Top critical review
"will likely frustrate" but "sure to challenge readers with new questions" and beliefs
Reviewed in the United States on April 5, 2018
Four Views on Hell is an important addition to the Counterpoints Series by Zondervan, which allows contributors to define and counterargue their position on key Christian theological topics. Editor Preston Sprinkle sets out to produce this book as a challenge to his readers, so that they might come to a deeper understanding of their own view as well as the views of other Christians. “Bible-believing Christians must wrestle with these views and not just dismiss them out of hand” (204).
The four contributors of this book have been asked to present their position on the nature of hell, not debating the existence of hell, but rather trying answer the question, “What is hell like?” (11-12) Danny Burke starts the discussion by arguing that hell is a place of never-ending conscious torment, which is considered the traditional stance of the Evangelical Church. Then John Stackhouse follows with his argument that hell is a place of “terminal punishment,” a position otherwise known as “conditionalism” or “annihilationism.” The third view, universalism, defended by Robin Parry, is one that believes that “in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ” (101). Finally, Jerry Walls subjoins the traditional view by arguing that believers must be fully sanctified before being permitted into heaven. Consequently, those that have received atonement before death, but have not yet undergone sanctification, will be granted a purgatory for their complete sanctification.
Sprinkle lays out this book with each contributor given a chapter to present their view along with other contributors’ responses; however, it may be warranted to speculate how generic the prompt that he gave them was. In the introduction he writes, “Now more than ever, Christians want to know what the Bible really says about hell” (11). This statement would indicate that the reader should expect a more systematic course of eschatology, which only Burk provides. However logically the others present their case, they rely heavily on a historical and philosophical method of theology, which ultimately steers their case away from the Bible.
Early on in the historical-theological approach presented by Parry, he provides a rather extensive list of religious figures who purportedly endorsed universalism, including the Clement of Alexandria, Pamphilus, the Basil of Caesarea, and St. Augustine just to name a few. Parry then states, “My point in listing these folks is simply to highlight that universalism is an ancient Christian view that arises from impulses deep within Christian theology itself” (102). However, rather than leaning on the “impulses” of prior historical figures, the reader is probably expecting a more systematic defense of universalism. Nevertheless, Parry directly says he will not deliver such an essay in his chapter, in the first two sentences of the section, “Madness in the Method” (102). Similarly, Walls engages Scripture only five times in his essay.
Overall the contributors are fair in their use of Christian jargon, defining lesser-known terms and terms that are used more broadly beyond an eschatological context. And though they use different models to present their argument, they all use a few of the same terms. For example, the Bible's use of the terms ʻôlām and aiônios are interpreted by Burk as meaning “everlasting” and “eternal” (25, 27), whereas Stackhouse translated them as “eternal,” “perpetual,” and “everlasting,” but suggests the interpretation is not intended to be literal (66-67). Finally, Parry primarily agrees with Stackhouse adding only that aiônios has the notion of being qualitative rather than quantitative (120-122).
Some more terms that are thoroughly defined throughout the book are “death” (69-70, 86-87, 93-94, 200) and Gehenna (11, 26-27, 63, 119-120). But, “sin” is a term that is used far more and yet remains without any proper care given to its biblical definition. Questions like “Is God the kind of God for whom this kind of punishment for sin would be necessary?” (21) and “Will God allow sin to thwart his purposes to beautify the cosmos?” (106), and a claim like “Christians are universalists about sin” (105), all assume a certain belief about sin. It would be foolish to attempt answering these questions without first defining the doctrine of sin, but few clear statements on sin are made in any of the essays.
No doubt credibility was considered during the selection of contributors; however only Burk and Walls write with an authoritative charisma. Conversely, Stackhouse and Parry start their arguments with the following statements: “I will content that this view best takes into account…” (62) and Christian universalism is a “viable Christian opinion” (101). They both continue their writing using phrases such as “I suggest” (65, 66), “it seems” (110), and “I would expect” (111). Eventually, Parry even writes, “I want now to offer … a view of hell I think compatible with the God of the gospel” (113). Finally, Stackhouse indicates their objective is humility when he says, “the other views, to be sure, can plausibly adduce certain Scriptures to their respective cases, and I certainly would want to allow for my own considerable limitations as a theologian” (62).
Even though Stackhouse and Parry intend to assume a position of humility in their arguments, they only damage their authority by conveying a sense of insecurity over the incomplete conception of their message. And while it is plausible that only one of the four views could be true, Burk and Walls both still speak rather definitively in defense of their own beliefs. This is the same way in which the apostles spoke about Jesus, his mission, and the kingdom (Luke 9:1-6). The forum initiated by Sprinkle for this book allowed all contributors the opportunity to speak with this same authority. Just as similarly as the apostles spoke about a message they knew would bring them persecution, Burk and Walls express in their writing trust and confidence in their positions amidst ostracism.
Even so, the debate between the contributors should be respected, as all rebuttals were communicated thoughtfully and without personal attacks. And although the bias between contributors is understood, Sprinkle honourably defers announcing his position until drawing his conclusion at the closing of the book.
Overall, Four Views on Hell is a relatively easy read for anyone who has a brief understanding of theological methods. Some of the exegesis and hermeneutical approaches will likely frustrate some readers; however, persisting onward to the full conclusion of the text is sure to challenge readers with new questions and deepen their understanding of beliefs contrary to their own.