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.

Rob Bell Love Wins Plagiarism!!!

There, while they stood in a green wood
And marvelled still on Ill and Good,
Came suddenly Minister Mind.
‘In the heart of sin doth hell begin:
’Tis not below, ’tis not above,
It lieth within, it lieth within:’
(‘Where?’ quoth Love)

‘I saw a man sit by a corse;
Hell’s in the murderer’s breast: remorse!
Thus clamored his mind to his mind:
Not fleshly dole is the sinner’s goal,
Hell’s not below, nor yet above,
’Tis fixed in the ever-damned soul—’
‘Fixed?’ quoth Love—

These two stanza’s are from Sidney Lanier’s poem, How Love Looked For Hell. As I read the poem it seems to be a pretty vanilla late 19th century work, technically sound, lyrically overwrought, philosophically shallow. Like Bell in Love Wins, Lanier wants his readers to believe that wherever Love is, hell cannot be.

Rob Bell has not said anything new. Nor has he said anything profound. We can only hope his teaching meets the same fate as Lanier’s poetry- destined to be relegated in forgotten books.

Rob Bell is Right: Love Wins

The Christian side of the internet was set a flutter this weekend over the subject matter of Rob Bells upcoming book release: Love Wins. Most of the discussion was over the question of whether or not Rob bell is a heretic for denying hell and embracing universalism. Even those who made the charge of heresy admitted they did so only tentatively since the promotional material only seemed to indicate that Bell embraced universalism. This caveat received as much space and attention as the legal disclaimers at the conclusion of commercials.

Whether or not Rob Bell is a heretic is not for me to say. I will say that about the only thing more distasteful than the so-called evangelical rock star mentality is the glee that others seem to demonstrate in tearing those rock stars down. Whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist or not, he is right about one thing: love does win.

Universalism is wrong on multiple levels. It is wrong logically: there is no point in pursuing the Christian life if we all end up in the same place. It is wrong historically: no group of orthodox Christians have ever believed and taught it. It is wrong biblically: no plain reading of the Scripture’s teaching on hell allows for it. It is wrong theologically: and this is the most fundamental error of universalism.

The promotional video for Love Wins points to one of the foundational arguments for the salvation of all mankind: God is too loving to send anyone to a place of eternal torture. A loving, merciful God would never do such a thing. The problem with such an argument is that it actually belittles the love of God. That’s right: to say that God is too loving to send anyone to hell diminishes God’s love and makes his mercy into something repulsive.

“God is love.” While John’s statement certainly is not meant to describe all that God is, it accurately represents what his character is. We also know from Scripture that God does not change; he is immutable. If God is loving and immutable he has always loved. That is to say, even before man existed, God was a God of love. But who was there for God to love before creation? Only himself.

And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:5, 24)

Universalism fails to take the love of God seriously because it does not recognize the fountain of all God’s love: the love that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for one another. What shall the Father say to the Son regarding the humiliation of his incarnation and crucifixion? “Sorry my boy, I guess you did not have to abandon your glory, embrace poverty, and be forsaken after all. I have decided to just let everyone in.” What shall he say to the Spirit? “I know you have been striving for thousands of years to call sinners to repentance and saints to holiness, but all your effort really was not needed.”

Universalism makes God a monster. It actually validates the charge of atheists that God is a cosmic child-abuser. Universalism declares that God loves people more than his own Son. For God to be merciful to those who reject the sacrifice of Christ, the Father Himself is the one “who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant…”

As with all heresy, universalism begins with a faulty conception of God. Universalism maintains that God the Father does not love the Son enough to honor the sacrifice he made to save his people from their sins. In addition, the Holy Spirit toils in vain to apply the benefits of Christ’s death to his followers if all will eventually receive it.

Universalism is heresy because it makes little of the love God has for himself. I pray that if Rob Bell has been tempted by this poisonous allurement, the Spirit will open his eyes to the fact that love does win. Te love God has for himself will be vindicated.