The Very Idea of It

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, May 2nd 2002
May/Jun 2002

Into this situation, we are supposed to announce, on God’s behalf, a judgment to come that will reach its apogee in the everlasting punishment of vast numbers of people in hell. It is a difficult time in history to talk about hell. Better to play along with the national assemblies of religious leaders gathered for prayer than to play the prophet.

Aside from the subject’s indelicacy, the concept of hell is also under attack from various quarters in the Christian church. The most popular objections fall into three categories. What follows is an overview of these objections.

God’s Justice Does Not Require It

Widely regarded as the definitive treatment of “conditional immortality” or “annihilationism,” Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment reflects a concern to be biblical and engage in serious exegesis (see the “Free Space” interview with Edward Fudge in this issue). Whatever we make of that exegesis, Fudge’s book breathes a high respect for biblical authority; consequently, we cannot dismiss him out of hand by claiming that he can only reject eternal conscious punishment if he ignores Scripture. The same is true of Anglican John Stott, the late Gordon-Conwell professor Philip E. Hughes, and others. While not committing himself to Fudge’s thesis, New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce wrote the original preface to Fudge’s book.

Central to Fudge’s argument is the claim that the Greek doctrine of the soul’s immortality has influenced the traditional Christian view more than Scripture. “Eternal” or “everlasting” death and judgment is then taken by Christians to mean unending conscious torment because they erroneously view the soul as inherently immortal. Fudge insists, however, that Scripture uses the Greek word aionios (“everlasting”) with greater flexibility than traditional theology has recognized. He knows that the Protestant reformers rejected the Greek doctrine as one of Roman Catholicism’s errors, but he complains that the notion that the soul is unconditionally immortal continues to undergird the traditional doctrine of hell.

But what about the biblical passages where hell is described as a place of eternal conscious torment? Surely one is not simply adopting Greek views in the face of such texts? In answer to these questions, Fudge responds to each text. (In addition to those discussed briefly below, see also Matt. 8; 10:28; 13:30, 40-43; 25:1-46; Jude 7; Rev. 14:9-12; 19:20; 20:10, 15; and 21:8.)

First, there is Matthew 3:10, 12: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire…. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Fudge comments: “As in the Old Testament, ‘unquenchable fire’ [here] represents a fire of judgment which cannot be stopped.” And, like the Old Testament writers, John the Baptist “sees [the fire] as ‘burning up’ the chaff.” In other words, the fire is eternal, but the chaff is not. The fire “burns up” the damned rather than sustaining them in conscious punishment.

Jesus first refers to hell, or “Gehenna,” as a fiery pit in Matthew 5:29. A transliteration of “Valley of Hinnom,” a “deep and yawning gorge” on the southwestern side of Jerusalem where fires consumed the city’s refuse, Gehenna was an apt earthly analogy for “the fire that consumes” in the day of judgment. Fudge draws upon both Old Testament and apocryphal traditions to illuminate this place of torment. He acknowledges that intertestamental rabbis disagreed over its duration and that Jesus speaks of throwing people-body as well as soul-into hell (Matt. 5:29ff.), but this hardly justifies the traditional doctrine of endless punishment, he maintains.

What about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16? Here, it seems, is a clear example of a person in hell: “In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'” The rich man even refers to his abode as “this place of torment.” Yet, in spite of his pleas, Abraham replied, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

To be sure, this is a parable, and doctrine should not to be based on parables, but what is this parable getting at that we should take seriously? Fudge does not believe that its context indicates in any way “concern with the final state of the wicked.” Rather, it involves lessons concerning the rich and the poor. Jesus, he claims, is drawing on rabbinical folklore (in part imported from Greek mythology) to tell a story and to make a point-and, as such, he is not assuming the truth of such torment itself. So “Luke 16 supplies no clear exegetical basis for any conclusions concerning the final end of the wicked.”

What should we make, then, of Fudge’s case against everlasting torment? He has, undoubtedly, engaged in serious exegesis. But that doesn’t end the discussion. Focusing only on Fudge’s treatment of Luke 16, I would say this: True, it is unsafe to build doctrines on parables, but it is difficult to believe that in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus was merely exploiting a pagan fable in order to make a point about stewardship. Fudge himself acknowledges that many of Jesus’ Jewish hearers would have understood this “fable.” Granted, Jesus might exploit a fable that everyone knew to be such, but this parable (by definition a fable of sorts) seems to work precisely because Jesus and his audience agreed about the reality that the parable depicts. The parable’s point is made only if the terrifying reality of hell it depicts actually exists.

Fudge does not spend a lot of time laying out philosophical arguments for the justice or injustice of his view. He obviously does not believe that God’s justice requires eternal or everlasting punishment. He may also think that God’s justice cannot require it, but the burden of his book is not taken up with that question. Fudge simply does not believe that the Bible teaches-and therefore that God has planned-the everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked. They will be annihilated once and for all, but not tormented forever, he is convinced.

God’s Justice Cannot Require It

With this objection, we encounter a different approach. A growing circle of professing Christians reject the traditional doctrine on speculative rather than biblical grounds. For instance, Marilyn McCord Adams, a noted philosopher of religion, has recently written a theodicy-that is, an attempt to explain why God has permitted the evils our world actually contains-where she argues that it would be unjust for God to punish anyone eternally (for more on Professor Adams’s views see Paul Helm’s Hell and the Nature of God in this issue). Abandoning the usual reasons that we have heard from modernists with their high view of human worth, she argues that it is not that human beings are too important or morally perfect to deserve such punishment but that they are too insignificant, and, therefore, their negative actions are too insignificant to merit God’s everlasting displeasure.

Although a professing evangelical, theologian Clark Pinnock has repeatedly expressed revulsion at the traditional doctrine as well. In fact, personal revulsion seems for Pinnock to take on the quality of an unassailable logical demonstration. Like Fudge, he defends “conditional immortality,” but for different reasons. After rehearsing the most provocative descriptions of hell in the tradition, he concludes that they give “one the impression of people watching a cat trapped in a microwave squirm in agony, while taking delight in it.” He then says this: “Hans Kung [German Roman Catholic theologian] poses a hard question: ‘What would we think of a human being who satisfied his thirst for revenge so implacably and insatiably?’ …. Torturing people forever is an action easier to associate with Satan than with God, measured by ordinary moral standards and/or by the gospel. And what human crimes could possibly deserve everlasting conscious torture?”

Here we are clearly in a different orbit than with Fudge’s concerns about scriptural exegesis. This is the realm of pathos, where those who hold the traditional view must be sadists. But notice that each of Pinnock’s questions give human speculation a normative role. “What would we think of a human being who satisfied his thirst for revenge so implacably and insatiably?” We would, of course, think terribly of a human being who executed everlasting punishment on other human beings. As for a “thirst for revenge,” surely Scripture says that God’s motive is justice and not revenge. Even God’s vengeance and wrath serve his justice and righteousness; they are not instances of selfishness and caprice. Fudge argues strenuously that God really does exercise his just vengeance, but Pinnock follows modern theology more generally in demanding that no doctrine can be regarded as true if it challenges his understanding of God’s love.

Pinnock claims that the traditional view “offends our moral sense.” Scripture tells us that God is love and “[o]ur moral intuition agrees with this. There is a powerful moral revulsion against the traditional doctrine of the nature of hell. Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view…. How can one love a God like that?” But this is not argument, exegetical or otherwise. We are supposed to reject the traditional doctrine simply by the repetition of Pinnock’s moral revulsion at the very idea.

God’s Love Conquers All

As its leading representatives have made abundantly clear, open theism’s central conviction is that God is love. Of course, no Christian can deny the significance of John’s glad announcement (1 John 4:16). Yet, we must bear in mind that this scriptural truth is to be understood in the light of the rest of Scripture and not in the light of the supposedly “neutral” understandings of love and justice that are preferred by modern societies. Otherwise, whatever else God might be-just, righteous, holy, merciful, wise, sovereign, and so forth-the bottom line is, his love will always triumph over his other attributes.

God is simple. In other words, he is not composed of separate attributes, some of which are more definitive of who he is than others. In denying this, open theists, such as Pinnock, risk denying that God is anything other than love. But then God’s love dissolves into sentimentality. Instead of worshiping God, we then risk worshiping an abstract attribute. Instead of saying, “God is love,” we end up saying, “Love is God.” At the end of the day, God’s love trumps everything else. Perhaps this is why Pinnock nowhere wrestles seriously with key biblical passages on everlasting punishment.

But does love conquer all? Fudge strongly affirms annihilation as the destiny of the wicked. Pinnock is not so sure. In fact, he wonders out loud whether purgatory is a better answer because it “appeals to the Arminian streak in me.”

We should note that, in Pinnock’s view, God’s love is not really “pure” love after all. Nor is it pure justice. If annihilation or purgatory await the wicked (and the latter perhaps even believers as well), then isn’t this still morally offensive? For the same objections that critics of the traditional doctrine raise can again be raised if God punishes at all. For Pinnock, it seems that justice can only be restorative: after death, humans must not be judged but purged. And this implies that the doctrine of hell must be abandoned. For how can hell reform people? How can it improve their lives? Here, I suspect, is a more than modest dose of modernity. The “triumph of the therapeutic” that has transformed our view of civic punishment has also deeply affected our understanding of divine justice.

In response, we must declare frankly that there are some things that God cannot do. He cannot acquit the guilty. He cannot simply let bygones be bygones. There must be payment for sin, whether by the sinner or by a Substitute. Even if it offends our moral sensibilities, the truth is that “God is jealous, and the Lord avenges; the Lord avenges and is furious. The Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserves wrath for his enemies; the Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked…. Who can stand before his indignation? And who can endure the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him” (Nah. 1:1-3, 6). We need to remember the church father Anselm’s reply to his friend Boso, when Boso questioned the propriety of an infinite punishment for sin: “You have not yet considered the greatness of your sin.”

But there is good news, the news that God is love because he loves justly as well as mercifully:

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the Law; rather, through the Law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:19-24).

The horror that Christ endured on behalf of sinners is meaningless if we as sinners are not in ourselves worthy of suffering the same fate. How could the Substitute’s torture on the cross be taken seriously if those for whom he substituted himself could not be justly sentenced in the same manner? God’s mercy embraces his justice at the cross. Pinnock, however, risks collapsing mercy and justice into each other and thus emptying mercy of its mercifulness. This does not by itself settle the question of whether everlasting punishment is required. But it does answer the objection that hell cannot be required. A denial of the necessity of damnation itself in any form is tantamount to a denial of the substitutionary atonement. On Pinnock’s principles, we can no longer confess that our Savior “descended into hell,” since infinite divine punishment cannot be just.

Is Hell Believable?

We end where we began: How can we believe in hell after the Holocaust and profound human suffering? To ask this is to forget the Son of Man hanging on the cross, crying out in dereliction. Our suffering as fallen humans may certainly be unjustly perpetrated by evildoers, as occurred in the Holocaust and on September 11, 2001. But we are all-victims as well as perpetrators-participants in human rebellion’s tangled web. At Calvary, there was One who was no part of the mess, One who had no guilt and who yet was willing to become flesh and endure our just sentence. So great is the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! It is not the Holocaust that measures human evil. It is the cross. And yet there God was reconciling the world to himself, so that “whosoever believes may not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, May 2nd 2002

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology