This week our friends Daniel McCarley and Bryan Alderman are presenting their differing opinions on the doctrine of hell and how it should be preached.
Daniel McCarley is an MDiv student at Beeson Divinity School. He serves as the Assistant for Liturgy and Communications at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, and is a card-carrying sacramental fundamentalist.
“Either there is hope, or there is nothing.” — Come Sunday
The Bible does not present a doctrine of eternal hell. In the Old Testament, there is no differentiation between the afterlife of the Godly and the wicked—the end for everyone is an “insubstantial nonexistence in Sheol.” (1) Not until late after the Babylonian exile is there any mention of life after death or a separation into final blessedness/destruction. Even beyond the exile, though, hell doesn’t have much furniture. Jesus’ teaching inherits a similar framework, his language offering little more than to describe hell as destruction. (2)
After the ascension, New Testament preachers are surprisingly quiet regarding an eternal fate of the damned. Paul, for example, never mentions hell in any of his writings. (3) Any other mention of hell in the Epistles implies a “realm where the ungodly are kept in bondage until the Last Judgment (2 Pet. 2:4, 9; Jude 6; 1 Cor. 5:5).” (4) Even the smoke from the destruction of Babylon that in Revelation 19 rises to the throne room of heaven serves not as a testimony to eternal punishment but as an eternal “memorial to God’s victory.” (5) Neither does the Apostles’ Creed nor Nicene Creed present a doctrine of eternal hell. What, then, is the place of hell in preaching the Good News?
In a foil article to this one, Bryan Alderman presents the argument that a proper preaching of hell is a necessary accompaniment to the proclamation of the Good News. I want to qualify that thesis—a proper preaching of the Good News eradicates any accompanying “Bad News,” leaving the only fitting place for a doctrine of hell to be in Christ’s triumph over it.
Not long ago Timothy Keller published the tweet, “Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.” He works with a common assumption among advocates for hell as eternal conscious punishment that to take hell seriously amounts to taking the gospel seriously. But Good News can never lay its foundation in death, only in Life.
Even if we reversed Keller’s logic (saying instead, “Taking the Gospel seriously means we must take hell seriously”), we would still shortchange the Good News. Rather, we should say that to take the gospel seriously doesn’t mean taking hell seriously but taking seriously Christ’s descent into hell and subsequent victory over it. After the resurrection, the only remaining news to give about hell is Good News.
Because the grave was conquered, we are never to speak gravely about the gospel. We call the task of preaching a joy because it is shaped by the resurrection. It is a shame that we so often interpret scripture as if scripture were not itself shaped by the resurrection. Many evangelicals make the mistake of interpreting John’s Apocalypse through the very same lens they interpret Old Testament apocalyptic literature. But apocalypse in light of the cross is as far removed from Hebrew apocalypse as law is from gospel. There’s no place for talking about the Day of Judgment apart from the day Christ was judged on the cross. After the cross there is no new judgment, only its aftershock. Saints no longer crave the same vengeance as those who have not known the cross. The cry of the saints “How long, O Lord?” (Rev. 6:10) does not share in the hopelessness of the psalmists and prophets. If Old Testament apocalypse arose from Israel’s desperation for hope, then New Testament apocalypse arises because of hope.
Hope was sealed when Christ broke death’s seal. In Revelation 1:18 Christ does not hold the “keys of hell” because he has closed it shut but because Christ has freed its gates. He stands as if to say “I have bound that abusive master in his own house and rescued the abused bride—and look at my proof! I hold the keys of death and hell.”
For this reason, as Wyatt Houtz says, “We believe in Eternal Life, not in Eternal Hell.” A theology of hell is atheistic. (6) It favors Bad News over Good News, rejecting the God who conquered hell. Believing in hell is a non sequitur. Karl Barth’s words on this are worth reading at length.
The Creed discusses only the things which are the object of the faith. ... We believe in the Word of God and it is the word of our salvation. The kingdom, the glory, the resurrection, the life everlasting, each one is a work of rescue. Light pierces through the darkness, eternal life overcomes eternal death. We cannot "believe" in sin, in the devil, in our death sentence. We can only believe in the Christ who has overcome the devil, borne sin and removed eternal death. Devil, sin, and eternal death appear to us only when they are overcome. (7)
Barth continues to say that when we contemplate hell, we don’t think on God but ourselves.
Wretched as we are, we always relapse into contemplation of ourselves and of mankind, and, naturally, eternal death comes up no sooner than we have looked on it. The world without redemption becomes again a power and a threatening force, and our message of victory ceases to be believable. But as it is written: "The victory that triumphs over the world, this is our faith (1 John 5:4).”
Because the task of preaching is to preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), it is a contradiction to preach hell. It cannot turn people to the object of faith because it turns people in on themselves, navel-gazing at the human condition. Preaching hell preaches death.
It’s a sad mistake to characterize annihilationism as a "stomachable version of the doctrine of hell." The annihilation of the hellbound soul is of the least concern. It affirms the annihilation of hell itself. Annihilationism does not ponder the end of the condemned but the end of the Powers over the condemned—that at the cross hell died, aggression was harrowed, the “strong man” was made weak, and Satan and his demons were exorcised. John Chrysostom’s famed “Paschal Sermon” offers the finale:
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.
1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 399.
2. See, for example, Matt. 10:28, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
3. Though he does frequently refer to the "punishment" and "everlasting destruction" of the wicked (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:9). Fleming Rutledge's words are helpful: "The apostle Paul never mentions hell; instead, he speaks of condemnation and the wrath of God, which amounts to the same thing but is more specifically related to Paul's focus on the righteousness of God powerfully overcoming Sin and delivering God's elect from condemnation" (408).
4. Rutledge, 408.
5. This is Greg Boyd's point in his exposition of violence in Revelation in his landmark work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, (622).
6. This is the logic of Jürgen Moltmann in his book of essays, God Will Be All in All.
7. This is an excerpt from Barth's commentary on the Apostles' Creed, The Faith of the Church.