Book Plunge: Rethinking Hell

What am I thinking about Rethinking Hell? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Several of us don’t want to rethink Hell. To be frank, we don’t want to think about it to begin with. Hell is one of those topics we’d rather not think about until we meet someone who does a hideous crime. This could be something such as an act of terrorism, child abuse, or just as hideous to many of us, someone cutting us off in traffic.

But Hell is a reality. This is something evangelical by and large agree on. There is a Hell and you don’t want to go there. But what is the nature of that Hell? Ah. Now that is the question and that is the question of Rethinking Hell. The traditional view is some kind of eternal torment. There are some who will think of Hell as consisting of actual flames, but this is still a minority view. The main point of the traditional view is that people will eternally exist in some kind of separation from God.

Rethinking Hell wants us to consider that that view is false.

This largely came about through the work of people like Fudge with “The Fire That Consumes” and with the admission of John Stott that he holds the same position, though he wasn’t as forward with it as others. The view is known as evangelical conditionalism. The idea is that God alone has immortality and others have it as a gift. If you do not have that immortality, then eventually, God will do away with your existence.

I am not fully convinced of this view, but at the same time I want it to be clearly stated that I do not doubt the contributors to this volume are less of Christians than I or anyone else is because of this. If these people are outside of the fold, it is because of other reasons. I do not think that having a view of Hell that I consider to be wrong to put one outside the body. This discussion is good for evangelicals. It is one that we should be having. Unlike certain other evangelicals, I prefer to have open discussion on issues of disagreement.

While I am not convinced, this is without a doubt the best case I have read. Still, there is a downside that sometimes it can get repetitious. This is not the fault of the authors so much as this is a collection across time and space. It’s not that they contacted writers who agree and asked them all to write something. The authors have taken writings from people past and present and put them all together so there will be some overlap. (There will be times when you wonder just how many times something can be said about such and such a passage.)

I do wish there had often times been more looking at the Greek and Hebrew words. Sometimes this does happen, but the English translation can often be lacking. There were many times that I was wanting to see a more in-depth look at a word. What is exactly meant by destruction, for instance? As I said, this sometimes happened, but I wanted to see it happen more often.

The whole book does not consist of emotional appeals, which is good, but I did find that when it happened, it didn’t really impress me too much. Some could wonder about how our sin could warrant a certain punishment, but I wonder if we are really seeing the gravity of sin. Every sin is ultimately an attempt to be God. It is wishing that God was dead and that you were on the throne instead. Now I might not like the fault of someone eternally separated from God. No one should. For that matter, I don’t like the thought of someone ceasing to exist! If we were going with what I’d like, it’d be universalism, but it is not the case.

I also would have liked to have seen more on the honor/shame culture of the Biblical writers. I find that too often we have misunderstandings of ideas and words because we impose a Western mindset on them. I would like to look at the passages in question from that perspective. (For instance, I think in the ancient world something was said to not exist when it did not have a function even though it could have ontological existence. Could this affect our view of Hell?)

I found it concerning as well to see Greek philosophy be mentioned. Why? Because while it can be said that some Christians imposed a view of an immortal soul from Greek philosophy, I find that too often, Greek philosophy can be a whipping boy. This works for anti-Christian groups as well like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Trinity supposedly came from Greek philosophy. Jesus mythicists use this as well with the idea that the Christians just copied from the pagan cultures by being influenced by them that much. These kinds of statements do put me on guard.

Finally, with regards to the Old Testament, it is said that much is not said about Hell. This is true. At the same time, not much is said about Heaven as well. If we are to get our view of the afterdeath in that way, then we will end with a bleak afterdeath in the OT. My own thinking is not much was said due to progressive revelation and that frankly, the Israelites were more interested in day to day living and did not have a heavy forward focus.

Still, I do think that this book is worth engaging and will definitely raise good questions. I suppose I would end the way Ben Witherington ended his essay in the book. I am friendly, but not convinced.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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37 Responses to “Book Plunge: Rethinking Hell”

  1. Chris Date Says:

    Thanks for reviewing our book!

  2. alaskazimm Says:

    Have you read Steve Gregg’s “All You Want to Know About Hell”? He goes into the Greek/Hebrew meaning of most of the words in question,

  3. DJ Says:

    I do think the idea of annihilation is orthodox and a Christian can hold to it; however, I am not convinced. I thought the purpose of Hell was to punish sinners for their rebellion against God. If this is true, how can annihilation be true since a person who has been annihilated will have no conscious awareness that he or she is being punished or has ever been punished? To me, annihilation sounds more like euthanasia rather than Divine Justice.

    Just as a side note here, I hold to the view of Hell as one of eternal shame and exclusion from God’s presence; I do not hold to the fire and brimstone “Dante’s Inferno” type Hell.

  4. labreuer Says:

    Are you nerdy enough to know about annealing of metals or simulated annealing? The reason I ask is that it may be useful in talking about the ‘heat’ of hell. Also, it may explain why Adam and Eve wanted clothes—to shield them from the glory of God which might target the parts of them that were corrupted by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Anyhow, I can elaborate if you’re aware of annealing; if not, I’d probably have to write a blog post in your comment section and that’s generally rude. 😐

    • apologianick Says:

      No. I’m not aware of it.

      • labreuer Says:

        Actually, I might be able to explain. Accept as an axiom that impurities in metals or other materials can introduce structural defects which lessen the ability of that material to do things like (a) conduct current; (b) withstand stresses like bending, compression, tension; (c) do whatever else they are good for doing. It turns out that one way to get rid of impurities is to heat up the material and then cool it down, including in a cyclic fashion.

        The Bible speaks of “the refiner’s fire”; this could refer to getting rid of impurities and may even map onto the actual science/engineering of how they are removed. The key is that heat is required. The more stubborn the impurities, the higher the needed heat. Now the analogy: some people will only discard their false beliefs when they suffer enough; Hos 6:1 gets at this. Well, what if we connect ‘suffering’ to ‘heat’?

        Now we’re ready to consider that hell could be God’s last-ditch attempt to remove impurities. The more stubborn and hard-hearted we are, the higher the heat has to be cranked. Another thing that comes out of this is that maybe there is a maximum heat that, if it doesn’t work to turn us around, we simply cease to exist.

        Does this make any sense?

      • apologianick Says:

        It makes sense and I see that especially in Malachi 3, but if we apply it to Hell with modern understanding, I wonder if that could be reading too much into it.

      • labreuer Says:

        I would be careful with trusting “modern understanding” too much. I’m privy to some ground-breaking research in physics which might revolutionize this “modern understanding”, on the Nobel Prize-winning level. Furthermore, “modern understanding” tends to be teleology-destroying, which Donald E. Polkinghorne in Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences exposes as a failed way to model human beings. Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self exposes the failure of naturalism to reduce the individual to a machine—doing so destroys personhood, which is reminiscent of Romans 1:21-23. Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue explains how morality shorn of telos is merely a façade for the Nietzschean imposition of the will by the powerful on the weak. Michael Polanyi destroys the idea of ‘objective science’ in Personal Knowledge, if the measurement problem didn’t do that already. Mortimer Adler exposes quite a few falsities in Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Richard M. Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences and Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry outline how the Enlightenment spurred a change in thinking which emphasized power over nature and power over man to shape both according to feeling, which C.S. Lewis famously critiques in The Abolition of Man.

        So yeah, modernity has given us some awesome things, but it is run through with error, as well. We’re committing the same errors as the 19th century physicists, who warned students away from pursuing a career in physics, claiming that all that was left was janitorial work. This is an arrogance which can probably be associated with idolatry: trusting in knowledge and things instead of the person of Jesus Christ. Note that when one trusts in knowledge and things, one must delude oneself into thinking one understands them well enough so that they can be a rock, instead of the sand Jesus describes in Mt 7:24-27.

      • apologianick Says:

        I have no opposition to physics. My concern is that of reading the text with a knowledge foreign to the text. I wish to try as much as I can to speak in the language the ancients would have. That’s why I interpret the fire as the fire of shame and judgment.

      • labreuer Says:

        Job clearly understood something about metallurgy; see the beginning of Job 28. The notion of having heat up metal and do other things to get the impurities to come out was known.

      • apologianick Says:

        He did? But did the average person? Not so sure. Yet the average person understood honor and shame. They lived it every day. The language used regularly of Heaven and Hell was the language of honor and shame. For Hell, that covers weeping and gnashing of teeth as well.

      • labreuer Says:

        You make good points; I don’t have enough of a grasp on an honor & shame culture to really grok it. Do you suggest any resources?

        I would still hold out on the knowledge of basic metallurgy, though. The very basics are easy enough to be passed around from person to person I should think. Furthermore, you have stuff like Nehemiah, where the priests would “explain the sense” of the law as it was spoken. Way back then there were ‘pastors’ who could be asked hard theological questions. 🙂

      • apologianick Says:

        The Context Group does the most work on honor and shame. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, Purity by DeSilva. The Greco-Roman World by Jeffers. Handbook of Biblical Social Values by Pilch and Malina. Portraits of Paul by Malina and Neyrey.

      • labreuer Says:

        Thanks! I think I’ll start with Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, as that has come across my radar before. I have saved the other suggestions for after I take a look at Misreading. Lack of understanding of honor/shame is a big lacuna in my biblical understanding and needs to get rectified!

      • apologianick Says:

        If you do not understand the way of thinking, you will not understand a lot of Scripture.

      • labreuer Says:

        Well, there is a difference between generally understanding how internal combustion works, and really immersing yourself in how internal combustion works. I’ve been an object of shame enough in my life to have some conception of it (middle school and high school majorly sucked for me), but I still don’t really have the words and literature to understand the issue on a really intricate level, which is my wont. I’m with Feynman: “What I cannot create, I cannot understand.” This involves ideas!

      • apologianick Says:

        Hi Luke. That’s my thinking in fact. I refuse to discuss science as science for instance because I am not a scientist. It’s why I would not use Craig’s first and second way for instance and it’s why I do not discuss evolution as evolution. (I am at home with the history and philosophy of science, but not the science itself.)

        Shame in high school is one thing and there is a sort of caste system, but it’s only a small sample of what an honor-shame society is.

  5. Robert-Alicia Lawrence BanahdeCristo Says:

    Good fair review Nick…might pick up the book if I can find it on Kindle and cheap. Thanks

  6. J.W. Wartick Says:

    Thanks for the review, Nick. I appreciate your insights on this topic. I think you’re right to reflect on desire and emotions when it comes to this topic. I have often wondered if annihilationism really is a “better” way to deal with the topic in the moral sense. After all, completely eradicating someone from existence is the destruction of an agent. I think that is something to wonder about. What does it mean when God is choosing to utterly destroy agents God created? What does that say about goodness?

    I don’t claim to have the answers, but I don’t think there is a cut-and-dry case for annihlationism being more merciful than eternal torment.

  7. Chris Date Says:

    I’m an editor of the book, and for me emotions never played a role in my “conversion” from the traditional view to annihilationism. It was exegesis that, via my commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, forced me, kicking and screaming, to accept annihilationism.

    As for the idea that annihilation is not more merciful than the traditional view, I’m sympathetic to what you said, though of course many of my fellow annihilationists would disagree with you. But to be clear, God frequently destroys agents, as Scripture records, and even if in times past their disembodied souls live on in an intermediate state awaiting resurrection, the fact remains that God slays the wicked, and there’s nothing sufficiently different between slaying only the body versus slaying the body and soul that would make the latter something God would not countenance doing. In fact, Jesus says God will do precisely that in Matt 10:28.

    In any case, I do agree with you that the case for annihilationism being more merciful than eternal torment is not so cut and dry.

  8. williamfrancisbrown Says:

    Labreuer’s reply above, whereby he lists a number of books and authors, whilst perhaps an aside, is a marvelous list of some of the most important books that, IMO, every educated Christian must read. I discovered may of these through “Touchstone” and “First Things”. It’s very rare on these forums to meet anyone who has read that well.

    • apologianick Says:

      Do you mean the books on honor and shame?

    • labreuer Says:

      Yay for someone else who has read some of the same list! I only just found Weaver’s IHC via Humanitas.org’s The death of character – ideas do have consequences…; I read the chapter on language first and it was so fantastic. God spoke the world into existence and now we use the word as we do today? Methinks that is precisely what Satan wants: language used to spread lies and impose power, not communicate the truth and build relationship. I would add Josef Pieper to your list if you haven’t; his Abuse of Language ~~ Abuse of Power is amazing, as is his Leisure: The Basis of Culture. On another note, a friend recently got her PhD from Caltech and affirmed Polanyi’s conclusion of the subjectivity of science in the intro. 🙂

      What might shock you is that aside from Polanyi and C.S. Lewis and Pieper’s Leisure, I read all of those books in the last twelve months. I’m on a mission: understand why our culture is as it is and how we got here, and then figure out how to do my part in pushing it somewhere better. It is a very hard thing to figure out “the next step to take”; everyone can describe a better future state, but rare is the person who actually has a clue as to how to get there. So, I’m searching for clues!

      What books would you add to my list? I could add James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, although I’ve only read a bit of it so far. It is the most likely to be wrong, for the reason that it attempts to say so much and paint a comprehensive picture.

      • williamfrancisbrown Says:

        I can affirm the subjectivity of science. I’ve been in molecular biology research and am a physician. What most strikes me is, despite it’s current idol status (a good read is Schlossberg’s, “Idols For Destruction”), how easy it is for anyone to understand. You only need a bit of study to get the main points. It’s not like philosophy or theology, which are profoundly wide ranging. Science can only pertain to a very small slice of what is real and true.

        I think Pieper is grand and I’d have him on my top 20 list for sure. He is a deep and creative thinker on the big questions.

        I think It is excellent that you have embarked on this quest and I commend your finding these books (and reading them!) so quickly. Some good resources are ISI, First Things, Touchstone, the “Wintery Knight” blog, Ignatius Press, The Imaginative Conservative site, HBU, and Biola, Wm. Lane Craig (his podcast is lots of fun), and, of course, NIck’s podcast is superb. I can share more via email if you want.

        One good reference always leads to 10 more. For example, as soon as I finished medical school (which is almost like having blinders on) I consumed all of Paul Johnson’s books. I just wanted to start with a strong historical framework. I continuously read history to fill in the gaps. I love Christopher Dawson, Etienne Gilson, and the other medievalists of the early 20th Century. Be sure to read Peter Kreeft and listen to his talks (someone makes them available on a website). I could go on…………

        ……but, not wanting to fill Nick’s wonderful blog with personal conversation, perhaps we should get in touch via email.

        –Bill

      • labreuer Says:

        Let’s take this ‘offline’: labreuer@gmail.com 🙂

  9. williamfrancisbrown Says:

    Polkinghorne, Polanyi, Taylor, McIntyre, Lewis, Weaver; these guys would be in my top 100 list of authors. Weaver’s book (IHC) is just such an important book. BTW, I met Polkinghorne in Oxford about 10 years ago – a great, brilliant, and humble man.

  10. Alex the Less Says:

    Sounds like some good resources everyone is giving, thanks.
    About conditionalism: It really seems to be the exegetical better position. The endless suffering position has to be extrapolated from allusions. The fallen angels along with Satan is a different matter it seems. The annihilation of unredeemed humans happens after their degree of punishment for finite sins seems the best way to view it from my perspective. The language of the bible speaks overwhelmingly of destruction of the wicked and of eternal life as a gift given to the person of faith.

    • williamfrancisbrown Says:

      Alex,

      I would like to hear more on this statement …..

      “The annihilation of unredeemed humans happens after their degree of punishment for finite sins seems the best way to view it from my perspective.”

      Do you think there is any hope for redemption for those in hell, or do you see their annihilation as the automatic end point?

      My view is non-specific. It does looks like there are degrees of suffering in hell (as well as degrees of reward for those in heaven). What I can say with assurance is that I can trust the character of God, and since perfect justice has to be a part of his character, then there will be no unjust suffering. I suppose that’s all that God may want us to know. I think that I just have to rest with that knowledge.

      • Alex the Less Says:

        Hi William,
        As much as in ourselves we would all desire, I believe, a universal reconciliation of all souls, in my reading of scripture, it is not the case.
        A kind of death is true of all of us by being in Adam. We all sinned in Adam (Ro.5.12) and are now dead in tresspasses and sins (Eph.2.1, Col. 2.13). Finally the last enemy is destroyed: death (see Rev. 20.14).
        Take a look at Luke 12 .47 which may indicate degrees of punishment for the unredeemed. Jesus seems to shift the discussion from righteous managers to hypocrites to other unredeemed if in fact the “servants” constitute humanity which from other sections is clear. Otherwise, it seems implicit that punishment is individualized and proportionate.

  11. Really Recommended Posts 6/6/14- Hell, Pterosaurs, cessationism, and more! | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" Says:

    […] Book Plunge: Rethinking Hell- The book Rethinking Hell asks us to do just that; consider hell as not eternal torment or punishment but rather annihilation. Check out this insightful review of the book. […]

  12. williamfrancisbrown Says:

    Oh no, I do not think universalism is true. I was asking about the hope for redemption of anyone (not everyone) in hell. As I stated, degrees of punishment and reward seems, scripturally, to be the case. \
    My position is non-specific on this until I gain positive evidence otherwise. I rest on knowledge that God is not God unless there is perfect justice for all men. And God is not loving (and hence not God) unless there is eternal salvation of the soul for all who deserve it (and therein lies the rub and mystery).

    • Alex the Less Says:

      Hi William,
      Well, no one deserves redemption, I would contend. We all deserve destruction, I would contend also. God chooses to save some is my deterministic view.
      About my previous response and taking the “servants” as unredeemed: “stripes” are not a feature of the Bema of Christ and the redeemed at their judgment. Only the carnal works are burned up and the individual suffers loss of reward for less that Spirit-empowered works, but no mention of “stripes.” Christian judgment doesn’t seem to have any element of punishment associated with it.

  13. williamfrancisbrown Says:

    Let’s take this ‘offline’: labreuer@gmail.com 🙂

    Happy to do so LaBreuer,

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