Dark Thoughts

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.

The separationists, so Corcoran suggests, can comprise both those who believe in eternal separation and temporary separation. In fact, Corcoran seems to be suggesting that we consider a via media in which those once separated are eventually united with God. He seems to label these Christocentric universalists or second chance separationists — that all need to be and may indeed be reconciled through Christ. He suggests, also, that second chance separationists could suggest as well that some would refuse their second chance.

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.definitive.co.nz stu

    it could be suggested that one’s perspective on hell will be reflected by one’s perspective on capital punishment. the key thing here is the punishment is meant to be (not saying it is) a deterrent and is thereby a control mechanism. eradication is meant to therefore be the ultimate deterrent…in this physical sense anyway. ironically the tables seem to turn in the metaphysical where eradication is the soft option and eternal torment is the deterrent.i think though that in my discussions with people about why i am an annihilationist (not a position i would die for though) i find that actually that there is a sick satisfaction a la Jonathan Edwards, with the idea of eternal torment. i don’t buy it. it seems that we humans are bordering on dictating to God what he should or shouldn’t do when it comes to the moral economy. me, i think eradication is the key here. i can’t see how God can sustain his eternal goodness by allowing evil to exist in the form of hell as some kind of reminder…doesn’t seem compatible at all especially since the only reason he tolerates evil at the moment is because of his mercy : after judgement day, when all is said and done and mercy is complete (in one sense anyway), what’s the point?i don’t think Jesus majored on hell for good reason, he wants people drawn to him by love, not driven to him by fear.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/4202103 graham old

    I think you are so right that evangelical acceptance of purgatory will increase in the coming years.This has steadily been happening for some time now. I remember reading one of the “4 views” books years ago (where Pinnock so poorly represents conditional immortality) and there was a chapter on purgatory there. Even conservative evangelicals like Michael Eaton toy with the idea as a way of explaining how fire can be threatened to believers (whom have eternal security, in his view).ISTM that we are reaching a point where many of the views are being so finely tuned that it can be difficult to distinguish them. Just for myself, my conditionalism often pushes me towards universalism if I contemplate what it is that’s actually “destroyed.”Anyway, I’m just rambling now…

  • http://www.fernandogros.com fernando

    i’d like to believe the gates of hell are locked on the inside…

  • Anonymous

    D. A. Carson argues in “The Gagging of God” that sin continues in eternity and that is why the punishment of sin is eternal.P. S. What is the name of the McClaren book which deals with hell?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    It would be good for lots of folks to go back to CS Lewis’ God in the Dock and Other Essays and read his essay on “humanitarian punishment,” which shows that deterrence is not a complete understanding of punishment — for then innocent people could be punished to put the fear into people.Justice, he says, requires “deserts” be involved.It was just another good piece by Lewis. The issue on eternal punishment becomes whether or not eternal punishment is what finite beings deserve, and whether or not the Bible teaches such a thing.Your point about God’s not sustaining his eternal goodness by permitting eternal evil to exist is a very good thought.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    The Last Word and the Word After That. It is being blogged about everywhere and has been for a few weeks. He’s given interviews about it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/4202103 graham old

    anon, Carson took that from Jonathan Edwards, but it fails to explain why there are degrees of punishment in hell.It seems that we are punished for sins committed in this life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/4202103 graham old

    Is there anything online from Corcoran on this?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3452528 Bob Robinson

    Graham,The article is not available on-line, though it is listed on the Books and Culture website and may be available in the future. (Notice it is right under Scot’s book review of Segal’s Life After Death.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3075330 Bob

    If you are not bound by time, what does “forever” mean? I think our conception of forever is “a really, really, really long time (and then some more)”. Still thought of in terms of time. Perhaps the inability to accept eternal punishment/separation is tied up with our inability to comprehend eternity itself.Just thinking out loud, maybe eternity would be better thought of as “always now”.

  • Anonymous

    In response to Stu, most of the references in the Bible to hell are on the lips of Jesus, I think you could argue it’s a pretty major aspect of his teaching. Getting into the kingdom is so precious precisely because of what it means to be excluded from the kingdom.

  • Anonymous

    Kev’s position (of many) of hoping for universalism but not believing in universalism is only a resting point on the way to ending up believing in universalism. He may not (or he may over time) but esposuing that position will simply, in time, lead many others to believe what he only hoped for. Hence agreement with Scot’s position about where evangelicals will be in 20yrs time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Anonymous,It is accurate to say of some that there is a slipperly slope moving from separationism to universalism, but I think it is unfair to someone like Corcoran to suggest that it is inevitable.Whether you like Dante or not, the fact is that his view — and let us stereotype it as a second chance purgatory though I’m not so sure many get out of his Inferno and I’m not sure that those in Purgatorio even fall back into the Inferno — his view of the hereafter is that of millions of Christians, and it does not slide into universalism.We need to be careful when using the ad infinitum or slippery slope argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/4202103 graham old

    Anonymous, hoping for universalism, but not believing in it has been the position of the Eastern Orthodox for nearly 2000 years – and they seem to be doing a pretty good job of not slipping into it. (assuming that’s a bad thing, of course!)

  • Anonymous

    Why would we hope for something we do not believe in? In what way is that specifically Christian hope?If we cannot or should not believe in universalism why should/could we hope for it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3075330 Bob

    Anon,Because God hopes the same thing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/7846737 jpu

    If sinners are languishing in hell according to God’s will, I’m not sure wehre evil is existing. If you agree with Augustine’s definition of evil as the privation of good, and say that whatever God wills is good, then hell is not the privation of God’s will. Hence, an eternal hell is not incompatible with a good God.

  • Anonymous

    Bob – not in the Bible I’ve read he doesn’t! Where do you get that from?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3075330 Bob

    The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Pet 3:9Among similar verses. (Don’t have a concordance on me…)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/677375 bill bean

    I just read Corcoran’s article yesterday. I think he hit the nail on the head and, really, expresses what I think is the sentiment of Mclaren’s book. At the very least, because of our view of God’s love, the notion of hell should be an especially confounding one. We work with it way too easily. And, like Kevin said, it should give us a few sleepless nights.

  • Anonymous

    Why does God not want any to perish and all to come to repentance?2 Peter 3: 7, two verses before Bob’s quote: “the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless”Further, v10, straight after v9 quoted by Bob: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pas away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”v9 therefore shows God’s incredible patience, granting time so that the godless may repent and believe before they are destroyed and before everything done on earth is disclosed. I think that’s rather different from v.9 warranting God himself “hoping” for universalism?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3075330 Bob

    The original question was Why would we hope for something we do not believe in? I think 2 Pet 3:7-10 shows God “hoping” for something He knows is not true.

  • http://www.definitive.co.nz stu

    anonymous:In response to Stu, most of the references in the Bible to hell are on the lips of Jesus, I think you could argue it’s a pretty major aspect of his teaching. where there is some truth in what you are saying, i see ‘love’ mentioned 58 times in the gospels, and hell 11. Expand the search to the NT and we have 222 mentions of love, 13 of hell (quick concordance count from NRSV, and by no means a conclusive study on the subject, but you get the idea.) now tell me then, that hell is a major theme of anyone’s? i accept it’s a backdrop but this we statistical analysis (fuzzy as it is) certainly illustrates (not proves though) my point rather well.i don’t think Jesus majored on hell for good reason, he wants people drawn to him by love, not driven to him by fear.

  • http://www.definitive.co.nz stu

    oh and one more thing, Getting into the kingdom is so precious precisely because of what it means to be excluded from the kingdom.this is not the gospel as i see it, it’s part of it, but you don’t mention redemption or restoration here (though you could argue it’s implicit, but then, i’d rather be explicit about it). we need to be telling people about what they are saved into, rather than saved from.

  • http://www.definitive.co.nz stu

    Bob:”if you are not bound by time then what does forever mean”fair call, but then i wonder why the writers of the inspired word of God would use the words forever, eternal and the like if they meant something else? it’s not that i’m looking for hyperliteralism here, i’m just wondering…it’s worth noting that against the hellenist backdrop of the immutable God, the perfect unchangeable dimensionless God, the most perfect perfection, that they would introduce a concept of time into the equation. i think time was introduced not from a point of ‘not comprehending’ but precisely from a point of comprehension. eternal punishment would not have been understood or intended by the writers as ‘always now’.i enjoy your thoughts bob thanks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3075330 Bob

    Stu,I’m not saying there’s no such thing as “forever”, just that our understanding may be skewed by our time-bound framework. Kind of like describing a third dimension to a two-dimensional being. Forever is just the closest approximation of the reality. We are limited beings encounterng the unlimited.

  • Anonymous

    Scot, you’re assuming that the finitude of the human makes the offense finite. Are you considering that an offense against the infinite is an infinite offense?—Brandon

  • Anonymous

    Scot, this sort of separationist view is really just universalism in disguise. The question is not whether people will suffer for sins for a finite time (we could argue they suffer now for it), but whether they suffer for all eternity. The temporal separationist then is the same as the universalist with the exception that the universalist would believe suffering/punishment to confined to a shorter period of time (now in this world) rather than a small extension of time into the next. The end result is the same.

  • Anonymous

    What is the second death, but the second separation from God. The first was out of Eden and corrected by Christ’s death. How are people brought out of the second separation? A limited view does not fit. The everlasting of the life of the righteous is as everlasting as the punishment of the unrighteous in Matt 25.

  • Anonymous

    Bob, that Peter verse has nothing to do with what you’re doing with it. It’s not about God’s hope, but His patience. And the text explicitly says who pas refers to–patient toward YOU. Why does God not immediately destroy the earth and bring final judgement upon the ungodly? Because all of His elect have not come to Him, been born, lived, etc. yet. That is why. To say anything else is to read into the text and cover your eyes from what it is saying. pas isn’t just “all” meaning everyone (as I know you know). It can mean “all kinds of/sorts of/classes of,” “all,” “every,” “all of you,” and it is here clearly “all of you” since that is what he states. God does not hope for that which is not true. If He wanted something to be, it would be. That’s why He’s sovereign and nothing is so powerful that it is out of His control.—tooaugust

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3075330 Bob

    Yeah. I knew someone would pick on the idea of God hoping. That’s why I used the quotes. Won’t defend that and I accept the correction. ;)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8089381 WES ELLIS

    Just wanted to let you know: I started reading “The Jesus Creed” This week. I love it!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Thanks Wes for telling me!

  • Anonymous

    Hey, Bob, nice fish!–tooaugust


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