Christian History’s The History of Hell A Brief Survey and Resource Guide A Review

Today I received the latest publication of Christian History Institute: The History of Hell: A brief survey and resource guide. Here are some thoughts:

Aesthetics: The three-tone presentation of black, white, and red is effective and well executed. The serpent graphic spanning the top of every page is provocative and helpful. The size (5½x8½) seems right for something of this nature.  While the publisher might appreciate advertisers and the financial support that comes with them, I appreciated the fact that the only ad was on the inside of the back cover. I dislike commercial interruptions: even printed ones. One slight blemish is the disparity in the quality of the pictures of the various men who are discussed. The difference in quality between the images of Irenaeus, Anselm, and Dante as when compared to those of Augustine, Aquinas, and Erasmus is quite noticeable: especially since the images of Dante and Erasmus are on facing pages. Sometimes, more effort is needed than simply “copy and paste” from Wikipedia.

Content: The inside front cover offers a summary of the three main Christian views on hell: Traditional, Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism, and Restorationism or Universalism. There follows 20 pages presenting a historical overview of the beliefs of nearly 50 individuals, groups, or eras from the Didache (late 1st century) to Seventh-day Adventists (1863).  Following that  7 pages offer nearly 60 contemporary works (1940-2011) that in part or in full deal with the doctrine of hell.

Some time ago the publisher made known that this resource was on the way and the purpose of it. As the subtitle indicates, the purpose of The History of Hell is not polemic, but informative. Even with this caveat, I have a feeling that those who hold to the traditional view will not be entirely satisfied with the presentation. If one were to simply count the proponents of each view, Traditionalists would have more representation than the other two views.  Even so, the editors seem to be at pains to present support for opposing views where it might not exist.

In the case of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen the refrain is, “They didn’t say anything clearly repudiating the traditional view, but they could be taken to teach Annihilationism or Universalism.” In the case of Erasmus, Zwingli, and Denck the discussion seems to go beyond the question of, “Who is damned and how?” to “Who is saved and how?” The inclusion of Locke and Mill seems out of place. While they were important men in their fields, those fields were not theology, biblical studies, or ecclesiastical leadership. My perception is that the editors wanted to paint a picture of mist and clouds with nothing certain.  The traditional view seems to be traditional in name only. Was there ever a time when the traditional view was by and large accepted as fact? If not, how can it be called traditional? But perhaps I am being prejudicial. Everyone wants to see his opinion afforded the greatest possible argument and I am not sure mine was.

The list of modern resources is a treasure. It is an annotated bibliography of books from each position and books surveying multiple positions.

Which brings up a major shortcoming in the historical section: there are no citations in the historical section! Some of the men wrote volume upon volume and we are nowhere told where we may find what they taught on the subject. For a publication of this nature, this seems almost inexcusable. It seems almost irresponsible to assert that Justin Martyr is the father of “father of the inclusivist tradition within Christianity” but nowhere give the reader where to read in Justin in support of such a statement. Even in a survey, one should be told where to look for more in-depth information. This is a quite unfortunate failing. A good publication could have easily been made superb.

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