Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? (7 – My View: Purgatorial Conditionalism)

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The following is part of a series on Hell, partially as a response to the Love Wins controversy.  To catch up, go here.

As I stated in the first post, this section will be mostly based on Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell.

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As I’ve already stated, for some time the traditional view of hell contradicts the overall biblical witness. I resonate with Sharon Baker’s perspective in many ways, however with some nuances. I want to briefly describe two distinctions that I think complement her overall vision.

Distinction #1: Conditional Immortality

A presupposition of mine is the validity of what scholars call conditional immortality. Church Fathers such as Theophilus, Irenaus, and Justin Martyr argued this perspective.[1] Clark Pinnock states: “God created humans mortal with a capacity for life everlasting, but it is not their inherent possession.”[2] The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.

Therefore, I am happy to agree with much of Baker’s emphasis on the final Judgment Day, but something needs to be explained. My view is that when a non-Christian dies (after taking into consideration the inclusive grace of Christ) that person is exactly that – dead. Remember, immortality is a free gift, so those who do not have it simply return to the dust. To experience “hell” is to die, be destroyed, or to perish. No one goes to a “place” called hell after death. They simply die awaiting Judgment Day.

When Christ returns, something that bothered me until recently was that it seems cruel that God would “wake up” non-Christians in a resurrection (Dan 12.2-3; John 5.28-29; Acts 24.15). Once they are dead, why shouldn’t they remain so? But, if we take into consideration what Baker argues, then it is possible to view the resurrection of the unrighteous as God’s final pursuit of those who have died without Christ. In this approach, raising the unrighteous is an act of mercy not villainy. The possibility arises that as some people pass through the fire of God’s love that they will choose reconciliation with God. For those who still resist, the metaphorical fires burn until nothing human remains. That is the hell of annihilation, the “second death.”

Distinction #2: The Destruction of Jerusalem

The second brief nuance has to do with Sharon Baker’s nearly complete disregard for the warnings of Gehenna from Jesus, which point toward the prophetic judgment of God. For instance, in Mark 13 (and parallels), Jesus tells his disciples that the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed during their own generation. God will judge (according to Jesus) the system fueled by nationalistic zealotry and oppressive religious practices that degrade the poor. I’ve written about the destruction of Jerusalem elsewhere, in case this is a new idea to you (Signs of the Times? – A Study of Mark 13).

This sort of wrath from God was eventually carried out by Rome when they destroyed the city and the Temple (70 CE). Many were killed and their bodies would have been burned in the fires of the Valley of Hinnom (remember: the word “hell” Gehenna literally transliterates from the Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom”). We have substantial evidence of this from Josephus, who tells us that they had to throw the dead bodies into valleys surrounding the city because they were so numerous.[3]

N.T. Wright articulates that impending destruction of the City is what Jesus’ Gehenna warnings have in view, and it is “only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings which articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of a warning about what may happen after death itself.”[4] He adds:

Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) who resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, that is the primary meaning he had in mind…. [H]e was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on post-mortem judgment, apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation (176-177).

Finally, Andrew Perriman offers “three horizons” for understanding the New Testament warnings often associated with a traditional “hell.” First, there is the horizon of the Jewish War, discussed above. By connecting imagery of Gehenna with the Old Testament motifs of the finality of death in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, Jesus warns that God’s wrath will come through “giving them over” to the natural consequences of their violent path – destruction by Rome. Second, the horizon is judgment that will come on the hostile pagan world. Jesus and those identified with him, will be vindicated over evil empires who act counter to the Kingdom purposes of God. They will be ultimately destroyed. Finally, at the resurrection there will be a final judgment, which will lead to the destruction of those who ultimately refuse relationship to God in Christ. This is the “second death” or hell.[5]

Purgatorial Conditionalism?

If I were to give language for my view, until I come up with something better, I call this “purgatorial conditionalism.”  This reflects that Judgment Day will be a time for all to enter the metaphorical fires of God’s love, that will burn up the bad and refine what is good.  For those who have not received the gift of immortality, there might be an opportunity to endure God’s loving wrath unto reconciliation with Christ.  For those who yet refuse, they will experience the second death.  This is because immortality is conditional upon reconciliation with God through Christ.  An eternal hell is a Greek construct but the possibility of not receiving salvation remains.  May we continue to share the Good News of Jesus so that none miss out on God renewed creation to come!

Recommended Resources:

Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, by Andrew Perriman

Razing Hell, by Sharon Baker

Surprised by Hope, by NT Wright

Tormented by Flames, by Greg Boyd

Purgatory for Protestants?, by Greg Boyd

Love Wins, by Rob Bell (I like the broad vision of this book, but plan to follow-up this post with a blog about how I’d nuance Rob Bell’s perspective.)

Love Wins Companion, by Rob Bell

 


[1]. Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 613.

[2]. Clark H. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 148.

[3]. Andrew Perriman, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, e-book ed. (Online: www.postost.net, 2011), 452ff.

[4]. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 176.

[5]. Perriman, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, 1133ff.

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  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    The “catch up” link appears to be broken :)

    Perhaps you’ve already said this in a previous post, but I think it’s pretty important to take a posture of epistemological humility when it comes to any type of life after death; we are speculating, and we should be honest about that. We don’t really know what happens after death. We speculate based on a variety of other things, some we know, and some we trust are true. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/davewainscott Dave Wainscott

    great post. so glad you did this series.  I may have missed it, but have you read Jerry Walls’ book (a Protestant seminary prof of mine)?:
    Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation 

  • Aaron

    As usual glad to hear your perspective and very informative. Keep it up please!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SDJYIPTIC4IKKAANQ4YBTI6OE4 RobS


    For those who have not received the gift of immortality, there might be an opportunity to endure God’s loving wrath unto reconciliation with Christ.”  To me, the (scary) key word here is “might be”.  I think the conclusion is very solid.  I don’t think it’s being done here, but anyone who turns “might be” into doctrine would leave me very nervous indeed.  The idea of “speculation” was already used below, and I think we need to be firmly prefacing a lot of discussion on these topics with that disclaimer.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Interesting, Kurt. Totally with you on conditional immortality, which I think is solidly Biblical. Intrigued, too, by the preterist interpretation of the Gehenna warnings. I don’t find that approach objectionable, though I’ll have to think about it. The purgatorial cleansing seems a bit of a reach to me though. It doesn’t particularly bother me, as long as we keep the boundary between acceptable speculation and doctrine clear.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      … I should have added… and as long as we remember that “eternal destiny” is not the central issue too many Christians have made it out to be.

  • http://www.kellenfreeman.net Kellen Freeman

    This series has only reinforced me desire to read Razing Hell. Besides that it has been really interesting hearing your perspectives. It’s making me think mine through further, again.

  • http://beunfallen.wordpress.com/ Brian

    Do you have any Biblical evidence for this view? Not just church fathers, but Biblical evidence. I’ve scanned Love Wins, and am reading Erasing Hell (Francis Chan), and I’ve read through and am re-reading the Biblical texts on the subject. What you describe doesn’t seem to align with anything I’ve read in the Bible…

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Did you read the whole series? I’ve outline biblical texts there…

    • http://www.faith-wideopen.blogspot.com/ Matthew James Bryant

      I tried to read Erasing Hell, but I could not get on with Chan’s writing style. Cumbersome is a good way to describe it I think! Does he shock with the conclusion because I figured you could guess it from the introduction?

  • http://www.facebook.com/asherton Ashley Hall

    Thank you for this series, Kurt. This blog has actually been very helpful on that it helps me develop an authentic view of the afterlife which meshes with what I have experienced and seen. Of course, we could all be wrong. No one really “knows” what the afterlife will be like. However, based on all the factors at play, this seems like the most plausible view, and a good assumption to live by. Thank you! 

  • Austin Roebuck

    Kurt, this seems to be about where I am on this subject. It is a hard subject to tackle and grateful to have some solid conversation on it. I’ve been looking into this for only a little while so I’m sure I have missed some things but it seems that Revelation 14:11 is one of the only texts in the NT that seems to be the hardest to reconcile. Any thoughts on this? Apocalyptic literature seems to be the hardest for me to wrap my head around. Thanks for your thoughts as always.

  • http://whytheology.wordpress.com/ Trey Medley

    Of any of the annihilationist views I’ve encountered, this is my favorite (and seems the most consistent). Still haven’t made up my own mind of where I fall along the spectrum, but this have given me some very interesting thoughts. It’s hopeful about people’s eternal fate (which I think Christians should be) without neglecting some clear indications that there is a second death (and it doesn’t definitively say that any will, in fact, experience a post-mortem conversion; it just doesn’t close the conversation).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1479831165 Tarnya Burge

    Thanks for the article. You might be interested in a article on Gehenna
    http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2012/theology/tracing-the-road-to-gehenna/ 
    or some of the other article on our site. 

  • Chris Date

    Hi, Kurt. While I don’t share the purgatorial aspects to your conditionalism, I have become convinced of conditional immortality and annihilation over the past year or so. Several other evangelical conditionalists and I have started http://www.rethinkinghell.com and you may (or may not) find some of our articles helpful :) We also recently launched a podcast, beginning by interviewing Edward Fudge. Tomorrow morning I’m interviewing John Stackhouse. Perhaps you’ll enjoy the podcast as well. Thanks!

  • Sean

    I wish I could believe that I have the personal ability to create a future reality for humanity that is most comfortable to me. Unfortunately, coming up with your own version of hell based on some reading you have done does not give your view any grounding in reality, even when you add a cool, neo-theological name-brand. The true and Biblical view of Heaven and Hell that God has communicated to man in the Bible is difficult to grasp and often hard to believe, but as fallen, sinful, broken people who want deep down to take God’s place and rule on our own, should we expect any different?

  • Bruce

    Billy Nicholson – The Irish Whitfield In the year 1900 a “massed band” of four people marched out-of-step down the main street of Bangor in Northern Ireland. The two members with uniforms were Salvation Army lassies; the other two were young men. One of these men had a mind keen as a razor’s edge; the other (according to the first) “hadn’t enough brains to give him a nucleus for a headache.” The young man who headed this little parade was beating a tuneless tambourine. He had recently vowed that for Christ’s sake he would go anywhere and do anything at any cost. Then this silly thing in the streets of his home town had turned up. He had been walking down the street when this Salvation Army lassie asked him to stand with the other three at the street corner to witness for Christ. It hadn’t the faintest smell of the heroic about it. Theories he formulated in the armchair looked heroic. But in the heat of the battle, a swivel-chair theologian’s theories perish. For this young man it was tough to get things in line when he actually faced his Goliath. “Daft Jimmy,” the nitwit who stood with the Sally lassies, wore a red jersey. On the back of it in white letters was written the startling non-scriptural text, “Saved from Public Opinion.” Maybe the nitwit hadn’t enough wit to be scared of anybody, but the young leader was scared. Moreover, wide-eyed cynics showered the band with unsubdued catcalls. What a baptism! His public enemy number one was public opinion. His meeting with God had been a mountaintop experience. Now he was in the valley of humiliation. To make bad worse (as the Irish say it), it seemed by some pre-arranged signal that every friend, every relative, and every enemy of his passed the corner as he stood there bashfully. Notice that I said “passed”– thus marking the meeting’s total ineffectiveness. Seeing the dilemma, one of the Army lassies suggested that the four kneel down and ask the Lord to “take over.” Poor Billy! As they knelt there, a brother offered a “telegram” prayer which Billy wished had been as long as the 119th Psalm. Then something happened. When Billy arose from his knees, he was through forever with any sensitiveness to public opinion. His reputation died and had a public funeral in that street meeting. (To die and be buried publicly doesn’t take long!) To the jeering spectators, this street meeting may have looked like comedy. But to this young m an it was sweeter than the “Triumphal March” in Verdi’s Aida. It was a glory march to celebrate a greater victory to him than that of Nelson at Trafalgar or King William III at the Battle of the Boyne. Billy was triumphant. He had just lost what he never wanted to find again and had just found what he never wanted to lose. He lost his reputation and fear of man and found the joy and peace Of the overflowing fullness of the Spirit. Hallelujah! That meeting was his inauspicious comic introduction into a world of evangelism. Who was this young man? None other than W. P. Nicholson (better known to millions as just W.P.). He was as Irish as the turf and rugged as the hills of Donegal. W.P.’s middle initial might well have been C for courage. At fifteen he sailed away from home as an apprentice seaman. His was a harsh training. He had been at sea in old sailing vessels as long as five months at a time without seeing land. He had weathered Cape Horn in a hurricane. He had fought overweight men bare-fisted. His fighting was “all in and no holds barred.” W.P. was saved in 1899 and he knew it. Months later (and only a few hours before his famed street meeting episode in Bangor) he had had an old-fashioned liberation from sin. Presbyterian though he was full-blooded, pedigreed, and bluestockinged — after the Spirit liberated him, he began to weep and sing and rejoice like any old-fashioned Free Methodist. Because of his meetings, many men are in the ministry today, battering the strongholds of Satan and snatching souls from the burning. One of these is my friend Andy Mays, the old drunk who was saved in Billy’s meeting. The first night Andy Mays attended the meeting, he itched on his chair. “Nicholson won’t get me in there again,” he vowed as he left the service. But the next night Andy was there. As he left, he repeated his vow. The third night Andy Sat Way up on the “top deck.” But the higher you are, the further you fall. That night Andy fell right into the hands of a merciful God. Andy now occupies the pulpit in “Beach House,” outside a town called Lisburn, nine miles from Belfast. Andy has walked long and well. But the evangelist who showed him “yonder shining light” (as Bunyan said) was Billy Nicholson. W.P. became a fearless and flaming winner of souls. He was enthusiastic and effective. The Bible became his textbook and his greatest delight was witnessing for his Saviour and winning souls. Wilbur Chapman and Charles Alexander asked him to accompany them to Australia. As in Ireland, so in Australia; there were mighty moves of the Spirit. Later on Peter Connolly teamed with him. Tens of thousands came to Christ as Saviour, and uncounted more numbers knew for themselves the Spirit-filled life. There were also great times when Finney, Billy Sunday, Dr. Torrey, and W.P. used the Sunday afternoons in meetings for men only. One minute the men were sore with laughing; minutes later they were shaking with conviction. W.P. could play on the human emotions, fears, and mind as Mendelssohn played the organ. Very few Christians have known the craft of evangelism better than Nicholson. He prayed, he studied, he wept, he warned, he pleaded, he urged, he coaxed, he threatened. He would be “all things to all men that he might by all means save some.” When he entered a pulpit, he did so with “soul-sweat.” It would be no exaggeration to say “the gates of hell could not prevail against him.” One instance of his preaching can be seen the time he gave a great message on John 3:16. At the invitation to accept God’s love, there was not a move. W.P.’s guns were loaded the next night with a fearful message on hell. No jokes that night! No “by your leave’s”! No sprinkling theological rose water! No short cuts! I have heard Christian men say they would go 100 miles to hear W.P. deliver his soul on the solemn subject of hell. Billy was all steamed up because men dared slight God’s love. He preached and sweat; the crowd listened and sweat. W.P. cried in the name of the Lord; the crowd cried in the fear of the Lord. After the message, W.P. raised his foot and with a solemn warning “kicked” the whole crowd into hell. “You would not take God’s forgiveness last night? Then take His judgment tonight!” There was no benediction, and the solemn, stunned souls sat. Billy was half way down the street before they were aware that he had gone. For his disgusting pulpit procedure, my friend P.C. stormed at Billy and warned, “The folk will not come to hear you any more.” “If hell is half as bad as I painted it tonight, then by Sunday night they will be glad to get out of it,” replied Billy. How right he was! At the altar Sunday night there was a shoal of souls. Conviction had so tormented them for two days that they were ready to surrender. In spiritual and Biblical matters, Nicholson bowed to none. He was very conscious of his sonship to God. Yet he was equally conscious that he was a servant of God, and so he helped all who called for it. This was the great thing about W.P. Many copied W.P.; he copied none. He traveled far and wide and made ten circuits of the world, preaching great sermons and preaching with the great. Yet he did not assimilate their style or use their methods. His own individual method “caught fish,” and so he fished that way. As a man of God, he kept that strange originality that the Lord had given him. Prayer might be called his habitat, for he loved to pray. His campaigns had nights and half nights of prayer. Praying in the Spirit kept him in the spirit of prayer. From the prayer closet he mounted the pulpit-endued. With William Bums, Nicholson could cry, “The thud of Christless feet on the road to hell is breaking my heart.” Of his fiery preaching it could be said, “His words were a flame and the hearts of men as dried up grass.” Two years ago devout men carried W. P. Nicholson to his resting place. Heaven knew when this preacher-prophet of Northern Ireland arrived

  • Nimblewill

    John Piper tweeted that annihilation is what the unrepentant want its not a punishment. Can you address this?

  • Alex Cobb

    Hey, let me just necro this a bit and ask, do you think anyone will still willingly deny God in this circumstance?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Absolutely yes.


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