John Walvoord (Literal), William Crockett (Metaphorical), Clark Pinnock (Annihilist/Conditional Immortality), Zachary Hayes (Purgatorial)

Reading this book was a fascinating, even refreshing exercise. It is an all out debate between various views on the afterlife, in such a way that each view gets critiqued by all others.

I found it entertaining: Besides its fetching sulphurous red design, it was like watching a round robin boxing match, with one fighter per corner. The patterns and dynamics, tactics and overlaps were fascinating, but none so much as the match summary: here we have four well educated, dedicated theologians each fully convinced of their positions, which remained almost totally incompatible at the end. It proves one thing – many things can be “proved” by theology. Or rather “Nothing can be proved by theology.”

I think that ultimately, beyond the specifics, the most important things to consider are

    1. our assumptions and
    2. our methodology of knowing and reading.

These are what make the difference between four fine minds, all of which are convinced of the truth of, and well versed in the bible.

Assumptions originate not just with ones intellectual persuasions, ones set of propositions, but from a far deeper and murkier place, outside of the realm of debate. They originate in imagination, fantasy, ultimately out of the control of our well ordered systems of belief.

To put it simplistically, if you start with an assumption of an angry god, you will easily be able to have a biblical hell. And if your starting point is an epiphany of grace, you won’t.

Of course the second factor is hard too. Theology is a dark art more than a science, and where you draw the line between literal and metaphorical meanings is dependent on many things. How many rings of meaning, how thick a set of filters, exist between me and an event, or person, or idea.

I was taken by Zachary Hayes (the purgatorial view) in his defense of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory (more thoughts here), because this in one sense distinguished him from the others who held to a reformist “sola scriptura” angle. He admits he cannot deeply substantiate Purgatory by scripture, but then he says, in his way of thinking, tradition is an equal voice, and there is a tradition of purgatory in Catholicism. In his view, many things that come to be articles of faith grow gradually from a seed.

On the other hand the Protestants hold to this wish to have complete, infallible truth cemented some time during the early church, and vaildated via the Reformation. That seems rather arbitrary, that revelation just stopped. What about the trinity – this was “developed” it didn’t come all preformed, did it?

For the Literalist Walwoord, who seems to have less to say that the others, it’s all quite simple, Jesus said it and what I hear is what it is. For him there is no further layer on truth, no abstractions or deeper insight. Hell is literal fire, lasting for ever and ever.

But the metaphoricist Crockett would have it that the flames of hell are symbolic. Walwoord (and others) hit back by saying “Symbolic of what exactly?” And that’s a good point. Are the metaphors of suffering just anesthetics hiding us from a literal torment?

I’d say that the deepest wrought view is held by the annhilist Pinnock. His arguments for the eventual removal from being seem very sound, and echo many of our own feelings of despair at injustice and the intransigence of some evildoers. But unsatisfying, too, because it’s ultimately a defeatist POV. If you can’t beat it, nuke it.

I found interesting the angles brought on familiar debates such as the meanings of Hades and Gehenna, as well as aion and aionian

The “eternal torment” angles held some views diametrically opposed to scholarship on the issue. While aion does refer to an age, Crockett is instant that its derivative aionios refers to eternity. Baptist Louis Abbot spent decades on this question, insisting that they both refer to periods of time.

I hardly have to say that the book’s biggest failing is not what it explores but rather what it fails to explore. Nowhere is the Radical Grace approach to the problem of hell, such as that proposed by Thomas Talbott (see my recent post), or Gregory McDonald (who in “The Evangelical Universalist” describes his position as a “dogmatic hopeful universalist”) even considered.

It’s kind of liberating to realise that all these good and respected theologians can do nothing to seal this issue: the more you look into it the more deeply illusive it becomes. Martin Zender (self confessed “worlds most outspoken bible scholar”) takes controversy by the horns when he says,

“If you want to see a particular thing, you will … What does God do to prevent this? Nothing. Again, he wants it to happen. He sends deceptions (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12) that all may be judged who do not believe the truth, but delight in injustice.” (Martin Zender goes to Hell, P 71)

I wonder how correct Zenders approach might be – that it’s all a big ruse, a cosmic red herring, designed by God the Deceiver to frustrate our attempts to control Him via understanding. But I am drawn not into a combative us-vs-them position, but into the mystery evoked in this ambiguity. Others may see it as confusing, unsettling, or even demonic, but I find it a comfort.