This book was published in 1996 (originally in 1992) but after reading it I would have sworn it was written in the last few years due to how well it keys into the issues brought up by Bell and others over the last few months. Four Views on Hell is edited by William Crockett and has four authors, each experts on their particular view of hell. Each one presents their view and each one has a response to all the others. It gets pretty interesting hearing how someone who believes in purgatory would respond to someone with a literal view of hell or an annihilationist would respond to the metaphorical view. I highly recommend this book. It is written on a very accessible level and is written with a very kind and loving tone (especially as they respond to one another). Here is a brief synopsis of the four views:
1 – The Literal View (John Walvoord)
Walvoord doesn’t avoid the point that there is a certain tension that makes the literal view difficult for many to accept. That tension is between the love of God and the images we get in scripture of eternal torment. He says the tension is really between God’s love and God’s righteousness. His scriptural support comes from Matthew, Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation. His conclusion is that a literal hell is hard to exegete/interpret away but people do try to systematize it away. In other words if you just look at the verses as they stand and interpret them he believes it is hard to come away with anything but a literal view (obviously at least three other people disagree with that!) but where a literal hell comes into question is through systematic theology, trying to fit hell into the broader picture of who God is and what God is doing in the world.
2 – The Metaphorical View (William Crockett)
Crockett goes out of his way to say that he is not trying to soften things up when it comes to heaven. His point is that many of the verses that are used to describe hell are metaphorical. Just like heaven is not necessarily made up of gold streets and a crystal sea (which nearly all of us could agree on) what does that say about descriptions of hell? Is it a valid question to ask if those descriptions could also be metaphorical? He makes a good point. This view is that hell is real. It is a place and has judgment but that the details might be fuzzier than we once thought.
3 – The Purgatorial View (Zachary Hayes)
I had never really read much on purgatory before. I didn’t realize that the belief was that purgatory was in operation only until the final judgment and then only heaven and hell are left (p.93). I also didn’t realize that purgatory is viewed as more of a process than a place. They pray for the dead and do acts of service for the dead in order to cleanse them so they can be in heaven. The logic is that we know some people, the saints for instance, or so much better than the rest of us that certainly they go straight to heaven. But could the rest of us mere mortals expect a straight ticket to the great by and by? They would say that would be absurd. Instead, us filthy folks, have to be purified further before we can enter into paradise. We become our own bridge to heaven instead of Christ. Hayes had one scripture to back up this view (unless you count the verses he cited from the apocrypha). The verse was Matthew 12:31-32 where it talks about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as a sin that can’t be forgiven in this life or the life to come. He says that implies there is forgiveness that can be granted beyond the grave.
4 – Conditional/Annihilation (Clark Pinnock)
This is basically the annihilation view. Scripture says the wages of sin is death…this view agrees. Scripture says there is a second death…this view agrees. Scripture says to fear the one who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell…this view agrees. Paul taught about the destruction of the wicked (2 Thess 1:9, Gal 6:8) as did Peter (2 Peter 3:7). Why call this the conditional view? Pinnock believes that what is conditional is not hell but the immortality of the soul. He believes that we have adopted a Greek notion that all souls are eternal. This view would say only those God grants eternal life or new life to are able to live forever. The rest are destroyed. This becomes somewhat of a more merciful option. Some people believe a literal view of hell makes God into a monster as he grants eternal life to those who will then be tormented forever and ever. Or as Pinnock puts it,
“Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a blood thirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that? (p. 149)
In summary I can definitely say that I am not a fan of purgatory. I will say that hell is probably more metaphorical that I once thought. I do wrestle with the annihilation/conditional view a bit and I think it could have some merit. It is really hard to lay all the relevant scriptures on the table and come to a solid and coherent view on how to put all the pieces together in a way that maintains a high view of scripture and also takes all those verses seriously. I do believe Jesus was serious when he warned us about hell so that is enough for me. Really, I will be quite alright if I never figure it out completely. I am even better off if I don’t wind up finding out first hand and say, “Oh…that’s what that verse meant. Finally makes sense…youch!”