Hell: it’s not a comfortable subject to broach with others. We probably don’t spend much time talking about it and as a result probably don’t spend too much time thinking about it either.
Recently the topic of hell has generated a considerable firestorm (pun intentional) of controversy with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the many responses, such as Francis Chan and Preston Sprinke’s Erasing Hell.
Into and partly because of this ongoing discussion, Zondervan has recently released the second edition of Four Views on Hell. This volume is edited by Preston Sprinkle (Chan’s cowriter on Erasing Hell) and features contributions from Denny Burk, John G. Stackhouse Jr., Robin A. Parry, and Jerry L. Walls.
All four contributors are Evangelical but each champions a different Protestant interpretation of what the Bible has to say about hell. Burk defends the view that has historically been dominant in the church: eternal conscious torment (think Dante’s Inferno). Stackhouse proposes instead the idea of terminal punishment, or annihilation. Parry suggests a universalist view that all eventually are redeemed (through Christ, distinguishing it from broader universalism). Lastly Walls argues for the existence of Purgatory and the tenability of Protestants believing in it.
So what exactly do they each have to say about hell?
Preston begins the introduction by summarizing the reasons for Zondervan issuing this new edition and calling for us as Christians to “seek to understand before we refute, and if we refute, [to] do so based on compelling biblical evidence and not out of fear or presupposition” (15). This is a worthy call for not just thinking through this issue but many others as well.
I won’t go into much detail here on the specifics of each contributor’s essay but I will paint them briefly in broad strokes. Burk closely examines ten specific passages of Scripture to argue for ECT. Some of the verses are stronger than others, but the effect is still a solid case. Stackhouse examines several key passages as well but devotes significant space to exploring whether several terms translated as “eternal” (aionion) and “destruction” (apollunai) mean what we assume they do when we read them in English. Parry argues for a universalist understanding of hell mainly by looking at the broader arc of Biblical theology and less by examining specific texts on hell, relying mostly on deductive arguments rather than exegetical ones. Finally, Walls examines the doctrine of purgatory primarily by invoking arguments by more contemporary authors like Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis and trying to differentiate a doctrine of purgatory for sanctification (which he supports and where those in purgatory are being made fit for heaven) from one of satisfaction (where those in purgatory are paying for their sins).
A major strength of this series in general and this volume in particular is that after each author’s chapter the other three are given a chance to briefly respond from their respective positions. Additionally, Sprinkle analyzes all four positions in the conclusion and praises the strengths of each position while pointing out their weak areas or places they need to be further explored.
Personally, I found both of the first two chapters (supporting ECT and annihilation) to have strong points and was left with much more to engage with and reflect on later. The universalist chapter was, in the words of Stackhouse in his response to the chapter, a display of “the triumph of hope over exegesis” (134). In other words, I wish it were true but just don’t find biblical support for it. Lastly, the purgatory chapter not only seemed not convincing but also out of place in this volume on hell.
Personal reactions aside, this is an excellent volume for anyone wanting to survey the various positions and arguments for and against them in this area of doctrine. I highly recommend the book as a resource for both personal study or for academic engagement.
4 stars out of 5
Preston Sprinkle, ed. Four Views on Hell. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2016. 224 pp. Paperback. $18.99.
Thanks to Zondervan and BookLook Bloggers for the review copy, which I received for free in exchange for an impartial review!