Four Views on Hell: An Interview with William Crockett
As the discussion around the doctine of hell continues, William Crockett was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to do an interview about the current controversy and the book Four Views on Hell which he edited and contributed to.
Q: First of all could you give us a little of your own background?
I was born in Canada, a B.A. in Philosophy (Univ. Winnipeg), M.Div. in New Testament studies (Princeton Seminary), and a Ph.D. in New Testament (Univ. Glasgow). I have been a professor of New Testament studies at Alliance Seminary in New York for 30 years.
Q: You wrote the Metaphorical View section in Four Views on Hell, could you summarize the case you made there?
Sure. The traditional view of hell in Christianity is that one day vast numbers of people will be cast away from the presence of God, which means that people we dearly love—friends, family members, the local grocer—if they die outside the faith, will be plunged into hell's unquenchable fires (Matt. 7:13-14). The question is, then, whether such a teaching could be literally true. Will a portion of creation find ease in heaven, while the rest roast in fire?
The metaphorical view says that hell is a real place, a place of serious eternal judgment, but a place whose exact nature is best left in the hands of God. Just as the images of heaven—golden streets, jeweled walls, and sparkling rivers—are meant to give us hope beyond the grave, the images of hell are meant to give us pause about our eternal destinies. We don’t want to over-literalize these images lest we end up with a hell like Nebuchadnezzar's belching furnace, or a place where the damned receive grisly beatings (Lk 12:47), or worse, a nightmarish hell where eternal worms gnaw forever on the flesh of the lost (Mk 9:48).
No, it’s better to leave the exact nature of final judgment in the hands of God. The images of heaven and hell are meant to be metaphors; one depicting a place of immeasurable happiness, the other of profound misery.
Q: What was your experience engaging with the other views? Did that process change your own understanding of the issue?
I learned that nobody much wanted to endorse a place of endless suffering; we were in fact all trying to reconcile the “serious” judgment evidenced in biblical revelation/tradition with a loving God. For my part I would say that the New Testament has to be our rule for faith and doctrine, regardless how we might feel about particular instances. Without the words of Jesus and the apostles as our guide, we are left adrift in a sea of unreliable feelings.
Q: When we debate the theology of hell, what might be at stake?
Lots of things. If we think the afterlife has consequences, it will affect our ethics and morals—how we act will become important to us because we know that judgment is coming. We also will be more forgiving of others because we recognize that despite our sinful ways, we have been granted the mercy of God. Equally, a serious view of the afterlife will remind us to share our faith, because we remember the words of Jesus, that there is a broad gate and a narrow gate, one leading to death, the other to life (Mt 7:13).
Q: What deeper questions do you see as driving the interest in this discussion?
The root problem is and always has been that it seems unjust for God to punish humans eternally for finite sins. How can a brief span of rebellion, a blink of an eye in God’s economy, bring never-ending pain and sorrow? Such judgment, says Nels Ferré, makes Hitler look like "a third degree saint, and the concentration camps . . . picnic grounds."
Some Christians find a solution in the medieval view of poena damni, the pain of missing heaven. C.S. Lewis, for example, thinks that hell’s torment comes not from active punishment inflicted by God, but from having no contact with the One who is the source of all peace. On judgment day the wicked are separated from the righteous, like chaff from grain, and they are carried far from the beauty and glory of God, into a land of shadows where they contemplate what might have been. They are in the true sense of the word, forever lost.
Q: Four Views on Hell sets out quite a wide range of positions on how we understand hell. Do you think this is a doctrine people are willing to take a big tent approach to?
If by “big tent” you mean will evangelical Christians be tolerant toward differences on the nature of hell—literal or metaphorical—then the answer is definitely yes. Most evangelicals today hold some form of the metaphorical view.
If, however, you are asking about tolerance toward the view that the wicked will be annihilated, or perhaps even reconciled in some form of universalist scheme, then I don’t think so. There is some sympathy for annihilationists such as John Stott or Clark Pinnock (because I think many Christians today secretly hope for a more lenient view), but standing in the way are the clear words of Jesus: “(the unrighteous) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). And as I argue in Four Views on Hell, Jesus was talking about conscious eternal punishment.
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