I have just received a review copy of a book by Brian Jones called Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It), published by David C. Cook—an excellent title, though I hate to admit it. The book also starts with one of the most gripping opening stories that I have come across. I am usually put off by the banal, formulaic anecdotes that seem to be the mandatory preface to popular Christian books, but this was an exception. Both the gist of the anecdote and the urgent, uncompromising argument of the book can be inferred from this loudly italicized paragraph, in which Jones reproaches himself for not taking hell seriously:
Let me get this straight: You’re willing to run into a burning building to save someone’s life, but non-Christians all around you are going to hell and you don’t believe it, let alone lift a finger to help. (17)
The book is an unflinching, remarkably candid, borderline maniacal attempt to convince the church that hell is real and that the enormity and horror of the belief must drive us to relentless evangelism. The problem with it is that the theological premise is never examined. The book takes it as given that Jesus and Paul both taught that those who do not believe will suffer unending torment after death, and a number of passages are cited to that end. Various objections to belief in hell are considered—it’s an unpopular idea, the punishment does not fit the crime, respected evangelical scholars reject the belief, etc.—but not the primary objection, which is that the doctrine is a gross misreading of the New Testament texts.
1. Jesus does not teach that non-believing humanity will suffer eternal punishment after death. He teaches that unrepentant Israel will suffer the catastrophic judgment of war, horrifying loss of life, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
2. Paul does not teach a doctrine of eternal conscious torment in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9. He teaches—admittedly in vivid apocalyptic language—that the Jews (cf. Acts 17:1-15) who were currently persecuting the Thessalonian church would be overtaken by the temporal judgment that was about to come upon Israel.
3. The “apocalyptic urgency” of the New Testament arises from the fact that judgment, deliverance and vindication were understood to be historically imminent—the events of AD 70 or the collapse of imperial paganism. We are at a different place in the narrative now, and the “urgency” needs to be reframed—not abandoned, just reframed.
4. What Paul expresses in Romans 9:1-4 is not his distress over the fact that “his friends were going to hell” (36). It is that his people, the nation of Israel, was cut off from Christ and faced destruction. His concern is specifically with the fate of the people of God. We should not uncritically include in that, as Jones does, all his “non-Christian friends”.
5. A major part of Jones’ argument is that Christians don’t preach hell because they are afraid of what people will think of them, and he tells some very revealing stories of the sort of incredulity and opposition that he has faced in his ministry. In his defence he cites a number of texts from the early centuries of the church that show that Christians were insulted and worse for their beliefs (48-58). But significantly, none of the passages suggests that they were insulted because of their belief in hell. In any case, no one is proved right by being insulted.
6. Jones repeats the common argument that disbelief in hell equates with universalism:
I have a pastor friend who doesn’t believe in hell. Whenever the topic comes up, I always ask him a simple question for which he has no answer: “If everyone goes to heaven after they die, and the point of Christianity is to do good on the earth, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”
First, Jesus died on the cross to save the people of God from destruction. Secondly, destruction—or death—is the final judgment on sinful humanity. The New Testament does not have a doctrine of “hell”, but neither does it teach that everyone goes to heaven when they die. The fundamental eschatological antithesis is not between heaven and hell but between new creation life and irrevocable death, represented symbolically in Revelation 20:14-15 by the “lake of fire”.
7. In my view the supposed heaven and “hell” passages in the New Testament relate to impending historical crises: the martyrs will be rewarded with an interim stay in heaven, where they will reign with Christ throughout the coming ages; the enemies of the emerging people of God in Christ, whether Jewish or pagan, will suffer decisive judgment. Beyond these early eschatological horizons is the final horizon of a new creation.
8. The argument that “evangelism takes precedence over social justice” (102-10) misconstrues both evangelism and social justice from a New Testament point of view. Evangelism is a statement about what God is about to do socially and politically—it is not simply “personal” evangelism; and when Christians do social justice it should be an inherently evangelistic activity, a statement about the righteousness of God.
9. Jones is right to emphasize the place of “wrath” in the argument of the New Testament but wrong to interpret it in metaphysical terms. Wrath is God’s judgment on nations and societies, and it takes the form of political disaster and transformation.
10. Oddly, Jones takes hilastērion or “propitiation” in Romans 3:25 to be a pagan concept (147). The reference must be, however, to the Day of Atonement ritual (Lev. 16:2-19). Paul’s argument is that Jesus’ death atones for the sins of Israel, which up to this point had gone unpunished.
That rapid critique gets us about two thirds of the way through the book. The rest is mostly about how to evangelize. If the premise is correct, it’s a great book that provides some really quite powerful insights into the moral, intellectual and personal dilemma presented by the traditional belief, and I would happily recommend it for that reason. But I think the premise is wrong.