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Hell, The unbiblical doctrine of
by Andrew Perriman
I set out a while back to write a general piece on the unbiblical doctrine of “hell” as part of a glossary or lexicon of key concepts but got side-tracked. Since then the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s book has prompted extensive reflection on the matter, and it now seems worth providing a rough summary of the position that I have argued for in a number of recent posts. Unfortunately, it has turned out rather longer than intended, but hopefully it will be the last word on the subject of “hell” for a while.
The approach I will take is to differentiate between a baseline position and the three eschatological horizons which, to my mind, provide the forward-looking frame of reference for New Testament thought. This approach reflects an important hermeneutical assumption. The New Testament primarily addresses the condition of peoples and cultures within history rather than the destiny of individuals beyond history. If we approach the New Testament with concerns about the moral or theological rightness of a doctrine of “hell” as “eternal conscious torment” at the forefront of our minds, we are likely to misunderstand what is said about judgment, wrath, punishment, and affliction. Ask the wrong questions and you will get the wrong answers.
The starting point is to affirm that there is a baseline of divine—or even existential—judgment on unrighteous and rebellious humanity. It takes the simple but decisive form of destruction, which is a serious enough business. For individuals this is the destruction of death—as Paul puts it, the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). For the first generations of humanity, which had “corrupted their way on earth” by violence, it was the destruction of the flood: ‘And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth”’ (Gen. 6:13). The regeneration of humanity that followed the flood could only be described in terms of a new creation: ‘And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”’ (Gen. 9:1).
For societies that defied the creator—at least as far as the Biblical narrative extends—judgment was likely to come, sooner or later, in the form of corporate destruction: famine, disease, war, slaughter, and the devastation of land and cities. The climactic moment in the Old Testament narrative is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, from which the nation never really recovered. This event is understood not as an accident of history but as an expression of God’s anger against his people because of their incorrigible idolatry and unrighteousness. But it is only a matter of time before the godless and ferocious empire of the Babylonians will be brought to nothing in its turn (cf. Hab. 2:6-20).
The vivid prophetic language in which these events are described already foreshadows the visions of impending judgment that we find in the New Testament. But in Daniel’s symbolic account of the judgment of the fourth beast that makes war against the saints of the Most High and of the transfer of kingdom and authority to “one like a son of man” (Dan. 7), we have an anticipation of the heightened apocalypticism that will give New Testament eschatology its distinctive contours. The point to stress is that in the Old Testament this language always has reference to historical events, seen from the perspective of Israel’s unique existence. It has to be unequivocally demonstrated, therefore, and not merely assumed, that the authors of the New Testament used this language in a fundamentally different sense to speak of post-historical or metaphysical realities. In my view this cannot be done. The New Testament is as much focused on the historical existence of the people of God as the Old Testament.