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Hell Under Fire: Part 2 of our Interview with Christopher Morgan
As the discussion around the doctine of hell continues, Chris Morgan was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to do an interview about the current controversy and the book Hell Under Fire.
This is Part 2 of our interview with Chris, you can read Part 1 here.
Q: What questions are behind the questions? Is there something deeper driving this discussion?
Great question! Yes, the foundational doctrines that shape one’s theology of hell especially include the love of God, the justice of God, the nature of God’s victory, and sin (guilt and corruption in Adam).
For those who reject the historic doctrine of hell, certain core questions/objections are often raised, especially: Would a loving God really send good people to hell? And wouldn’t the existence of hell throughout eternity mar God’s ultimate victory?
While those questions are sincere and understandable, the more I study the Bible, the more I am finding them to be the wrong questions. I am finding that they are frequently rooted in inadequate assumptions.
Take, for example, “would a loving God really send good people to hell?” The question is loaded. It defines God only in terms of love, does not give significant attention to the radical guilt of the sinner, and makes it sound as if God is thrilled to have people reject him and go to hell. A better question, and a question central for Paul in Romans, is “how can the biblical God (who is just, loving, holy, and so forth) forgive the guilty and allow them into his presence?”
Or take the question related to the nature of God’s victory. At first glance, it might seem that Paul’s emphasis on God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-21; Eph 1:9-11; Col. 1:15-20; etc.) would preclude an eternal hell. Yet the Bible is filled with references to such future punishment—and the Bible depicts it as eternal (Matt. 25:31-46; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; Rev. 14:9-11, etc.). And yes, the biblical story ends wonderfully with God dwelling with his covenant people. The new heavens/new earth/new city finally arrive (Rev. 21—22); the kingdom is no longer “already and not yet” but only “already” and fully consummated. Yet the Bible adds that outside the city sinners still exist (22:15). Indeed, they exist on the outside, after being cast into the lake of fire (20:14-14; 21:8).
As is true in many theological debates, it is important to acknowledge a matrix of themes related to doctrines. Hell is depicted in the Bible as punishment, banishment, and destruction—not simply one of these. Too often those holding to the historic view of hell have focused on punishment and neglected hell as banishment and hell as destruction. And those who hold to annihilationism have countered with their own over-reaction: defining punishment and banishment as destruction. But the Bible’s portrait of hell is more nuanced than either of these approaches.
Furthermore, another tension related to hell is that it is depicted in the Bible both as tragedy and victory. Hell is tragic, as it is awful that people rebel against God and persistently spurn the Savior. God is “slow to anger,” “abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6-7), and does not take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked, just as he does not find pleasure in the existence of sin (Ezek. 18:23). Jesus likewise grieved and wept over human lostness, sin, and the impending judgment (Matt. 23:37; Luke 19:41; 23:34). The apostle Paul also shared this perspective, earnestly longing and praying for the conversion of his lost fellow-Jews, even to the point of being willing to undergo God’s wrath for them (Rom. 9:1-6; 10:1). That sinners go to hell is tragic and should break our hearts.
Yet hell is also portrayed as God’s triumph. Hell is linked to his righteous judgment and the day of Yahweh, even called “the day of God’s wrath” (Rom. 2:5). As such, hell answers (not raises) ultimate questions related to the justice of God. Through the coming wrath, judgment, and hell, God’s ultimate victory is displayed over evil, and his righteousness is vindicated. There is a “comfort” to hell (2 Thess. 1:5-11; James 5:1-6), as its hard reality offers hope to and encourages perseverance in persecuted saints. God will judge everyone, he will win in the end, and justice will prevail. And through his righteous judgment and ultimate victory, God will glorify himself, displaying his greatness and receiving the worship he is due (e.g., Rom. 9:22-23; Rev. 6:10, 11:15-18; 14:6-15:4; 16:5-7; 19:1-8).
Q: In another five years, do you think the landscape will look significantly different?
Will hell be the rage of the blogosphere in a few months? I doubt it, but hell is a “hot topic” and here to stay. I suspect it will be questioned time and again, but it is a part of the biblical story and Christian worldview, and as such it will keep re-emerging.
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