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Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Four Views on Hell" (Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John G. Stackhouse Jr., Robin Perry, and Jerry Walls)

TITLE: Four Views on Hell: Second Edition (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
AUTHOR: Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John G. Stackhouse Jr., Robin Perry, and Jerry Walls
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, (224 pages).

The topic of hell and eternal damnation has been a controversial topic recently. Since Rob Bell's Love Wins, which is essentially a book that not only rejects the existence of eternal hell but advocates the position of universalism, many Christians are caught in a bind about what exactly does the Bible teach about hell. A number of outspoke critics railed against Bell. A popular Christian pastor, Francis Chan was so upset about Bell's universalist approach that he responded with Erasing Hell. The chief editor of ChristianityToday publication wrote God Wins to counter Bell's ideas. While these books appeal at a popular readers' level, there are some people who would like a more in-depth treatment of the topic of hell, damnation, and eternal suffering. Enters this book which is part of Zondervan's Counterpoints series. Four different perspectives are provided not simply for readers to pick-and-choose but to be understood and to learn from. If not everybody have the whole truth, surely, together, we can all draw a bigger picture that we can learn from. Each view comes with three responses. The main purpose of this book is to lay out the different views of hell for the purpose of instruction and illumination, so that there will be bridges of understanding of all sides. This book is not new. The first edition was published in 1996 with the literal view (John F. Walvoord), the metaphorical view (William Crockett), the conditional view (Clark H. Pinnock), and the purgatorial view (Zachary J. Hayes). This second edition has been updated with four new contributors.

Although some of the terms have been changed, and the contributors different, the general thrust of each argument remains the same. Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College argues from a traditional literal position. John Stackhouse Jr, the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in New Brunswick, Canada, argues from the conditional immortality viewpoint. Robin Parry, editor at Wipf and Stock publishers argues for Universalism, while Jerry Walls, Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University maintains a stand on purgatory. I will summarize each view before adding some comments to it.

The first view of hell sees the place of damnation literally as "Eternal Conscious Torment." Denny Burk uses ten specific Scripture passages to expand on this view. He has high view of the Bible and God. Sometimes referred to as the traditional or fundamental view, Burk tells us that our views of human beings must not diminish the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin. When the Bible clashes with the worldview of man, the latter must surrender to the former. There is a strong teaching on "final separation" and "just retribution." With the reality of hell made clear, the implication for believers is to share the gospel widely and urgently. The key problem with Burk's arguments lies in the ten Bible passages he has selected. Not all of them speak into the topic of hell with equal weight. They all have their contexts to be studied first. Stackhouse counters by saying that Burk emphasizes on God's greatness more than God's goodness. Plus, Burk's arguments are more deductive than inductive. Parry jumps in to question how it is possible for the saints to be "fully happy" if those they love are suffering in eternal torment. He agrees that while God is infinitely glorious, it is not necessary that God is inflicts eternal punishment. Walls sits in between, refusing to acknowledge either "conditional immortality" or "universalism." He questions Burks' view of grace and human freedom.

The second view of hell is proposed by John G. Stackhouse Jr, one that the author calls "Terminal Punishment" or Annihilationism. He sees God as both holy and good. Hell is about people who reject the atonement of Jesus and thus suffer from the consequences of their own choices. Hell is depicted as a destination, as fire, and as dump. As a destination, hell is seen as a real literal place. As fire, hell is judgment. As dump, hell is a place where evil is assigned to. His essay aims to walk the fine balance between God's holiness and God's judgment for sin. God judges because God loves. Burk replies by saying that Stackhouse's two extremes of God's holiness and God's love are "unbiblical extremes." Why not put them together as one? Parry refuses to accept the idea of "eschatological destruction." He insists that the Bible is more about "gospel solution" and not about "terminator solution." He sees hell as more imagery. Walls chooses not to go either way and says that hell is not "eternal punishment" but eternal rejection by people.

The third view of hell is the universalist view advocated by Robin Parry. Simply put, this view believes that a loving God will ultimately reconcile every person to Him. He says that this view has historical precedence as even the Church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, and St Augustine had held to universalist views. In fact, every view can be supported by Scripture, depending on which verses one chooses. The way Parry sees it, a right theology of hell must manifest God's divine goodness, of both justice and love. He shows another way to interpret verses (Rev 14:9-11 and 20:10-15) that seem to point to eternal judgment. Burk critiques Parry's essay as poor hermeneutics and bad assumptions about sin. Stackhouse sees universalism as a logic that puts human hope above sound biblical exegesis. He accuses Parry of "muddying" terms of love and justice with "loving justice" and "just love." Walls enters the fray to say that while he feels Parry is wrong, he still hopes he is right. Key to the agreement and disagreement lies in reconciling the idea of hell with God's love.  God does not save someone against their will. People always have a choice. Hell is real and the stubbornness of humans is also real.

The fourth view is that of Jerry Walls, who is an evangelical arguing for a Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. He understands purgatory as a "ante-room" to heaven rather than hell. He mentions four points about purgatory. One, purgatory is not some place of probation. Two, it is not a "second chance" place because death is final. Three, repentance is possible at the moment of death. Four, purgatory is some process of purification. In simple terms, Walls points out that purgatory is both a sanctification as well as a satisfaction model. The former looks forward while the latter looks backward to satisfaction. He believes that the sanctification model is compatible with Protestants. He even says that CS Lewis mentions purgatory in his writings. Burk takes issue with how Walls handles 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, which cannot be used to support purgatory. He also says that Walls lets human speculation come before biblical truth. Stackhouse responds to Walls's use of CS Lewis by saying that Lewis often writes symbolism in his books. What then about salvation by works? Parry agrees that Walls's arguments are more speculative than anything.

I like the concluding reflections by Preston Sprinkle. He addresses each individual contribution and points out the strengths and weaknesses of each. While he agrees with Burk's general thrusts of biblical reasoning, he too points out that the texts Burk had chosen fail to be as convincing. He is also generous with praises for Stackhouse, but argues that the idea of "eternal" should not be limited to time. It needs the element of quality as well. Like Burk's, he finds Stackhouse treatment of biblical texts "lacking." He appreciates Parry's writings as "fascinating" but warns us against becoming infatuated with emotionalism and rhetoric. On Walls's view of purgatory, he finds it interesting but feels it is still "suspicious" from a Protestant standpoint.

My general feel of this book is that it gives four different views of hell but can still lead to confusion for some readers. For instance, just trying to answer the question of who is right and who is wrong is already problematic. Every view has its proponents and alternative interpretations. Of course, readers too come with their own interpretive lens too. It is impossible to come with a neutral mind because all of us have an opinion right from the beginning. So, here are my three comments on how to use this book. First, have an open mind to understand each view according to what the authors are saying. The last thing that any reader can do is to misrepresent the contributor. Even reviewers like me have to be careful not to fall into that trap. Understanding is important before we can actually think critically about it. Have we understood what the contributor is saying? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the essays? Second, let the respondents guide you in critiquing the essay. Sometimes, we do need some kind of a help to interpret the primary essay. The responses have been given by top scholars and theologians who have read and analyzed the individual essays in detail. Let their flow of arguments help bring out the other perspectives. Sometimes, we may even agree more with the respondents or a combination of their views. They are our trusted guides, and in this book's format, for every one essay, there are three trusted guides. Third, hold back from pre-judging our understanding of hell. Let the Bible have the final say. Sometimes, the exegesis of the passage is key to determining what the passage is saying. There is no book in the Bible that says: "Everything You Need To Know About Hell." Every passage has its own contexts. We must honour that and not bring into the texts our preconceived ideas about hell.

This book will help us be better informed about hell and the different views Christians have. Well structured and honestly debated, it is another example of how Christians with differing points of view can still come together to discuss in a mature and intelligent way.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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