This is Part 5 and the conclusion of my response to David Bentley Hart’s article entitled “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” (found here). In this last post I want to continue to present my case for why Christians SHOULD believe in hell.
In our previous post we surveyed the gospel of Matthew to see what the Lord Jesus had to say about hell. He is — or should be — our final authority for what we believe. And His statements are unambiguous.
Is there a more unpleasant topic than eternal lostness? Of course not! Are we free to hold various views about the afterlife for those who die without Christ? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that we can believe whatever we want to believe. But such an exercise of our free will does not make us immune from the consequences of our beliefs. No, in the sense that if we profess to be Jesus-followers, we ought to follow Him in His teachings. And Hart’s position is a detour (“departure” might be the better word) in his discipleship, I would suggest.
If we assume (on good grounds) that God has made clear what we ought to believe about the afterlife, then holding a contrary position to the Scriptures, as John Stott once said, is foolish. He wrote, “Freedom to disagree with the Bible is an illusory freedom; in reality, it is bondage to falsehood.” Stott also wrote: “If we come to Scripture with our minds made up, expecting to hear from it only an echo of our own thoughts and never the thunderclap of God’s, then indeed he will not speak to us and we shall only be confirmed in our own prejudices.” (Culture and the Bible).
There are many echoes in our culture, so holding to hell as eternal conscious punishment (ECP) is not, nor should it be thought of as, popular! That should not surprise us!
I suspect that Hart’s beef is not with Augustine or Calvin or other ECP believers, but with Jesus Himself. If it is unequivocally true that Jesus taught eternal conscious punishment, then Hart and the rest of us have a choice to make between two options. (1) Jesus was Himself deluded. He was “a man of his time” and shared some of the same pre-scientific misconceptions of his contemporaries. [This view eviscerates Christ’s deity, does it not?]; (2) Jesus purposely taught hell (knowing that it would not be eternal, nor conscious, nor punishment) to motivate people to faith. His warnings were merely hortatory (def. “urging to some course of conduct or action; exhorting; encouraging”). [In that case would He not be rightly thought of as deceptive?].
Those two scenarios are unsatisfying, to say the least. To suggest that Jesus was Himself deluded?! Or to imply that He purposely taught an un-truth in order to get people to believe?!
In conclusion, the testimony of the Lord Jesus about eternal lostness is clear. To reject what He said or to twist His words to fit an alternative theological theory is dangerous.
If it is a crime to shout “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, how much more criminal is it not to shout at all when the fire is raging all around and people are asleep in their seats? The biblical Christian does not want to be alarmist, but he ought to be sounding the alarm!
Lessening the severity of hell or redefining its biblically declared nature is, in our opinion, more dangerous than outright denial. To promote the hope that hell will be a place of growth (rather than a place of groaning) is to twist the tenor and content of Christ’s teaching. Redefinition is more serious than total rejection, not only because the one doing the redefining appears to still be a member of the camp. Redefinition does nothing to change that which is being redefined; it only causes less caution to be taken in the face of a dangerous reality. A cup of poison relabeled Kool-Aid is not less lethal, only more enticing. (from The Other Side of the Good News).
January 25, 2020 at 10:39 am
“If it is unequivocally true that Jesus taught eternal conscious punishment, then…”
Well that’s the whole question, isn’t it!? To say that Hart has a beef with Jesus isn’t exactly right. Hart has an interpretation of Jesus’ teachings that is (at least in part) shared by many faithful Christians. If Hart is right, then it is in fact the ECP crowd that has taken a few of Jesus’ urgent warnings about judgment and turned them into a ferocious and monstrous doctrine, perhaps because of vengeful passions or warped ideas about Justice (capital J).
My read on it is that many are attempting to be as faithful and accountable as they can to every letter of the written Word (faithfulness and a desire to be accountable to God are, in themselves, admirable), but that various combinations of the aforementioned passions, an insufficient hermeneutic paradigm, an inability to imagine justice as anything other than retributive (i.e. justice as always aiming toward reconciliation), and/or inherited theological, political, and social plausibility structures (who doesn’t have these?) contribute to the “self-evidence” or “obviousness” of the supposed fact that Jesus’ teachings entail ECP.
As I have continued to pray, study, and practice faithful devotion to Christ to the best of my ability (which is itself a product of grace in the first place), the idea that Christ’s teachings on judgement entail an unalterable eternity in hell seems less and less obvious. In fact, it has become foreign to the gospel for me. I only bring this personal side up in order to make the point that one can (as I do) take Christ’s words utterly seriously in faith without ending up at the same conclusions about eternal conscious punishment. I’m sure my viewpoint will keep changing as I continue, with God’s help, to grow in the faith.
Dr. Larry Dixon
January 25, 2020 at 4:09 pm
I understand your point about who has a beef with Jesus. And the only way to decide that, I think, is to examine all that Jesus said on the subject.
Although I’ve not finished reading through Hart’s book, others have remarked that he pays very little attention to Scripture.
If you’ve not read my The Other Side of the Good News, I would appreciate your doing so. I’ve tried to examine all that Jesus said about hell — and His language is pretty ferocious at times. The fact that many faithful Christians hold my view or Hart’s isn’t the point, is it?
Is Justice always aiming toward reconciliation? Then how do we explain Jesus’ statements such as, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Mt. 7:23). Or His statement in Matthew 25:46 in separating the sheep (those who knew God) from the goats (those who didn’t): “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I’m aware of people like Sharon Baker (of Messiah College) trying to argue that God’s fire is purifying, but that’s hardly the impression one gets from Revelation 20.
May I ask you, Jacob, where you are in terms of eternal lostness? Is hell redemptive, purifying? Do the wicked cease to exist or are they put out of existence by God? Will all come to know Christ, even after death? If the idea of an eternal hell is “foreign to the gospel,” then I would ask you, “What is the gospel? What does the gospel save us from?”
I appreciate your honesty in speaking of God’s grace in your life, but I don’t think that hell as anything other than retributive justice can be defended from the Scriptures.
I hope we can continue our dialogue.
January 26, 2020 at 7:46 pm
I did read your Other Side book years ago. I think I have it, but many of my books are packed away in boxes right now!
I agree that Jesus’ language about the consequences of sin and its judgement are ferocious. Sin and judgement are ferocious realities. Justice, it seems to me, is always aiming toward reconciliation. I like to think of justice as “everything in its right place.”
Mt. 7:23 – Jesus is drawing attention to the fact that one can outwardly align oneself with him (“Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?”) while nonetheless being a worker of lawlessness. One in this hypocritical state will not be recognized as a follower of Christ. He is driving home, with great rhetorical force, the “narrowness of the gate” that leads to salvation (7:13). This statement is situated in a section that is speaking about hypocrisy more generally. One cannot be sanctified by lip service to Christ, but must have their hearts, their entire dispositions, transformed. That’s much more difficult work (the narrow gate). I don’t take Jesus’ words here to be a literal description of a post-mortem encounter between a hypocrite and the glorified Christ, but rather an emphatic illustration of Jesus’ demand that the heart be transformed.
Unfortunately I don’t have time to respond to Mt. 25 at length right now, but it’d follow a similar logic. And I’d need even more time to respond about John’s Apocalypse, which requires even more careful interpretation due to its peculiar genre.
As far as where I am on eternal lostness: I’m not sure that heaven and hell are different “places” so much as different ways of experiencing God. To the degree that my heart is beholden to sin, I will experience God as painful, wrathful perhaps. As I am purified, I will gradually grow to know and love God in bliss. We can experience a prefiguration of this in our own journey of sanctification in this life. I think CS Lewis’ Great Divorce is a nice illustration of this view.
More to say, not enough time to say it!
Dr. Larry Dixon
January 27, 2020 at 7:01 am
Good morning, Jacob.
I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond to my posts. I know how it is to be constrained by time. Thank you for the thoughts you have shared.
Just a comment or two:
1. I think there is clear biblical evidence that heaven and hell are places (we have the word “outside” used by Jesus, etc.). Language (like “gates”) could be metaphors, but metaphors stand for something.
2. To suggest that heaven and hell are different ways of experiencing God, I agree to an extent. The “wicked” (which we all are until conversion) experience God’s full wrath in hell (Ps. 1 – the wicked won’t survive God’s judgment but will be separated from fellowship with the godly). Separation from an omnipresent God must mean lack of fellowship, don’t you think?
3. I believe you need to make the case that is justice always aiming toward reconciliation. I’m teaching a course for lifers at Kirkland now — and their sentences hardly seem to be aimed at reconciliation. Is retribution biblical? [I think that one’s view of the atonement fits here — Was Christ’s sacrifice not a debt being paid?].
4. Thanks for reading my “The Other Side” years ago. You’ve inspired me to do a ten-post series on “Why Christians Should Believe in Hell.” I don’t really want to. But I think it is needed. God’s not willing that any should perish, nor am I. But it’s incumbent to be clear where the Bible is clear.
Please feel free to comment any time on my posts, Jacob. I pray the Lord’s best for you as you serve him. Larry
January 27, 2020 at 12:11 pm
1. Yes, I agree that the language for heaven and hell are metaphorical. If I’m trying to speak precisely and unequivocally (which isn’t always helpful for communicating religious truth, as Jesus knew), I would say that heaven and hell refer to possibile states of being. Jesus is trying to provoke his hearers into changing their hearts. If he spoke clearly and unequivocally, he would merely change their minds.
2. Re: Psalm 1 – there’s no reason to think that this poem refers to a post-mortem reality with rigid literality. It seems to me that the wicked will not be counted among the righteous, i.e. there is a real difference between the state and experience of one who refuses God’s transforming love and one who is opened to it. The idea of “separation from God,” if we think about it spatially, is incoherent. God is the creator of all, and by virtue of God’s being we have our being, and so anything that exists exists in God. Language of proximity to God is metaphorical. If I say that someone is “close to God,” it doesn’t mean they’re literally closer in proximity to God in space and time. It means that they are more open to the transforming love of God. This language employs spatial metaphor to talk about one’s spiritual state.
3. Lifers’ sentences aren’t aimed at reconciliation, and I would say that they aren’t really aimed at God’s Justice either. Human/temporal systems of justice are frail and more than often miss the mark. Part of it is human wickedness, and part of it is the tragedy of living in a fallen world where ignorance and misunderstanding, vengeance, and cruelty compel us. Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (Js. 1:20), and so I’m suspicious of calls for temporal justice that spring from the passions. I don’t have much of substance to say about US justice system reform though.
4. If you truly don’t want to, please don’t give yourself a chore on my account! But I would just suggest that the supposed “clarity” of scripture on these issues, like I said in a previous response, is influenced by many factors – social, political, cultural, philosophical – that are worth interrogating. It’s not as simple as “being clear where the Bible is clear.”
As you know, there are many passages of Scripture that seem clearly (to many people) to indicate universal reconciliation. I also know that you aren’t convinced by these, and that you have ready answers to any of these passages of scripture that I might raise, so I won’t bother with it here. But my point is that any position (universalism, annihilationism, ecp, etc.) makes clear sense of certain aspects of scripture, but makes others murkier. If we shift our paradigm, other aspects become clearer, but those that were originally clear now become problematic. The problem is, the Bible isn’t written as a systematic text (as you know) and so it requires a few steps of interpretation in order to move from reading scripture to applying it systematically.
OK, off to try to be productive. Thanks for continuing this convo 🙂
Gerry T. Neal
January 27, 2020 at 8:08 am
With regards to heaven and hell being different ways of experiencing God I am reminded that there is a long thread of interpretation within the tradition of the Greek Church – the Eastern Orthodox tradition, that is – that understands hell, not as a place of “separation from God” as it has been generally understood within the Western tradition, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, but as the experience of the love of God on the part of those who have refused to be transformed by the grace of God in this life and are thus incapable of experiencing it as bliss. It is an interesting idea. I think it is rather difficult to reconcile with most of the Scriptural passages that speak of hell – although it might fit well with the parable of Dives and Lazarus -but it could shed some light on an aspect of sin that we have, perhaps, neglected in Protestantism. We Protestants tend to think of sin as a barrier to heaven primarily in terms of legal justice, since we emphasize the penal substitution aspect of the Atonement and the justification that ensues to those who believe. It can also be thought of as a barrier to heaven in that its presence in the heart makes one unfit for heaven – to enter heaven with sin in your heart would turn it into hell and would prevent you from experiencing it as heaven. This aspect was obviously emphasized by the pre-Reformation Church – hence the heavy focus on sanctification, which unfortunately, developed into a neglect of justification and eventually a doctrine of justification that contradicted the Johannine and Pauline doctrine of the same, thus necessitating the Reformation.
It is interesting, therefore, that David Bentley Hart is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. It does not seem, though, that it is the above mentioned tradition that he is drawing from but rather the handful of true universalists that could be found among the Greek Fathers. There is a tendency, I have noted, among a certain type of Western convert to Eastern Orthodoxy to latch on to elements within that tradition that are not the mainstream of the tradition and would certainly not be recognized as such by those who have been raised within it, but which appeal to the convert from the West because they are opposed to something they dislike in the tradition in which they were raised. It is an interesting way in which several have adopted ideas that fit well with the post-Christian, modern and post-modern, cultural climate of the present day while turning the tables on those who would criticize their views as a succumbing to liberalism by laying claim to an older tradition.
January 27, 2020 at 10:58 am
You’ve summarized the position better than I could. Thanks!