A New Book about Hell that Will Make You Think
A while ago evangelicals were all buzzing about a book entitled Love Wins by Rob Bell. I defended the book against some who attacked it before it was even published and before they read it. That didn’t mean I like it. In fact, I thought it was quite shallow. In the end, it seemed to me little more than a popular presentation (mostly in the form of questions) of C. S. Lewis’ view of hell in The Great Divorce. I recommended to many people that they skip God Wins and read The Great Divorce.
A few weeks ago I picked up a relatively recent book about hell that works out in much more theological detail the same basic thesis as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Even though I have some qualms about some of its reasoning and conclusions, I can heartily recommend Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment by theologian Sharon L. Baker. The book is published by Westminster John Knox (2011) and is available from Amazon for a little over $11.
I don’t recommend it because I agree with it; I agree with some of it, disagree with some of it, and just have qualms about some of it. But the virtue of the book that makes it worth the money and time is that it most definitely makes you think about traditional ideas of God’s wrath, judgment, hell and Jesus’ atonement.
I’m not going to discuss it in detail here. I’ll just mention some reasons I like it and some of my qualms about it.
First—reasons I like the book.
First, and this is not necessarily the most important positive point, is that the author is a woman and there are all too few female theologians—especially ones in the evangelical wing of Protestantism. I don’t know that Baker calls herself an evangelical, but much in her book reveals that she grew up evangelical (perhaps fundamentalist) and she teaches at evangelical Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. And she expresses strong commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture and to the supremacy of Jesus Christ as Lord. Her book may not be pleasing to all evangelicals, especially those who call themselves conservative, but it breathes an evangelical spirit. We need more women systematic theologians among evangelicals. And smart ones who are also good writers like Baker.
Second, the book is easy to read while displaying sound research and erudition. A glance at the appendix entitled “On the More Academic Side of Hell: References and Commentary” reveals how deeply Baker has read in theology. She comes to this work as no novice or dilettante.
Third, this is a good example of what I call postconservative evangelical theologizing. Baker expresses strong appreciation for Christian tradition and even conservative evangelical sources while at the same time insisting on exercising freedom to offer new interpretations based not on culture, although she is sensitive to cultural issues, but on Scripture and especially on Jesus as the hermeneutical key to Scripture. Again, I don’t agree with everything she says; I think she moves too far too fast at times, almost playing “fast and loose” with Scripture and tradition. The revisions she suggests are so important and vast that they seem to me to require more sensitivity and caution. Still, I respect her courage and determination to follow the logic of divine love revealed in Jesus Christ to the bitter end.
Second—my qualms about the book.
First, well, I already mentioned one above—a certain breeziness of argumentation that seems to pass over problems too quickly and easily, almost brushing them aside as unworthy of being taken seriously. One example is Baker’s discussions of atonement. She rejects all traditional models of Jesus’ atonement including Christus Victor (although she expresses some agreement with some versions of it). She does not seem to me to have grasped that objective models of the atonement, including satisfaction and penal substitution, do not portray Jesus as God’s victim or God as a blood-thirsty tyrant who must have his pound of flesh out of an innocent man before he will love and forgive. She simply does not do justice to traditional atonement theories.
Second, some of her own conclusions, including her view of atonement, are inchoate—not very well worked out or completed. The closest she comes to offering an alternative to traditional atonement theories is on pages 163-164 and it isn’t satisfying as a model of atonement. It doesn’t really answer the question why Jesus (or anyone) had to die for God to reconcile the world to himself. I wish she had discussed the governmental theory. It is designed to avoid the problems she has with traditional satisfaction and substitution theories and to account for the strengths in her own approach but with more rational explanation for why Jesus had to die. It seems her theological background, context, is Wesleyan (although I can’t say for sure), so it would be good for her to at least consider governmental theory (which has been most popular among Wesleyans).
Third, in the end, she recommends annihilationism as the solution to the problem of reconciling hell with God’s love. After God does all that he can do to bring even the worst sinners into fellowship with himself, he permits those who freely refuse his offer of love and forgiveness to be burned up without remainder by the fire of his love which they experience as his wrath. The problem is, of course, that this is divine capital punishment. Baker is passionately opposed to retributive justice, but there does not seem to be any other way to view annihilationism. Yes, yes, I’m sure defenders of annihilationism will object, but I’m just telling you how I see it. The logical view of hell in light of everything else Baker says throughout the book about God’s character as unconditional love is the one C. S. Lewis suggests in The Great Divorce—hell as the “painful refuge” God provides for those who refuse his love and forgiveness (with hell’s door locked on the inside).
Baker does not advocate universalism because it violates free will. I agree. I especially agree, though, with her objection to those who object to universalism for the wrong reason—that it would be “unfair” for God to save everyone. It’s just as easy to say it’s unfair for God to save anyone!
In spite of my qualms and areas of uncertainty and disagreement, I can heartily recommend Razing Hell as an alternative to Love Wins. In fact, I’m a bit bewildered by the popularity of the latter book and the obscurity of the former one! Razing Hell is easy to read serious theological literature. Love Wins is difficult to read (or at least to understand!) popular, light theological…not literature (in my humble opinion).
I agree with Baker’s main, guiding presupposition which is that Jesus is the best guide to God’s character and that we must interpret Scripture through the lens of Jesus. In light of Jesus’ teachings about love, we cannot believe in a God of hate or celebrate violence. And we must revise certain traditional views of God’s wrath and hell in light of Jesus (e.g., Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).
Whether you think you mind is already made up about hell or not, I strongly recommend that you read and wrestle with Razing Hell. And from now on, when a book like Love Wins appears, look around for something deeper on the subject.