Making a Choice Between Views
I have been asked repeatedly over the last few months which interpretation of Hell I favor most. I am still up in the air regarding my preference of view (and feel no great need to come down anytime soon). Actually, this is a very good place to be as it has allowed me to notice something very interesting about how many people decide controversial issues like this one. From the research that I have done on the three views so far it seems clear that one could be Biblically justified in holding to any of them.
The reason this is possible is because no matter which view one subscribes to, he has to interpret some passages literally and some figuratively. Which passages are written literally and which figuratively is up for debate; there are guidelines that one should follow (i.e. context, type of literature, audience, purpose, etc.), but even so, determining the author’s intent is not always clear cut and easy. If you take the passages that talk about sinners receiving the punishment of death literally then you will likely fall into the Conditional Mortality (CM) camp. If you believe that the passages that speak of the death of the soul in a more figurative way and take God literally at His word when He says that He desires that none should perish and that the works of the devil will be totally destroyed, then you will likely fall into the Universal Reconciliation (UR) camp. Like-wise for many passages that speak of the eternality of aspects of the punishment of the wicked and the Eternal Torment (ET) view.
Interestingly, it seems to me that many will be swayed largely by their view of the nature of God Himself. If you are particularly impressed with the holiness of God and the greatness of His offense at our sin, then it’s likely you will be partial to ET. If you are favorable to the vision of God as the ultimate victor over sin, where God expunges every final particle of sin from creation, then you are likely most favorable to UR. If the primary foundation for your understanding of God rests on His total and perfect justice, then you are likely preferable to the CM view.
Why is this interesting and why does it matter? Because I think that our image of who God is and what He is like deeply colors the way we understand the Bible - maybe more than any other factor. Think about it. Why do liberal Christians hold the views they do? In their mind the superceding trait of God is His love; since God so deeply loves, he must be far more accepting than perhaps traditional Christianity has portrayed, or so they think. On the flip side, extremely conservative Christians who likely tend towards legalism have a primary image of God as a righteous judge. If you understand this point it becomes clear that a good, biblically thorough understanding of God’s nature, and particularly His relationship with us, is crucially important as it can and, I think, does affect many other theological issues we engage with.
Consequences for Evangelism
Let’s face it. The vast, vast majority of Christians, at least in the West, hold the Eternal Torment view. One of the primary concerns that many voice when beginning to consider either of the alternate views are the implications to evangelism. Many Christians believe that one of the best tools in the evangelist’s belt is the average unsaved individual’s fear of eternal torment. While throughout this series I have refrained from taking sides, on this point I can’t remain neutral: The threat of Hell is not a good tool for bringing the lost to Christ. Not only that, the apostles never evangelized in using such threats.
If you read the Book of Acts with an eye toward the “evangelism techniques” of the apostles you will notice that they almost never speak about “Hell” when talking to the people. In Acts 2, Peter’s speech to the people gathered at Pentecost simply proclaimed the truth about who Jesus was, the facts surrounding his life and teaching and concluded with the simple statement that He is the Christ, the anointed one, who is the Lord. The simple implication of Peter’s sermon is that Jesus is the one to whom all the people of the earth owe their allegiance. Peter presented the facts, and the facts backed up the claim of Christ. Those who acknowledged the claim were “cut to the heart” and asked the apostles how they could be saved.
In Acts 3 Peter credits Christ with the healing of a crippled man and, taking advantage of the scene this created, convicts the listeners of their injustice in killing “the Holy and Righteous One” and choosing a murderer in His place. He then tells that events had to transpire in this way in order that God might complete His plan to bless all people by turning them from their wickedness.
Likewise, in Acts 4 Peter continues to proclaim the Lordship of Christ, proclaiming that he came to save the lost, and that it was his duty, as Christ was his Lord, that he continue to spread the message of Jesus.
Acts goes on and on in this way, the apostles frequently referring to Christ’s claim over all people and the allegiance they owe Him, and only occasionally making vague references to “punishment” or being “destroyed from the people.” The point is, that someone who decides to follow Jesus because he wants to escape eternal torment has not actually come to Christ, but is simply fleeing destruction - something John Baptist accused the Jewish religious authorities of doing at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. He hasn’t come to Christ for Christ’s sake, but out of a desire to save himself from pain.
If the New Testament is clear about anything, it’s clear that we are to come to Jesus on our hands and knees, broken down by our sin because we know that it was rebellion against Him who has the rightful claim over us as our Lord and Creator. Our sin hurt Him who loved us first so deeply that He chose to suffer and die that He might bless us by turning us from our wickedness and bringing us into His family. This should be our desire and the primary impetuous for our salvation, not necessarily a fear of punishment.
We See Through a Glass Darkly
I love the Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 13 of the present state of our knowledge as believers:
1 Corinthians 13:9-12
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I
spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I
became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but
then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have
been fully known.
I like answers and believe that there are more and better answers to many of the questions Christians ask than many realize. That said, Paul acknowledges that even he, the most important figure in Christianity next to Jesus himself, doesn’t have all knowledge, all reason, or all understanding available to him. There are things, many things on many subjects, which will never be known to man in our present state on this Old Earth. As I have studied over the past three years many issues have become more clear to me, whereas others, like the issue of Hell, have become less and less defined the more I study. It appears that God did not give us complete information on many subjects. Like the mirror, or glass, in which we can see only a hazy, clouded image, there are topics in scripture which we cannot see with any specificity, but can only perceive in the most general way.
Hell is clearly one of these subjects. God, apparently, doesn’t feel the need to fill us in on the details of the punishment of the wicked, but gives us just enough to know that it exists and it is a fearful fate. He doesn’t think we need to know. Someday, as Paul says, we who belong to Christ will see face to face and know fully those things about which we have questions or cannot presently comprehend. As someone who likes answers that expectation is exciting and deeply satisfying.