What Do You Believe About Hell?

Today, Zondervan releases a new "Four Views on Hell" book, of which I served as the general editor. The four contributors are Denny Burk, John Stackhouse, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls. All of the authors believe in hell; they are all committed Christians who cherish the authority of Scripture. And yet they disagree on the nature (not the existence) of hell. As the editor, I wrote the introduction and conclusion to the book. Here's the first part of the introduction:

The doctrine of hell has always been part of Christian theology. Unfortunately, hell has had a bit of a checkered past. From the Apocalypse of Peter’s gruesome depictions of women hanging over boiling mire, to skin curling images of hell in Dante’s Inferno, to Jonathan Edwards’s blistering sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, to twentieth-century Bible-belt preachers barking with anger about the wrath to come, hell has been used—and some would say abused—to scare people into obedience or increase their tithe.

Now, however, Christians are more than ever questioning a traditional view of hell. In the last one hundred years, towering Christian thinkers have described hell in nontraditional terms. Theologians and writers such as Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and N. T. Wright all believe in hell, but their depictions don’t match what many Christians have believed. More recently, the discussion has intensified as an increasing number of proponents of both traditional and nontraditional views of hell have looked to the Scriptures as the basis for their views

This new Counterpoints book contributes to this rapidly growing debate about the nature of hell. It serves to replace the previous edition of the Counterpoints book on hell, which was published in 1996. This new volume brings in a new set of authors who will espouse fresh insights that build on the flurry of recent books and discussions about the nature of hell.

At the time the previous Counterpoints book came out, the famed evangelical leader John Stott had published his leanings toward annihilation. Evangelicalism as a whole was perplexed and unpersuaded. I remember hearing about Stott’s shift and thinking, “I thought John Stott was a Christian!” There’s nothing in the Bible or the early church creeds that view annihilation as unchristian and heretical. Yet this was a common knee-jerk reaction people had — and some still have — toward anyone who doesn’t believe that hell consists of everlasting conscious torment.

But things are different today. Evangelicals are reexamining some cherished doctrines, and the nature of hell is on the table

There have been three main developments over the last twenty years that have cultivated a need for this new Counterpoints book.

First, the annihilation view of hell has grown in popularity among evangelicals. Many theologians, pastors, and Christian laypeople today are leaning toward or embracing an annihilation view of hell. In the past, it was primarily those who couldn’t stomach the traditional view who opted for this “softer” view of God’s judgment. But now many evangelicals are arriving at this view in light of a fresh look at the biblical text

Second, Christian universalism is gaining ground as well. While some proponents of universalism — the belief that everyone will eventually be rescued out of hell — base their view on sentimentality, others are digging it out of the biblical narrative. As you will see in the following pages, there are some powerful biblical arguments that Christians need to wrestle with. No longer can evangelicals scoff at this view as the byproduct of too many hours of Oprah.

Third, an ecumenical spirit is growing among evangelicals. Some Protestants and Catholics have always been able to dialogue, but that number is on the rise, especially among younger believers who find it much harder to write off the faith of their Catholic brothers and sisters. This desire to dialogue has cultivated theological cross-pollination. With regard to hell and the afterlife, Protestants are exploring views that are traditionally considered Catholic, and vice-versa Purgatory, as we will see in this book, is becoming a theological option among evangelicals, and it needs to be evaluated based on its exegetical and theological strength. It can’t be dismissed as being simply unProtestant (or unchristian).

As history has shown, doctrines often become stronger when they are tested. The last twenty years have witnessed many robust defenses of the traditional view of hell in response to these three developments. Rather than assuming the traditional view to be correct, fresh voices have reexamined the traditional view and have found it to be correct. Some have maintained a traditional view after they have weeded out some of its unbiblical baggage. It’s difficult to find a book defending a traditional view of hell that doesn’t also respond to the aforementioned developments.

This is why this new Counterpoints book is so needed. It sits at the cusp of an ongoing discussion. It brings the three developments into dialogue with the traditional view of hell. Now more than ever, Christians want to know what the Bible really says about hell.

Watch the trailer for the book: