Now that I have your attention, read this book – Four Views on Hell, edited by Preston Sprinkle (Zondervan, 2016). The four views are: “Eternal Conscious Torment” (Denny Burk), “Terminal Punishment”, aka annihilationism (John Stackhouse), “Universalism” (Robin Parry), “Purgatory” (Jerry Walls). This is a second edition of the book, with new contributors, very well chosen. Burk presents the traditional view, supported by a “plain reading” of several biblical texts (I will return to this later). Burk represents his position well, but as some of the respondents note, it comes across as cold and uncaring – sinners who reject Jesus are tormented forever, that’s the way it has to be. Stackhouse offers a theological representation of the “terminal punishment” view, the one I tend to lean towards. He did a sufficient job, but I thought it could have been stronger. Robin Parry represents the “universalism” view. He is clear that this is not a pluralism view where “anything goes” or “all paths lead to heaven.” Rather – and I think he raises some profound points – there are several clear texts in Scripture that imagine a whole universe redeemed to God in the end. How do we get there? I think everyone needs to reckon with his essay even if his view might not be fully convincing to most evangelicals. Then there is Walls’ purgatory view. More than once it is raised in the book whether it belongs in “four views” because it is less about hell than about heaven, but it does help protestants (like myself) to better understood what purgatory is as a concept and how it might be seen to “fit” with Scripture. Kudos to Preston for putting such an interesting book together. I am more confused now than ever, so I guess it is successful!
On a personal note, I will say this: much of the discussion revolves around taking bits of information from the parables, 2 Thessalonians, Revelation, the Prophets, and a few other places – and trying to systematize them. I think this gets really sloppy. Can you use parable-material as part of a systematic theology? And Revelation – same problem. When you are dealing with many of these texts that are full of evocative, poetic imagery (often hyperbolic), it is hard (and perhaps irresponsible) to turn around and blanch them by ripping them out of their poems and prophecies to analyze their components under a microscope. I am more comfortable with painting some very broad brushstrokes about hell (it’s really bad) rather than do word studies on “forever” and “destruction.” CS Lewis is right to say we are told far more about heaven because it is a place of substance, rather than hell, its opposite.
Bonus: it’s fun for me to be out and about at kids’ soccer games and school pick-up, me sitting on a bench reading this book (with dark, licking flames on the cover), and others around me glancing over for a bit of a shock – who reads that kind of book “for fun”? I do.