What the Hell [or Heaven]; what do you think?

This question, which for some should simply be abandoned as a non-starter [for people who would rather not think], continues to be one, at least for me, that should be dealt with. It is not because I hellhaven’t concluded something on this, personally; it is because I think this question occasions an even more important one that lies underneath or behind it. That is, who is God? The way we deal with this question will largely be shaped by what we think about God and how he reveals and deals with his creation, or us.

But before we get to who God is, lets deal with this issue; the issue of whether or not hell should be understood as a place where people who are reprobate (so to speak), or unbelievers when they die (or maybe not so limited?), end up for an eternal, and conscious, and tormentuous time. I have been reading, slowly (relatively speaking), David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies; and while his major focus is not this particular quagmire, he does broach it. And it is his broaching that I want to use as the portal into dealing with this question (or not, maybe it’s a non-starter for you). Hart doesn’t commit to anything, himself (he is Eastern Orthodox, so he probably tends towards a Universalism of sorts, but maybe not!), but he does sketch this in a way that might place some question marks, or at least moments into this query that should make some of us pause more. He writes:

[…] The threat of eternal torment is an appeal solely to spiritual and emotional terror, and to the degree that Christians employed it as an inducement to faith, their arguments were clearly somewhat vulgar. The doctrine of hell, understood in a purely literal sense, as a place of eternally unremitting divine wrath, is an idea that would seem to reduce Christianity’s larger claims regarding the justice, mercy, and love of God to nonsense. But, even here, one must take care to make proper distinctions, for it is not at all clear to what degree such an idea was central or even peculiar to the preaching of the early Christians. The earliest Christian documents, for instance—the authentic epistles of Paul [editor’s note: they are all authentic, Hart … don’t play that trope!]—contain no trace of a doctrine of eternal torment, and Paul himself appears to have envisaged only a final annihilation of evildoers. The evidence of the Gospels, moreover, is far more ambiguous on this point than most person imagine; even Christ’s allegorical portrait of the final judgment in Matthew chapter 25 allows considerable latitude for interpretation, and patristic theologians as diverse as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Nineveh saw in the phrase aionios kolasis (typically translated as “eternal punishment,” but possible to read as “correction for a long period” or “for an age” or even “in the age to come”) no cause to conclude that hell was anything but a temporary process of spiritual purification. Indeed, it the testimony of several of the church fathers is to be believed, this “purgatorial” view of hell was far from being an eccentric minority opinion among the Christians of the first few centuries, especially in the Eastern reaches of the empire. All that said, though, one must grant that the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked or for unbelievers formed part of Christian teaching from an early date. But one should also note that the idea of eternal punishment was not a uniquely or even distinctively Christian notion; its pagan precedents were many; it was an idea well established among, for instance, the Platonists; and it is not wholly fanciful to suggest that its eventual ascendency  in Christian teaching was a result as much of the conventional religious thinking that Christianity absorbed from the larger culture as of anything native to the gospel. Whatever the case, it is doubtful that Christian teaching succeeded much in exacerbating fear of death or the afterlife. All the documentary evidence suggests that the special attention attraction of Christianity in ancient society lay elsewhere, in aspects of the faith that clearly set it apart from other contemporary versions of reality. [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 154-55.]

One of the reasons I like this quote from DBH is because it compresses major disciplinarian ways into this doctrine of hell; i.e. Historical Theology, Exegetical Theology, and Dogmatic Theology. This elicits something, or it should, that there are more ways into considering this issue than a simple commitment to scripture all by itself (solo scriptura, nuda scriptura) will, or can, yield. There are fields of meaning and context that need to be considered when discerning this issue of hell.

The grammatical/exegetical aspect is not as cut and dry as Hart demonstrates (quickly); the history of interpretation is not as precise as us conservative evangelicals would like, and the Dogmatic reality of God as love is thrown into relief when we consider what this means for the eternality of hell (maybe it is temporary).

We all have to come down somewhere (some choose to remain agnostic, but that’s no fun!), and all of the above needs to be considered as we begin our descent downwards to ‘somewhere’. God is love, is hell a loving place; is a concept of eternal unremitting divine wrath (as Hart phrases it) commensurate with the grander doctrine that God is love? Can creation be said to be fully redeemed (Romans 8) and death put under foot (I Cor. 15) if hell continues to be an eternal unremitting reality?  Is there an eternal shadow side of God, or is God unremitting light in Christ? Is the koine (NT) Greek able to bear the weight of this question all by itself (lexically, grammatically, and syntactically)? Do earlier Christian thinkers have anything of value to say on this? What did Jesus think?

These are all questions that I won’t try to answer here, I’ll just leave them dangling and let you. I will say though that it won’t do to simply yell your position louder; not if you are serious.

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What Did Jesus Teach About Hell? Is it eternal, conscious, torment?

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; . . . 46. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25.41, 46 (NRSV)

 Craig S. Keener comments on this pericope in his New Testament Background Commentary in this way:

25:41-45. Some Jewish traditions (like Qumran War Scroll) report that Belial (Satan) was created for the pit; destruction was not God’s original purpose for people (4 Ezra 8:59-60). In many Jewish traditions, the demons were fallen angels (cf. comment on 2 Pet. 2:4). Jewish tradition was divided on the duration of hell; this passage’s description of it as “eternal” was certainly not merely a concession to a universal image in Judaism.

25:46. Eternal life was promised to the righteous after their resurrection at the end of the age (Dan. 12:2). Some Jewish teachers believed that hell was temporary and that at the end some people would be burned up and others released; other Jewish teachers spoke as if hell were eternal. Jesus here sides with the latter group.[1]

This begs the question; what did Jesus believe about what has been labeled the eternal conscious torment doctrine of hell (the Traditional teaching)? According to Keener, and in this particular dominical teaching of Jesus; Jesus held to the belief that hell (or the after-life separated from participation with God through Christ [my gloss]) does indeed articulate that there is a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. As the quote from Keener also illustrates, the Jewish context in which Jesus taught as a Rabbi was not monolithic on this doctrine; it is just that Jesus appropriated and taught the strand that articulated that hell fits with what today would be called the traditional view.

In concert with this assessment, none other than The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry) holds that the dominical (Jesus’) teaching is consistent with Keener’s perspective; that is that Jesus taught that hell was eternal conscious torment. Note MacDonald,

[G]ehenna was a place of punishment and fire but beyond that was generally left unexplained. When we find Jesus drawing on the idea of Gehenna, we must remember that it was not a clearly worked out concept. Beyond its being a place of fiery punishment for the wicked, the details, if anyone wanted to fill them in, were up for grabs. That said, I think that it is quite clear that Jesus’ contemporaries would not have thought the he was a universalist of any variety. To the traditionalist this settles the case, but I think that there is more to be said. I want to argue, first of all, that none of Jesus’ recorded teachings about Gehenna explicitly affirm the notion that it was everlasting; and nothing Jesus is recorded to have said rules out the possibility that some or all of its inhabitants may at some point come to salvation. I am not trying to show that Jesus taught universalism nor that he taught that those in Gehenna could or would be saved, for he did neither. My aim is the much more modest one of showing that what he did teach does not formally contradict universalist claims. This, of course, does not provide any reason to suppose that a universalist interpretation of Gehenna is biblical without substantive additional reasons for embracing such an interpretation. My second task is to show that we do have such reasons.[2]

MacDonald helps reinforce Keener’s commentary, that indeed Jesus taught the Jewish tradition (amongst the many available, just as there are many available today for Christians—but not viable for most Christians) that there is a literal place in the life after life (to borrow Wright’s quip) known as hell; and that this will be a place that is characterized by final eternal conscious torment.

So this represents the dominical teaching; the teaching that Jesus taught. But this does not serve as a death knell for ‘Evangelical Universalists’; as MacDonald notes. For Jesus, in his context, the teaching that hell was eternal could very well have been “just” for his particular context. In other words, as MacDonald later contends, Jesus’ pronouncement on this topic could have been  to reinforce the severity of God’s judgment; and yet at the same time, not intending to be the last word on it. MacDonald writes:

[W]e should not suppose that, because Jesus did not explicitly teach universal salvation or explicitly repudiate the idea that many people would never experience salvation, universalism is an un-Christian idea incompatible with Jesus’ ministry. If later revelation leads in universalist directions, as I have argued it does, then we need to understand the ministry of Christ in that light. It is the whole canonical story that we examined in Chapters Two to Four that forms the broader theological context within which we must understand Jesus’ teachings about Gehenna, and it is that very context that serves to modify some of the understandings of it common in Jesus’ own day.[3]

For MacDonald, for Jesus not to teach universalism does not mitigate the fact that the whole scope and sweep of the canonical teaching does in fact teach a Christian universalism. We will have to redress this at another time.

Conclusion

The question that I have been seeking to answer through this short piece has been “What did Jesus believe and teach about the view of hell that involves eternal conscious torment; did he teach this view or not?” The result of some cursory (yet I think substantial) musing has been to conclude that Jesus did indeed teach that there is a literal place that has become known as ‘Hell’, and that hell is unfortunately characterized by eternal conscious torment.

This is an important point to establish because it places the burden on those who disagree to disagree with Jesus. Are there ways to do that, and still honor Jesus’ own teaching, and even his person? MacDonald believes that there are, and in fact he thinks he has (found the way).

There are other prominent foci (or focal points) to consider towards helping us understand how to place Jesus’ teaching, in the book of Matthew for example. In other words, there is a strong theological case to be made for a Christian universalism that attends to who God is as Triune Love, full of grace. If God is Love (and he is), then we have to interpret Jesus’ views and teaching on hell through that lens (the lens of the cross, the penultimate expression of his love … the ultimate being his resurrection). MacDonald’s contention to annex Jesus’ teaching to a particular situation he was addressing might have teeth in light of the theological argument; it might leave the door open for a Christian theological reification or classification of hell in ways that might favor something like MacDonald’s Evangelical Universalism. There might be hope. Maybe Jesus didn’t intend his teaching to offer the last word after all; on hell that is.

No matter what, in the end, the conclusion must be that Jesus did teach what some would call the Traditional view of hell as ‘eternal conscious torment’. How one places that, in its ‘universal scope’ is what still needs to be contended with (MacDonald has, I’m still working on it).

My personal conclusion, at the moment, is that Jesus’ teaching on hell should serve as the standard; I see it with ‘universal force’ and thus am not willing, as of yet, to annex it, or particularize it to his specific audience in the 1st century (which would be what MacDonald does, amongst others). I continue to hold to the trad teaching, but I also am willing to hold out that once we are present with the LORD in the consummation that he could surprise us in keeping with his life of grace and love.


[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 118-19.

[2] Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 144-45.

[3] Ibid, 149-50.

No Way Around It!, Hell

I have been thinking a lot about hell lately; a joyous thought 😦 . This has mostly been prompted by the fact that my brother is going to be reading Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist; and as a result of my interaction with Jackson Baer, the author of the newly released book What The Hell (for which I did a review). I came across a great little video and discussion provided by NT Wright on the topic, and I would like to share it with you:

Certainly the Medieval impact on views of hell are over-wrought (as Tetzel would have it). But, nevertheless, hell is a reality disclosed in scripture no matter how you want to slice it. You may want to slice it out, actually; but you must engage in some fanciful exegesis, in my view, in order to get there. There are clearly theological principles that a theologian or Christian might appeal to in order to use this as the inner-logic through which the Christian interprets the reality of scripture (like God’s as love, or Triune); but nevertheless, the exegete still must work down into the depth of the text (which presupposes the text) in order to get to the inner-logic. In other words, if we follow the contours of the text; then we must acknowledge, at the least, that Jesus, for example, taught and believed in a literal hell (Gehenna, what have you); that involves eternal conscious torment (cf. Mk. 9 etc.). I still don’t see any way around this; I’ll let you know if I ever do.

Book Review: What The Hell: How Did We Get it So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and the Message of Love

Jackson Baer

What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and the Message of Love

Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press Inc., pp. xii.+139. Paper. $7.70

I want to thank Jackson Baer for promptly sending me this review copy from his own resources. The following review ends up being a bit critical of Jackson’s presentation, but I want him to know that I still respect him as a brother in Christ; even though I disagree with him. Ultimately, as you will read throughout the review, my disagreement with Baer—in regard to his book—is not as much with his conclusion (although I am not in total agreement with him, and I am not an Evangelical Universalist), but with his form and method of argument (or non-argument). I realize that Jackson Baer is not pretending to be a scholar, and that he obviously writes for the lay people amongst us; but even so, in the end, his method is more than I can bear (pardon the pun). You will have to read the rest of the review to find out what I am talking about. It is rather long (approx. 2700 words), but I wanted to be as thorough and fair to Jackson as I possibly could.

Jackson Baer is a former Youth and Teaching Pastor in an Evangelical church. He was released from his duties as a result of his belief that the doctrine of Hell does not include the Traditional teaching that it involves Eternal Conscious Torment. According to Baer, he wrote this book after spending four years of intense study to understand whether the traditional doctrine of hell was accurate, relative to the teaching of Scripture. Jackson Baer has an undergrad degree from a Bible College, is married with four young children. Baer is not an expert, a trained theologian, or biblical exegete; this reality should be brought to bear as the reader interacts with what Baer has put to print. The following is a review of Jackson Baer’s recently released (self published) book, What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and The Message of Love.

The book is made up of eleven short chapters; the total length of the volume is a hundred and thirty-nine pages. There are no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographic material at the end of the book. The reader should understand that Baer’s book does not intend (it appears) to provide any global arguments, any engagement of recent or past scholarship (biblical or theological), any appeal to the original biblical languages, nor any sense of duty to accurately engage this hot issue in a way that reflects serious, objective, well thought out arguments. In other words, Baer’s book reflects more of a diary of his own personal struggle through the important issue of whether or not the traditional teaching of hell is viable. With that noted, let us enter into the body of Baer’s book.

Chapter 1 is titled, Stuck in Traffic: When One Hour Feels Like Forever. The title, straightforward as it is, identifies Baer’s primary purpose; he is seeking to suggest that time is relative, and thus the punishment of an eternal conscious torment in hell is not necessary in order for God to provide a just punishment for someone’s sins. Baer engages in anecdotal stories in order to “suggest” (versus argue) his point. At the end of this chapter Baer offers one more anecdote about how hell need not literally involve eternity in order to be hell. In the anecdote he is noting a plane trip he made from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon; he gets stuck next to a chap who will not shut up. Baer uses this to describe how time and hell might relate to each other. We jump into the story as Baer is exiting the plane. He writes:

[I] didn’t want to bash this guy because he was obviously lonely. But as soon as he got off that plane all I could think was, “I’m free!” I felt like I had just finished a prison sentence and was tasting freedom for the first time in years. I was so grateful to be out of that seat. I said to myself as I walked into the airport, “That guy just convinced me that Hell is not eternal.” (p. 22)

Other than the humorous nature of this story; it serves to illustrate a very serious point that Baer is contending with. That is, that hell requires the belief that it involves an indefinite period of eternal conscious torment. Baer seems to want to suggest that hell can be temporal conscious torment, and still be hell. Chapter 2 is titled, You Speak Greek, I Read English. In this chapter Baer seeks to describe and argue how semantics, linguistics, and grammar work in the Bible. This is a key chapter for Baer, it is here where he attempts to relativize the biblical language of  words like eternal, fire, and more. Since Baer does not know Koine Greek (New Testament Greek), he relies on Young’s Literal Translation. The YLT translates the Greek word, found in Matthew 25:46, αíων, or aeon as ‘age-during’; instead of as eternal. Baer takes this translation as a repudiation of the normal translation of eternal; and thus he sees this as a way to understand this passage as denoting a quality instead of a quantity of existence. Or, that hell does not need to be understood as a literal place of eternal conscious torment; instead it could be a place of temporal conscious torment (so ‘age-during’ instead of eternal). I am giving Baer a charitable reading here (I think). Baer presses this as an opportunity to highlight how modern, contemporary translations are ultimately biased (and thus interpretations); and thus the serious Bible student (English speaking only) ought to refer to an “unbiased” translation like Young’s Literal Translation supposedly represents. Chapter 3 is entitled, Gehenna, the Grave, and the Invention of Hell. A very self-explanatory title; here Baer seeks to deconstruct the ‘traditional’ understanding of hell by explaining the way words like ‘Gehenna’, ‘the Grave,’ came to be interpreted as Hell. Baer argues that these words should be understood  in metaphoric ways, and  that it is a mis-translation (and thus interpretation) to translate these words with the signifier as ‘Hell’. His basic point is that this serves to mis-lead people into teaching that hell is taught in the Bible, when in fact the word hell is never used. He wants Bible students to refer back to the literal language (i.e. YLT), and thus disassociate ourselves from a doctrine that the New Testament in particular never teaches. Chapter 4, Good Dad v. Bad Dad, is a chapter that argues a fortiori of sorts; Baer argues that as a good earthly father, he will protect his children at all costs. Similarly he argues; that if this is true of earthly fathers, how much more must it be true of the Heavenly Father (p. 53-4). Chapter 5, entitled, What About The Old Testament, suggests that the God of the Old Testament is harsher than the God of the New Testament, and that the God of the Old Testament requires a works-righteousness salvation; while the New Testament is salvation by grace. Baer writes:

. . . The Old Testament is full of stories where people are sacrificing animals to atone for their sins. It’s a work based faith that required men and women to make a sacrifice in order to be forgiven from their sins. It also shows the darker side of God where He wipes out complete nations and seems harsher than most New Testament portrayals. (p. 69)

Baer continues along this line of thought; his method seems to be one where he is trying to provide a plausible account for how we should understand the apparent disparity between  the ‘harsher’ God of the Old Testament, with the God revealed in Christ in the New Testament. He seems to think the best way to understand the dealings of God in the Old Testament is to see them as metaphorical; he writes:

. . . Another thought is that many of the stories are simply metaphorical and didn’t actually happen. This belief might sound heretical to some Christians but it’s also a valid interpretation. (p. 69)

Baer then ties this into the way Jesus taught, parabolically. Baer seems to be suggesting that the ‘genocidal’ God of the Old Testament can be the God of grace in the New Testament; if we understand some of the ‘harsher’ language in the Old Testament as hyperbolic or parabolic. Thus the language should be understood in way that presents God as someone who is intensely adverse to sin, and not actually a mean, wrathful God—the kind of God who would condemn people to an eternal conscious and tormenting place known traditionally as, Hell. Chapter 6 is, All Merciful Now, Pent Up Rage Later? Here Baer asks his most pivotal question (according to him); it is: Why would God be forgiving here on Earth but extremely harsh and final in his punishment after death? (p. 77) In this chapter, Baer engages multiple passages of scripture—Ephesians 2:4-5; I Chronicles 16:34; Pslam 136; Titus 3:4-7; II Thessalonians 1:9; I Thessalonians 5:9-10; Matthew 18—to suggest (argue) that God’s mercy and grace far over-shadow God’s wrath and sense of justice towards sin. This chapter is Baer’s attempt to appeal to God’s nature, which as Baer would argue, means that God is not vindictive or wrathful forever; and Baer believes that the traditional doctrine of hell portends otherwise. Chapter 7 is labeled, When a Metaphor’s a Metaphor. Again, this is straightforward and self-explanatory. He tackles metaphor and its usage in scripture; he seeks to deconstruct the reality of a literal place called hell by ascribing it to the literary form of metaphor. Baer says it best when he writes of the dominical teaching of Jesus found in Mark 9; note, Baer:

[W]hen you are reading metaphorical language, you have to study it to see what the author was truly saying. In that same passage from the book of Mark, we see Jesus talking about being in danger of Gehenna (incorrectly translated as Hell) if you are not turning from those sins. This metaphorical language shows us that there is a punishment for sin and we are in danger of that punishment after we die. Did I miss the part about eternal torment and burning Hell for all of eternity? I didn’t miss it because it’s not there. Jesus didn’t say that, not even metaphorically, several times. That shows me that punishment for sin will not be pleasant but that there is also hope. God’s judgment is a serious thing to encounter. (p. 90)

Chapter 8 is titled, Aren’t We Forgetting Something? I Didn’t Ask To Be Born . . . . His basic suggestion in this chapter is that none of us chose to be born; so therefore, how would it be fair for God to then condemn us to hell? Baer intones that it is not fair and further, that this is incommensurate with God’s nature and demonstration of grace.  Baer writes, “Why would He not be merciful on judgment day, after a person’s time of punishment and correction? Why would he choose for someone to be born, live their life, and send them to Hell for eternity?” (p. 102) He follows this question, with many other skeptical questions about the fairness of God sending people to hell. You will have to read the book to find out what those are. Chapter 9, It’s Either Good News or It’s Not, continues to ask questions about God’s fairness; if in fact there is a literal place known as hell which lasts forever. His basic premise in this chapter is an “all or nothing” proposition; either the Gospel is good news or not. For Baer that means that everybody is included in the life everlasting offered by the Gospel; and not the eternal condemnation of hell (that would be bad news, and according to Baer negate the Good News). Baer writes, “If the Good News of Jesus Christ is only saving 10-20% of the world’s population, like most Christians estimate, then the news is good for a very small percentage of humanity and horrific for the majority of mankind. It’s either good news or it’s not.” (p. 110) The rest of the chapter follows this kind of “logic.” Chapter 10 is entitled, The Battle of Epic Proportions. In this chapter Baer engages the book of Revelation. Baer believes that “if” Revelation is an actual book that should be included in the Canon [he is ambiguous on his belief here, he appeals to the early Luther who questioned this book’s inclusion in the canon of Scripture (p. 124)—and then he questions the clarity of this book given its notoriously enigmatic history of interpretation (p. 129)], then it might teach that hell involves eternal conscious torment. But he elides this, again, by suggesting that the book of Revelation is a crux interpretum, and thus should not be appealed to in establishing doctrine. Baer seems to be appealing to the analogia scriptura (or fidei), where scripture should interpret scripture (the more clear interpreting the less clear); although he does not identify this, in explicit terms, as his approach at this point. Finally he closes this chapter by pointing the more motivated reader to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), where he notes that, “PBS online has a great article on the history and facts about the book of Revelation.” (p. 129) Baer’s method in this chapter seemed to be to marginalize the clarity of Revelation, since if taken too literally it would seem to articulate that hell is eternal conscious torment. Chapter 11 is the final chapter of the book, and it is entitled, Restoring a 57’ Chevy. Baer uses this image [the 57’ Chevy] as a picture of what God does; he restores. Here, Baer, presents the Good News, the Gospel Message. Baer makes it clear that while he rejects the Tradition of the historic Christian Church on the doctrine of Hell; that at the same time, he still affirms the historic teaching of Christendom, that the only way to have a relationship with God is through faith in Jesus Christ! Baer is hopeful!

Strengths

The primary strength of Jackson Baer’s book is that it has the potential to cause Christians to return to scripture once again, and test to see if what Baer is asserting is true. Baer is able to write in a way that the reader will feel his heart, passion, and burden to get scripture right. Throughout the book Baer continuously references scripture after scripture; seeking to prove his argument from the holy writ. This book illustrates what it looks like for a non-specialist to engage a timely topic of our day in a heartfelt way.

Weaknesses

Jackson Baer, throughout his book, engages in fallacy after fallacy. This review has already run way too long, so I cannot illustrate this any further at this point (you will simply have to read the book to find out what I mean). He poisons the well, engages the genetic fallacy (over and again), sets up straw men, and probably the most prominent fallacy in Baer’s argument is ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). Baer overstates his case, many times, in order to undercut the traditional teaching of hell. In other words, he is so focused on deconstructing the doctrine of Hell, that he, in the process, tarnishes the integrity of the scriptures (even though he also wants to affirm that). Furthermore, Baer, undercuts the readers ability to trust modern biblical translations; again, simply so that he can make his point about hell (i.e. he believes that modern translations are more akin to interpretations, thus his appeal to a literal ‘translation’ “Young’s Literal Translation [which is actually a terrible literal translation]). There is also a prominent factual error that runs throughout Baer’s book; on pages 40, 124, and 127 he refers to the book of Revelation as apocryphal literature, instead of what it should be, apocalyptical literature—this error does not inspire confidence in the rest of Baer’s research. Finally, for this review, Baer runs rough-shod over any kind of scholarship. He ignores all of the history of interpretation, and only makes cryptic allusions to the history on this issue. This is a great oversight, and in my mind discredits the entire book (with everything else just noted).

Recommendation

As I wrote at the beginning of this review; this book would be more in the genre of diary, and personal reflection on how Jackson Baer has worked his way to his position on the traditional teaching on hell. If you are interested in understanding Jackson Baer’s road to a Christian Universalism, of sorts (he never self-identifies this way); then I could recommend this book to you on those merits. If you are seriously interested in reading a book that critically engages this issue, in a way that reflects careful thinking and argumentation; then I cannot recommend this book to you. For that I would recommend Gregory MacDonald’s (aka Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist. In fact, I would recommend that the author of the book under review here (if he has not), read MacDonald’s book. I think Baer would agree with what I have written here, after he does that.

The Wages of Sin Are Not Eternal? [The Foreverness of Hell]

Reading Jackson Baer’s book, “What The Hell,” and the fact that my brother is about to read, and my mom has already read Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist; has made me return to MacDonald’s book to review and reconsider his argument for a Christian Universalism. It is obviously not the majority report amongst the history of interpretation in the Christian Church, but it is not without historical precedent; nor does it necessarily require that it be considered heresy (maybe just heterodoxy, at most).

What I want to highlight in this post is how Parry seeks to argue for universalism through biblical exegesis. In his book he works through all the difficult passages and classic passages that “seem” to teach about a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. But Parry isn’t totally on the defensive, which is one of the things that make his book so good; he also offers his positive case for Evangelical Universalism. To get a flavor of this let me quote Parry’s closing paragraphs of his exegesis of Colossians 2:15ff; he is using this universalist passage to provide framework and scope for the rest of his argument and biblical theology of Evangelical Universalism. He writes:

[W]hat we find in Colossians, then, is a theology that locates the origin of creation, the revelation of God, and the salvation of the world in Christ. It recognizes the massive rupture introduced into the world through sin, and it sees the solution to this problem in the death of Christ. It requires a response of obedient faith to share in Christ and in the inheritance of eternal life. It offers no hope of a nice God letting everyone into heaven no matter how they live or what they believe. However, in spite of that, it holds before us a confident hope in the salvation of the whole creation. It is God’s covenant purpose that his world will one day be reconciled in Christ. For now, only the Church shares in that privilege, but this is not a position God has granted his people so they can gloat over the world. On the contrary, the Church must live by gospel standards and proclaim its gospel message so that the world will come to share in the saving work of Christ. This is the outline of the evangelical universalist theology I wish to commend to the reader. . . .

This chapter has set out to argue that Colossians works with a vision of reconciliation for the whole creation. We have seen that this vision is perfectly compatible with a strong doctrine of sin . . . , with a Christ-centred account of salvation, with the necessity of faith, with the current division between the elect and those lost in sin, and with a high ecclesiology. This vision, I suggest, can provide the contours for an evangelical, gospel-centred universalism. . . . [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 52-3]

This gives a sense into how Parry communicates, and how he will be proceeding in presenting his case for what he calls, evangelical universalism.

Without a doubt this is a controversial issue, and something that, probably most Christians know very little (to nothing) about. If you hold to the ‘Traditional’ view of hell (“Eternal, Conscious Torment”); then you need to read Parry’s book! I would imagine most Evangelical Christians wish that Eternal Conscious Torment hell was not a reality; well, MacDonald’s book provides argument that articulates a view that says that you don’t have to believe in ECT. In fact, if you are going to follow the Bible, according to Parry, then you must reject ECT.

What do you think about this stuff?

What The Hell?

I just received a review copy of a book entitled: What The Hell: how did we get it so wrong? eternity, grace, and the message of love by Jackson Baer. I just came into contact with Jackson on a repost I did that featured Robin Parry’s book: “Evangelical Universalist.” Baer, has put together his book as a result of a personal study that he has done, and decided to share it with others. Here is the blurb on the back of the book:

Many Christians think that Jesus is the only way to Heaven and those who don’t believe in Him will spend eternity in a literal and burning Hell. Is this what the Bible teaches? Will the majority of mankind spend eternity in torment because they rejected God in this life? “What the Hell” will show you what the Scriptures clearly teach about this subject and where this idea of Hell came from. It’s not about winning or losing or even changing the Christian faith. It’s about the honest pursuit of truth.

Here is a description of the author:

Jackson Baer is a devoted husband, father of four children, and committed Christian. He has a Bible college degree in youth ministry and has been a youth and teaching pastor for seven years. This is his first book, and it comes from the passionate study encompassing the past four years of his life.

The book is 139 pages, so not too long; and can be purchased from Amazon.com, or other book retailers (you can find a list of them at Jackson’s website here: www.whatthehellbook.com).

I should have a review of Jackson’s book up here at the blog within a month (if not sooner). My hope is that Jackson ends up, at least, with the conclusion that Robin Parry has; that there is no other way to eternal life but in and through Jesus Christ alone. In other words, I hope that Jackson turns out to be an Evangelical Universalist; we shall see, I’ll let you all know. Stay tuned.

Rob Bell, Robin Parry, and ‘Evangelical Universalism’

*Here is something I posted originally in May of this year. It seems this topic has gone quiet, and so I thought I would bring it up again.

Honestly, I’d never even heard of Rob Bell before his promo video broke for his now infamous book Love Wins! His book thrust something that I would imagine “most” Christians didn’t even take seriously (me included) into the forefront: Universalism (the idea that all people will end up “saved”). Of course Bell is not as forthright, and not even really willing to self-identify as a “Universalist;” but he is. His version of Universalism (as sloppy as it is) is akin to what can be called Evangelical Universalism. The reality is, is that Bell isn’t the real deal though; if you want to seriously be challenged by a “Christian-Evangelical-Universalism” from Scripture, then you must read Gregory MacDonald’s (that’s his pen name, his real name is Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist. He provides a cogent, razor sharp exegetical proposal for what he has rhetorically called Evangelical Universalism. Parry’s basic thesis is that in the end all people (“all nations”) will bow the knee to Jesus as Lord (not as judge, but Savior).

As I cracked his book, my curiosity was piqued, and I was ready to see how Parry was going to make his case (I didn’t think he could). There were a few crux interpretums I had in mind as I entered his book; a couple of those were found in some locus classicus ‘Hell Texts’ in the book of Revelation. As I worked through his book I came to chapter 5 where he worked through these passages (with the preceding four chapters laying a framework wherein these difficult texts could be re-interpreted through a Universalist lens). I want to give you an example of how he gets around the idea that ‘Hell” in these texts represents a place of Eternal Conscious Torment (the trad view). But before I do that I should provide this caveat: Parry’s version of ‘Evangelical Universalism’ still holds to a literal ‘Conscious Tormentuous’ Hell, he just believes that it is temporary (with the purpose of being an educative [convicting/convincing] place, and not a purifying place [like a Roman Catholic purgatory]); even though he believes its temporary, he still believes its a terrible terrible place to be avoided! With that caveat in place lets look at how he interprets Revelation 20:10-15 (of course I won’t be able to provide but a taste of his thinking, even so, the following quote is going to be a bit lengthy):

However [in response to his the apparent problem that chptr 20 poses for an Universalist interpretation], John moves on to a vision of the New Jerusalem in 21:9ff., and it is here that we find what looks very much like a universalist hope. 21:12-21 give a very elaborate description of the walls of the City. In the ancient world the walls of a city were essential for the protection of the inhabitants, but that this is not the function of these walls is clear from the fact that the wicked are no longer in a position to attack the city, and thus the gates are left open perpetually (21:25). So what is the wall for? Rissi maintains that it serves as a boundary marker between those inside the City (the redeemed) and those outside the City (who inhabit the lake of fire). This interpretation is supported by 22:14-15, in which the risen Jesus says: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” To be outside the city walls is to be in the lake of fire (21:8); and nothing and nobody unclean can enter the city, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27). It is the City wall that marks the boundary between the two: “a sign of separation.” So far, this hardly seems encouraging for the universalist; but then we read in 21:23-27:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut (indeed, there will be no night there). The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who dose what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Now we have a vision in which the nations, whom we have already established have been thrown into the lake of fire, enter the New Jerusalem via the permanently open gates! There is a continuous flow from outside of the City (clearly the lake of fire in the light of 21:8; 21:27; 22:15) into the City. In John’s visionary geography there are only two places one can be located — within the city enclosed in its walls of salvation (Isa 60:18) or outside the city in the lake of fire. The gates of this New Jerusalem are never closed. Given that those in the city would have no reason to leave it to enter the lake of fire, why are the doors always open? “In John’s interpretation of the prophetic message [of Isa 60] by means of the Jerusalem vision the motif of the open gates is given a quite new, and positively decisive significance for his entire hope for the future. . . . John announces nothing less than that even for this world of the lost the doors remain open!” In the oracle of Isaiah 60 on which this vision is based we read that the gates were left open for the purpose of allowing the nations to enter (60:11), and that is the case here too: the open doors are not just a symbol of security but primarily a symbol of the God who excludes no one from his presence forever. [first set of brackets, mine] (Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 114-15)

Prior to this, MacDonald has already provided an elaborate biblical theology of the Old Testament; in it, he provides a few distinctions (which also then end up appealing to a chapter where he does a biblical theology of the New Testament). It goes Israel, the Church, the Nations; without providing too much detail: Israel is chosen to mediate salvation to the nations (of which they are apart) — they fail — but a single Jew rises up from among them (Jesus) and provides salvation to them and the Nations; out of the Jews and the Nations (in the present era, since Pentecost) we end up with the Church (those who believe pre-mortem). Parry identifies the Church as the “first fruits” of Christ’s resurrection; this “first fruits” idea carries into the eschaton. In Revelation the Church are those people representative of every tribe, tongue and nation; but they are just samples from the Nations, the Nations are the rest of the world now condemned to Hell (in Revelation 20). Picking up on a motif that MacDonald has already established from his work in the O.T., the Nations all eventually get saved (see Isaiah 45:21ff and cf. with Philippians 2:8-10); which then coincides with the quote I just provided from Parry above. The Nations all finally come into and through the “open” gates of the New Heavens and Earth, the New Jerusalem (the idea from MacDonald, is that eventually, over time, each person in Hell will be convinced [just as many of us are now] of their need of a Savior — at this point they will bow the knee in faith [Parry argues that no-one ever has said that Jesus is Lord by force nor without the Spirit cf. I Cor. 12.3] and be welcomed into Heaven).

This is just to barely touch Parry’s proposal. He works through most and any of the Texts you could ever think of, and he anticipates very well; I found myself (as I was reading) thinking of objections, and I’d flip the page and he was addressing those very passages or objections (I kid you not, that happened multiple times as I read). This isn’t John Hicks (pluralist universalism), it’s not J.A.T. Robinson’s (Christian Universalism), it’s definitely not Rob Bell’s version (Parry’s work makes what Bell is articulating sound like kindergarten, I’m trying to be nice 😉 ). If you want to denounce universalism, for my money (which I don’t have a lot of), you have to work through MacDonald to do so. I’d like to see The Gospel Coalition deal with MacDonald’s stuff (you know, the “Meatier” stuff).

What do you think?

Discontinuity Between Calvin’s Hermeneutic on the Atonement from the Calvinists

I just read this essay Hermeneutical discontinuity between Calvin and later Calvinism by Kevin D. Kennedy from Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas in the Scottish Journal of Theology Volume 64 (2011) – page 299. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to make a copy of it (I read this while I was at my alma mater’s theological library today — Multnomah University), but I would like to try and provide a synopsis of his thesis and argument (as I can recall).

Basically, Kennedy argues that John Calvin and the later Calvinists (post-Reformed orthodox) function with discontinuity relative to their hermeneutics on the extent of the atonement. For Calvin, as Kennedy convincingly argues, he held to a universal atonement, but not universal salvation; for the “Calvinists,” according to Kennedy, they hold to a limited (particular) atonement, and a particular salvation. As part of Kennedy’s “ground clearing work,” he notes Richard Muller’s work in this area; as well as the work of Paul Helm and Roger Nicole (their rejoinder to R.T. Kendall’s work on Calvin). He recognizes that said scholars need to be acknowledged for their work in the area of Calvin studies (especially Muller), but that in this particular area they all over-state things when it comes to Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement. Kennedy demonstrates that Calvin’s hermeneutics, both in his commentaries (on the salient passages), and in his little book Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God consistently argues for a universal atonement (but not salvation). In particular, Kennedy looks at Matthew 20.28 which says:

[j]ust as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Kennedy demonstrates (by quoting Calvin’s commentary), that Calvin believes that the word ‘many’ is not referring to a limited class of people (the elect), or that it is excluding one group of people from the other (elect from the reprobate)—as, he notes, John Owen, along with the rest of the post-Reformed orthodox Tradition would argue—but that Jesus is providing dominical teaching by making a contrast between himself as the One over and against the Many for whom he died pro nobis (or would be dying, given the historical present in context). Kennedy goes on to look at other passages in Calvin’s commentaries that are pertinent to this topic; all illustrating this same point. For Calvin, when the word ‘many’ is used in these contexts it is not intended to exclude one class of people from the other; but instead, it is to contrast Christ’s death for us, over and against ‘us’ the many (or the point that Jesus wasn’t dying for himself, but for us). Kennedy, then, moves on and takes a look at the more universalist passages in Paul’s corpus (like I Tim. 2.4 etc.); he notes that Calvin, qualifies the word ‘all’ (like God desires that ‘all’ men be saved) in a way that speaks, not to his view of the extent of the atonement; but to Calvin’s view that not all will believe. So the limiting, for Calvin, according to Kennedy, has to do with appropriation of salvation and not the extent of the atonement as the post-Reformed orthodox interpret Calvin (so Muller, Helm, Nicole, et al).

Kennedy concludes that the post-Reformed have imposed their later developed hermeneutic of particularism onto Calvin’s hermeneutic of the atonement. He suggests that a more fruitful way forward, while noting that there are some continuities between Calvin and the Calvinists (per Muller’s exhaustive argument, like in his After Calvin), would be not to gloss over the genuine discontinuities that are present between Calvin and the Calvinists. In this instance the primary distinction is between Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement (which is universal), and the particularist view of the atonement held by the Calvinists (the Reformed orthodox ones).

In closing, what is very enlightening with Kennedy’s essay, is that it helps to substantiate what we Evangelical Calvinists, Thomas Torrance amongst us, have been arguing in regard to Calvin’s view of the atonement. This helps substantiate Thomas Torrance’s reading of many of the Scottish theologians in his book “Scottish Theology;” which argues that there is a whole strain of development of Calvinism in Scotland that follows and develops this teaching on the atonement first articulated by Calvin. Again, it is important to note that Calvinism has a variegated currency; and much of this is because Calvin left the doors open for more than one trajectory. In other words, his method was not scholastic.

Move Over Bell, Now There's Something Meatier . . . [Evangelical Universalism]

Honestly, I’d never even heard of Rob Bell before his promo video broke for his now infamous book Love Wins! His book thrust something that I would imagine “most” Christians didn’t even take seriously (me included) into the forefront: Universalism (the idea that all people will end up “saved”). Of course Bell is not as forthright, and not even really willing to self-identify as a “Universalist;” but he is. His version of Universalism (as sloppy as it is) is akin to what can be called Evangelical Universalism. The reality is, is that Bell isn’t the real deal though; if you want to seriously be challenged by a “Christian-Evangelical-Universalism” from Scripture, then you must read Gregory MacDonald’s (that’s his pen name, his real name is Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist. He provides a cogent, razor sharp exegetical proposal for what he has rhetorically called Evangelical Universalism. Parry’s basic thesis is that in the end all people (“all nations”) will bow the knee to Jesus as Lord (not as judge, but Savior).

As I cracked his book, my curiosity was piqued, and I was ready to see how Parry was going to make his case (I didn’t think he could). There were a few crux interpretums I had in mind as I entered his book; a couple of those were found in some locus classicus ‘Hell Texts’ in the book of Revelation. As I worked through his book I came to chapter 5 where he worked through these passages (with the preceding four chapters laying a framework wherein these difficult texts could be re-interpreted through a Universalist lens). I want to give you an example of how he gets around the idea that ‘Hell” in these texts represents a place of Eternal Conscious Torment (the trad view). But before I do that I should provide this caveat: Parry’s version of ‘Evangelical Universalism’ still holds to a literal ‘Conscious Tormentuous’ Hell, he just believes that it is temporary (with the purpose of being an educative [convicting/convincing] place, and not a purifying place [like a Roman Catholic purgatory]); even though he believes its temporary, he still believes its a terrible terrible place to be avoided! With that caveat in place lets look at how he interprets Revelation 20:10-15 (of course I won’t be able to provide but a taste of his thinking, even so, the following quote is going to be a bit lengthy):

However [in response to his the apparent problem that chptr 20 poses for an Universalist interpretation], John moves on to a vision of the New Jerusalem in 21:9ff., and it is here that we find what looks very much like a universalist hope. 21:12-21 give a very elaborate description of the walls of the City. In the ancient world the walls of a city were essential for the protection of the inhabitants, but that this is not the function of these walls is clear from the fact that the wicked are no longer in a position to attack the city, and thus the gates are left open perpetually (21:25). So what is the wall for? Rissi maintains that it serves as a boundary marker between those inside the City (the redeemed) and those outside the City (who inhabit the lake of fire). This interpretation is supported by 22:14-15, in which the risen Jesus says: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” To be outside the city walls is to be in the lake of fire (21:8); and nothing and nobody unclean can enter the city, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27). It is the City wall that marks the boundary between the two: “a sign of separation.” So far, this hardly seems encouraging for the universalist; but then we read in 21:23-27:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut (indeed, there will be no night there). The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who dose what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Now we have a vision in which the nations, whom we have already established have been thrown into the lake of fire, enter the New Jerusalem via the permanently open gates! There is a continuous flow from outside of the City (clearly the lake of fire in the light of 21:8; 21:27; 22:15) into the City. In John’s visionary geography there are only two places one can be located — within the city enclosed in its walls of salvation (Isa 60:18) or outside the city in the lake of fire. The gates of this New Jerusalem are never closed. Given that those in the city would have no reason to leave it to enter the lake of fire, why are the doors always open? “In John’s interpretation of the prophetic message [of Isa 60] by means of the Jerusalem vision the motif of the open gates is given a quite new, and positively decisive significance for his entire hope for the future. . . . John announces nothing less than that even for this world of the lost the doors remain open!” In the oracle of Isaiah 60 on which this vision is based we read that the gates were left open for the purpose of allowing the nations to enter (60:11), and that is the case here too: the open doors are not just a symbol of security but primarily a symbol of the God who excludes no one from his presence forever. [first set of brackets, mine] (Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 114-15)

Prior to this, MacDonald has already provided an elaborate biblical theology of the Old Testament; in it, he provides a few distinctions (which also then end up appealing to a chapter where he does a biblical theology of the New Testament). It goes Israel, the Church, the Nations; without providing too much detail: Israel is chosen to mediate salvation to the nations (of which they are apart) — they fail — but a single Jew rises up from among them (Jesus) and provides salvation to them and the Nations; out of the Jews and the Nations (in the present era, since Pentecost) we end up with the Church (those who believe pre-mortem). Parry identifies the Church as the “first fruits” of Christ’s resurrection; this “first fruits” idea carries into the eschaton. In Revelation the Church are those people representative of every tribe, tongue and nation; but they are just samples from the Nations, the Nations are the rest of the world now condemned to Hell (in Revelation 20). Picking up on a motif that MacDonald has already established from his work in the O.T., the Nations all eventually get saved (see Isaiah 45:21ff and cf. with Philippians 2:8-10); which then coincides with the quote I just provided from Parry above. The Nations all finally come into and through the “open” gates of the New Heavens and Earth, the New Jerusalem (the idea from MacDonald, is that eventually, over time, each person in Hell will be convinced [just as many of us are now] of their need of a Savior — at this point they will bow the knee in faith [Parry argues that no-one ever has said that Jesus is Lord by force nor without the Spirit cf. I Cor. 12.3] and be welcomed into Heaven).

This is just to barely touch Parry’s proposal. He works through most and any of the Texts you could ever think of, and he anticipates very well; I found myself (as I was reading) thinking of objections, and I’d flip the page and he was addressing those very passages or objections (I kid you not, that happened multiple times as I read). This isn’t John Hicks (pluralist universalism), it’s not J.A.T. Robinson’s (Christian Universalism), it’s definitely not Rob Bell’s version (Parry’s work makes what Bell is articulating sound like kindergarten, I’m trying to be nice 😉 ). If you want to denounce universalism, for my money (which I don’t have a lot of), you have to work through MacDonald to do so. I’d like to see The Gospel Coalition deal with MacDonald’s stuff (you know, the “Meatier” stuff).

What do you think?

The Evangelical Universalist, First Impressions

I just received Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry’s) book The Evangelical Universalist today in the mail. I just finished chapter 1, and am just pressing into chapter 2 (stopped at pg. 43 for the night). I wanted to register a bit of my first impression to Parry’s method and tone.

To begin with, I am a little surprised; the book is not starting out the way I would have assumed. It is much more analytical philosophical than I thought it would be. It is telling that Parry starts his book out with analytic philosophical concerns first — attempting to provide the Christian philosophical (reasonable) case for Christian Universalism — in one instance it does make sense that he would want to clear away any lingering rational considerations from the get go. But as I get into chapter 2, which is his transition from philosophy to the main thrust of the book — biblical theology, it seems to me that he is still qualifying his “biblical” work with the idea that even if folks are unconvinced by his (at the least) problematizing of the traditional reading of the eternal conscious torment hell passages of Scripture; that in the face of such stalemate — vis-á-vis his interpretive work and traditional — that he has already provided an incorrigible/indubitable case for universalism from “reason” (philosophy). And thus, in the last instance, if all else fails (the biblical exegeis and biblical theology); analytic philosophy (and the case made from that for universalism) ought to be brought in to “break-the-tie,” so to speak. This is just my first impression, we’ll see how things proceed.

As far as tone, I really find Parry very appealing; he is not saying his way or the high-way, he believes his perspective, but he’s holding it generously, relative to his attitude towards others under the rubric of Evangelical Christianity. His concern is that others show him the same attitude of deference and Christian charity (e.g. not label him a heretic, which of course then becomes ironic sense he writes the book under a pseudonymn — his real name is Robin Parry).

I’ll probably comment more on the book as I move forward. Stay tuned . . .