other writings—especially Hell: The Logic of Damnation and Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory—Walls offers a different warrant for hell based on human choice. Picking up on C. S. Lewis’ remark that the door to hell is locked from the inside, Walls argues that hell is eternal because its inhabitants refuse to repent. This is the fourth view of hell that should’ve been presented in this book.

Still, Four Views on Hell is a useful one-volume introduction to the state of the debate about hell among self-identified evangelical theologians. Its point-counterpoint format helps readers see both what the arguments and counterarguments are for each position. Although frustrating, working through the best arguments and deepest critiques of each position can result in readers developing a more informed biblical, theological, and philosophical understanding of this important doctrine.

Book Reviewed
Preston Sprinkle, ed., Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Nature of Hell | Book Review


The Nature of Hell is a report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) published in 2000. It outlines points of agreement and disagreement among evangelical Christians in the United Kingdom about “whether hell is a realm of everlasting conscious punishment for each individual who goes there, or whether the suffering of the unredeemed in hell will eventually result in their extinction” (pp. xiii–xiv). The former position is named “traditionalism” and the latter “conditionalism.”

Historically, traditionalism has been the majority position in Christianity generally and evangelicalism specifically. However, in the decade prior to the report, some evangelicals in both the U.K. and America had begun to advocate conditionalism, most prominently John R. W. Stott and most prolifically Edward W. Fudge. ACUTE argues that one can be an evangelical in good standing and advocate either position, even as it urges both sides to come to agreement on doctrine.

Although the report is by U.K. evangelicals for U.K. evangelicals, it is a worthwhile read for American evangelicals too. The topics and authors on both sides of the debate are the same, after all. What I appreciated most about the report is its calm, measured consideration of complex issues, its irenic tone, and its call for evangelicals to continue working together to achieve one mind doctrinally, rather than “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” (p. 135).

Here is the table of contents for the book:

  1. Introduction: Evangelicals and the Debate About Hell
  2. Background Issues in the Hell Debate
  3. Hell in Scripture: Identifying the Relevant Texts
  4. Traditionalism and Conditionalism in Church History
  5. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: I. Defining the Main Positions
  6. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: II. Key Exegetical Issues
  7. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: III. Key Theological Issues
  8. Practical and Pastoral Aspects of the Hell Debate
  9. Hell and Evangelical Unity
  10. Conclusions and Recommendations

Here are the 22 specific recommendations the report makes (pp. 130–135):

  1. All human beings must face death….
  2. After death, all human beings will be resurrected to face the final judgment of God….
  3. God has revealed no other way to salvation and eternal life apart from through Jesus Christ….
  4. In his sovereignty, God might save some who have not explicitly professed faith in Jesus Christ…e.g., the unevangelised [sic], children who die in infancy, or those who have severe mental disabilities…. In particular, we can find no convincing warrant in Scripture for ‘post-mortem’ or ‘second chance’ repentance. We also reject the teaching of universalism, which holds that all will be saved regardless of their commitment to Jesus Christ….
  5. Bearing 4 in mind, Christians should conduct mission and evangelism on the basis that proclamation and demonstration of the gospel are the definitive means by which God intends to save people and make disciples of all nations….
  6. Hell is more than annihilation at the point of death….
  7. As well as separation from God, hell involves severe punishment….
  8. There are degrees of punishment and suffering hell related to the severity of sins committed on earth….
  9. The Bible describes hell as a realm of destruction. Evangelicals, however, diverge on whether this destruction applies to the actual existence of individual sinners (eventual annihilation), or to the quality of their relationship with God (eternal conscious punishment)….
  10. Evangelicals diverge on whether hell is eternal in duration or effect….
  11. God’s purpose extends beyond judgment to redemption of the cosmos….
  12. We urge church leaders to present biblical teaching on hell to their congregations, and to relate it to their ongoing ministries of personal visitation, evangelism and social action.
  13. We commend sensitivity and discernment in presenting the message of hell—particularly to those for who commitment to Christ is uncertain or unrealised [sic]….
  14. When Christians have died, we encourage declaration of their heavenly inheritance in pastoral care of their bereaved relatives and friends, and in the conduct of their funerals or cremations.
  15. Where the relationship of a deceased person to God has been unclear, or even apparently hostile, we would caution against explicit pronouncement on that person’s eternal destiny….
  16. We encourage theological colleges and related Christian organisations [sic] to train church leaders to a high standard of biblical preaching, teaching and pastoral care in matters related to hell….
  17. We urge evangelicals involved in religious education in schools to ensure that modules on Christianity include presentations on death, judgment, heaven and hell.
  18. We recognize that the interpretation of hell as eternal conscious punishment is the one most widely attested by the Church in its historic formulation of doctrine and in its understanding of Scripture. We also recognise [sic] that it represents the classic, mainstream evangelical position.
  19. We recognise [sic] that the interpretation of hell in terms of conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view. Furthermore, we believe that the traditionalist-conditionalist debate on hell should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary issue for evangelical theologians….
  20. We understand the current Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith to allow both traditionalist and conditionalist interpretations of hell….
  21. We…recognise [sic] that the majority of those who have published as ‘evangelical conditionalists’ have strong evangelical credentials, and have in particular demonstrated a genuine regard for the authority of Scripture.
  22. We encourage traditionalist and conditionalist evangelicals to pursue agreement on the matter of hell, rather than merely acquiescing in their disagreement….

In the nineteen years since this report was published, conversations about hell have continued among evangelicals. Unfortunately, traditionalists and conditionalists have not arrived a doctrinal unity in this matter. It may be that “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” is the most that can be hoped for, just as the debate between Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals has not made any fundamental progress since the Sixteenth Century.

Also, since 2000, universalism has made inroads among evangelicals, largely through the influence of Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, and other “evangelical universalists” who believe that all will eventually come to faith in Jesus Christ, either in this age or the age to come. Hell, according to them, is rehabilitative rather than retributive. These universalists make both biblical—especially Pauline—and theological arguments for their conclusions. Were ACUTE to issue a new report in 2019, it would have to pay more attention to this development.

Book Reviewed
The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (London: ACUTE, 2000).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Today’s Influence Magazine Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

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The World Wide Religious Web for Tuesday, January 3, 2012


LOVE WINS? “2011: The Year of the Hell Debate.”

I AGREE WITH THIS LETTER: “All American Muslim: An Open Letter.” “In our view, it is fundamentally unjust to tar all or most Muslims with the brush of extremism; and, as Christians and Americans, we must never countenance injustice. Moreover, effectively countering the threats posed by genuine extremists requires us to welcome as friends and allies Muslims who share our opposition to radicalism and violence, who value their American citizenship and American freedom just as we do, and who contribute constructively to their communities and the larger society. When we treat our Muslim fellow citizens justly, and when we welcome them as partners in our efforts on behalf of life, liberty, and human dignity, we are being true both to our Christian faith and to our American heritage.”

SANTA CLAUS IN TURKEY: “Is Santa the Canary in the Coal Mine?” I’m not sure what to make of this post, but there’s something funny in a Jew writing about a Muslim’s view of a Christian saint.

EVANGELICALS FOR MITT? “An Open Letter to the Romney Skeptics.”

COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM? “Santorum’s evangelical surge is about more than Christian Right.”

NUTTY POLITICS, BUT NICE GUY? “The Compassion of Dr. Ron Paul.”

COLLATERAL DAMAGE: “Divorce Rate Among Afghanistan, Iraq War Vets Increases by 42 Percent.”

BUT THE INTELLIGENT DESIGNER ISN’T: “Intelligent Design Is Dead: A Christian Perspective.”

INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: “Was Arminius an inclusivist? Continuing a conversation.”

THE CHALLENGE OF EVANGELICAL AESTHETICS: “Art, Conscience, and Theological McCarthyism.”

RELIGION & POP CULTURE: “Let Lennon be Lennon and forget Cee Lo Green.”

LET THE JOKES BEGIN: Ted Haggard to appear on “Celebrity Wife Swap.”

FIFTY PERCENT: “Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Church.”

HOMILETICS MASTER CLASS: “Preaching when parched.”

INFOGRAPHIC: “How the Bible Feels.”

OBVIOUSLY, IT’S A SLOW NEWS DAY: “Tintin’s Politics.”

INSIDE JOKE FOR PHILOSOPHERS OF RELIGION: “Transworld Irony.” “It is possible that in every possible world there exists at a college named after John Calvin a philosophy professor who offers a free will defense for the problem of evil.”

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Friday, May 6, 2011


CNN Poll: Majority in U.S. say bin Laden in hell. The rest have read Love Wins.

Jackson Lears critiques atheism, specifically Sam Harris, from the port-side of the political spectrum.

On Harris’s view of science:

To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.

On Harris’s view of religion:

But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.” Unlike medicine, engineering or even politics, religion is “the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.” Religion keeps us anchored in “a dark and barbarous past,” and what is generally called sacred “is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.” Harris espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress, celebrating humans’ steady ascent from superstition to science; no other sort of knowledge, still less wisdom, will do.

On Harris’s confusions about ethics:

Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape, he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”), or how his new view differs from the pragmatism he had previously condemned. Pragmatism, the argument that ideas become true or false as their impact on the world unfolds, is nothing if not consequentialist.

And on Harris’s fundamental reductionism:

There is a fundamental reductionist confusion here: the same biological origin does not constitute the same cultural or moral significance. In fact, one could argue, Harris shows that the brain cannot distinguish between facts and values, and that the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging. All we are seeing, here and elsewhere, is that “brain activity” increases or decreases in certain regions of the brain during certain kinds of experiences—a finding so vague as to be meaningless. Yet Harris presses forward to a grandiose and unwarranted conclusion: if the fact-value distinction “does not exist as a matter of human cognition”—that is, measurable brain activity—then science can one day answer the “most pressing questions of human existence”: Why do we suffer? How can we be happy? And is it possible to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Interesting.

Stoicism: The Army’s newly invented faith?

Why the National Day of Prayer endures. Because we need economic miracles to cover the distance between what government spends and what it makes? That’s my answer.

Random thoughts on theodicy and psychics. My favorite line about psychics: “Only in America, I guess, do fake practitioners of false phenomena worry about the authenticity of their professional work.”

Howard Kainz offers a Catholic explanation of how Jesus had brothers if his mother was a perpetual virgin. Color me unconvinced.

Christ wasn’t a communist. No duh! But he wasn’t a capitalist either.

Hebrew baby names still tops in 2010, but Jews constitute only 1–2% of the American population. Two explanations: (1) The biblical tradition continues to influence American culture. (2) Hebrews have cool baby names.

Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right: An article about David Barton, WallBuilders, and the quest of the historical Christian nation. UPDATE: Over at GetReligion.org–an indispensable blog about religion stories in the news–Sarah Pulliam Bailey has some questions about this article.

A two-part series on the Christian redemption of the “dismal science”: Part 1 and Part 2.

Is Rob Bell a Hell-Believing Universalist?


Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). $22.99, 224 pages.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love questions and those who love answers.

Question-lovers focus on the ambiguity and uncertainty of belief. Reality is bigger and more complex than our theories about it. Consequently, we must be humble in the face of mystery, knowing how much we do not know.

Answer-lovers focus on the clarity and certainty of belief. Reality may slip the grasp of theory at the margins, but theory has a firm grip on reality at the center. So, we must act courageously in the world on the basis of what we do know.

Rob Bell loves questions. His critics love answers. This difference between them—a difference that is both temperamental and methodological—illuminates the controversy surrounding Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell asks, “Does God get what God wants?”—namely, “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4). He further asks, “Do we get what we want?” A “yes” answer to the first question makes you a universalist, that is, a person who believes that God both desires the salvation of all people and realizes that desire. A “yes” answer to the second question makes you a proponent of hell, that is, a person who believes that we can be separated from God for eternity.

A “yes” answer to both questions makes you Rob Bell, a hell-believing universalist.

If that description of Bell strikes you as an oxymoron, you are probably an answer-lover who longs for clarity and certainty. To you, belief in universalism and belief in hell form an incoherent set. Either/or but not both/and.

But Bell is a question-lover comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. God will get what God wants. And we will get what we want. Either way, love wins. “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.”

Read that quote again. If we want heaven, love wins. If we want hell…love wins there too?

In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell. The Christian tradition—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—defines hell as the sentence of eternal punishment rendered by God against the unrighteous. One of the source passages for this definition is Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. In that passage, Jesus teaches that he himself will separate the righteous and the unrighteous and render judgment. “Then they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Bell thinks the tradition has misinterpreted Jesus’ words in verse 46. There, Jesus contrasts two fates: kolasin aiōnion and zōēn aiōnion. The standard English translation of these two phrases is “eternal punishment” and “eternal life,” respectively, although the words everlasting and forever occasionally appear instead of eternal. According to Bell, the “word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.” And aiōnion describes either “a period of time with a beginning and an end” or “a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (emphasis in original). According to Bell, then “the phrase [kolasin aiōnion] can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.”

If the tradition defines hell as eternal punishment, then Bell redefines it as temporal or particularly intense pruning. The former is ultimate and retributive. The latter is penultimate and remedial. What Bell says about the interplay of human sin and divine judgment in the Old Testament captures the gist of what he’s saying about hell: “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.”

There are several problems with reasoning about hell in this way: First, Bell commits “the root fallacy” when he thinks the root-meaning of kolazō/kolasin determines its meaning. In the New Testament, kolazō and kolasin are translated as “punish” and “punishment” in the four instances where they are used (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet. 2:9; and Matt. 25:46, 1 John 4:18, respectively). The root-meaning in and of itself cannot determine whether that punishment is remedial (which is what Bell intends by “pruning” or “trimming”) or retributive. Second, the word aiōnion must be translated the same way in both of its instances in Matthew 25:46. If hell is temporal, so is heaven. If hell is an intense experience that transcends time, so is heaven. Obviously, Bell desires to limit the duration of hell, but in doing so, he ends up limiting the duration of heaven at the same time. Third, the problem of citing the Old Testament interplay between human sin and divine judgment is that this interplay is corporate and historical. In other words, it applies to the nation (Israel) or city (Jerusalem), not every citizen or resident. And it applies to that corporate body’s experience in this age, not necessarily in the age to come.

Bell doesn’t draw a sharp distinction between this age and the age to come. He argues—correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that they overlap in the present age. (He also argues—again, correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that our eschatology should shape our ethics.) Theologians describe the overlap as inaugurated eschatology. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ inaugurates “the age to come” in the midst of “this age.” In terms of heaven, this means that we can begin to experience “eternal life” right here and right now. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “The old has gone, the new is here!” But inaugurated eschatology also applies in terms of hell. Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” And 2:5 adds, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” According to these verses, right now, we begin to experience either “eternal life” and “new creation” or “wrath” and “judgment.”

The New Testament teaches inaugurated eschatology, but it also teaches consummated eschatology. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates, his second coming consummates. Consider, again, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, which begins this way: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…” (Matt. 25:31). Or 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Or Revelation 19:11: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.” In these passages, and in many others, Christ’s return marks a definitive turning point in the relationship between God and his creatures. In the words of the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

For Bell, there does not seem to be a definitive turning point, a crisis moment where destinies are finalized. Hell, especially, is temporal and remedial. How long one spends there depends on how long one resists God’s love. “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Bell draws attention to Revelation 21:25, which says of the New Jerusalem: “On no day will its gates ever be shut.” Then he writes: “That’s a small detail, and its’ important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.” Bell sees this as an image of hope. Those who have chosen hell can choose heaven. Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell? Absent the precipitating event of Christ’s second coming and the final judgment, it seems to me that life as Rob Bell portrays it will always be an ongoing struggle between heaven and hell, with no guarantee of a final resolution.

And if that’s the case, in what sense does love actually win?

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