The Consummation of the Law

John T. Pless
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
May/Jun 2002

ell was a prominent theme in Jesus' preaching, but the same is not true in contemporary Christianity. The Revised Common Lectionary, used in many mainline churches, has trimmed articles dealing with hell, condemnation, and wrath from its cycle of readings. The universalism that has come to characterize the popular piety of our nation was implicitly assumed in the "Prayer for America" interfaith service presided over by Oprah Winfrey in Yankee Stadium shortly after the tragedy of September 11. Incredibly, a district president from the conservative Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod took his place alongside religionists who deny Christ and who boldly proclaim that there is strength in such a union, as though the power of human love could remedy sin and death. Any mention of hell, beyond a purely metaphorical reference to the September 11 tragedy, would have been seen as a breach of ecumenical sensitivity. So Christian clergy, by their participation and their silence, assented to the universalism of civil religion there presented.

Commenting on the theology reflected by the Second Vatican Council, Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse once quipped that in post-Vatican II Rome, it is hard for even a self-respecting pagan to go to hell. Hell is not a popular topic in contemporary theological discourse. German Lutheran systematician Gerhard Sauter's recent book, What Dare We Hope, does not even include an entry for "hell" in its index. Among many it is believed that Christianity must be understood as inclusive; inclusive even of "anonymous Christians"-of those who are Christians even though they do not yet know it. And, some argue, the scope of God's mercy is so wide that the thought of hell must be dismissed altogether, replaced by universalism or reduced to a merciful annihilation of obdurate unbelievers.

Discomfort with notions of unquenchable fire and the undying worm are not confined to modern theology. The early Church father Origin's speculation of an apokatastasis-a divine restoration of all things that finally brings even the demons into the realm of God's kingdom-has in various ways plagued the Church throughout the ages. This fanciful eschatology was also asserted in Anabaptist theology in the sixteenth century. Against this biblically unwarranted hope, Article 17 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession speaks:

It is also taught that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the Last Day to judge, to raise all the dead, to give eternal life and eternal joy to those who believe and are elect, but to condemn the ungodly and the devils to hell and eternal punishment. Rejected, therefore, are the Anabaptists who teach that the devils and condemned human beings will not suffer eternal torture and torment. Likewise rejected are some Jewish teachings, which have also appeared in the present, that before the resurrection of the dead saints and righteous people alone will possess a secular kingdom and will annihilate the ungodly.

At that time, Rome voiced no opposition to this article, as the Lutheran Book of Concord's Apology notes: "The opponents accept this article without qualification. In it we confess that Christ will appear at the consummation of the world and will raise up all the dead, giving eternal life and eternal joys to the godly but condemning the ungodly to endless torment with the dead." But five centuries after Augsburg there is no such unanimity among Lutherans or Roman Catholics; and there is a resurgence among some evangelicals of the belief that unbelievers will not suffer hell.

The challenges raised by those who either espouse universalism or advocate a doctrine of annihilation have been addressed by Lutherans since the Reformation. Early in the twentieth century, the Lutheran dogmatician Franz Pieper summarized the position of Lutheran orthodoxy: "The claim that the punishments of hell are intended to be remedial or restorative is just as unscriptural as the claim that these punishments are a means of annihilation." Centuries before, Johann Quenstedt railed against the so-called "mercy theologians" (misericordes theologi) who denied Scripture's clear teaching by arguing that the doctrine of hell is unworthy of God. And while opinions have varied regarding the nature of hell-is the fire physical or hyper-physical?-Lutheranism's classical theologians agree that hell is both real and unending. As Pieper quotes Johann Gerhard, "It is wiser to be concerned about escaping this eternal fire by true repentance than to engage in unprofitable arguments as to the nature of the fire."

Lutheran theology understands hell as "the consummation of the law" in those who are finally impenitent, according to John Stephensen in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Eschatology. Rejecting the doctrine of eternal damnation diminishes Christ's work. Unlike Reformed theology, Lutheran theology teaches universal atonement: Christ Jesus suffered and died for the sins of the whole world (Matt. 20:28; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 John 2:2). By the atoning death of his Son, God reconciled the world unto himself (2 Cor. 5:18-21). To refuse the gift of the gospel of reconciliation is to be left only with the Law that accuses and finds its final consummation in a hell prepared for the devil and his angels (see Matt. 25:41). Indeed, hell is utterly inhuman. The finality of this banishment is aptly expressed by Werner Elert in Last Things, "But in the last Judgment even the most obstinate ear will be opened, not to give man a chance to reconsider his decision but to shut the door to that possibility forever."

Lutheran theology takes hell with utmost seriousness because it takes Christ's work utterly seriously. The Son of God came in the flesh as the friend of sinners, to seek and to save the lost. He did not come to boost self-esteem, to provide psychological wholeness, or to establish a new social order. He came to redeem sinners from God's wrath by his blood. This is confessed in the Explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles' Creed in Luther's Small Catechism: "He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally."

With this same confidence, the writers of the Formula of Concord found profound comfort in Christ's descent into hell, confessing that "we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his power…. Thus, we retain the heart of this article and derive comfort from it, so that 'neither hell nor the devil can capture or harm us' and all who believe in Christ."

1 In this article, John T. Pless has cited Lutheran doctrinal standards which can be found in the Lutheran Book of Concord, translated by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert. His quotations of Pieper, Quenstedt, and Gerhard are all found in Pieper's Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950-1957).
Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church