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“You REALLY Believe in HELL?! But WHY?” (Ten Reasons) (Reason 1) Autobiographical

“The gospel ain’t true unless somebody around here can get damned!”, said the old farmer after a revival meeting.

The evangelist Billy Sunday declared, “If there is no Hell, a good many preachers are obtaining money under false pretenses!”

Why in the world would someone believe in hell? And what exactly does it mean to “believe” in hell? These are a couple of the questions we want to answer in this ten-part series of posts.

REASON #1 – “This is my story — and I’m stickin’ to it!” AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
When I was around fourteen years of age, a man in our church took his turn serving as the leader of the young people. He was a serious man who didn’t have time for humor — or our foolishness. I remember one Friday night his showing us a film about hell and closing the youth meeting by asking us, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven . . . or hell?”

As I recall that event, for me it was life- and eternity- changing! I remember dropping to my knees beside my bed when I got home and trusting Christ as my Savior. I hadn’t been a particularly evil teenager, but I knew that if God were half as holy as I suspected and the gospel were true, I was not going to go to heaven when I died. I knew that. And I got saved.

Trusting Christ out of a fear of God’s judgment — is a great reason to get saved! There is eternal judgment awaiting all who die outside of Christ. And no one who comes to faith out of such a rational and overwhelming fear should be ashamed of such an entrance into the family of God.

Scripture tells us “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day, “If you do not believe I am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins!” (my paraphrase of John 8:24).

My conversion was over fifty years ago — and there has been a lot of theological and biblical study that I’ve pursued over the years. I’ve had the privilege of teaching hundreds of Bible college and seminary students in my career and I’m more convinced than ever of hell’s reality and our need to warn others not to go there.

Many mock the very idea of hell (especially the creator of “The Simpsons”). There are many more reasons to “believe” in hell (which we will pursue in subsequent posts), but this one is my first. I got saved out of a fear of God’s judgment and His eternal wrath. And I’m surprised more people today don’t get saved for the same reason.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2020 in hell

 

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Review of Article: “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” Why SHOULD People Believe in Hell Part 5 (Conclusion)

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2020 in hell

 

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Review of Article: “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” Why SHOULD People Believe in Hell Part 4

This is Part 4 of my response to David Bentley Hart’s article entitled “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” (found here). For the next two posts I want to present my case for why Christians SHOULD believe in hell. Really. Please notice that I have added the words “Why SHOULD People Believe in Hell” to my post’s title.

Just a few more comments about Hart’s rejection of the biblical witness to eternal lostness:

1. The essential question in an issue like this — hell — is what is one’s final authority for what one believes? Is it church history? Is it what makes logical and ethical sense to me? Is there an underlying philosophical commitment that clouds my understanding of what the Bible is actually saying? If Jesus Christ is God the Son, then whatever He believed, I had better believe. And if He predicted the completion of the Bible through His followers, then I can have confidence in both the Old and New Testaments’ description of this life — and the life to come.

2. Psychological ad hominems (arguments against the person) don’t advance the discussion very much. Hart can charge the majority of Christian leaders (ancient and modern) with pathological reasons to hold to eternal conscious punishment. And we can charge him with being motivated by some psychological need to dispense with hell. But both accusations miss the point. What does the Bible actually teach?

3. I have sought to defend the eternal conscious punishment view of hell in my book The Other Side of the Good News. You might find the chapter titles interesting:

4. As you can see, I believe the clear testimony of Scripture is that there is another “side,” that all who die without Christ are lost eternally, that there are no second chances after death, that the concept of annihilationism isn’t biblical, that Jesus is our greatest source for information about hell, and that we can’t sit on the fence about this issue. There is, indeed, a hell to shun and a heaven to gain! I have written other articles on the subject (see my “Warning a Wrath-Deserving World: Evangelicals and the Overhaul of Hell” in the Emmaus Journal, Summer 1993) and have reviewed a book or two presenting alternative views (see my review entitled “Screwtape Reviews Rethinking Hell” — my post of July 18, 2014 found here).Let me present one segment of the biblical evidence for hell as eternal conscious punishment — the testimony of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. I suggest that anyone who wants to know what the Son of God taught about eternal lostness should take a Bible they’re not afraid to mark up and read straight through the gospel of Matthew. Here’s what they will find –Mt. 5:22 – One who calls his brother “fool” will be in danger of hell (gehenna) fire.

Mt. 5:27-30 – It is better to pluck out one’s eye or cut off one’s hand (and to be saved) than for one’s whole body to go into hell (gehenna). See also 18:9 for a similar statement.

Mt. 10:28 – We are not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather the One who can destroy soul and body in hell (note: this is obviously God, not Satan. And the term “destroy” means ruin, not annihilation here).

Mt. 11:21-14 – Where there is greater light, there is greater judgment (Capernaum will go down to the depths [hades] because of their unbelief).

Mt. 16-18 – The gates of hell (hades) will not overcome the church.Mt. 23:15 – The proselytizing of the Jewish leaders makes one twice as much a son of hell (gehenna) as they were.

Mt. 23:33 – Jesus calls these leaders snakes and a brood of vipers and asks, “How will you escape being condemned to hell (gehenna)?”

Mt. 24:36-51 – Hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. See also Mt. 25:1-13.

Mt. 25:31-46 – All humanity will be divided into the sheep and goats. The two fates of “the kingdom” and “the eternal fire” are presented. We read, “These [the goats] will go away to everlasting punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] into eternal life.” (v. 46).

Here is my summary of this brief study of Jesus’ teaching on hell in Matthew’s gospel (from my The Other Side of the Good News):

Summary of Hell in Matthew’s Gospel
Although Jesus uses the term hades on only two occasions in Matthew, He emphasizes that the judgment of the wicked will be based on their opportunity to respond (Matt. 11:21-24) and that the defensive gates of hades will not be able to withstand the Gospel’s assault (Matt. 16:18).

Jesus’ uses of the term gehenna warn of the danger of hell fire (Matt. 5:22) and the relative insignificance of losing a bodily part (and going to heaven) in comparison to remaining whole but being wholly lost (Matt. 5:29-30). Similar hyperbolic language of self-mutilation is used by Jesus on a second occasion in Matthew 18:9.

Perhaps anticipating the persecution of His disciples, Jesus reminds them whom to fear. God is the One to be feared, for He alone has the power to “destroy both soul and body in hell,” (or gehenna, Matt. 10:28).

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew indicates that He knew of hell’s reality. One might ask, “If we are on our way to hell, wouldn’t it make sense for Jesus to first tell us how to avoid that destination? If we were in a spiritually neutral condition, then perhaps instruction about heaven might be more appropriate.” However, no one is spiritually neutral. Every human being is either in the category of the “sheep” who are doing God’s will or the “goats” who are outside His will. Eternal destinies await both –“eternal life” or “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46).

The other uses of the term hades in the New Testament (Luke 10:15; 16:22-23; Acts 2:26-32; 1 Cor. 15:55; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14) appear to relate to the intermediate state (the time between one’s death and physical resurrection) into which wicked persons have passed at their death.

Gehenna is used only once outside the Gospels (James 3:6). However, a study of its twelve occurrences in the New Testament leads to the conclusion that gehenna is a place of condemnation and terrible punishment. The wicked, after their resurrection, will be cast into gehenna to remain forever. Revelation 20:13-14 indicates that gehenna and “the lake of fire” are synonymous terms, referring to the everlasting destiny of the wicked after the reunion of their bodies and their disembodied personalities.

(our study will be concluded in our next post)

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2020 in hell

 

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

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)

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2020 in hell

 

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

I wanted to begin my rebuttal of Hart’s article entitled “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” (found here) with the following sentence:

“The idea of universal salvation is neither biblically, philosophically, nor morally justified. But for many it retains a psychological allure.”

(If you’ve read his article, he began his essay with the sentence: “The idea of eternal damnation is neither biblically, philosophically nor morally justified. But for many it retains a psychological allure.”). (Sorry for the snarky attitude, but Hart’s article really ticks me off).

You see, I’ve been reading through Dr. Hart’s newest book, That ALL Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation. If one wants to believe in universal salvation — that all not only can, but will, be saved  — you pretty much have to get rid of hell. And that’s what Dr. Hart seeks to do.

1.This is a very personal issue for me, mostly because I got saved as a result of being afraid of going to hell. If hell doesn’t exist, or if it is something quite different than Christians have believed (like, the purging flames of God universally applied), then I got saved under false pretenses.

2.The very first book I wrote sought to defend the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious punishment in light of its erosion among Evangelical theologians (such as Clark Pinnock, John Stott, Michael Green, etc.). Some of my brethren have opted for substitute views like annihilationism (see the book Rethinking Hell). My contribution to the discussion was/is entitled The Other Side of the Good News: Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell and covers the three primary “alternative views” (universalism, post-mortem conversionism, and annihilationism).

3. I am quite familiar with all of Dr. Hart’s objections to eternal hell. My Ph.D. is in historical theology (how doctrines have been understood down through church history). I have made it a practice in my scholarly life to read what I call “boiling books” (books that will make a conservative Christian hopping mad before he or she gets past the preface) so I can familiarize myself with the arguments of unbelievers. I am not reading Hart’s That ALL Shall Be Saved for my spiritual nourishment, but to see what his objections are to the clear teaching of the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E. (I can’t get rid of my snarkiness).

4. I believe the 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. Why seek to convert others to biblical Christianity if all will ultimately be saved? The universalist theologian Theodore Parker (d. 1860 -who is celebrated as an intellectual who “played a major role in moving Unitarianism away from being a Bible-based faith”) once quipped, “I believe that Jesus Christ taught eternal punishment — I do not accept it on his authority!” If the gospel is true and hell is real and Jesus is God the Son, that’s the dumbest and most dangerous thing anyone could ever say!

Here’s a copy of the letter I’ve written to the Opinion Editor of the New York Times. Let’s hope they’ll let me write a rebuttal piece. (to be continued)

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2020 in hell

 

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Review of Article: “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” Part 1

Friends: The following article challenges the very idea of hell. David Bentley Hart is an American theologian who recently published the book That ALL Shall Be Saved. I will be reviewing that book in several subsequent posts. But to hold to universal salvation one must get rid of the traditional view of hell. May I suggest you read over the following article and leave a comment or two? We will critique this article over the next few weeks.

Why Do People Believe in Hell?

The idea of eternal damnation is neither biblically, philosophically nor morally justified. But for many it retains a psychological allure.

By

Dr. Hart is a philosopher, scholar of religion and cultural critic.

Once the faith of his youth had faded into the serene agnosticism of his mature years, Charles Darwin found himself amazed that anyone could even wish Christianity to be true. Not, that is, the kindlier bits — “Love thy neighbor” and whatnot — but rather the notion that unbelievers (including relatives and friends) might be tormented in hell forever.

It’s a reasonable perplexity, really. And it raises a troubling question of social psychology. It’s comforting to imagine that Christians generally accept the notion of a hell of eternal misery not because they’re emotionally attached to it, but because they see it as a small, inevitable zone of darkness peripheral to a larger spiritual landscape that — viewed in its totality — they find ravishingly lovely. And this is true of many.

But not of all. For a good number of Christians, hell isn’t just a tragic shadow cast across one of an otherwise ravishing vista’s remoter corners; rather, it’s one of the landscape’s most conspicuous and delectable details.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve published many books, often willfully provocative, and have vexed my share of critics. But only recently, in releasing a book challenging the historical validity, biblical origins, philosophical cogency and moral sanity of the standard Christian teaching on the matter of eternal damnation, have I ever inspired reactions so truculent, uninhibited and (frankly) demented.

I expect, of course, that people will defend the faith they’ve been taught. What I find odd is that, in my experience, raising questions about this particular detail of their faith evinces a more indignant and hysterical reaction from many believers than would almost any other challenge to their convictions. Something unutterably precious is at stake for them. Why?

After all, the idea comes to us in such a ghastly gallery of images: late Augustinianism’s unbaptized babes descending in their thrashing billions to a perpetual and condign combustion; Dante’s exquisitely psychotic dreamscapes of twisted, mutilated, broiling souls; St. Francis Xavier morosely informing his weeping Japanese converts that their deceased parents must suffer an eternity of agony; your poor old palpitant Aunt Maude on her knees each night in a frenzy of worry over her reprobate boys; and so on.

Surely it would be welcome news if it turned out that, on the matter of hell, something got garbled in transmission. And there really is room for doubt.

No truly accomplished New Testament scholar, for instance, believes that later Christianity’s opulent mythology of God’s eternal torture chamber is clearly present in the scriptural texts. It’s entirely absent from St. Paul’s writings; the only eschatological fire he ever mentions brings salvation to those whom it tries (1 Corinthians 3:15). Neither is it found in the other New Testament epistles, or in any extant documents (like the Didache) from the earliest post-apostolic period. 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. 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.

On the other hand, many New Testament passages seem — and not metaphorically — to promise the eventual salvation of everyone. For example: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18) Or: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) Or: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) (Or: John 13:32; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11; and others.)

Admittedly, much theological ink has been spilled over the years explaining away the plain meaning of those verses. But it’s instructive that during the first half millennium of Christianity — especially in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic and Semitic East — believers in universal salvation apparently enjoyed their largest presence as a relative ratio of the faithful. Late in the fourth century, in fact, the theologian Basil the Great reported that the dominant view of hell among the believers he knew was of a limited, “purgatorial” suffering. Those were also the centuries that gave us many of the greatest Christian “universalists”: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus and others.

Of course, once the Christian Church became part of the Roman Empire’s political apparatus, the grimmest view naturally triumphed. As the company of the baptized became more or less the whole imperial population, rather than only those people personally drawn to the faith, spiritual terror became an ever more indispensable instrument of social stability. And, even today, institutional power remains one potent inducement to conformity on this issue.

Still, none of that accounts for the deep emotional need many modern Christians seem to have for an eternal hell. And I don’t mean those who ruefully accept the idea out of religious allegiance, or whose sense of justice demands that Hitler and Pol Pot get their proper comeuppance, or who think they need the prospect of hell to keep themselves on the straight and narrow. Those aren’t the ones who scream and foam in rage at the thought that hell might be only a stage along the way to a final universal reconciliation. In those who do, something else is at work.

Theological history can boast few ideas more chilling than the claim (of, among others, Thomas Aquinas) that the beatitude of the saved in heaven will be increased by their direct vision of the torments of the damned (as this will allow them to savor their own immunity from sin’s consequences). But as awful as that sounds, it may be more honest in its sheer cold impersonality than is the secret pleasure that many of us, at one time or another, hope to derive not from seeing but from being seen by those we leave behind.

How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers? Where’s the joy in getting into the gated community and the private academy if it turns out that the gates are merely decorative and the academy has an inexhaustible scholarship program for the underprivileged? What success can there be that isn’t validated by another’s failure? What heaven can there be for us without an eternity in which to relish the impotent envy of those outside its walls?

Not to sound too cynical. But it’s hard not to suspect that what many of us find intolerable is a concept of God that gives inadequate license to the cruelty of which our own imaginations are capable.

An old monk on Mount Athos in Greece once told me that people rejoice in the thought of hell to the precise degree that they harbor hell within themselves. By which he meant, I believe, that heaven and hell alike are both within us all, in varying degrees, and that, for some, the idea of hell is the treasury of their most secret, most cherished hopes — the hope of being proved right when so many were wrong, of being admired when so many are despised, of being envied when so many have been scorned.

And as Jesus said (Matthew 6:21), “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

David Bentley Hart is the author, most recently, of That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2020 in hell

 

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Is Stephen Paddock in Hell?

“In reality, along with the power to forgive, we have lost the power to condemn.” (C.S. Lewis)

Stephen Paddock, the maniac who slaughtered 58 people and wounded over 500 more in Las Vegas on October 1, ended his own life before he could be arrested by authorities. He, thereby, successfully escaped human judgment.

But is there no divine judgment? Perhaps he thought that suicide would end his pain or exorcise whatever demons were inspiring his hateful rampage. It may be that he had given up on any view of an afterlife or judgment before God. However, his beliefs do not equal reality.

We wish no one to be in hell. However, our wishes also do not make reality. Whether one is a universalist (who says God will save every person, perhaps even the devil) or an annihilationist (who says God will put out of existence those who die in their sins) or a post-mortem conversionist (one who says numerous opportunities will be given in the after-death state for people to believe in Jesus),[1] the rock-bottom fact for Evangelicals is — What saith the Word of God?

We long for justice. And Paddock’s ending his own life, without trial, does not strike us as justice. That’s why the Psalmist takes the long view when he thinks about the prosperity of the wicked. They live long lives, without care, and die in comfortable beds. But there is the judgment of God awaiting them (Ps. 37).

One need only read through the gospel of Matthew to see that Jesus Christ clearly taught the doctrine of eternal lostness. We learn the following from that first gospel: Jesus speaks of “the fire of hell” (5:22) and says that ripping out one’s eye or hacking off one’s hand is better than being “thrown into hell” (5:29-30; 18:8-9).

Jesus speaks of a wide gate and a broad road that lead to “destruction” (7:13-14). Despite some claiming to do works in Jesus’ name, He will say to some at the end of history, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (7:23).

Hell is a real place (not just a state), for Jesus says, “the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (8:12; 22:13). The demons recognize that they will be “tortured” at the end of time (8:29) and thought Jesus had jumped the eschatological gun.

Apparently there will be levels of judgment in hell, for Jesus says of certain unbelieving cities: “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for [you].” (10:15; 11:21-24). The Lord warns us not to be “afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (10:28). He is not referring to Satan as some kind of king in hell, but to God.

Jesus speaks of blasphemy against the Spirit as a sin which will never be forgiven (12:32). He says that acquittal or condemnation are the only two options “on the day of judgment.” (12:36-37).

The angels (sent by the Son of Man) will weed out of His kingdom everything causing sin and all who do evil. “They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (13:42, 49-50). We read in Matthew 16:26 that the soul is of infinite value — “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” The Mount of Transfiguration event in Matthew 17 certainly shows that there is life after death.

Jesus accuses the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, in their winning of converts, of making them “twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (23:15). In Matthew 24, we read that the evil servant will be cut to pieces and assigned “a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (vv. 50-51). In the parable of the bags of gold, we read of the worthless servant who will be “cast outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (vv. 28-30).

Finally, in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt. 25), we read that the sheep are invited to receive their inheritance, the kingdom prepared for [them] since the creation of the world (v. 34). The goats, however, are told, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (v. 42). Then, in summary, we read, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v. 46).

Is Stephen Paddock in hell? Unless one wishes to ignore the biblical teaching on eternal lostness, there can be only one answer. If he died without Jesus Christ as his Savior, that is precisely where he is. Apart from the saving work of Christ, that’s where I should be as well.

[1] See my The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Christian Focus, 2003).

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2017 in hell

 

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A Little Annihilationist Humor!

Friends:

Some of you know that I have invested a fair amount of energy in challenging Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 5.31.43 AMalternative views to eternal conscious punishment.  I got saved as a teenager fearing God’s judgment.  And as a theologian, I have written extensively on this topic (my first book was entitled The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell).

 Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 5.33.16 AMI’ve also written a short novel on the topic of God’s everlasting judgment and have done reviews of other perspectives (see my review of Rethinking Hell here).

In dealing with such a somber subject, one needs a light moment or two.  Check out this news article from the Babylon Bee entitled “Driver Who Cuts Off Annihilationist Told To Go To Hell For Brief Period Of Time.”

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2016 in hell

 

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Great Deal on My Book THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GOOD NEWS!

Friends: Have I got a deal for you! My book, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell, will be sent to you IF you sent $10 to my PayPal account: theoprof@bellsouth.net.

The Other Side of the Good News discusses Screenshot 2016-01-10 14.27.07three alternatives suggested (universalism, post-mortem conversionism, and annihilationism) to replace the biblical view of eternal conscious punishment.  Jesus’ teaching on hell is carefully examined. Go to Paypal.com, click on “Pay or Send Money,” and that’s it! I’ll be notified via email that you have paid for the book and I’ll send it to you. You are also welcome to send me your shipping address (email me at theoprof@bellsouth.net).

This book — The Other Side of the Good News — is the most academically-researched book I’ve written.  This book will help you answer questions about God’s wrath and the need for Christ to provide salvation.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2016 in hell

 

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“My Heavens! There’s a Real Hell?!” (a sermon)

Friends:

I recently had the privilege of preaching in a great church in Charlotte, Southbrook Church.Screenshot 2015-11-24 06.37.46

The pastor, Shane Freeman, has been doing an important series entitled “Under the Hood.”

Here’s the video of my sermon if you wish to watch it:

Comments welcome!

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2015 in hell

 

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