As a (moderately) good postmodern—and as a student of literature rather than of history—I have tended to avoid many of the problems raised by historical-criticism regarding the factual integrity and coherence of the Bible. The reason is that I think that the more interesting and more pressing problem for modern evangelicalism has to do not with whether the texts are demonstrably true as historical records but with what they are actually saying as historical records. To put it another way, it is not the factual distortions of the singular dogma of inerrancy that need to be corrected so much as the interpretive distortions of the multiple theological constructs that make up the evangelical belief system. What sort of story is actually being told here?
The so-called New Perspective has come up a few times recently here, not least because it has a significant bearing on how we understand New Testament teaching about wrath, judgment, “hell”, and salvation. My impression is that the New Perspective is still largely confined to the academic sphere and that we are only slowly beginning to grasp its revolutionary implications. So Kent Yinger’s nifty and very readable book The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction (Wipf & Stock, 2011) is a timely resource for the church as it struggles to rethink its identity and purpose.
One of the things that has surprised me in the Bell’s hell controversy is the assumption behind much of the criticism that the denial of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment amounts to an endorsement of universalism—or at least as a “preliminary step” in that direction as it was put to me by Steve Hays on the Triabloggers site. Practically speaking, Steve has a point—consider, for example, this personal testimony from The Beautiful Heresy:
In my mid-40s I discovered Universalism about mid-2004 and immediately began reading all I could about it. I was raised as a Pentecostal Fundamentalist and could never quite grasp why G-d was so angry with me and the rest of the world that He wanted to condemn us to Eternal Torment. G-d seemed weak, angry and schizophrenic to me. This journey is about my discovery of G-d’s universal and inescapable love.
What bearing do the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43) have on the current debate about hell? Two questions present themselves. First, is Jesus speaking of an imminent judgment on Israel or a final judgment on humanity—or perhaps both? Secondly, if this is a final judgment, should we understand the burning of the weeds as a metaphor for eternal conscious suffering in what is popularly called “hell”? Of course, if the answer to the first question is that Jesus has in view only a historical judgment, the second question is redundant. What I will argue here is that both the context and the content of the parable and its interpretation point to a restricted narrative-historical setting—a crisis of the failure of the covenant analogous to that described in Daniel 7-12.
Jesus’ image of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies is, I imagine, most commonly understood as saying something about his death as the means by which many will be saved. Beasley-Murray, for example, writes: “so surely as a grain of wheat must be buried if it is to yield fruit for man, so the Son of Man must give himself in death if he is to produce a harvest of life for the world”. The verses that follow, however, suggest that this may not be so much an image of salvation as of discipleship—or perhaps of salvation through a model of self-sacrificing discipleship.
David Fitch offers an interesting analysis of why the winds of popular theology in North America have changed direction so dramatically in the last two or three years. In his view—though this is not his metaphor—the weather system is driven by the Christian publishing business. Over the last decade “publishing superstars” such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, blowing from the warm south (this is a northern hemisphere metaphor), have dared to “ask questions that have been avoided or shut down within evangelical church culture the past fifty years”. But having asked the questions, having raised the issues, they have failed to deliver on their promise. So the wind has veered round to the north, sweeping in from the chill wastes of the neo-Reformed movement. Or as Fitch puts it, the “wandering herd heads for the monster wave of the Neo Reformed”—and the paragraph sinks finally into metaphorical chaos.
Two major developments, very broadly speaking, have impacted modern Western evangelicalism over the last decade. With regard to praxis the emerging church movement has challenged traditional patterns of church life and mission and has set out—in more or less experimental fashion—new, fresh, innovative, down-to-earth, enterprising, risk-taking, controversial, incarnational, and, of course, missional ways of being church. With regard to theory the New Perspective has challenged the traditional rationalized presentation of evangelical beliefs, arguing that New Testament theology is a fast flowing river cutting through the landscape of a particular history, not a vast undifferentiated, universal flood covering the whole plain of human existence. The New Testament is not an allegory of personal salvation. It is the complex account of the crisis of first-century Judaism and the painful struggle to bring about the renewal of the people of God. Theology needs to be recontextualized.
Among the many responses to Kurt Willems’ defence of Rob Bell was a link to an undated article by Tim Keller on “The Importance of Hell” (thank you, Jake). Tim Keller is an outstanding pastor, but his argument about hell seems to be wrong in so many ways—exegetically, logically, theologically, psychologically, possibly even morally… but mainly exegetically. Much of the argument has been covered in recent posts, so I have kept matters reasonably concise and provided links to the relevant material. This is, admittedly, an overworked topic, and I apologize for repeating myself. But it is a good test case for the debate between Reformed and New Perspective theologies, raising important questions about the use of language and the relevance of historical context.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is often cited as evidence that Jesus believed in hell as a place of conscious torment. Ben has drawn attention to it in a comment on my “Kevin DeYoung, Rob Bell, and the argument about hell” post, noting that Jesus appears to affirm “conscious/physical punishment after death”. The basic issue here is probably a literary one. Is this story of such a character that it requires to be read as a more or less literal account of post-mortem realities? Or is it rather a parable or symbolic narrative that speaks of a state of affairs other than that which it purports to describe? It seems to me that the weight of evidence is very much in favour of the latter opinion.
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.