Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Turn or burn: Hell hath no fury...for those who are redeemed. But for everyone else? Well...

“You go to H - E - Double Hockey Sticks!”

As a kid, shouting this epithet when we were angry with a playmate was about the most evil thing we could imagine. And if one of our parents ever heard us, ears were boxed and bottoms were swatted.

It was not an epithet to use lightly or often. We all knew what hell was and we had no desire to go there.

Cartoons and comics tended to trivialize hell with depictions of demons as horned and tailed munchkins prodding sinners through flame-dotted caves. But we knew better.

And, of course, people were always declaring they were going to have or had a “hell of a good time.”

Every time I heard this I thought, “Buddy, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” In fact, I still think that.

Hell is no party and there’s nothing about it that’s cute or humorous.

Yet, the exact nature of hell and how long its torments will be endured are not entirely settled.

So, we need excellent books such as Four Views on Hell (Zondervan).

Civil discourse on a hot topic

There was a time when I had no idea there was more than one way to consider hell: It was hot and you would burn forever without burning up. Something kind of like the burning bush, on fire but not consumed.

While that’s the traditional view, it’s not the only view of hell that can be garnered from a careful reading of the Bible.

In Four Views on Hell, four thoughtful theologian/writers present their differing views very cogently and reasonably, all well-grounded in Scripture. And they each take turns rebutting one another. With civility and respect.

(Wow! What a concept! Agreeing to disagree and doing so with civility and respect!)

As with a few other areas of doctrine, the idea of hell is not clearly delineated in the Bible. There are some good hints, but at no point does the Bible state definitively, exactly, and comprehensively what hell will and won’t be like.

It’s akin to the differing views on other biblical hot buttons. A strong case can be made for each of four main views of Revelation (Historicist, Preterist, Futurist, Idealist). Or the end times (Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, Amillennialism). Or even the two primary Christian theological traditions (Calvinism and Amrinianism).

In fact, one of my former pastors, a brilliant man and a staunch advocate of expository preaching through one book of the Bible at a time, explained how he approached dealing with Calvinism and Amrinianism. He stated simply, “Whatever view the Bible passage supports is what I preach.” I can’t argue with that.

So it is for me. While I tend to lean more heavily toward one or another view on various aspects of faith, doctrine, and theology, I can still see the validity of the points others make.  Especially when they’re supported by Scripture.

Yes, on the core essentials I’m solid. But unlike some, on the finer points, I have no problem remaining open to differing ideas, understanding that mystery is sometimes the better place to land.

Pick a hell, any hell

The four views presented are eternal conscious torment (Denny Burk), terminal punishment (John G. Stackhouse, Jr.), universalism (Robin A. Parry), and purgatory (Jerry L. Walls).

Eternal conscious torment is the traditional, most widely held view. In a nutshell, it’s the once in hell, always in hell idea. Those who reject God, refuse Christ’s salvation, and journey though life down the broad way of easy street will end in this hell. The torment will be painful, eternal, never-ending.

Terminal punishment, also referred to as annihilationism, says hell still awaits the unrepentant sinners. However, while painful and punishing, the experience will not last forever. Instead, this view believes that at some point the soul is burnt up and then is no more. Gone without a trace. Poof!

Universalism, on the other hand, goes to the opposite extreme. Again, there’s still some experience of hell for those who say no to God in their lifetimes. But, through a process of purification, some way somehow, eventually, everyone at some point after death will say yes to God and be redeemed. In other words, all (meaning truly all mankind) will be saved. This is probably the most controversial position.

Finally, there’s the oddity of purgatory. It’s odd because it’s not really a form of hell so much as a form of limbo that eventually leads to heaven. In other words, those who go in are partially but not quite sanctified, endure some sort of final processing (postmortem sanctification), and then are graduated to heaven. There is no exit to hell.

These summaries are heavily simplified as opposed to each of the cogent, reasonable, grounded-in-the-Bible views presented.

Even the treatment of universalism, in the words of the editor, Preston M. Sprinkle, “has brought what is often assumed to be a heretical view in the arena of biblical exegesis and theology.”

While I still hold to the traditional view, each of the authors challenged my thinking in positive ways. This is definitely a worthwhile read.

The Counterpoint Series

This is only one of several titles in the Counterpoint Series published by Zondervan. Several of the other titles also present differing views on topics such as the book of Revelation, sanctification, eternal security, the Apostle Paul, and much more.

As with this book on hell, each title offers a fair and balanced look at the topics. Each author presents their specific view followed by the brief rebuttals of each of the other authors.

The books lean a little toward the academic but are very accessible to the layman. You won’t need a seminary degree to read, understand, and appreciate the books.

While it’s conceivable that these books could be used in a small group, in my opinion they are better suited to individual study. If used in a group, I recommend it be lead by a mature and knowledgeable person with clear ground rules established regarding respectful discourse.

Agreeing to disagree with civility

As Sprinkle states in his conclusion to the book, “none of the four authors deny the existence of hell.” Likewise, all four most probably can affirm the Apostles’ Creed, and with minor exceptions, many other historic creeds and confessions of the church.

Regardless of their specific views on hell, none deny the need for the transformative grace of God given through the blood of Christ and worked out in our lives by the Holy Spirit. None are heretics.

Despite differences of opinion on finer points of theology, as do these four authors, we can stand in unity on the essentials, exhibit the tolerant and holy love of Christ, and agree to disagree without doing harm to one another or the Gospel.

This book and others like it should serve as examples for maintaining practical unity within the tension of disagreement.

As for hell, no matter what exactly it turns out to be like, I’m absolutely certain it’s not a place I have any interest in visiting. Nor should you.


NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: I selected this book to review and received it free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The motto of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) is “In Essentials, Unity. In Non-Essentials, Liberty. In All Things, Charity. Truth in Love.” Can you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Do you believe in hell? Why or why not? What do you think hell will be like? How have you come to form your view of hell? By reading the Bible? Through how hell is portrayed via the popular media (books, movies, comics, etc.)? Are you concerned that you might end up in hell? Why or why not? Do you believe that it’s essential to hold only one view of hell? What single view of hell do you believe is the correct one? Why? Do you believe those who hold a different view of hell are still Christians? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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