On the Unity and Diversity of the Biblical Witness Concerning Hell and Final Judgment

Author’s note: One of the last major theological shifts I made before my deconversion was from annihilationism (or conditional immortality) to universalism (or ultimate reconciliation). The following paragraphs were originally intended to be the first chapter of a book I was writing on the biblical merits of universalism. I abandoned that project when I left the faith in 2015, and if I were to write on the subject today it would inevitably look very different, but I still think there is some practical value here for Christians who find themselves struggling with this issue like I was. While I’m no longer a Christian, I still think this is one of the most promising ways of approaching the question of hell and final judgment from within the Christian faith.

“There can be no doubt that the desire for a neat and simple argument in support of a truth may dispose even able men to offer some little violence to evidence that points in the direction of complexity. What we consider neatness and simplicity is not always a characteristic of Divine working, or Divine teaching. A passion for simplicity of statement has often blinded men to facts that indicated more complexity than might at first have been supposed.” — Edward White1

The Basic Task

Introductions to studying the Bible usually begin with a description of the basic task of the interpreter. This basic task is called exegesis, which means “to lead out of”. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart define it in their classic handbook, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, exegesis is “the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible.”2 Others are more cautious in their definition, preferring to speak less in terms of uncovering an author’s “original intent” (which can be difficult to ascertain) and more in terms of achieving “a credible and coherent understanding of the text on its own terms and in its own context.”3 However we define it, following proper exegetical practices does not eliminate ambiguity or guarantee that our interpretations will be correct. It does not end the conversation between the text and its readers. Rather it allows that conversation to take place. 

Being a responsible exegete is like being a good listener. We all know what it feels like to talk to someone who doesn’t have the patience or empathy to hear us out because they think they already know what we’re going to say before we say it. If we’re honest, we’ve probably been that person on more than one occasion. It takes tremendous effort to step outside of ourselves, to lay down our own expectations and preconceived ideas, and to just listen to someone on their own terms. But that’s what we do when we love someone. In the same way, when we come to the sacred text of Scripture, our first priority should not be to get something for ourselves or to find confirmation for what we think it should say, but to simply listen, without pretense, to what the text says.4 Biblical exegesis is an act of empathy: it requires us to step outside of ourselves, outside of our own time and space and likes and dislikes, and into the time and space of others. This is hard to do, not because it requires a special kind of intelligence but because it requires a special kind of love, the kind of love that drives a man to lay down his life for his friends.

Of course, everyone recognizes the necessity of following proper exegetical practices in theory. Evangelicals are united in their allegiance to the Bible as the supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice, an allegiance which should entail a very practical commitment to follow the text wherever it leads. The unfortunate reality, however, is that it is often those who have the highest view of biblical authority who are most prone to do violence to the very texts they seek to honor. Like the person who can’t listen because they think they already know what is going to be said, evangelical hermeneutics often entail an auxiliary impulse that sits in tension with, if not in direct contradiction to, the basic task of exegesis. This impulse stems from the widespread evangelical commitment to what has been called “biblicism”.

As Old Testament scholar Peter Enns defines it, biblicism “is the tendency to appeal to individual biblical verses, or collections of (apparently) uniform verses from various parts of the Bible, to give the appearance of clear, authoritative, and final resolutions to what are in fact complex interpretive and theological issues generated by the fact that we have a complex and diverse Bible.”5 One of biblicism’s central features is the belief that the Bible must be internally consistent on every subject of which it speaks, every passage fitting together like the individual pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. For something to be “biblical” on this view means there is a single, monolithic thread of teaching that stretches from Genesis to Revelation, and our task as interpreters is to simply locate that thread and call it what it is. The result is an essentially deductive approach to the Bible. If any passage seems to contradict what we believe to be the unified voice of Scripture, we are bound by our prior commitment to explain the apparent contradiction away and harmonize that passage with all the others. “God said it, we believe it, that settles it.”

While the face-value simplicity of this approach is undeniably appealing, in practice it is simply unsustainable. Especially when it comes to difficult questions like hell, questions which require extensive investigation of a broad range of texts from multiple sources in both the Old and New Testaments, biblicists are fundamentally inhibited from letting the biblical authors speak for themselves. The biblicist version of the Bible is a lot like Contemporary Christian Music: easily identifiable melodies, without tensions or discord, filled with clean harmonies. But the Bible we actually have is less like CCM and more like free jazz. It’s a collective improvisation filled with the wailing, clanging, piercing notes of individual instruments playing against the elastic rhythm and timbre of the group. The stubborn fact is that there are many different voices in Scripture, and while there is an overarching melody which gives clarity and cohesion to the whole, the closer we listen the more discord we will hear.     

To cite a rather trivial example of this discord, consider the following two passages. Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-19 present two different accounts of Judas’ death. In Matthew’s account, Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, goes and hangs himself, and then the chief priests buy a field with the money to use as a cemetery. In this account, the fact that the field was paid for with blood money and turned into a cemetery explains why it later became known as the “field of blood”. In Luke’s account, however, Judas himself uses the silver to buy a field, and then he falls head first in that field and bursts open so that his entrails spill out. In this account, the fact that Judas died in the same field that he purchased with blood money explains why it later became known as the “field of blood,” not because the chief priests purchased the field and used it for a cemetery. This is just one out of literally hundreds of examples where the biblical authors do not speak with one voice.6

So the question presses: How are we supposed to be faithful to the biblical witness concerning the death of Judas when Matthew and Luke give two very different accounts of how that event took place? Of course, no two accounts of anything would be completely identical. But if we are honest, these texts do seem to represent two different interpretations of how a particular set of closely related events happened. In order for us to really provide a credible solution here, we must provide an explanation that has a ring of historical plausibility to it. From what I have seen, however, every attempt to harmonize the two passages is far too convoluted to be taken seriously.7 In this case, a prior commitment to finding a unified voice behind Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-19 requires us to bend one of the evangelists’ accounts around the other, thereby failing to listen to them each on their own terms. And while this might not have any major implications for the question of Judas’ death, it certainly would for many other questions, not least the questions of hell and final punishment.

The Harmonization of Hell

Nowhere is the effect of biblicism more strongly felt than in the current debate on the nature of hell. While evangelicals pride themselves on taking Scripture seriously, the strong tendency towards harmonization in evangelical hermeneutics often drives proponents of all three views of hell to do violence to the texts that don’t fit with their conclusions. And since the vast majority of recent books on the subject are written by and for evangelicals—mainline, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians seem much less interested in nailing down dogma about the afterlife—most of the books currently in print share this tendency.8 Here we will briefly consider two of the most influential evangelical authors of the past few decades, Robert A. Peterson and William Edward Fudge, to see how the impulse towards harmonization impacts their respective treatments of the biblical data, but the same lessons could be drawn from any number of evangelical authors.  

Dr. Robert A. Peterson is Professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is also one of the most prolific defenders of the traditionalist view of hell as eternal conscious torment, being the author, coauthor, editor, or contributor to at least half a dozen different books and academic articles on the subject.9 His most complete statement is the 1995 book Hell On Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, which John MacArthur praises for “letting the Bible speak plainly for itself”.10 How does Peterson let the Bible speak for itself? By treating it like a giant jigsaw puzzle: 

I am suggesting that the Bible is like a jigsaw puzzle that provides five thousand pieces along with the assurance that these pieces all belong to the same puzzle, even though … pieces … are missing. Most of the pieces that are provided, the instructions insist, fit together rather nicely … the assurance that all of the pieces do belong to one puzzle is helpful, for that makes it possible to develop the systematic theology, even though the systematic theology is not going to be completed until we receive more pieces from the One who made it.11

After providing this quote from D. A. Carson at the start of Hell On Trial’s penultimate chapter, Peterson goes on to explain its value: “The key truth that the puzzle analogy teaches is that the puzzle pieces we have do fit together. Because the Bible is given by God, its doctrines cohere.”12 To be fair, Peterson is speaking in this context of biblical doctrines cohering, not necessarily individual texts. But the way he applies the same principle elsewhere shows how far he is willing to take it. Note the way he deals with the universalist-sounding language of 1 Corinthians 15:28, which speaks of God ultimately being “all in all”:

In fairness I admit that this and similar passages such as Ephesians 1:10 and Philippians 2:9-11, if taken by themselves, are compatible with universalism. It is plain, however, from other verses in the biblical books in which these verses appear, that they are not intended to teach that all will be saved. Universalists argue their case from only a portion of the biblical data. But this line of reasoning must be rejected as unsound theological methodology. To know the Bible’s teaching we must take the whole Bible into account.13 

This is the extent of Peterson’s interaction with these texts. He attempts no exegesis of the passages themselves; he simply rejects the universalist reading on the grounds that it picks and chooses its evidence. Of course Peterson is right to say that individual texts must be understood within the larger contexts of the books in which they appear. But notice he goes further than this. In order to properly understand these three texts, Peterson insists that “we must take the whole Bible into account”—a noble sentiment, but one that in this case amounts to nothing more than a diversion, since the appeal to “the whole Bible” is made in lieu of exegeting these biblical texts. Using the same strategy, a universalist could point out that traditionalists like Peterson argue their case from only a portion of the biblical data, and then proceed to subsume those texts within the controlling framework of their own preferred passages. Clearly, this is a dead-end street.  

Peterson takes the same approach when faced with passages commonly used in support of annihilationism:

Considered in isolation, these verses might seem, at first glance, to teach conditionalism. But they should not be considered in isolation from the rest of the Bible’s teaching. Verses such as Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:42-48; Revelation 14:9-10; 20:10, 14-15 have led church leaders throughout the centuries to believe, teach, and confess the never-ending suffering of the lost.14

One of the annihilationist-sounding texts under consideration here is 2 Peter 2, a passage which compares the final judgment of the wicked to the “extinction” of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:6). Again, Peterson attempts no exegesis of the passage on its own terms; rather, he appeals to a handful of other passages, all in different books by different authors, and argues that 2 Peter 2 should be made to agree with the traditionalist understanding of those verses. Because the Bible is a puzzle, all the pieces must fit together; and because most theologians throughout church history have assembled the puzzle in a certain way, giving preference to some pieces more than others, Peterson thinks we should do likewise.            

A similar strategy is taken by the annihilationist author Edward William Fudge in his 1982 work, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, arguably the most important book on hell of this generation. If evangelicals are more open to questioning traditionalism than they were thirty years ago, it is thanks largely to the detailed and thorough contribution of The Fire That Consumes. Unfortunately, Fudge’s work is plagued by the same problem as Peterson’s. While his exegetical instincts are often on target, Fudge’s prior commitment to a particular view of the Bible sometimes inhibits him, in principle, from following the evidence wherever it leads. This can be seen most clearly by comparing Fudge’s treatment of canonical texts with his treatment of non-canonical texts.

When dealing with non-canonical texts, Fudge employs a consistently grammatical-historical hermeneutic. This means that he is free to acknowledge the different perspectives of individual writers.15 Thus, when he arrives at Judith 16:17, a passage which employs the imagery of Isaiah 66:24 to refer to eternal conscious torment, Fudge is free to point out the discontinuity between the two authors: “Judith is not drawing on Isaiah’s conviction; she is denying it. She is not following Isaiah. She is reversing Isaiah.”16

When it comes to canonical texts, however, Fudge is torn between two poles. On the one hand, he clearly wishes to respect the dignity of individual biblical authors. He speaks repeatedly, for example, of the importance of being sensitive to possible differences of meaning between an Old Testament image and the use of that same image by a New Testament writer.17 On the other hand, Fudge is bound by his prior commitment to a Bible that is “without error in anything that it teaches”.18 So when he is actually faced with the possibility of discord between an Old Testament image and its use in the New Testament, his final recourse is to appeal to the principle of harmonization:  

If we are willing to let the Bible define its own terms, the metaphor of unquenchable fire is easily recognized, immediately understood, and consistently used. No evangelical can logically refuse to allow this of Scripture, for, as J. I. Packer points out, the presupposition that Scripture possesses an “inner coherence and consistency and power to elucidate its own teaching from within itself” is “a controlling principle in all interpretation.”19 

How strange it is, one might wonder, that this “controlling principle” is only ever applied to texts that belong in the Protestant canon. How different from the exegetical method Fudge advocates elsewhere. Is it too much to suppose that, if Judith were included in Fudge’s canon, he would find a way to harmonize it with Isaiah 66 instead of denouncing it as a denial and reversal of Isaiah’s meaning? His treatment of Revelation suggests so. When he gets to Revelation 14:9-11, a passage which by all appearances does the same sort of thing with Isaiah 34 that Judith does with Isaiah 66, and with much more colorful language than Judith, Fudge bends over backwards trying to harmonize that text with his annihilationist reading of the rest of the Protestant canon:

Although simplistic, it is almost fair to say that this whole debate rests finally on one question: should we interpret dozens of straightforward texts throughout the Bible to match the literal sense of two symbolic texts in the Apocalypse, or ought we to interpret the two apocalyptic texts symbolically to conform to the many others?20

Conform—that is the operative word here, and the Achilles heal of Fudge’s whole case for annihilationism. Whereas he is free to acknowledge the differences between Judith and Isaiah, Fudge is obligated to harmonize Revelation with his annihilationist reading of the rest of the Bible, and feels justified in doing so, because (a) there can’t be any contradictions in Scripture, and (b) so many other texts clearly refer to the annihilation of the wicked.21 The majority has spoken, and Revelation must be made to agree with it. Judith is clearly reading extraneous ideas back into Scripture, but Revelation must be made to agree with Scripture. 

Each in their own way, Peterson and Fudge both appeal to the Reformation principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture. For the Reformers, this principle was a way of avoiding the anachronistic misreadings of the medieval Catholic Church, going back to the biblical text in its own historical context, and affirming the authority of Scripture above tradition. But as Craig C. Hill of Duke University points out, this principle “all too easily becomes license for harmonizing according to one’s prejudices.”22 Peterson favors the weight of tradition, while Fudge favors what he sees as the majority of the biblical data, but both authors build their case on the same faulty premise of harmonization, and both are thereby forced to do violence to the texts that don’t fit with their presuppositions. This is not what it means to be biblical.   

Being biblical, if it means anything at all, must mean giving the biblical authors the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts, even if those thoughts are sometimes different than those of other biblical authors. If we are bound by some prior commitment to make two authors agree with one another, then we may boast of having a “high” view of Scripture—so long as “Scripture” remains a cipher for our own thoughts and only occasionally intersects with the intention of the biblical authors themselves—but we cannot say that we have been faithful to the sacred text of Scripture.23 If, however, we approach the Bible inductively, as the work of real human beings inspired by the Spirit for a specific purpose at a specific time and place, then we are free to acknowledge both the unity and the diversity, both the consistency and the inconsistency, of the biblical testimony concerning this or any other subject. Discord should not be presupposed, but neither should harmony.

Three Strands of Data 

So what happens when we, to the best of our ability, allow the biblical authors to speak for themselves on the subject of hell? Is there any harmony to be found between the various voices, or is there only discord? 

The subject of hell is a subset of eschatology, that branch of theology which concerns itself with the “last things”. Broadly speaking, eschatology is about the fulfillment of God’s purposes for human history. There are many different ways of understanding the fulfillment of God’s plan, some more credible than others, but every eschatology has at least one thing in common. In his phenomenal book, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, Craig C. Hill offers the following summary of every eschatology, biblical or otherwise: 

At heart, all eschatologies are responses if not quite answers to the problem of evil. Are injustice, suffering, and death the final realities in our world? Is human history, both individual and corporate, purposeful? Is all this talk about the goodness, love, and justice of God just pie in the sky? Eschatologies differ in how they conceptualize God’s triumph, but they are essentially alike in asserting God’s victory as the supreme reality against which all seemingly contrary realities are to be judged.24  

What is true of eschatology generally is true of hell specifically. The unified voice behind every word of judgment in Scripture is that in the end God’s love and justice will prevail. Sin will not go unchecked, the wicked will not triumph, and the righteous will not be forgotten. God’s plan for his creation will stand. But what exactly is that plan? And how does the final judgment contribute toward its fulfillment? And perhaps most importantly, how are the core monotheistic convictions concerning God’s love and justice upheld within that picture? 

While the central assertion of God’s victory is consistent throughout the Bible, the unique contexts within which the different authors reflected on these questions generated at least three different ways of envisioning the final judgment. 

The first way, which is by far the most common, is the language of annihilation: death, destruction, perishing, being consumed, vanishing like smoke, and so on (e.g., Ps. 1:4, 6; 34:16; 37:2, 9-10, 38; 58:7-8; Prov. 24:20; Isa. 1:28, 30-31; 5:24; Obed. 16; Nah. 1:10; Mal. 4:1; Matt. 10:28). If there was such a thing as a unified voice in the Bible’s portrayal of the fate of the wicked, annihilationism would have a powerful case for calling itself the most biblical view.25 As mentioned above, the author of 2 Peter gives clear expression to this view when he compares the fate of the wicked to that of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19: 

By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly … But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed … will also be destroyed in their destruction (2 Pet. 2:6, 12). 

Scholars agree that 2 Peter is based largely on Jude.26 The language of 2 Peter 2:4-17 in particular follows closely the language of Jude 6-13. But whereas Jude speaks repeatedly of God’s punishment being eternal, the author of 2 Peter consistently omits such language and replaces it instead with the language of “extinction” (2 Pet. 2:4, 6, 17; cf. Jude 6, 7, 13).27 According to Fudge, the language of this passage “is so clear and forceful that traditionalist authors are simply at a loss to comment on it at all.”28  

And yet there are several passages which seem to express something like the traditional view of eternal torment, most notably Daniel 12:2, Matthew 25:41-46, and Revelation 14:9-11. Take the last of these as an example: 

If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand … he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night (Rev. 14:9-11).

Within the developing narrative of Revelation, this scene is presented as the direct antithesis of the heavenly throne room vision in chapter 4, where the attendants of the sea of glass continuously offer their praise before God.29 The point of the contrast is clear: “While Rev 4:8 describes the unceasing liturgy of praise offered to God by the four heavenly cherubim, 14:11 emphasizes the unremitting torment of those who worship the beast.”30 Annihilationists are right to caution us against directly equating the imagery of John’s vision with its intended referent; indeed, I will argue for a slightly nuanced reading of this passage in chapter 6. But it seems hard to believe that anyone could read “they will have no rest, day or night” as referring to the destruction of the wicked unless the maintenance of their particular theological system required them to.        

Besides annihilationist and eternal torment texts, however, there are quite a few passages which seem to support the wider hope of ultimate reconciliation, such as Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32-36, 1 Corinthians 15:22, and Philippians 2:5-11. Some of the imagery in Revelation may also point in this direction, most notably Revelation 21:24-25, which pictures the “kings of the earth” (the same characters who were previously slaughtered by the rider on the white horse) bringing their tribute through the perpetually open gates of the holy city.31 But perhaps the clearest expression of this wider hope appears in the famous Christ Hymn of Colossians 1: 

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created … All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:15-20). 

As a devout Jew, Paul grew up hearing a particular story about God and the world, a story that stretched from the creation of all things in Genesis to the various promises of restoration in the prophets. Looking at all the evil in the world, many Jews in Paul’s day were pessimistic about the scope of the coming restoration. The tragic refrain of 4 Ezra is typical of the times: “I said before, and I say now, and will say it again: there are more who perish than those who will be saved, as a wave is greater than a drop of water” (4 Ezra 9:14; cf. 8:1-3; 10:10). This is what makes passages like Colossians 1:15-20 so remarkable. Paul is retelling the classic Jewish story, the same story the author of 4 Ezra was telling at around the same time. But unlike 4 Ezra, Paul tells the story from the new vantage point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the ultimate conclusion of this new vantage point is that the scope of the promised restoration now stretches as far as creation itself. Just as Christ is the agent through whom “all things” were created (v. 16), and in whom “all things” are sustained (v. 17), so too he is the agent through whom the same “all things” are reconciled (v. 20).32 “This is a conception of the destiny of the universe,” says C. H. Dodd, which “goes beyond anything in Jewish apocalyptic.”33

We will explore some of these passages in more depth later, but the main point at present is this: Ultimately, every attempt to find a unified voice for “what the Bible says about hell” is inevitably selective, requiring the interpreter to bend some texts into the shape of others. So it won’t work to simply point to this or that text and say “Case closed! The Bible clearly supports my view.” There are always other texts to be found, and no single view has the monopoly on biblical support. To claim such a monopoly is to purchase the appearance of harmony at the cost of exegetical integrity.

A Better Way: The In Christ Project

So what do we do? How do we decide between the various strands of data? Is there any way to move past the recognition of discord to something that might meaningfully be called “the biblical view of hell”? 

I believe there is. Given the fact that these three different types of passages do not lend themselves to an easy harmonization, the relevant question is not which type of language represents the greatest percentage of the data, or which one is the hardest to explain away, but rather which one reflects a deeper insight into God’s redemptive plan according to the overall direction of the biblical narrative.34 This approach allows us to acknowledge the areas of discord within the Bible while still making an informed judgment on which traditions represent a more “biblical” or “Christian” worldview. 

In order to illustrate how this approach works, let’s use a collection of non-sacred texts as a case study.35 I have on my bookshelf an anthology of writings from the Enlightenment.36 In this anthology there is a section on race. In that section on race there is a selection from David Hume which speaks approvingly of the fact that “there are negro slaves dispersed all over Europe”.37 This statement is then contradicted by a selection from Thomas Paine just a few pages later which rebukes the slave trade as the “height of outrage against Humanity and Justice”.38 

Now, obviously Hume and Paine both reflect the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment to one degree or another, or else they wouldn’t be included in the “canon” of this anthology; and yet obviously the two men had very different perspectives on the issues of race and slavery, and there is nothing to be gained by trying to harmonize them. Does that mean, therefore, that we shouldn’t pick one over the other, that both statements are equally in tune with the intellectual currents of their age? I don’t think so. Notice that Paine capitalizes the words “Humanity” and “Justice”. A few paragraphs earlier he claims that the slave trade is “contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of Justice and Humanity, and even good policy, by a succession of eminent men, and several late publications.”39 Throughout his article, in fact, Paine is consciously and explicitly appealing to the core ideals of the Enlightenment with its grand narrative of progress. Hume’s statement, by comparison, is remarkably free of such connections. So although the two authors can’t be harmonized, there are fairly clear grounds for saying that one of them is more in line with the overall spirit and trajectory of the Enlightenment on this score than the other. 

Now let’s apply this same approach to the Bible. While there is nothing to be gained by trying to force the different strands of tradition within the canon to agree with one another, that doesn’t mean we can’t make an informed judgment on which tradition is a more faithful representation of the overall spirit and trajectory of the biblical narrative. To quote once more from Craig C. Hill,

“Believers today are employed at the same essential task as the New Testament authors, namely, the attempt to make sense of their world in light of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. I call this the ‘But in Christ’ project. Like us, the writers of the NT were located at particular moments in time and in specific cultural environments. Like us, they accepted much of their situation as given; however, at certain points they realized that their world was challenged by what they had seen of God in Christ. Those are the ‘But in Christ’ moments… I would contend that it is precisely at these junctures that the New Testament is most important and most revelatory.”40 

Again, the example of slavery illustrates the point. Like many architects of the Enlightenment, most of the biblical authors simply assumed the existence of slavery, and many passages, including several New Testament passages, offer tacit support to it (e.g., Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1). We have recently developed the habit of ignoring these texts, but for nineteenth-century slaveholders they offered clear biblical support for their livelihood. On a much deeper level than individual proof-texts, however, we can see a God who loves to set captives free, a God who breaks in pieces the doors of bronze and cuts through the bars of iron, and we can see the biblical narrative moving on a trajectory towards a kingdom in which “there is neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28).41 This is not an arbitrary move. On the contrary, it is the only hermeneutic fitting to the magnitude of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. “Is not Christ’s victory the greatest revelation in the Bible? Standing on this highest peak—that is, the finished work of the cross, causes us to see a much larger and far more beautiful panoramic view of God’s plan throughout the ages.”42 

Applying this approach to the question of hell, it becomes clear that passages like Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 have not usually been allowed the place in court which they clearly deserve. Indeed, looking at the major passages for each view, one of the immediately striking features of the “universalist” texts is that they appear at some of the highest points of the New Testament, giving the deepest and fullest expression of God’s big plan in Christ. In other words, the “universalist” passages are to the question of hell what texts like Galatians 3:28 are to the question of slavery: just as there is neither slave nor free in Christ, so every knee will bow in the name of Jesus. In both cases we see the early Christians reaching beyond the nearsighted categories of this broken world and catching a fresh glimpse of what is possible in the wake of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “In the crucified Christ we see what hell is, because through him it has been overcome.”43 

This is not to say that the strengths of universalism are restricted to a few key verses at the end of the Bible. On the contrary, those key verses form the upper branches of a tree whose root system spreads throughout the entire narrative of Scripture. But once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological and eschatological high points of Scripture—those places where God’s big plan in Christ is expressed most fully. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism. 

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1Edward White, Life In Christ, 3rd ed (London: Stock, 1878), 293.

2How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 23.

3Michael J. Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis, Revised and Expanded Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), 10.

4This is not to say that the exegetical process itself is simple or that proper exegesis equals neutral observation. On the question of whether and to what extent this kind of knowledge is possible, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 31-80, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

5 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2015/06/what-biblicism-is-and-why-it-makes-baby-jesus-cry/ See also, e.g., Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), viii.

6For a good introduction to the many exegetical problems with biblicism, see Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014).

7Georgia Purdom gives a typical biblicist response that fails to address the central questions: “Since the Bible is inerrant Judas cannot have died by hanging and died by falling and bursting open. Rather they are two different viewpoints of the same event” (https://answersingenesis.org/contradictions-in-the-bible/how-did-judas-die).

8One notable exception is Robin A. Parry (aka Gregory MacDonald), The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd Ed (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

9Denny Burk, in his contribution to Zondervan’s new Four Views On Hell, bases his exegetical case for traditionalism almost entirely on Peterson’s work in IVP’s Two Views of Hell.

10Robert A. Peterson, Hell On Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995), vii.

11This is a quote from D. A. Carson’s article, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology,” in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan: 1983), 81-82.

12Ibid., 203-4. 

13Ibid., 155.

14“Does the Bible Teach Annihilationism?” BibSac 156 (Jan-Mar 1999), 16.

15Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd Ed (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 86.

16Ibid., 90. To the nations that rise up against Israel, Judith 16:17 says that God “will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.”

17Ibid., 71, 79.

18Ibid., 4-5.

19Ibid., 131.

20Ibid., 84.

21Ibid., 69.

22Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 25.

23On the questions of biblical inspiration and authority, see, e.g., Paul J. Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999) and N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011).

24Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.

25Although, as we will see in the next two chapters, the biblical authors don’t typically use the language of death or destruction to signify a complete cessation of existence, as many annihilationists assume they do.

26Jerome H. Neyrey (2 Peter, Jude [New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993], 122) speaks of “the current consensus that 2 Peter used Jude as a literary source and redacted that document in ways suitable to his historical situation.”

27Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 252.

28Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 226.

29David E. Aune, Revelation 6-16 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 836.

30Ibid.

31Richard Bauckham notes that the phrase “the kings of the earth” is probably taken from Psalm 2, which depicts “the nations” and “the kings of the earth” plotting to make war “against the Lord and his anointed” (The Theology of the Book of Revelation [New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 69). If that is true, it would make Rev. 21:24-25 all the more remarkable.

32See, e.g., James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 104.

33C. H. Dodd, New Testament Studies (Manchester University Press, 1953), 125.

34This has been variously called a “trajectory” hermeneutic, a “developmental” hermeneutic, and a “redemptive-movement” hermeneutic. For a thorough introduction, see William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

35One of the great virtues of this model, and the reason it recommends itself so strongly, is that it is easily applicable to the founding documents of any worldview.

36Isaac Kramnick, ed., The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York, NY: Penguin Books), 1995.

37Ibid., 629.

38Ibid., 647.

39Ibid., 646.

40Hill, 25.

41“Had this view of scripture and the gospel that it mediates been widespread among American Christians prior to the civil war … the proslavery party’s mobilization of the Bible to defend its position may well have more quickly disintegrated—which might have led to very different, less tragic and destructive subsequent historical outcomes” (Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, 170-71).

42Mercy Aiken, “If Hell Is Real,” http://www.tentmaker.org/articles/ifhellisrealprintable.htm.

43Jürgen Moltmann, “The Logic of Hell,” in God Will Be All In All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Richard Bauckham (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 46.

One thought on “On the Unity and Diversity of the Biblical Witness Concerning Hell and Final Judgment

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #193 (March 2022) – The Amateur Exegete

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