Back in December 2011 I read a book in the Counterpoints series titled Four Views on Hell. Published in 1992, this book brings together the scholarship of four different authors to debate the nature of hell. The first edition presented four different interpretations of hell: a literal view, a metaphorical view, a purgatorial view, and an annihilationist view.
The literal and metaphorical views, presented respectively by John F. Walvoord and William Crocket, largely followed the same argument, except that Walvoord took a woodenly literal interpretation of the flames of hell, while Crocket argued that the Bible uses several (sometimes contradictory) metaphors to describe hell, and so we cannot say with certainty what it looks like.
Zachary Hayes presented the purgatorial view of hell. A Roman Catholic theologian, he presented the doctrine of purgatory as it is classically taught by the Catholic Church. Clark Pinnock rounds up the contributions by presenting an annihilationist view of hell.
The second edition of the same title arrives with contributions by four new contributors, and takes a slightly different approach. The literal/metaphorical distinction is removed, and in its place Denny Burk argues for hell as a place of eternal conscious torment. In the first edition, both Walvoord and Crocket argued for hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment; they simply disagreed about whether or not we should interpret the flames of hell in a literalistic manner.
John G. Stackhouse replaces Clark Pinnock on this edition of the book to argue for an annihilationist view of hell. Stackhouse is far more charitable toward alternative views in his approach, but argues largely along the same lines. He contends that the inherent immortality of the human soul is foreign to Scripture and that there is no biblical basis to assume that God grants immortality to the lost. He carefully exegetes several texts of Scripture to show that annihilationism is consistent with the teachings of Scripture. He believes that hell is a literal place, where the lost suffer bodily punishment, but that that punishment is finite: When the sinner has atoned for his sins by his own suffering, God destroys both his body and soul for all eternity. Stackhouse, unlike Pinnock in the first edition of this book, does not resort to cheap guilt-by-association shots to prove his point.
In this second edition, an evangelical scholar, Jerry L. Walls, replaces Zachary Hayes in arguing for purgatory. Walls presents a view of purgatory that he claims is consistent with evangelical teaching and stands in some distinction to the view espoused by the Catholic Church. For Walls, purgatory is more closely aligned with heaven than with hell. Purgatory is inhabited only by those who die in Christ, and is a place of sanctification. Purgatory is not, he argues, a place where one atones for one’s sins and ultimately earns entrance into heaven; it is instead a place where believers go in order to be fully sanctified before entering heaven. The Catholic view argues that purgatory is a place of both satisfaction and sanctification; Walls argues instead that it is only a place of sanctification. Those who die outside of Christ are condemned to eternal conscious suffering in hell; those who die in Christ must first go to purgatory before they gain entrance to heaven. Purgatory, he says is “a work of grace that finishes our sanctification in order to make us fit to enjoy the glories of heaven.”
The fourth view presented in the second edition of this title is an evangelical version of universalism. Robin A. Parry argues for this position. Unlike many forms of universalism, Parry does not argue that God welcomes all and sundry into heaven regardless of faith in Christ. Instead, he argues that those who die outside of Christ are given opportunity in hell, and that, in the end, everyone in hell will ultimately believe the gospel and be reconciled to God in Christ.
When I read the first edition in 2011, I assumed that I would find myself agreeing with Walvoord on what was termed a literal view of hell. I came away, however, more convinced by Crocket. To be sure, the differences between Crocket and Walvoord were minor, but Crocket on the whole made the more persuasive argument. I recall at the time being distinctly unimpressed by the arguments presented by Hayes (for purgatory) and Pinnock (for annihilationism).
I once again began reading the second edition of this title with a presupposition: that I would affirm the view argued for by Denny Burk (eternal conscious torment). Having made my way through it, however, I must admit that Stackhouse (arguing for annihilationism) argues persuasively for his position. In 2011, I found Pinnock’s seeming mean-spiritedness and guilt-by-association tactics to be decidedly off-putting. Stackhouse is far more charitable1 and places the weight of his argument on biblical exegesis.
While I can appreciate that Parry’s universalism and Walls’s purgatorialism are positions held by biblical conviction, I ultimately find their arguments to be lacking in engagement with the text of Scripture. Walls, in particular, does not engage the text much at all; and when Parry does, he seems to miss the context of the texts with which he deals. Stackhouse and Burk seem to take the text of Scripture a little more seriously.2
As is normal with the Counterpoints books, each author has opportunity to briefly rebut the arguments of each other author. Following the arguments and rebuttals, editor Preston Sprinkle rounds up the arguments with a brief assessment of each position. Sprinkle does a good job in articulating what is to be appreciated by each author’s argument, and shows where each position needs to be a little better articulated. One can sense, however, where Sprinkle’s personal allegiances lie.3
The subject of hell is destined to be one of perpetual disagreement. The strength of this particular title lies in the fact that each contributor agrees on major essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Each is an evangelical scholar who loves and preaches the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. Each author holds firmly to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and to the existence of a literal hell. Each seeks to ground his argument in the plain teaching, or at the very least, the necessary implication, of Scripture. The discussions among contributors is charitable and thoughtful.
Ultimately, of course, only one view of hell can be correct. As any reader will, I have my own conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of each argument. I can still appreciate arguments made in favour of eternal conscious torment. I have a newfound appreciation for the exegetical basis of annihilationism. I still find the views expressed in favour of purgatory, and now in favour of universalism, to be weak. But each argument, in its own way, has helped me to develop my own thinking in this area.
This book is a definite improvement over the first edition of the same title, and it is to be recommended for anyone who wishes to understand the reasoning behind the views of hell presented in it. Whether or not you come away with your own firm conclusions, the authors will help you to think more deeply about divergent views of a hot topic within contemporary evangelicalism.