Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Jesu Screed

Over at Jesu Screed, Scot McKnight has chosen to attack the traditional doctrine of hell. There is nothing novel in his routine objections to hell.

The only reason this is worth remarking upon is because it illustrates the mainstreaming of annihilationism among “Evangelical” academics.


Why? Because we have read much on this and we know that many fine Christians who love the Lord and the Bible have taught other things — including such things as conditional immortality and annihilationism. (I do not speak here for universalists, for that I’m not.) Maybe they are wrong, but they deserve to be listened to.



Assuming, for the sake of argument, that those who subscribe to annihilationism or conditional immortality qualify as “fine Christians,” how is that the least bit relevant to where the truth lies?

Apart from divine revelation, we know next to nothing about the afterlife. At most, ghosts and OBEs would furnish some evidence for the existence of an afterlife. Arguments for the incorporeal soul might also support that contention.

But a detailed knowledge of what happens to someone after he dies is dependent on revelation alone. Whether there’s a heaven or hell, and the fixity or duration of each—these are matters of which Christians, however sterling their character, have absolutely no independent knowledge. This is not an argument from experience, but authority—the authority of God’s word.


Why? Because we think the logic of an eternal punishment for a finite sin and a finite human seems inconsistent — and we believe with many that humans simply cannot — in space and time — commit infinite sin and that finite sins against an infinite God are still not infinite sins.


i) This is one of the primary objections to hell. Suppose we feel the same way about it as Dr. McKnight? Does a weak intuition regarding the disproportion between crime and punishment justify a denial of revealed truth?

ii) Do our intuitions point in just one direction? Don’t we also feel that some crimes are so heinous that it’s hard to imagine any adequate punishment?

How much time is enough time for a man who tortures little children? Would McKnight care to put a number on that?

Or what about a ne’er-do-well son who cheats his aged mother out of her life-savings, sticks her in a state-run nursing home, and absconds to Rio with the loot?

Or, to take another example, one limitation of the death penalty is that a mass murderer can kill many times, but you can only kill him one time.

These are extreme examples, but they’re the sort of limiting-cases which expose the fallibility of our moral intuitions.

iii) For that matter, the only reason a sinner commits a finite number of sins in this life is because he only gets to live for a finite amount of time before he dies. If he never died, he’d continue to sin. If he lived longer, nothing would change.

So it’s rather artificial to pretend that God should limit his sentence to the historical accident of death.

Take the case of a suicide bomber who prematurely explodes before he gets a chance to take anyone else with him.

Should God mete out a lesser sentence because the suicide bomber bungled the job? Should he be treated more leniently because he accidentally killed himself before he deliberately killed anyone else? Intuitively speaking, wouldn’t a just God take his homicidal intent into account, even if he didn’t live long enough to carry out his murderous designs? And how is that different than any other sinner?

iv) This brings us to McKnight’s shallow grasp of sin and judgment. God is not judging our sins. God is judging sinners. A sinner is a sinner no matter how long or short his lifespan. McKnight’s atomistic and quantitative analysis of sin misses the fundamental point. At issue is not the guilt of the action, but the guilt of the actor.

v) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the traditional doctrine is inconsistent, isn’t annihilationism equally inconsistent?

On McKnight’s own view, the damned suffer permanent loss. Their finite sins have unending consequences. For they are deprived of their very existence, forever and ever. Isn’t that incommensurate with whatever they did during their finite lifespan?

And even if you throw in postmortem evangelism, that is still a finite second-chance. If he blows his postmortem opportunity, he’s zapped out of existence.

vi) For that matter, isn’t everlasting bliss in glory an incommensurate reward for whatever was done before a Christian died?

Perhaps McKnight would say that’s different: we’re saved by grace, we didn’t earn it.

Ah, but according his own loose standards, there are many “fine Christians” who do introduce an element of personal merit into the scheme of salvation.

vii) And while we’re on the subject, I’d hasten to add that universalism is also incommensurate with anything done in this life.

So every position you take on the afterlife is vulnerable to this charge. As such, it either proves too much or too little.

However, as I argued under (ii)-(iv), this objection, as an objection to hell, is riddled with fallacies.


Why? Because we cannot bear the thought of humans we love or know or speak with or have known or know about will spend Eternity in such graphic pain and misery. Those who love their neighbors, at least as much as themselves, cannot look with glee or triumphalism or joy and vindictiveness on Dark Places. We can imagine the horror and it terrifies.


i) Hell is supposed to be horrific and terrifying.

ii) We can be triumphant, not in ourselves, but in the justice of God.

iii) It’s easy to speak in facile terms about neighbor-love and presume to speak on behalf of everyone else, but everyone doesn’t feel that way by a long shot.

Take a guy who makes his living cheating little old women out of their nest-egg. Now, his own mother may still love him because she’s his mother. Mother-love often has that all-forgiving quality.

But what about someone else’s mother? What about the son of the mother who was cheated out of her nest-egg by the ne’re-do-well? It’s precisely because he loves his own mother that he hates anyone who would cheat his mom out of her life-savings. Is the prospect unbearable to a devoted son that a man will burn in hell for cheating little old women out of their life savings?

A theological liberal is just like a political liberal. They feel for the abusers more than for the abused. They presume to forgive the abusers at the expense of the abused. This is their idea of love. They are large-hearted towards the abusers and heartless towards the abused.

Speaking for myself, I prefer my hard-hearted doctrine of hell over McKnight’s soft-hearted alternative.


Why? Because we know the grandeur of God’s embracing grace, we know the glory of that grace, and we wonder if maybe, somehow, God might even turn hell inside out and upside down — even though we do not understand it or comprehend how it might be just or know how it would be good. We are among those who fell [sic.] the pull of God’s final grace — the way Paul feels its glorious pull in Romans 5.


Is this an argument for annihilationism or universalism? Hadn’t McKnight just told us that he denies universalism?

It is certainly unclear how annihilationism has any higher claim on the grace of God than the traditional doctrine of hell.

And one of problems with universalism is that mercy ceases to be mercy if God must be merciful to everyone. Grace is no longer grace, but obligation.


Why? Because we know the ground of reality is the perichoresis, God’s interpenetrating love and mutual indwelling of the Trinity in love — which has been a consistent theme from Gregory of Nyssa to Jonathan Edwards to Miroslav Volf, and we wonder if God’s Love might be able to turn human sinfulness into divine grace and glory. And we want that Love to hold our hearts in its embracing grace.


Jonathan Edwards, for one, wouldn’t deny that God is able to turn our sinfulness to his own glory. But many things are possible which are never actual. God is equally able to damn everyone.


Why? Because we know that the Old Testament does not speak of hell, because we know that what many say about hell is rooted in passages that are about God’s historical judgments — in time, in space, on earth, judgments against his people’s unfaithfulness, and because we know that many people today think Jesus was speaking about 70 AD in Mark 13 (parallels) and that the parables attached to that chapter might be speaking of that in-time, in-space, in-history judgment against Jerusalem and because we know that we could be wrong about this interpretation too (but maybe not), and because there is not as much in the New Testament about hell as there is about historical judgment, and because the one book that seems to talk so much about it — Revelation — is front to back apocalyptic and metaphor and imagery and symbolism and we just wonder, if maybe even judgment imagery ought not to be taken too literally.


Now the problems begin to pile up like an accident on the LA freeway:

i) Actually, the OT has a fair amount to say about the afterlife, including hell. Just read Shades of Sheol by Philip Johnson or Hell Under Fire edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson.

ii) One problem with preterizing the hellish language of Scripture is that, by the very same token, you can just as well preterize the heavenly language of Scripture. The price for doing away with hell is to do with heaven. What McKnight has just given us is a synthesis of annihilationism and universalism in the form of universal annihilationism. How does that square with the love and the grace of God?


Why? Because we know that even when Jesus speaks about hell he uses graphic physical imagery and we know that human bodies can’t go on burning for ever and ever because they will be incinerated, and because we know that “fire” is an image and a metaphor quite often in the Bible for judgment and for purgation and maybe isn’t literal. And that therefore we wonder what it might be an image about — and we wonder and we hope and we do this because we believe in the Bible and hope that it might refer to something as simple as separation (as Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce).


i) A metaphor is not a blank slate.

ii) Yes, fire can stand for spiritual refinement, but that isn’t based on the mere usage of fiery imagery, but on a larger context in which purification is clearly in view.

iii) There is also the matter of temporal markers (“eternal,” “everlasting”).

iv) And there is also the matter of divergent destinies.


Why? Because we believe God is Sovereign, and that it is his judgment (not ours), and that what he wants to do will be Goodness itself, Beauty itself, and it will always be consistent with his glorious person. We want what he wants.


i) Does McKnight really believe that God is sovereign? Since he denies universalism, McKnight must either believe that God is able, but unwilling to save everyone--or else that God is willing, but unable to save everyone. If the former, then his position is no more loving than the traditional view; if the latter, then he denies the sovereignty of God.

ii) Does he want what God wants? Or does he want God to want what he wants?


Why? Because we might be wrong, and we’d like to be wrong because it pains us to hear our brothers and sisters talk the way they do about hell and final judgment as if it doesn’t matter and as if humans are dispensable and as if these brothers and sisters have got things so right and that they know they are on the right side — when the whole Bible points its fingers at attitudes like that.


It is the annihilationist who, be definition, regards some human beings as dispensable, not the traditionalist. We’re not the ones who say that God is zapping people out of existence.


These are some thoughts — and I am speaking for my own heart and the heart of others when I say these things, and I know what the Bible says and I believe what it says, but I’m with a lot of brothers and sisters who know that what it says is not that clear and that we ought to be more humble about it all and that we ought to spend our time loving our neighbors and not assigning who to where. I know what I think the Bible says but I hope that what I think is not what will happen — why? Because it is unbearable, friends, unbearable.


i) Notice the false antithesis. How is it unloving to forewarn men and women of impending danger? Of extreme danger?

ii) Many “unbearable” things are true. Unbearable things happen all the time. That should serve as a cautionary omen of things to come and things to avoid.


  1. I don't think it's a coincidence that many annihilationists (e.g. Clark Pinnock) have moved into the open god camp as well.

    The "touchy feel" approach seems to be driving the train.

  2. McKnight says:

    These are some thoughts — and I am speaking for my own heart and the heart of others when I say these things, and I know what the Bible says and I believe what it says, but I’m with a lot of brothers and sisters who know that what it says is not that clear and that we ought to be more humble about it all and that we ought to spend our time loving our neighbors and not assigning who to where.

    What's so annoying about McKnight's post is the unctuous Emerging Church psychobabble. Look, there are at least two camps in the church: those who believe that the Scriptural teaching on endless punishment is clear, and those who, like McKnight, think "that what it says is not that clear." Fine. But can we do without the faux posturing about humility? Doesn't McKnight see that those who insist that the relevant Scriptural teaching isn't clear are being *just as dogmatic and certain* as those who think the Scriptures are clear on this subject? Why then is McKnight's position the humbler one, so that he gets to lecture the rest of the church about their lack of humility? Isn't this bold and perverse line of reasoning a sign that McKnight, in fact, lacks humility after all?

  3. Jus,

    As I understand it, this all goes back to the Frankfurt school crowd who did polls in the 1950s using something they called the "F Scale." Those who were "open minded" did well, but those who were intolerant got an "F" as in Fascist.

    So liberals are just nicer and better people because they are more "open."