The people of America are becoming more and more spiritual. On one side, it is more acceptable to believe in a higher being and to adhere to certain spiritual practices. The other side of the spectrum is the backlash against anything remotely absolute. They don’t want anyone to tell them they have to believe a certain way or that only one way is right. More people claim to be religious than ever before, but they do not necessarily desire to live according to God’s standards.
So many people can’t imagine a loving God sending people to hell for an eternity. The tension over the reality of hell has nothing to do with lack of sufficient biblical explanation. But too many people have mistaken love for nicety. And too many people see justice as incompatible with the rightful demands of a holy God. Does a father love his child when he punishes them for breaking his rules? He still loves them. What most people have a problem with is the eternal nature and the severe nature of hell. For my class, I had to read the book Four Views on Hell which let four scholars defend their position on the nature of hell. Here’s the summary of their views:
Literal View: The book accomplished a worthy task by providing the reader with the four major views and exposing the major beliefs and basis behind the individual beliefs. Walvoord’s presentation of the literal view was intentionally simple. His simple question, devoid of feelings, was “what does the Bible teach” (14). By asking this question, Walvoord set up his argument based upon the literal teachings of the Bible. He believes that hell will be eternal suffering with the fire and the whole nine yards described in the Bible. For Walvoord, he took the biblical description of hell as literal because it is simply what the Bible teaches.
Metaphorical View: Crockett’s presentation of the metaphorical view was surprising to me. As I read the preceding chapter, I envisioned that the remaining chapters would be full of opinions. Crockett put a name to what many contemporary evangelists and preachers espouse. Crockett never departed from the misery associated with hell, he just presented a thorough case of seeing the biblical language as symbolic when regards to hell. By the biblical writers using imagery that the times would best comprehend, Crockett postulates that the content was not meant to be taken literally. But that fact never diminishes the pain associated with a real hell.
Purgatorial View: Hayes’ presentation on the purgatorial view satisfied my curiosity. Having never read on the reasoning behind this view, I was hoping to find something more substantial than personal opinions and theories permeating this Catholic doctrine. Unfortunately, Hayes even admitted that it was a lost cause to try and defend purgatory from the Bible (101). Purgatory is commonly understood to “refer to the state, place, or condition in the next world between heaven and hell, a state of purifying suffering for those who have died and are still in need of such purification” (93). In purgatory, Hayes believes that Christ will punish remedially those who didn’t accept him on earth and then give them another chance to change their mind having tasted a little bit of punishment. Walvoord countered and stated that “even a merciful and gracious God cannot forgive one who has rejected Christ” (120).
Conditional View: While Pinnock did a decent job trying to make the conditional view appear biblical, as I read his defense, I felt that annihilationists came up with a doctrine that made them feel more tolerant and loving, and then they searched the Bible for texts to “prove” their doctrine (that’s called proof-texting). The conditional view, or annihilationism, states that Christians will live for eternity in heaven with Jesus, but the unrepentant will be annihilated – their body and soul completely destroyed as punishment and no enduring suffering. While there are some texts that speak of the end of the wicked, there is no way in knowing that it isn’t speaking clearly of their physical death.
Through the four positions, I see the first two as at least starting from the biblical text while the last two seek to assert the biblical text on their beliefs. So what do you think about hell? Do you believe in it? Do you not like to think about it?
I know that if hell is a reality, then it should change the urgency with which we tell others about Jesus. If hell makes us uncomfortable, we should strive to do everything we can to ensure no one goes there not just disagree with the biblical account. If the concept of hell doesn’t make you feel good and you disagree with it, what if you were wrong? That’s not one of those issues you hope to get right. Maybe instead of arguing away or theorizing on what hell is supposed to mean, maybe we could put up some roadblocks for people who don’t know Jesus.
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.