A couple of questions were sent to me recently regarding my view on “hell”. I have blogged far more than I ever intended to on the subject over the last year, mainly because Rob Bell’s Love Wins put the Emergent cat among the excitable Reformed pigeons. I take a rather distinctive line on the matter. I think that, for the most part, when the New Testament speaks of wrath or judgment or gehenna, it speaks prophetically of foreseeable historical events, in particular the devastating war between Israel and Rome and—less distinctly—the overthrow of the whole system of classical paganism. The doctrine of “hell” as we know it developed as a later misreading of New Testament apocalyptic, as European metaphysics won out over Jewish narrative. The final judgment on sin is destruction and death—the destruction of societies or civilizations, on the one hand; the death of individuals, on the other. The final judgment on sinful humanity is the lake of fire, which is the “second death” (Rev. 21:8).
This argument is close to the standard alternative to the “eternal conscious torment” view of “hell”, annihilationism, but it is not exactly the same, which brings us to the two questions. The first, which I will address today, has to do with sources. The second, which I will keep for tomorrow, concerns the resurrection of the unrighteous.
What books would you point me to in order to get your view? I get the feeling you hold to something like annihilation, but better. I like that you place the statements on “hell” in their historical context rather than use them as a both / and warning (hell and 70 AD). Edward Fudge might come close but I have a feeling your more nuanced than him or Pinnock. Am I right?
I have a hard time answering this. I think my understanding of the “hell” passages has developed out of a broad historical-critical approach to the New Testament coupled with an appreciation of the controlling effect of intertextuality (see below). So scholars working in the area of historical Jesus research (especially those who emphasize the apocalyptic dimension), the New Perspective, and to some extent imperial-critical interpretations of Paul have been important sources for me; but studies that examine the relation between the Old and New Testaments have also been influential. I make extensive use of critical commentaries. One of these days I will get round to putting together a proper reading list. This is not the first time that I have been asked. But, in a way, the hermeneutic is more important than any particular sources.
I have a copy of Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, but I have to confess that I haven’t read it. Nor have I read much of Pinnock’s work—I have not really thought of him as an exegete.
Fudge appears—on belated perusal—to be making a classic case for the annihilation of the wicked at the final judgment as a theological position. The historical aspect to the argument appears to be largely absent. He notes that Jeremiah predicted that the Valley of Hinnom “would be filled to overflowing with Israelite corpses when God judged the nation for its sins”, and that “Josephus indicates that the same valley was heaped with dead bodies of the Jews following the Roman siege of Jerusalem” (96). But he assumes that Jesus nevertheless uses the imagery to speak of a final judgment of all humanity, not merely a temporal judgment of Israel. I see no justification for this assumption. I see no reason to push Jesus of the path that runs directly between Jeremiah and Josephus.
If it’s of interest, my methodology is rather straightforward. It is a matter, first, of adopting a historical perspective, of trying to read from within the confined space of the New Testament rather than from our modern theologically constructed vantage point; secondly, of exploring the intertextual background—the Jewish narratives that shape the language and thought of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament; and thirdly, of working with large literary structures—narratives and arguments—rather than fragmented and isolated texts.
My conclusions about hell are the result (I hope) of pursuing this methodology consistently. I think the “both/and” approach (both temporal judgment and final judgment) is to be resisted unless there is clear literary evidence that this is what was intended (I don’t think there generally is). In most instances interpreters are trying to have their cake and eat it—they are unwilling to let go of their theology and trust what the Bible is actually saying.