John Richardson continues his reflections on current evangelical attitudes to hell and salvation
IN MY FIRST ARTICLE, I argued that English evangelicalism has undergone a significant shift in the past few years from the classical understanding of salvation as ‘salvation from eternal death’ which will be most apparent in the future, towards a revisionist concept of salvation as ‘salvation into eternal life’ which becomes demonstrably apparent now.
Many who have made this shift would no doubt regard the distinction as unnecessary. “Surely,” they would argue, “salvation is both a future and a present reality?” And indeed it is – nevertheless the shift is potentially catastrophic. As we have already shown, there is now a stream, represented by Clark Pinnock and others, which is scarcely recognizable as classically evangelical and yet which has been given a platform within English evangelicalism.1 Undoubtedly, this position was reached gradually. Our fear, therefore, is not that the present generation of evangelicals has entirely sold out, but that a future generation well might. Those who doubt the significance of small shifts in evangelical doctrine would do well to study the history of Quakerism, which began as charismatic fundamentalism and is now functionally liberal.
Others would argue that the shift is more one of pragmatism than principle. The gospel needs to begin where people are, with their angst and need for significance. And clearly this pragmatic approach is working, if churches like Holy Trinity Brompton are anything to go by. Yet in this case, evangelicals are doing little more than what they criticize in liberals like Jack Spong, namely repackaging the traditional message to make it more palatable for the modern audience. The only difference is that Spong might deny certain doctrines which the modern evangelical simply plays down. But again, as we saw in the case of Pinnock’s symposium, it cannot be long before downplaying becomes outright denial. Hence a hell we would rather not talk about easily becomes a hell we would rather not believe in.
Life and Sheol
Yet why is it so important that our doctrine of salvation should begin with deliverance from hell? One answer is that only in this way can the ministry of Jesus be truly understood and applied.
It is a matter of commonplace observation that the Old Testament has a limited view of life after death. All the dead seem to be consigned indiscriminately to sheol, where the consciousness of the individual is virtually extinguished:
“For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?” (Psalm 6:5)
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (Eccles 9:10)
Nevertheless, other Old Testament references suggests at least an element of continuing ‘being’, so that sheol is not simply a matter of non-existence:
“Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come, it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will speak and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!'” (Isa 14:9-10)
It is even possible, theoretically, to go down to sheol in peace (cf 1 Ki 2:6; Job 21:13). However, the distinction between sheol and the ‘land of the living’ (cf Ezek 32:18-32) means that the Israelite inevitably looked for the outworking of God’s redemption in terms of material blessings. Within Job’s perspective, for example, whereas the wicked who go down to sheol after a prosperous life do so in peace (21:7-13), he faced the prospect of going down with his hopes shattered (17:11-16). If Job was truly vindicated, therefore, God had to bless him in this life since, however short it may be, it is the only certain arena in which God’s goodness may be experienced (7:7-10).
Jesus and Hell
Perhaps we do see in Job the beginnings of a theology of the resurrection, precisely because of the tensions expressed in that book (cf the disputed Job 19:25-27). Certainly by the time of Jesus a belief in the resurrection had become widespread in Judaism. But still the hopes of Messianism were focused largely in this life, and in some ways Jesus’ own ministry fulfilled those hopes, particularly through his miracles:
“Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!'” (Luke 7:16, emphasis added)
Nevertheless, there is a constant insistence in Jesus’ teaching that the Messianic hope must largely be deferred. Regarding the righteous, this life consists of crosses rather than crowns. Similarly, regarding the wicked, judgement is delayed into the future, rather than experienced now. Indeed, in this life the wicked seem to themselves to be vindicated by the absence of any consequences to their actions, whether they be in terms of enjoying luxury or rejecting God’s messengers:
“But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things …'”(Lk 16:25)
“When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” (Matt 21:34-35)
Thus Jesus’ preaching of deferred justice only makes sense if indeed both aspects of justice – the vindication of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked – are finally evidenced. The Beatitudes can overthrow conventional theological wisdom precisely because a future vindication is assured. But by the same token, the gospel advocates losses now on the grounds that a future loss faces those who will not respond to its message:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:24-26)
Jesus taught that the “life” that one must lose is the “world” others seek to gain. Yet only at his coming in glory would the exchange be seen as worthwhile. By contrast, much modern evangelism seems to turn this on its head, offering “life” to the believer now (if only what David Basinger calls “the joy and excitement of being properly related to God”), and a studied agnosticism about the future of those who are ashamed of Christ in this world.2
The Theology of Glory
The practical result of this distortion is to produce what Martin Luther described in the Heidelberg Disputation as the “theology of glory”, which actually keeps people from true faith:
“He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.”
Such a theology of glory will result when we move the fruits of the gospel from the future to the present. People will seek God in manifest goodness, not the daily cross, and so there will inevitably be a tendency to fall away when confronted by “the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things” (Mk 14:19). Indirect evidence of this effect is to be found in No Sex Please, We’re Single, (written incidentally, by a member of Holy Trinity Brompton):
If years of being part of the Christian community have failed to produce any prospect of a marriage partner, then hope begins to die and despair drives people from the church.3
As one who has been a single Christian all his life, I have had some sympathy with such feelings. Nevertheless, one is left wondering at the extent to which a subtle version of ‘prosperity teaching’ is producing ‘theologians of glory’ who ultimately have no roots. By contrast, the theology of the cross, and its accompanying message of salvation from hell, must surely produce disciples who will endure to the end, even though, in Luther’s words, “they take our life, goods, children, honour, wife”.4
The Truth of Hell
Yet, once again, we must not retain a doctrine of hell simply on the grounds that it is the best way to persuade people to become and remain Christians. The doctrine of hell, and its corollary of salvation as salvation-from-hell, must be preached because they are true. And since they are true, they make the best sense of reality.
St Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions that “evil has no existence except as a privation of good”. The suggestion is ingenious, since it does not require that God created evil ‘in itself’, but simply that he created beings who, since they were not themselves God, were corruptible through departing from him:
“I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, towards inferior things, rejecting its own inner life (Ecclus. 10:10) and swelling with external matter.”5
This statement betrays Augustine’s acknowledge debt to Platonism. However, it may be argued that it still does not take evil sufficiently seriously. It allows Augustine to say of God,
“For you evil does not exist at all, and not only for you but for your created universe … But in the parts of the universe, there are certain elements which are thought evil because of a conflict of interest.”6
Yet evil is surely more than a mere absence of good, and the problem of evil is not resolved simply by saying every evil thing has its good place. Perhaps what Augustine’s thesis lacks is a recognition that insofar as good is absent from a being which nevertheless retains a real will, the result is an active evil, which not merely lacks good but opposes it and pursues what is perverse.
Indeed, we see this evil in ourselves and in the world around us. Nevertheless, we do not see, and only rarely glimpse the possibility of, that evil which is possible to a will unmitigated by any good because it is entirely bereft of God. By the grace of God, in this world evil is invariably tempered by some residual good, if only dimly in the conscience of the perpetrator. This is perhaps why the best description of true evil I have come across is in a fictional work. In Voyage to Venus, C S Lewis describes an encounter between the hero, Ransom, and the “unman”, Weston, who is demonically possessed:
“It looked at Ransom in silence and at last began to smile. We have all often spoken – Ransom himself had often spoken – of a devilish smile. Now he realised that he had never taken the words seriously. The smile was not bitter, not raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with a horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence.”7
The plausibility of Lewis’ conjecture is suggested by the biblical terminology for repentance which, in the Old Testament, derives from the concept of ‘turning’ or ‘returning’ to God, expressed by the Hebrew word shub. Clearly, when repentance is called for, what matters at the point of prophetic crisis is not how far one has travelled but in which direction one is facing. The people who ‘turn’ to God will inevitably ‘return’ fully to him. But what of those who have turned away from him? We must not imagine that they go into a spiritual ‘orbit’ – somehow remaining at the same distance from him indefinitely. Rather, they will equally inevitably move ever further into what Jesus called “outer darkness”. And this will not just be the darkness of separation from God, as suggested in some modern evangelism. Rather, following Augustine, it will be the darkness of increasing separation from all that is good, including the good within oneself.
One reason why we find the doctrine of hell so uncomfortable is that we cannot imagine our late Aunt Amy, or whoever, belonging there. Yet by the same token we should hardly imagine ourselves belonging in the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, Scripture tells us that even those who have this hope are far from achieving what they will then become:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God …” (Rom 8:19)
“… we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another …” (2 Cor 3:18)
If this is true for the saints who, though repentant, have not yet reached their goal, can it not also be true for those who have died unrepentant (that is, who have not turned to God)? Can it not be that they too are being changed from one degree to another, ever journeying not towards him but towards the likeness of that which is totally opposite to God because it is totally removed from him? What if they are finally ‘freed’ not from sin but from any good within themselves? In that case, hell is not only the best place but the right place for them.
All this may be possible because God has created beings who have the capacity to be like him in knowing good and evil (Gen 3:22). Yet as Augustine saw, by not being God themselves, the corruption entailed in this knowledge leads them ultimately to that spiritual perversion which calls good evil and evil good (Isa 5:20). The ultimate end of this is hell. By contrast, in Christ, and only in him, a fusion of Holy Spirit and human nature is possible which leaves the creature autonomous in itself whilst redeemed in spirit. The ultimate end of this redemptive process is the kingdom of heaven. A theology without hell is not only untrue and therefore ineffective. It is a theology which, lacking extremes, lacks a heaven.
John Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister to St John’s Church, Stratford Broadway, East London
1.See Clark Pinnock (ed), The Openness of God (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998)
2.David Basinger, in Pinnock (ed), p 173
3Ian Gregory, No Sex Please, We’re Single, (Eastbourne: Kingsway Press, 1997), p 26
4. Ein’ Feste Burg – the original reads, “Nehmen sie den Leib, Gut, Ehr’, Kind und Weib”
5. Henry Chadwick (tr) Saint Augustine: Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) pp 126-127
6. Chadwick, p 125, emphasis added
7. C S Lewis, Voyage to Venus (London: Pan Books, 1953) p 100