Hell (Again)

Hell (Again) April 12, 2016

I know I’ve written here about hell several times. One of my most recent blog posts about hell was a review of Sharon L. Baker’s (Messiah College) book Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment (Westminster John Knox Press). I gave it a cautious thumbs up. If  you haven’t read it and you are interested in a biblically faithful but progressive evangelical view of hell, I highly recommend it.

One of my own publishers, Zondervan, a mainstream and highly respected evangelical publisher, often sends me new books. I recently received a new version of an older book entitled Four Views on Hell edited by Preston Sprinkle (series editor) and Stanley Gundry (series editor). I love these “views” books published in series by both InterVarsity Press and Zondervan. I wish I owned them all! But there are just too many.

The current one is labeled on its cover “Second Edition with New Contributors.” I read it with great interest as soon as I could after receiving it. The book includes (as do all in the series) chapters by noted evangelical theologians with responses. In other words, each theologian presents his (they all happen to be male) view of hell and then the other three theologians, who have their own chapters, respond.

This is an engaging new treatment of a spectrum of views on hell held by evangelicals, although, of course, as in most of these cases, some evangelicals would reject some of the authors as false evangelicals. The authors of this volume are generally respectful of each other–a model of how such discussions of controversial issues should happen among evangelicals–even when some of the participants suspect the others of not being evangelicals.

In his Introduction to the volume Preston Sprinkle notes that “Evangelicals are reexamining some cherished doctrines, and the nature of hell is on the table.” (10) It certainly is and should be.

The four chapters are: “Eternal Conscious Torment,” implicitly treated throughout the book as the “traditional view,” by theologian Denny Burk, “Terminal Punishment,” what many evangelicals would call “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality,” by theologian John G. Stackhouse, “A Universalist View” by theologian Robin A. Parry, and “Hell and Purgatory” by philosopher Jerry L. Walls. Many conservative evangelicals will object especially to Parry’s universalist view, which denies the eternality of hell and argues that eventually hell will be empty, being included in a book that implicity, anyway, presents and discusses evangelical views of hell. Some will also object to annihilationism being included–as many did when John Stott first presented it as an evangelical option in the 1990s. However, I personally know people who otherwise have impeccable evangelical credentials who hold these views–often quietly.

The arguments for all four views are strong as are the counter arguments against them. This is clear evidence that, as I say to my students, “The Bible is not always as clear as we wish it were.”

Burk begins his chapter defending hell as “eternal conscious torment” by quoting the late John Stott who said about that view “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” (17) Then he, Burk, goes on to defend the view biblically and theologically.

Without doubt there are passages in Scripture that seem, at least on the surface, to teach the “eternal conscious torment” view, but the other authors bring out many reasonable objections to it from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (with Scripture having the primacy for all of them).

My main disappointment about the book (I will not say “criticism”) is that a view held by many evangelicals is nowhere fully represented in it. And I think that view, that I believe was held by C. S. Lewis and Karl Barth (to name just two who held it), is worthy of attention in a “views” book about hell.

A couple years ago I posted here a rather lengthy essay I wrote about Karl Barth’s view of hell–a refutation of those who think he taught universal salvation–that compared it with that of Lewis in The Great Divorce and some of his essays.

This alternative view held, I believe by Lewis and Barth and many others, is that no one will be in hell who does not prefer it to heaven. And I will dare to add that, in this view, in his mercy, God will give everyone in hell opportunity to leave it and enter heaven. (I am more confident that Lewis believed that than Barth, but I think the evidence scattered throughout Church Dogmatics points in this direction.) Whether anyone will leave it and enter heaven is unclear and can only be a hope. But it was, for Lewis, anyway, if not for Barth also, a definite hope.

This view is not quite the “traditional” view (“eternal conscious torment”). It is certainly not annihilationism. It is not even “evangelical” universalism. And it is not purgatory (although I also believe in a Protestant view of something like purgatory–along the same lines as Walls–but don’t call it “purgatory”). (I am not sure why Walls’s view is included in the book as his “Protestant purgatory” is not at all hell or even a part of hell; it is a part of heaven where sanctification is completed.)

I hope that someday, if Zondervan decides to publish a Third Edition of this book, it will include a chapter on the view expressed so beautifully, even if parabolically, in Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

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