In the previous post I introduced four views of hell. Today I will examine each one critically, pointing to some strengths and weaknesses of each. My view of hell will come into view as I evaluate these alternatives. Again, I ask for the indulgence of those who have spent decades studying all the nuances and alternative answers to the question of final punishment. In a short essay like this one I cannot touch all the bases. And of course I welcome corrections of any misrepresentations of the views I examine or suggestions for improving my own proposal.
Views of Hell Critically Examined
Liberal theology’s contention that the NT authors simply accepted without question the apocalyptic speculations of late Judaism, though questionable, deserves more consideration than conservative theologians usually accord it. Undoubtedly the NT authors use the language of apocalyptic speculation. But the crucial question is how they use it. Did they intend to present these images as revealed divine truths about the eschatological transition events and the nature of divine judgment? Did they present them as metaphorical images embodying truth or as literal descriptions of post-mortem realities? Can their use of them be justified?
Advocates of the traditional doctrine of hell attempt to take seriously God’s utter rejection of sin and evil and the seriousness of our situation in relation to the holy and just God. Nevertheless, despite this laudable motive I find its biblical grounding less than secure. For example, in interpreting texts that speak of death as the final punishment for sin (e.g., Romans 6:23), traditionalism interprets “death” or “eternal death” to mean eternal suffering without actually dying. Why would anyone say that? Perhaps it is because most traditionalists are committed to the idea that the human soul, once God creates it, cannot die. If the soul cannot die and some people are irrevocably excluded from salvation, the conclusion seems unavoidable: hell is a place of never-ending suffering in punishment for unrepentant sin. But as a matter of fact the Bible does not teach the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul. It teaches that God alone has immortality and that human beings can hope for immortality only as a gracious gift of God.
In my view, conditionalism is far superior to traditionalism in accounting for the biblical data about hell. That is to say, if you are looking for a summary statement of how the Bible pictures the fate of unrepentant sinners, conditionalism is the best candidate available. Conditionalism’s critique of traditionalism is devastating. My problem with conditionalism is its assumption that once we reconstruct the biblical picture of hell and the fate of sinners, the argument is essentially over. It assumes that those biblical statements were made with the intent of giving us specific information about eschatological events. I have serious doubts about this assumption.
First, the language of NT eschatology is indeed, as liberal theology points out, derived from pre-Christian Jewish apocalyptic speculation, and we have no warrant for thinking of this Jewish speculation as authoritative. But unlike liberal theology I do not think we should reject it for this reason alone. We need to ask how it was used by the apostolic writers in view of the resurrection of Christ. Second, the New Testament message is centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The event of the resurrection of Christ is the only eschatological event that has actually happened.
You can see from Paul’s teaching on the resurrection how pre-Christian Jewish speculation about the resurrection was reinterpreted in view of the actual event of Christ’s resurrection. Apart from the event of a real resurrection, the hope of resurrection is mere speculation derived perhaps from belief in God’s goodness or some other theological doctrine. But the event of the real thing forced Paul to modify his preconceived notions of resurrection (See 1 Corinthians 15).
This process of reinterpretation is also at work in way the NT uses pre-Christian Jewish notions of the messiah. Many people expected a messiah but no one expected a messiah like Jesus! The actual event of Jesus’s death and resurrection revolutionized how messianic and other eschatological texts in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature were understood. We get a little window into this process when the resurrected Jesus chastised the two Emmaus-road disciples:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).
These examples of apostolic reinterpretation call for the following principle:
The precise meaning of prophesies, anticipations, and speculations about future events can be definitively understood only after the actual event happens. The event is the meaning.
Let’s apply this principle to the language of hell and other eschatological images. Paul and the other NT writers did not experience the other eschatological transition events about which apocalyptic speculation speaks as they experienced the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. (Okay, they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.) Hence we do not yet know how the apocalyptic language would need to be transformed in light of the actual events. Nevertheless the apostles’ experience of the actual eschatological event of the resurrection of Christ legitimated their use of other apocalyptic images in a loose sense, that is, with the expectation that it points in the right direction but would need to be modified in view of the actual events when the occur. My skepticism about conditionalism concerns its too close identification of the not-yet-modified apocalyptic language in which the NT eschatology is articulated with events that have not yet occurred.
Evangelical Universalism also has strengths. And in Parry’s book at least, it does not offer “cheap grace.” Sin is serious, and repentance is necessary. Salvation may require painful purgation for great lengths of time. Universalism is very attractive for someone who, like me, believes deeply in the love and grace of God and who does not think God can fail to achieve his objectives. I am not ashamed to admit that I hope that somehow beyond all expectation everyone finally comes to faith and repentance. But despite many good theological and philosophical arguments for it, I do not think the contention that universalism is the biblical view can be sustained. And the notion of hell as a temporary place of purgation has even less support from the Bible. Evangelical universalism suffers from the same questionable assumption that plagues conditionalism, that is, that the biblical language of eschatology gives us specific information about the eschatological course of events and final states.
What can we learn from this little survey? Obviously sincere believers in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord and Savior, differ in their views of hell. I do not think the Bible teaches the traditional view. I find that picture horrifying and a sharp challenge to John’s assertion that God is love, but I respect the faith of those who think they must believe it because they think the Bible teaches it. But I suspect that many Christians would be happy to discover that the Bible doesn’t really teach it and, consequently, that they are not obligated to believe it or try to defend it to their non-Christian friends.
Conditionalism gives Bible believers solid biblical justification for rejecting the traditional view. No one will spend eternity in horrible agony. Nevertheless, the conditionalist view does hold that God will punish people in hell for some length of time and that, once there, there is no way out but death. This, too, seems horrible, though much less so than the traditional view. Many people would be happy to discover that there are sincere conservative Christian theologians who can articulate good biblical grounds for believing in universal salvation. Even if some people must suffer painful purification for a time, we know that in the end “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).
For me, I am content to take the New Testament language about transitional eschatological events and hell as general affirmations of faith, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, that God will redeem his people and pronounce a “great divorce” (C.S. Lewis) between good and evil. Whether hell contains many or few or none, whether it lasts for a day or a million years or forever, whether it is a symbol or a real place, it represents God’s complete victory over everything that sets itself against him or that detracts from his glory. It epitomizes the complete liberation of his people from even the possibility of sin and suffering. And in that sense the biblical doctrine of hell is part of the gospel.