Review of Article: “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” Part 3

23 Jan

This is Part 3 of my rebuttal of David Bentley Hart’s article entitled “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” (found here). In our previous post I tried to answer the question, “What qualifies you to refute this scholar’s diatribe against eternal damnation?”

I provided four points in my response: (1) I got saved as a result of fearing God’s judgment — so this is a personal, not just an academic, issue for me. (2) My first book I wrote was on this topic and sought to defend the traditional view in light of a kind of Evangelical erosion among some scholars. (3) My academic qualifications (a Ph.D. in historical theology) assist me in evaluating Hart’s view (which has been held by gospel-denying teachers throughout church history). And (4) someone needs to stand up and say that Hart’s denial of hell as eternal conscious punishment minimizes the seriousness of man’s sin, makes a mockery of Christ’s atoning work, and eviscerates the very enterprise of missions and evangelism.

I’m willing to stick my theological neck out and challenge Hart’s view. Here are my thoughts so far —

Hart’s New York Times essay occurred in the January 10, 2020, edition (he has also written That All SHALL Be Saved. His argument for universalism). He begins by citing Charles Darwin’s shock that, in light of the possible eternal torture of friends and loved ones in hell, anyone could even wish that Christianity were true. The sheer social psychology of a belief in hell, Hart says, intrigues him, causing him to write his book-length case against “the historical validity, biblical origins, philosophical cogency and moral sanity of the standard Christian teaching on the matter of eternal damnation . . .” Some of the reactions he’s received have been, he says, “demented.”

On the Couch, Please!
Hart is surprised at the “indignant and hysterical reaction[s]” which have been aimed at his viewpoint. So he suspects “something unutterably precious is at stake” for his challengers. [Ahhh, what would we do without psychology?] He then reviews some of the ghastly gallery of images about hell proposed by people like Augustine, Dante, and St. Francis Xavier. But, there is hope! Hart believes his view is “welcome news” and will show that all should doubt the traditional view (which, he says, became greatly “garbled in transmission”).

NT Scholars’ Silence?
Hart makes the claim that “No truly accomplished New Testament scholar . . . believes that later Christianity’s opulent mythology of God’s eternal torture chamber is clearly present in the scriptural texts.” [I call upon my NT brethren in Evangelical seminaries to step up and refute Hart’s claim]. My area is systematic theology, so my friend Dr. Robert Peterson comes to mind as someone who has written extensively defending the biblical doctrine of hell (Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, What Is Hell [Basics of the Faith], Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue).

Pauline Absence?
Hart further makes the claim that hell (his phrasing is “God’s eternal torture chamber”) is “entirely absent from St. Paul’s writings.” Hart does refer to the fire of I Corinthians 3:15 (12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.“), arguing that it “brings salvation to those whom it tries” (like Sharon Baker of Messiah College in her book Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment. Baker has also denied the vicarious substitutionary doctrine of the atonement in her book Executing God). The traditional view of hell isn’t “found in the other New Testament epistles” (but what about 2 Thessalonians 1:9 which speaks of false teachers who “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might . . .”)?

He also argues that hell isn’t found in any extant documents from the earliest post-apostolic period. I’m not sure he’s right here, but one could simply say that Hart is arguing from silence. That is, there are other doctrines not specifically covered in early Christian writing because their foundation was made clear in the New Testament itself.

Who Cares About the Devil?
What about the book of Revelation? Hart writes, “There are a few terrible, surreal, allegorical images of judgment in the Book of Revelation, but nothing that, properly read, yields a clear doctrine of eternal torment.” But what about Revelation 20? There we read of the judgment of the evil trinity composed of the devil, the false prophet, and the beast in verse 10: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

We then read two verses later of “the dead” (all humans) who were “judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Is it not logical to conclude that the same fate (eternal torment) awaits all human beings who are here being judged by God? These verses do not appear to be “surreal” or “allegorical” to me.

Hiding Behind NT Greek?
Hart then writes: “Even the frightening language used by Jesus in the Gospels, when read in the original Greek, fails to deliver the infernal dogmas we casually assume to be there.” Now, some of the “infernal dogmas” articulated down through church history deserve to be challenged on the basis of Scripture. But to say that somehow the “original Greek” doesn’t support the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment is simply not true. Having taught New Testament Greek for several decades, I would argue that Hart’s point is greatly exaggerated. A simple reading of Matthew’s gospel establishes Jesus’ clear teaching of the traditional view (see my The Other Side of the Good News: Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching of Hell, Chapter 5). And knowing New Testament Greek doesn’t lessen the severity of Jesus’ “viewpoint.”

Hart’s Alternative
The author then sets forth his case that the New Testament argues for the complete restoration of all to God (otherwise known as universalism). He cites such texts as Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 John 2:2, John 13:32, Romans 11:32, 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 4:10, and Titus 2:11. These universalistic-sounding passages need to be carefully studied, and Hart comments: “. . . much theological ink has been spilled over the years explaining away the plain meaning of those verses.” Hmmm. Hart uses words like “not metaphorical” and “plain meaning” in presenting his supportive texts. [I wonder what the psychology is there?].

The Hammer of History
The author then emphasizes that the idea of universal salvation “apparently enjoyed their largest presence as a relative ratio of the faithful” during the first half millennium of Christianity. Some of history’s “greatest universalists,” he says, were Basil the Great, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus and others.

True, Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis (the restoration of all things) marked the church’s first systematic theologian. And he did set forth an allegorical method of interpreting Scripture (though, amazingly, he didn’t apply it himself when he self-castrated).

This grimmest view of hell “naturally triumphed” when the Christian Church became part of the Roman Empire’s political apparatus. Hart says such “spiritual terror” was useful for social stability. “And, even today, institutional power remains one potent inducement to conformity on this issue.”

Psychological Conclusions
The psychological scalpel cuts both ways. Hart says, “Still, none of that accounts for the deep emotional need many modern Christians seem to have for an eternal hell.” He suggests that the prospect of the redeemed seeing the torments of the damned boils down to the winners rejoicing over the losers. This hope of being proved right “when so many were wrong” appears to be the motivation for the traditionalists.

But one might ask, “What’s your motivation, Dr. Hart?”

(to be continued)





Posted by on January 23, 2020 in hell


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2 responses to “Review of Article: “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” Part 3

  1. Gerry T. Neal

    January 23, 2020 at 8:37 am

    “He also argues that hell isn’t found in any extant documents from the earliest post-apostolic period. I’m not sure he’s right here, but one could simply say that Hart is arguing from silence.”

    Hell is certainly mentioned by Justin Martyr. (First Apology, 19) This was written half way through the second century. The Didache may not have used the terms we ordinarily associate with hell but it can hardly be understood as a universalist text without twisting the meaning of the major “The Two Ways” section beyond recognition. If it can be interpreted as departing from eternal conscious torment it is in the direction of annihilation not universal salvation.

  2. Dr. Larry Dixon

    January 23, 2020 at 8:49 am

    Gerry — Thank you for your insightful comment regarding post-apostolic documents. I really appreciate it! Blessings. Dr. D.


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