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Hell Under Fire

Books that will challenge your current Biblical perspective.
The Fire That Consumes
The Parousia
The Biblical Church
Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross

Warren Prestidge - FDTL Iss 46

CIANZ Annual Conference Address

Article from

Part 1

You must admit, it's a snappy title: Hell Under Fire! Well, I must admit, it's not mine! It's the title of a recent book that sets out to defend the Traditional doctrine of hell – eternal conscious suffering – against both Universalism, which we in CIANZ also reject, and Annihilationism, which is what we believe and promote. My excuse for shamelessly stealing this snappy title is that I have studied this book carefully and will devote this address to answering it.

We in CIANZ need to be aware of both the best and the latest in our field and this book, Hell Under Fire, is I should think the most serious attempt in quite some time to defend eternal conscious suffering against all comers. It's actually a set of ten essays, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, brought out by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2004. Carefully planned and presented, it clearly aims to offer a comprehensive case for the "Traditional" view: namely, that not all will be saved and that those whom God condemns will endure unending conscious suffering in hell forever and ever: that hell is, in fact, a place or state of everlasting conscious torment. Whereas for us hell is about literal, final destruction, as I've argued in my book, Life, Death and Destiny. For us the Bible teaches, certainly that some will be lost, but not that the lost will suffer for ever: rather, that through God's judgment they will all finally cease to exist. This is the view commonly known as Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism.

Now, most of what I have to say on the whole subject is already out there in that book of mine, Life, Death and Destiny. I certainly don't want to repeat all that today. I'm not offering a comprehensive defence of Conditional Immortality here, you'll be relieved to know! Rather, I think the best thing for me to do today is just to offer some observations in response to this book, Hell Under Fire.

First up I think we in CIANZ ought to be encouraged by this book, Hell Under Fire. Seriously! First, the fact that nine dedicated scholars have gone to such lengths to produce this combined case shows that the Traditional view of hell – unending torment – really is "under fire" today. That's a very good thing, in so far as it is testimony to the fact that our view, Conditional Immortality, is taken very seriously today, not just by a few on the fringe, but by all who know the subject, including evangelical Christian leaders. As the book itself says, challenges to the Traditional view have "moved from the periphery of evangelicalism to its center" (p29).

And the second very encouraging thing about this book, Hell Under Fire, is: its defence of the traditional view and its case against Conditional Immortality are both very weak! Really, very weak. And yet here we have nine dedicated and experienced scholars and practitioners going all out to be as convincing as possible. Yet they fail to show, either that there is a strong biblical case for the Traditional view of hell, or that the biblical case for Conditional Immortality is lacking. I'm certainly not going to cancel the second edition of my book, now that I've read Hell Under Fire!

Now, there are definitely some things I like about this book, Hell Under Fire, and some things I definitely agree with. Well done, Morgan and Peterson, for being so systematic. First, an essay that backgrounds the whole debate, then four essays that deal in some detail with different sections of Scripture, then a general essay on the overall biblical theology of hell, then three essays of systematic theology, taking a more reasoned approach, and finally an essay in pastoral theology, trying to answer the vexed question: How can one preach eternal torment with conviction today?

Well, that last question is certainly very difficult and certainly is one that Traditionalists need to answer urgently, one way or another, because – and this is something else the book says that I do agree with! – the Christian doctrine of final judgment has been drastically side-lined today and we do need to restore the doctrine of final judgment to its rightful place, as a necessary component of the Gospel. To grasp fully that the Gospel is Good News, you need to appreciate that without it the news is bad: we are sinners headed for condemnation. The contributors to Hell Under Fire rightly bemoan the fact that this subject is not often addressed today, even in many evangelical churches. They recognise that in this way the full seriousness of the Gospel is undermined. I agree.

By the same token, I also agree, broadly speaking, with their case against Universalism. Universalism is the view that in the end, one way or another, all human beings will be saved for eternity. This view is not new. The great Bible scholar and theologian Origen taught it in the 3rd Century, but it didn't catch on then. However it has certainly caught on in modern times, even amongst mainstream Christians. I deal with it very concisely in my book, but Hell Under Fire has a much fuller essay by James Packer, discussing it and arguing against it1. Packer actually makes the startling and probably quite correct observation that Universalism "is almost certainly the {view} most widely held among Christian people in the West, at both popular and academic levels" (p170).

Of course, on the face of it Universalism is a very attractive view. Surely we would wish that, in the end, all would be saved. In fact, I suggest in my own book that if we don't wish that, there really is something wrong with us. Certainly there's something wrong with our Christianity if we don't love people enough to wish that all would be saved. And in fact the Bible says that this is precisely what God also would prefer. According to the prophet Ezekiel, God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but only in their salvation.(2) Peter writes that God "does not want anyone to be destroyed."(3) Surely we feel the same way.

But – and here is another point on which I entirely agree with Hell Under Fire – we've got to be biblical about things. No question. The fact is that, outside of Scripture, outside of God's revelation there, we have no way of knowing about these eternal things at all! And history has repeatedly shown that, when we are not guided by the consistent witness of Scripture, in theological matters, when we are guided primarily by the spirit of our time, or by our own preference – or by church tradition, for that matter, – our thinking becomes futile.

So, the fact that there's a kind of Universalism that is commonly simply assumed today in the popular imagination certainly shouldn't decide the case for us. I mean, many people today seem to simply assume that their dead loved ones have somehow gone to heaven or to "a better place", regardless of any faith they may have held or of how they may have lived. That kind of Universalism owes much more to sentiment than either to revelation or to reason. There is also another side to this business of the popular imagination, of course. Many people would also find it extremely difficult to imagine that God might in the end forgive serial rapists and mass murderers and so on – or even, it seems, their own personal enemies!

However, there are also serious arguments for Universalism out there. Some argue on the basis of certain biblical texts. For example, in John 12:32 Jesus talks about drawing all people to Himself. But the same book also says that those who have done evil will be condemned (John 5:29) and that those who disobey the Son of God will remain under God's punishment (John 3:36). In Philippians 2:10-11 Paul writes that all beings in heaven and earth and under the earth will proclaim that Jesus is Lord – but then in Philippians 3:19 he also says there are some people whose end is destruction. It's only when you take a few texts right out of context that you can possibly claim that the Bible teaches Universalism.

The fact is that you can't really make any kind of a case for Universalism on the basis of direct biblical statements. The Bible is very, very consistent in insisting that some will be lost forever. As Paul says, in II Thessalonians 1:9, "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction…". Now, whatever else the word "eternal" means here, it certainly means that there will be no comeback, and whatever else the word "destruction" means, it certainly does not mean salvation!

The case for Universalism really depends on certain lines of theological reasoning. For example, if God really is love, will He ever finally condemn anyone? If God does indeed desire all to be saved, and God really is God, will He not ensure in the end that all are saved? If Christ did die for all, will not His death avail for all in the end? Many today say, yes. Some believe that somehow, at death, even those who have appeared to be hardened against God in life are granted a change of heart. Others – many, today – believe that this change is bound to happen eventually after death. Perhaps the Gospel is re-presented in the afterlife. Perhaps this is actually what hell is: not a means of final judgment, but in fact a means of bringing sinners to a final state of repentance and salvation, no matter how long it takes: another kind of purgatory, in fact. That whole matter is debated pretty well in a book we recommend here at CIANZ: Four Views On Hell.(4)

I don't intend to go much further in debating Universalism just now. I'm going to assume that that is not such a live issue with my audience here today and, as I say, this is pretty much common ground between me and this book, Hell Under Fire. I don't agree with all Professor Packer's arguments even here –and, of course, his brief treatment of Annihilationism is very superficial indeed – but I do agree with him that not only is Universalism wrong, both biblically and rationally, but it is also a serious threat to real Christianity. First, if we human beings are not

ultimately free to choose between good and evil, God and sin, and are not ultimately accountable for our choice, then we are not truly and fully human at all. Second, if God is not ultimately either free or willing to judge evil and unrepentant evildoers, then He is not truly and fully God at all. Without final judgment, nothing makes sense, least of all the cross of Christ. And in fact you really don't have a Gospel, in the full biblical sense, if you have no doctrine of final judgment. The Gospel is not just about improving our lot here and now – though it certainly includes that. It is also about our ultimate destiny with God. And, as Paul says, in Romans 3:6, it's absolutely axiomatic that God will judge the world.

So, I agree Universalism is a big problem. But the question is: Why is Universalism so commonly held today even among mainstream Christians? Or, if they don't actually advocate Universalism, why do so many Christians today, including so many Christian pastors and teachers, pretty much avoid the whole subject of final judgment all together, even though it's standard, both in the Bible and in all Christian traditions?

And the main reason, surely – or at least one of the two or three main reasons – is that even Christians today are utterly embarrassed by, and in fact ashamed of, the Traditionalist view of hell! And James Packer himself agrees with this. He says: "the deepest motivation in {Universalists'} minds has always been revolt against mainstream belief in endless punishment in hell for some people" (p171). In the first essay in the book, J. Albert Mohler Jr. traces something of the growing moral disquiet about this doctrine during the 19th Century. He writes: "Of all the articles of accepted Christian orthodoxy that troubled the consciences of Victorian churchmen, none caused more anxiety than the everlasting punishment of the wicked."

Warren and his wife Jackie have been in church ministry since 1981. Before entering theological college Warren taught English at tertiary and secondary levels. He spent 14 years at a church on Auckland's North Shore, which began as Forrest Hill Church of Christ and became Sunnynook Baptist Church! After 2 years as Director of Oro Bible College in the Philippines, he has been Pastor of Remuera Baptist Church, Auckland, since 1997. He has also lectured at Laidlaw College (formerly Bible College of NZ) in various theological and pastoral subjects, and is currently a board member of CIANZ. Jackie has taught Math for many years. Jackie and Warren have three grown sons, all overseas at present.

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