“Hell Under Fire” – A Review

“To speak of hell is to speak of things so overwhelming that it cannot be done with ease. While the exegetical case for annihilation, made by some significant evangelical leaders, seems to me to be inadequate, every right-minded Christian should surely have a deep sympathy with John R.W. Stott’s comment on everlasting punishment: “Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable.”.. The thought of hell, then, can carry no inherent attraction to the balanced and coherent human mind.”

So writes Sinclair Ferguson in his chapter in the much needed and difficult book: “Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment.”

He is right of course. The thought of a literal Hell as eternal punishment for sin cannot possibly carry an inherent attraction to a balanced and coherent mind. And yet, Scripture unmistakably and unambiguously articulates the reality of Hell. Of Divine judgment against sin and unrepentant sinners after this present life is over. It is a truly frightening and disturbing concept. But there it is. And found more frequently on the lips of none other than Jesus Himself in the Gospels than any other place.

As the subtitle to this book notes, modern scholarship has tried repeatedly to greatly modify if not eradicate completely the notion of Hell. In our day, even in large swaths of Bible-believing Evangelicalism, Hell is rarely if at all preached or taught about. And when it is, it is often (perhaps even MOST often?) done apologetically, as though we are somehow ashamed of the Bible containing such a doctrine. Don’t get me wrong, the notion of a state of eternal torment for even the worst of sinners is shocking to our sensibilities. And in a day when what we feel often trumps or defines truth, it seems that in this case at least, our modern sensibilities seem to outstrip those of the Bible and thus God Himself. We can be found weighing His divine pronouncements and justice on the scales of our fallen logic, preferences, tastes and feelings. We sit in judgment upon Him. The very highest height of idolatry – where we know and act better than He. Where Biblical truth must bend to us, rather than we to it.

Though the doctrine of eternal punishment has always had its detractors, our generation has seen an upswell of vocal opposition ranging from such stalwarts as John R. W. Stott, to Clark Pinnock, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Edward Fudge and others. But even before it suffered the full frontal attack it is seeing now, Albert Mohler cites historian Martin Marty as saying “Hell disappeared. No one noticed.” It simply slipped from the Church’s view. Mohler again in his very useful and insightful Chapter 1 (“Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell.”) quotes David Lodge from his “Souls and Bodies.”: “At some point in the nineteen-sixties, Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t. Different people became aware of the disappearance of Hell at different times. Some realized that they had been living for years as though Hell did not exist, without having consciously registered its disappearance. Others realized that they had been behaving, out of habit, as though Hell were still there, though in fact they had ceased to believe in its existence long ago.… On the whole, the disappearance of Hell was a great relief, though it brought new problems.”

It is into this situation, where the modern Evangelical Church finds itself in regard to the doctrine of endless punishment, that co-author/editors Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson bring this profoundly needed volume.

Comprised of 10 chapters with a very useful Introduction and then Conclusion, Morgan & Peterson enlist some of the very best of modern, conservative scholarship to address both the basic doctrine itself, and the various objections to it. Objections ranging from a simple denial of any Hell at all, to the view that Hell is redemptive and all in it will one day be reconciled to God (even the Devil himself in some cases); the idea that Hell is only temporary; that human souls are only conditionally immortal and thus their suffering will one day end by virtue of annihilation – and other iterations of each view.

Chapter 1 is penned by Albert Mohler and is meant as an historical overview both of the doctrine of endless punishment and the historical debates surrounding it. He traces the discussion from Origen on through today.

Chapter 2 by Daniel Block is a study on what the Old Testament contains concerning Hell. Block is an Old Testament scholar and is Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.

Chapter 3 is an in-depth study of Jesus’ teaching on Hell in the Gospels. It is carefully and extensively explicated by New Testament scholar Robert Yarbrough of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.

Chapter 4, “Paul on Hell” comes from the hand of Douglas Moo, New Testament scholar and Professor of New Testament at Wheaton Graduate School. Author of the magisterial commentary on Romans.

Chapter 5 enlists Gregory K. Beale, biblical scholar and currently Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas to survey all the book of Revelation has to say on the subject.

Chapter 6, Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell comes from Morgan – (Ph.D., Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary), and Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Theology, California Baptist University.

Chapter 7 is penned by co-author Robert A. Peterson (Ph.D., Drew University), and Professor of Systematic Theology, Covenant Theological Seminary. Systematic Theology: Three Vantage Points of Hell.

In Chapter 8, the universally regarded J. I. Packer addresses the question of “Universalism: Will Everyone be Saved?”

Chapter 9 is by Morgan once again and deals with Annihilationism. “Will The Unsaved Be Punished Forever?”

And as cited above, chapter 10 was written compassionately and thoughtfully by Sinclair Ferguson, (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen), Professor of Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary.

In fact, I might suggest that many readers begin by reading Ferguson’s chapter first, so as to see how it is that right-minded (Biblically-minded) Believers approach this doctrine with nothing even hinting at the perverse glee some have charged defenders of the doctrine with holding. And I wish I could say no one in fact has ever taught the doctrine wickedly, but alas it is not so. There are dreadfully misanthropic, misinformed and coarse men who over the years have preached the doctrine hatefully and perversely in the name of Christ. Of them, we ought to be rightly ashamed.

This book is not the product of mere opinionists or mere doctrinal devotion. It is the fruit of careful and thoughtful exegesis of the Scriptures. Each contributor wrestles with the questions so many raise: How can this be the product of a loving God? Is it truly just? Does the punishment really fit the crime(s)? Doesn’t this make God cruel? Isn’t this just the product of unenlightened religionists? Don’t we know better today? etc.

If you or someone you know is wanting to understand the doctrine of endless punishment historically and Biblically, or have the very questions (and others) I’ve just mentioned – it is a must read. Is it an easy read? No. Not due to unclear, overly technical or poor writing, but due to the difficulty of the subject matter itself. We are not meant to be comfortable with the notion of Hell. It is supposed to be disturbing. But, as you will see when you read the book – it is also a doctrine which, when rightly understood, reveals God in glory and grandeur in ways we can easily lose.

I commend it to you highly.

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