As I’ve been reflecting on the doctrine of hell, I’ve checked out a few resources; most recently, I got through Four Views on Hell, part of the Counterpoints: Bible and Theology series by Zondervan. If you aren’t familiar with the series, a number of contributors with different theological opinions weigh in with a chapter, and the other contributors put together a brief response to each others’ argument. The four views in this edition are:
The Literal View (John F. Walvoord)
The Metaphorical View (William Crockett)
The Purgatorial View (Zachary J. Hayes)
The Conditional View (Clark Pinnock)
I previously shared some of Pinnock’s view expressed in another piece he wrote. Pinnock taught at McMaster Divinity College (where I received my M.Div.) for the bulk of his career, but had retired before I began studies there, so I never had him as prof., but his legacy hangs around MacDiv in a way you can actually feel. So I may have a bias toward him out of respect for his role in countless colleagues’ theological development. But I try to give a fair shot to contrasting opinions.
Now, on to the content of the book.
In the first section, Walvoord presents the case for a literal reading of hell: those who reject Jesus Christ will experience an eternity of suffering in fire and torment. In this view, God is righteous judge, and must therefore punish those who have rejected him. Walvoord suggests that only exegesis of relevant passages can be used in such a debate, and therefore we cannot use historical theology in the formation of this doctrine, and that all Scripture should be interpreted literally. Therefore, he concludes that anyone who does not accept literal hellfire is rejecting the authority of the bible. He suggests that sin has infinite consequences (he alludes to the “infinite nature of sin” and that those who reject eternal conscious torment obviously lack understanding of sin and righteousness), and therefore, the punishment which God as judge must pour out is eternal conscious torment.
In the second section, Crockett outlines what is probably the “majority view” of evangelicals. Hell is eternal, and conscious punishment, but not necessarily literal flames. Hell is a place where those who have rebelled against God experience torment in some sense, but the imagery of fire and darkness are given metaphorically. Hell is unpleasant, but not a sulphurous lake of fire. He recognizes the use of apocalyptic imagery, which should not be taken as literal fire. It is an attempt to depict for the hearers the severity of the situation, by using the most frightening imagery available in the culture- hence the reference to gehenna, the valley outside Jerusalem, where evil kings once sacrificed humans to Molech in the fires, and where judgment would be doled out. The final wrath of God poured out would be as awful as that stinking, burning, terrible hole.
In the purgatorial view, Hayes argues that hell is a purification- a purging of sin. Those who die with sin which has not been atoned for, must suffer a suitable punishment, which is not retributive. This he argues resolves the dualism of Heaven and Hell. If all things are made new, and Jesus is victorious over sin, how can sinners be held forever with no escape even in a quarantined space? God himself is the final destination of all, not here or there. As a result all have a chance of ultimately being freed from purgatory and coming to the presence of God.
The fourth part is Pinnock’s defense of the conditional or annihilationist view. Pinnock argues that the New Testament presents us with the teaching that those who ultimately reject the grace and mercy of God will be destroyed and cease to exist. He draws out the theme of “destruction” from many texts on eschatalogical judgment, and argues that metaphysically, since only God is immortal, we should not assume that all people will exist forever in this place or that. God grants eternal life to those who believe and those who do not experience the punishment of being destroyed, never to return into existence.
So naturally what most theologically engaged folks want to know is who “wins” the debate. Well… that depends on how you determine a “winner”. Much like the recent presidential debates in the US, there will different interpretations of winners and losers. Fox News suggests Romney decimated Obama, whereas MSNBC tells us that Obama clearly demonstrated that Romney’s “facts” are out of whack with reality. Almost makes you wonder if they were watching the same discussion. Readers of 4 Views on Hell will likely suggest that their preferred view is the best argued. So, as someone still not declaring definitively in one camp or the other, here’s my assessment of the arguments (please note, I am evaluating the defense of the position, not the position itself right now). Personally, I would suggest that the best argument is a toss up between Crockett and Pinnock.
Walvoord is clearly the worst argued. This isn’t to say he is certainly wrong, he has simply failed to put forward a convincing case. His general argument is that the bible says “eternal fire” so therefore, we must conclude that hell is eternal conscious torment in flames. Anyone who suggests otherwise rejects biblical authority and is misreading what is clearly there. This simplistic hermeneutic is something I find unwise. He suggests that “destruction” “consumed” and “perish” point to conscious torment forever (see esp. pg. 21 & 27). How he can make this leap is not demonstrated. How does one experience on going destruction without end?
Walvoord’s response to each of the other 3 is to reiterate that these authors reject biblical authority. He writes in his chapter “those who follow Scripture strictly view hell as a punishment that is everlasting”. Do all who follow Scripture strictly come to that conclusion? Pinnock certainly follows Scripture, but it leads him to a different conclusion. Even after Pinnock and Crockett devote large portions to careful, deliberate exegesis, Walvoord insists that they have rejected biblical authority, an argument I find hard to believe; they simply draw different conclusions from the exegesis. Different exegetical conclusion does not mean exegesis hasn’t happened. Walvoord suggests that because they share an opinion with the “liberals” and unorthodox groups (e.g. Watchtower and Seventh Day Adventists) they therefore must be wrong. Pinnock may be controversial in his views, but he is certainly not someone who does not take Scripture seriously. But in reaction to Crockett, Walvoord says, “The Metaphorical View raises questions about the accuracy and inerrancy of Scripture” (pg. 77). Even though Walvoord and Crockett agree in terms of duration, the rejection of torment by fire is rejection of biblical authority. This idea that there is one way to interpret biblical texts is dangerous.
This is not to say a strong case can’t be made for that interpretation. I’m saying Walvoord does not present a strong case. Other defenses of this view have proven better argued.
As for Hayes, the biggest issue is the obvious one- lack of Scriptural basis. He uses the Church Fathers, Origen in particular, but depends on Catholic Tradition from the Medieval period, and philosophical argumentation. This presents a serious problem right away, as it dismisses the biblical teaching that those who believe receive eternal life. Although many of us who believe unrepentant folks should be punished still abhor the thought of a merciful God tormenting sinners forever, this view which may satisfy some but it is clearly not something presented in Scripture, or even in anteNicean thought other than Origen.
Now, for Pinnock- he is typically accused of turning from orthodoxy toward alternative views which reject Scripture. He was accused of appealing to sentimentalism when he rejected conscious torment. He admits he is emotional about it, and he argues he should be. The thought of countless billions of people suffering agonizing torture in a lake of fire for all eternity should evoke an emotional response. However, Pinnock does not simply argue from that emotion. He surveys both the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate that the Scriptures do not present the idea that all souls will exist forever in heaven or in hell, but that eternal life belongs to God alone. The idea of immortal souls is an aspect Greek thought, leaked into Christian teaching. He covers multiple texts which state that those who reject God will be “destroyed” or “consumed”. He argues that “eternal” refers to the idea that the decision of God is irreversible, that once destroyed, there is no coming back. He credits Augustine, not Scripture with the decisive turn to the “traditional” view of hell.
Pinnock clearly takes the Scriptural teaching seriously citing a host of passages which support his view (Ps. 37; Mal. 4:1-2; Mt. 3:10-12, 10:28, 13:30, 42-50; 1 Cor. 3:17; Phil. 1:28, 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:8-9; 2 Pet. 2:1-6, 3:7 to name a few). So suffice to say, Pinnock is not without a biblical basis.
However, there is this pesky business of Matt. 25:46 and Rev. 14:10-11. These two seem to imply that in some sense, the punishment is ongoing. It could be considered apocalyptic hyperbole, or in the case of the Matthew verse, that the punishment of non-existence is never ending (i.e. gone, never to return). However, that seems unnatural to the choice of wording. Pinnock’s biggest weakness is in dealing with these two passages (See pages 156-7). He suggests that there is sufficient room to make an exegtical stand that the smoke goes up forever as an eternal reminder of the destruction which has happened, or that Rev. 14 does not refer to the final judgment in Rev. 21. In other words, Pinnock is suggesting that the burning described in Rev. 14 is not something which happens forever, but for a time, but has an eternal memory. Similarly, he suggests that Matthew 25:46 does not refer to the nature and duration of eternal life and eternal punishment, but that the decision of God on Judgment Day will stand forever. This is not completely satisfactory.
Crockett on the other hand does take this apparent eternal duration into account, and uses them well. He argues that although the fire may not be literal fire, but there is punishment which is ongoing forever. Crockett catches the metaphorical language of the New Testament and it’s Jewish antecedents which point to a variety of awful consequences for the enemies of God. The contrasting images of fire and darkness (e.g. Jude 13) seem to direct us to conclude that these are not literal (how can a lake of fire be a place of darkness?) but earthly images of eschatalogical realities. Hell will be awful, but there are not earthly means to convey what it will be like. So the image of gehenna comes to the fore- the valley outside Jerusalem, which some sources depict as a nasty dump of refuse and the corpses of criminals, left to burn and rot. This stinking, burning mess is the worst place a Jew could imagine, so it became the earthly reminder of how bad it will be for those who oppose God. This view takes into account the genre of apocalyptic litterature, and takes seriously literary and rhetorical devices as well as historical context, by taking the literature of the time of Jesus seriously. He concedes that several Jewish sources depict annihilation, but many, like 1 & 2 Enoch (2 Enoch even refers to a “black fire”, fusing the image of hellfire and outer darkness) clearly express that gehenna is an everlasting place of torture and torment.
So, overall, if you are looking for a successful defense of literal hellfire, this is not the best source. The holes in Walvoord’s argument a easily detectable. He makes claims without evidence, and argues like a stubborn school yard child- no, I’m right, you’re wrong, I can’t hear you, lalalala. He refuses to see the care with which Crockett and Pinnock exegete the relevant texts, as well as make use of broader biblical and systematic theology to probe how hell lines up with the characterization of God. Hell as burning torment forever is a tough sell if you view God as “gracious and merciful” (Ex. 34:6), and Walvoord doesn’t demonstrate a way to reconcile this predicament.
On the flip side, this is not the most comprehensive study of conditionalism available, and its greatest strength, may also be its greatest weakness- passion. Pinnock rarely, if ever, takes a detached scholarly approach to his subject matter. He writes from a place of passion, emotion, and desire to know and open eyes to knowledge. Given the subject matter, emotion is warranted, but other scholars use that to dismiss the content of his argument as raw emotion and not careful and objective examination.
Overall, I find Pinnock’s argument the most compelling of these four, but there is hesitancy in me to dismiss Crockett. The conditional view, which was so maligned just 25 years ago now has significantly more support in the evangelical community, with heavy hitters like Pinnock and Stott taking up this position, as well as a few more recent arguments from John Stackhouse, and the folks who contribute to Rethinking Hell.
This has probably “shown my hand” as they say- as one leaning toward the conditional view, but not completely convinced either way. Ultimately, God is Sovereign, and his will will be done. I find it impossible to believe salvation hangs on this doctrine. Whether I believe God torments sinners forever, or destroys them does not change the fact that my desire is to see His Kingdom come, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.