Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hell for Advent

Throughout Advent, I've been reading a book on Hell. Four Views On Hell, to be exact. If you scroll down and look at the book list on the right, you should see it there (unless you are reading this a long time after I wrote it. . .)

It came about because of a discussion I was in a few months ago. A particular person attempted to make the case that to be "for Jesus," one must also accept the traditional view of Hell as eternal conscious torment. I tried to point out that there were, in fact, good Christians who differed on their interpretations of the doctrine of Hell. I was instantly labeled a heretic, and found myself defending positions of which I was only vaguely aware. Hence the book.

And this is how I like theology. Four authors give the basis for their particular understanding of the issue. Each author then responds to the works of the others, leading to a broad conversation covering the outlines of the topic, which allows the reader to see the strengths and weaknesses of each position and come to their own conclusion as to which rings truer than the others.

From my perspective, the real treasure is not so much the conclusion as it is learning about how people do theology, to see the author's various hermeneutics at play. You learn as much about how people interpret the Bible as you learn about the actual topic. You see how people think, you see their blind spots and their moments of genius, and with all that, you can decide who truly is speaking doctrine that fits the Biblical message.

And so we have:
- John Walvoord (1910-2002), former professor and president of Dallas Theological Seminary, presenting the Literal (traditional) view
- William Crocket, Professor of NT at Alliance Theological Seminary, presenting the Metaphorical view
- Zachary Hayes, Teacher of theology at Catholic Theological Union, presenting the Purgatorial view,
- Clark Pinnock, Professor of Christian Interpretation at McMaster Divinity College, presenting the Conditional (annihilationist) view

And you get this:
Walvoord, true to his Dallas roots, can't get beyond the word Inerrancy, claiming that any interpretation other than a literal one denies inerrancy, thus denying the Truth of the Word. There is no room for nuance or historical interpretation or theological extrapolation. God said it, I believe it, and that's good enough for me. And I'll ignore any evidence to the contrary.

Crockett begins to develop some interesting lines, being (in my opinion) truer to the intent of the text, getting away from wooden literalistic interpretations, recognizing the reality of metaphor in eternal language; in addition, he sees (unlike Walvoord) that the texts themselves are somewhat contradictory, here saying "fire" and there saying "darkness." In the end, though, for Crockett whatever hell is like, all the metaphors say it's pretty horrible.

Hayes, for whatever reason, goes off-topic and speaks instead to the issue of purgatory. His is perhaps the most frustrating chapter simply because it's not Biblical. It relies completely on tradition and philosophy and a few apocryphal writings. Even Hayes admits that there's really no proof for purgatory in the Bible. But being a good teacher in the Catholic Church, none of that matters, because Tradition teaches purgatory, and that's all that matters. Obviously, to non-Catholics, that is an extremely weak argument.

Finally, the Pinnock chapter. This is the real reason I bought the book, in that I'd been intrigued with annihilationism ever since I read about it in Randy Klassen's What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? Pinnock has become a spokesperson for this viewpoint (as well as for Openness Theology, both of which have made him persona non grata with the Evangelical Theological Society). And I found myself somewhat frustrated, because Pinnock spends very little time laying out the biblical case for annihilation. Instead, he spends most of his pages working at undermining the more traditional position and those who hold to it. Pinnock has been savagely attacked for holding to a few non-orthodox positions, and it comes through clearly as he continually speaks of those who reject his own views as heretical. His pleas for open discussion and review of doctrinal positions is to be lauded, but I wish in the end he had simply laid out a stronger biblical framework and let that speak for him. To be honest, the 3-4 pages in which he actually did work on the scriptures are powerful and show how the annihilationist view should at least be considered, but they didn't make a strong enough case.

That's not to say I've been won by any of the other positions. I still think there is something to the annihilationist viewpoint; I was just hoping that Pinnock would build a stronger case (because there is a stronger case to be made) instead of taking potshots at his accusers.

However, I would recommend the book to anybody who wants to read more on the issue, who wants to read about other options, or who simply wants to see how theologians do theology.

1 comment:

Kim said...

Well, my friend, you reeled me in with the title! LOL This looks like a book worth picking up - thanks! :)