The question of hell

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Most evangelical Christians have believed in a never-ending hell. We’ve believed this because this is what we’ve been taught from Scripture. But regardless of how much we trust what we’ve been taught about hell, when we think of people actually experiencing endless torment, with no possibility of relief, we wrestle with this as reality. Some Christians deal with this unpleasantness by just thinking about it as little as possible. One could even suggest that if someone hasn’t been deeply troubled by the concept of hell, they probably haven’t thought much about it. But, sooner or later, most of us struggle with making some sense emotionally and theologically of hell. And we’re not alone. John Stott once wrote of the idea of eternal, conscious hell:

Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. 1

J. I. Packer expressed his own struggle with hell: 

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! 2

C. S. Lewis wrote of hell: 

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. 3

Few Christians relish the thought of unsaved people being subjected to eternal conscious torment (or completely ceasing to exist), but we’re committed to biblical truth and willing to faithfully believe what the Scriptures teach us. Some have shown just how challenging this issue is, though. For instance, read what Denny Burk has to say about the never-ending punishment of hell:

This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God. 4

Even many who believe in an eternal hell will recoil from this picture, but it challenges us to reflect on our own response to hell. After all, hell is a part of God’s plan, something that God himself made part of his ultimate solution for the problem of sin and rebellion. How could we be embarrassed by part of his plan? Are we more loving and merciful than God? But yet, how could we not struggle with the idea of eternal conscious torment? So we need to be very clear about what the Scriptures actually teach, to either be firmly convinced in our mind that this is the teaching of Scripture or to see that maybe this is not what the Bible teaches.

How should we approach this kind of study?

So, how do we approach studying this kind of issue? There are a few things I’d suggest:

First, begin with any necessary background. There’s some information we need to understand before trying to compare different views. So, in the next post, we’ll go over the different words used in Scripture for hell, and what they meant in their original context. After that, we’ll look at some of the history of how the earliest Christians understood hell.

Next, we need to spend some time delving into the exegetical [drawing from the explicit reading of Scripture] case for our traditional view and for any other view. We’ll look at the foundational claims supporting the eternal conscious punishment view. We’ll also carefully, biblically examine the core question: Will some people be eternally lost? The eternal conscious torment view and the annihilation view both say, “Yes, some people will be eternally lost.” The universal reconciliation and restoration view says, “No, no one will be eternally lost. God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.” We’ll see which scriptural case is the strongest.

After making sure we understand relevant background information and have studied the key biblical passages, we’ll look at broader theological arguments. How does the character of God affect how we understand this issue? Which view best fits what Scripture teaches about the gospel of Christ? Which best fits into the whole span of the biblical story? How do we deal with scriptural themes such as judgment, love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, death, reconciliation, punishment, restoration and victory?

When I compare differing theological views, I’m not looking for merely the one that can marshal the most impressive list of Scripture passages and arguments.  Most views can be presented in a rhetorically effective way, especially if we consider one view by itself. No, what I’m looking for are proponents of one side who can do an even better job explaining the other side’s passages. I’m looking for the view that makes the best sense of all of Scripture, not just a narrow list of proof texts. When observing an exchange between a Calvinist and an Arminian, I want to see if the Arminian can give a better understanding of Romans 9, and if the Calvinist can give a better understanding of Romans 11, and which one can make the best sense of the flow of Romans and the rest of Scripture. So in considering differing views of hell, I want to see who can best explain all of the relevant passages and who can present the most biblically and theologically comprehensive and coherent view.

We want to make sure we’re not basing any belief on our emotional preferences. However, we also can’t divorce our emotions from a study that includes concepts such as the love of God, restoration of relationships, and the suffering of judgment. If we were to remove all the passages in Scripture that speak of emotion or intentionally affect our emotions, we’d be cutting out a huge chunk of the Bible! So we recognize this kind of issue will touch us emotionally, but we don’t make our emotions the court of final appeal.

How does this work? Let me give you one example. I hesitate to use this particular example because I don’t want to alienate any readers, but I think it’s helpful to show the approach I’m describing. So if you happen to disagree with me regarding the issue I’m about to use, please be patient with me, hear my heart and see past the issue itself to the point I’m trying to make.

Before I was able to serve vocationally in pastoral ministry, I worked for years in business management. I worked with female peers and worked for female supervisors. I’ve seen wonderful managers—men and women, and I’ve seen horrible managers—men and women. The effectiveness of any manager never had anything to do with their gender. So I was inclined to accept a more egalitarian view of gender roles in church ministry [with no distinction at all in church leadership roles for men and women]. Especially considering my views on church polity (church leadership by a team of coequal pastoral elders without one senior pastor), it would have been so easy to simply include women in our team of pastoral elders.

And so I’ve read all the major books and articles from the different views on this issue, being perfectly willing to be convinced of the egalitarian view. But I’m not just looking for a view that’s plausible, one that’s convincing enough. For me as a pastor, it not only has to be a view I can accept, it has to be a view I can teach consistently and faithfully from Scripture. And if it’s a view I’d like to believe, I’m even more careful to make sure I’m not simply seeing what I want to see. No, any view has to stand up to the scrutiny through which I know our people will put it when I teach it to them interactively! The more I studied the books and articles presenting the egalitarian view, the more convinced I became of the soundness of the complementarian view [men and women are equal but with different roles in church leadership].

Now, some will strongly agree with me, and others will just as strongly disagree with me. But the issue itself is not my point (and I’m always willing to reconsider any viewpoint). I’m also not holding myself up as some perfect standard of balance, implying that you can trust my conclusions. I’m only saying this is the way I try to process different claims of biblical truth—even to the point of rejecting views I’d like to embrace—and this is the kind of approach I think we all need to take in examining these kinds of issues.

If we’re not willing to consider an alternative viewpoint concerning a belief such as hell, then we’re dangerously close to assuming our own omniscience, that we already have all knowledge and perfectly understand all truth. Of course, that would make us God, and we know that’s not true! We like to say that we “just go by the Bible,” but we always study the Bible from the perspective of our traditions, our preconceptions, and often our lack of knowledge regarding the original context of what’s been written. Nobody “just goes by the Bible,” and it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to think that—in 2,000 years of church history—we’re the ones who automatically have the untainted, unobstructed view of what the Bible is actually saying. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to real, confident conclusions, but we need to make sure we’ve done our homework. That also means we’ve taken the time to truly understand alternative viewpoints before we disagree with them or dismiss them. Ultimately, we may not be convinced of a new view (new to us, that is); that’s fine. But we need to be wiling to change our views if that’s where a careful study of God’s Word leads us. I love the old saying:

If you never have to change your mind,
you’re probably not using it.

So, we’re willing to change our mind, but we’re first going to rigorously examine the differing views—including our own. We’re going to push up our sleeves and do our homework. Amen?

  1. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 314-315.
  2. J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 117.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940) 94.
  4. Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment” in Four Views on Hell, second edition, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 19.

Arguments against inerrancy that don’t work: The “death of a thousand qualifications”

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If you’ve ever been part of a discussion about biblical inerrancy, you’ve probably heard this expression. It’s said that inerrancy can’t stand as a viable concept because it “dies the death of a thousand qualifications.” Supposedly, proponents of biblical inerrancy have to add such an extensive list of clarifications and qualifications to their understanding of inerrancy that it becomes useless as a workable theological proposition. If one has to carefully clarify and define what they even mean when they use the word “inerrancy,” then the concept is at best meaningless and possibly even intrinsically incoherent.

This can be a persuasive argument, that is until one actually considers the implications of such a standard. Do we really want to establish an expectation that a single word communicating a theological concept: (1) be immediately understood the same way by everyone with no needed clarification or further defining; (2) be without any need of detailed clarification regarding what this theological concept actually is and what it is not; and (3) enjoy complete and total uniformity in the way its adherents understand the concept? Should we then conclude that any theological proposition that lacks this kind of simplicity, that must often be defined, that requires and results in complex theological exploration and debate, and which proponents understand in varying ways, should be assumed to have disqualified itself from serious consideration, having died the death of a thousand qualifications, worthy of being laughingly dismissed?

If this is the case, these same critics of biblical inerrancy should be equally dismissive of the Trinity. After all, do we not have to be careful that people understand what we—and what we do not—mean by the word “Trinity”? Are there not seemingly endless qualifications and clarifications as to what is included in the orthodox Christian belief in the Trinity, and what is absolutely not? In fact, isn’t a great deal of early church history consumed with clarifying these very complex details? How many heresies are simply getting one of these details wrong: misunderstanding the deity of Christ, misunderstanding the humanity of Christ, misunderstanding the nature of Christ, etc., etc.? Aren’t there still frequent debates concerning some nuanced implication of the triune nature of God? Shouldn’t all these myriad clarifications inspire the same giggles and rolled eyes as detailed descriptions and clarifications of biblical inerrancy apparently do? (And what about all the books and articles written about what we actually mean by the “gospel” or the “kingdom”? Should we reject these ideas as impossibly complex as well?) Or could this simply be a case of special pleading, fervently defending some cherished biblical teachings despite the need for wading into theological complexity and detailed clarifications, but rejecting another, possibly not-so-cherished (at least by some), theological concept because it’s just too complex and requires too many detailed clarifications?

Of course, some words do begin to lose their meaning over time. The simple word “Christian” began to so lack clarity that we felt the need to clarify what we mean by Christian, as in “evangelical Christian.” Now the word “evangelical” is taking on more political and cultural connotations, and we’re in the middle of a debate over whether this word has lost its usefulness. Many have tended toward the use of the phrase “triune God” rather than trinity because it’s more precise and clear. But none of these adjustments in terminology required the rejection of the concept being communicated. The question is how well does this word communicate today the concept believed, not a sarcastic ridiculing of the ability of the word in question to communicate and a conclusion that the concept itself is somehow invalid (again because it’s just too darn complex).

If we continue to look closely at the discussions concerning inerrancy, we begin to suspect the foisting on of a manufactured catch-22. When someone describes the inerrancy of Scripture in a simple, easy to understand way (such as: “The Bible is absolutely true and accurate in everything it affirms”), the response is often derision at such a childish, folk belief in a magic book that somehow floated out of heaven, or challenges regarding particularly difficult passages. But when inerrantists get into details of the way Scripture is divinely inspired, and what inerrancy actually means and doesn’t mean, the critics throw up their arms and complain: “Why do you need all these clarifications? Why can’t you just state your view simply?” It reminds me a bit of the children who complained: We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a lament for you, but you didn’t mourn!

When we look a bit more closely at these “thousand qualifications” of inerrantists, we find first that they’re not that numerous, and next that they actually make good practical sense. For instance, those who believe in inerrancy will usually qualify this as the inerrancy of the original autographs. Does that mean we don’t have inerrant Scripture because we no longer have the original manuscripts? Of course not! As I’ve written previously, it’s the original readings that are inspired and inerrant, not the physical manuscripts. It’s the words that were written that are inerrant, not the scrolls on which they were written. Being clear about this protects us from viewing one particular translation (such as the KJV or ESV) as the inspired standard, and it allows us to acknowledge when biblical passages are less certain. The fact that we can’t be dogmatic about whether the mark of the beast in Revelation 13:18 is 666 or 616 doesn’t call into question the inerrancy of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3. Ironically, when we deal with such differing passages with precision and nuance, the critics try to restrict us to the simplistic, magic-book-from-heaven view they wish to reject!

Other clarifications are also common sense. The Bible includes statements from Satan and false prophets. While these are recorded faithfully, they’re obviously not intended to be read as statements of truth! Different genres of Scripture are studied with differing expectations regarding precision and literalness. In some biblical reports precise numbers are used, in other accounts in Scripture numbers may be rounded off. These don’t constitute contradictions in Scripture anymore than they would today. The Bible includes descriptive language such as metaphors and hyperbole. These are to be understood as they were intended—as metaphors and hyperbole. Theological leaders may be somewhat exacting in the way they express their concepts and qualifications, and that can be taxing to other Christians reading their work. That might cause us to think the whole concept is hopelessly complex, but that has more to do with the way theologians communicate than the concepts themselves! For comparison, read through the early church creeds and writings all about the issues concerning the Trinity. They’re not exactly what we would call simple! When we stop and see the practical nature of these clarifications of biblical inerrancy, it’s actually the rejection of such necessary qualifications that seems silly and childish.

If you’re confronted with someone making this claim that inerrancy has ‘died the death of a thousand qualifications,’ I’d encourage you to ask for the exact standard the critic is using for evaluating what qualifications are excessive and what are not. Then see if they apply this standard consistently to all other theological words and the concepts they communicate. And then, of course, one could ask them to explain their own view of Scripture. Is it divinely inspired? How so? Is it infallible? And just what do they mean by “infallible” anyway? That may prove to be not be quite as simple as they might like to think!