From time to time, somewhere within the Good Old C of E, I come across a claim so baffling that it stays with me and I struggle to make sense of it. That last happened ten days ago, when I read the article by Dr Sam Wells in the Church Times, which called for a reformation so the Church ‘should rethink its purpose and change the way churches [ie church buildings] are used accordingly’. I was all the more baffled knowing that Wells, formerly Dean at Duke Divinity School in the US and married to Jo Bailey Wells, the Bishop of Dorking, has a reputation as an able theologian.
Wells begins by putting Jesus’ offer of abundant life at the centre of the Church’s mission:
Jesus is our model of abundant life; his life, death and resurrection chart the transformation from the scarcity of sin and death to the abundance of healing and resurrection; he longs to bring all humankind into reconciled and flourishing relationship with God, one another, themselves, and all creation.
As he says, ‘so far, so good’. The problem comes with the role of hell, which ‘people stopping believing in about 1860.’ It is here that his argument takes a very odd turn. He rightly notes the difficulties with reconciling notions of ‘eternal torment’ with our understanding of God as gracious—but seems content to articulate (and go along with?) the rejection of something that is really a parody of Christian reflection on judgement. It is odd that he makes no comment on the intense debates in this area (of which he surely must be aware) which have led many, including myself, so adopt what is known as Annihilationism. It might not be completely persuasive to see that this was the view espoused by the prominent evangelical leader John Stott—but the view goes back to Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, so it has some pedigree.
For Wells, his touchstone is ‘the God revealed in Jesus Christ’, and his recalibration of the gospel is in positive terms:
Salvation is not fundamentally to be conceived as enabling people to escape from the labours of life and the horrors of hell to the halcyon joys of heaven. Jesus did not fundamentally come to redirect us from judgement and oblivion to safety and sublime bliss.
This is such an odd statement, I really don’t know what to do with it. Jesus’ predecessor, John the Baptist, castigated his listeners: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3.7). Jesus’ follower Peter, in his Pentecost speech ‘with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”’ (Acts 2.40). Can it be that Sam Wells’ gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was like neither his predecessor or his follower and avoided all talk of judgement? What, then, are we to make of the centrality in Jesus’ teaching of the call to ‘repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15 and elsewhere)? What do we do with Jesus’ repeated language of ‘the darkness outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51, 25.30, Luke 13.28)? We only need to look at the best-known verse in the New Testament about the love of God:
God loved the world in this way, that he sent his only Son, so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)
John (or Jesus in John’s gospel) isn’t here suggesting that Jesus makes life just a little bit better; he is asserting that, without belief, there is no life, only death and judgement—and ‘belief’ here is something radical and whole-hearted, something that draws a sharp line between those who believe and those who do not. No wonder that John’s gospel continues deploying this language of stark contrasts:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3.18–21)
Note two things I am not doing here. First, I am not suggesting that the questions Christians have struggled with about judgement and post-mortem destiny are simply and easily solved. Nor am I suggesting that Christians should go around preaching about hell; I have heard one excruciatingly inappropriate Christmas sermon by an earnest curate, telling the C and E audience (‘Christmas and Easter’) that they are sinners who need to repent—and one was enough. But what I am suggesting is that Wells’ statement makes no sense of the New Testament at all.
Historically, there have been three main ways in which theologians have avoided these awkward bits of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. The first is simply to believe that Jesus was wrong. Albert Schweitzer was a remarkable man who did remarkable things—and was motivated by the example of Jesus, though thought him a deluded apocalyptic prophet who was wrong about his central mission in life and ultimately failed. This notion that we understand what Jesus should have done better than Jesus did (which might be what Wells in fact means by ‘the God revealed in Jesus Christ’) is emerging quite widely amongst ‘Progressives’. Take this example from theologian James McGrath:
If Jesus doesn’t behave in a manner that seems “Christlike” to us, then we should be honest about it, and should honestly weigh the possibility that Jesus, being human, was not infallible and that we should not simply blindly try to do what he did, but should rather ask about core principles, recognizing that Jesus, like every other human being, may not have always consistently lived out the things that he taught; that he may have applied those principles in ways that it would not make sense for us to do so; and (most controversially), it is entirely possible that even the things that Jesus believed and taught may need to be evaluated from the perspective of hindsight as problematic and set aside.
That’s a perfectly legitimate approach to take—but it is not a Christian approaching to reading the New Testament, in that it bears little or no relation to historic Christian belief as expressed in the Creeds.
The second option is to take a pair of (theological, source– and form-critical) scissors to the NT, and decide which things Jesus really did say, and which were mistakenly attributed to him. This is the approach of the Jesus Seminar, who classify the teaching and actions of Jesus into certain, likely, possibly, unhistorical and (my favourite) ‘things we wish Jesus had said but think he didn’t’. A third option is to read the NT existentially and dehistoricise it, following perhaps the example of Adolf Harnack or Rudolf Bultmann. Unfortunately, in the past this has lead to rejecting the Jewishness of Jesus, and historically that has led to the rejection of the Jewishness of Jewish people. None of these is a happy outcome, and all of them are hard to square with orthodox Trinitarian Christian belief.
Wells’ strange reading of Jesus in the gospels then leads to two other strange readings—one of the task of Christian mission, and the other the nature of the world around us. In relation to Christian mission, Wells asserts:
The central purpose of the Church is no longer to reconcile people to God, so that their eternal salvation will no longer be in jeopardy: it is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose: evangelism means inviting people to embrace God likewise.
In stating this, Wells is rejecting the most central (and perhaps the most helpful and interesting) Pauline understanding of the atonement: that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5.19). As I have explored elsewhere, it is this notion of ‘reconciliation’ that has the best claim (rather than ‘justification’) to summing up Paul’s understanding of the gospel. But note the direction of travel in this part of Paul’s writing. Look where it leads—into his understanding of Christian mission and ministry. If God thought reconciliation was so important that he was prepared to offer his Son for us, then this is the urgent imperative behind Christian mission: ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!’ (verse 20). But note as well the direction that this understanding is coming from:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5.17)
This expresses Paul’s (apocalyptic) eschatological understanding of the kingdom or reign of God. This present age is under the rule of God’s primeval enemy; we are enslaved to sin and our ‘sinful human nature’ (‘flesh’) but, through Jesus’ costly death which has defeated these powers, the Spirit of God has been poured out on us to bring us from death to life and set us free to live holy lives, which are a foretaste of the age to come. This is the context for Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God; this is the background to the paradoxical understanding of ‘the world’ in John’s gospel, both the object of God’s love and the enemy of his people; this is the pervading view of all the New Testament writers. But for Wells, this apparently all needs ‘rethinking’.
Despite all this, it is actually Wells’ reading of ‘the world’ that I find most odd.
But a different view of God leads to an alternative understanding of the world. No longer is life about dodging the flesh of this world to merit the spirit of the next. Now the world has a validity of its own. All has not been lost in the Fall. The Holy Spirit is doing surprising, exuberant, and plentiful things in the world.
It is worth noting that if Christians have read the NT eschatological outlook as saying that all in the world is bad and all in the Church is good, then they have not been reading carefully enough. The world is God’s creation, though fallen, and as Wells says ‘all has not been lost’. But a good deal has.
But in what sense does he believe that ‘the world has a validity of its own’? In popular culture, many people rather like the idea of judgement—that moment of tension as the music beats and presenter pauses before announcing ‘John, you’re fired/out of the competition/through to the next round’. But there is a more serious cry for judgement in the light of greed, economic inequality, apparently irreversible environmental damage, and the abuse of others, most often of women by men. Of all the comments about the death of Hugh Hefner, this was the most telling:
On hearing that the pimp and pornographer Hugh Hefner had died this morning, I wished I believed in hell.
Doesn’t the ubiquitous presence of #metoo currently dominating social media articulate the age-old cry for judgment by a transcendent and holy God who sees and executes justice? Goodness, we are now living in a culture where even children sexually abuse other children.
The strangest thing of all about Wells’ article is his conclusion about the use of buildings. I don’t know what it is like in his part of London, but where I live it is those churches which believe in the things that Wells wants us to rethink who are actually making most use of their buildings during the week. Trent Vineyard, who believe in all this eschatological kingdom stuff probably more than any Anglican church, run Nottingham’s largest programme of support for the homeless. It turns out that, contrary to expectations, believing in heaven actually transforms how you live on earth.
The reason why I found the article so baffling is that it seems to represent an extraordinary loss of confidence in the spiritual message of the Church—not ‘spiritual’ in the sense of ‘other worldly of no earthly good’, but of the conviction that the central human problem is not about social relationship, or finance, or politics, but about relationship with God—a relationship that God longs should be ‘reconciled’. Wells appears to be arguing for a secularised church with a social message—but there never has been a secular church which has truly flourished in a secular world. St Paul reflects, in his exploration of the resurrection, that ‘if only for this life have we believed, we of all people should be pitied’ (1 Cor 15.19). In this sense, I think Wells’ article is a great pity.
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150 thoughts on “Is it time to forget about hell?”
Wells’ piece reminds me of Niehbuhr’s famous dictum: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
On Sunday we began a short series on 1 Thessalonians, I was preaching on 1:1-10, which closes with the words: “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”
The truth is that many people who are undergoing intense persecution don’t need to hear about abundant life in the here and now – they need to hear about the eternal rescue they have which is secure whatever happens in this life. A while back someone said something on Twitter about hymns which I found helpful – if it wouldn’t work in Syria, don’t sing it. And I think this is true of Wells’ article.
As Jesus says: “‘I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5)
On a tangent, Ian, I’d be interested to hear about your understanding of annihilationism given your study of Revelation. How would you understand a passage like Rev 14:9-11? Maybe a subject for another blog post some time?
The image of smoke rising from the fires of judgement forever and ever is repeated in chapter 19 where it refers to the destruction of Babylon in the chapter 18:
“Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.”… And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, “What city was like the great city?”… Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more.”… After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying… “Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”
This appears to refer then to complete and permanent destruction – hence Babylon being ‘found no more’. The smoke rises forever and ever, that is, the city is never rebuilt but remains forever in a state of destruction.
Let us consider 14:11 then: And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name. Later, in chapter 19, we find further details of their fate:
The beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
Which again is an image of destruction for the followers of the beast. Similarly in chapter 20: ‘[The nations] marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
So again the followers of the beast are ‘consumed’. It is only the devil, the beast and the false prophet who are ‘tormented day and night forever and ever’. So the earlier reference to the smoke of the torment of the followers of the beast going up forever and ever (14:11) should be understood as the torment they experience prior to their destruction i.e. during the burning of Bablyon, before it was ‘found no more’. Thus Revelation supports Annihilationism.
Thanks Will. Yes, I would answer along these lines. The focus in Revelation is consistently on destruction, not on torment, and I think this is quite a contrast to other Jewish apocalyptic. (I need to check on this).
The other thing which has struck me about Revelation is that the focus is on lex talionis, that God’s judgement is fair and proportionate. This has not been helped by mistranslation of Rev 18.6. It should say, not ‘pay her back double’ but ‘duplicate to her’ i.e. judgement is simply giving back what has been given.
Thanks Ian and Will. I don’t want to turn this into a discussion about annihilationism but this maybe an interesting future post to discuss?
So, let me get this straight. The annihilationist conclusion from Revelation is that ‘it is only the devil, the beast and the false prophet who are tormented forever and ever’.
However, whatever Revelation may support, we know from the gospel that Christ himself promised that, at judgment: ‘Then shall he say also to those on the left, Go from me, cursed, into eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
So, according to Annihilationism, it is ‘fair and proportionate to torment the devil eternally with the beast and false prophet, who, despite their egregious rebellion against God, are finite beings.
In contrast, reprobate mankind and Satan’s demonic agents, who are also finite beings, are doomed by God and consigned to eternal fire (which was, after all, prepared for the devil and his angels), but not tormented for ever and ever. Instead, they are annihilated.
And the difference is? Well, presumably because without scriptural warrant, some believe that to consign the latter finite beings to eternal torment is not ‘fair and proportionate’.
All we now need to know…is why?
(Tongue-in-cheek) I’ll see your John Stott and I’ll raise you J.I. Packer:
Matthew says that the cursed go into the eternal fire for eternal punishment, but Revelation clarifies that they are there ‘consumed’, ‘slain’ and ‘found no more’ as they undergo the ‘second death’ (which, following their suffering for their sins, is their eternal punishment). I don’t see why this is unscriptural or problematic.
Eternal torment may be fair and proportionate (if there are degrees in it) but it also seems (on the face of it) cruel. As I read it the Bible indicates they will instead be annihilated following a period of suffering. Perhaps God will correct me on this come the great day, but this is how I read the scriptural witness at the present time.
The use of ‘consumed’ is applied to those who die in the final earthly battle agaibst Christ.
The contrast made in Rev. 19:20-21 is between God’s summary execution of the beast and false prophet (who are cast alive into the lake of fire) versus the physical death of those joining forces with them in this final battle.
The use of katephagen for consumed in Re. 20:9 is telling and so clearly an echo of 1 Kings 18:38, where the LXX employs the same word.
It reminds that John, despite Christ’s warning against rashly calling down fire on Samaria, was made aware of an eventual time for God to exact the kind of earthly punishment as He did in Elijah’s time.
‘Found no more’ is that they are beyond retrieval from their eternal doom, the figure of which is the outer darkness of et separation from God.
In terms of what death means, it’s telling that Adam was told that he would die in the day that he ate the forbidden fruit.
This death was immediate separation from God, by which we are all, by nature, estranged from Him.
The second death will make that separation irreversible.
My OT quote should be 2 Kings 1:10.
Yes I have mixed up the imagery a bit. However, the reference in 14:11 to the smoke of torment going up forever and ever appears to relate to 19:3, the judgement of Babylon, whose smoke goes up forever and ever.
Revelation 20:10 describes the devil, beast and false prophet being tormented forever in in the lake of fire. However, the fate of the damned is repeatedly called the second death, which I agree is separation from God, but is also an image of destruction, annihilation.
There is no reference in scripture to the eternal torment of the cursed or damned, only to their eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46). The description of their fate as the second death in the lake of fire is indicative of annihilation (after suffering). This is supported by the way that fire in Revelation consumes and leaves Babylon to be ‘found no more’, even as the smoke from her goes up forever and ever.
In Revelation, the second death is mentioned only four times.
In two instances, it is simply contrasted with the blessed destiny of the saints (Rev. 2:11; Rev. 20:6)
In another instance, it is stated to be synonymous with the ‘lake which burns with fire and brimstone’ (Rev. 21:8).
So, the fact that they are synonymous means that the Devil, the Beast and the False Prophet will be subjected to the second death.
Your assertion that this everlasting fire (i.e. the second death) inflicts torment forever on these three, but just annihilation on the rest of the damned relies completely on an argument from silence.
The assertion that second death involves eternal torment is also an argument from silence, and inference from the fate of the devil etc. On the other hand, throughout Revelation fire is a consuming and destroying force for the enemies of God.
I don’t argue that the lake of fire is just annihilation, but that it includes annihilation, as well as torment.
(In addition Gehenna was a burning rubbish dump where things were destroyed.)
Revelation never says that the devil etc are subject to the second death. The lake of fire may be the second death for the damned but not for them, who are instead kept in eternal torment.
Inferring that the lake of fire inflicts its eternal torment not only on the Devil (as we agree), but also on his angels (for whom it was also prepared) is not an argument from silence.
However, it’s an argument from silence to assert that, absent an explicit pronouncement in Revelation that the Devil will suffer the second death, we must accept that he doesn’t…Yet, Rev. 21:8 describes that the second death to be the same as the lake of fire into which he will be cast.
I’ve already explained the use of katephagen (translated ‘consumed’) as a metaphorical echo from the LXX, which employs the same word to describe God exacting wrath against His enemies who persecuted Elijah.
In the NT, the word is often deployed metaphorically: Luke 15:30; Matt. 23:14; 2 Cor. 11:20; Gal. 5:15. It conveys the idea of utter ruin and deprivation, rather than annihilation.
I regard the difference between 20:10 and 20:14 as significant:
The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
In the first case the lake of fire corresponds to eternal torment. In the second to second death. I don’t think this means we should equate the second death with eternal torment. I think it means the lake of fire leads to different fates for the different groups. My reason is that death is an image of destruction or annihilation, and that if Revelation had meant to indicate eternal torment by it then, as in v10, it would have said so.
‘My reason is that death is an image of destruction or annihilation’
While the first and second death share similarities, it’s somewhat circular to assert that the second death is annihilation because the death (i.e. the first death) is an image of annihilation.
Such an approach ignores the way in which the NT writers, especially John and Paiul, employed life and death as metaphors connoting deliverance and retribution
It’s again an argument from silence to suggest that, absent the mention of eternal torment in every reference to the second death, we should assume that the lake of fire (which is the second death) metes out a different punishment to the eternal torment to be inflicted on the Devil, the Beast and the False Prophet.
Reasoning from omission is speculation, so I think we’ll have to agree to disagree.
I agree that there is inference from silence (or at least from the meaning of terms) going on on both sides of the dispute, since scripture never expressly asserts that the damned are subject to eternal torment, or that the second death is to be identified with eternal torment, though equally it never denies it either. When it says ‘the lake of fire, which is the second death’ I take it to mean that the lake of fire is the second death for the damned rather than that the lake of fire is itself the second death, since it is not said to be the second death or death of any kind for the devil etc. (who presumably did not suffer a first death). I take the reference to the lake of fire being the second death for the damned to be indicative of annihilation, but as you point out death in scripture does not necessarily connote that. Nonetheless, I think I am justified in holding this position as consistent with scripture, since the imagery of the fate of the damned/cursed is very often associated with destruction or annihilation both in Revelation and elsewhere (e.g. Matthew 10:28). Having said this, I think it would be hard to square a view of annihilation without any prior torment with scripture, since there are numerous references in scripture to post-death punishment being unpleasant and painful and not merely a matter of non-existence (e.g. Mark 9:48, Matthew 5:25, Luke 12:47-48, Luke 16:23, Revelation 14:10-11 – though arguably not all of these refer to post-death suffering – plus the close association of hell with fire, which is an image of painful and not painless destruction).
I am happy to agree to disagree on this.
Look into your own heart. Don’t you find that lex talionis demands everlasting torment rather than the lenient punishment of annihilation?
I’m new here, usually at Archbishop Cranmer’s blog ….
However for reasons I can’t go into the ministry, vision and beliefs of Sam Wells has become very pertinent. I’m an old style charismatic evangelical who gets concerned about what is being taught on both sides of the Atlantic. For example in the US you have the New Apostolic Reformation and those churches movements which seem to have included large helpings of new age teachings and practices..
So I read the article you have covered and I printed it off for future reference. I have the same questions you raised.
SW seems to want the Christian Church to abandon the clear teachings of our Lord regarding judgement and assumes that our focus has for too long been on avoiding Hell..
Which personally I thought weird as before my conversion I never thought about it. In fact the
Holy Spirit graciously brought me face to face with my own hypocrisy and messed up life, and it was then a case of admitting my sin and rebellion and asking the Lord to come into my heart.
Salvation is central to Christianity, and only through His grace can we stand before
Him on that day when we will give an account of ourselves..
However where I agree with SW is that our Lord came to give us life abundant through the Holy Spirit. Our focus should be on walking in the light with each other and being salt and light in society.
Universalism, including ignoring/expunging Hell as being unacceptable goes right against the Scriptural teaching of a holy and righteous God who having given us free will, will require an account from each man and woman.
We can’t escape it. So by all means be involved in the community, in local and national politics, fighting social injustice etc. but it must always be as disciples of Christ proclaiming the Gospel of salvation.
What do others think?
I really wished that this post spent more time discussing the concept of hell rather than a letter by Dr. Sam Wells. Or, I wish that the title reflected the real focus of the post because then I probably just would have skipped over it. Did I miss something here?
The subject of discussion is not a *letter* by Sam Wells, but an article in the Church Times—and it reflects a wider theological view within the C of E.
I think other readers disagree with you—see Owen’s comment above. I agree with you (and with others who have commented) that there is a further conversation to be had on the question of hell. But my concern here has simply been to highlight a real problem in the Church’s thinking in some quarters.
Does that make sense?
Ian – a discussion on hell is not insignificant, a discussion on the CofE’s current thinking for many of us is critical – and Im grateful you facilitate such here
Ian I think Miroslav Volf brings some wisdom which raises another problem with Wells’ take on Jesus, hell and judgment. It’s powerfully expressed in his Exclusion & Embrace (Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 304:
“My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone…
Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and levelled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude towards violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love.
Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of a thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”
Apologies for the typo: the last sentence should read “of the liberal mind”!!
Couldn’t agree more
So much so-called theology is done from the ‘comfortably numb’ position of the well fed, financially insulated westerner who relates only to the world’s immense suffering through the lens of radical abstraction
Couldn’t help but respond as I’m currently reading a book by what you might call a latter day pagan, on why non-violence is an expensive philosophical luxury. I find real pagans a joy to respond to as they seem to see a bit more clearly than the anaesthetised middle classes 🙂
Blessings in Jesus
“As I have explored elsewhere, it is this notion of ‘reconciliation’ that has the best claim (rather than ‘justification’) to summing up Paul’s understanding of the gospel. But note the direction of travel in this part of Paul’s writing…”
Didn’t Ralph P. Martin also argue this? I seem to remember a book by him with the title “Reconciliation”
On hell as a place where God is absent – from an essay I wrote several years ago on the theology of Holy Saturday (and Hans Urs Von Balthasar):
“A more fruitful approach, I suggest, is to understand Christ’s experience in terms of the fracturing of fellowship with God which is the consequence of sin. In his death, Christ experiences the estrangement from God which would be sinful humanity’s destiny apart from grace (Yocum, “A Cry of Dereliction?”, 2005: p. 74), and is indeed fully aware of being uniquely forsaken in death. And yet, because Christ’s alienation is the consequence of his acceptance of death in obedience to the Father’s will to reach out in love to the lost and redeem them (cf. Philippians 2:5ff), there is even in this moment of utter separation a “community of will” which unites Father and Son in “a single surrendering movement” (Moltmann, 1990: p. 174). It follows that even in the depths of the abyss, Jesus is not alone; and because he is not alone, neither are the dead. Because Jesus identifies himself totally with sinners in obedience to his Father, he is both reprobate and elect (as Barth put it), and can redeem sinners through a solidarity which is substitutionary precisely in plumbing the depths of an abandonment which they are spared through his redemption.
It must now be asked how this affects our understanding of hell and the fate of the “lost”. If the dead Christ and the Father are united in loving fellowship even in hell, then hell can no longer be the place where God is wholly absent and which “no redemptive light has brightened” (Mysterium: p. 172).”
From the same essay, on the idea that “hell exists but is empty…”:
“Does a theology of Holy Saturday offer grounds for the hope that all humans may be saved? In descending into the abode of the dead, Balthasar affirms, the dead Christ has “assumed their eschatological ‘No’ in regard to the event of salvation which came about in him” (Mysterium: p. 172). Does it follow from this that hell cannot be populated, because this would constitute a defeat of God’s redemptive purpose and will (Mysterium: p. 173)?
Attractive though this thesis is, there are also serious obstacles to embracing it. Most universalist proposals rightly recognize that there must be a human response to the divine offer of forgiveness. Because salvation is about reconciliation –the restoration of fellowship with God- “God’s infinite love…..must be accepted” (Balthasar, Dare We Hope All Men May be Saved? 1998: p. 94). This recognition is, however, hard to reconcile with the widespread conception of death as the cessation of all activity on the part of the human subject (Mysterium: p. 147; Moltmann, 1990: p. 176-7; Kung: p. 13). Such hypotheses also arguably fail to take due account of the New Testament emphasis on this life as the arena in which humans must respond to God (Hebrews 9:27; Matthew 10:32-33 par.). Indeed, according to the fourth gospel, the eschatological verdict is but the revelation of a judgment which is already taking place in humans’ present response to Jesus’ claims and call (John 3:17-19; 5:28ff; 8:24; 12:48). As Balthasar himself puts it, “The absolute decision must be made in one’s earthly life; in the hereafter, it will be too late” (Hope: p. 182).
In addition to such considerations, there is the further problem of a clear tendency in most universalist hypotheses to take a rather roseate view of the human response to God post-mortem. It is true that such proposals tend to take their stand on the affirmation that God’s love “is stronger than any resistance that it encounters” (Hope: p. 97). Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that they underestimate the extent to which “the fundamental orientation of the soul’s desire” is “shaped during this life” (Mysterium: p. 178), and are therefore vulnerable to the charge that they fail “to know the proper fear that the choices we make are capable of destroying us” (Williams, Tokens of Trust, 2007: p. 151).”
Again, from the same essay, on the idea that the eternal damnation of some is a defeat for divine love:
“he claim that a populated hell would constitute a defeat for God’s love and will seems to me to fail to grasp the traditional import of the doctrine, which is precisely that humans cannot subtract themselves from God’s sovereignty by any unilateral declaration of independence. The recognition that God desires that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) is a welcome corrective to distorted ideas of an angry God who vengefully destines sinners to eternal torment, and Martelet is surely right that “if there is any reaction in God to the existence of hell….then it is one of pain, not of ratification; God would….find a brand burned into his flesh” in “the form of the Cross” (Hope: p. 54). This need not, however, imply a divine decision to over-ride human responsibility and choice.
Here, as elsewhere, “Fulfillment alone leaves the tragic problem of self-loss untouched, and so fails, in the long run to take…sufficiently seriously” that freedom which “is not simply a smooth trajectory of finite towards infinite” but also includes “the possibility of self-deceit, self-destruction, refusal” (Williams, Wrestling with Anglels, 2007b: p. 100, 99). If “the man who irrevocably refuses love condemns himself” (Hope: p. 165), then “the most truthful image we can have of hell is of God eternally knocking on a closed door that we are struggling to hold shut” (Williams, Tokens, 2007: p. 151).”
Fascinating stuff–thanks David.
Then he will say also to the [ones] on [the] left: Go from me having been cursed [ones] into the fire – eternal – having been prepared for the devil and the angels of him. (Matthew 25:41)
And will go away these into punishment eternal, but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25:46). (Nestle-Marshall Literal Translation).
Both life for the blessed ones and punishment for the cursed ones is eternal.
To be eternally dead is an eternal punishment.
But they are in the same place as the devil and his angels.
In Revelation both are subject to the fire of judgement, but whereas the devil is ‘tormented day and night forever and ever’, the followers of the beast are ‘consumed’ and Babylon ‘is found no more’ even while ‘the smoke goes up from her forever and ever’.
An excellent point!
Not sure why my comment landed here – it was meant as a reply to Will “to be eternally dead is an eternal punishment”.
Also, it does not make sense to speak of the punishment of non-existence.
But it does make sense to speak of non-existence of something which once existed as punishment.
Not so. The one being ‘punished’ no longer exists.
But the punishment does. It makes perfect sense to speak of destruction (or death) as a punishment – and Revelation refers to the fate of the damned in the lake of fire as the second death. Death is a destruction, and it is also a punishment. Destruction lasts forever. Thus destruction/death is an eternal punishment.
Romans 2:5-8 speaks of ‘…affliction and anguish on every soul of man working the evil….’. When does that take place? Clearly those souls still exist. Are you saying that affliction lasts for some time after death but not forever?
Are you saying that affliction lasts for some time after death but not forever?
3. Divine Justice
The third annihilationist argument is that for God to visit punitive retribution endlessly on the lost would be disproportionate and unjust. Stott writes: “I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice, unless perhaps (as has been argued) the impenitence of the lost also continues throughout eternity.” The uncertainty expressed in Stott’s “perhaps” is strange, for there is no reason to think the resurrection of the lost for judgment will change their character, and every reason therefore to suppose their rebellion and impenitence will continue as long as they themselves do, making continued banishment from God’s fellowship fully appropriate; but, leaving that aside, it is apparent that the argument, if valid, would prove too much, and end up undermining the annihilationist’s own case.
For if, as the argument implies, it is needlessly cruel for God to keep the lost endlessly in being to suffer pain, because his justice does not require this, how can the annihilationists justify in terms of God’s justice the fact that he makes them suffer any postmortem pain at all? Why would not justice, which on this view requires their annihilation in any case, not be satisfied by annihilation at death? Biblical annihilationists, who cannot evade the expectation of the final resurrection to judgment of unbelievers alongside believers, admit that God doesn’t do this, and some, as we have seen, admit too there will be some pain inflicted after judgment and prior to extinction. But if God’s justice requires no more than extinction, and therefore doesn’t require this, the pain becomes needless cruelty, and God is in effect accused of the very fault of which annihilationists are anxious to prove him innocent and condemn the Christian mainstream for implying. If, however, God’s justice really does require some penal pain in addition to annihilation, and continued hostility, rebellion, and impenitence Godward on the part of unbelievers remains a postmortem fact, there will be no moment at which it will be possible for either God or man to say that enough punishment has been inflicted, no more is deserved, and any more would be unjust.
The argument thus boomerangs on its proponents, impaling them inescapably on the horns of this dilemma. Wiser was Basil Atkinson, who declares: “I have avoided . . . any argument about the final state of the lost based upon the character of God, which I should consider it to be irreverent to attempt to estimate.”
No doubt he foresaw the toils into which such argument leads
Why would not justice, which on this view requires their annihilation in any case, not be satisfied by annihilation at death?
Why should justice not require both a period of suffering and then execution? I see no reason why justice should not require this. The suffering provides for differential degrees of wickedness, and the execution delivers the final permanent punishment which satisfies for the infinite offence. Death does not negate the significance of prior suffering so why should annihilation negate the significance of prior punishment?
‘Death does not negate the significance of prior suffering so why should annihilation negate the significance of prior punishment?’
Death dies not negate the significance of prior suffering because prior suffering can be redemptive. For instance, In 2nd Corinthians, Paul contrasted the redemptive effect of godly sorrow with the sorrow of the world which produces death.
In contrast, a post-death punishment which precedes annihilation has no redemptive value. The law (whether written in stone or hearts) concludes all to deserve the same fate, only for God to suspend that fate temporarily in order to inflict additional levels of prior torment. Now that is medieval cruelty.
This reverse of purgatory is Dantean in levels of punitive torment with each member of reprobate humanity left uncertain of when God will step in to supposedly end punishment by exacting annihilation for the ultimate guilt which share of unyielding rebellion against God’s supreme majesty and innocence, and His infinite holiness and meekness of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion for our sins.
Of course, the Annihilation theory doesn’t explain why the Devil, the beast and the false prophet wil be singled out for unending torment in a place which is described as prepared for not only him, but also his angels.
Ultimately, the fact that you don’t see why your notion of annihilation should not be so neither makes the case for it being so, nor does it make it scriptural.
I’m still with Packer on this.
Very useful post about Hell and the deficiencies of the merely social gospel today thanks.
But it is so hard to continue to believe we are in the presence of people who risk losing so much…
I find almost no concern about spiritual things with my contacts, (mostly OAPs, even worse I imagine among the young). I am quite convinced Hell fire sermons are not the way to alert them, but the notion of judgement may not be inappropriate if we can avoid getting bogged down in ideas of diminished responsibility.
Maybe the idea of one God who is Holy needs to be taught again rather than concentrating on the human Jesus.
I want to tread carefully on such weighty matters. Lives and eternity are at stake. Will – I think your argument for annihilation over endless torment from the distinctive descriptions in Revelation is a good one. However, I’m unpersuaded because of other texts. However, I wonder, Will, do you see a Hitler getting annihilated the same as my decent atheist neighbour getting annihilated? In which case, is justice commensurate and proportionate or, as annihilation implies indiscriminate?
Isn’t their rejection of God the fundamental and uniquely dangerous sin that they both share? Can degrees of sin beyond this add to the ‘offence’?
Hi Ian – indeed, the rejection of God is the fundamental and uniquely dangerous sin and will cost them an eternity separated from God. However, I think they can compound the offence. One who struggles to believe in God yet tries to live a generous life toward others is a very different human than the other who indirectly and directly willfully causes the death of millions. If both receive the same judgment of eternal annihilation – is God’s justice just?
It’d even worse, Simon! What if – mirabile dictu – Hitler repented as he lay dying? While your ‘decent atheist neighbour’ didn’t …. Of the Rich Fool in Luke’s parable. What did he do ‘wrong’ by modern lights? Nothing, really. So what? The Gospel is foolishness to the Greeks – and totally bonkers to the English.
Isn’t that solved simply by differential degrees of punishment pre-annihilation? In fact, doesn’t that solve the problem better than unending torment for both Hitler and atheist Andy (albeit to differing intensities)?
I’m not not sure it does solve it but I’m not worked out on how any position solves it 🙂 I’m wondering how you perceive that punishment pre-annihilation to happen? I know Scripture draws a mist over this but am genuinely interested in your view of how judgment/justice/punishment work with annihilation.
I just wonder if there (counterintuitively?) is ‘grace’ even in ‘annihilation… in not grading punishment?
Ian – I think that’s true – the doctrine of annihilation is a grace – or certainly mercy. If true, a Hitler would not get what he deserved (punishment) but what his cowardly cyanide tablet & bullet in the brain desired (oblivion). Will conceives some form of proportionate punishment prior to annihilation I think? And I’m keen to hear how he thinks that might work.
The Bible says that all will be raised to be judged. Revelation indicates that there will be fire of judgement on the enemies of God, but they will eventually be ‘consumed’ and ‘found no more’. I don’t know what form this will take but presumably it will be unpleasant. It will be sufficient so that justice is done and seen to be done, as with temporal punishment. Do you think I need to say more than this? What’s your worry?
Thanks Will – no worry, just intrigued to see how you conceived of proportionate punishment if all receive the same punishment = annihilation. The ancients figuratively came up with ‘stages of hell’ or levels of increasing severity to try and convey something of Jesus’ just proportionate punishment (few stripes or many Lk12v48). You have the devil and his demons enduring in their punishment for ever – I’m just exploring how you saw it worked out for those who don’t embrace the grace of heaven – could the ‘few stripes or many’ refer to longer duration in hell or not? I guess its sufficient to say that Scripture is not clear and we shouldn’t go beyond that but you’ve obviously considered this and i was keen to hear ur thoughts.
“The central purpose of the Church is no longer to reconcile people to God, so that their eternal salvation will no longer be in jeopardy: it is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose: evangelism means inviting people to embrace God likewise.”
Like you, I don’t really know what to make of this. I see glimmers of something I agree with, but it certainly isn’t the whole two sentences. Certainly God’s purpose is to reconcile people to himself in Christ, as you say. I’m not sure if Sam Wells is meaning that reconciliation isn’t the Church’s purpose (which would be like saying that scoring goals isn’t a football team’s purpose – which could be a convenient reinterpretation for some football teams!), or that avoiding hell as the reason for reconciliation isn’t the Church’s purpose. From God’s perspective (if I can imagine it), our salvation isn’t an “ulterior purpose”. However, one of my concerns about traditional evangelicalism is that it does focus us as believers on an ulterior purpose: being saved from hell rather than being brought into God’s kingdom and living in God’s presence and God’s ways. Saved from the consequences of sin rather than being saved from sin, as I often put it. Ultimately, saving our skin (or soul) is essentially a self-interested act, whereas Christ calls us to self-giving. Yes, in dying we are born to eternal life, but my reason for writing this is to explore motivation, and I don’t find that a motivation to escape hell necessarily leads to a Christ-like life.
There is a hint in Sam Wells’s statement that God loves us, which I certainly agree with. Whether God enjoys us (as sinners) I don’t know; I’m absolutely sure he doesn’t enjoy our sin. One thing I find about Jesus’s acceptance of us (the story of Zacchaeus is a good example) is that his acceptance of us as we are leads to us changing. In my own life I can find failure to accept people, with I regret, and also acceptance of people which doesn’t lead to change; I hope and pray that I can be part of Jesus’s mission of seeking (yes) and saving (his job) the lost.
-comes out only with fashionable things (which by the way are a different set of things from those which are fashionable in any other age or culture, albeit with overlaps)
-never allows Jesus to have a view different from their own
-is so selective as to prioritise a concept like abundant life which comes from a gospel many of whose verba Domini they would in normal circumstances reject as unhistorical while also ignoring the perspective of the gospel generally agreed to be earliest
…then not only do they believe themselves rather than Jesus (and who does not believe themselves anyway?)
but also they are doing no better than the nonspecialist in the street who has not learned the first lesson of all, that scholarship is maximally objective and the chances of its coming to our precise preferred conclusions are slim; but if on the other hand we reject scholarship and pursue ideology then
(a) Why should anyone listen to us if we are not a scholar? Why are we teaching?
(b) We are acting immaturely by saying ‘This is what I *want* – I don’t care what the evidence says.
(c) We will be widowed in the next age (in the present culture, this is about 5 years down the line) or more likely adapt our message to say that Jesus wasn’t a good 2017CE westerner after all, he was a good 2022 westerner – my mistake.
St Martin in the Fields is a major venue for all kinds of classical music groups in London. The most frequent activity there is one form or other of musical concerts.
There is also a lively restaurant in the crypt where you can get a decent meal for a fair price – very useful after a tiring walk around the National Gallery.
I guess that most of their income is from concert hire and food sales.
I have no idea what their Sunday congregation is like or how large but the church publicity is very heavy on ‘justice issues’; indeed that kind of activism has always been part of the church since Dick Shepherd’s day. I think there is also a Chinese-language congregation. To judge by their literature, they want to support homosexual relations but don’t say so openly. Maybe they leave that to St James Piccadilly – which seems pretty similar in outlook.
I too read Wells’ article and didn’t really give it much thought, it was I expected from a liberal catholic congregation in London appealing to lovers of classical music. Of course I thought Wells was reared in an evangelical world, as was his wife, who was a chaplain to Justin Welby.
“The central purpose of the Church is no longer to reconcile people to God, so that their eternal salvation will no longer be in jeopardy: it is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose: evangelism means inviting people to embrace God likewise” – Dr.Sam Wells -.
Sam, of course, a Catholic theologian, is quite right here. It is NOT the Church’s task to actually ‘reconcile people to God’. That task has already been completed by Jesus, Himself.
The task of The Church on earth is to enable us earthlings, by the operation of faith in Christ, to ‘live into’ the reconciliation that Christ has already achieved.
Wells is NOT a classical ‘Evangelical’. He is, however, a Bearer of the Good News of God – in his explication of the Gospel
Rubbish on several fronts.
1. What Wells says is NOT Catholic theology. I was raised a Catholic and have consulted the Catholic Catechism.
2. St Paul is VERY CLEAR in 2 Cointhians 5.18-21 that the Church is given the ministry of reconciliation to reconcile men and women to God. If Wells thinks ‘the central purpose of the Church is no longer to reconcile people to God’ – well, good luck to him – but that isn’t the Christian faith but his own liberal Protestant invention.
3. One doesn’t ‘live into’ anything – a barbaric phrase.
‘The central purpose of the Church is no longer to reconcile people to God, so that their eternal salvation will no longer be in jeopardy: it is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them’
I find Well’s initial use of the words “no longer” illuminating…..is Dr Wells suggesting that God’s plan has changed? That the human condition of being lost and dead in transgressions has evolved? Does Wells think we now are so enlightened that we know better about what God has done and would have us do, than Jesus did? or the apostles? or the Fathers? or the Reformers? Is Dr Wells suggesting we now have a new insight, a new revelation, a new take on Scripture and a new mission? ‘No longer’ the ministry of reconciliation, no longer snatching brands from the flame, no longer going out into the highways and bi-ways and compelling people to come to the banquet, but merely we are to tell people ‘God enjoys them”? No he doesn’t. They are estranged, sinful and under his wrath until they are reconciled, redeemed and made righteous by faith in Christ and clinging to his cross. You are right Fr Ron, Wells is no Evangelical – but Wells is no Catholic either. Wells is a Liberal. Liberals have always championed a “No Longer” – not in the Biblical Pauline sense of no longer being slaves but sons of God, but in the progressive “we prefer to no longer believe the Bible and the tradition handed down to us.
If we remove Well’s 1st “no longer” – then we have it right: “The central purpose of the church is…to reconcile people to God so that their eternal salvation will no longer be in jeopardy.”
Ron, if our task is *not* to urge people to be reconcile to God, then why does Paul make it such an important metaphor for the mission of God’s people? In 2 Cor 5, he is clear that the reconciliation can only be effected by God—but the offer of reconciliation needs to be accepted, the possibility realised.
The answer, Ian, lies in your reference here: “(Paul) is clear that the reconciliation can only be effected by God”
We, in the Church, have the task of encouraging people to ACCEPT the reconciliation already made available through the ‘redemption of the World by our Lord Jesus Christ’. The Church can neither add nor take away from that reconciliation. We can only demonstrate its availability in the sacramental life of the Church.
This is why our encouragement of ALL is so important. Talk of Hellfire to a neophyte and you scare them off. The Gospel is actually “Good News” (not bad news) to all who draw near. I know that Evangelicals are generally more keen on preaching that celebrating the reconciling power of the Eucharist, but it is precisely in that representation of the Sacrifice of Christ that our redemption is secured: After all, Jesus did say: “DO THIS to re-member me”
I have come to this a little late, but it seems to me that there are two dangers in some of the discussion.
The first that we fail to take due account of the nature and function of language. Some, at least, of the biblical statements about eternal destiny are couched in symbolic or metaphorical language. To take these idealistically may lead to the wrong conclusions.
The second is that in the discussion about eternal torment as against annihilationism or conditional immortality each side can call on its proof texts. This suggests that the argument is more finely nuanced than we might care to admit.
Writing an article for Youthwork magazine on hell forced me to revisit some of the literature. It is interesting how things have moved in recent years – probably post-Fudge, and certainly post-Stott. The fact that the Evangelical Alliance felt the need to commission a study in 1995 indicates the level of concern. Its conclusions are as, one might expect, eirenical and inclusive.
The first edition of Four Views on Hell (1996) reflected a North American perspective (broadly evangelical) with the views being The Literal View (largely dispensational, and might have been better called the literalistic), The Metaphorical View (still eternal punishment but not in actual burning lakes of sulphur), The Purgatorial View and The Conditional View. The second (2016 and less obviously North American) covered Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, A Universalist View, and Hell and Purgatory.
It is the inclusion of Universalism that interested me. It features nowhere in the EA report. It was not on the horizon of the first edition. But twenty years later a broadly evangelical work feels it necessary to consider it. The chapter, written by Robin Parry, the author of the pseudonymous, The Evangelical Universalist (2006), is attractive, and he presents some compelling, but in my view unconvincing arguments. What it illustrates, however, is that there is a broader debate here which, as others have suggested needs further exploration. But let it be with an openness to one another and in submission to the totality of Scripture.
Thank you John – you are, as ever, gracious. Having myself moved along the spectrum from eternal punishment to conditional mortality and back to eternal punishment (though intrigued by Will’s punishment then annihilation position) I understand one can be robustly Evangelical but come to alternative positions on this topic. I think the debates on Ian’s Blog are generally very civil and respectful if at times robust. But may I ask, how you think we are to express ‘openness to one-another”whilst also maintaining faithfulness to the faith as once delivered? I don’t see Paul modelling “openness to one-another” when he openly challenged Peter (Gal2v11) on what some might think a secondary matter); nor is Jesus expressing openness to the other when he shredded the Pharisees as ‘whitewashed tombs” or being children of their father the devil. Jesus is not advocating openness in the church when he challenges the church to confront error and disassociate from it (Rev2v14f). Openness to one another must surely have a limit? Institutionally, the CofE in recent years has encouraged openness to one another, which has really meant openness to rethinking and reworking the faith and practise we have received, in line with the agenda of a vocal few. And many who have pressed for openness to others are the very ones who have been the most closed to the traditionalists. Perhaps your closing thought is the key but also the lock ‘submission to the totality of Scripture’.
Sorry, Simon, I missed your response, and probably too much time has passed but briefly. Yes, I think it is balance of respect for the other and submission to the totality of Scripture – and Scripture must always have the final word. For me openness means a respectful listening and considerati8on of the alternative viewpoint. It may well, and often will, involve a robust statement of my own understanding. I agree that responses on Ian’s blog normally work this way (unlike much of what we see on social media); my concern was that some of the discussion on the hell blog was resorting to simplistic proof-texting in support of previously held, positions. Over the years my thinking has changed on some issues, I hope for the better, but only when I have listened to my challengers. Not all my challengers have convinced me, and in very few cases have I ended up in total agreement, but it has all been part of my journey towards a better understanding.
I also think it’s important to assess how crucial the issue is. In the examples you give, we are looking at the essentials of the faith (and might Paul have given Peter a hearing? We don’t know). For what it is worth I spent a couple of hours last week trying to get my head round Catholic teaching on grace in preparation for a sermon in a Reformation series on Justification by faith and grace. Why? Not, I hope, because I felt that the 40 or so elderly Christians in this particular congregation would benefit from it, but because I wanted to be fair and to know my opponent. I would like to think that I was open, but having waded through pages of the Catholic encyclopaedia, I returned again to Romans 3:21-26 and Ephesians 2:1-10 as my texts with my view unchanged and a conviction that the reformed position still stands and if necessary must be robustly defended.
Clear stands must be made. There are limits to openness. There may even be limits to the respect I show the other, if I am calling out bad exegesis, questionable hermeneutics or flawed conclusions, or confronting those who would destroy the faith of others. In which last context Jesus’ words about millstones and deep seas can hardly be ignored. But I still want to plead for as much openness, listening and respect as we can summon.
Thank you John – what a wise and winsome post.
Yes. Hell is not to be found in the Bible. It Is neither a Jewish nor Christian concept. To hell with hell. I don’t follow Jesus in order to go to heaven when I die — or conversely, to avoid going to hell. That’s a cheap form of faith that is really nothing more than fire insurance. I follow Jesus here and now for the sake of experiencing salvation (which means “wholeness” and “healing”) here and now – and to help others do the same.
Roger, I am not sure what you mean by this. The terms ‘gehenna’, ‘hades’, ‘sheol’ and ‘the lake of fire’ are all found in the Bible, some of them on the lips of Jesus more than once.
Are you saying that these are false additions? Or misunderstood metaphors? Or what?
PS please don’t add a link to your own blog post/book production. Discussion here needs to engage with comments here. Thanks.
Roger – Jesus warned “repent or something worse may happen to you” Jn5v14 – According to you, he was wrong to use such challenging even threatening language?
Roger – Paul declared “knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade men” 2Corv11 I guess according to you Paul was wrong to be so driven and to put such pressure on people to flee the wrath of God?
I agree that the ‘no longer’ in Sam Wells’ article reads very strangely and it must lead to any of these conclusions, all of which are odd and decidedly un-Catholic:
1. God has (recently?) removed from the Church the task of making converts and disciples in the world and given it to someone else. OR
2. The Church never had this task but laboured under a delusion from which is has now awoken.
3. All are already saved, regardless of whether they have repented and turned to faith in Christ.
Any of these conclusions would be dogmatically shattering but would be greeted with relief by people who don’t like doing evangelism. That includes most Anglicans.
Nevertheless, a dogmatic conclusion of this magnitude is not one that Sam Wells is qualified or authorised to make – not least because of his own ordination vow to ‘seek out Christ’s sheep in the wilderness of this world’. To affirm #1, #2 or #3 would be, in Father Jack’s words, an ecumenical matter.
Behind Wells’s drweadfully poor theology there lurks, I suspect, a more prosaic factor. Not many of the upper-middle class people he meets in that part of London are interested in being or becoming Christians; but they are interested in classical music and the arts and no doubt St Martin’s provides an affordable venue for this substitute for Christian worship. Long ago Kierkegaard outlined the different phases of ‘seriousness’ a person could take, embracing the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. Wells seems happy for people to stay on bases 1 and 2.
But then who needs the Church for that?
Classical music? Justice issues? Well, they are clearly going to hell in a handcart.
The best place for Schoenberg – and large portions of Wagner.
Brian, the ‘no longer’ is the key to interpreting what he says.
(1) It shows he is committing the chronological snobbery fallacy.
(2) It shows that his social-deviance tolerance is too low to permit the unfashionable.
(3) It shows that he equates God with contemporary culture. Which is a strange equation indeed.
If the God envisaged never does anything against one’s own preferences, then one can be pretty sure that the real topic is the preferences and not God.
“It shows that he equates God with contemporary culture. Which is a strange equation indeed.”
– Strange to the catholic Christian such as me (catholic because I believe in the Catholic Creeds and the Great Tradition and do not torture the English language to avoid using masculine pronouns to refer to God, as Wells does) but perfectly normal in liberal Protestant circles where a Hegelian view of the historical-cultural process is understood as the correct course of religious development: a previous state is contradicted and overcome by a new synthesis. In the past it was understandable to believe in fantasies like hell, but now we no longer do because we have arrived at a new synthesis.
Wells’ liberal Protestant outlook is pure Hegelianism.
And we have seen this before, in the letter to the Kaiser by Barth’s old theological teachers in 1914, extolling the war effort against the barbaric Slavic horde.
But since I am sure Sam Wells reads this blog (it will be linked in a newsfeed to his article), I very much hope he will respond here to confirm or correct our comments.
Christopher: “It shows that he equates God with contemporary culture. Which is a strange equation indeed.”
How do we know that the various biblical writers did not equate God with their contemporary culture? What gives the bible any more independence than a contemporary writer?
Andrew asks: ‘How do we know that the various biblical writers did not equate God with their contemporary culture? What gives the bible any more independence than a contemporary writer?’
The Holy Spirit, Andrew, the Holy Spirit.
What did they teach you at vicars’ school?
Where do you get your theological ideas from – The Guardian? Madame Blavatsky? If not, why not?
Thankfully they don’t teach that at ‘Vicars’ school’ Brian.
My theological ideas come from the same places as everyone else’s I think.
I will await Christopher’s evidenced reply.
“My theological ideas come from the same places as everyone else’s I think”
Which is where? I can think of at least a dozen different answers different people I know have given to that question.
Where do YOUR theological ideas come from, Andrew? A genuine question to a modern liberal.
Andrew – “what gives the Bible any more independence than a contemporary writer”?
Brian – “The Holy Spirit, Andrew, the Holy Spirit”
Andrew -“thankfully they don’t teach that at ‘Vicars’ school’
I don’t want to misread and misunderstand you Andrew – are you suggesting the Bible does not have more independence than any other contemporary writings? Surely you can’t be saying that?
Brian is right, the seal of the Spirit sets Scripture apart from all other literature. This is a fundamental article of our faith. You know this – the independence of the Bible is predicated not simply in its unique content, unique authorship and unique influence in the world but on the belief in the Holy Spirit’s action in its inspiration, preservation, collation, and ongoing revelation. Andrew, am I & Brian misunderstanding your comments that seem to place the bible on the level of any other contemporary literature?
I have only just seen your question. It is certainly strange to equate God with contemporary culture. The dictionary definitions of ‘God’ on the one hand and of ‘contemporary culture’ on the other hand are not even close. I have not addressed the question of whether biblical writers did the same; this is not a single question, but as many different questions as there are biblical writers.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar tendency (God and national culture getting a bit merged) was found in some biblical writers; but when it comes to the NT,
(1) Who can deny that the New Testament is often and strongly counter-cultural?
(2) Or that it is counter-cultural far more often than it is culturally conformist?
(3) Or that God is presented as the one who judges us rather than us judging him?
(4) Or that God is presented as the one who creates us in his own image rather than our creating him in our own image?
(5) Or that the self (selfish desires, self will) is seen as an enemy?
(6) Or that ‘the world’ (world-system) or the present age can be seen as an enemy?
(7) Or that other kings and lords (those whom nonChristians consider to be in charge) are the ones against whom Christ’s own kingship and lordship is defined?
(8) Or that God is not portrayed as one might wish him to be (sugar-daddy, for example), but as he is believed actually to be independent of our wishes?
The list just goes on and on. This is the central liberal error, the one that makes the whole stack of cards fall down. God is not ‘allowed’ (that ‘allowed’ really is the give-away) to be personally uncongenial to us even in one of the thousands of aspects of his character. What are the chances of that scenario actually being true?
Can it be fairly said of Wells that this is ‘another Jesus’ and a ‘different Gospel’? Whatever the various interpretations that exist (no pun intended!) regarding Hell, the stance that the church is not about rescue, repentance, faith in Jesus, or reconciliation to God seems profoundly anti-Gospel. Remind me…what’s the difference between error and heresy?
Simon: the question was twofold. “How do we know that the various biblical writers did not equate God with their contemporary culture?”
The answer to that question – “The holy spirit” – is not what they teach at Vicars school. That’s what I have said. Nothing more, and nothing less.
I’d be happy if you want to answer that question too, but I’m still waiting for Christopher, who will want to provide evidence rather than the simplistic ‘because it says so in the bible’.
Hope this helps
Well, Christopher has answered above.
Yes, indeed he has and I’m grateful to him for confirming that: “I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar tendency (God and national culture getting a bit merged) was found in some biblical writers; ”
As to hell. My one question is this. Why would you want to go heaven if it was a place that people you loved are excluded from because of some reason on another? I’m afraid it wouldn’t be heaven if people I love and care for aren’t there.
Which all goes to show that our ideas about heaven and hell are rather anthropomorphic – and we have to make allowance for that.
Brilliant article by Sam Wells though
“Yes, indeed he has and I’m grateful to him for confirming that: “I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar tendency (God and national culture getting a bit merged) was found in some biblical writers; ”
In the OT, perhaps, in a theocracy, but not in the NT – and we are a NT, New Covenant people
“As to hell. My one question is this. Why would you want to go heaven if it was a place that people you loved are excluded from because of some reason on another? I’m afraid it wouldn’t be heaven if people I love and care for aren’t there.”
People God loves are excluded – for rejecting God’s love – and it remains heaven for him
“Which all goes to show that our ideas about heaven and hell are rather anthropomorphic”
Your former statement suggests you are Andrew
“Brilliant article by Sam Wells though”
Nah, it wasn’t – Wells rightly wrote of a “revolution in the Christian theological imagination” if we remove hell. But by doing so his theology becomes fruit of his imagination, not divine revelation. Wells mocked hell and plucked out a verse from John10v10 omitting the conditional context of Jn10:9 of “IF anyone enters by me he will be saved” – the abundant life is conditional upon being saved which comes only for those who enter by Jesus. Those who refuse don’t enter, and aren’t saved, and don’t have abundant life and tragically spend eternity separated from the source of all life. Which is why it is imperative that we offer God’s offer of life whilst warning of the dire consequences of rejecting such.
Andrew, are we to regard you as dishonest? You mentioned the one confirmatory point I made about a minority of the Bible (but not the NT, which is the main bit), and ignored all 8 of the points on the other side. A textbook example of bias, which is there in black and white for all readers to study.
Ah so Christopher if the NT is somehow immune from the cultural bias, but the OT isn’t, why is that the case, and what is your evidence outside of the NT. I learnt at 16 that self reference isn’t an argument so to say ‘because it says so in these verses’ won’t quite work. I’m neither ignoring what you say nor being dishonest. I’m just trying to understand your reasoning.
And Simon I think it was a brilliant article by Sam but I accept that you disagree. That’s ok. Christian Universalism obv isn’t part of your faith.
‘I learnt at 16 that self reference isn’t an argument so to say ‘because it says so in these verses’ won’t quite work.’
Well, given that self reference isn’t an argument, then your own assertion that: ‘It isn’t heaven if people I love and care for aren’t there’ doesn’t work at all.
Andrew, I will list your mistakes.
(1) One mistake is the word ‘immune’. The fact that I do not have blond hair does not make me ‘immune’ from blond hair. I very much doubt the entire NT is free from cultural leanings in its portrayal of God; my point was only that the traffic seems to be very largely in the opposite direction.
(2) The OT is 39 books (more for Catholics), the NT 27. I said a mere sentence or 2, which you then took as a definitive summary to be logged and analysed. Do you honestly think that that sentence or two is all that I could possibly say about those many books?
(3) You are saying that whatever is true of the OT (which is large and diverse) also has to be true of the NT (which is also diverse). Everyone knows that point is incorrect. There are plenty of things that are true of one testament and not of the other (or significantly more true of one than of the other), and it would be very surprising if there were not.
(4) You honestly think I would employ circular argument? Why then do I constantly try to expose it?
(5) In your second paragraph you make the same error highlighted above: confusing being congenial on the one hand with being convincing and well-reasoned on the other hand.
By the way it is clearly suspicious that the bits of the Christian message that Sam Wells claims there is reason to remove correspond so perfectly with the bits we might not like. Coincidence?
Hi Christopher …yes I think you are using circular argument. So let me ask you again. What is your evidence outside of the NT?
There are passages (aided by the fact that there is no word for ‘of’) where, for example, ‘The God of Israel’/’The God of Jacob’ is quite closely identified with the people of Israel; and this is in a context of one representative god per nation.
But first of all, what is the circular argument you think I am employing?
Christopher you keep trying to use the bible as a means of prof texting. What evidence do you have outside of the bible please?
Andrew, proof-texting is out of court. Can you or anyone else show me where I have done it?
I have often summarised what the Bible has to say about something, but the fact that it says it does not *make* it true or false.
Where the topic is ‘What does the Bible say?’ what other answer is anyone supposed to give than summarising what the Bible says? Are they then to be called proof-texters for giving an accurate and relevant answer to a straight question?
You’re resorting to sophistry when you ask Christopher to provide extra-biblical evidence that the NT writers did not equate God with their contemporary culture.
We could similarly scrutinize your own question (‘How do we know that the various biblical writers did not equate God with their contemporary culture?) and ask for extra-biblical evidence in support of it.
I mean, what evidence do you have outside of the bible that the NT writers might have equated God with their contemporary culture?
Or is your speculation no more than groundless conjecture?
David: it’s groundless conjecture to say that one church leader is subject to contemporary culture but that another, 2000 years earlier isn’t. And neither you nor Christopher have made the case. I still look forward to it.
It stands to reason that the writers of the NT – all church leaders – were influenced by their culture. You only have to read the Synoptics to understand that. They are not tape recordings. They are interpretations of events decades before. And none of what I have written denies that they are inspired.
I didn’t say he was subject to his culture, I said something stronger: that he had made his God in the image of it; and many others also continue to evolve their concept of God in parallel with cultural developments.
I also said that, by contrast, the NT rejects its surrounding culture by and large. Could you interact with the points (1)-(8) I originally made.
Christopher thank you. I’d still like an answer to my straight question please. Let me repeat it for you.
How do we know that the various biblical writers did not equate God with their contemporary culture? What gives the bible any more independence than a contemporary writer?
I have already answered this question more than once. You seem to think that writing from within one’s culture (which we all do) is the same thing as affirming it.
That is (to repeat what I said before) obviously untrue.
Some of those who write from within their culture swallow it whole / jump on the bandwagon / marry the Zeitgeist / show low cultural-deviance tolerance (delete as appropriate).
Whereas others are critical (i.e. exercise their critical faculty, which sometimes will mean being adversely critical and sometimes not). All the NT writers I can think of fall in the latter category.
We don;t need to theorise that something ‘must’ be the case when the data is already before us so that we can see what actually *is* the case.
It was ever thus. Some writers show a greater capacity for critical thought than others do. You are writing as though all writers ought to show an absolutely identical capacity for critical thought and for potentially distancing themselves from their culture, from the oldest to the youngest, from the most to the least educated. That is not going to happen, and I have no idea why anyone would expect it to happen. Rather, there will always be a sliding scale of critical capability.
“You seem to think that writing from within one’s culture (which we all do) is the same thing as affirming it ”
Thanks Christopher. I don’t think that at all actually but I think we’ve gone as far as we can here. There is not enough common ground to have any meaningful discussion. I remain rather more impressed by Sam Wells article than I did before. So thank you for that.
You wrote: ‘It stands to reason that the writers of the NT – all church leaders – were influenced by their culture. You only have to read the Synoptics to understand that.
1. Asserting that ‘the writers of the NT…were influenced by their culture’ is far less speculative than your original conjecture that they could have equated God with their contemporary culture’.
2. After challenging Christopher to produce extra-biblical evidence, it’s ironic that you write: ‘you only have to read the Synoptics’ to shore up your own claims about the influence of culture on the NT writers.
As you yourself asked: ‘What evidence do you have outside of the bible please?’
David – the answer is easy. It’s human reason. Which is why I wrote ‘it stands to reason’ ….. And there is no evidence to produce that the biblical writers were not influenced by and writing for their culture. I am glad that you now concede that.
It’s facile and circular to assert that the reasoning behind your speculation about NT writers equating God with contemporary culture is human reason.
Also, your speculative question was not whether NT writers were influenced by their culture, but whether they (and I quote) ‘equated God with their contemporary culture’
Influence and equivalence are not synonymous. The latter (which you’ve now swapped for the ‘straw man’ of cultural influence) was the point of contention.
So, it does not make sense for you to assert that I’ve conceded the validity of your insinuated ‘straw man’ of cultural influence.
So, without the circular argument that your reason is human reason, or insinuating the straw man of mere cultural influence: What evidence do you have outside of the bible that the NT writers equated God with their contemporary culture?
Human reason David. Why would be any different for church leaders 2000 years ago than it is today…. than it was 2000 years ago ..etc….
Or do you want to posit something else?
And David please note that the ridiculous idea and accusation of equating God with contemporary culture was Christopher’s….not mine
Christopher simply highlighted Wells’ use of ‘no longer’ in his assertion about the Church’s mission as evidence that Wells was equating God with contemporary culture. In other words, Wells’ assertion is a complete capitulation to contemporary culture.
In contrast, it was you who introduced the question of how we know that the NT writers weren’t also equating God with their contemporary culture.
Since they formed such a tiny minority, if the apostles and Gentile converts to Christ had capitulated to the predominant culture of their contemporaries, then they would have been quickly subsumed into that predominant culture.
Had that been the case, there would be little or no evidence of persecution.
Yet, in describing the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, Tacitus, the Roman senator and historian, wrote of Christians who paid the ultimate price for pursuing the teaching of the NT and rejecting the culture of their contemporaries. And, in this, they differ greatly from modem church leaders:
‘Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.
Christos, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.’
That’s extra-biblical evidence of the unmistakable counter-cultural influence on first-century Christians proving that their leaders, the NT writers did not equate God with their contemporary culture.
David Shepherd is right here. The Christians were seen as public enemies because they did not join in the (less intelligent, and also more cowardly and less honest) groupthink of submitting to the official religion and/or emperor-worship (cf. book of Daniel too) but were all about truth and accuracy. They followed their God not because of convention or social cohesion or social deviance intolerance but because they thought their God to be real. NT is very counter-cultural. And as I mentioned before, one of the main ways in which this is seen is the proclamation that it’s Jesus who is Lord of lords and King of kings, not the empire-ruler who may have thought such titles fitted them well.
‘I learnt at 16 that self reference isn’t an argument so to say ‘because it says so in these verses’ won’t quite work.’
Well, given that self reference isn’t an argument, then your own assertion that: ‘It isn’t heaven if people I love and care for aren’t there’ doesn’t work at all.
Anyway, do you accept my points (1) to (5), or can you show me to be mistaken?
Andrew – you say Christian Universalism is not part of my faith- true – Actually it’s not part of the Christian faith. I strongly believe in a wideness in God’s mercy – and inclusiveness in his saving work- but Jesus himself presents a very clear binery on this issue: sheep and goats, wheat and tares, broad path and narrow. There is a very clear either/or on the heaven and hell, saved and condemned categories. This motivates the prayers and passionate mission of evangelicals and orthodox. It is quite clear that when this paradigm is lost the church dilutes her mission to social work and inevitably dwindles. There is a reason why only 3 of the 120 largest Anglican churches are Liberal – ironically no one is interested in their message. People want To be saved not told they already are and anything they want to do is included in Jesus’ life abundant.
That’s great Simon. Thanks.
Simon,where is this list of the 120 largest Anglican churches? I’d be very interested to see this.
Brian – I don’t have the list – my friend is preparing a research paper for distribution & publication on women leadership in the CofE. However, the stats being engaged with are available – collated by the CofE each year on a given Sunday in autumn of church attendance. There are ‘approximately’ 120 churches/cathedrals of 350+ attendees on that Sunday, and of those churches, the majority are Evangelical & a few Anglo Catholic or broad. My friend identified only 3 that would stand squarely in the Liberal tradition.
Here is a similar study from a few years ago – which makes similar claims:
Thanks, Simon – if this paper ever comes out in pdf form it would be very interesting to see it – not least to compare with another great issue just highlighted by CofE stats issued the other day, the number of churches with three or fewer children in them.
Over on ‘Smug’, I mean ‘Thinking Anglicans’ there was some discussion of this, with the consensus that medieval attitudes about sex and sexuality was of course driving the kids away – until Tim Chesterton brought them back to reality and told them if liberal views on homosexuality and cohabitation put you in the culture’s good books (as Sam Wells and Andrew Godsall seem to believe), then their churches would be full and the terrible homophobic evangelicals would be empty. But this isn’t what is happening.
A largish church should equate to younger families attending – but the reality is that vast numbers of Anglican congregations have no children attending and can only be earmarked for closure in a few years’ time. Meanwhile, women clergy, many of a more liberal outlook, are put in charge of older and rural congregations, where many give excellent pastoral care. But the net political result – whether in diocesan synods (cf. Hereford) or nationally (GS) is increased liberal representation in the Houses of Clergy – irrespective of church sizes.
Simon and Brian
I would be very wary about the assumption that It is only the illiberal churches which are growing. For a start, many Cathedrals have increasing congregations and few are hotbeds of conservative evangelicalism. Indeed, those evangelical churches which are growing such as the HTB brand have largely jettisoned their toxic teachings on sexuality- at least overtly – because it isn’t popular with their constituency.
Anecdotal evidence, I know, but many of my friends and aquaintances are disengaging from Church (and their children even more so), not because churches are too inclusive, but because they are not inclusive enough. And I don’t just mean on sexual matters:they are fairly appalled by the ways churches all too often treat the mentally ill and autistic people, for example.
What is not anecdotal is the evidence that the vast majority of the British public have no affiliation with a Church, nor any wish to. Given that many (the majority?) of these hold values which we would think of as liberal, they are most unlikely to be attracted by a message of hell fire and damnation for themselves or their friends in loving same-sex partnerships. They are more likely to consider themselves ethically superior to what has, for many, become a toxic brand,
Thanks Penelope – I certainly didn’t suggest that the largest churches were all hotbeds of conservative evangelicalism – but I think it is clear to all that the majority are decidedly evangelical along the charismatic/conservative/open spectrum. A few of the other large churches are orthodox/catholic/middle of the road – but what is patently clear was that those which celebrate their liberal position, are less than 3% of the largest 120. I wonder how many of our cathedrals have over 350 different worshippers on a sunday and got on the top 120 list? I’ll try n find out. It is true and tragic that the majority of the British public have no affiliation with any Church – it is also true that changes our ethics to embrace those of the world on sexual issues has not resulted in the unchurched joining church. I dont think most people chose a church on the basis of their sexual ethics – but on whether they encounter God there in the worship and fellowship and if they hear Jesus’ ‘words of eternal’ life. I totally agree with you that a more pressing issue and missional necessity is welcoming the mentally ill – we actually employ a staff member whose whole job is to help students who are struggling with this. The church must do better here in what is an epidemic.
Penelope: ‘One swallow does not a summer make’ (Aristotle). It is true that some cathedrals have reported increased attendance (though I have not seen much in the way of figures). That must be balanced with the decline of city centre liberal catholic congregations.
In Canterbury, for example, I understand there are a number of broadly similar liberal catholic congregations not very far from the Cathedral that are struggling to pay their parish share and maintain their buildings on the strength of dwindling and aging congregations. The pragmatic response (and it might be the right one) is to amalgamate some of these parishes. Meanwhile, it would be understandable if some folk drifted off to their local cathedrals rather than carry on the fight to pay their bills or repair their roof. If you like formal liturgies and choirs. the cathedral will be more congenial to you in any case. Evangelical and free congregations can also close, leaving their folk to go elsewhere. So I would be a little surprised (but pleased) if increased numbers at cathedrals came from the unchurched rather than the de-churched.
However, it is also true that English cathedrals are facing a crisis in funding, notwithstanding their endowments. Posts are likely to disappear to save costs.
As for biblical teachings on sexual conduct being ‘toxic’ – ah well, I’ll just have to take my stand with Jesus and His apostles on this one. You seem to have made it clear that the teachings of the Lord and His appointed leaders would disqualify them from a leadership role in the Church of England today.
I agree that cathedrals are picking up disenchanted liberal Catholics, just as popular Evangelical churches are picking up those already churched, and perhaps dismayed by other evangelical churches’ toxicity. Though more unchurched students are attending evensong, allegedly
I also agree that biblical teaching on sexuality (what little there is) is not toxic. It is a modern, post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment understanding of scripture and the autonomous subject which has made it so. Return to tradition I say.
Penelope – I agree, return to tradition…but which one? 🙂 Re your earlier comment, yes indeed, Cathedrals have in recent years seen real growth in mid-week attendance – but generally are static in sunday attendance. Not sure how to interpret that. Only 2 of the 42 Anglican Cathedrals, Southwark and Ripon, have congregations of over 300 on Sunday.
Andrew, if you go on like this (ducking out as soon as you’re asked for a direct answer – or that is what it looks like) then I guess I shall have to make a complete list of the questions you have not answered and the points you have not addressed on this one thread alone.
Christopher, I don’t know where you can find the time and energy for such a task. I find debating with liberals a fool’s errand because the ‘progressive’ by definition is always moving the goal posts ‘forward’, while obscuring the boundaries and rewriting the rulebook.
That’s why you’ll never get a proper or even consistent answer from Andrew.
Liberalism is by definition Protean, as is the ‘Jesus’ that they believe in / follow / respect / transcend and leave behind. Since the religion of liberals began not with the Apostles but Schleiermacher and the heirs of Kantian Romanticism, we are not talking about the same subject.
The ‘Jesus’ of Liberalism is by turns the creation of Kant, Schleiermacher and other 18th and 19th century Unitarians, before grave violence is done by Strauss, Wrede, Schweitzer and Bultmann, before Vermes and others appeared in the latter part of the 19th century with their revival of ‘Jesus the Jew’, a 19th century figure obscured by the anti-Semitism of German Lutheranism. Although Andrew will never admit it, the ‘Jesus’ of his historicist imagination is on a trajectory to atheism – as Gerd Luedemann showed.
What bothers me more, as an Anglican minister, is that one who holds a public office in the Church of England should make a virtue of advertising his disbelief in the doctrines he vowed to uphold.
Or perhaps I just face this with a weary resignation. The C of E has just released figures of attendance for 2011-2016 which show that every diocese except London has declined, some as much as 14%, and even worse, in some the number of children attending has shown a catastrophic decline. Post-Christian Britain is truly here, and the liberal ‘strategy (if that is what it is) of agreeing with the unbelieving world (about sex, abortion, judgment and afterlife – or not) has not resulted in more people offended by traditional Christian belief flocking to the liberal churches. Quite the opposite. They look at the Protean opinions of a culture-following liberal and shrug: ‘You see, you don’t believe either.’
You’re all so silly sometimes…
Regardless, thanks Ian for the article. It is sad to see McGrath throwing his hat so readily into the progressive ring RE the historical Jesus, when his writing on mission is so well based in the integrity of new testament scripture. That is what saddens me most, in truth.
On the specific issue here (Hell) I remain personally undecided, though probably find myself more comfortable in the ‘Annihilationist’ camp. My limited thoughts, for what they are worth, are that;
‘Eternal Torment’, at least in it’s caricatured/parodied form (Dante/Bosch/Hollywood), feels vindictive/vengeful and somewhat arbitrary, an image of God’s ‘justice’ so grotesquely swollen and distorted as to suck everything else into it and be viewed through it. As a doctrine it focuses on the imagery at the expense of the meaning, and ‘Justice/Judgement’ in this sense become synonymous with wrath and anger, rather than with Wisdom and Holiness. In essence, judgement through this lens easily something to be avoided and afraid of, rather than expected and hoped for. I once told a Christian minister that I looked forward in genuine hope for the final judgement, and he looked at me in horror…. ‘Annihiliationism’ on the other hand feels weak, and lacking in any sort of punitive, retributive justice, as is Gods divine right to dispense in response to rebellion and degeneracy of the persistent and wilful disbeliever.
As a ‘good protestant’ I want to find the balance between these two, not a choice between them.
Hi Mat. I’ve always understood Annihilationism to involve a period of punishment prior to annihilation, both to satisfy the requirements of justice and to make sense of Bible passages and imagery which strongly imply damnation is not painless. Is that the kind of balance you mean?
Matt – its the kind of balance I want to explore more – any reading suggestions?
I’ll give you 4. I am not advocating these as works of amazing scholarship, nor am I edorsing the positions they represent, but they give a range of different ideas.
First, If you can stomach the works of Edwards (below) then that is quite interesting reading, but I think there’s a revised and modernized commentary on his work available if you’d prefer.
Going modern, there’s a series of books called, I think, ‘counterpoints’ that has several essays from people of different doctrinal positions, that are then responded to by each in turn for an excellent overview. 4 essays, each with three reponses. There’s one on Hell that’s very good, and worth buying.
Going ancient again, Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae has an interesting, if overly-detailed conversation on the nature of hell, with some very specifc examples. There’s a version available here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/5097.htm
Lastly, read ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell, as a good example of contemporary culture wrestling with the question. It’s not a theological work, but a good eaxmple of the problem viewed through a post-modern and liberal christian lens.
I’d second the recommendation of Counterpoints – see my post above. If you get the kindle version you get both the first and the second editions, although the first doesn’t have much beyond historical value. As to Love Wins, I found it a good read, but still struggle to work out what Rob actually believes.
Rob Bell is notoriously difficult to pin down to specific positions, but his books are very easy to read, persuasive, and at a surface level he’s very convincing.
I profoundly disagree with him on a number of issues of course, but as I said above, his book is an excellent insight into the postmodern perspective on hell, and should be read fairly widely for that reason alone.
Sorry that I missed your earlier commendation of counterpoints. Consider it seconded.
That may well be your understanding Will, but that is a significant modification of Annihilationsism, and an unusual one too (in the sense that it is uncommon): the doctrine does not by definition require (or, I would argue, expect) that punitive period prior to destruction.
All Souls will be raised to judgement, where they will pass into either eternity, or destruction. That is Annihilationsim. Whatever you and I have settled on, which interestingly is fairly close to Jonathan Edwards’ idea, is not the same.
For yourself and Simon, here is the link to Chapter 31 of Jonathan Edwards:
It is chapter 31 not 3.1 I think.
Here’s what he says:
‘If it be owned, that Scripture expressions denote a punishment that is properly eternal, but that it is in no other sense properly so, than as the annihilation, or state of non-existence to which the wicked shall return, will be eternal; and that this eternal annihilation is that death which is so often threatened for sin, perishing for ever, everlasting destruction, being lost, utterly consumed, &c.; and that the fire of hell is called eternal fire, in the
same sense that the external fire which consumed the cities of
Sodom and Gomorrah is called eternal fire, (Jude 7) because it utterly consumed those cities, that they might never be built more ; and that this fire is called that which cannot be quenched, or at least not until it has destroyed them that are cast into it. If this be all that these expressions denote, then they do not at all signify the length of the torments, or long continuance of their misery; so that the supposition of the length of their torments is brought in without any necessity, the Scripture saying nothing of it, having no respect to it, when it speaks of their everlasting punishments: and it answers the Scripture expressions as well, to suppose that they shall be annihilated immediately, without any long pains, provided the annihilation be everlasting.’
This attempt to collapse annihilation+ into annihilation fails because it doesn’t allow that while scripture speaks of eternal punishment for the damned it doesn’t speak of eternal torment for them, but it does have passages which indicate a more time-limited torment and passages which indicate destruction. So it doesn’t ‘answer the Scripture expressions as well’ to affirm immediate annihilation.
Sorry, that should be 3.1, not 31.
“All Souls will be raised to judgement, where they will pass into either eternity, or destruction.”
– Yes, that’s what their erstwhile Rector came to believe.
Thanks, Mat. I don’t know where I picked it up from – its been a while since I read much on this. I must admit that I would struggle to square the idea that the damned experience no suffering for their sins with all that scripture says on their fate. (In my comment above to David S I listed examples as Mark 9:48, Matthew 5:25, Luke 12:47-48, Luke 16:23, Revelation 14:10-11 – though arguably not all of these refer to post-death suffering or the fate of the damned – plus the close association of hell with fire, which is an image of painful and not painless destruction.)
Yes, I’m trying to paint the same picture as you, I’m just wary of naming that picture “Annihilationism” when it isn’t. 😉
Concerning eternal torment, you wrote: ‘As a doctrine it focuses on the imagery at the expense of the meaning’.
That might well be true about the literary and theatrical caricatures of hell, but Annihilationists appear to be literalising the NT’s re-purposing of OT motifs of earthly destruction promised to God’s enemies.
For instance, Isaiah’s prophecies (which Christ re-applied verbatim to describe eternal punishment) referred originally to the earthly destruction of rebellious OT Jews: ‘The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips tgodless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’ (Isaiah 33:14)
‘”Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:24)
This phrasing is also echoed in apocryphal literature:
‘The vengeance of the ungodly is fire and worms.’ (Sir. 7:17)
‘Woe to the nation rising up against my kindred, the Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment, putting fire and worms in their flesh. They shall weep in pain forever.’ Judith 16:17.
Similarly, John does channels the woes of Babylon found in Jeremiah 51 to pronounce the doom of Roman tyranny and its allies.
My chief criticism of annihilationism is that, to make its case, it treats these re-purposed OT motifs so literally instead of recognising them as re-purposes metaphors for the eternal retribution which is far more severe than any OT annihilation of God’s enemies.
The pronouncement of that eternal doom of the impenitent in which unquenchable fire co-exists so unnaturally with worms which don’t die should be enough to prompt us to realise that Christ was using these OT metaphors to describe a punishment which was far more severe than the irreversible oblivion incurred by annihilation.
“ As therefore are collected the tares and with fire are consumed, thus it will be at the completion of the age; will send forth the Son of Man the angels of him, and they will collect out of the kingdom of him all the things leading to sin and the [ones] doing lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there will be the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth.” (Matthew 13:40-42)
Surely this context for the imagery only adds to the annihilationist case? The anti-annihilationist case (for want of a better term – do suggest one) as you present it here rests on the claim that Jesus and the NT are re-purposing the imagery for a truly eternal torment (rather than a torment which ends in destruction, as fire would normally suggest, and as the context for the imagery implies). But given that the NT never states that the damned will be subject to eternal torment (unlike in the case of the devil etc. which it does) what reason do we have to think the imagery is indeed being repurposed in that way, and is not in fact meant to retain its inherited meaning? Isn’t this just reading language in context?
You mention the fire and worm imagery. Isn’t that just drawn from their method of waste disposal i.e. a burning rubbish dump in which waste is destroyed by fire and by worms?
Consider the NT re-purposing of Habbakuk’s OT prophecy (Hab. 2:4). To Jewish captives, it specifically contrasted the certain prospect of extinction for those remaining defiantly rebellious with the God-wrought survival promised to the faithful who respond to God’s chastening exile with penitent, humble unassuming trust in God. ‘Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, The just shall live by faith’.
Yet, in St. Paul’s letters, that promise to those who are humbly faithful to God’s will, as it is revealed is re-purposed beyond mere earthly survival to hold forth eternal life.
The same principle should be applied to understand the NT re-purposing of the OT promises of earthly destruction. Surely, they go beyond mere eventual extinction.
There is a question prior to the debate about hell: Are we all agreed that we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards and that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil?
I am Phil, and the longer I live the more I believe it
Thanks for your candid reply. Is your reply ‘No’ because you believe that those parts of the Bible that drive some of us to believe that the right answer is ‘Yes’ are just wrong or because you believe that those parts of the Bible are right and that we have misunderstood their true meaning?
I think we are all born with a corrupted nature (not sure about inclined to evil), although I tend to believe in the doctrine of original blessing rather than of original sin (which doesn’t seem to be to be Biblical, and neither the Jews not the Orthodox have this doctrine). Nor do I believe in the Fall, as it is sometimes articulated in Christian doctrine. There was pain and suffering, disaster and disease, disfigurement and disorder long before humankind evolved, so, although I see a corrupted and disordered world I do not see it as a result of an original sin.
As for God’s wrath, I think it is an eschatological concept and that we and the world will face it at the end. But I do not believe that we face God’s wrath and condemnation as an ongoing state after birth. I think that would make God some kind of monster. I believe that the sacraments mediate God’s grace, although there must be other mediations for those who do not belong to sacramental traditions, those who belong to other religions, humanists, etc. I think what we face is God’s unconditional, unmerited, generous, gracious love for us, unworthy as we are, and I think that is very hard to bear (perhaps harder than His wrath.
Penelope – I believe in the doctrine of original blessing – it is Biblical – the first thing God does and the first words he speaks over Adam and Eve is blessing Gen1v28 –
….but the fact we face God’s wrath and condemnation does not make God some kind of monster, but humankind.
In the big picture the Bible gives us we cannot avoid the fact that Christ and his Apostles teach a final separation between two groups of people: the straight gate and narrow way – the wide gate and the broad way; the wise virgins – the foolish virgins; the sheep – the goats; those in the book of life – those not in the book of life; those who believe in the Son – those who disobey the Son; the good and faithful servant – the wicked and slothful servant; those who wash their robes and enter into the city – those that are left outside. To one of the groups blessing and life – to the other group punishment/destruction.
Penelope is right to say that (in a sense) God’s love is very hard to bear, because it brings us to a humiliating and humbling repentance, to a Godly sorrow. But that sorrow ‘worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of..’, whereas wrath speaks of that punishment/destruction.
Thanks for your reply. Because you haven’t mentioned the Bible I’m not sure that you have answered my precise question.
“The one believing in the Son has life eternal; but the one disobeying the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’ (John 3:36). If that is true how can you avoid the truth that the wrath of God remains on those who disobey the Son?
‘Then there is now no condemnation to the ones in Christ Jesus’. (Romans 8:1). If that is true how can you avoid the truth that those not in Christ Jesus are still faced with condemnation?
‘So therefore as through one offence to all men to condemnation, so also through one righteous act to all men to justification of life;…’ (Romans 5:18). The last phrase has to be understood as applying to those who recieve ‘the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness…’ (Romans 5:17). If Romans 5:17-18 are true, ‘one offence’ clearly refers to Adam’s sin in Genesis 3.
But I have argued this at length on other threads.
I’m one among a growing number of Christians who used to believe in eternal torment and now believe in annihilationism. The change came as a result of in depth study of Scripture. I have written a fair bit on this topic. My most recent post was just yesterday. In this post I show how when other ancient Greek writers wrote about the possibility of annihilation, the words they used were the very same words the biblical authors use to describe the final fate of the unrighteous. Here it is if anyone is interested:
Thanks for the link. I think I am on the same page as you on this…but that doesn’t answer all the questions.
Ian, thanks for your reply! Also, I appreciate your willingness to write on such a difficult issue where, as you say, all the questions are not answered. Do you mind me asking what comes to your mind in terms of the biggest or most difficult (to you) unanswered questions related to this topic?