Thursday, February 19, 2015

Responding to ISIS with a Christian doctrine of hell

Someone asked me to comment on this article, and I thought I would share my response here, in case anyone else would benefit.

Thanks for sending this to me. Notice that the article doesn’t make a case for what the author thinks the Bible teaches about hell or present an argument for why the traditional doctrine of hell is unjust. Rather, it appeals to our moral intuitions. The problem with this is the subjectivity of our personal intuitions. Speaking for myself, when I hear about ISIS beheading people and burning them alive, my intuition is to thank God that a place like hell exists for such evil.

For example, the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, who witnessed the Serbian violence in the early 90’s after the breakup of Yugoslavia, comments that to people living in a war zone, whose villages have been plundered and burned, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, and whose fathers and brothers have been murdered, it doesn’t work to tell them that they shouldn’t respond with violence because God doesn’t respond with violence either. He writes, “Soon you will discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariable die.” The only hope for a forgiving response today is the conviction that God will bring justice in the end. 

Indeed, when God calls his people not to take revenge, he doesn’t tell them that vengeance is wrong but that “vengeance is Mine” (Deut. 32:35). And so Paul tells them to “leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19). That is why the early church, facing the terror of Roman persecution, rejoiced in God’s judgment on “Babylon,” singing, “The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3). Apparently, to God’s people, the burning of their wicked torturers was received as good news. God avenges the blood of his servants (Rev. 19:2).

The author comments “Is it possible that God is actually Jesus on the cross dying for his enemies and not an ISIS terrorist torturing his enemies?” Of course, that’s a false dichotomy, since no orthodox Christian thinks that God is “an ISIS terrorist torturing his enemies.” He’s letting his caricature do the heavy lifting for him. But he fails to mention that some of those most striking statements about hell were said by Jesus himself. Jesus is the one who talks about hell being a place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). God is not only Jesus dying on the cross for his enemies; God is also Jesus returning on a white horse with a sharp sword protruding from his mouth to strike down the nations, treading the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God (Rev. 19:15). If your theology makes room for the Jesus of the cross but not the Jesus of judgment, your theology is not actually Christian.

Now, I’m not inclined to think that people literally burn alive in hell. When you consider the Biblical descriptions of hell, there seems to be a number of figurative expressions employed (an unceasing fire, complete darkness, their worm does not die, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc.). If you took all of these literalistically you’d have contradictory pictures (e.g., a place of both fire and darkness?). So I think they are metaphorical, but the metaphors do mean something, and they are clearly indicating that hell is a terrible place.

As I look at the rest of Scripture and the way that God’s judgment is meted out, I’ve concluded that much of the terror of hell is that it will be a society of depraved people without God’s restraining hand of common grace. In Romans 1, God’s judgment comes in the form of “giving them over” to their passions. Imagine a world of people totally absent of grace, totally given over to their godlessness, never having their desires fulfilled, and turning on one another in the process. That’s not injustice; that’s poetic justice!

He talks about about both Hitler and the indigenous tribesman who never heard the gospel receiving the same fate. Well, first, the Bible doesn’t teach that people are condemned because they’ve never heard and responded to the gospel; they are condemned because they have sinned, and the gospel is the only hope of rescue. But again, we need to distinguish our assumptions about hell from what the Bible actually teaches. Scripture does not say that the experience of judgment will be exactly the same for every individual regardless of what they did in this life. It indicates precisely the opposite (Matt. 10:15; 11:24; Rom. 2:6). When people say there is a “special place in hell” reserved for individuals like Hitler and Pol Pot and child predators, they’re actually stating a Scriptural value judgment.

I agree that we experience moral revulsion at the actions of ISIS, and rightly so. But the author then takes this moral revulsion at evil and transfers it to God’s righteous condemnation of evil. This is morally upside down. My question is, what’s his alternative? Annihilationism? But you could present exactly the same response to that position as he does to the doctrine of hell as unending, conscious torment. I’m outraged that ISIS is beheading people, taking innocent lives, robbing them in a moment of the gift God has given. Should I say that this moral intuition means it would be wicked for God to remove people from existence in judgment? If I had the time to waste, I could re-write his entire post, just replacing the terms to make it an argument against Conditionalism/Annihilationism. That’s the problem with these kinds of arguments based in “intuition” alone.

The key distinction is guilt vs. innocence. That’s the morally relevant question, and that’s what distinguishes God’s actions from the comparison. But the author has cut off that response, calling “BS” on anyone who would draw attention to the fittingness of God judging sin. My guess is that he doesn’t really see sin as terrible, wicked, deserving of judgment. Which means he is approaching the Bible with his own (culturally-blinded) assumptions, bending it into submission to his subjective opinions. At the end of the day, I don’t want to know what Benjamin Corey thinks about these things; I want to know what God thinks. And he has spoken clearly.


  1. Evan, would you mind posting your source on Miroslav Volf? I'd like to follow this up. I appreciate your response to Ben Corey; it seems far more biblical.

  2. Hey Phil,

    The quote is from Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (p. 302), although I think I came across it from Dennis Johnson's commentary on Revelation (The Triumph of the Lamb).