3 Developments About Hell You Should Know
It seems hell is on the outs these days in evangelicalism. At least the traditional understanding of it. Ever since John Stott acknowledged his annihilationism leanings and pseudonymous Gregory MacDonald offered a vision for Christian universalism, the nature of hell has been on the (re)examination table.
Sitting at the cusp of this ongoing discussion is a revised version of Four Views on Hell, (released 3/8/16) with contributions by four leading evangelical voices reshaping the traditional doctrine: Denny Burk, John Stackhouse, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls.
“This new volume,” writes general editor Preston Sprinkle, “brings in a new set of authors who will espouse fresh insights that build on the flurry of recent books and discussions about the nature of hell.” (9)
Notice the discussion isn’t about whether hell exists, but what it is. “What is hell like?” is the question that sits at the center of this book. It is built on the fact that the Bible clearly talks about hell, yet is arguably less clear on its nature.
So what is hell like? Below is a brief sketch of three main developments in the doctrine of hell you need to know about.
1) Terminal Punishment
“In the past," notes Sprinkle, "it was primarily those who couldn’t stomach the traditional view who opted for this ‘softer’ view of God’s judgment. But now many evangelicals are arriving at this view in light of a fresh look at the biblical text.” (10)
One of those theologians is John Stackhouse. Though he once embraced the traditional view, now he believes that unbelievers will be punished, but not in an eternal state of conscious torment. Hell in this view is:
the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos. (61–62)
Stackhouse insists the view “enjoys about as strong a warrant in Scripture as I have seen can be offered for any doctrine.” (62) Particularly because it takes into account the double-sided aspect of God’s goodness: his fierce holiness and fervent affection.
2) Ultimate Reconciliation
Of particular interest to this revised volume is the addition of Christian universalism. Sprinkle notes this view “must be distinguished from pluralistic universalism, which says ‘all roads lead to heaven.’ [It] argues that only one road leads to heaven (or the new creation): the way of Christ.” (13) It is through this way and Christ’s atoning work that all of creation will be ultimately reconciled to its Creator. Counter to the traditional view, future judgment of sinners will be followed by their complete reconciliation.
As with annihilationism, some have gravitated toward this view out of sentimentality. Yet a growing group of scholars and pastors are Christian universalists because of the witness of Scripture. One such scholar is Robin Parry, who roots his view in the Bible’s grand narrative:
A doctrine of hell needs to make good sense of its place in the biblical metanarrative, the grand story that runs from Genesis to Revelation. I shall argue that when located in the plot line of Scripture, a universalist doctrine of hell makes good sense. (103)
3) Sanctifying Purgatory
The final consideration, at least from a Protestant evangelical perspective, is purgatory. Much of this recent engagement has come through a growing ecumenical spirit among evangelicals. “This desire to dialogue has cultivated theological cross-pollination,” Sprinkle observes, “With regard to hell and the afterlife, Protestants are exploring views that are traditionally considered Catholic…” (10)
Perhaps no evangelical scholar has explored this better than Jerry Walls. While assuming a traditional view of hell, Walls argues that believers will undergo a time of sanctification between their death and resurrection. This is not about satisfaction, atoning for ones sins, but growth toward holiness. Walls defines purgatory as:
a temporary abode or stage on the way to heaven. It is only for persons who die in a state of grace and who will eventually make it to heaven. (143)
“To fully appreciate and assess purgatory," Walls explains, "we must understand it as a work of grace that finishes our sanctification in order to make us fit to enjoy the glories of heaven.” (173)
Sprinkle acknowledges readers will come to this book with a view firmly fixed in their mind. Yet he encourages them to hold this view lightly:
If you hold onto your view too tightly, unwilling to reexamine it in light of Scripture, then you are placing your traditions and presuppositions on a higher pedestal than Scripture itself… The (Protestant) church should constantly drag traditionally held doctrines back to the text of Scripture and eagerly demand reexamination. (14, 15)
Engage Four Views on Hell to reexamine the nature of hell yourself by bringing it underneath the lens of God's Word.
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