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).

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, May 12, 2011


What is the gospel? Dallas Willard’s answer: “How to get into heaven before you die.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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A Leap of Truth explores the relationship between Christian theology and evolutionary theory.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Allen C. Guelzo asks, “Whither the Evangelical Colleges?” Hunter Baker replies with a thither.

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“Presbyterian Church to ordain gays as ministers.” The Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister, considers this a “moral awakening.”Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke University, comments: “They’re making this change amid a larger cultural change. General public opinion on gay rights is trending pretty dramatically in the liberal direction.” On a (cor)related (but not necessarily caused) note, mainline church attendance is tanking. Perhaps this illustrates the truth of W. R. Inge’s comment that those who marry the spirit of the age will find themselves a widower in the next.

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“Catholic Church should reverse opposition to in vitro fertilization.” What’s interesting about this story is that the author, Sean Savage, and his wife, Carolyn, used IVF. Due to a lab mistake, she was implanted with the wrong embryo. Incredibly, she not only gave birth to the child but also gave the boy back to his biological parents. Sean and Carolyn tell their story in Inconceivable: A Medical Mistake, the Baby We Couldn’t Keep, and Our Choice to Deliver the Ultimate Gift.

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Robert H. Gundry on “The Hopelessness of the Unevangelized.”

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Just what we need: Yet another English translation of the Bible. And does anyone else find it odd that a graduate school—my alma mater—prefers a translation “written at the seventh or eighth grade reading level”?

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“Scientology in Illinois’ public schools?” Only in Springfield would L. Ron Hubbard and Bart Simpson make common cause.

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“Adolescents, Identity and Spirituality.” Something for parents to keep in mind:

While adolescents may question or review their spirituality, it remains a critical aspect of adolescent stability. While research on spirituality and adolescence is limited, studies of religiosity have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.

In short, as adolescents develop, they will need to confront their own spirituality and incorporate it into their sense of identity. Continuing the dialog while respecting that process and acknowledging the quest may be difficult. Yet it really remains the only option.

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Is Buddhist pacifism a Western myth?

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Over at Patheos.com, J. E. Dyer pens these words in “Social Conservatism and the Quality of Mercy”:

The moral horizon of our society has been narrowing for some time to a closed equation featuring selfish vindication and death, and it is this process that only God and His concept of mercy can reverse. If Christians are “salt and light” in the earth, as Jesus said we would be, then we cannot do better, in the project of propagating God’s mercy, than to start by absorbing its meaning ourselves.

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“Black Preacher: Why I forgave George Wallace”: Because George Wallace needed forgiveness? According to the Rev. Kelvin Croom, “If a lot of us would forgive people, we could find healing. We could find peace.” Another path to peace would be if a lot of us would repent of our sins against others.

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A little bit of philosophical theology in closing: How do we reconcile the social ought with the personal good? Thaddeus J. Kozinski answers:

The phenomenological dialectic of right and good could be resolved if we could understand what is at the heart of human moral experience; but to understand this heart, we require more than what, unaided, human moral experience and purely philosophical speculation on this experience can provide. My argument for this conclusion is thus: What the duty aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of justice, which is inherently relational and thus irreducible to any interpretation of morality as mere personal fulfillment. What the happiness aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of desirefor-the-good, which is inherently personal and thus irreducible to an interpretation of morality as mere social or divine obligation. So, any explanation of the moral ought must include both others-related justice and self-related desire, and this is precisely what is provided by a theological ethics of creation and gift: If we are creatures, then we are inherently relational, with any actions related, above all, to our creator; and if creation is a gift, then we are supposed to enjoy creation as a good. And if God Himself, in essence, is a relation of three persons eternally bestowing upon each other and enjoying each other’s perfect divine goodness—God giving and receiving Himself—and if humans are made in the image and likeness of this Trinitarian gift-friendship, then we have the definitive—though still inexhaustibly mysterious—archetype in which the paradoxical human experience of simultaneous goodness and oughtness can ultimately be resolved.

You might also want to check out Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 3, 2011


“Welcome to hell, bin Laden.” So said Gov. Mike Huckabee in the opening statement of his Huckabee Report. It’s a common sentiment, but is it a Christian one? James Martin SJ, asks, “What is a Christian Response to Bin Laden’s Death?”  Jennifer Fulwiler writes about “The Shocking Truth That God Loves [loved?] Bin Laden Too.” Jim Wallis argues that “it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given over to the face of evil.” Joe Carter reminds us that “our relief at his death must be tempered by a Christian view of humanity. We must never forget that the evil comes not from the actions of “subhuman vermin” but from the heart of a fallen, sacred yet degraded, human being. If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, they are human, all too human.” Me? I think justice was served by bin Laden’s death. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking of the scene in Unforgiven where the young man says, “I guess he had it coming.” And Clint Eastwood responds, “We all have it coming, kid.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the internet: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The first sentence of that quote is fake. The rest is authentic, however, taken from a 1963 book of King’s sermons called Strength to Love.

In re Rob Bell, James K. A. Smith asks, “Can hope be wrong?” Sample: “The “I-can’t-imagine” strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects “upwards,” as it were, to a conception of God. While this “imagining” might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the “I-can’t-imagine” argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities–including how I “imagine” the nature of love, etc. The “I-can’t-imagine” argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of “my” imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards’ radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)”

“Do Your Political Views Affect Your Religious Beliefs?” Uh, shouldn’t that be the other way around?

Make sure to read David Weiss’s article, “God of the Schizophrenic.” I liked this passage: “My faith in God has always been an important part of my life. I am not a saint. I have prejudices and flaws. But as a Christian, I wish fellow churchgoers would refrain from passing judgment and recommending a fix after two minutes of conversation.” Yep.

Anthony Bradley raises some interesting questions in his article, “Evangelicalism’s Narcissism Epidemic.” Here’s the penultimate sentence: “I hate to sound overly simplistic, but I am beginning to wonder if we undermine the mystery of the Christian life by adding extra tasks, missions, and principles that are not in the Bible and burn people out in the process, making Christianity a burden.”

J.E. Dyer argues, “Don’t Be Satisfied with Tolerance.” Personally, I never was.

Over at Patheos.com, John Fea is writing a four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.” Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2: “God’s Judgment upon the South.” Part 3: “The Confederacy’s Christian Nation.” If this series doesn’t sharpen your sense of the irony of history, then your irony-o-meter is broken.

I’ve been thinking about the Bishop of London’s homily at the royal wedding. I particularly liked this passage: “As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.” I wonder if he’d mind me borrowing that line every now and then.

Did you see the footage of the church verger cartwheeling down the aisle of Westminster Abbey after the royal wedding? Evidently, cartwheeling in a church after a wedding is a no-no in England, but I thought it rather appropriate. Shouldn’t we celebrate wedding with a little whimsy?

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Here are ten religious posts that caught my eye today:

Lee Strobel discusses how Easter killed his faith in atheism. If you’re interested in the topic, check out N. T. Wright’s exhaustive study, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which—at 740 pages is not merely exhaustive but exhausting…to hold, anyway. Or read Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which is 22 pages shorter.

President Obama hosted an Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House, and a reporter can’t help but note a political angle (in the penultimate paragraph). Personally, I cheer the president’s statement of faith. Raspberries on his politics, though.

Did the Last Supper occur on Thursday or Wednesday? I wouldn’t mind a few New Testament scholars weighing in with their evaluations…

Walter Russell Mead on how Christian faith matters in a world where the pace and intensity of change is so unsettling.

If capital punishment is a sin, is God a sinner (Genesis 9:6)?

Edward O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists are having a fight about the origin of altruism, specifically, whether group selection or kin selection best explains its origin. Interestingly, forty years ago, Wilson promoted kin selection as the best explanation. For me, this argument demonstrates how difficult it is to overturn scholarly consensus.

The Barna Group reports on what Americans believe about universalism and pluralism.

Historian John Fea is halfway through a four part series on “the Civil War as a battle between two ‘Christian’ nations”: Part 1 is “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2 is “God’s Judgment Upon the South.” Fea is author of Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? Mark Noll has an excellent book on the Civil War you might want to read if you like Fea’s series: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Ben Witherington posting a chapter-by-chapter critique of Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged: Writings in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are: Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter2 , Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and Chapters 7 and 8.  I’m reading the book too and hope to have a (much shorter) review up in the next few weeks.

James Hannam argues that science and Christianity can get on better than you think. I always thought they can get along just fine, but evidently there are some atheists who think otherwise. Hannam is author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, which I’m also reading and hoping to review in the near future.

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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P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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