Last month I was asked to write an article for an e-zine, Engage.Mail. This online publication is a produced by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. Here is my introduction:
In March 2016, one of the world’s largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.
In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn’t agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.
I go on to look at:
Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
Imitating God in all our actions?
Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
John Stackhouse wrote the biblical and theological case for Terminal Punishment (also know as Conditionalism or Annihilationism) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. As I did with the previous chapter, my aim is to engage with him as I read through his chapter, and not read the responses from the other authors until after I’ve finished my own.
I like Stackhouse’s opening paragraph:
Any proper doctrine of hell must take thoroughly into account the goodness of God, an attribute that can be viewed as having two poles, both of which are essential …
… God’s holiness: God’s moral rectitude and cleanness, God’s detestation of all that is wrong and his relentless action to make everything right. God is, in a word, a perfectionist … “God is light” (1 John 1:5)
… God’s benevolence: God’s kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. God is, in a word, a lover … “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16)
John Stackhouse, page 61
The first example of “everything right” was in Eden before the Fall, and so I think that scene should define the minimum of any future right-ness. In it all humanity were created in God’s image and enjoyed holy relationships of selfless love―there was no death, destruction, or annihilation.
Stackhouse contends that his view, summarised below, satisfies both poles of God’s goodness better than the alternative views, and furthermore, is the most warranted by Scripture.
hell is the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.
John Stackhouse, page 61-62
It will be interesting to see Stackhouse unpack this but my first reaction is that I don’t see why death has to be seen as complete separation from God. According to the 2016 Annual Moore College Lectures, most Christians believe in at least a semi-conscious intermediate state, where those who have died go until the general resurrection. That seems to imply “death” cannot simply be equated to complete separation and cessation.
What Is Hell?
In this section, Stackhouse highlights the three biblical depictions of hell he sees as central:
Hell is the logical and metaphysical, and thus inevitable, outcome of the decision to reject God―and thus to reject the good.
John Stackhouse, page 63
As with the previous quote, I’m concerned too much weight is placed on someone’s “decision“―whether they reject or “avail themselves”. As far as I can tell, everyone is ignorant of the complete reality of their choices, that we are corrupted/damaged and lacking in discernment. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to work in us, to heal us, give us wisdom, and the ability to choose what is best for us―namely the Good. I think Talbott’s reflection on C. S. Lewis’ conversion is very helpful when considering the role of our decisions.
A fire. He says that fire performs two functions in the Bible:
The first is that of testing, or judging, the essential nature of a thing by destroying anything that lacks value, as fire burns away husks to reveal seeds, if there are any … . The second … [is] purifying the situation of that thing itself if there is nothing to it of lasting value.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39, ESV
A dump. He says it fits because:
… hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed (Matt. 22:13; 25:30)
John Stackhouse, page 63
The first passage cited is the parable where one of the king’s wedding guests was so arrogant and ungrateful that he didn’t even bother to dress respectfully. Similarly, the second passage is the parable where a servant was so apathetic about his master’s business, that he did nothing with the talent entrusted to him. In both cases, the consequence was being thrown into the “outer darkness”. However, there’s no mention of them being “destroyed”, on the contrary, we are told there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a conscious activity), which might be a sign of remorse (a step towards repentance). Given another chance, I suspect they would have a better attitude. Regardless of whether I’ve interpreted that detail correctly, I think Jesus’ point was that self-righteousness and laziness towards God are character flaws that will be addressed―and I believe―corrected, even if that requires hiding from us (outer darkness) so our delusions shatter.
Regarding Stackhouse’s comments about evil, I believe God’s holiness and love means He will not tolerate evil continuing anywhere, not even in hell 1. But how He achieves that seems to depend on what evil is, or isn’t… Some theologians suggest it is the privation of good, similar to darkness occurring when light is removed. If that is the case, adding enough divine light/goodness should result in the cessation of evil.
Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.
Romans 12:21, CEV
Alternatively, I think evil could be described as “any will discordant to God’s”. If that is correct, evil will cease if God can freely bring our wills into harmony with His―which seems to be His plan.
… [God] is patient with you; for it is not his purpose that anyone should be destroyed, but that everyone should turn2 from his sins.
2 Peter 3:9, CJB
Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?