I hope in these posts I don’t sound nit picky or petty. I am just trying to point out both the strengths and weaknesses of what I have found in C&S’s book. There is little doubt left as you read this book that they are writing this in response to Rob Bell. He is quoted or referenced and responded to repeatedly in the first three chapters. On one hand Jesus covered more passages about hell than C&S. On the other hand I appreciate C&S for pointing out the verses that are about the concept of hell rather than only those verses that use gehenna, tartarus, etc. We are talking concepts here, not just picking a word or two and only looking at those verses. So I kind of feel torn because I wish they had included many of the verses Bell did in chapter 3 of love wins but I am glad they hit the verses Bell conveniently left out.
C&S break down Jesus’ description of hell into three categories (p.74):
1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.
Hell is a place of punishment after judgment:
He starts off mentioning that Jesus used the word gehenna 12 times in the Gospels but then his very first example is Matthew 25 where the word is not even used. These pages read kind of awkward as he transitions into the next verse he wants to cover he write, “Another place the word hell is used in the context of judgment is Matthew 5.” (p.75)…kind of awkward when the verse you didn’t cover didn’t have the word in it. Sorry for nit picking here…those kind of things just bug me for some reason. His point in citing these verses is that hell is a place that comes after judgment. That stands in contrast to Bell and others who basically have landed on hell being the consequences of our sins here and now.
Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament:
His main text here is the parable of the wheat and the weeds from Matthew 13:30-43 where Jesus says that the wicked will be thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (13:40-43 & again in 13:49-50). Other verses like Matthew 18:8-9 talk about the fires of hell as well. Still other verses talk about hell as a place of darkness (Matthew 22:13). There is no doubt that Jesus taught hell is a place of fire and darkness. The question for those who are of the Universalist perspective would ask is yes he said that but what did Jesus mean? He gets into that more in the next section.
Hell is a place of annihilation or never ending punishment:
This is the big controversial point for Universalists. Does hell last forever with no hope of escape or does a loving God use hell to rehab people into a second and third and millionth shot at eternal life in heaven? The question for C&S is not whether hell is a temporary place to prepare people for heaven, a sort of fiery purgatory…the question C&S pose is whether hell is about total annihilation or eternal punishment. That is a very good question that I wish they could have devoted more time to (You can always check out Fudge’s book The Fire that Consumes for a pretty thorough take on the annihilation view).
One of the problems we have in Bible translation is that things aren’t always as clear cut as they appear in English. There are two words in question in this debate on eternal punishment. The first is what does “eternal” mean in passages like Matthew 25. The second is what does the word “punishment” mean? Sounds kind of like the Clinton, “Depends on what the definition of is, is” kind of moments…I know. But it is actually a very legitimate question that I don’t have room here to cover but will come back to in another post.
All-in-all this was a good chapter where C&S lay out the reasons for their convictions on the reality of hell. What I appreciate about them is that they are willing to take God at his Word on this even if things don’t totally make sense to them. I do wish they had spent more time working through some of the texts, responding to what others have said about these things, and really engaged this issue in a deeper way but there is only so much you can do in a book like this.