Like a lot of people who promote the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal suffering, J.D. Greear insists, in “7 Truths About Hell” on the Gospel Coalition site, that he would happily erase the belief from Christian teaching if he could, but he can’t because it’s in the Bible, so we have to live with it. Besides, it is his view that we can’t fully understand God and his world unless we come to terms with the doctrine. To that end he sets out “seven truths” that he thinks should frame our discussion of the topic.
The problem is that the fact of hell is merely taken for granted—we are asked to take C.S. Lewis’ word for it. You would have thought that a set of seven framing truths would have a demonstrable biblical or theological relationship to the doctrine that supposedly sits in the middle of them. But they don’t. They are arbitrary and incoherent; they don’t appear to frame anything in particular; and where scripture does come into the picture, it is speaking about something other than hell as popularly understood.
1. Hell is what hell is because God is who God is
We need a doctrine of hell, Greear argues, in order to appreciate the holiness of God. “Hell should make our mouths stand agape at the righteous and just holiness of God. It should make us tremble before his majesty and grandeur.” The obvious response to that claim is “Does it?” Does it really make us marvel at the righteousness and holiness of God? Honestly? Wouldn’t most people gape in horror? Wouldn’t most people draw quite the opposite conclusion—that a God who subjects people to endless torment must be a callous and contemptible cosmopath? How can we possibly expect people to be impressed by a doctrine of cruel and disproportionate metaphysical punishment?
Greear offers no biblical support for the argument. He cites God’s words to Moses that “man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20), but ironically he infers that even “the slightest sin in his presence leads to immediate annihilation”. So a truth that is meant to frame a belief in hell appears actually turns out to be a strong argument for annihilationism.
It is one thing to say that a person who has suffered rape or child abuse “needs to know that there is a God of such holiness and beauty that his reign can tolerate no evil”. It is quite another to suppose that the victim needs to know that her abuser will suffer eternally in a hell that is “not one degree hotter than our sin demands that it be”. The justice of God in the end is satisfied by death, not by endless torment.
2. Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in Scripture
Jesus certainly had much to say about the judgment of Gehenna, the judgment that would come at the end of the age, but he was not speaking about “hell” in the sense of a place of eternal conscious torment after death. The judgment of Gehenna is the judgment on Jerusalem and Israel that would come within a generation. It would entail immense suffering for the people—the suffering of siege, disease, famine, crucifixion, ferocious in-fighting and war—and not many would escape it. But this was a suffering that would end with death, not begin with death.
3. Hell shows us the extent of God’s love in saving us
There’s no better ground for this fallacy than for the first one. The point is vividly made, but it simply doesn’t make the point. Yes, “Jesus’s punishment was scarcely describable”, but it certainly wasn’t unique—and wasn’t meant to be unique. If this was a “recycled” cross, covered in blood, faeces and urine, it was because many Jews had suffered the same degrading punishment at the hands of Rome, and thousands more would be crucified during the course of the war (cf. Jos. War 5.11.1). Jesus suffered Israel’s punishment. There is still a theological problem with this—how could a good God inflict such suffering on his people?—but it’s not the problem of hell.
4. People are eternal
The argument from unconditional immortality is made entirely on the strength of a statement made by C.S. Lewis. But Lewis was simply wrong. Biblical Christianity does not assert that “every individual human being is going to live forever”. Biblical Christianity asserts that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). The final state of humanity, as of every creature, is death. But… God will raise people from the dead—he will give them a new existence. In John’s vision of the end, it appears that all humanity will be raised for a final judgment, but the unrighteous will be consigned to a second death (Rev. 21:8). The narrative underlines the fact that the last word on humanity’s rebellion against the creator is destruction.
5. In one sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell; we send ourselves
We’re getting to the thin end of a very thin argument here, and again, frustratingly, we are offered the gospel of C.S. Lewis and his eccentric views about a self-inflicted hell rather than anything of biblical or theological substance. What is it with conservative American Christians and their obsession with Lewis? Perhaps there is some validity to the psychologising claim that people may persistently reject God to the point that they finally exclude themselves from his presence. But is Greear really only saying that “hell” is living for myself and not for God? That’s not going to trouble many people. I’m confused.
Lewis died in 1963. But he was a good scholar, and I suspect that if he’d lived to read the works of Vermes, Meyer, Harvey, Sanders, Wright and others who have put Jesus firmly back in his Jewish-narrative context, he would have addressed some of the doctrinal issues rather differently.
6. In another sense, God does send people to hell, and all his ways are true and righteous altogether
Who are we, in any case, Greear asks, to tell God how to run his creation? “As Paul says in Romans 9, who are we—as mere lumps of clay—to answer back to the divine potter?” But in Romans 9 Paul addresses the hypothetical Jew who objects to the proposition that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6). It is for YHWH to decide how he will remain faithful to his promise to Abraham. The potter has the right to destroy the pot that he has made in order to demonstrate his mercy towards those whom he has called, including Gentiles (9:22-23). It is only as a consequence of the judgment against rebellious Israel—the judgment of Gehenna which Jesus had predicted—that Gentiles may be called “sons of the living God” (23-26). So, yes, God reserves the right to judge his people and have mercy on his people, but this has nothing to do with hell.
7. It’s not enough for God to take us out of hell; he must take hell out of us
“Some people see a problem in using hell as a way of coercing people to submit to Christianity”—and God agrees. So if people begin with a fear of hell, Greear holds, they must still learn to love and trust God. They won’t enjoy heaven very much otherwise. They won’t fit in.
Again, the argument tells us nothing about hell, but it highlights what is perhaps the core theological problem with this whole way of thinking—it is grounded in and perpetuates the view that Christianity is a religion of personal salvation, that it is all about getting people out of hell and into heaven.
Here we have one of the fundamental corrections that modern evangelicalism needs to make if it is to maintain any legitimacy as a biblical movement.
The object of the exercise is not to get people to heaven. It is to preserve the integrity and effectiveness of a new creation people in the world. In the biblical story, judgment and salvation are operative for the most part historically. A people is judged, a people is saved, nations are judged. The church subsequently—for complex reasons, not all of them bad—rewrote the corporate narrative around the individual and his or her personal spiritual interests. It has worked up to a point, but for the sake of both theological integrity and missional credibility, I think we now have to reinstate the historical grounding of the biblical narrative. Among other things, that means ditching the unbiblical doctrine of hell.