The last few weeks, we’ve been discussing things that fall under Theological Anthropology—what God says about the human person.
This afternoon, we’re going to discuss the biblical view on Heaven and Hell, which falls under Eschatology (the study of the End, or the study of Last Things).
I’d like to start by contrasting two books that frame the contemporary conversation regarding Hell specifically.
So I’m going to ask you to go far back in time… all the way back to that distant year… 2011.
There was this hip, popular pastor, Rob Bell, who stirred up a whole controversy with the publication of his book Love Wins, which essentially represents a departure from historic Christian interpretation of the doctrine of hell.
Basically, he says a bunch of stuff without saying anything… He presents different interpretations of the doctrine of hell without explicitly staking his claim. One of the views he presents (and it’s obvious he’s favorable to it) is that of universal reconciliation. He explains how this view argues that hell is not eternal… it is not eternal conscious punishment/torment… God’s redemptive purposes (love) will prevail in the end… even over hell. Every sinner in this life… or in the next will eventually be reconciled to God. God is not a God of wrath. He is a God of love.
Now, it’s important to emphasize that what Bell argues in this book isn’t new. He was not the first to ever suggest such a view. There have been people throughout church history who have espoused such views, but they always remained outside the mainstream—and this view never represented the consensus of the church’s interpretation of this doctrine.
Bell simply caused controversy because he was a fairly prominent figure in evangelicalism. He has all those evangelical credentials… he went to Wheaton College… Fuller Theological Seminary… pastor of a megachurch…
Prior to this book, he had obviously stricken a nerve with young evangelicals. He produced these spiritual short films called NOOMA videos. He presented an evangelical message that was cool, sleek, culturally relevant… And he was interested in reconceptualizing traditional formulations of Christian teaching. That’s what his other book Velvet Elvis is concerned with. And really, that’s exactly what his book Love Wins does… reconceptualize traditional doctrines.
He is leaving room for uncertainty. He wants to present alternative views on the doctrine of hell, but suggests that landing on something firm, having a firm conviction about this is misguided. He seems to think uncertainty is a virtue.
This is something we’ll discuss in more detail next week when we talk about faith and doubt… and this phenomenon known as “deconstruction” within evangelical circles. Bell serves as a good representative of this phenomenon. He is “deconstructing” (taking apart conventional doctrines) and avoiding dogmatic certainty… Open-mindedness is a virtue for him.
To paraphrase Chesterton… the purpose of an open mind is like an open mouth—it’s supposed to close on something solid.
Today, Bell espouses views that are not within the bounds of orthodox (true) Christianity.
Now, in response to Bell’s book Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle released a book called Erasing Hell.
And what they seek to do is hold onto the historic understanding of the doctrine…But they wanted to provide a corrective to some of the reactionary responses to Bell’s book.
See, when someone like Bell essentially says God is loving and hopes for universal reconciliation— an evangelical knee-jerk response is “no, there is such a thing as hell!”
And how easily that plays into the cultural caricature of evangelicals as being fire and brimstone and gleeful at the prospect of people “going to hell.”
So that’s what Chan and Sprinkle’s book seeks to avoid. They uphold the traditional understanding of the doctrine, but they do so with a sober mindedness. They want to remind us that this is a doctrine that ought to break our hearts. This is a doctrine that should break our hearts for the lost and propel us toward evangelism.
Those two books would be examples of this debate at the popular level.
But the debate continues at the scholarly level.
And we could set up the same contrast with the books That all Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart and The Devil’s Redemption by Michael McClymond.
David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar… who argues in favor of the doctrine of universal reconciliation. That all SHALL be saved.
With one fell swoop, he’s declaring the argument settled by titling his book that way. Hart is a fool. (I don’t have a problem saying that because he is the opposite of what a theologian ought to be). He is arrogant and combative. He’s elitist. He thinks he’s the smartest person in the room (in fact, he may very well be). That’s precisely what makes him an intellectual bully.
Anyone who’s written a negative review of his book, he responds with ad hominem attacks—says they are inferior scholars, etc. Essentially, he said Michael McClymond is not a real scholar. A quote from Hart’s review of McClymond’s book: “This is not scholarship. It is tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theory of the most cartoonish kind.” And “a disaster of a book.”
(Hart’s book is 214 pages… no footnotes).
McClymond wrote a book on the historical development of the idea of Christian universalism. McClymond’s book is not in favor of universalism, but rather seeks to show its historic development. — It’s a 2 volume, 1,300 page book (some 3,500 footnotes/3,000 sources) But let’s remember… he’s not a “real scholar.” ☺
McClymond wrote a very thoughtful and charitable review of Hart’s book… And so… one of the sad ironies behind Hart’s behavior is that in defending universal reconciliation against this so-called angry, unloving, uncompassionate doctrine of hell, he is being uncharitable and unkind. So much for love and compassion.
Anyway… their fight got really heated. I won’t re-hash it all here.
My point is just to highlight the reality that — at the popular level (the Rob Bells) and at the scholarly level (the David Bentley Harts), this fight over the doctrine of hell is not new and it’s not going away… however much those like Hart and Bell seem to think that the argument is settled.
What’s our response? What’s our approach to responding to this debate?
We need to take the path of wisdom. It’s very easy to get sucked into the whirlwind of the debate. But that’s where I think the impulse behind Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle’s book is most helpful.
We can uphold the traditional view on this doctrine… but we should never approach this as an armchair theologian. This is very personal and real. This is a doctrine that should break our hearts for the lost.
And here, I think C.S. Lewis is very helpful. I want to share a quote from his sermon “Learning in War-Time.” At one point in the sermon, he mentions the word “hell.”
Then he writes, “You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention Heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tom-foolery.”
I just love Lewis’ realism. It takes us back to the questions: What is real? And what is true?
If we don’t believe these doctrines are real, then what are we doing here? This is all just play-acting.
This afternoon, I want to give a biblical presentation on the doctrine of heaven and hell. I’m going to focus on the theology… But don’t think that in focusing on doctrine or theology, this isn’t a personal or emotional issue.
There are many helpful apologetic resources that help us with the emotional side of this question. C.S. Lewis’ chapter on hell in Problem of Pain is good in helping us see that the doctrine is not immoral. (Now, I have some theological disagreements with Lewis on his doctrine of hell… but he’s very good at the emotional side of this argument).
Rebecca McLaughlin’s chapter on hell in Confronting Christianity is also helpful in addressing the emotional question… how could a loving God send people to hell?
I think you need both theological and apologetic answers… Lewis and McLaughlin are good in supplying apologetic answers, but they don’t go in depth into the theological doctrine that undergirds their answers (and that’s not a fault against them—that’s just not the purpose of those essays).
But here’s why we need the theological or the doctrinal answer as well. If we’re confronted with the emotional question, but don’t have a good foundational understanding of the traditional doctrine… then we are more easily swayed by alternative and insufficient answers that are supplied in response to those questions.
What I’m going to do is give you the traditional interpretation of hell… and help you see how alternative interpretations of the doctrine are insufficient or flawed.
To guide us, I want to use some lines from the Nicene Creed to serve as our outline.
One of the lines toward the end of the creed is about Jesus’ second coming.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
The return of Christ will be accompanied by the final judgment. The New Testament word for judgement (and I love this) is krisis.
We love to talk about various crises today. But the ultimate “krisis,” is the final judgement. When Christ shall come to put the world to rights (to borrow N.T. Wright’s phrase).
We modern people don’t like to think about Jesus and judgement. We like the nice Jesus. But you see how that’s even a false dichotomy. (The angry God of the OT and the loving God of the NT). We see justice (especially retributive justice) and love as separate.
But we cannot view God’s attributes as compartmentalized or existing in isolation from each other. God is just, loving, compassionate, gracious, powerful, truthful.
You can’t divorce love from truth. You can’t divorce goodness from justice. Goodness that is not just is no longer real goodness.
Diane Langberg is a Christian psychologist who says that sometimes the most grace-filled thing we can do is restriction. Think of God’s commands “Do not murder… do not commit adultery.” Those are full of grace… even though they are restrictions. She says, that’s what we do when we tell children they can’t play in the street. It is a restriction, but it is full of grace.
That’s what we have to do when thinking about God’s attributes. We can’t compartmentalize them.
You see this perfection in God’s attributes when God reveals his nature to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…”
That’s the so-called angry God of the OT. You see his attributes in perfect harmony…. Merciful, gracious, steadfast love, forgiveness… and justice (who will by no means clear the guilty).
So, Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. And though, ultimately, God’s justice is a good thing… Psalm 98 speaks about God’s justice as a joyous occasion— how the trees clap their hands and the earth sings for joy as the Lord comes to judge the earth— there is a dark side to that judgement.
And we understand that to be the doctrine of hell—a place of everlasting punishment. It is the place where Satan and demons will be cast into the “lake of fire” (Rev 20:14-15). It is a state and place where unbelievers will experience God’s wrath poured out in its fullness. The wicked will experience condemnation as conscious torment in hell forever (Matt 25:46).
What’s the Scriptural basis for belief in hell?
The word that Jesus repeatedly uses to talk about the final judgement and the punishment of the wicked is Gehenna.
It refers to the Valley of Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem.
If you read 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Jeremiah, this valley was the place where Israel adopted the practices of its pagan neighbors. They burned incense to false gods and they slaughtered the innocent…
It was the place of worship for the god Molech, to whom their children were slaughtered and burned as an offering.
This place was eventually destroyed and declared unclean. And so the name of the valley was very clearly associated with God’s wrath and his judgement. It became known as the place where people would be consigned to suffer God’s punishment through everlasting fire.
So that’s the term Jesus uses when he talks about the final judgement.
There are numerous places throughout the NT that speak of Gehenna and the final judgement – a place of everlasting torment, a place of unquenchable fire, a place of outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(This is not exhaustive, but here’s a brief list of various passages that speak of this final judgement: Matt 3:11-12; 5:29-30; 10:28; 8:10-12; 13:40-42, 49-50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 16:19-31; Rev 1:17-18; 6:8; 20:14-15)
I’ll just highlight Matthew 25… Where Jesus speaks about the final judgement. He uses the language of separating the sheep from the goats. The separation of the righteous from the wicked.
And here’s what he says in vs 46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
There is a parallelism here. The wicked—suffer eternally in hell… the righteous enjoy God’s presence eternally in heaven. Eternal punishment. Eternal life.
There are two main challenges today regarding the historic interpretation of hell:
Universalism and Annihilationism (Conditional Immortality).
There was widespread consensus in the church on the doctrine of hell… until about the 19th century.
Now, there were always people outside the mainstream who held to diverging views on hell, but those views were never considered mainstream… It’s not until the 19th Century that you see begin to see more divergent views and the mid 20th century, you see widespread abandonment of the belief in hell as eternal punishment for more “tolerable” doctrines like universalism or annihilationism.
Now, why is that? That’s a very hard question to answer… but it is notable that the abandonment of this doctrine happens at the same time that modern theology takes a subjective turn. Much of modern theology is man-centered… focusing on human experience. That’s a factor…I don’t have a full answer as to why.
But, let’s define these two views: Universalism and Annihilationism.
Let’s take annihilationism first. Also connected with conditional immortality.
Annihilationism is view is that the wicked in hell will not be punished eternally, but their punishment will actually result in the annihilation of their existence. (They will cease to exist). This view sees eternal punishment as unjust.
So phrases in the NT that speak of eternal destruction or eternal punishment, they say, do not actually mean eternal in the sense of time duration… but in the sense of finality (complete destruction).
They say the word that is typically translated as “eternal” can actually have various uses. And it does not always indicate “endless duration.” Instead, they interpret it to mean “age” or “period of time.”
For the annihilationist, hell is not eternal punishment but is punishment for a period of time.
So, annihilationism goes hand in hand with conditional immortality. Conditional immortality states that believers will exist forever in heaven… but the unbelievers will cease to exist… because they are “annihilated.”
But one of the big problems with annihilationist’s interpretation of the word “eternal” is that it proves to be selective…
So take Matthew 25… Where Jesus speaks about the righteous experiencing eternal life and the wicked eternal punishment… Essentially, when eternal is applied to the wicked in this sentence, it means “period of time” but when applied to the righteous in heaven it means “endless duration.”
No annihilationist is going to try to argue that heaven only exists for a period of time… The interpretation doesn’t hold up. Their interpretation is selectively applied to support their doctrine.
Annihilationsists take up this argument because they think it is unjust that someone should suffer eternally.
But Herman Bavinck is helpful here and suggests that if you think eternal punishment is incompatible with God’s justice, then so is temporal punishment. Logically, it’s the same.
But I suppose even some people today think temporal punishment is bad… hence the focus on restorative justice… Modern people don’t like the idea of retributive justice…
I think this reveals that a strong aversion to the traditional doctrine of hell is a uniquely modern problem. I don’t mean to say that ancient Christians weren’t uncomfortable with the idea of hell… But I think this shows that the traditional doctrine of hell is not incompatible with God’s justice or God’s love, but it’s incompatible with modern values. If something is deeply offensive to us—what modern value system is the Christian worldview challenging?
What’s an example of a modern value shaping our worldview here? “Humans by nature are good.” A low view of sin… or “no” view of sin…the outright denial of the existence of sin or total depravity. If humans are intrinsically good, then of course the doctrine of hell is unjust…
The Bible teaches that though God created man and said it is “very good,” and he created man in his image—all humans are of inestimable value as divine image bearers… this image is broken/distorted because of sin.
We have to take sin seriously. Sin is not mere weakness or lack, a minor imperfection in human possibility. But the intrinsic nature of sin is rebellion and hostility against God. Even though sin can be committed in but a moment (temporally)… the intrinsic nature of sin is infinite (eternal) because it is rebellion against the eternal majesty and holiness of God.
What about Universalism?
There are various types of universalism… some Christian, some not. But the basic idea is that all people will be “saved.” If not in this life, then they will have a chance to repent or be reconciled in the next.
So, non-Christian types of universalism would articulate the “many paths to the same God” approach.
Christian universalism… would say that all people are reconciled … through Christ. God’s love is inclusive… and will eventually envelop all things.
So, a Christian universalist might point to Colossians 1:20 in support of their view, where Paul says, “ 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
They take very seriously God’s reconciliation of all things… Some universalists take all things to means all things. (Hence, McClymond’s title, the Devil’s Redemption—again, McClymond is not in support of that view, but he’s providing a historical development of the doctrine). Some say, even demons and the devil himself will be reconciled to God.
Now, I don’t think Colossians is suggesting that demons and the devil himself will be reconciled to God… I think Paul is getting at the universal scope of God’s salvation… God’s saving work in Christ is for all peoples.
For many universalists, if they believe in hell, they view hell as purgative. A place where you go to repent of your sins, and eventually you are “purged” cleansed/purified of sin.
But the idea of purgatory does not have biblical support… Even Pope Benedict (Ratzinger) acknowledged the lack of biblical support for the doctrine and instead says he appeals to “late antique sensibility” and “Judaism” which “crystallized” into the Catholic teaching… (McClymond 68).
Purgatory would be in direct conflict with protestant understanding of salvation through grace alone.
Essentially, purgatory is a second-chance doctrine. It offers the possibility of post-mortem salvation. Post-mortem repentance.
But Hebrews 9:27 speaks of death as the point at which your eternal destiny is fixed. “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes the judgment.”
Another popular theme in Christian universalism is the idea of God’s overcoming power of grace and love. God’s love will overcome evil. So, universalism is their attempt at an answer to the problem of evil. Why does evil exist? Well, eventually God’s love will eradicate evil by reconciling all things to God.
And so, one Catholic Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar calls his view “hopeful universalism.” He did the old Rob Bell trick of saying something without saying something. So, he doesn’t come outright and say he is a universalist (because to this day, that’s not Catholic dogma)…. However his book is called Dare We Hope?
His strategy is very skillful. Because even that sounds like a good thing. What’s wrong with hoping that all will be saved? Doesn’t God desire that all people will be saved? And if you can’t even dare to hope that all will be saved… then you are unloving… you’re a killjoy.
But McClymond is insightful in pointing out that Balthasar’s conception of hope sounds more like wishful thinking… which is not what biblical hope is. Biblical hope is certain expectation.
Here’s what McClymond says “Christian hope is not mere wishfulness. Christian hope is not utopian. It is instead a joyful and confident expectation for the future that is grounded on God’s promise. … When the Christian church embraces a message and an attitude of wishfulness, then the genuine, reliable, well-founded Christian hope will be progressively weakened and eventually lost.”
What are some other problems with universalism?
One, would be that universalism undermines free will, and therefore human dignity.
This sounds very counterintuitive… McCymond suggests that the doctrine of hell actually underscores human significance.
Why? Because an all-powerful God created humans with the capacity to reject him. He respects our free will.
And so as Lewis says, ultimately hell is God’s way of saying to the one who rejects him “thy will be done.”
Dallas Willard argues similarly, when he says “God did not create hell because he’s mad, he wants to see people suffer, and he enjoys torturing them for eternity. The only reason there is a hell is because God makes provision for what people want, and hell is simply the best God can do for some people.”
The doctrine of universal salvation ignores free will. Grace is going to overpower you—whether you want God or not. That’s going to make the new atheists like Richard Dawkins very unhappy.
McClymond’s final chapter of his book is called the “Eclipse of Grace.” And he seeks to demonstrate the consequences of universalism. And, he argues through all the ways universalism undermines grace— and salvation through grace alone.
For example, he assesses different universalist implications for salvation:
I am saved because I am divine (I am saved because I am a “spark of the divine”)
I am saved because I suffer (purgatory- I atone for my sins)
I am saved because God so wills it (trivializes moral and spiritual growth)
Each of those views undermines the logic of the gospel. Grace is not grace… grace is entitlement.
I love this quote from McClymond on evaluating universalism…
“While universalism has undeniable curb appeal for the theological driver-by, the universalist house proves to be not a very livable place. The longer one looks at this house and examines the plumbing, wiring, and crawl space beneath, the less attractive it becomes.”
So, how does one conclude a 1300 page book defending the traditional understanding of hell? This is the “so-what?” What are we supposed to do?
Love of neighbor.
McClymond writes, “For the person engaged in love of neighbor, the speculative question of what will finally happen to all rational souls may prove distracting.”
McClymond calls his approach a hope-for-each as opposed to a hope-for-all. … One is speculative… the other is particular. And it’s focused on the realm of your control to love your neighbor.
That’s the best application for the doctrine of hell – Go love your neighbor.
I haven’t forgotten about heaven.
I’ve spent the majority of my time speaking about hell… and don’t have much time left to speak about heaven… but that’s okay.
I’m in good company. I was laughing to myself the other day because I pulled one of Herman Bavick’s volumes from his 4 vol dogmatics off the shelf… and it’s like 3000 pages total… and he only devotes 16 pages to heaven and new creation!
There’s wisdom in this. We can know some things about it.
Here’s another line from the Nicene Creed…
“We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This is our future hope.
We call it heaven. Or New Creation.
Heaven is the fullness of God’s glory. It is the state and place of believers who enjoy the full blessing and fellowship of God’s presence. It’s the consummation of that great biblical promise that God will dwell with his people.
It will be a place of fellowship… this reunion in heaven is described as the marriage banquet of the lamb. There will be no more sin, no more sickness and death. Creation will be as God intended it to be.
Heaven is not disembodied. We will await the resurrection of our bodies and we will have a resurrected body. The entire creation, this world, will be renewed and remade. What’s it going to be like? I imagine it’s going to be like our present existence, only better. Without human abuse of power, interpersonal conflict, corruption, etc. This is new creation. This is the new creation in which God establishes the fullness of his kingdom.
It will be glorious. It will be a place of worship. A place of knowing, loving, and serving God.
This side of heaven, there is much that remains a mystery… Now, we see through a glass darkly… but we will see face to face. When we behold him, face to face, we will be like him… and we will worship.
Best encapsulated in the words of the hymn “I stand amazed”
When with the ransomed in glory
His face I at last shall see,
’Twill be my joy through the ages
To sing of His love for me.