Burn Baby Burn

Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson eds. Hell Under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.

Hell under fire

The basic message of this book is that the intellectual leaders of American evangelicalism think that most lay evangelicals are stupid. Hell Under Fire (2004) suggests that America’s widespread anti-intellectualism has convinced some of our brightest Christian minds that they no longer need to do any actual work in order to convince people that they are right. This book’s nine contributors are some of the biggest and most erudite scholars in the evangelical world; it is produced by America’s leading Christian publisher; and it is touted as the definitive traditionalist response to those Christians who believe either that hell does not exist or that the wicked are destroyed there, not tortured forever. And yet the Biblical exegesis is insipid, the polemics childish, and the arguments shallow. Is there really so little evidence to support the traditional argument that hell involves eternal conscious suffering, or did the authors just get lazy? With two notable exceptions, I suspect that the problem actually lies in basic assumptions that the editors had about the volume’s intended audience.

Chicago Cubs fan cryingA number of the chapters treat the readers as if they are incapable of following even the simplest of arguments unless the authors resort to childish word pictures. In his chapter presenting a systematic theology of hell, for example, Robert A. Peterson starts by talking about “the 2003 National League championship baseball series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins.” Cubs fans wept when their team lost, Marlins fans rejoiced, and supporters of neither team just enjoyed the game. The point of mentioning these three perspectives on the game, to which Peterson devotes half a page, is that “the biblical doctrine of hell has been explored from many vantage points as well. This essay will consider three neglected ones, namely: (1) the Trinity; (2) divine sovereignty and human freedom; and (3) the “already” and the “not yet”.” Not only does the baseball analogy have nothing in common with either the tone or the content of the rest of the chapter, the emotional responses of fans to a baseball game are completely different to the idea of looking at the doctrine of hell from three different angles. This habit of disrespecting the reader becomes almost pernicious when Robert W. Yarbrough ends his summary of Jesus’ teachings on hell by describing an incident from July 1998 when the Taliban publicly amputated the hand and foot of Ghulam Farooq, an ironworker convicted of stealing. We should not be too squeamish about the idea of eternal conscious torment, Yarbrough argues, because there are lots of horrible things in this world so we just need to get used to them. Leaving aside the problem of why he thinks that the horrors of Taliban justice are comparable to God’s justice, the sudden turn from New Testament exegesis to a graphic description of amputation feels like Yarbrough is just trying to appeal to the anti-Islamic sentiments of his readers rather than winning them over by the logic of his argument.

Several of the contributors to this volume cite John Stott’s famous statement that “emotionally I find the concept [of eternal conscious suffering] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” They complain that Stott caricatures their position as unfeeling and heartless, when in fact they care about people as well. And yet, learning nothing from their own hurt feelings, a number of Wolf in Sheeps Clothingthese authors slander their opponents instead of engaging with them intellectually. When he mentions nineteenth century annihilationists, Christopher W. Morgan frequently points out whenever their books were privately printed, implying that such ideas were not good enough to attract professional publishers. More problematically, the chapter “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell,” by R. Albert Mohler Jr. argues that “the first major stirrings against the traditional doctrine of hell” emerged in the seventeenth century among “heretical groups such as the Socinians and the English Arians.” Criticisms of Mohler’s hell are actually almost as old as Christianity itself, but you would never learn that from this chapter. He continues, “Voltaire and the other Enlightenment philosophes rejected Christianity outright and as a whole. Their attacks were not directed at hell as an isolated doctrine but to the entire system of Christian theology and the very idea of divine revelation.” This is true, of course, but the inclusion of non-Christians such as Voltaire within Mohler’s very selective and incomplete intellectual history, and the quote’s location as the conclusion to a major sub-section of the chapter implies that anyone who rejects the traditional view of hell effectively rejects Christianity itself, a point that Mohler reinforces several times in other places. Later in the volume J. I. Packer argues that “a socialist agenda as a life task and universalist inclinations of theological thought have frequently gone together.” Packer argues (correctly) that he cannot really engage with people who argue for universal salvation because they arrive at it from so many different presuppositions, but instead he caricatures them as enemies of the gospel:

billboard“Universalism does not stand up to biblical examination. Its sunny optimism may be reassuring and comfortable, but it wholly misses the tragic quality of human sin, human unbelief, and human death as set forth in the Scriptures, while its inevitable weakening of the motives for evangelistic prayer and action is subversive of the church’s mission as Christ and the apostles defined it. Universalism reinvents, and thereby distorts and disfigures, biblical teaching about God and salvation, and it needs to be actively opposed, so that the world may know the truth about the holiness, the judgment, the plan, the love, the Christ, and the salvation of our God.”

The Biblical exegesis and theology of Hell Under Fire is also characterized by a lack of basic rigor. Daniel I. Block’s chapter, “The Old Testament on Hell,” is competent but shallow, and limits itself to the canonical Old Testament, as if no-one thought anything new or important about hell between Malachi and Jesus. Rather than grounding his reading on what Jesus taught about hell in careful etymological arguments, Robert W. Yarbrough dedicates half of his chapter to the question of whether we have a reliable record of Jesus’ words. He then briefly quotes the major passages in which Jesus refers to hell and then concludes that he has definitively refuted alternative interpretations of these passages. Douglas J. Moo‘s discussion of the meaning of “destruction” in Paul’s writings fails to prove that it meant anything other than “to be destroyed,” and yet he concludes with the completely unconvincing statement that “these key terms appear to be used in general much like we use the word “destroy” in the sentence, “The tornado destroyed the house.” The component parts of that house did not cease to exist, but the entity “house,” a structure that provides shelter for human beings, ceased to exist.” None of the examples of olethrosapõleia or apollymi that Moo gives in previous couple of pages suggest this interpretation, but he assumes that his readers are too inattentive to notice. Gregory K. Beale’s chapter on the book of Revelation stands out as the only example of solid Biblical exegesis in the whole volume. He situates the key passages within a coherent and compelling reading of Revelation as a whole, draws on inter-testamental writings to show how early Christians might have read John’s references to final punishment, and limits his argument to what he can prove from the text itself. Beale rightly calls Revelation 14:11 and 20:10-15 “the Achilles’ heel of the annihilationist perspective,” and his interpretation of these passages is the only serious defense of the idea of eternal conscious suffering found in the whole volume.

All of these writers work with an impoverished notion of sin, which they define in legalistic terms simply as the breaking of rules that deserves punishment. Ideas about sin as a breaking of relationship, the corruption of human nature, or a disease that must be cured are completely absent. Similarly, given that theodicy is so important for universalists and annihilationists, it is amazing that only one of the authors really deals with the implications of eternal conscious Hellfire preachersuffering for our ideas about God and the church. Several writers imply that rejecting their understanding of hell is a rejection of Christianity itself, but only Sinclair B. Ferguson‘s sympathetic and nuanced chapter on “Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell” explains how our view of hell should change our approach to ministry. To begin with, Ferguson notes, “Our Lord never spoke of it with relish,” yet “given the broad spectrum of biblical testimony to the reality of hell, it is incumbent on the Christian pastor to be familiar with it, to feel the weight of it, to preach it, and to counsel his flock in connection with its means and personal implications.” Having a proper understanding of hell, Ferguson argues, allows us to stress the righteousness of God, the sinfulness of our sin, and the absolute justice of God’s condemnation of us. And, he says, “most important, in expounding and applying the biblical teaching on hell, we must emphasize that there is a way of salvation.” Moreover, Ferguson suggests that a harsh view of hell makes our understand of Christ’s love all the more profound. In Paul’s writings, he says, “that love led to Christ’s death, and Paul views that death, implicitly, as a hell-bearing-in-love experience undergone by Christ on our behalf.” The more horrible hell is, the more God must have loved us to suffer it on our behalf.

Despite the insights of Beale and Ferguson, Hell Under Fire remains a very disappointing book. How such a stellar cast of contributors could mount such a weak defence of one of the most widespread doctrines in Christianity is mind-boggling. Evangelicals deserve better from their intellectual leaders, and this if far from being their best work.

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