The next four posts will present four views on the nature of hell, which summarize the arguments in the book Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. This post will be part of a broader series on comparative theology within the Christian protestant tradition.
My goal in this series will be to faithfully represent these views as outlined by the authors of the respective chapters. I will avoid, as much as possible, my own editorializing on their arguments.
I’ll save all of my editorializing for the following paragraphs:
My studies in comparative theology, particularly in Seminary, helped me get rid of some of my own unhealthy arrogance and dogmatism around the views that I thought were just so obviously true. That arrogance led me to anathematize fellow believers who took a different view. I believed, falsely, that if someone had a different position on some point of Scripture, that they were rebelling against God and throwing out the Bible. As my world broadened, I met people who sincerely loved the Lord and loved their Bibles and yet came to a different conclusion. My world got messier and I got more humble. My goal in this series on comparative theology will be to introduce others to this messier, but more understanding, world.
One possible danger of this sort of study would be that we would come to the conclusion that the Bible must be inscrutable and throw up our hands in despair. If different theologians and scholars, all who love the Lord and study the Scriptures, come to such radically different conclusions, then what hope is there for the rest of us to know the truth? I hope you don’t come away from this study with that conclusion. While I am coming to respect and understand the various views I plan to cover, that does not mean that I find them all equally strong. I find some arguments presented to be unpersuasive and objectionable. I have my own opinions about which view is most coherent, biblical, and edifying (but I hope you don’t pick up which one from these posts).
Now, on to the topic at hand:
I begin with a series on hell for personal reasons. No other aspect of Christian theology disturbs my thoughts as much as the doctrine of hell. For most of my life, I avoided thinking about it as much as possible. The horror of the traditional view simply overloads my brain.
And yet, it is a topic of immense importance. The doctrine of hell informs the doctrine of God and his justice and vice versa. What does it mean for God to be just and good and loving? The doctrine of hell informs our views on the story of Scripture and vice versa. How will God “wrap up” the story of His creation? What is the purpose and end of creation?
And so, despite my guts revulsion to the topic I decided to, once again, dive in and explore the topic with fresh eyes. Here is a brief summary of the views expressed in the book.
Eternal Conscious Torment: Denny Burk argues for the traditional view, that hell is a place where the wicked will be eternally and justly punished by God. He argues that ten foundational texts show us that this is the nature of hell and that this view can be philosophically reconciled with the justice of an infinite God.
Terminal Punishment: John Stackhouse argues that hell is real and terrible, but that those who go there will not go on suffering eternally, but will eventually be destroyed. He draws heavily on Scriptures that teach the final annihilation of the wicked at the judgment and shows how texts which seem to indicate the traditional view can be reconciled with his view.
Christian Universalism: Robin Parry argues that some people will go to hell but that they will eventually repent and be reconciled to God through Christ. He defends this view by arguing that the big story of the Bible suggests that all creation will finally be reconciled to God.
Purgatory: Jerry Walls presents a defense of purgatory that is distinctively protestant. He argues that purgatory is a place where those under grace go to complete their sanctification so that they can be made fit to fully enjoy heaven. In some ways, Parry’s view is compatible with the other three views, though he concludes his chapter by suggesting a form of universalism.
All the authors argue from a Protestant perspective. They uphold the authority of Scripture and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ. They all believe that God is good, loving, and just. Yet, they come to radically different conclusions. I hope this series will help you gain a better understanding of these views in order to come to a more informed (though possibly messier) conclusion.
In my final post I explain which position I find most compelling.