Book Critique: Four Views On Hell


(With all of the hubbub over Rob Bell’s recent heresy, I thought a review of this book might be helpful. I think this book is an excellent resource for a thinking Christian to thoroughly examine the issue)

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to critique Four Views On Hell, a book written by four theologians representing their respective views namely: literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional. This presentation will first give a summary of the book, and then offer several key points of analysis. The first point of analysis will be each author’s theological perspective and background because it serves as their interpretive lens. This naturally leads to examining the scriptural evidence for each view and how the author interprets it. While scripture is the ultimate arbiter, arguments offered from logic and emotion will be examined as well. Finally, criticism will be offered on the basis of exegesis and rational coherence. This critique will attempt to show that the book leads one to accept eternal punishment as the most coherent biblical position, while the biblical descriptions of hell are more likely metaphors for a larger reality.

Brief Summary

The four views literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional are represented by John F. Walvoord, William Crockett, Zachary J. Hayes, and Clark H. Pinnock respectively. Each author contributed a chapter followed by responses from the other three. This makes for a very lively and useful book as each view is well argued and subjected to thoughtful criticism. Walvoord makes a strong case for a literal everlasting hell with actual fire. His exegetical work concerning the eternal nature of hell based on the term aionios is convincing. He remarks, “If exegesis is the final factor, eternal punishment is the only proper conclusion.”[1] While Crockett stresses that hell is an existential reality, he argues against claiming exacting knowledge concerning its nature. He stresses, “the Scriptures do teach about a real hell, a place of frightful judgment.”[2] Still yet, he argues that the literal view makes the Bible say too much and compares it to the Egyptian topographers of the underworld.  He presents a compelling argument for the metaphoric view, emphasizing the use of conflicting language, “how can hell be literal fire when it is also described as darkness?”[3] This point is reiterated ad nauseum against the literal view in several responses throughout the book. The organization of the book is interesting in that the further one reads the more speculative the argumentation and the less scriptural the basis. The slope is slippery indeed.

Hayes argues for an interim state which he believes is rooted in the redemptive work of Christ. His position on hell proper is obfuscated by his argument for purgatory. He bases a lot of his argumentation on history and tradition, which is not surprising as it is its only real grounding. He also petitions a humanistic sense of fairness, an emotional appeal which he shares with the next alternative. Pinnock’s case is based more on a negative argument against the classical view than evidence for his own. Accordingly, he exaggerates the traditional view at the outset. He contends one is asked to believe that God “endlessly tortures sinners by the million, sinners who perish because the Father decided not to elect them to salvation, though he could have done so, and whose torments are supposed to gladden the hearts of believers in heaven.”[4] He argues forcefully that eternal torment is sadistic, vindictive and unjust. It is not befitting of God’s character. He proposes annihilationism or “conditional immortality” as a preferable alternative.

Critical Interaction With Author’s Work

No one disputes that the literal view is the dominant classical Christian position but they all acknowledge it has fallen out of favor. Walvoord was the president of Dallas Theological Seminary from 1952 to 1986 and is described as “a committed and profound dispensationalist.”[5] While he died in 2001, he was a long time champion of biblical inerrancy writing, “the Bible never affirms to be true something that is actually not true.” [6] Accordingly he strongly favors an objective hermeneutic rooted in the authors intent for the passage. A particular strength of his chapter is discussion of the Greek term aionios. It is correctly rendered “eternal” and is used to describe the punishment of the wicked seven times (Matt. 18:8; 25:41,46; Mark 3:29; 2 Thess. 1:9; Heb 6:2; Jude 7).[7] This line of reasoning is especially powerful because the same word is used to describe eternal life for the believer (Matt 25:46, Mk. 10:30; John 3:15; 4:36; 5:39; Acts 13:48; Rom 2:7; 5:21; 6:23). It seems that to argue against eternal punishment is to argue against eternal life for those in Christ. The collateral damage to biblical doctrine is just too great to try to obfuscate the meaning of aionios. It is quite telling that Hayes and Pinnock do not attempt to do so.

The weakness in Walvoord’s view is that in his zeal he can resort to a wooden literalism. He acknowledges that hell is described as total darkness and attributes it to mental anguish. Yet he then argues for literal flames and fire but does not attempt to reconcile how literal fire can occur in total darkness. Crocket makes a point of this in his rebuttal and garners favor for his view.  Hayes discusses the alleged dichotomy between theology and exegesis and points to Walvoord’s presuppositions. Pinnock derides literalism yet makes a valid point in that eschatological passages are in often analogical language.

William Crockett is professor of New Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary which specializes in missions.[8] His background as an evangelical biblical scholar makes him particularly suited to interpreting the text in light of its ancient Near Eastern background. He points to rabbinic hyperbole which Jesus certainly employed on many occasions (Lk. 14:26; Mat 5:29; Mk. 6:23, 11:23) and argues that the descriptions of hell are similar. He provides a plethora of examples from canonical and non-canonical works. He makes a convincing argument that the Bible uses metaphors and figurative language and that insistence on literal flames and fire is unwarranted. While he insists that a literal view is so distasteful that even its proponents dare not preach it, he admirably concludes, “Yet of this they are certain: God will forever punish those who walk in paths of wickedness.”[9] Is literal fire a necessary belief?

Walvoord objects the metaphoric view challenges traditional ideas about the accuracy and inerrancy of scripture. He also criticizes it a non-literal interpretation of prophecy. Yet the descriptions can still be accurate as metaphors. We are talking about the afterlife. Perhaps there simply is no direct earthly analogy? Hayes makes a cogent point in that “to speak of a metaphor in its self to make no judgment about the reality or unreality of the object spoken about.”[10] Hayes also points out that if it is the case that the description are metaphors, then the “literal” reading is in fact the metaphoric one. Pinnock mischaracterizes Crockett’s view saying it accuses the literal view of sadism.[11] Actually, Pinnock is the one making that charge. He asks if Crockett has solved anything as if it were simply a riddle. Pinnock is arguing from humanism and emotion. The truth is objective; it is not available to improve upon based on one’s feelings.

Anticipating the slippery slope, Crockett also handles annihilationism in a rather decisive manner. It is the view that the wicked simply pass out of existence rather than endure eternal torment. First he examines the metaphysical argument from “harmony in the cosmos”, which asks if it is reasonable to believe that after God restores creation the damned souls still suffer in a far excluded corner. While conceding it is a reasonable argument, he concludes it is more coherent with universalism than annihilationism. He argues that annihilationists must deal with the Hellenistic concept of an eternal soul which was widely accepted in Jesus day. It is not enough to simply stand on the vagueness of the Old Testament concept. He also points out the inconsistency of interpreting Luke16:19-31 as a temporary place of suffering. If their moral argument is that God would not torment, this is incoherent. He either does or does not. In addition, they do not handle texts which speak to different levels of punishment (Luke 12:47-48; Matt 11:24). Finally, he points out that it is not valid exegesis to seek possible meanings that fit ones preconceived view instead of the meaning that fits the historical context. The first century worldview would have required an explicit correction if the Gospel writers wanted to teach annihilationism, but they did not do so. But eventually new ideas, time and tradition can change a worldview

The institutional juggernaut of Roman Catholicism did just that by conjecturing a place of intermediate punishment that held those not a peace with the church to endure punitive and refining suffering.[12] This became entrenched after The Council of Trent (1545–63) which affirmed that those who deny the doctrine of purgatory are “anathema,” accursed. This the theological tradition represented by Hayes, a retired teacher of theology at the Catholic Theological Union.[13] He argues that the idea of purifying fire was present in the biblical and extra biblical literature before the Catholic concept of purgatory came about. The non-canonical 2 Maccabees is his primary support. He leans heavy on tradition, citing Augustine who was concerned with the moral continuity from this life and the afterlife and Cyprian who was concerned about the destiny of Christians who recanted under persecution. While these are legitimate concerns, postulating an interim state as a way out of a dilemma based on a humanistic sense of fairness is unwarranted. The case gets even more tenuous as practices such as praying for dead are introduced. He appeals to who was then Cardinal (now Pope) Ratzinger who wrote that, “Purgatory means that there is some unresolved guilt in the person who has died. Hence there is suffering that continues to radiate because of this guilt.”[14] Yet one wonders what place the atonement of the cross finds in this theology.

He concedes that modern Catholic scholars acknowledge that “although there is no clear textual basis in Scripture for the later doctrine of purgatory, neither is there anything that is clearly contrary to that doctrine.”[15] This is quite revealing because it is not a valid way to argue for a claim. One could derive all sorts of fantastic musings that are not specifically denied. The Bible does not deny the existence of elves and faeries, should we believe in them? An argument from silence is never convincing and as Walvoord pointed out the scripture is not silent in this case (Rev. 20:10). While he fails to argue coherently, the verses he conceded against his position are quite convincing (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:21; Heb 9:27-28; Rev 22:11; Eph. 2:8-9) albeit not as exhaustive a list as Walvoord’s. Due to the vacuous scriptural support for purgatory he shifts the focus.

Employing the evasive tactic of “moving the goal posts down the field”, he quibbles that what is at stake is not the scriptures but the protestant problem with a works theology. However, in light of Ephesians 2:8-9, it is exactly the veracity of the scriptures at stake. It is simply fallacious to argue that purgatory is an interpretive matter. Purgatory is pure conjecture. In his discussion of grace he creates a false dichotomy between the Catholic conception of justification and grace with the protestant understanding of forensic justification. The Protestant doctrine of sanctification is analogous to the eastern patristic understanding of divination so he has made a category error. 1 John 3:2 says we will be like him when he appears not after an extended stay in purgatory. His attempt to shift the debate to justification and grace ultimately fails as it appears to be merely an obfuscation of the fact there is absolutely no scriptural warrant for the belief in purgatory. Yet, even so, the slope gets slipperier.

Pinnock was once a traditional evangelical, who began to question his faith and became an early proponent of open theism.[16] It is the controversial (some argue heretical) view which “holds that God grows, discovers things he did not know, and changes his mind.”[17] Prior to his demise, he was nearly ousted from the Evangelical Theological Society for his views. [18] In this book, he proposes annihilationism or conditional immortality as a preferable alternative. It is clear that Pinnock really dislikes the biblical teaching on hell. He seems to think because it is so unpopular, that scripture needs rescuing by means of a radical re-interpretation. One wonders if he believes that truth value is dependent on popularity. The doctrine of original sin is hardly a crowd pleaser yet remains a test of orthodoxy. He accuses traditionalists of holding an unbiblical anthropology, by posting immortality of the soul based on Greek belief. He cites 1 Tim 6:16 to argue that only God has immortality and that it is conditional for human beings. He believes God destroys the souls of the wicked in hell (Mat. 10:28). While Crockett addressed it earlier, the belief of the Pharisees and New Testament Christians was in the immortality of the soul. Pinnock does not provide adequate exegetical support for his contentions.

He argues philosophically on the metaphysical basis that an eternal state of dualism seems inferior to a complete renewal of creation. As previously pointed out, Crockett argued that this favors universalism more than annihilation. He also examines a few of the classic proof texts yet his explanations are largely unsatisfying and seem to be special pleading based on his a priori belief in annihilation. He fails to adequately address how annihilation could possibly address degrees of punishment inferred by some texts (Matt 10:15; Lk. 12:47-48). In addition, Revelation 14:11 is explicit enough against annihilationism, the words written prior by Crocket come to mind, just because an interpretation is possible does not make it exegetically sound. His greatest strength is that he argues forcefully that eternal torment is sadistic, vindictive and unjust. While ignoring Paul’s inspired arguments (Rom 3:5-6; 9:14 ff.), he contends it is not befitting of God’s character. He seems to agree with (then) atheist Antony Flew that if the traditional view is correct, then Christianity is not worth defending. He makes a strong case appealing to emotion and one’s sense of justice.

Walvoord astutely points out one’s opinions do not change truth.  He also reveals that in Pinnock’s treatment of proof texts he never discussed the relationship between Rev 19:20 and 20:10 which show that the Beast and False Prophet survive the millennium in the lake of fire. He also contends that because prophecy has been fulfilled literally in history, we should expect the same of eschatology. Crockett’s refutation of Pinnock is decisive. He convincingly asserts that because Pinnock finds it distasteful he is making up new theology. His point about the first century context in which Jesus confronted the Pharisees who believed in eternal torment is especially devastating to Pinnock. He points out that Pinnock has created a false dichotomy by mischaracterizing the metaphoric view as “taking the hell out of hell.” Pinnock’s arguments rely on emotional appeal to images of torture and fire, his emotive force is diminished by the metaphorical interpretation. Hell is distasteful and unpopular but it is undeniably real. His case is largely emotional albeit understandably so.

Conclusion

This paper offered a summary and analysis of the book Four Views On Hell. After offering a brief summary, the paper sought to illustrate its value for evaluating the different positions by examining each author’s theological background, scriptural support, and philosophical argumentation. The relationship between these points was shown and reflected in each of the four positions. It was determined that while the descriptions of flames need not be taken literally, they could indeed symbolize something far greater and the Bible clearly teaches an everlasting state of punishment for those who reject the gospel. In the end, this book is extremely valuable for refuting error and promoting a sense of urgency in evangelism.


[1] John F. Walvoord, Zachary J. Hayes, and Clark H. Pinnock. Four Views on Hell. ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996),  27.

[2] Crockett. Four Views. 49.

[3] Crockett. Four Views. 59.

[4] Crockett. Four Views. 136

[5] “John F. Walvoord: Theologian. Educator Author” http://www.walvoord.com/author_bio.php?author_id=1, (accessed 02/24/2011).

[6]John F. Walvoord, What We Believe (Galaxie Software, 2007), 11.

[7]Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,(Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985), 31.

[8] “Crockett, William J.” http://www.zondervan.com/Cultures/en-US/Authors/Author.htm? ContributorID=CrockettW& QueryStringSite=Zondervan (accessed 02/24/2011)

[9] Crockett. Four Views. 59.

[10] Crockett. Four Views. 83.

[11] Crockett. Four Views. 87.

[12]L. Boettner. “Purgatory” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 972.

[13] “Hayes, Zachary J.” http://www.zondervan.com/Cultures/en- US/Authors/Author.htm? ContributorID=HayesZ&QueryStringSite= zondervan (accessed 02/24/2011).

[14] Crockett. Four Views. 99.

[15] Crockett. Four Views. 107.

[16] Bob Allen. “Controversial theologian Clark Pinnock dies”. http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/5451/53/ (accessed 02/24/2011).

[17] Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, Rev. ed., 1st Crossway ed. (Wheaton, ll.:Crossway Books, 2001), 144.

[18] Norman Geisler. “Why I Resigned From the Evangelical Theological Society” http://www.normangeisler.net/etsresign.htm (accessed February 26, 2010).

About Cris Putnam
Logos Apologia is the ministry of Cris D. Putnam. The mission of Logos Apologia is to show that logic, science, history and faith are complementary, not contradictory and to bring that life-changing truth to everybody who wants to know.

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  1. […] nature. He stresses, “the Scriptures do teach about a real hell, a place of frightful judgment.”[2] Still yet, he argues that the literal view makes the Bible say too much and compares it to the […]

  2. […] Cris D. Putnam, “Book Critique: Four Views On Hell,” Logos Apologia, March 14, 2011, http://www.logosapologia.org/?p=1725 (accessed February 15, 2012). [22] R. P. Lightner, “Hell,” Evangelical Dictionary of […]

  3. […] Cris D. Putnam, “Book Critique: Four Views On Hell,” Logos Apologia, March 14, 2011, http://www.logosapologia.org/?p=1725 (accessed February 15, 2012). [22] R. P. Lightner, “Hell,” Evangelical Dictionary of […]

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