Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
What is hell, and is it biblical? Part 1: hell and the gospel

A response to Jacob McMillen and Josiah Pemberton. In this installment, I question how their view of hell can square with a gospel that preaches eternal life.

Jacob McMillen is a professional acquaintance; he’s a copywriter. Recently, he asked me what I thought of his 3-part series on hell, co-written with Josiah Pemberton, for Brazen Church:

  1. Hell: A “Biblical” Staple The Bible Never Actually Mentions
  2. Why The Lake of Fire, Tormented Lazarus & Gnashing Teeth Can’t Conjure Up Eternal Torture
  3. How & When The Idea of Eternal Torment Invaded Church Doctrine

There wasn’t much in this series I haven’t seen before; others have debunked these kinds of arguments already. But for the sake of friendly correction on an important issue, I’m going to respond somewhat comprehensively to Jacob and Josiah my own self. That way, I’ll not only do my duty to dialog, but also have a reasonably full presentation of the biblical side of the question for later use.

I’m not going to do any fisking. Rather, I’ll focus on the broad strokes of their case, dealing with each major item in a separate post. The first thing to canvass is their central thesis, and the problems it creates for the gospel itself.

Jacob and Josiah—henceforth J&J—start by outlining their belief that biblical hell is actually a reality of this present life, in the form of any suffering caused by sin. Hell is, as they put it,

…the terror of the refugee…the grief of surviving family members, the despair of the abused spouse, the self-hatred of the neglected child…the disillusioned numbness of the soldier…the hopelessness of the drug addict…the perpetual frustration, anger, and self-loathing of the abusing spouse.

Hell can be found everywhere we look. It can be seen in both the eyes of the oppressed and the eyes of the oppressor. Humanity doesn’t need to be made aware of Hell. We are all too aware of it already.

The first thing I wondered when reading this was: what kind of “good news” is the gospel, if hell is actually a present reality rather than an eschatological one?

Put more succinctly, if the gospel is about Jesus saving us, then what does he save us from?

Well, J&J explain:

He came to show us the way of life – the path through this hell – and when he left, he announced the arrival of our personal guide, the Holy Spirit, who would help us navigate this path of life.

They go on to claim that “Jewish thought views sin as self-inflicted judgment. In other words, when you sin, you inflict judgment upon yourself.” And there’s certainly a sense in which this is true; sin always brings judgment. But it is not some mechanical system of natural consequences, let alone consequences that only occur in this present life. It is a personal system of punishment inflicted by a righteous God. J&J make sin sound almost like immediate karma, rather than the culpable transgression of God’s law.

As a little aside here, it really bears emphasizing that their “Jewish” view of hell is anachronistic to the extreme. If J&J are concerned that the Christian understanding of hell got distorted after a few centuries, then they should certainly be concerned that the Jewish understanding of sin might have been distorted after a couple of millennia! Why think that the modern Jewish idea of sin has any more bearing on what the Bible actually teaches than the modern Jewish idea of the Messiah?

Eschatology, anyone?

Ultimately, their thesis is puzzling because it completely removes the eschatological component of the gospel. It turns the gospel from the good news about eternal life into the good news about this present life.

I don’t know if this is J&J’s intent, but this is what they end up doing. Perhaps the hardest thing about critiquing their view is that they never seem to get around to clearly articulating a full-orbed alternative to the traditional theology of hell. This will become obvious as we move forward.

In any case, the basic point is this: there is a parity between the good news of the gospel, and the bad news it saves us from. If the bad news is just suffering in this life, then the good news is just salvation from suffering in this life. That seems obviously wrong, and I assume that J&J don’t actually deny that the gospel is about eternal life (although see part 4 of this series). But I do find myself perplexed by their representation of the Christian message as—it seems—about how to escape suffering in this life.

It is especially puzzling because, while sin in the Bible certainly can result in judgment in this life, we all know from experience that it frequently doesn’t. Crime, in fact, often does pay. This is reflected in the Bible itself: the rich get richer without any recompense for their oppression, and the poor get poorer without any redress for their affliction. This is why we have psalms like Psalm 82 that conclude with an eschatological plea—since the wrongs of this present life are too numerous and too extensive to put right before the world ends, they must be put right in the age to come.

By the same token, the whole point of Psalm 73 is to grapple with the difficulty of present injustice:

3 I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind… 12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. 13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.

What, in other words, is the point of being good? Psalm 92:7 similarly observes that the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish; Jeremiah 12:1 demands to know why the way of the wicked prospers, and why all who are treacherous thrive.

But what is the answer to this injustice? Is it to deny that, in fact, the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper? Is it to claim that the righteous and the wicked will always receive the blessings and curses they deserve in this life? No. Rather, Psalm 73 concludes,

24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory… 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.

The psalmist juxtaposes his being in God’s presence after death, with the state of the wicked who are far from God after death—and therefore perish. In the same way, Psalm 92:7 concludes, “they are doomed to destruction forever”.

This final judgment is not exactly a minor theme in the Bible. God has fixed a day when we will all stand before his judgment seat and give an account of ourselves to Jesus (Acts 17:31; Romans 14:10; cf Ecclesiastes 11:9; 12:13-14; Matthew 12:36; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5 etc). The reason the gospel is good news is that this is what Jesus saves us from: from the destruction that is due us when we face this final judgment. His atonement does not save us from the natural results of sin in this life. Indeed, although sanctification is a result of being saved, he also promises that we will suffer more in this life because we follow him (John 15:21; cf Matthew 5:11-12). The gospel is not fundamentally a set of instructions for living your best life now. If it were, it would be an abject failure. Rather, it is the good news of how we can be justified before God so that we can avoid condemnation at the final judgment.

Very simply, Jesus did not come primarily to save us from living badly. He came primarily to save us from God’s eschatological judgment.

If the only thing God had to save us from was bad life choices, we would have been fully equipped for that by the Torah. All we needed were instructions on good living, which the law provided. Jesus would never have had to die! But in fact, Paul tells us the precise opposite: the law is powerless to save (Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 2:16). So it seems to me there is a fundamental tension in J&J’s thesis here. They want to say that hell is present, not eschatological. But by parity of logic, then, what God saves us from through the gospel of Jesus is present, not eschatological. And therefore the life he gives us is present, not eschatological.

I doubt J&J actually believe this—surely they agree that God loved the world in such a way that he gave his one-of-a-kind son so that whoever believes in him would have eternal life. But what I don’t understand is why they seem to deny, in that case, that this eternal life saves us from eternal perishing.

So this is a ground-level problem that, unresolved, sinks their entire case before we even examine it. But examine it we shall—and the first thing we need to do is bury a big, smoking strawman…

Continued in part 2, on the nature of hell

3 comments

  1. Ben

    Hey Bnonn,

    I look forward to the rest of your series and hearing your view on the nature of hell.

    “there is a parity between the good news of the gospel, and the bad news it saves us from.”

    What makes you say this? Why couldn’t the good news be so much more than simply saving us from the bad news?

    “If the only thing God had to save us from was bad life choices, we would have been fully equipped for that by the Torah.”

    That’s forgetting about this pesky problem called sin that we humans are held captive by. The Torah is not enough. We also need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey God (and thus make good life choices).

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Ben, to answer your questions:

    Why couldn’t the good news be so much more than simply saving us from the bad news?

    It certainly can be more; but it cannot be less. If the bad news is merely bad life choices, then the good news is merely a Christianized version of self-help. It makes Jesus into something more like a super-powered Oprah or Tony Robbins than a serious savior. I go into this more in part 4.

    That’s forgetting about this pesky problem called sin that we humans are held captive by. The Torah is not enough. We also need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey God (and thus make good life choices).

    I think you’d need to articulate what you see as the relationship between the atonement and the Holy Spirit empowering us to make good life choices. Indeed, I’d need to know what you even mean by “sin”. Is sin just the inability to choose wisely, or act unselfishly? If so, you don’t even have a gospel. You have something more like Zen…

  3. Christopher Wood

    How is that Zen?

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