A New Book about Hell that Will Make You Think

A New Book about Hell that Will Make You Think July 17, 2013

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.

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  • Baker’s book is amazing, and while i was already where she was when I read it, her treatment was very helpful and thorough. So I’m extremely excited to know you’re recommending it to read.

    Baker is a universalist, as explicitly stated on Beyond the Box podcast last year (long after the book was published). She did not state so explicitly in the book for nuanced reasons she explains in the podcast.

    • Roger Olson

      Well, in the book (Razing Hell) she explicitly rejects universalism in favor of annihilationism. I prefer that although I have problems with annihilationism, too.

      • aaron bird

        Perhaps you’ve seen Jonathan Kvanvig’s model of hell in The Problem of Hell? There he outlines the traditional western view, which he believes contains four theses, then he swaps a new four theses in place of them. He also disputes the retributive take, debunks the infinite punishment for finite sins theory, and comes up with a helpful proposal for hell’s nature and purpose that build on cs Lewis while significantly adding to it.

        • Roger Olson

          I should read my own colleagues’ books. But, then, that’s all I’d be reading! I am privileged to work in a theologically and philosophically rich environment. I do tend to shy away from reading books about theological topics written by philosophers, but I admit that’s purely a personal issue and probably wrong. I’ve just found so many of them so deeply flawed theologically that I have kind of given up trying. However, I know Jonathan and trust his heart and mind and will give his book the consideration it deserves. Thanks for recommending it here. I might also mention that I have benefited from reading Christian philosopher Jerry Walls’ books about life after death including The Logic of Hell. So my policy is not consistent. 🙂

          • aaron bird

            I hear your concern. If it’s any consolation, the book came recommended to me during my dissertation studies by none other than a Theologian who practices the prolegomena Theological Interpretation of Scripture! (Kevin Vanhoozer) Kvanvig, in his intro, talks briefly about philosophy and theology working together in the realm of this doctrine of hell, somewhat unsatisfactory. Still, his contribution, is still one of the most helpful I’ve seen. Especially…

            (1) Exchanging the four theses

            (2) Issuant vs Punishment

            (3) Purpose of hell — issues from God’s love in the form of a teleological annihilationism (whether one gets there, or comes out of hell, or submits to God is not known).

            (4) Nature of hell — the decision to freely submit to God or commit suicide is full of anguish, and this long journey is part of what makes hell so hellish. Like Walls says, it’s not that those in hell don’t have the proper information, but rather, there’s a moral decision of faith and trust.

            Walls’ work in the Logic of Damnation, especially his notion of Optimal Grace, was quite helpful. He also has some work in which he dialogues with Evangelical Universalists that shares their convictions while also disputing their inferences (cf. Universalism: The Current Debate).

            Finally, thanks for all your work Roger. I appreciate all your time and effort, as well as your clarity and kindness. I’m a fan.

      • duhsciple

        Sharon explicitly sides with “universal reconciliation” in the Beyond the Box podcast. I’ve read the book and now I’ll have to reread it.

      • Gene

        Perhaps she shifted in her stance from the time the book was published. I too believe I’ve read her as stating she’s a Universalist.

        • Roger Olson

          Not in Razing Hell.

  • R.A.

    Thanks for your review! I’ve been wanting to read this book, and your review renewed my interest. Also, I think it’s “Love Wins” by Bell, not “God Wins.”

  • Peter Kirk

    Surely annihilation is only capital punishment if you view the soul as inherently and naturally immortal, a Greek concept with little biblical basis. If instead you view the soul as naturally mortal and immortality as a special gift of God, then it is not capital punishment. Don’t confuse capital punishment with allowing someone to die, or failing to take extraordinary measures to save their life.

  • matthew

    If God is the source of life… and some people willingly choose to disconnect from God, they will eventually die (like an unplugged laptop). This is not the same as retributive judgment. The insistence that annihilationism is forever linked to retributive punishment assumes inherent human immortality (God has to end a life that would have otherwise continued forever). But we are not inherently immortal. We must believe to access God and eternal life. Granted, to my mind, the term ‘annihilation’ sounds more aggressive from God’s side… that is why I prefer a term like ‘eventual extinction’ for this view.

    Sounds like a good book. It is one I didn’t get to when I read a dozen or so books on this subject 2 years ago.

    I would highly recommend a new book that is coming out on the subject of Hell. It is by Steve Gregg and will be a ‘3 views’ sort of book. I’ve been given a pre-copy by the author and it looks excellent.

  • Jakeithus

    I just need to agree that the Great Divorce is a vastly superior book to Love Wins, both in readability and in getting people to rethink commonly held beliefs about Heaven and Hell. It’s probably my favourite work CS Lewis, and has had a big impact on my own beliefs.

    • Roger Olson

      I keep recommending it to people and hoping they will realize that some theological subjects are best dealt with by stories like The Great Divorce. Sometimes straightforward propositions do not enlighten as well as stories. Jesus knew that.

  • Harsh words for Love Wins. I wasn’t as crazy about it as most, but I definitely think it has a great place for its readability to lay people. It doesn’t really try to offer answers, but it has a good place for those who don’t think they’re allowed to ask questions.

    Haven’t read Baker yet. She was featured in “Hellbound?” and stood out as one of the most interesting voices, and was used as a guiding point for Kurt Willem’s exposition on his theory of Hell on his blog. I’d probably subscribe to the same theory as him now, what he calls “purgatorial conditionalism” which I believe is similar but slightly nuanced from Baker’s view. The “purgatorial” bit is the difference from retributive violent justice, in my opinion: the purpose of Hell becomes cleansing through burning away the harmful parts, but if you continually respond negatively, eventually everything will be burned up. It’s analogous to somebody caught in an addiction, offered a painful way out to recovery but instead preferring just to settle into a comfortable rut even when they acknowledge it’s dangerous until they are too far gone. With relatively little investigation into the question, that makes the most sense to me.

    • Roger Olson

      Well, I defended Love Wins before and after it was published. I’m not taking any of that back. I just think it didn’t really deserve all the attention it got. It’s not deep theology or even particularly thought-provoking for anyone who has read or can read Lewis.

  • Steve Laube

    God Wins vs. Love Wins. The latter is the correct title. The former is a theological statement of truth. !!

    • Roger Olson

      I think the book could have had either title (to fit Bell’s point). Yes, I erred with the name in its first two mentions. I’ve corrected that now.

  • candeux

    Thank you for reviewing this book. Your review makes me want to go back and read it again to re-evaluate it in light of your concerns.

    I don’t have the book in front of me, but I don’t remember feeling like she was advocating annihilationism per se. Her view of hell seems to be based mostly on I Cor. 3:10-15, with annihilationism being the the default position for those who don’t have any works that survive the burning. In other words, I think her position was that, yes, there will be judgement, but that it will be mostly for purification and for reconcilliation, not typically for retribution and destruction (or torture).

    All that said, I do agree that annihilationism is not an entirely satisfactory alternative to eternal torture. I’d like to think that God desires and attempts to reconcile everyone in the end, although the explicit evidence for that is thin. Baker does a good job of moving the conversation in that direction, anyway.

  • Nicolas

    Thank you, Roger, for this helpful review.
    Baker is in good company with other annihilationists like John Stott and I. H. Marshall.

    As I see it, there are only two crucial issues:
    1) the Bible does not identify our moment of human death as the cut-off point beyond which our “eternal destiny” is set; therefore, there is opportunity for post-mortem confession;
    2) those who do have to go to hell will not be there “for ever” — our later concepts of “eternity” and “throughout all eternity” are being read back into the Biblical text.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      1) Hebrews 9. “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,….” Here, the author seems to link death and judgement. While I’d admit that it is simply a verse in a big book, do you have any examples where post-mortem confession takes place?

      note: just because one of the competing claims may be shown to be false, it is no guarantee that all other possibilities are then true.

      2) If the later concepts of eternity are non-Biblcal, what are the Biblical thoughts about this?

      • Roger Olson

        Much theology involves reverent speculation beyond any explicit Bible verses to extrapolation of what the Bible says to what it does not say but must be true. Read I. Howard Marshall’s excellent little book Beyond the Bible.

      • Nicolas

        Thank you Roger and Tim for your responses.

        I’ll just clarify my statement about death not being a “cut-off
        point”. I mean that it’s not a cut-off point for the mercy of God. Certainly it’s a cut-off point for life on this earth — the life on which we’ll all be judged. Hebrews 9:27 is absolutely right: after death there’s the judgement. But that judgement is not the end of God’s mercy.

        re what we call “eternity” — it’s certainly in the Bible,
        hidden in words like “imperishable” and “immortal” (1 Cor 15:54) “always be with the Lord” (1 Thes 4:17), Peter’s three negatives “incorruptible, undefiled and unfading” (1 Pet 1:4) and lots more.

        But the words “for ever [and ever]” (εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα / εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας
        τῶν αἰώνων) and “eternal” (αἰώνιός the adjective of αἰῶν )
        in the Bible text are not about what our later theology has called “eternity”. Even with this endemic tradition of mistranslation, just see how few times our concordances have the word “eternity” (KJV once; NIV thrice: ESV four, with little overlap among these three versions).

        “examples of post-mortem confession” — no clear examples, just as there are no clear examples of never ending punishment.
        However, there are plenty examples pointing in the direction of a great wideness in God’s mercy:
        Jesus words “… for everyone will be salted with fire.” [whether by self discipline or punishment, we shall all be purified of our sin] Mk9:49.

        Peter’s words about Jesus dead in the flesh but alive in the
        spirit preaching to the spirits in prison, the gospel even to the dead (1 Pet 3:18 / 4:6).

        John’s words about the evil “Kings of the earth” and “nations”
        (eg Rev 18:3) arriving saved into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24). And lots lots more where that came from!

  • Gonna have to get it, I guess. Thanks!

  • Marc Fischer

    Yeah, you’re entirely right we do need more female theologians.

    It’s great that at the same time you’re also defending the right of

    Now onto the book.

    Hell is really troubling for me. I definitely believe that eternal
    conscious tortment is incompatible with the love of God, if the word
    “love” has to remain meaningful.

    If libertarian free will really exists, I can accept the fact that
    people not desiring God will get anihilated.

    But if determinism is true, God has to eventually save everyone in order
    not to be a monster. (this could have been the view of Karl

    I don’t know which of these options I’d prefer. Deep into my heart, I
    wish everyone to be saved and to be eternally happy.

    You’re right that she tends too easily to dismiss problems with her view,
    which is very disappointing.

    Arminian theologian Randal Rauser offers his own review on his blog, were you
    aware of that?

  • Craig Wright

    I’ve had this book for over a year, but I read so many others on this subject, that I haven’t got to it yet, although I heard a good interview with her on the “Beyond the Box” podcast. Love Wins was the trigger for a study on hell, and led to teaching a class on it in church, but I would also recommend The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott, Hope Beyond Hell by Gary Beauchemin, Her Gates Will never Be Shut by Brad Jersak, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate ed. by Robin Parry, and The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, and God Wins by Mark Galli were both rushed out to reply to Rob Bell, but they are not thorough in their coverage. They missed a lot in trying to answer the popular book by Bell. It is interesting that Sprinkle realized this and has now reconsidered his traditional view and modified it. Galli didn’t say it in the book, but in an interview with Chan in Christianity Today, said that he favored annihilationism.

  • Tim Chesterton

    Thanks for the recommendation and very helpful summary, Roger – I look forward to reading the book. Sounds like the sort of book I would enjoy.

  • res2

    Hi Roger. Unless you’ve written on this subject before in your postings somewhere, I would be interested in reading a short summary of the major atonement theories you’ve observed over the years. I can think of six (including the “human solidarity” theory that stands right up there for me with Christus Victor).
    And yes, Rob’s book is the vegetarian menu for this generation’s youth… and yes, people have confused Rob’s strong view of human free will with the idea of universalism (which he doesn’t say). His error has always been on the side of God’s great love.
    For a lot of people “Love Wins” re-opened the door of conversation with God against the excluding doors of the church unwilling to share God’s love beyond their own socio-religious boundaries of it (meaning, “believe as we do and you may enter”). Rob mostly was burned up over the fact that churches confused God’s love with their form of religious Christianity. At least that is how I understood him. Rob simply wanted to represent God’s love as a larger, more expansive, form of what he had been hearing and reading and thinking about. Thomas Oord would agree (sic, Relational Theism).
    Thanks for the heads up on Sharon Baker. Always appreciate your insights.
    – Russ

  • Craig Wright

    Thanks, Roger, for the nudge to read Sharon Baker’s book. What I appreciate about her book is that she is thorough (unlike Bell’s book), yet deals with REAL, honest questions (like Bell’s book). I read an essay in the Biola Univ. magazine where the author denigrated the idea of these questions as being junior high school level. These are what people genuinely deal with. I’m half way through and really appreciating it.

  • duhsciple

    I think Sharon Baker follows the anthropology of Rene Girard and his theological interpreters.

  • A_Sound_Bite

    In the following online article is the picture of “Heaven and Hell” to which I subscribe: “The River of Fire”

    One way to look at it is not to think of Heaven or Hell as two different places. There is only one “place” in eternity: the presence of God. We tend to forget about His being present everywhere. (And I assume that if He is omnipresent now, He will be in eternity.) So I call myself a universalist in the sense not that everyone ends up in “Heaven” or “Hell,” but forever in the presence of the One True God. How we experience that presence–His light, His radiance, etc.–is up to us, determined by how we lived our lives, how well we demonstrated our love for God and neighbor. Read the article for an interesting explanation of what I have just stated rather inadequately–or at least in too brief a fashion.

    • Roger Olson

      Not very far from C. S. Lewis’s basic thought about the matter.

  • Guest

    I am enjoying all the posts here. I’m not sure if the link I included with my post worked or if you, Roger, deleted it. I’ll edit my post below to include it without the “dot.com” formatting.

  • Roger Olson

    Why? I clearly didn’t mean I judged its content by the author’s gender; I made clear that I judged its content otherwise. Anyone who read fairly what I wrote would know and acknowledge that what I meant there was that any book by a woman theologian intrigues me because there are too few and I think we need more! But I don’t allow the author’s gender to bias my critical judgment of the book’s content.

    • Digger

      Fair enough. Statement redacted based on consideration of further input.

  • jonphillips

    I thoroughly enjoyed Razing Hell. I found it via Kurt Willem’s blog and consequently read it after Love Wins. I agree with much of it but I do have issues with certain parts, but I’ve never read a theology book and not had issues with parts of it. I wish more conservative evangelicals were open to at least discussing the problems with the traditional view of hell rather than tossing aside anyone who questions it as heretical. I also read Hell A Final Word right around the same time which is another good book on the subject.