12
May
08

Book Review: Hell Under Fire

One thing I hope to do with this blog is post reviews of the books I am reading. This helps to feel some accountability while I’m reading. For about the last year I have been leading a struggling reader’s group at Harvest Community Church, which has accomplished the same goal, but participation has been very irregular by our readers. Now I have the accountability of a blog that nobody will read except maybe my wife! But it’s interesting for me, and so here we go.

The first book I will review is Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvests Eternal Punishment. This was a much more academic book than I usually read. Its target audience was certainly for pastors who are trying to evaluate the Biblical teaching on Hell and weighing the evidence for three alternate understandings: traditional, universal, or conditional damnation. The presentation was a series of 10 essays by a collection of writers that spanned a range of familiarity for me, from Al Mohler and J.I. Packer (who I have heard much about) to Douglass Moo and Sinclair Ferguson (of whom I know only their names) and a handful of men I have never heard of.

Truth be told, I found the book a little repetitive. Most of the writers returned to the same couple of verses, and while the verses do seem to speak with a good clarity and are significant obstacles to any who would refuse the traditional understanding of Hell, it did make the book feel at least 100 pages longer than it needed to be. Let’s take a couple of minutes and consider the primary verses in question:

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Matthew 25:46

This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His powerful angels, taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of everlasting destruction, away from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength, in that day when He comes to be glorified by His saints and to be admired by all those who have believed, because our testimony among you was believed. 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-10

he will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, which is mixed full strength in the cup of His anger. He will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment will go up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or anyone who receives the mark of his name. Revelation 14:10-11

The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. ….. And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:10,15

There are quite a few more verses, of course, but these seem to be the most important, and against these the suggestions of Universalism and Annihiliationism are weighed.

Universalism

Universalism is the belief that eventually everybody goes to Heaven. This is really not a very long step from the Arminian doctrine of Universal Atonement, and to my mind takes that doctrine to its natural conclusion. If Jesus did in fact die for all the sins of every last person, then what it left for them to be condemned for? The universalist finds the idea intolerable that God would actually fail to redeem anyone; the presence of a single soul in Hell for eternity would be essentially a complete win by Satan over God. Apparently some even look at Satan and demons and demand that they must eventually be reconciled to God as well, though perhaps this is a minority position.

In reading through this, I gained a much better appreciation for the universalist position, so from that perspective I think the authors did a great job representing the opposing view. I do think that this is an untenable position though, unless one is really willing to dismiss the plain reading of Scripture. I think the authors did a good job illustrating that. How can you have any kind of a doctrine of Hell if universalism is true? Why were Jesus and apostles so emphatic about warning about the judgment to come if in fact everybody ends up in Heaven? Universalism is a nice idea in a pluralistic society that really wants to believe that all roads lead to God, but the Bible doesn’t seem to leave this to us as an option.

Annihilationism

Annihilationism is the other major idea that the book confronted, which is the idea that those who do not go to Heaven end up simply perishing. The soul is not eternal by default, but rather that is an attribute that God grants to one who has union with Christ. Part of the annihilationist argument is that the concept of every person having an eternal soul is borrowed from Plato. They also refer to verses in the New Testament that talk about destruction of the soul. For example:

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; but rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28

Evangelicals no less significant that John Stott and F.F. Bruce – both rock solid Biblical conservatives – made the case for Annihilationism, ultimately grounding their argument in the incompatibility of Hell with the character of God and the disproportion of the punishment (eternal conscious torment) with the crime (finite temporal sins).

The explanation that the book gives is that, while destruction is certainly part of the Hell experience, it does not encapsulate all of the dimensions given. The authors also suggest that destruction is not the same as disintegration or oblivion: consider a totaled car, which is destroyed, but it certainly still a car in some respects; it did not cease to exist by being totaled. As for the duration of the punishment, the authors turn to the Anselmian argument that the punishment is just because it is an offense against an infinitely hold God, and thus worthy of an infinite punishment. The argument against annihilationism rests on those verses above and the idea that “torment that goes on day and night for ever and ever”, and “eternal punishment” make no sense if the soul simply ceases to exist.

Conclusion

I would certainly prefer that Annihilationism were true. Emotionally it is much more appealing than the traditional view of Hell. Unfortunately I must come down on the side of the authors of Hell under Fire and concede that the Scripture does not seem to give this as an option. Some may say this is a case of proof-texting (building a doctrine for a series of quotes taken out of context) but I just don’t see it that way. I think the authors here have made the case that the traditional view of Hell is the one which most closely resembles the Biblical text. If we accept the Bible as reliable, then this is is really inescapable.

The ultimate result of this understanding of Hell must be a new urgency on our part to evangelize – to carry the words of our Lord to our neighbors as well as to support missions to carry them throughout the world. The case could not be more urgent.

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