Doctrinal revisionism is in the air, and unsurprisingly it makes people nervous. Currently it appears that many of the fundamental tenets of modern Protestant orthodoxy are being subjected to critical re-examination from the inside—among them justification by faith, penal substitutionary atonement, the subordination of women, the second coming, heaven as the final destination of the saved, hell as the final destination of the lost. How come? How can that be good? How can the church have got so much wrong?
Steven Opp recently raised this basic concern with regard to the claim that the supposed “hell” texts in the New Testament refer not to a state of conscious post mortem torment but to acts of divine judgment within history—and ultimately to the destructive power of death.
I dismissed Rob Bell’s book, but after reading your thoughts I am reconsidering the doctrine of hell. My biggest hangup is that I have always asssumed that it has been part of the Church’s beliefs since the time of Christ (correct me if I’m wrong). How do you answer someone who is very cautious to go against what most of the church believes and has believed for so long? In other words, how could we be wrong about such an important issue for so long?
This is partly a question of historical theology, partly a matter of how the church holds its beliefs, partly a matter of exegesis. I can only really give a very rough personal response here, but it is certainly worth stepping back from the detailed disputes to consider the larger picture. I don’t think a series of bloody pitched battles over prominent and controversial issues is really the best way forward.
In answer to Steven’s question I would make the following quick points:
- We have no absolute theological reason to suppose that the church could not have got its beliefs about the afterlife somewhat skewed; indeed, we ought to assume that the dominant Western intellectual tradition got many things wrong.
- Belief in eternal conscious punishment developed, I suspect, as the thoroughly Jewish New Testament was uncritically reinterpreted within the Greek-Roman world; it is not the only notion that got bent out of shape in the process.
- The church has got a lot of things wrong over the millennia and not just in the area of beliefs; it reflects rather badly on the modern church that we worry more about defending the integrity of dogmatic tradition than the integrity of behaviour; some humility would not go amiss.
- We have to follow the exegetical trail wherever it leads us; if traditional theology is going to resist such developments as this, it must at least show that it has listened to and understood the historical-exegetical arguments; but I think it will struggle to do so.
- The specific argument about hell is only one among several revisions that are taking place in response to a widespread recovery of lost historical perspectives; I think that the whole New Testament story needs to be told differently.
- The real issue here is the whole garment and not some arm or collar or cuff of doctrine that we cut or tear from it; the proposed re-reading of the “hell” passages is simply one symptom of a far-reaching hermeneutical realignment.
- The narrative-historical approach, which takes full account both of the historical context and of the Old Testament background to New Testament thought, offers a much more credible frame for interpretation than the fluctuating and fissiparous theological interests of European Christendom and the modern church.