My Response to Phillip Jensen’s―What Joy in Hell?

Phillip Jensen
Phillip Jensen

Phillip Jensen has made a significant contribution to Australian Evangelicalism over many decades. Yesterday he wrote a Facebook post about Hell (quoted in full below) and a friend shared it. As I respect both my friend and Phillip (who I met about a decade ago), I thought I’d take the time to engage with him here.

What Joy in Hell?

There is no joy in hell.

I agree.

Its very existence reassures us of ultimate justice. Where else can the victims of the Holocaust find justice? But justice is little comfort when we consider hell’s horror.

Yes… but I think it does so in a different way than you think. It seems to me that justice is about righting wrongs, and that while punishment can be involved, punishment of a perpetrator alone cannot heal the victim, cannot restore the relationship to how God intended all relationships to be: a reflection of the relationship within the Trinity. That requires reconciliation of the estranged parties, which requires repentance and (self-sacrificial) forgiveness. All of which is only possible when the Holy Spirit works within a situation.

Hell is such a horrible concept that sensitive souls want to recoil from even considering it. Denying its existence can even be called a godly heresy. Godly – in that God does not enjoy the death of a sinner and nor should we (Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); but – a heresy none the less because the scriptures teach the reality of judgement and hell (Matthew 7:13, 21-23; 10:28).

I agree that it’s not a pleasant topic―indeed I have friends who have been deeply scarred by having certain interpretations of Hell forced upon them as children (some to the extent that they can no longer trust God). Personally I don’t deny God’s judgement and Hell’s existence (although we differ on the nature, purpose, and duration), and I do consider both almost every day (which isn’t an exaggeration).

However, I don’t think everyone who denies Hell’s existence is just being “sensitive”, I know some people who do so for theological and philosophical reasons―although I think that unfortunately puts them outside orthodox Christianity, which means it is technically heresy.

I agree that God doesn’t enjoy the death of anyone and that we shouldn’t either.

Much of what horrifies people about hell is the vivid and imaginative presentation of it by preachers, artists and writers. When confronted by scary pictures, some people close their eyes while others bravely make fun and laugh at them. So we have the Christians who cannot so much as think of hell and the non-Christian who will parody the whole notion portraying Satan with horns and tail, pitchfork and opera cape, or boasting, with more bravado than sense, of sharing a beer and a joke with all their mates down there.

I agree, although to be fair, Christians often haven’t helped the situation by grossly misrepresenting the topic.

Both responses make speaking on hell difficult. On the one hand the preacher is accused of insensitively using manipulative scare tactics and on the other hand he is ridiculed for believing in childish ghost stories. But it is our Lord Jesus himself who used hell in his preaching, so we must not – and cannot – leave it out of our declaration of the whole counsel of God.

I agree, although I think He was often using it differently than modern preachers.

So what do we know about hell? The Bible itself spends very little time describing or even mentioning hell. The word only occurs 12 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament, all but once on the lips of Jesus. Based on usage of the word ‘hell’, there is only one hell fire preacher in the Bible – and that is our Lord Jesus Christ.

I agree hell isn’t the focus of the Bible but it depends a bit on how you define it… For example, passages that describe future punishment are often interpreted as speaking about hell.

The word itself referred to the valley of the sons of Hinnom, close to and outside Jerusalem. The valley had been used for human sacrifices to Molech but was intentionally ‘defiled’ in Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6). The prophets (Isaiah 30:31-33, Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5-6, 32:35) spoke of it as the valley of slaughter and of its fire and vermin as the final end place and destruction of the wicked.

I agree.

The descriptions of hell are usually minimal but involve fire, corpses and vermin (Isaiah 66: 24, Mark 9:43, 48, Matthew 18:8 James 3:6). Other parts of the New Testament speak of the final state of judgement in terms of outer darkness, weeping and gnashing teeth, destruction, and second death. However, eternal fire is an image of God’s prepared punishment for the devil and his angels, to which sinful humans can be cast (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 14:10, 20:10).

I agree, except I don’t think the Bible says it’s the final state.

While the word ‘hell and any descriptions of it are used sparingly in the Bible, retributive punishment is widely taught and illustrated. Such punishment is not limited to this world and lifetime only; for both judgement after death and life after death are clearly taught in scripture. (Isaiah 66:22-24, Hebrews 9:26-28). Indeed the very concept of “the resurrection” is one of judgement as well as eternal life beyond the grave (Matthew 10:28, Luke 14:14, John 5:28-29, Acts 17:31).

I agree that judgment and punishment isn’t limited to this age but that it also occurs in the next. However, I think the type of punishment isn’t as clear as you think. There are certainly passages that sound retributive, and may well be. However, just because punishment is retributive doesn’t mean it can’t also serve a purpose. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah get burned to the ground but later we discover God restoring them.

I [God] will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and those of Samaria and her daughters. I will also restore your fortunes among them, so you will bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you did when you comforted them. As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters and Samaria and her daughters will return to their former state. You and your daughters will also return to your former state.

Ezekiel 16:53-55, HCSB

A similar destruction followed by restoration occurs with Egypt, Israel’s architype enemy, in Isaiah 19. Likewise with the Israel in Romans 11―indeed I think Paul goes as far as saying that it happens with everyone.

For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone.

Romans 11:32, NLT

And that Christ brings this justification/mercy/restoration:

So then, as through one trespass [Adam’s] there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act [Jesus’] there is life-giving justification for everyone.

Romans 5:18, HCSB

Continuing with your post…

Both this life and judgement are talked of as ‘eternal’ (Matthew 25:46).

I don’t think that Matthew 25:46 describes either life or judgement as “eternal”. When pressed, most theologians usually admit that it actually says life and punishment “of, in, or pertaining to, the age to come”. It’s a significant, further interpretive step to deduce how long either will go for in the age to come. If I said:

The highlight of the year to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the year to come will be my sick leave.

Does that mean my long service leave will be the same duration as my sick leave? I see no necessity to interpret it that way… Indeed it seems the probability of any two future events having identical durations is low. Therefore, why should I interpret the following any differently:

The highlight of the age to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the age to come will be my sick leave.

I look at this in more detail in Is Aionios Eternal? and Pruning the Flock?.

The permanence of this judgement is emphasized in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16:19-31), as well as Paul’s language of “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

I disagree and think:

The parable is more about Jesus and his mission to be the Israel that the Pharisees had failed to be, rather than a discourse on the afterlife.

Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (according to Parry)

Furthermore, there’s evidence it’s probably a “subversion” of a parable the Pharisees would’ve known e.g. there’s an Egyptian parallel, seven Jewish ones, and one from Lucian (Greco‐Roman) (see Bauckhman, The Fate of the Dead, chapter 4). There are other considerations too e.g. it’s talking about Hades (which comes to an end in Revelation) before Christ had died and visited it―unlocking it’s gates and bridging it’s chasm (I really should dedicate an entire post about it one day).

This morning I posted a post dedicated to 2 Thessalonians 1:9. I don’t think it gives much support to your position, partly because it’s relying on the word mistranslated as “eternal”.

Jesus teaches us about hell to warn us of behaviour that would take us there. In Matthew 5:22 he speaks of hating and despising our brother in such fashion as to be liable to the hell of fire. And in Matthew 5:29, 18:9 and Mark 9:43-47, he portrays the horror of hell in such terms that it would be better to lose an eye or a hand than ever to be thrown there. In Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5 he warns us to be more fearful of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell rather than the one who can only kill the body.

I agree, although I think we need to be careful not to take Matthew 10:28 out of it’s context, which is encouraging the disciples―that their persecution isn’t unexpected (v.22-25), that God cares deeply for them.

“Therefore, don’t be afraid of them, since there is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light. What you hear in a whisper, proclaim on the housetops. Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head have all been counted.

Matthew 10:26-30, HCSB

Moving on…

Whatever we do or do not know about the details of hell, it is clear from Jesus’ teaching that it is so terrible and terrifying that we should do all in our power to avoid it.

I agree.

Our hatred of hell is but a pale reflection of God’s detestation of its terrors. It is why he responded to Amos’ prayers by holding back the judgement that was coming on Israel (Amos 7:2-6) and why his heart recoiled within him when faced with destroying Israel (Hosea 11:8f). It is this compassion of God that even now means he patiently endures sinfulness to give time and opportunity for us to repent (Romans 2:4f, 2 Peter 3:9f). And even more, it is God’s compassionate desire that none should perish, which moved him to give his only Son that we should not perish at all but have eternal life (John 3:16); and it is because of his Son’s similar compassionate desire that Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:4-6).

I agree, although I would suggest that the passages you quote here (as well as those in your 3rd paragraph) should prompt us to reconsider the nature, purpose, and duration of hell. That perhaps it isn’t solely retributive, that God has bigger plans, a higher telos, for each and every being He has created in His image.

I would also suggest that “God’s detestation of [Hell’s] terrors”, as well as His compassion, motivates Him to make Hell cease. I believe this is well within the ability of an all-powerful, all-knowing, infinitely resourceful and patient God. Indeed I think He promises to do so. I don’t expect you to be necessarily convinced by this response but I would seriously challenge you to read the Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, which has been recently published by one of the largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan. It makes a strong case for Eternal Conscious Torment, Conditionalism, and Universalism all being legitimate, biblical, Evangelical positions.

Hell is a horrible topic but we must not avoid thinking about it or preaching it, for it is the basis of seeing not only the ultimate justice of God but more importantly the greatness of our God’s compassion and saving work in Jesus.

I agree, although I think hell isn’t the entire picture of “ultimate justice”.

There is no joy in hell but that is why there is such joy in heaven over every sinner that repents (Luke 15).

Amen!

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