What would a discussion of hell be without some reference to Mark Driscoll? (If you aren’t familiar with Driscoll, he’s the always controversial lead Pastor of Mars Hill Church, and a key advocate of the “New Reformed” movement of evangelicals with a Calvinist emphasis). Driscoll published his thoughts on the Resurgence blog last year. Now, Driscoll is not exactly known for air-tight theology (he’s a pastor not a scholar, but then again, so am I). But he has an audience and a large following (whatever you think of him, you have to admire his ability to gain listeners). Driscoll is an advocate for the traditional view of hell (i.e. eternal conscious torment for unrepentant sinners). He states his aim in that post is “Rather than selling you, I will seek to simply be honest and say what the Bible says and allow you to make up your mind for yourself.” Ok, good approach. Let’s hope he follows that.
The first place he turns is Luke 16:19-31, a parable not actually about hell. Odd. But anyway. He states that Jesus has more to say about hell than anyone else in the bible. Ok, true, but how much does Jesus really say about hell (check out part 2 of this series which goes into the passages in which Jesus speaks about hell by name)? He speaks of judgment, wrath, destruction, etc. for the wicked. But he rarely gives details of hell. Yes, Jesus warns that punishment awaits those who reject him, but does that mean Jesus stated eternal conscious torment?
A day is coming when God will judge the living and the dead through the Son. When the Son of Man comes to sit on his throne, all will stand before him for judgment. From the beginning of creation to the end, the Bible makes it clear that the basis of God’s judgment is our deeds.
Jesus made this very clear, saying in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Jesus’ death propitiated God’s wrath against sin. Those who refuse this gift have the double penalty of wrath for their sins and for rejecting God’s Son. Jesus himself taught this in John 3:18, saying, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Unlike Jesus’ words to the sheep, to the goats on his left he will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Ok, first of all “propitiated”? Seriously? That’s the word you’re going to choose? Secondly, “double penalty”? Seriously?
But he continues:
However, this does not mean that the relatively nice sinner suffers equally with Satan or his most committed human servants. There are degrees of punishment in hell like there are degrees of reward in heaven. Both in life and in hell some sins receive more severe punishment, because that is just.
Ok, where does the bible say that?
Driscoll’s portait of God in this seems out of line with a “God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). If hell is like that, God becomes vindictive, hostile, and petty- evil even.
When I read the passages on judgment I see precious little detail regarding the nature of this punishment. I see metaphorical language and imagery used. Nowhere do I see it plainly laid out that the wicked feel physical torment forever. There is ambiguous language everywhere. For instance, is “eternal punishment” (used only once- Mt. 25:46) indicative of a punishment of physical and spiritual torment which goes on for eternity or can it be read to mean they are punished through destruction never to return again? Both options are possible.
But how does that hold up against statements like 2 Thess. 1:9: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” If the wicked are destroyed, how can they remain in a state of torment? And if they are “shut out from the presence of the [omnipresent?] Lord” how can they remain somewhere/anywhere? Driscoll states:
Satan will not reign there. Hell is a place of punishment that God prepared for the Devil and his angels. It is where the beast and the false prophet and those who worship them will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.
I do agree with on the first sentence. The pop theology of hell as Satan’s kingdom, where he rules over the wicked is unbiblical. But here’s the issue: given the common evangelical stance on sin vs. holiness, how can sin remain eternally in God’s presence as part of the new creation? If all things are being made new (Rev. 21:5) then how can this evil remnant of the old order be kept? Clearly we have to wrestle with this passage (Driscoll is quoting, but not citing Rev. 14:10-11). What is the nature of Revelation 14, and can we see in it a depiction of the final judgment of all the wicked? Because of the apocalyptic nature of the passage, we can’t assume (as Driscoll does) that Revelation 14:10-11 is a clear statement that God keeps all unrepentant sinners conscious forever in order to torment them. In order for them to remain conscious, an act of God would be required. Would a merciful God resurrect and maintain wicked people to torment them, especially since, as Sovereign, he has other options at his disposal?
Destruction shows up frequently in Scripture, as was shown by Stott and Pinnock in Pts. 6 & 7 of this series. The fact that Driscoll says “In summary, annihilationism is not biblical.” shows a closed mindedness. Stott, Pinnock and others have given biblical defenses, while not 100% conclusive are clearly biblically based. The fact is we have a serious tension we have to work around. It may require we go back into the bible and read it over and over to wrap our heads around what is really being said. Instead of reading passages looking for eternal conscious torment or annihilationism, we need to simply read. Read it. Soak it up. ALL OF IT. Don’t just read Matthew 25, Revelation 14 and 20. Don’t read single verses. Read those verses within the broader context. Try some other verses you might not have considered. Maybe these:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Matt. 7:13)
“Do not 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.” (Matt. 10:28)
“many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction” (Phil. 3:18b-19a)
“This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.” (Phil. 1:28)
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:26)
“By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” (2 Pet. 3:7)
Driscoll’s insistence that hell must be understood a certain way misses the point. The fact that we have this muddled collection which uses different language (torment, destruction, perishing, punishment, etc.) suggests that perhaps the doctrine of hell should look more like our doctrine of the trinity- we know it’s a reality, but we don’t know how it holds together. There must remain room for holy mystery. The difference between the doctrines of trinity and hell being, I do not believe that our salvation hangs on what we believe about hell. Christians can (and do) hold to varying perspectives on hell and it does not impede their ability to love and serve Christ. Given the way the way biblical evidence falls, I find it tough to hold absolutely and exclusively to one or the other (there are of course varying ways to understand eternal conscious torment and annihilationism, so there are more than the two camps).
I am still reluctant to take a side in this debate, yet (to be brutally open and honest, I do see more in the annihilationist perspective which draws me, but there remains tensions). However, I know when I read Driscoll’s vision (“Hell will be ruled by Jesus, and human and demon alike, including Satan, will be tormented there continually. Hell is real and terrible. It is eternal. There is no possibility of amnesty or reprieve.”) something doesn’t sit right at all. The way he uses scripture strikes me as irresponsible. Whenever I see a discussion of hell including Luke 16:19-31, I find it hard to take the argument seriously. For the record, that is a parable, and it does not make any mention of the final judgment of people. It is meant to emphasize the need for repentence on this side of death.
His bullet point rundown of “the Bible’s teaching on the pain of hell” is just weird. Read those verses (in context preferably). You should see something odd. For instance, John 5:28-29 says nothing about pain and suffering. Matthew 3:12 is chopped up, and he only uses the phrase “burned with unquenchable fire”… read the whole verse; chaff does not burn eternally; it is consumed (see Heb. 10:27). Rev. 20:10 does not describe the fate of all the wicked, but the devil, the beast and the false prophet (also a metaphorical apocalyptic text, so using it literally is risky at best). This sort of argumentation is common, and misleading.
So, in conclusion, I should state that this isn’t “Driscoll’s doctrine”. He is simply one advocate among many of this position. I just happened to come across it via a post on the Hellbound? movie’s blog (a post which cites pt. 6 of this series!). I shouldn’t pick on Driscoll here, but he is featured in that film’s discussion, and he is a very well known person within the Evangelical world. That’s why I took on his post on the subject. As I noted in the opening, he states he wants to lay out what the bible says, and allow the reader to decide. I don’t think he actually does that. He lays out bits; the bits which back up his position, which he is trying to convince the world of. The fact is that the post is adapted from his book (co-authored with Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe) should alert us to what he’s really doing.