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Hellbound, Universalism, Hell and Heaven, and The Coming of the Son of Man

Robin Parry has a lively review of Hellbound: The Movie on his Theological Scribbles blog. According to Robin the “focus was primarily versions of eternal torment vs. versions of universalism”. Annihilationism, which I would have expected to have entered the ring as the main challenger to the reigning traditional view, apparently doesn’t get much of a look in. Robin’s assessment may simply reflect his personal bias. Or it may point to the fact that Universalism really is coming to be viewed as the leading alternative to the pernicious and unbiblical doctrine of eternal conscious torment.

Either way, I’m surprised. The advocates of the traditional view—Robin lists ‘Justin Taylor, Mark Driscoll…, Kevin DeYoung, Bob Larson (exorcist), Hank Hanegraaff, Mike Bickel, street preachers, and some of those crazy “God hates fags” protestors’—are absolutely right to draw attention to the prominence and severity of divine judgment in the New Testament. They are absolutely wrong to interpret the horror and pain entailed in terms of the vicious punishment of individuals after death, but the motifs of eschatological exclusion and destruction cannot simply be dismissed on sentimental grounds.

Elsewhere….

On Huffington Post Travis Loller also notes that the “filmmaker seems to lean toward a view that holds out hope that hell exists but may not be eternal – that God wants to be reconciled to all people, and that the reconciliation can happen even after death”.

According to James McGrath “Brian McLaren suggests that Jesus was referring, much as Jeremiah was, to devastation that was going to come upon the living – weeping and gnashing of teeth – as a result of the course the nation was on, reaching a climax in AD 70.” Hallelujah! I had a long conversation with Brian on a bus journey through Burundi a few years back about the thesis of The Coming of the Son of Man, so I am pleased about that.

Mark Galli reviews the film for Christianity Today, is not greatly impressed, and comes to the thoroughly unsatisfactory conclusion that the God of “rough edges” that we find in scripture “will not be smoothed out, neither by the fundamentalists who think he is mainly interested in populating hell, nor the liberals who imagine hell is empty”. That’s really not very helpful. Either God torments some people in hell for eternity or he doesn’t. We can’t have it both ways.

And while we’re on the subject….

Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective

I have updated Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, adding a number of posts written over the last year. The basic format has been retained. The four sections consist of an account of the narrative-historical approach, responses to the recent debate, exegetical studies of the main “hell” texts, and the matter of resurrection and life after death.

The bottom line is that the New Testament does not entertain any notion of “hell” in the traditional sense. The language and imagery of Gehenna, fire, exclusion, anguish, etc., has reference to temporal, historical events—the judgment of God first against Israel, then against the pagan world.

Please note: the book is now available in print form and for the Kindle.

What I would stress about the book is that the issue is not simply whether “hell” as traditionally understood exists, or even whether a doctrine of eternal conscious torment of the unredeemed is theologically or morally tolerable. The issue, to my mind, is how we read the formative Christian texts that we call the New Testament. To put it bluntly, do we read them from our point of view or from their point of view? Do we read them on the basis of our own doctrinal and cultural presuppositions? Or do we read them—as best we can—on the basis of the presuppositions of the communities that produced and read them? How we deal with this question of perspective makes a massive difference to how we construct our theological positions.

The Coming of the Son of Man back in print

I am also delighted that Wipf & Stock have been kind enough to republish The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, which has been difficult to get hold of for some time now. Thank you, Wipf & Stock. It is available on Amazon.

Comments

Andrew,

One question and one comment.

Question: If I already own the kindle version do I have to repurchase the book to get the updated version? I’m not the most educated in how the Kindle thingy works.

Comment: Fantastic news the book is now in printed form. I will be buy multiple copies to give away to people (love the book). Thanks a million for putting it in hard copy.

In an ideal world you would certainly not need to pay again for the printed version. Sadly, however, we do not live in an ideal world. I hope the price is low enough not to prove an obstacle. Thanks, anyway.

Andrew,

I wasn’t clear in my question. I have purchased the Kindle version, and was wondering do if I had to repurchase the Kindle version again to get it to update? I understand I will have to buy the printed version. That’s not a problem.

Sorry. To be honest, I don’t know. I guess you could try deleting the book from your device or computer and then download it again. I would have thought you’d then get the new version. Let me know if that works.

“That’s really not very helpful. Either God torments some people in hell for eternity or he doesn’t.”-Andrew

“…. and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”-John Rev. 20

Truth can be devastatingly heavy for a human heart. This can be a good thing, hwne the heart turns to Christ, and says to Christ as Peter said, “Depart from me Lord, I am not worthy of You. I don’t deserve to be in Your presence.”

You’re right, Don, it doesn’t bode well for the devil, the beast, and the false prophet (at least two of which are symbolic figures). But notice that the nations which are deceived by the devil are consumed by fire (Rev. 20:9). Nothing is said about eternal conscious torment. Nor is anything said about eternal conscious torment when those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, which is described merely as a “second death” (20:15).

I also recommend this post on Revelation 14:11, where I point out that although the “smoke of their torment” is said to go up for ever and ever, nothing suggests that the idolators of pagan Rome are to be punished after they have died.

Andrew, I shall go and dig deep into these truths once again. I shall see if your accusation of “unbiblical” is founded.

I shall return my friend.

Regarding language associated with the length of punishment vs. the outcome of the punishment (are they burned forever, or are they burned so that they are dead forever?), I recommend Fudge’s book “The Fire That Consumes”.

Regarding the identity of the Beast and False Prophet, I recommend Duncan’s McKenzie’s books (primarily the one on Daniel) where he makes what I think is a strong case that the Beast and False Prophet are demonic characters associated with earthly actors, so that along with Satan those demonic characters do indeed suffer indefinitely.

Doug

I shall study a bit.

One thing we can agree on, I hope, is that it would have been better off for Judas to never had been born at all, then to have died in his sin. Better off to have never been bornis a hard saying from our Lord Jesus Christ.

I would think this applies to all who betray our lord in so many ways.

Scary:- very heart-wrenching indeed.

Nor is anything said about eternal conscious torment when those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, which is described merely as a “second death”

It isn’t merely described as a second death; the lake of fire symbol is actually interpreted as the second death.

John follows what turns out to be a common interpretation “formula” found elsewhere in Revelation and other apocalyptic literature. The formula is: [symbol] IS [reality]. Just a few examples:

Dan 8:21: the goat is the king of Greece
Zech 5:8: [the woman in the basket] is wickedness
Rev 5:8: [the] golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Rev 19:8: the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints

The things seen in the vision are not literal descriptions of reality; they are pictures and symbols which must be interpreted. John goes out of his way to explicitly interpret the lake of fire symbol whenever humans are mentioned (20:14, 21:8). The lake of fire is the second death.

Humans die once, they are raised at the resurrection, and those who are found outside of Christ are tried, judged, and punished with death. It’s literally a second death. Simple.

“It’s literally a second death. Simple.”

There you go. 2000 years of Church history and it was “simple” all along.

It’s not simple for me.

Why would our Lord say to Judas it would better if you never were born?
You are going to wish you were never born, because…..well, at least after I’m judged I will be annihilated and have no existence as if i was never born?

It’s not simple at all really, and those who think this is have a bit of pride they need to acknowledge methinks.

Even though Stott came to see “annihilation” he never said it was simple, and the other teachings were unbiblical, to my knowledge. He simply said, “i can not receive the truth of eternal punishment for sin for a sinner, for it vexes my soul too greatly”. (Paraphrased)

It is actually quite simple, and those who think it isn’t have a bit of stupidity they need to acknowledge methinks.

See, that wasn’t very nice was it? So if you’re quite done feeling threatened and making this personal, perhaps we can focus on the text, and not what other people believe (you, Stott, “2000 years of Church history”, etc.) or how prideful you think I am.

It would have been “better” (more literally: “good”) for Judas to not have been born because he did a horrible thing, will be overwhelmed by guilt, die a shameful death and then be judged and punished for it. The punishment will be akin to being burned to death. Why you think this verse somehow tells against my view, or can only be accounted for by positing everlasting torment is beyond me.

You are going to wish you were never born, because…..well, at least after I’m judged I will be annihilated and have no existence as if i was never born?

Countless people throughout history have wished that they were never born (e.g. Job 3). The fact that this verse is so frequently trotted out by traditionalists shows me how desparate they are to produce prooftexts for their view.

And for the record, the text doesn’t say that it would be good if Judas had never been conceived. It says it would have been good had he not been born. A stillbirth is probably what’s in mind here.

“how desparate they are”

I’m not desperate. Nor was the Church for the past centuries. Some people are proud that they have no pride. That is the light that is darkness as our Lord told us.

I shall study hell, and the everlasting punishment I believe I deserve, and you deserve, and we all deserve. I agree with the Church as a whole, and teachers like Rc Sproul, D.A. Carson, and many others throughout history.
Only Scripture rules though. Sola Scriptura.

have pleasant weekend and may our Lord fill you with His truth and grace.

Don,

I applaud your commitment to study the doctrine of hell. When you chose sources make sure not to study only a recently arrived offshoot as is represented by Sproul, Carson, etc. You need to make sure to study the Patristics, the Eastern Orthodox, the Syriac Church of the East, the Roman Catholics, the Ethiopean Orthodox, and the independent Christians who come down to us as Anabaptists (you might consider the Jews and the intertestamental period as well). You can use scripture as your standard, but understand that all of these groups interpreted that scripture differently.

Doug

Only Scripture rules though. Sola Scriptura.

Interesting that you would say that. I have now written about two passages, Revelation 20:15 and Matthew 26:24. But instead of interacting with my commentary on those passages, you opted to respond to two peripheral comments. I can’t help but to find that curious.

So from what I’ve seen thus far, you’re not very interested in interacting with Scripture, and are content to merely list off people who happen to agree with you.

Sproul is a notoriously sloppy thinker when it comes to this issue:

http://tinyurl.com/y5jy2yhs

Likewise, Carson’s critique of conditionalism in The Gagging of God is atrocious.

Actually, D.A. Carson implicitly denies that eternal conscious torment is justified for sins committed in this life, when he argues that the unsaved continue to accrue debt—and punishment—in Hell. Thus he does not represent the main traditional rationale for Hell, after all.

Here is an Annihilationist/Conditionalist response to him on that: http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/no-penitent-in-hell-a-reformed-response-to-d-a-carson-2

I have a question as to what the book of life actually is. I haven’t started looking into yet, but my wise husband said no one knows.

Jesus told his disciples to rejoice that their names are written in heaven. This seems to go along with the idea of the book of life.

How well do we interpet these kinds of themes? I have a feeling that because we’re removed from the original language and culture, that things have gotten a little bit twisted in our understanding.

I cannot preach eternal separation from God for many reasons, the one mentoned above being paramount.

Also, not having read the treatise presented in your book, I might be repeating some of its premises, but logically, from my own personal knowledge God’s mercy and love, am lead to believe that his main purpose in creating us is to be able to fellowship with a creature that, though damaged by sin, in the end is being drawn to (wooed) by His love. It doesn’t make sense that His judgment of the sin in a person would result in eternal separation of that person from Himself. It makes more sense that what is burned up is the chaff (i.e., the wickedness in us) and it doesn’t have to necessarily be literal fire. Our God is described as a consuming fire. But also as redeemer.

Furthermore, because it is by election that a person becomes a follower of Jesus Christ, it also doesn’t make sense that God literally chooses for most of humanity to be separated from Him eternally. That would cause him excruciating pain (being separated from those He loves) and would mean Satan got a big one over on God. Paul said it is rather to show God’s sovreignty in this matter.

No matter what, at the end, we all are going to be humbled and grateful - the elect because they get to rule and reign with Jesus Christ, to the non-elect, that Jesus is the one who makes all things new.

The perfect win/win.

As I understand it… the ‘book of life’ is primarily pertinent to the closing of the OC epoch and burgeoning NC age that was occurring in that 40yr transitional period Ad30-70; Jesus’ “this generation”.

Those of the time who remained faithful, i.e., had the “faith OF [in] Christ” survived into the [about to be] coming new age – thus they remained in the ‘land of the living’ aka the ‘book of life’, and so experienced their reward; all this as opposed to those who had their part in the lake of fire, i.e., Israel’s ‘second death’ none other than the destructive Ad66-70 Jewish-Roman wars.

As for “the elect” aka the first-fruit saints – they were the ones chosen in Christ, the First Fruit, to facilitate the fullness of Israel’s redemption, and consequent world reconciliation. Thus ‘election’ was not about “who gets to heaven” but rather “who is called to serve God”. I see no reason why post this period with redemption and reconciliation complete that God still doesn’t move certain one’s hearts [election if you will] to serve the rest of creation – thus one can be “saved to serve”.

It doesn’t make sense that His judgment of the sin  in a person would result in eternal separation of that person from Himself.  It makes more sense that what is burned up is the chaff (i.e., the wickedness in us) and it doesn’t have to necessarily be literal fire.

Michele, I agree with your general argument about eternal separation from God, but I think that this statement highlights the difference in perspective between ourselves and the New Testament.

We tend to evaluate and apply doctrines with reference to individuals, and in that framework it may make sense to speak of the chaff of personal wickedness being burned up. Rob Bell interprets the “hell” language in this way in Love Wins, if I remember correctly.

But the teaching that we find in the New Testament more often than not addresses the circumstances of communities and cultures rather than of individuals. At the heart of the New Testament is the story of the judgment and destruction of Israel and of the salvation and renewal of Israel. Biblically speaking, if Israel is winnowed on the threshing floor and the chaff taken away to be burned, that does not mean that individuals are refined; it means that a nation is refined—and that will entail the literal destruction of part of the nation.

This may seem rather remote from our own concerns, but for Jesus as a first century Jew the foreseen destruction of his people by the Romans within a few decades was a matter of overwhelming importance.