Read an Excerpt
All You Want to Know About Hell
THREE CHRISTIAN VIEWS of God's Final Solution to the Problem of Sin
By Steve Gregg
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Steve Gregg
All rights reserved.
Hell Has Few Friends
"There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment." —BERTRAND RUSSELL (ATHEIST)
"Even the most ardent advocates of eternal punishment must confess shrinking from the idea of hell as continuing forever. It is only natural to harbor the hope that such suffering may be somehow terminated." —DR. JOHN WALVOORD (TRADITIONALIST)
Hell, as traditionally conceived, has few friends, it seems.
Atheists find the doctrine to be a strong deterrent to their belief in the God of Christianity. Charles Darwin, a former theology student who turned agnostic, cited this doctrine as one of his reasons for rejecting Christianity. Darwin wrote, in his autobiography: "I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."
Darwin's biographer, Gertrude Himmelfarb, commenting on the above remark, wrote: "There may be more sophisticated reasons for disbelief, but there could hardly have been a more persuasive emotional one."
Darwin speaks for many, no doubt, who would concur that the traditional doctrine of hell is a compelling emotional reason for disbelief. Defenders of the doctrine imply that the severest possible view of hell must provide the best incentive for the conversion of unbelievers. On the other hand, we may never know how many people's conversions have been prevented by their reaction to the doctrine. Many react negatively to the doctrine from a conviction that any God who could concoct such a monstrous "remedy" for evil does not qualify as either good or just. Randy Klassen wrote: "It is claimed that Nietzsche, Marx, and Lenin are among those whose revolt against the establishment and the church was in part based on the teaching of hell."
Some Christians might be tempted to write off the objections of unbelievers as being due to their hostility toward God or their lack of sympathy for God's revealed sentiments. Such a cavalier dismissal, however, would fail to take into account the fact that many fervent Christians, who love God and acknowledge His wisdom and justice, also express the very same distaste for the doctrine. For example, the following statements all come from adherents to traditionalism:
"No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!"
—J. I. Packer
"The saddest day of my life was the day I watched my grandmother die. When that EKG monitor flatlined, I freaked out. I absolutely lost it! According to what I knew of the Bible, she was headed for a life of never-ending suffering. I thought I would go crazy.... Since that day, I have tried not to think about it. It has been over twenty years. Even as I write that paragraph, I feel sick. I would love to erase hell from the pages of Scripture."
"There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than [hell], if it lay in my power ... I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully: 'All will be saved.'"
—C. S. Lewis
"The thought of hell, then, can carry no inherent attraction to the balanced and coherent human mind."
—Sinclair B. Ferguson
As seen in these quotations, many staunch defenders of the traditional doctrine of hell also express the revulsion they feel toward the doctrine—though they also feel compelled, from the way that they have understood Scripture, to affirm and defend it.
Even stronger objections to the doctrine are raised by evangelical spokesmen who have abandoned traditionalism in favor of some alternative view. John R.W. Stott wrote: "Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal torment] intolerable." Similar sentiments were expressed by Stott's fellow conditionalist, John Wenham:
Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine which I do not know how to preach without negating the loveliness and glory of God. From the days of Tertullian it has frequently been the emphasis of fanatics. It is a doctrine which makes the Inquisition look reasonable. It all seems a flight from reality and common sense.
Another critic of traditionalism, Dr. Grady Brown, expressed his disapproval in the following manner:
The doctrine of "endless punishment" has for centuries been the "crazy uncle" that the Church, with justifiable embarrassment, has kept locked in the back bedroom. Unfortunately, from time to time, he escapes his confinement, usually when there are guests in the parlor, and usually just at the time when we are telling them about a loving God who gave His Son to die for their sins. It's no wonder that the guests run away never to return.
Even traditionalist John Gerstner, whose book on hell reveals very little in the way of misgivings about the doctrine, at one point exhibits the familiar double-mindedness of many evangelicals. Like other writers, he feels he must give the obligatory disclaimer: "No conservative wants to seem to rejoice in eternal torment.... It breaks his heart to see people perish by the thousands around him daily, even though it never comes near his own soul."
On the other hand, he added: "[The evangelical] holds tenaciously to the doctrine for one essential reason: God's Word teaches it.... If the evangelical will hold to God, he knows he must hold to hell.... If he loves God, he must love hell, too.... When Christ asks, 'Do you love Me?' He is asking also 'Do you love hell?'"
This, then, is the awkward position into which the traditional doctrine of hell seems to place believers. On the one hand, the truth is to be embraced and loved, but on the other, it is universally viewed as repugnant!
Some traditionalists even affirm that God Himself hates hell. Charles Spurgeon wrote: "Beloved, the eternal torment of men is no joy to God." More recently, Dr. J.P. Moreland wrote: "And it's important to understand that if the God of Christianity is real, he hates hell and he hates people going there ... God says he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked."
As J. I. Packer said, "If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!" What could we think of any man who wished to see his personal rivals tortured without relief for millions of years? We might be able to find men on earth possessing such vindictive hatred as this, but, if we did, we could hardly believe them to have the Spirit of Christ.
Yet, if the traditional concept of hell is correct, we might be forced to describe such an implacably vengeful man as very "God-like"—since God Himself, in such a case, would have conceived and deliberately engineered just such a destiny for those who have insulted His own majesty. This statement might be somewhat mitigated by the caveat that God does not desire such things for any of His creatures, but that He has been forced to this expedient, due to an element in His creation—human free will—that has seemingly gotten out of His control, forcing Him ultimately to adopt a policy of eternal hostility toward those whom He would have preferred to love.
The traditional doctrine of hell sits uneasily alongside that other prominent doctrine of the Christian faith—the one that affirms God's love for the world and His grace toward sinners, which was exemplified most vividly in God's self-manifestation in Jesus Christ. Christians who stand by both of these traditional beliefs (eternal torment and God's loving nature) have had to find satisfactory ways in which to keep the two concepts from seeming to cancel each other out.
TWO STRATEGIES FOR HARMONIZATION
One solution is found in Calvinist doctrine. This view holds that God does not really love all men redemptively, nor does He truly desire to save them. God is sovereign, and can save whomever He chooses. However, He chooses to save only some, while passing over others, whom He could just as easily have included among the elect, had He wished to do so. It is difficult to say that God loves those whom He has not chosen to save—especially if this neglect of choosing them means that they will endure eternal torment, from which He could have easily delivered them, as well as the others. No contradiction must be assumed to exist between God's vindictive wrath for the one group and His sacrificial love for another. God loves His elect, and demonstrates His love in saving them; but He hates the non-elect (Rom. 9:13), and makes that fact unmistakably clear by consigning them to eternal torment.
If this view is taken, it becomes difficult to affirm with Scripture that "God is love," apart from the addition of some caveat—that is, God is love to those whom He chooses to love. To the rest, He is apparently as unforgiving and vengeful as is the most graceless character on earth. A being whose personality is about equally divided between extreme love and extreme hatred may well exist, but one could hardly explain why such a bipolar entity would be admired for His grace and His loving character, when the very opposite of love burns in Him toward the majority of the unfortunate people whom He has not chosen to love, even though (unfortunately for them) it was He who chose to bring them into existence.
Those on the fortunate side of that ledger could be thankful to be among the few who escaped this default attitude of wrath, and, when thinking only of His conduct toward themselves (which is how people often think), might regard the God who saved them as a loving and gracious being. This would seemingly require blocking out of the mind the fact that multitudes of others, including many of their own loved ones, were denied that same grace, by a God who could as easily have given it to them, at no extra cost to Himself, had He simply been willing to extend His infinite grace more broadly.
What Calvinism gains in terms of affirming God's prerogatives, it seems to lose in terms of God's character. The Calvinist sees God's anger as being visited upon rebels whose rebellion was divinely ordained, and who are thus being eternally punished for living in bondage to forces they had no power to resist, and from which God did not choose to deliver them when He could have. If anything about this scenario seems morally objectionable, the Calvinist has one answer ready at hand: "O man, who are you to reply against God?" (Rom. 9:20).
The Arminian has an alternative solution to the difficulty of harmonizing God's love for sinners with the concept of eternal torment. On this view, God loves everybody and wishes to save them all. Tragically, His universal love is thwarted by the free will of some who stubbornly choose to resist Him all their life long. He loves them and would save them, if He could, but He cannot save them against their will, and He leaves the final outcome to the individual's own prerogative.
This view may solve the conundrum of why a loving God might not save everyone (namely, He can't), but it leaves entirely unaddressed the question of why a loving God, knowing from the beginning that He would lose most of those whom He loved, and that He would be obliged to punish them, would choose endless torment as the punishment of choice, given the availability of other options.
Among earthly governments there are humane criminal justice systems, which would never contemplate endless torture as either a necessary or tolerable consequence for any crime. In setting up the most ideal penal system that He could contrive, and being the most compassionate of all sovereigns, God might have been expected to adopt the most humane form of punishment for lawbreakers that justice would allow.
Arminian traditionalists bear the burden of explaining how their system allows for the omnibenevolence of God while retaining the most cruel (rather than the most loving) of all possible penalties for sinners.
SHOULD WE CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES TO THE TRADITION?
The ever-quotable G. K. Chesterton famously quipped: "Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead." As a Roman Catholic, Chesterton might have been expected to give his ecclesiastical forebears (i.e., "tradition") a vote in determining theological questions, alongside Scripture itself. Protestants have generally espoused quite opposite commitments, namely, to uphold the sovereignty of Scripture over all other authorities—no matter how many of them may be "voting" against it. It is easily documented that, in every academic community—whether of theologians, historians, scientists, or anyone else—the majority have very often been mistaken, and their "votes," in their day, often stood in the way of progress toward more perfect understanding of the truth. Truth has never been determined by a majority vote.
The Protestant ideal, as stated by many theologians and clergymen, is to be "reformed and always reforming." This is an ideal more easily affirmed than followed, since intellectual inertia is often strong, and the tradition is often embraced by those whose approval has some impact upon our social acceptance, our finances, our reputations, and our careers. To be "always reforming" is an excellent way to guarantee that we shall offend the maximum number of our conservative friends.
It is the heritage of Protestantism to cross-examine longstanding traditions by appeal to Scripture, when necessary. Where Scripture and tradition fail to align, it is our acknowledged duty to stand with the Scriptures against the traditions. Staunch traditionalist J. I. Packer rightly articulated the Protestant ideal: "We are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition ... even 'evangelical' tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scripture."
The late John R. W. Stott, who was once, arguably, the leading evangelical voice of Great Britain, confirmed this sentiment, namely, that "the hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform."
There are a number of reasons that a thinking Christian would wish to know whether the traditional doctrine of hell is really true or whether there is something more humane than this taught in Scripture.
One reason, of course, would be the comfort this knowledge might allow us to extend to others (and ourselves) concerning the fate of loved ones who have died without having come to Christ. Paul says that Christians do not grieve the loss of their dead in the same way as do others "who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). However, not all of the believer's loved ones are Christians themselves, and, if the traditional doctrine of hell is true, then Christians can have no more hope or comfort at the loss of their unsaved friends and family members than an unbeliever has. In the case of being bereaved for our unsaved loved ones, our faith has not positively transformed our experience of loss, as Paul suggested. If anything, our faith serves to make such loss more intolerable for us than for the unbeliever, who may be oblivious to the hell into which their deceased friends and family members descend. Our loved ones' hell becomes our hell, as well, in our believing that they will be endlessly tortured.
Another reason to discover whether the traditional view is really true or not is that it has presented the largest stumbling block to sensitive unbelievers (and believers as well) who are not as ready as some to see as a tolerable mystery the dichotomy of a God who is universally loving but nonetheless willing to endlessly torment His foes. To many, it is no "mystery" but simply "nonsense." As Dr. Brown noted above, the doctrine may be seen as the "crazy uncle" of evangelicalism, flying in the face of our declarations of the love of God for sinners. To this, many evangelicals may simply say, "We are not obligated to accommodate the objections of those who are God's enemies. They are bound to stumble at the offense of the cross, and there is little we can do to prevent that!"
Excerpted from All You Want to Know About Hell by Steve Gregg. Copyright © 2013 Steve Gregg. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.