Four Views on Hell
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Four views on what the Scriptures contain regarding the nature of hell are presented in this guide to widely debated biblical interpretation.
Four Views on Hell
With more than a dozen books in the Counterpoints series, Zondervan has produced books that cover the full range of biblical topics and the diverse views on each. As with the other books in the series, each author contributing to Four Views on Hell is well qualified to represent the position each subscribes to. Represented in the book are the literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional views of hell. Each contributor strives with varying degrees of success to persuade the reader of the strength of their view while also respectfully disagreeing with other views on the subject. Following each contributor, the others offer their critical responses. At times, these responses are thinly veiled attacks; at other times, there is significant agreement. At all times, the reader is left to wonder how so many differing views could possibly exist from reading the exact same text. While all four views are well represented, none of the apologists’ arguments seems strong enough to change opinions already formed by their readers.
Four Views on Hell Summarized
The first view examined is the Literal View represented by John Walvoord. His orthodox approach to the doctrine first affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and states that the problem is one of understanding what Scripture is actually teaching. Walvoord points out that while many have an issue with the notion of an eternal hell where the unrepentant sinner is suffers for eternity, few disagree with the idea of an eternal heaven where the redeemed commune with God and forever happy. Walvoord goes on to discuss the concept of hell in the Old Testament and though it unfolds slowly, it is most certainly there and the teaching is that there is judgment for the unsaved after this life. According to Walvoord, the New Testament more clearly defines hell, especially the teaching of Jesus himself. Walvoord plainly states that the reason some have an issue understanding the eternal nature of punishment is because they fail to understand the infinite nature of sin contrasted with the infinite righteousness of God. He concludes by stating that punishment of the wicked is eternal and that it is quite painful.
The Metaphorical View is presented by William Crockett who also is the general editor of the book. Crockett strongly disagrees with Walvoord instead stating that the fire and brimstone in the biblical accounts of hell are to be understood metaphorically. He even contends that most evangelicals today interpret the fires of hell metaphorically or at least allow for the possibility. In his own review of the Four Views on Hell, Halstead reminds the reader that Crockett’s strongest reason for rejecting the literal view of hell is the conflicting language used in the Bible itself. Crockett expertly defends his position employing a wide range of bibliographical sources in support of his arguments. While Crockett believes that the images of hell are to be understood metaphorically, he agrees with Walvoord that hell, whatever hell is, is a place where the lost spend eternity separated from God.
A lengthy treatment of the Purgatorial View is offered by Zachary Hayes. This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church and Hayes spends a great deal of time defining the view and providing the historical development of this view benefiting the reader who may not be familiar with Catholic doctrine. Hayes distinguishes purgatory from the interim state before moving on to discuss the concept of purification of the repentant sinner after death. The notion is that, aside from the “giants of faith”, most of us are unprepared to immediately share the destiny of the “heroic martyrs of faith”. This unpreparedness necessitates a place where the purification process, begun in life, will be completed allowing the believer to move on to heaven in complete sanctification.
Lastly, Clark Pinnock delivers the Conditional View, also known as the Annihilationist View. Pinnock details the traditional view, advocated here by Walvoord, and then points out the difficulties of this view. Pinnock sees the traditional view of eternal torment of the enemies of God as something easier to associate with Satan than with the “Abba” father of Jesus Christ. Moving on to alternatives to the traditional view of hell, Pinnock first addresses the metaphorical view supported by Crockett then addresses Universalism as taught by Origen. For Pinnock, neither of these modifications of the traditional view is satisfactory. He goes on to use Scripture to support the idea of hell resulting in the annihilation of the impenitent sinner. Before concluding, Pinnock offers a seven page commentary on theological method essentially defending the way in which he arrives at his conclusion that unending conscious torment is unbiblical.
Prior to beginning a critique of the four views expressed in this book, it is important to disclose that I was baptized as a seven year old boy over 30 years ago in a Southern Baptist Church. Though I have always been reluctant to be what one might consider dogmatic in my theological views, those views are certainly flavored by that life experience.
It is quite obvious that each author contributing to Four Views on Hell is not only well versed in their theology, but that each clearly has a passionate belief underlying that theology. Each also clearly acknowledges some sort of hell though each differs to varying degrees on the nature of the place. No doubt, each believes that theirs is the correct view and that the others would do well to be persuaded to alter their views. A notable exception should be made of Pinnock’s response to Hayes’ Purgatorial View. Pinnock readily admits that evangelical theologians should consider the Roman Catholic view of purgatory and possibly incorporate it into their own theology. I admire Pinnock’s bold assertion but doubt strongly that either Walvoord or Crockett would seriously consider doing so.
Walvoord’s Literal View comes as no surprise given his strong support of Dispensationalism which has at its core the conviction that Scripture is to be interpreted literally. As a Dispensationalist, Walvoord is bound to reject the Metaphorical View simply because it refuses to interpret Scripture literally. Walvoord certainly does make a strong case for the Literal View standing on tradition. However, in his response to Walvoord, Pinnock rightly points out that Walvoord does not always stand with tradition instead reserving for himself the right to offer what Pinnock calls “correctives” to tradition he sees as having gone wrong. It should then be assumed that any astute reader is then given permission to strongly consider the arguments offered by the other theologians contributing to this volume much as Pinnock claims such permission to offer his own correctives. Tradition is clearly the strength of Walvoord’s argument as is his extensive use of Scripture to support his argument. Walvoord’s perceived inconsistency does his argument no favors. This inconsistency is surprising given the nature of Dispensationalism and the adherence to literal biblical interpretation (except where there are obvious metaphorical passages in Scripture).
Crockett offers a very detailed explanation of the Metaphorical View of hell. Crockett’s impressive bibliography shows the amount of research he put into not only his contribution to this book but also the amount of thought he has given this topic over his career. Clearly, especially from the viewpoint of a seminarian, such extensive research is indicative of a well researched subject. In the view of this reviewer, it is also one of the strengths of his treatment of the Metaphorical View. That said, it should be pointed out that this strength, when viewed more closely, is also a weakness. Crockett makes much ado about the conflicting language concerning black fire for example but then cites non-biblical sources. Briefly mentioning that these extra-biblical sources provide context is insufficient. 2 Enoch, Pseudo-Philo, and Testament of Abraham, while admittedly are ancient Jewish writings, are not Scripture. The point, if it is to be made strongly, is better made by quoting Scripture abundantly. Sadly, Crockett provides a bibliography heavy with sources but thin with Scripture. His argument for the Metaphorical View would have been much more persuasive had this been the case. After reading Crockett’s argument, with his agreement with Walvoord in belief in an unending conscious torment, one is left wondering what the real difference is between his view of hell and that of Crockett, physical pain notwithstanding.
The Purgatorial View provided by Hayes, on the other hand, is full of the kind of historical data a non-Catholic needs to understand the doctrine. His explanation of the need for such a purgatorial cleansing is rather persuasive and, although he says actually says little about hell, Hayes does provide one with a sense that there is hope for those backslidden Christians we all know and love. But eloquence and hope are not enough. Readers from a Protestant background are immediately drawn to the fact that in order to make his case; Hayes must rely, in part, on Apocryphal writings. Additionally, as Walvoord points out, Hayes takes 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Matthew 12:30 out of the context in which those verses are written in order to make his point. It seems a bit strange to this reviewer that Hayes openly admits that the Scriptural basis for the Catholic doctrine of purgatory depends on how one defines revelation and canonicity. Though Pinnock’s response gives the Protestant fairly good reasons to consider the doctrine of purgatory, the persuasiveness of his and Hayes arguments leave this seminarian desiring Scripture that is not in dispute to better assist with the argument. Alas, in this area, the doctrine of purgatory is rather lacking.
Pinnock’s presentation of the Conditional View is compelling. He is aligned with the traditional view insofar as hell being a place of torment for impenitent sinners. At this point Walvoord, Crockett, Hayes, and I are quite happy. As I stated previously, all accept that hell is a real place of suffering even given the differing ideas of the nature of hell. Pinnock and Walvoord would even agree that this is a physical suffering for those who find themselves there which departs from Crockett’s less offensive view of eternal mental suffering without the physical. Pinnock loses Walvoord and Crockett when he states that this suffering will end with the annihilation of the sinner leaving only those who have found salvation in Christ Jesus. This is appealing for the humanistic side of many who have a difficult time contemplating that a righteous judge will not take delight in the eternal suffering of those in hell. Pinnock’s instance on a seven page explanation of his methodology serves, in my mind, only to weaken his otherwise strong argument. One is reminded of Shakespeare at this point in wondering if Pinnock protests too much when discussing the criticisms of those who question the biblical interpretation of those who defend this point of view. It is necessary to go to such lengths to strengthen the argument? Is the criticism of opponents of the Conditional View so unfair as to create such a need? Does the base argument not stand on its own merits and provide the reader with all he needs to make a decision as to the veracity of the argument?
Each contributor certainly had a goal in mind when writing their section of this book. If the goal was to explain to those already faithful to a particular position it was certainly achieved. If the goal was to provide those who subscribe to differing views with a primer to a different point of view then this too was achieved. If the goal was to persuade someone with a differing point of view to change their opinion on hell, each of the four views presented falls short for various reasons. Still, Four Views on Hell is certainly an interesting insight into the views of these four theologians. Layperson and seminarian alike will benefit from a careful reading of this book. The strength of the book in its entirety lies in the fact that it leaves the reader curious and likely to study hell in more depth. Any book that arouses curiosity about the things of God can only be good in my view.
Fascinating Theological Discussion
The topic of Hell is one of the more contentious in modern Christian philosiphy and rather highly debated in theology depending on the denomination. 4 Views on Hell provides an informative and interesting overview of several views on the matter. The book is broken down as follows:
1. The late John F. Walvoord defends a traditional literal and eternal view of hell. While I disagree with Walvoord’s famous dispensationalist rapture position, his defense of Hell musters considerable scriptual support.
2. William Crockett argues an eternal but more metaphorical view of Hell. While somewhat vague, Crockett defends his position well with historical context and makes a plausible arguement.
3. The Catholic Zachary Hayes discusses the concept of Purgatory. As I believe other reviews have noted, the section was a little out of place. That said it was still interesting.
4. Clark Pinnock makes a forceful and interesting case for conditionalism, or in other words annilihationism. He combines some historical, philisophical, and scriptual support for the view. The scriptual view is perhaps surprisingly well put though there still seems some problems getting around Revelation if one takes some of the verses literally. Likewise, the philisophical view would be strong for some, though one of Walvoord’s objections is also potentially a strong arguement against human philisophical objection depending on one’s viewpoint.
Each of the other contributors writes a short response following a main section in the book.
Two views not advanced by any of the contributors were Universalism and reincarnation from a christian perspective. While I don’t personally agree with either, they could have been some interesting sections. On the whole, my mind is open on the matter of Hell. I find Pinnock’s view personally interesting but Walvoord and Crockett both have strong reasoning to back their approaches.