Tag Archives: hell

1 Peter – more work needed

I’ve been a bit neglectful of late. As I blog for the Big Bible Project, I’ve been reading my way through and around the Old Testament prophets of late. Supplementing this, I’ve also been looking at Jesus, both through the eyes of the gospels and with a more theological bent through Paul (helped partly by N.T. Wright’s in-depth study). A few weeks ago I sat and listened to a former pastor of mine give an exposition of Revelation.

So what’s missing?

Well, there are a few bits, but I’m thinking (well, you read the title didn’t you?) of the book of 1 Peter. The reason this has come into focus is because it is appealed to on two controversial topics within christianity. Yet it’s appealed to from different parts of the spectrum. The two topics I have in mind are 1) atonement, 2) the harrowing of hell.

Not two of the most straightforward subjects and here I only wish to note some points, rather than give a detailed exposition. The passage in question is this (emphasis added):

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

1) Atonement

I’m generally reluctant to write on this subject as it can be needlessly divisive. Broadly speaking, the two main ideas are referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and christus victor (CV).

PSA concerns the idea that Jesus died in our place. It is the meeting point of two of God’s characteristics: justice and love. Justice demands that there must be a penalty for sin, but instead of humans paying the price, God, embodied as Jesus, took the punishment himself as an act of love for us.

CV concerns the idea that Jesus’ death was not as any form of punishment at all, but was his triumph over evil and death. This was a view that was espoused by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén in the early 20th century, although he claimed that it represented the earliest views of the church.

Without going into any depth here, I subscribe the both/and compromise. Some christians will be fiercely PSA-only and some will ferociously defend the idea of CV without PSA. Using a very broad brush, my observation is that PSA-only tend to be more evangelical, while CV-only tend to be more anglican.

The above passage (particularly the first part bolded) is one of the clearest statements of PSA. There are others, including Isaiah 53 and 1 Corinthians 15:3. I was at a talk recently with someone for whom PSA played no part in their theology. It wasn’t that they were CV-only; rather, they were advocating what they referred to as nonviolent atonement (the speaker was from an anabaptist background). In this talk, when someone challenged him about this particular passage he could only respond that he thought Peter was wrong. In fact, that’s the only time I’ve actually heard anyone who didn’t incorporate PSA into their theology tackle this particular backup for it. Usually, it is combated by means of first caricaturing it (often as “cosmic child abuse” or something similar) and then dismissing the caricature using some form of moral argument. i.e. a straw man argument.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of a substitutionary process: the righteous for the unrighteous.

2) The Harrowing of Hell

This is a question of what happened to Jesus between his crucifixion and resurrection on what is variously called Easter Saturday, Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday. I’m sure there must be other terms used for the same day.

Having grown up an an orthodox, but not traditionalist, evangelical baptist church, the idea that was taught (though not with much emphasis) was that Jesus went to hell. Then somehow (it’s a mystery, the how was never properly explained) he endured multiple eternities in a single day. Once that was over, he rose from the dead.

In later life, I encountered those who took to the idea of the harrowing of hell. Here, Jesus is somewhat more active in his day in hell, doing something akin to a jailbreak. Part of the idea behind it comes from supersessionism whereby Jesus’ death created the problem of “[what do you do with the faithful Jews before Jesus?]” The problem is resolved by the harrowing of hell, whereby Jesus converts dead, faithful Jews to christianity.

I know that’s a slight simplification and that various traditions have subtly different takes on it, but that’s it in a rough nutshell. Now, I take a fairly “high” view of scripture. Not as inerrant, but as the primary epistemological source for christianity. Because of this, I come with the question “how do we know this?” Or, “what’s the backup for the idea?” If you talk to someone from a conservative background, they tend to point primarily to creedal statements rather than scripture. In this case, I get pointed to the Apostles’ Creed which has as one of it’s clauses “He descended into hell”.

Peeling back the layers, the most commonly cited backup for this idea is from Ephesians 4:4-10:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

My reading of this passage has changed over the years. I no longer interpret this as a reference to Jesus’ death (descended) and resurrection (ascended) but rather I see it as a talking about incarnation (descended) and ascension into glory (ascended). It is this revised reading that has been one of the factors (amongst several) that leads me to holding to a position of annihilationism.

Another of the backups comes not the bible but from the later works that are sometimes referred to as the New Testament apocrypha. Specifically, the Gospel of Peter with it’s rather odd resurrection scene with the talking cross that comes out of the tomb and confirms that the dead have been preached to. With hindsight, I think it’s probable that this may have been inspired by 1 Peter, though when I’ve previously read the epistle (the one that seems to be genuine, rather than the more dubious gospel) I’ve rather glossed over this part of chapter 3, so I’ve only come to it after noting story of the talking cross.

Over the Easter weekend, when lots of people were talking on social media about the harrowing of hell, I tended to bite my tongue, though I did finally manage to pin down and articulate another objection to it. It is this: if Jesus was active in salvation on Easter Saturday, then it makes his declaration of “It is finished” a lie. Or at least wrong.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of Jesus making a proclamation to the dead.

The Puzzle

All this so far has been background. I’ve not tried to argue my position in much detail, just to state it with some clarity. The aim is not to divide (as these topics so often can), the aim is to note the paradox laid out below.

What intrigues me is that these two subjects are closely linked, not only in proximity in 1 Peter, but also by what we might call theological string. The ideas are not disparate strands of theological thought, as one might suppose if considering, say, the doctrine of the fall with Thomas’ scepticism at Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, one might say all things are connected somehow. But the two topics mentioned above rather nuzzle up against one another.

Yet from my experience, those who are most likely to reject PSA are those from the traditions/expressions of christianity that are more likely to embrace the idea of the harrowing of hell. Likewise, those who are more inclined to be advocates of PSA-only are also more inclined to leave out the harrowing of hell from their theological language.

It seems that both camps may be guilty of cherry-picking. I’m sure there must be some christians who take an all inclusive approach and do incorporate PSA with the harrowing of hell; it’s just that in the circles I move in, such voices are absent. There may also be some who reject all aspects of PSA who also don’t teach of the harrowing of hell. Again, such voices seem to be on the fringe.

I may well have missed something significant here, making this whole post little more than a confession of my own ignorance. I’ve clearly got some more studying and thinking to do.

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Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

Those of you with a good memory may recall a post I wrote a while back stating my intention to look into the theology of hell. Well, I must admit, that I have somewhat neglected that intention as other things have cropped up. So, slow as progress may be on that project, this was an essential part of getting to grips with the universalist position.

Even before the book came out, it prompted a vicious backlash from some quarters of the christian blogosphere, denouncing Bell as a heretic and declaring the book harmful. Though books that are condemned before anyone has had a chance to read them are amongst those that interest me the most. So I came to the book with a certain understanding of the view espoused. If you’re reading this review, then maybe you have a similar understanding. Of course, that understanding may be outright wrong, have an incorrect emphasis or be incomplete. However, the idea that it is about heaven & hell is absolutely correct.

Bell likes to ask questions.

Leading questions.

And spaces.

He likes to leave lots of spaces.

Like that.

If you’ve not read any of Bell’s writing before, he does have a particularly annoying style. In fact, ‘style’ is a good word to use. There a great focus on the manner of the presentation which does mean the content is sometimes compromised; not necessarily so that it is absurd, but there is a laxity here that one would hope not to find in a theological work. But then Bell’s writings aren’t those of a systematic theologian; they are the work of a pastor with a great heart.

Throughout the book, as if the title didn’t give you a clue, the idea of love shines through. No one could be in doubt as to the passion and compassion of the author both for his readers and the subject matter. On that count, no word of criticism can be levelled at Bell.

Diving into the subject matter, Bell opens with a look at the idea of heaven. It is a fairly well-known fact that Bell has much respect for (as do I) Tom Wright. The exposition given of repainting heaven here has undeniable echoes of Surprised by Hope, which is duly referenced at the end of the book. He portrays heaven not as a place where we go when we die – a view that I wish would die its own death. Instead he outlines the idea of the restoration (or rather, recreation) of a new heavens and new earth much closer to the vision outlined in the bible than one finds in tradition.

There shouldn’t be anything particularly controversial here, though for those who have grown up in churches teaching the idea that “[the aim of life is to go to heaven when you die]” and not questioned it, then this may come as something of a shock to you.

So that’s heaven done. Onto hell.

Before coming to this, the book’s reputation was for a particular idea that Bell had regarding hell. The accusation (for that is what it was) was that Bell was a universalist, advocating a view that after death everyone would have an opportunity to repent. The impression is that it was sort of half way between two heresies: universalism on the one hand, but with elements of purgatory on the other.

However, after I finished the book, I was left wondering “where was it?” It just didn’t seem to be there. I thought that half a dozen pages or so must have been stuck together. I had to go back and skim read two-thirds of the book in order to find what it was that got so many people in a tizz.

Because the fact is, that’s not what the second half of the book is all about. To portray it as such is to misrepresent Bell and the point he is driving at. When you read Bell, one must keep in mind that he writes for different groups of people at a time. With Velvet Elvis, for example, there was a distinct feeling that he was writing for those who had grown up with a particularly conservative viewpoint, showing them that christianity was more freeing than religious conformism, that there is scope for disagreement without condemnation. With Love Wins, he is writing to those who have been hurt. This is brought out in a Q&A at the back of the book, written after the initial publication, where Bell recounts the testimony of one his readers who had previously faced a very condemning attitude in church and had come to think of themselves as doomed and unloveable.

I don’t agree with Bell’s outlook, as he seems to portray a view of christianity that best suits his pre-existing ideas, rather than changing his ideas to best fit scripture. If you think of it as a message about love, rather than a detailed theology of hell, then it becomes more palatable. If someone only read Bell and took him as authoritative, then one would get a skewed idea; so in this respect I agree with his critics. But I would not go so far as to denounce the book as heretical. There are some very good questions posed here, and all Bell asks is that we try to answer those questions ourselves. Some of these very leading, but many more are worthy of deep consideration. The other thing that slightly rubbed me up the wrong way was Bell’s opening defence; he claims at the start that all that he discusses has been considered by orthodox (small o) christians for centuries, but he fails to mention that some of these views have been rejected, denounced or otherwise declared as heresies by a good number of those same people who have considered the issues. In so doing, he tries to present his view as mainstream. Though it is interesting, I really don’t think it is mainstream, nor should it be.

In conclusion, it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it as a first port of call on studying hell. However, as a way of gaining and understanding Bell’s view, it is better to read him than only those who reject him. For those who have been hurt by those in church and are seeking assurance, this is a resource, but it is not a complete set of answers. It may be an interesting exercise to go through the book, noting all the questions and coming up with your own answers.

Book Review: Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

Having stated that I intended to look at the theology of hell, this was my first port of call. The book is predominantly written by Francis Chan, as is stated fairly early on. Preston Sprinkle did some more of the research that went into the book, but Chan’s voice is the one that dominates the narrative.

The opening of the book is an odd mixture of both the sound and the conservative. Whilst the authors sometimes run along the line of thinking that I outlined in my introduction, they also seem to make quite a lot of unjustified assumptions, such as biblical infallibility. What also emerges fairly early on is that this is largely, though not wholly, a reaction against Rob Bell’s Love Wins, a title I intend to read as part of this current study, but have not yet picked up.

The authors start out, then, by looking at the idea of universalism. They quickly come to the conclusion (if they hadn’t already reached it before starting) that universalism is not an idea consistent with christian theology. However, they play a sleight of hand here, by use of the following piece of flawed logic:

A) Universalism stands in opposition to the traditionalist idea of hell as physical place of eternal torment and punishment.

B) Universalism is false.

C) Therefore the correct picture is that hell is a physical place of eternal torment and punishment.

Anyone who has studied logic will be able to tell you from the above statements that A & B, even if proved correct, do not logically lead to C. The authors seem to ignore this however and proceed onwards down what I think is a path that keeps good biblical study in sight, but at arm’s length. I was then left reading the rest of the book thinking to myself, “you haven’t dealt with X properly and you’ve ignored Y.”

For instance, one of the aspects of a study of hell I was looking for was the use of certain terms. While their look at Gehenna is very interesting and threw in an angle I was previously unaware of (namely, that the earliest reference to it being a rubbish dump wasn’t until AD/CE 1200). Yet they all too quickly jump, without reasoning, to interpret Gehenna as hell. Yet the treatment of Sheol is so brief it is shoddy, whilst Abaddon and Hades barely get a look in, particularly with the latter’s link to Greek mythology being ignored entirely.

The tone of the book is incredibly patronising at times. Here’s just an example: “How can I believe these passages yet sit here silently? I know some of you have faced this same conflict. Even as you’re reading this, there are probably people within a few feet of you who may also be going to hell. What will you do? It could be that the Lord wants you to put the book down.” With such annoying passages as that littering the book, I certainly couldn’t recommend it to any non-christian friends. I would also hesitate to recommend it to any christian friends as it is far from a detailed, thoughtful exegesis on a highly important topic.

In writing what seemed to be a study with a pre-determined conclusion, the authors overlook or skim over many a passage that might put a dent in their point of view. For example, when they look at Romans 9, they completely overlook Paul’s use of the word apoleia, meaning destruction. Instead, they carry on with the “eternal punishment” line.  In fact the whole idea of annihilationism is rather lost in this book. It gets a brief mention, with the authors acknowledging that there are quite a few mentions of destruction, but these are dismissed by then going, “Oh, look over here. Here’s one passage that fits in with our worldview, so let’s focus on this one.”

It is very telling that the authors only refer only to conservative writers, paying little no attention to voices that detracted from their own view. Yet I suppose that leads fittingly to my conclusion on this book. If you want to investigate the theology of hell then this is essential reading insofar as it is a good example of one line of thinking, but it is far from being an holistic or thorough account. It is an ideal example of an appeal to tradition masquerading as a biblical study; a thoroughly conservative eisegesis.

Peering into hell?

As regular readers will know, I use this blog to put words to the voiceless thoughts that mill around my head. By trying to get something down on pen & paper (as many of my posts originate there before being transcribed and edited) I can critique my own thoughts and try to evaluate if what I am thinking makes any sense. 

Of late, I have been thinking a little about the idea of hell. I guess it was properly sparked off by reading Hitchens’ diatribe, God is Not Great, where amidst his irrational ramblings against religion he does make a good point that the idea of hell is used as an evangelical tool to try to “scare” (for want of a better word) people into belief. This is something I recognise, most frequently among street preachers you occasionally see dotted around London. Another part of it may well have been how much I disagreed with Tom Wright’s thoughts on the subject in Surprised by Hope.

The fact of the matter is that the idea of hell makes me uncomfortable. The traditional idea which has seeped into the public consciousness is a deeply disturbing image of fire and eternal punishment. If any group of people are good at capturing the zeitgeist, it is animators. If you watch comic depictions of hell in The Simpsons or South Park you will find a common theme around which they are based (although each usually has their own amusing twist on it).

The idea also makes other christians uncomfortable. When, many months ago, I mooted the idea of doing some investigations into the idea by reading and writing about the subject, I was frequently either warned off from doing it or advised not to look too closely. Of course, not all responses were like that, but a noticeable number were. The only trend I noticed was that those most opposed to this undertaking were those at the more ‘conservative’ end of the theological spectrum.

So what is the correct way to proceed? Should I drop any investigation into the matter, thinking that I know and understand everything there is to know about hell and then keep it at the back of my mind? If I’m asked “do you believe in hell?” how should I respond? Will it be a simple “yes” or “no” or should there be a clarification about what the questioner has in mind when they ask the question?

I study in order to do battle with ignorance. When that battle is over, the peaceful aftermath allows for a faithful out-living of what I have learned. The christian life lived without an understanding of theology is ignorant and misguided; yet the pursuit of theological correctness, if not followed through with practical application is a purely academic study, helping no one. As such, I cannot heed the advice of those who would warn me to stay away. If I am to be a faithful christian, I can’t decide that there are areas which mustn’t come under scrutiny. What if I’m wrong?

One of my major concerns is that the idea of hell has been hijacked, subject to later reinterpretation and then fed back into the christian psyche so that what is preached as “the christian view” of hell is no longer based firmly in what may be found in the books of the bible. In particular, I am concerned about the influence of Dante’s Inferno episode of the Divine Comedy. To some extent, Milton’s Paradise Lost may also come into play. So in anything I read, I will look out for any authors who approach the subject seeming to come with a pre-formed vision of what hell is, if indeed it is anything.

This exercise is largely to sharpen up my thinking which is, I freely admit, a little woolly on the matter. But I think it is worth stating where I am starting from. My position has been for some time, best described by the term ‘tentative annihilationist’. That is, I subscribe to the idea that hell is the destruction of the soul; you simply cease to exist. This is set apart from two other main schools of thought: the traditional idea of eternal torment stated above and the idea of universalism, that everyone will saved and no one would go to hell.

As lovely as that final idea sounds, it seems to be borne out of little more than wishful thinking. I’ve never yet read a reasoned argument in its favour. As hinted above, I am also sceptical about the eternal punishment theory. The reason is that there is so much in the bible that refers to destruction far more than torment. Even what is said about we might think of as ‘hell’ seems at odds with what little is spoken about in churches.

So what is my plan for going forward? Well, as usual, my primary means is reading books. At the time of publishing this, I expect to be about half way through Erasing Hell by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle.  In order to get more a more informed opinion on universalism, I intend on picking up Rob Bell’s controversial recent book on the topic, Love Wins. Someone recommended to a book entitled something like A History of Hell though I forget the author’s name. If you have any recommendations, then please feel free to suggest them in the comments.

There will be several features I will look out for in these. I may well follow up on my own if I don’t think they are addressed properly. Specifically, they will be about the translation and interpretation about the various terms used: Sheol and Abaddon (Hebrew), Gehenna, Hades and Tartaroo (Greek).

Behind some of the words of caution I have received, there has been an undercurrent of thinking that by looking at this side of theology one must be ignoring the gospel of grace. I won’t be ignoring it, though I readily acknowledge it is difficult to look at both aspects of christianity simultaneously without going a bit cross-eyed, like looking simultaneously to the extreme right and left fields of vision at once.

I’m sure there will be many other topics that cross my path as I go along, though I hope to gain the right balance between not getting distracted and not ignoring important, intertwined strands of thought. I’m not anticipating that this will be a fun or a pleasant trip. But like going to the dentist, it may be necessary. I just haven’t been to the dentist in almost 15 years and I’m not sure that’s the best state of affairs to be in.

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.