I said that I would come back to what Kevin DeYoung has to say about Rob Bell and hell. To his credit, DeYoung refrains from commenting on Rob Bell’s unpublished book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and promises not to pick a fight over it when it eventually comes out. But he takes the opportunity, in the meantime, to remind us why we need a doctrine of divine wrath and eternal punishment. The eight-part argument he puts forward is excerpted from the book that he wrote with Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent. I think he’s wrong, one way or another, on every point. I’ve listed the headings below with brief commentary.
“First, we need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism.”
When Paul reasoned with the Roman governor Felix “about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25), he no doubt meant to impart a sense of urgency to his message, but this “coming judgment” cannot be equated with our notion of “hell”. It is likely that at the forefront of Paul’s mind was the coming judgment on Israel, and perhaps beyond that the thought of a judgment on the Greek-Roman world. Even if we suppose that he is thinking of a resurrection of all the dead and a final judgment such as we find in Revelation 20:4-6, there is no basis for introducing a doctrine of eternal punishment into the argument.
“Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies.”
The “wrath” of God in scripture always—I repeat, always—refers to some historical event or process by which a people or a nation or a civilization is “judged”. It is how the creator God puts matters to right amongst the nations. In Romans 12:19 the quotation “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” comes from the Song of Moses, where it speaks of a day when God will vindicate his people and defeat their enemies (Deut. 32:35-36). Paul’s argument is the same: there will be a day—not an end of days—when God will vindicate the suffering Roman churches and defeat their enemies.1 It is also worth noting that Paul does not speak here about forgiving their enemies, though no doubt he would have urged that; he speaks of not taking revenge against their enemies.
“Third, we need God’s wrath in order to risk our lives for Jesus’ sake.”
This one DeYoung gets basically right—at least as far as the outlook of the New Testament is concerned: “The radical devotion necessary to suffer for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus comes, in part, from the assurance we have that God will vindicate us in the end.” But we have to insist that “wrath” is not a final and absolute judgment against all humanity. It has to be contextualized historically, it has to be located in the real world; and I think that there must be some doubt about how we do this—and even whether we should do it—beyond the eschatological horizon of the judgment of the pagan world that is so climactic for the New Testament.
“Fourth, we need God’s wrath in order to live holy lives.”
Again, wrath is not a final judgment, and the final judgment in the New Testament does not consign people to eternal conscious suffering. The final judgment on human sinfulness is death or destruction. The doctrine of hell as eternal punishment is simply wrong—exegetically wrong—and should be expunged from our vocabulary. That is not to say, however, that we should not be motivated by the prospect of being excluded from the renewal of creation on account of the things we have either done or not done.
“Fifth, we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means.”
The catastrophic judgment on Israel in AD 70 may well have helped some Jews, prospectively or retrospectively, to learn the meaning of mercy—it sounds a little perverse, but it is a very biblical idea. In the same way the general wretchedness and futility of human existence may help us to grasp the significance of the mercy of God towards those who turn their backs on the old creation in order to belong to the new. But if we are to say that people today are “objects of wrath”, it can only be because we are convinced, prophetically, that our culture or civilization faces a coming catastrophe analogous to the overthrow of Babylon or of pagan Rome. That may well be the case, but it has nothing to do with hell.
“Sixth, we need God’s wrath in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be.”
The proper antithesis to invoke here is not the one between hell and heaven but the one between death and life, between destruction and the renewal of creation. Hell, as popularly understood, is simply a misconception; scripture does not oppose heaven and hell in this way, as final metaphysical alternatives. What we need is a sense of the awfulness of sin, corruption, decay, and death in order to grasp how wonderful God’s new heavens and new earth will be.
“Seventh, we need the wrath of God in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters.”
DeYoung offers here a fundamental misreading of Matthew 25:31-46, which describes a judgment of the nations according to how they react to the presence of Jesus’ suffering disciples in their midst, not a judgment of believers according to how they have treated the poor, as DeYoung assumes. There are plenty of good biblical ways to motivate Christian action towards social justice without waving the sub-biblical and unethical myth of eternal conscious torment in our faces.
“Eighth, we need God’s wrath in order to be ready for the Lord’s return.”
This only really restates the gist of most of the previous points: we need the fear of hell for motivational reasons. My view is that such motifs as “wrath of God”, “coming of the Son of man”, and the return of a master to his household have reference to historical realities in the relevant and foreseeable future of the early church. They speak of a judgment on the enemies of Jesus’ followers that will constitute the ending of persecution and the decisive vindication of their faith in Jesus. In addition, the motivational argument is spurious, both theologically and morally—in reality, I suspect that the young, reckless and Reformed movement needs to generate a fear of losing the doctrine of hell in order to prevent people wandering into dangerous emergent territory.