As I’ve already stated, for some time the traditional view of hell contradicts the overall biblical witness. I resonate with Sharon Baker’s perspective in many ways, however with some nuances. I want to briefly describe two distinctions that I think complement her overall vision.
Distinction #1: Conditional Immortality
A presupposition of mine is the validity of what scholars call conditional immortality. Church Fathers such as Theophilus, Irenaus, and Justin Martyr argued this perspective. Clark Pinnock states: “God created humans mortal with a capacity for life everlasting, but it is not their inherent possession.” The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.
Therefore, I am happy to agree with much of Baker’s emphasis on the final Judgment Day, but something needs to be explained. My view is that when a non-Christian dies (after taking into consideration the inclusive grace of Christ) that person is exactly that – dead. Remember, immortality is a free gift, so those who do not have it simply return to the dust. To experience “hell” is to die, be destroyed, or to perish. No one goes to a “place” called hell after death. They simply die awaiting Judgment Day.
When Christ returns, something that bothered me until recently was that it seems cruel that God would “wake up” non-Christians in a resurrection (Dan 12.2-3; John 5.28-29; Acts 24.15). Once they are dead, why shouldn’t they remain so? But, if we take into consideration what Baker argues, then it is possible to view the resurrection of the unrighteous as God’s final pursuit of those who have died without Christ. In this approach, raising the unrighteous is an act of mercy not villainy. The possibility arises that as some people pass through the fire of God’s love that they will choose reconciliation with God. For those who still resist, the metaphorical fires burn until nothing human remains. That is the hell of annihilation, the “second death.”
Distinction #2: The Destruction of Jerusalem
The second brief nuance has to do with Sharon Baker’s nearly complete disregard for the warnings of Gehenna from Jesus, which point toward the prophetic judgment of God. For instance, in Mark 13 (and parallels), Jesus tells his disciples that the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed during their own generation. God will judge (according to Jesus) the system fueled by nationalistic zealotry and oppressive religious practices that degrade the poor. I’ve written about the destruction of Jerusalem elsewhere, in case this is a new idea to you (Signs of the Times? – A Study of Mark 13).
This sort of wrath from God was eventually carried out by Rome when they destroyed the city and the Temple (70 CE). Many were killed and their bodies would have been burned in the fires of the Valley of Hinnom (remember: the word “hell” Gehenna literally transliterates from the Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom”). We have substantial evidence of this from Josephus, who tells us that they had to throw the dead bodies into valleys surrounding the city because they were so numerous.
N.T. Wright articulates that impending destruction of the City is what Jesus’ Gehenna warnings have in view, and it is “only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings which articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of a warning about what may happen after death itself.” He adds:
Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) who resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, that is the primary meaning he had in mind…. [H]e was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on post-mortem judgment, apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation (176-177).
Finally, Andrew Perriman offers “three horizons” for understanding the New Testament warnings often associated with a traditional “hell.” First, there is the horizon of the Jewish War, discussed above. By connecting imagery of Gehenna with the Old Testament motifs of the finality of death in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, Jesus warns that God’s wrath will come through “giving them over” to the natural consequences of their violent path – destruction by Rome. Second, the horizon is judgment that will come on the hostile pagan world. Jesus and those identified with him, will be vindicated over evil empires who act counter to the Kingdom purposes of God. They will be ultimately destroyed. Finally, at the resurrection there will be a final judgment, which will lead to the destruction of those who ultimately refuse relationship to God in Christ. This is the “second death” or hell.
If I were to give language for my view, until I come up with something better, I call this “purgatorial conditionalism.” This reflects that Judgment Day will be a time for all to enter the metaphorical fires of God’s love, that will burn up the bad and refine what is good. For those who have not received the gift of immortality, there might be an opportunity to endure God’s loving wrath unto reconciliation with Christ. For those who yet refuse, they will experience the second death. This is because immortality is conditional upon reconciliation with God through Christ. An eternal hell is a Greek construct but the possibility of not receiving salvation remains. May we continue to share the Good News of Jesus so that none miss out on God renewed creation to come!
Love Wins, by Rob Bell (I like the broad vision of this book, but plan to follow-up this post with a blog about how I’d nuance Rob Bell’s perspective.)
. Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 613.
. Clark H. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 148.
. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 176.
. Perriman, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, 1133ff.