If you pay attention to them, the very combination of the words ‘hell under fire‘ should make you pause and think. I suppose that was the intent of the publisher when they came up with the title. Well – it worked. What is ironic about the title Hell Under Fire is that fire is a word that Scripture uses to describe hell. I suppose the subtitle ‘Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’ implies that the critical nature of modern scholarship towards the doctrine of hell is itself fiery. Do you see the picture forming here? Liberal modern scholarship is exacting its own fire on the traditional orthodox view of hell which includes the description of hell as fire. Is the picture getting clearer? Fire is being used to fight against fire.
Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson is a riveting and clear defense of the orthodox position of hell that it is real, eternal and will include conscious suffering. The book has a powerful line up of contributors such as Al Mohler on Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell, G.K. Beale on The Revelation on Hell, Douglas Moo on Paul on Hell and J.I. Packer on Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved? The contributors do not mince words in their faithful defense of the historic position of hell. It is not an exaggeration to say that as these authors present the Biblical doctrine of hell they expose the inaccurate and unfounded claims of universalism and annihilationism. Every chapter in this book is worth commenting on but the focus of this review will only be on a few of them.
From the outset Mohler’s words are spot on when it comes to the consequences of redefining hell:
…No doctrine stands alone. Each doctrine is embedded in a system of theological conviction and expression. Take out the doctrine of hell, and the entire shape of Christian theology is inevitably altered (p. 16).
In chapter two Daniel Block presents the Old Testament contribution to the doctrine of hell. Block admittedly states that the OT teaches very little on hell. Block seeks to answer four questions: (1) How does the OT refer to the abode of the dead?, (2) Who occupies the netherworld?, (3) What conditions greet those who enter the netherworld and (4) What evidence does the OT provide for the Christian doctrine of hell as eternal punishment (p. 44)? Most notably are OT passages such as Ezekiel 32:22-23, Isaiah 66:1-17 and Daniel 12:1-3. “Ezekiel offers the fullest description of the deceased in the netherworld in his oracles against the nations (p. 53).” Isaiah clearly shows a contrast between the eternal state of believers and unbelievers and Daniel 12 points to a time in the future when men will see their eternal fate (p. 62). In conclusion to the OT doctrine of hell Block states:
…the general tenor of the Old Testament seems to reflect a conviction that people continue to live even after they die. Logic would suggest that any belief in the resurrection would be based on this supposition…..It is difficult to imagine a doctrine of resurrection without an understanding of the continued existence of the person in some (spiritual) form after death (p. 58-59).
In chapter three Robert Yarbrough handles the passages in the New Testament where Jesus talks about hell. Yarbrough minces no words when it comes to attempts to alter the Biblical doctrine of hell:
The problem is that if Jesus spoke as frequently and directly about hell as Gospel writers claim, then it may not be the Christina message that we end up proclaiming if we modify his doctrine of posthumous existence….If the historic doctrine of hell is to be set aside, it is most of all Jesus’ teachings that must be neutralized (p. 71-72).
Yarbrough first walks through the Gospels to see what Jesus actually said concerning hell. It is clear that Jesus said too much about its reality, eternality and conscious unending punishment to pass it off as temporary and merely used as a scare tactic. Throughout his chapter Yarbrough interacts a lot with Edward W. Fudge, noted annihilationist. Yarbrough honestly engages Fudge’s argument of several passages presenting Fudge’s position is his own words. Fudge believes that while hell is real it will only be the experience of some for a short period of time (p. 77-78) and that “the traditionalist notion of everlasting torment in hell springs directly from that non-biblical teaching (p. 83).” That non-biblical teaching is Greek Platonic philosophy. After addressing the second claim Yarbrough responds by saying,
To demonstrate Plato’s influence it would be helpful to see at least a fair number of patristic authorities explicitly adducing Plato to help ground their interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on hell. To my knowledge no one has produced such a study…..If our aim is to be faithful to Scripture, we must face what Jesus’ teachings have been understood to assert by most biblical interpreters over many centuries, cutting across a wide assortment of confessional and denominational settings…..the frequent first move of discrediting the historical view by accusing it of early and Platonic origin lacks credible basis (p. 87).
In chapter four Douglas Moo deals with Paul on hell. This is perhaps the strongest chapter in the book. From Romans 1:18-2:11 Moo wonderfully points out that,
“Death,” “condemnation,” “wrath,” and the :curse” a;; descend on human beings as a result of Adam’s sin. Human beings are, therefore, already in a state of “perishing.” This condition is fixed forever for those who do not respond to God’s grace in Christ and the work of his spirit. But it is also clear that the condition that follows final judgment is an intensified form of what unbelievers now experience (p. 93).
Moo’s statement here points to what he calls an “inaugurated eschatology” of judgment. People come to death as already condemned because of our relationship to Adam (p. 94; Rom. 5:12-21). Moo also aptly notes that “Paul and his readers assumed the doctrine of hell as so basic that he did not need to provide extensive evidence for it (p. 95).” Moo addresses passages like I Cor. 15:20-28,Rom. 5:18, Col. 1:20 and 2 Thess. 1:8-9. Moo’s conclusion on Paul’s doctrine of hell is that he “presents the judgment that comes on the wicked as the necessary response of a holy and entirely just God. For Paul, the doctrine of hell is a necessary corollary of the divine nature (p. 109).
In chapter six Christopher Morgan looks at the doctrine of hell from a biblical theology stand point in the New Testament. He looks at three picture of hell in Scripture:
- Punishment is frequently portrayed as retribution, judgment, suffering, and torment by fire.
- Destruction is often described as perishing, death, or the second death.
- Banishment is commonly pictured as separation from the kingdom of God, exclusion from the presence of God, or being cut off from something living (p. 136)
Morgan bear out these three pictures in a number of ways. First, he walks briefly through every book and writer in the NT and touches on their passages on hell. Then he fleshes out the three pictures of hell from the NT. Finally, he concludes by interpreting these three central pictures of hell. Morgan states that these pictures characterize hell as eternal (p. 148). They also “interweave with biblical portraits of God” as Judge, warrior and King (p. 149-50). Also, the three pictures of hell “flow naturally from biblical portraits of sin,” they “also appear to illustrate the biblical doctrine of the atonement,” they “stand in contrast with biblical portraits of salvation,” and they also “stand in contrast with biblical portraits of the kingdom of heaven (p. 150).”
In chapters eight and nine J.I. Packer and Christopher Morgan address the positions of universalism and annihilationism respectively. Packer point out that “most universalists concede that universalism is not clearly taught in the Bible (p. 171).” However, “it is argued that the biblical revelation of God’s love to his world entails a universal salvific intention, that is, a purpose of saving everybody, and that sooner or later God must achieve that purpose (p. 171).” For annihilationism, or as it is preferred to be called, conditionalism, Morgan defines it as “the belief that God has created all human beings only potentially immortal. Upon being united to Christ, believers partake in the divine nature and receive immortality. Unbelievers never receive this capacity to live forever and ultimately cease to exist (p. 196).” Perhaps the best argument against this view is found in Revelation 20:15 which reads, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (p. 218).”
In the final chapter of the book Sinclair Ferguson offers some concluding pastoral remarks. Ferguson admits honestly that the very thought of an eternal hell of suffering for people is “emotionally intolerable (p. 220).” However, we must grapple with the reality that “hell exists; this is the testimony of the Scriptures, of the apostles, and of the Lord Jesus himself (p. 220).” Ferguson calls preachers of the Word to preach at least four things about hell from Scripture:
- Hell is real.
- Hell is vividly described in the pages of the New Testament.
- Hell, though prepared for the devil and his angels, is shared by real human beings.
- Most important, in expounding and teaching the biblical teaching on hell, we must emphasize that there is a way of salvation (p. 226-28).
His final words provide the preacher of the Word with great encouragement as we preach the biblical doctrine of hell:
Hell is at the end of the day the darkness outside; dense like a black hole, it is the place of cosmic waste. Who can contemplate this for long? Who, indeed, is sufficient for these things? The question is surely rhetorical. None of us is sufficient. But our sufficiency is to be found in Christ, the Savior, the Perfect Man, the Redeemer, the Judge. We must constantly remind ourselves that it is the Savior who spoke clearly of the dark side of eternity. To be faithful to him, so must we (p. 237).
Hell Under Fire is a much needed corrective to much of the teaching within evangelicalism today on the doctrine of hell. This book needs to be read by every pastor and student of the Word. Read this book with Bible in hand and allow the Word of God to shape your heart and mind on the doctrine of hell.