Thanks to the folks running the Hellbound? facebook page who posted a link to the Southern Baptist Covention’s Resolution on Hell (June 2011). This was published in response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins published a few months prior.
I doubt anyone would be surprised by the SBC stance. It’s precisely what I presumed it would be; a defense of eternal conscious torment in hell. So why bother even noticing it? Why comment on it? Well, firstly the rhetoric here is not encouraging. They stop short of calling Bell a heretic, which less severe than some. But there is an implication there, by calling him out publicly. They do take the approach of here’s our take. Which, is pretty good, especially for SBC. But still, I’m not comfortable with this approach.
Also, it really shows us how evangelicals use Scripture sometimes. It demonstrates something rather troubling- a misreading of Scripture- an attempt to read the traditional view of hell into texts where it may not be warranted. Often we see Scripture references on doctrinal stuff like this, and assume that the statement is thus biblical. “Oh, he’s got multiple Scripture references, he must know the answer”. This is naive at best. Pull out a bible with me and let’s see if their argument holds up or if it’s simply a case of misreading what the bible really says.
The Bible clearly teaches that God will judge the lost at the end of the age (Matthew 25:41-46; 2 Peter 2:9; Revelation 20:11-15)
Correct. It is stated in those verses God will judge everyone (but not just the lost). So far, we’re starting well in building a case.
God must judge the unregenerate because He is a holy God whose judgments are altogether righteous (Psalm 96:10; Romans 2:1-5; Revelation 15:3)
First God “must”? Must he? Does being holy mean he “must” judge the unregenerate (again, he judges the regenerate too)? We are called to be holy (and we are made holy by Christ) and we are commanded not to judge (Matt. 7:1-5). Holiness and judgment are not necessarily connected. Yes, God is holy and he is judge. But he is not judge because he is holy. Holiness does not compel him to judge.
Psalm 96:10 says he will judge with equity. Verse 13 states righteous in his judgment (Hebrew tsedeq). Verse 10 uses meshar (equity, evenness). Ok, maybe that’s nitpicking, but nevertheless. My point is that this is reckless connecting the dots. Hell is necessary because God is holy? Hell is biblical because God is a righteous judge? Even if this is the case, the SBC has failed to demonstrate it biblically.
Now, this is where things get really messy:
The Scriptures affirm that this judgment of the unconverted is a judgment unto conscious, eternal suffering apart from the steadfast love and grace of God (Matthew 7:23; 25:46; Luke 16:22-25; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10)
First off, I get riled up when I see Luke 16 mentioned in a discussion on hell. It’s a parable- i.e. not literal. Secondly, hell is not actually there. Some translations have hell in verse 23, but it’s actually Hades, not Gehenna. (See part 2 for discussion of terminology)
Secondly, 2 Thess. 1:9 is actually a pillar of the annihilationist argument- as it states “eternal destruction”. Eternal destruction, not eternal punishment, (which is the wording of Mt. 25:46) shut out from the presence of God. If God is omnipresent, then being shut out of his presence (which is the language of Mt. 7:23) would require that spatial existence ends. Mt. 25:46 and 2 Thess. 1:9 really hits at the heart of the debate. Realistically, Mt. 25:46 is the only place where eternal conscious torment can find some ground. However, it’s not that simple. Yes, Mt. 25:46 says “eternal punishment”. The Greek kolasis (punishment) however, carries a variety of possibilities. In classical Greek, kolasis refers to corrective punishment. In the verb form, kolazo refers to pruning or lopping off, to curb or restrain. There is another word for retributive punishment, timoria not used here, and is only used once in the New Testament- Hebrews 10:29, which is in reference to those who continue in deliberate sin after coming to the knowledge of truth. These can expect fire which “will consume the enemies of God” (consume in this case is from the verb for to eat or devour).* So, while Mt. 25:46 can be seen to refer to eternal conscious torment, I am not willing to hang a doctrine on it.
Jesus Christ and the apostles, out of their love for lost people, affirmed the reality of Hell in their own preaching to urge sinners to receive the grace of God, to repent of their sins, and to believe the gospel, and thereby to enter into abundance of eternal life (Matthew 10:28; John 10:10; Acts 17:30-31)
Ok, Mt. 10:28 is the only one of these verses which even mentions hell, and in that case, Jesus warns that God can destroy (Greek apollumi an intensified version of ollymi [kill or destroy] which hence means “utterly destroy”) body and soul in hell. Hardly helps the argument. Yeah, Jesus talked about hell, but what did he actually say about it?
John 10:10 says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”. Again, kill and destroy (apollumi). No mention of conscious torment or eternity or hell (the word hell occurs nowhere in John). As for the Apostles- well, we only have two mentions of hell in Acts through Revelation (James 3:6 & 2 Peter 2:4). Acts 17:30-31… well there is no mention what the result of the judgment will be, simply that Jesus will be the one to deliver a judgment.
So, am I saying the SBC is definitely wrong when it comes to their stance on hell? No. Not definitely. I am simply saying the case they presented is weak. The biblical evidence is not as solid as many would have us believe. To make absolute statements with this evidence is unconvincing. There is simply to much room for “reasonable doubt”.
It should be noted that I am not defending Rob Bell’s position. I haven’t read Love Wins yet. I have yet to see a universalist present a strong biblical case either. Part of the point of doing this series is to reflect openly and honestly about my uncertainty (a holy tension, if you will) regarding this issue. We hang our hats on too little at times. We reduce our arguments to this verse or that verse, while somewhere along the way, lose sight of the God with whom we have fellowship, and our pursuit of Him gets sidetracked so we can attack someone else whose interpretation differs. This breaks up the fellowship of God with his people and the unity of the Church.
*Here, I am using Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: Harper & Bros, 1887 [kolazo p. 352-3; kolassis p. 353; timoria p. 624]) and biblos.com.