four views on hell

Zondervan’s new Four Views on Hell is another stellar volume in an already valuable series. I probably assign too many of these “views books” in my classes, but I don’t know of a more economical way to put in students’ hands the best, and most current arguments, from all sides. I finished this one in time for our class discussion tomorrow, and I will encourage students to get and ponder it (and next semester will no doubt be assigning it).

Each of the four views builds on a different foundation. Denny Burk grounds the traditional view of everlasting conscious punishment on ten individual biblical texts. John Stackhouse largely bases his annihilationism on the character of God (a holy and benevolent God would send people to hell but would mercifully allow them to go out of existence after sufficiently paying for their sin). Robin Parry grounds his universalism on the larger metanarrative of Scripture (God’s redemption must be as large as creation or it is not complete). And Jerry Walls bases his Protestant view of purgatory on the writings of C. S. Lewis.

This last point is similar to Greg Boyd’s chapter in Zondervan’s Four Views on the Historical Adam. When evangelicals want to make a point with scant biblical support, they seem to think it is sufficient to find favorable quotes in C. S. Lewis. I enjoy Lewis as much as most people, but it’s good to remember he was not a theologian. Not only is Lewis not equal to Scripture, neither is he an expert.

I hold the traditional view of everlasting conscious punishment, as does everyone where I teach (the last line of the Cornerstone Confession begins, “The lost will experience everlasting conscious separation from God as the just punishment for their sin”). But I still learned from Stackhouse, Parry, and Walls as they interacted with Burk’s traditional arguments. We traditionalists must be careful not to read too much into the biblical texts. While there are compelling reasons to believe Scripture teaches everlasting conscious punishment, it is possible to coherently read many of the texts in an annihilationist way. Still, it is hard to believe Stackhouse when he says annihilationism “enjoys about as strong a warrant in Scripture as I have seen can be offered for any doctrine” (62). Really? Then I am a seriously bad reader!

For my money, the two Scripture passages that most clearly teach everlasting conscious punishment are Revelation 14:11 and 20:10. So I was most interested in how Stackhouse and Parry would handle those (Walls believes in everlasting conscious punishment, but with the possibility of getting saved and leaving hell). Stackhouse notes Revelation is apocalyptic literature that “is typically extravagant, poetical, and allusive.” The terrible description in Revelation 20 is God explaining that the worst sinners (i.e., Satan, the beast, and the false prophet) will suffer in the worst way imaginable. But God is speaking in “poetry” rather than “metaphysics” (74). Of course, this hermeneutic cuts both ways. If Stackhouse is correct, it begs the question whether God’s descriptions of the glories of the new earth are equally exaggerated.

Regarding Rev. 14:11, Stackhouse says “the damned enjoying ‘no rest day or night’” means they are “doomed never to enjoy [God’s Sabbath] rest.” It doesn’t necessarily mean they will remain alive to suffer forever. Parry says both Rev. 14:11 and 20:10-15 “are followed by salvation postscripts” that imply everyone involved will eventually be saved (123-24). I’m not sure if Parry thinks Satan himself will ultimately be reconciled to God (though this seems to be implied in his exegesis), but Stackhouse suggests the devil will eventually at least be annihilated (78).

I am not persuaded by their arguments, though I am glad to have read them. There is much more to chew on in this book, such as the love and justice of God, what our sins deserve, the possibility of post-mortem salvation (and why the Bible doesn’t hint at this), a Protestant view of purgatory, and of course, C. S. Lewis! If you want to see the strengths and weaknesses of all the views, this is the book to get. Big thanks to Preston Sprinkle for organizing and editing this stimulating conversation.







7 responses to “four views on hell”

  1. This is not to be obnoxious or snarky. This is a real question. Also, I am not a universalist.

    Does Calvinism (as traditionally defined by TULIP) have an advantage over universalism in regard to motivation for evangelism?

    What I’m getting at is that in both cases the actual make up of the populations of heaven and hell are determined without regard to whether or not I evangelize (divine determinism). The only real difference seems to be the fleshing out exactly what the quantity is that go to each destination.

    As I understand it, the typical Calvinist response to why they evangelize is on the grounds of a Compatibilism view of divine sovereignty and human freedom. That is, an appeal to “mystery,” but also to a sense in which God is being gracious to me in allowing me to participate in His bringing about the salvation of His elect.

    My contention is that the universalist has the same recourse and that tradition Calvinism has no advantage. What say you?

    P.S. I attend Sparta Baptism Church where Nate Wagner, Ben Taylor, and Steve Lister are ministers/pastors. They all speak highly of you.

  2. mikewittmer

    Good question, Stephen. The universalist’s motivation would be to start the party early. Everyone is going to be saved in the end, but they can’t celebrate that now if they don’t know about it. So universalists enjoy telling people they’re already in. Non-universalistic Calvinist’s motivation would be to be the means God may use to rescue someone from hell. Hell is a real and present danger for everyone, and we don’t want anyone to go there.

    Of course, some universalists are also Calvinists (see Karl Barth), in which case the universalist’s motivation overrides the Calvinist motivation cited above.

  3. Maybe I’m ignorant, but within Calvinism Hell never seems to be a “real” possibility for the elect, but merely an “apparent” one. That is, there never is any chance an elect individual could ever actually end up in Hell.

    God seems to save who God will save regardless of the decisions of the evangelizer or evangelized in either case.

    I guess my main point in asking these question is to make the point that the apparent lack of motivation for evangelism within the evangelical universalist paradigm is only as strong of a defeater for it as it is for classical, High Calvinism.

    Mostly just trying to get someone else’s take on the issue.

  4. Charlie

    Hello Stephen,

    The same arguments you present have been presented by others in the past. Hopefully this quick response will help clarify some issues. First, no responsible Calvinist would ever say they know who the elect actually are. For Calvinists this means hell is still a real possible reality but this does not change the fact that those God has chosen He will uphold to the end. This means your question about hell and Calvinism is more of a question how does a Calvinist know if they or someone else has have been chosen? How exactly someone knows here and now that they are saved is an issue every theology of salvation struggles with, including both Calvinism and Arminianism. The only way a person will have definitive and irrevocable warrant that they are saved is when they hear Christ pronounce that they are His.
    Second, the majority of Calvinists do not view preaching the gospel through words and deeds as a waste of time because Scripture clearly teaches the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandments. John Calvin even founded one of the first schools for Protestant missionaries! As a Calvinist, I do believe Christians follow our Lord’s commands out of gratitude for what Christ has done but Christians are also called to love others and there is no greater way to love others than sharing the good news that Christ is Lord!
    Third, your argument that Calvinists believe, “God seems to save who God will save regardless of the decisions of the evangelizer or evangelized in either case,” is flawed. This is not Calvinism and is an example of determinism or fatalism. While its detractors have accused Calvinism of being these the accusations do not have warrant.
    Fourth, the apparent lack of zeal for evangelism is not a Calvinist problem it is an American Christian problem. Christianity has exploded in other nations which means they do not lack motivation to evangelize! Therefore, as American Christians we need to evaluate if we are being unduly influenced by our culture. (Hint: the answer is yes.)

  5. Hey Charlie,

    I am not sure how you can believe in TULIP and not believe in divine determinism, at least in regard to salvation.

    The key issue is “fatalism.” You have caught on to one possible point my argument might take on, namely, that Calvinism leads to fatalism. However, that is not what I am arguing. In fact, I am arguing the opposite.
    My contention is that Calvinism does NOT lead to fatalism in regard to the proclamation of the gospel. But, I go even further and argue that evangelical universalism holds to every eschatological fact (in regard to election) as High Calvinism does excepting the quantity of the elect.

    My point is this: neither High Calvinism nor evangelical universalism lead to fatalism in regard to evangelism.

    I am not an evangelical universalist, but I am intrigued by the similarities of it to High Calvinism and am looking to interact with more people on these issues.

  6. Don

    I think the most powerful verses that reveal eternal consequences to our life response to Jesus Christ are the Sermon on the mount. How graphic can you get. If your eye offends you pluck it out than go to hell with an eye that leads you there through lust. Or better to have a millstone hung around your neck then offend the innocent ones. Jesus is constantly using graphic clear jolting words to show us not to play games with our eternal soul. That kind of scratches off the list universalism and purgatory — because one – everything works out — and the other one you get a second chance. What I’ve learned to focus on when people want to argue about whether it is a conscious eternal suffering in hell or annihilation – is to remind everyone that eternal separation from God or annihilation are both UNTHINKABLE OUTCOMES — no one can even comprehend non-existence – or existence in torment forever — that’s the point – take seriously the gift of your life and don’t waste it. God made a gracious way that restores His original purpose take advantage of it – don’t be a knuckle head.

  7. Posts such as this one are more valuable than you may know. I’m scrambling to preach on eschatology and it is hard to keep up with what all is coming out.

    I just posted 6 areas of End Times Agreement:

    I currently have a list of 17 End Times Errors – – though I haven’t posted that one yet.

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