Why I don't like systematic theologies: the problem of hell

This is why I don’t like systematic theologies. I picked up a copy of John M. Frame’s Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An introduction to systematic theology today – it’s amazing what you can find in Dubai, as long as it’s Reformed. The book is a classic example of how theologians instinctively and unself-critically read a predetermined theology back into the biblical texts.

Frame admits rather disingenuously that if he were free to invent his own religion, eternal punishment would not be part of it. As it is, he says, ‘I must teach only what the Bible teaches, and the Bible certainly has a lot to say about eternal punishment’ (297). What is wrong with us that we have no qualms about teaching something of such profound moral and spiritual significance that we don’t actually agree with?

He then notes that ‘Old Testament descriptions of God’s wrath mainly concern what happens in this life’, but argues that since many people do not receive the full punishment for their wickedness in this life, there must be a punishment for wickedness in the life to come. But if destruction – usually the destruction of people groups or nations or cultures – is considered an adequate punishment for sin in the Old Testament, why should those who escape some concrete form of worldly judgment be subjected to eternal punishment after death?

The point is this: the central understanding of divine judgment, of the wrath of God, in scripture is that, in Paul’s words, the ‘wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23), and at a corporate level this is conceived as the destruction of a tribe or city or nation or civilization. The experience of death or destruction is likely to be horrifying. In a passage that foreshadows Jesus’ language of the ‘gehenna of fire’, Jeremiah warns of the judgment that will come upon Jerusalem because the sons of Judah have burned their sons and daughters in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom:

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste. (Jer. 7:32-34)

But there is precious little to suggest that the Biblical writers expected the suffering of destruction to continue after death. What endures in these visions is the horror of the slaughter – no one frightens the carrion birds and the beasts away; the corpses of the dead who rebelled against YHWH are consumed by worms that will not die and by fire that will not be quenched (Is. 66:24). But these are images of the finality and seriousness of death – not least as a sign to survivors – not of eternal conscious punishment.

Following the final judgment of all the dead in Revelation 20:11-15, those whose names are not found written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death. Again, the imagery reinforces the point that the wages of sin for all humanity is death, destruction – and it is the deal that most people do with life.

Frame mentions only two texts in support of his argument about eternal conscious torment. Revelation 14:11 speaks of the smoke of the torment of those who have worshipped the beast and its image going up for ever; and according to Revelation 20:10 the devil, the beast and the false prophet will be tormented in the lake of fire day and night for ever and ever. These are certainly more problematic, but a biblical theology still has to take account of the context. On the one hand, the imagery of a lake burning with sulphur evokes significant Old Testament descriptions of divine judgment against nations which oppose YHWH and the people of God (cf. Is. 30:33; 34:9-10; Dan. 7:10); and on the other, these texts form part of a narrative of judgment on Rome, conceived as a nation which supremely opposed YHWH and his people.

Can such contextualized, apocalyptically enhanced statements simply be translated into the universal certainties of a systematic theology?

The problem here is that discussion of literary and historical context – which is after all only a discussion of the meaning of the texts – appears to have been excluded by the genre of a theological work such as this which sets out with the intention of reinforcing predetermined categories. It’s always going to be necessary to organize and explain the ‘content’ of scripture, but for now I think that there are too many reasons to question the complacent exegetical conclusions of these modern systematic theologies.

Matthew 25:31-46, for example, is unthinkingly taken as an account of a final judgment when the righteous will gain eternal life and the wicked will be consigned to eternal punishment. No consideration is given to context or narrative detail. What is this moment when the Son of man will sit on his glorious throne? Why is this a judgment specifically of the nations? What does it mean that the righteous inherit the kingdom? How does this relate to other texts that speak of the disciples reigning with Christ in his kingdom? And most importantly, why are the nations judged according to how they responded to the presence of Jesus’ disciples, the ‘least of these my brothers’, in their midst?

Systematic theology is simply unable to account for – or even notice – these nuances of narrative and genre. Frame thinks that there will be ‘degrees of punishment in hell’ and cites as evidence Jesus’ statement in Matthew 11:22 that it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida. The conclusion that he reaches, that ‘even a relatively lighter beating from God, lasting through eternity, is a terrible thing to contemplate’ (298), verges on the ludicrous. But the underlying problem is exegetical. Frame gives no thought to the possibility that Jesus is speaking in quite concrete and realistic and historical terms of judgment on Israel. To be ‘brought down to Hades’ is a reference only to death – the slaughter that will accompany the war. Eternal post-mortem punishment, to any degree, has nothing to do with it.

Or to give a final example from Frame’s discussion of hell, Luke 13:3-5 presupposes the same context. It is not an argument for preaching hell, as Frame would have it. Jesus’ point is that if the Jews do not repent, they will perish in the same way that the Galileans killed by Pilate perished or that those on whom the tower of Siloam fell perished. In other words, they will be killed in the course of the Roman invasion and destruction of Jerusalem. Modern systematic theologies simply do not have the perspective or categories or self-doubt to do justice to texts of this sort – and arguably the whole of the New Testament is a text of this sort.

paulf | Thu, 10/14/2010 - 23:30 | Permalink

How do we explain the discrepancies?

Maybe god has created a system of eternal torment and for some reason it is mentioned only in passing by the latest bible writers in terms of time. Why wasn't he more clear about hell with the people he inspired?

Or maybe the books do nothing more than reflect the changing beliefs of people who wrote the bible books. The earliest authors had no conception of the afterlife. Their religion was based on the idea that if you worship god he would make you prosper in life and punish his (and your) enemies.

Eventually the afterlife was devised as an explantion for the fact that bad people prospered on earth and the faithful followers of YHWH suffered so much. But until Revelation, it was rooted in a resurrection of righteous people, there was no hint that there was an eternal out-of-body existence in a place other than earth.

But people interpret scriptures to reflect their own changing situation and needs. We are raised today in churches that teach that heaven and hell is a basic part of bible doctrine, when in reality there isn't a single clear passage about it in the entire bible.

Sorry to be repetitive, but it fits the topic.

Why wasn’t he more clear about hell with the people he inspired?

I’m sure it was clear enough for the readership of the people he inspired. We just underestimate how far we have drifted conceptually from the original context and outlook.

Not sure I see a doctrine of an ‘eternal out-of-body existence in a place other than earth’ in Revelation. I think the New Testament speaks at least of the righteous martyrs ‘reigning’ at the right hand of God in heaven, but they have been raised; they are not, therefore, disembodied. Otherwise, the final destination is not heaven but a new creation, new heaven and new earth. John’s vision is of the holy city, where symbolically the martyrs have been with Christ, descending to be part of the new creation.

I agree with your point, but:

1) I think the vast majority of christians have the idea that the bible says that after death souls go to heaven or hell.

2) I think there are multiple and contradictory beliefs embedded within the bible about the "what happens after death." IMO if God inspired the writers of the bible, or at least guided the whole process of inspiration, such a crucial and basic topic would clearly be spelled out.

1. If that is the case, the vast majority of Christians are mistaken. At some point in the early history of theology the Jewish hope in the resurrection of the body got translated into a neo-Platonic belief in the immortality of the soul.

2. Personally, I think the Bible is much more consistent on this matter than you do, though there is certainly development. I doubt if the first readers of the NT were as puzzled by things as we are – or at least, they were not puzzled in the same way. Our problem is 2000 years of misinterpretation. But there is also a question here about what we mean by revelation. Indeed, I would suggest that this is a rather unhelpful category to use when speaking of scripture, at least given its modern rationalist usage. Any notion of biblical inspiration or revelation must embrace the full untidy, contextualized historicality of the text.

You don't think it is a problem that 90+% of people who follow a certain religion are actually ignorant about the facts surrounding the religion? I have a serious issue with that. To me, if there is a god behind all this, he would have intervened to make sure it all didn't go so badly haywire.

Not just on that topic, but on a thousand things. Jesus said love your enemies, that the meek would inherit the earth, but his followers love war more than non-believers. People read into the scriptures whatever they want, and they always have, so how can you trust one version over the other? 

I also agree that 2000 years ago that beliefs were relatively more consistent. But that was largely because there were fewer options, because beliefs such as immortal souls and inferno-like punishment had not worked their way into the belief systems of many. And the gap between "no afterlife" of the Hebrew Bible and resurrection of the church is not an insigificant little development, it's a huge gulf that I don't think is easily explained away.