Kevin Corcoran, from Calvin, writes in Books and Culture on a topic that many of my students have recently asked me about: hell. The questions came up well before McLaren’s book, which I’ll be working my way through shortly.
Corcoran is asking a question that needs to be asked at some serious levels, both lay and professional. It is this: Can Protestants, and this defined in the rather traditional way, affirm some kind of sense of Purgatory or a post-mortem second chance or some kind of “in hell but not endlessly”? Recently, I predicted to a student that in twenty years you will see a gradual acceptance of purgatory among Evangelicals — and I say this not as a prophet but as one who has been “reading the signs” and “sniffing the winds” since the early 80s on this topic. Corcoran is a sign that this question will surface again and again; I just pray that Evangelical theologians will be level-headed enough to ask the hard questions, look to the Scriptures for what it does say and what it does not say, and ponder their answers in dialogue with the fathers and all those who have studied the matter seriously.
It will not be a surprise to some that John Stott affirmed a view called “annihilationism” because he could not bear the thought of humans suffering eternally for finite sins. He brought this forward in his dialogue with David Edwards, published in Evangelical Essentials. The logic he uses must be considered, and it should be observed that many English Evangelicals over the years have affirmed annihilationism — that sinners will not suffer eternally but will be extinguished from reality. A thought too unbearable to think about more than a second.
Corcoran speaks of two sorts: separationists and universalists. The latter is clear: they believe that all, in some sense, will spend eternity in blessedness. The former believe that humans and God will be separated. But will it be an eternal separation?, he wants us to ask.
This latter group somehow turns hell into a purgatorial temporary existence out of which some (or all) emerge into the presence of God.
Corcoran comes to what I can only call the present position of many: he hopes for some kind of universalism but he does not believe in universalism.
Thanks, Kevin, for your heart and for asking us to ask this question — which many are now asking because of McLaren’s new book.
Long ago I studied this question somewhat and came to the conclusion that it would not be “just” of God to punish eternally human beings whose sins, however great and belligerent, were finite — finite beings cannot sin infinitely so eternal punishment for finite sin seems incommensurate. (Like a life-time sentence for stealing a cookie.) When I asked a colleague of mine, whose name shall go unmentioned here, what he thought about this conclusion of mine, he said something that I shall never forget: “It is just only and only if such humans continue in their unrepentant state.” Corcoran would ask him this, “What if they didn’t? What then? Would their state become temporary separationism?”
I don’t even like this topic, but I am bound as a Christian to listen to the words of Jesus and the Bible. Listening I am.