The Bible and Hell

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class in systematic theology.

Introduction

What will hell be like? That question is a tough one to answer, but when we look at Scripture we can indeed answer it. However, answers vary even though they are claimed to be based on sound biblical interpretation. But which one is correct? Although there are several different interpretations or views regarding what hell will be like, our own examination of Scripture will inform us if the information given by one view or another is erroneous or correct. What will hell be like? Robert A. Peterson thinks he knows what it will be like. He says it will be eternal punishment. In his book, Hell On Trial: the case for eternal punishment, Peterson looks at several areas of theology to indicate that hell will be eternal punishment, and he spends much space looking at what the Bible has to say regarding what hell will be like.

In observing the Old Testament portion of the Bible, Peterson looks at three sections. First, he looks at several judgment passages that are found in the Old Testament, which are as follows: the Deluge, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, and the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities of Israel.1 Second, he examines what the Old Testament has to say about Sheol.2 Third, he explores Isaiah 66:22-4 and Daniel 12:1-2.3 After looking at these three sections of the Old Testament, Peterson looks at the New Testament to determine what it has to say regarding hell, and he starts with Jesus.

Peterson looks at Jesus and what he said regarding what hell will be like. In order of the canonical books, he looks at the content of the four gospels. He explores several texts in Matthew (5:21-2, 27-30; 7:23; 8:11-2; 10:28; 13:30, 40-3, 49-50; 18:6-9; 23:15, 33; 24:51; 25:30, 41, 46),4 and several passages in Mark (1:24; 3:11; 5:7; 9:42-8), Luke (16:19-31) and John (3:16-21, 36; 5:28-29; 8:21, 24).5 Peterson does not stop at the end of the canonical gospels, for he also treats several passages from different epistles. He examines Romans 2:5, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Hebrews 6:1-3, Jude 7 and 13, and Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8; 22:15.6 Of all these texts, Peterson chose ten to focus on in his treatment of the traditional view in Two Views of Hell, a book that debates the traditional (eternal torment) and conditional (annihilation) views of hell.

Peterson resorts to a fair exegetical treatment of his ten chosen Scripture passages in Two Views of Hell. He specifically looks at Isaiah 66:22-24 and Daniel 12:1-2, demonstrating that the Old Testament taught that there would be everlasting contempt for all the wicked ones.7 He looks at Matthew 18:6-9, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:10, 14-15, which he argues that these texts teach eternal torment.8 Peterson examines Matthew 25:31-46, a text that he claims reveals eternal condemnation.9 He explores Mark 9:42-48 and determines that it teaches eternal suffering.10 He looks at 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 and says it proclaims eternal destruction.11 Peterson examines Jude 7, which he claims that it teaches eternal punishment.12 He also looks at Jude 13 and argues that it teaches eternal darkness.13 Of these ten passages, Peterson consistently focuses on the eternal element of each of them, which is characteristic of the traditional view since it is based on the never ending punishment of the wicked.

Granted that Peterson has written extensively on this topic and on each of these passages, it is necessary to keep his exegesis in check. Therefore, it is only right that we should perform our own exegesis of these texts so that we can clearly determine if what Peterson has written is correct or erroneous. If it is correct, then we can place confidence in Peterson and the traditional view. If it is not, then we might still be able to place confidence in the traditional view, but it would be hard to place any in Peterson. We will conduct our own exegesis of five of the ten aforementioned passages from Two Views of Hell. After having performed our own exegesis, we will briefly compare and contrast the two exegetical studies and then come to a conclusion regarding the reliability of Peterson and the traditional view of hell. To the following passages we now turn: Matthew 18:6-9; Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Revelation 14:9-11; and Revelation 20:10-15.

 

Exegesis of Five Passages

Matthew 18:6-9

Matthew 18:6-9 is translated as follows:

 

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to stumble, it would be better for him should a donkey’s millstone be hung around his neck and he be thrown into the depths of the sea and drowned. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks. For it is necessary that stumbling blocks come but woe to the person through whom they come. But if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame than to be thrown into eternal fire having two hands or two feet. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pick it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter into life with one eye than to be thrown into the hell of fire having two eyes.14

 

The beginning of this passage concerns disciples, not literal children.15 Jesus, in talking of his followers, warns against causing others to stumble in their faith. In other words, the issue being discussed concerns disciples being caused to lose their faith, whether by someone else or all by one’s own self.16 Jesus is expressing a concern for the avoidance of offense that would cause someone to lose faith.17 He is concerned against actions and behavior that act against the spiritual well being of another person.18 We should bear in mind that Jesus expects his disciples to do everything in their power to keep themselves from stumbling. We should also bear in mind that Jesus considers it a dire situation and act for someone to cause another to stumble. It is within these two elements that we must understand Jesus’ statements regarding hell.

As we pay special attention to vv. 8 and 9, we should also be aware of a few other syntactical and vocabulary issues in this passage. In v. 6 we have a comparison being made by Jesus. He says that it would be better for a person who makes one of his disciples to stumble to be drowned in the deep sea by having a large object hung on his neck and being cast into the sea. The comparison clearly indicates that the actual judgment will be something much worse. However, Jesus does not clarify what the true judgment will entail; he leaves his listeners with the dreadful picture of the drowned person and adds nothing more to the future judgment.19 At any rate, this picture expects a dire punishment for something quite scandalous. The Greek word for “to stumble” (v. 6) is skandalizein. Some have understood the use of this word in this text as the serious causing of someone to fall into sin, or perhaps even to lose their faith in Jesus and the gospel; it is not a simple personal offense.20 This verb entails much more than a personal offense as it “speaks of setting off the bait stick of a trap and thus ensnaring.”21 Commentators either say that the stumbling mentioned is either in reference to disciples sinning or losing faith. In either case, the well being of the disciple is at stake, because someone is actively acting against his or her interest when causing someone to stumble.22 This picture demonstrates the severity for causing someone to stumble; the ramifications of such an action are dire.

Jesus uses picturesque hyperbole in the verses to follow, which demonstrates a necessity for a desire towards drastic action in order to overcome stumbling blocks.23 Jesus commands that his disciples cut off their hand or foot and throw it away if it causes them to stumble. He actually expects that their hands and feet will in fact cause them to stumble.24 Since he expects that they will stumble by use of their appendages, it is odd that he would command them to cut them off and throw them away. The same is true of his conditional statement regarding the eye. He expects it to be true for his disciples to stumble by use of the eye, and it is equally as odd as in the earlier conditional statement for him to command that his disciples pluck out their eyes and throw them away. The mixture of the first class condition with the harsh imperatives serves as a clear indication that we are dealing with hyperbole. In telling his disciples to cut off their hands and feet or pluck out their eyes and throw them away, Jesus “is using picturesque language to make clear that he looks for a complete and thorough repudiation of evil. . . . [And] his followers should take decisive action to be rid of sin.”25 However, we must ask ourselves why Jesus would expect such a drastic measure. The answer is to keep oneself from reaping harsh punishment.

Jesus alludes to the kind of punishment that will be given to the one who does not guard against stumbling. He talks of eternal fire and hell of fire in reference to that one’s punishment. The phrase “eternal fire” in v. 8 is important in two ways. One, “eternal” denotes a period without end.26 This adjective modifies “fire,” which indicates that it is to be understood as being without end. Two, “fire” is a reference to the substance with which God will punish sinners.27 This language depicts judgment and punishment. When we combine “fire” with “eternal” we end up with a punishment without end, “eternal fire.” This phrase is “used metaphorically in an expression that brings out the painfulness of the lost in their eternal lostness.”28 The phrase “hell of fire” in v. 9 is somewhat confusing. However, “of fire” in Greek is a genitive of content, which means that it identifies the content of the noun it belongs to. In this case, hell is said to contain fire. The idea of fire as God’s punishment of sinners is also present in this phrase. The two phrases combine to show a small picture of what hell will be like. Hell will involve some form of punishment. This punishment will take place in hell, and it will never end.29 It is no wonder that Jesus would resort to commanding such drastic measures, because “given how high the stakes are, any sacrifice is worth making to keep oneself back from a life of sin.”30

Jesus took stumbling very seriously. He charged the person who actively tries to cause another to stumble with a serious offense and he charged his disciples to do everything that they possibly could to actively keep themselves from stumbling. The former he proclaims harsh punishment on; the latter he warns against harsh punishment. It is the latter punishment mentioned that gives us any sort of clarity towards what hell will be like, while the former is left open to one’s imagination. The fundamental idea of punishment in the latter is it will take place in hell and it will be without end. The text does not indicate anything further regarding what hell will be like.

 

Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46 is translated as follows:

 

But whenever the Son of Man might come in his glory and the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne; and all the nations will be gathered together before him, and he will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to the ones on his right, “Come here blessed ones by my Father, receive your inheritance the kingdom having been prepared from the laying of the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you put clothes on me, I was weak and you tended to me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous ones will answer him by saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or naked and put clothes on you? And when did we see you weak or in prison and we came to you?” And the king having been answered will say to them, “Truly I say to you, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers of mine you did to me.” Then he will say to the ones on his left, “Go away from me accursed ones into the eternal fire the one having been provided for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you did not give me something to eat, I was thirsty and you did not give me a drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I was naked and you did not put clothes on me, I was weak and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they will say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or weak or in prison and did not serve you?” Then he will answer them saying, “Truly I say to you, whatever you did not do to one of the least of these, neither did you do to me.” And these ones will depart to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

 

This long passage is a story told by Jesus concerning the Judgment Day to come at the end of this age. There are two things that we should note regarding the story. First, the story’s details must be taken as “revealing images rather than literal descriptions.”31 We need to bear in mind that the story is apocalyptic in nature and is not to be taken as an actual account of what will precisely happen. Second, this story “deals with the evidence on which people will be judged, not the cause of salvation or damnation.”32 This story emphasizes judgment; it is not concerned about how one is saved or damned, but rather it is concerned about what deeds a person has done, which is implicitly connected to one’s condition of either being saved or damned. Bearing these two notes in mind, we can now set out to study this passage.

Jesus makes it clear that judgment is the topic when he brings the Son of Man language into the story, for the coming of the Son of Man indicates judgment.33 In this story, Jesus brings judgment for the righteous and the wicked. He judges that the righteous will go to eternal life while the wicked go to eternal punishment. Both judgments are eternal—without end—so that both will experience the retribution for their deeds in the present life forever and ever. The righteous ones will receive the kingdom that was prepared for them since before the universe was created (v. 34). However, the wicked will enter the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.34 It is in the eternal fire that the wicked will be punished forever. They will receive “eternal punishment” in the eternal fire. “Eternal” means, “without end.” The righteous will have life without end. Similarly, the wicked will have punishment without end. The syntax demands this understanding. The two phrases, “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” are joined by the conjunction, kai. This conjunction informs the equality of the attributes of the two nouns that it joins together. In this instance, the attribute of time is the same. We are certain that the righteous will experience life without end in the kingdom prepared beforehand. Because kai ties “life” and “punishment” together, and especially because both of these nouns are modified by the exact same adjective, we have no choice but to view “eternal” in the same way for both instances. Therefore, the punishment of the wicked will also be without end in the same way that life will be for the righteous. Note also that this punishment is of a particular kind. It is one that denotes transcendent retribution.35 God will repay the wicked for their deeds. Furthermore, Jesus is speaking of a punishment without end,36 but it is not clear how that punishment will be carried out.

This story proclaims judgment for the righteous and the wicked. The righteous will be given eternal life, but the wicked eternal punishment in eternal fire—the same fire that was made for the devil and his angels. This text tells us that hell will involve a never ending punishment. However, it does not describe the punishment in any further detail. Thus far we have seen two texts that indicate hell will involve eternal punishment of the wicked. Will it involve anything else?

 

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 is translated as follows:

 

An indication of the righteous judgment of God for us to be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, on behalf of which you also suffer, since it is just for God to repay persecution to the ones who persecute you and relief to you who are persecuted with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his mighty angels in a flaming fire, giving retribution to the ones who did not know God and obey the good news of our Lord Jesus, any of those will pay a penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and away from the glory of his strength when he comes to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all the ones who believe, for our testimony was believed by you, on that day.

 

This passage takes place in the midst of a discussion on suffering. The verse that we will pay particular attention to is v. 8, but we have to understand it within the context of suffering and vv. 5-10. What is clear from this passage is suffering will be avenged. God will repay those who inflict others (v. 6). God is just. He will return persecution for those who persecute, and rest for those who are persecuted (vv. 6-7). The author of 2 Thessalonians makes a connection between those who persecute and those who either do not know God or did not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such ones will be judged with punishment, which is understood by the phrase “in a flaming fire,” which is tied to the revelation of the Lord Jesus. The use of fire language denotes punishment of divine judgment.37 Since the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ will usher in a time of judgment, the context indicates that the author of 2 Thessalonians is writing about the Day of Judgment.38 We must bear in mind that what we see here is apocalyptic language, which ought not to be taken literally, and that “Paul seeks to portray the frightening punishment awaiting those outside the community and especially the enemies of the community.”39 With this view in mind, we can look at four important features of this text.

First, rest is promised to those that are afflicted. “Rest” denotes “relief from something onerous or troublesome.”40 Furthermore, in itself it is “the lifting of the pressure caused by persecution [sic], but it is accompanied by the positive blessing of participation in God’s ‘own kingdom and glory’ (1 Thess. 2:12).”41 At the time of the revelation of the Lord, the time when Jesus will come and bring judgment, God will give relief from the afflictions of the oppressors to the oppressed. However, the oppressors will themselves be oppressed by God.

Two, Christ will bring punishment on the ones who both do not know God and obey the gospel at his revelation. “Punishment” denotes “penalty inflicted on wrongdoers.”42 The ones who did not know and obey the gospel are wrongdoers deserving of a penalty. These ones, those not knowing God and obeying the gospel, are due for punishment.

Three, the aforementioned wrongdoers will pay a penalty. “Penalty” denotes “punishment meted out as legal penalty.”43 These ones will be judged and they will be punished for their actions. But how will they be judged? What kind of penalty will they pay? The answer is forthcoming.

Fourth, such wrongdoers will pay a penalty of eternal destruction. “Eternal” means “without end,” and it modifies “destruction.” The noun, “destruction,” is difficult to determine how it ought to be translated. It does mean “a state of destruction.”44 However, it can be in reference to physical destruction or a metaphorical one.45 The discussion on the use of this word and its translation into English is written best in the following words:

If it were literal here it would imply the annihilation of the enemies of God. On the other hand it may have a more metaphorical signification. The problem is made more difficult by the qualifying adjective [aiônios]. It can mean either something without end or something that is final or ultimate. The latter would accord with the sense of annihilation, while the former would fit with the idea of destruction in the metaphorical sense of punishment. As there is no evidence in Paul (or the rest of the NT for that matter) for a concept of final annihilation of the godless, the expression ‘eternal destruction’ should probably be taken in a metaphorical manner as indicating the severity of the punishment awaiting the enemies of God . . .46

 

The “eternal destruction” mentioned is metaphorical. The metaphorical language fits the apocalyptic style, which we have noted needs to be taken in a non-literal way. Given that v. 8 contains metaphorical language (i.e., flaming fire) and because it points towards a social exclusion contrasted to the state of the readers that deserves divine retribution,47 it makes sense that we should understand “eternal destruction” as figurative, not literal. Those wrongdoers that did not know God and did not obey the gospel must face a severe punishment, for they have excluded themselves from the salvation of Jesus Christ.

This passage identifies that hell will involve punishment for the wicked. We still do not know what kind of punishment they will receive while in hell. Yet, we do know that the punishment—destruction—will last forever. Considering that the wicked will pay their penalty “away from the presence of the Lord,” hell will also entail being out of the presence of Jesus Christ. Apart from these things, the text is silent. Except that it will involve a severe punishment that will have no end, we still do not know much about what hell will be like.

Revelation 14:9-11

Revelation 14:9-11 is translated as follows:

 

And another angel, a third one, followed them saying in a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and this image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, then they will drink from the wine of the wrath of God being poured out undiluted in the cup of his anger and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur before the holy angels and before the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises up forever and ever and they do not have rest day and night the ones worshiping the beast and his image and if anyone receives the mark of his name.

 

This passage contains some additional information that we have not yet seen concerning hell. It is similar to the others in that it also uses fire language to indicate judgment.48 It too has an element of punishment without end just as the other texts do. Although this text shares some similarities with the ones we have already looked at, it does shed some new light on what hell will be like.

This passage reveals that hell will involve God’s wrath. The wicked ones “will become drunk with God’s wine, the effect of which will not be temporary. God’s wine will make the nations submissive to his judicial will forever . . .”49 Part of God’s judicial will for the wicked is torment. Those who worship the beast and his image and receive a mark on their foreheads or hands will be tormented in fire and sulfur in the presence of Jesus and the angels. Given the context of judgment, the word for “they will be tormented” in Greek means “to subject to severe distress.”50 What will they be tormented with? They will be tormented with fire and sulfur. Fire is indicative of punishment; however, sulfur is indicative of suffering. Suffering is emphasized in this text—a new feature in our research to what hell will entail—“when [‘sulfur’] is added to the image . . .”51 The torment of the unbelievers is a conscious one that attacks the spirit and psyche, which is not an uncommon feature for Revelation as a whole in reference to trials that precede the Day of Judgment or are part of it.52 The result of the torment, the smoke, is a mixed metaphor. The smoke is “figurative of an enduring memorial of God’s punishment involving a real, ongoing, eternal and [sic] conscious torment. . . . The genitive [tou basanismou] does not express the source of the smoke (‘the smoke arising from [their] torment’; brackets in the original) but association or reference: ‘the memorial to [their] torment’” (Brackets in the original).53 Furthermore, the smoke ascending forever and ever is a reminder for past and ongoing judgment, which is seen in the following words:

It is not the smoke of a completed destruction, but ‘smoke of their torment.’ The nature of the torment is explained in the second part of v. 11 [sic]: it is not annihilation but lack of rest. Indeed, annihilation would be a kind of rest or relief from the excruciating torment of the brief final judgment. Therefore, the smoke is metaphorical of a continued reminder of the ongoing torment of restlessness, which endures for eternity.54

 

This passage tells us three important things about what hell will be like in the context of the final judgment, and some of which are new pieces of information. One, hell will involve God’s wrath. Two, hell will involve torment. And three, the torment will never end. Except for these three important things, the text does not tell us anything else about what hell will be like.

 

Revelation 20:10-15

Revelation 20:10-15 is translated as follows:

 

And the devil the one who deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and sulfur where also the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it, of whom the earth and the heaven fled away from his presence, but no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the large and the small, standing before the throne. And scrolls were opened, then another scroll was opened, which is the scroll of life, and they judged the dead from what was written in the scrolls regarding their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and they were judged last according to their works. Then death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone is not found written in the scroll of life, he will be cast into the lake of fire.

 

This passage also uses fire language, which indicates judgment is a key theme in it. This passage notes the same things as the other four passages, except that it proclaims that the devil, the beast and the false prophet are all going to be thrown into the lake of fire to be tormented for all eternity. In addition, it also proclaims that everyone will be judged according to their deeds, which are written in the scrolls, and everyone will be judged according to the scroll of life. This context of judgment is important to note for interpreting this text.

Within the context of judgment, the devil is cast into the lake of fire along with the beast and the false prophet to be tormented day and night forever and ever. To be sure, the lake of fire certainly is not a literal place, but rather it is spiritual.55 It is the second death, which “is separation forever from God’s presence in the ‘city’ of God.”56 “To be tormented” is “to be subjected to severe distress.”57 What kind of torment are we talking about? The kind of torment referenced is “conscious suffering, especially spiritual and psychological suffering. . . . that this is a real, ongoing suffering for those represented by the images of ‘beast and false prophet’ is apparent, since the same expression of eternal punishment applies to the individual devil in this verse and since virtually the same expression is applied to the individual followers of the beast in 14:10-11” (Italics in the original).58 The devil, the beast and the false prophet will be subjected to severe distress, and this will happen for all eternity. The preposition, eis, is an extension in time that indicates duration,59 so that “forever and ever” refers to a time that has no end.60 Not only will the devil, beast and false prophet be judged at the Day of Judgment, but so also will everyone who has ever lived. No one can hide from the Judge. Everyone is subject to judgment. All will be judged according to their works. “Judge” denotes “a judgment based on taking various factors into account.”61 Everyone’s deeds will be taken into account when they come before the Judge. However, no one’s deeds will be good enough to save one’s self from the wrath of God. What counts is whether or not one’s name is written in the scroll of life. If it is not, then that person will be cast into the lake of fire. Since eternal torment awaits the devil, beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire, it also awaits anyone whose name is not found in the scroll of life. Since we are not viewing the lake of fire as a literal location, we do not take it to mean that it indicates annihilation, but rather eternal torment.62 Indeed, “It appears that our author believes in eternal punishment rather than annihilation of the wicked in view of Rev. 14:10-11 [sic]” (Brackets in original).63

This passage indicates that hell will involve eternal torment. This torment will be of such a kind that it will vex the spirit relentlessly. Hell will also involve the devil, the beast and the false prophet being tormented along with all those who did not have their name written in the scroll of life.

 

Conclusion

The exegesis of Matthew 18:6-9, Matthew 25:31-46, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:10-15 reveal several things about what hell will be like. Much of the information provided by these texts is repetitive, but they all bring something new to the argument. Of these five texts, there are at least four common themes, which are as follows: one, hell is a place; two, hell is eternal; three, hell will involve eternal punishment; and four, hell will include the wicked. These texts also reveal that hell will be a place of oppression and destruction for the wicked (2 Thess. 1:5-10), and it will torment its inhabitants by not giving rest to them (Rev. 14:9-11). Hell was designed for the devil and his associates, but all those who did not have their name written in the scroll of life will be sent to hell to join the devil (Matt. 25:31-46; Rev. 20:10-15). Whatever hell may be like, it will certainly not be pleasant, which is why Jesus emphasizes that his disciples should do everything that they can to avoid it by taking drastic measures in this life (Matt. 18:6-9).

The exegesis that we have conducted revealed that the five passages proclaim that hell will involve eternal punishment. We agree exegetically with the general understanding of these texts that Peterson presents in Two Views of Hell and Hell on Trial. In his treatment on Matthew 18:6-9, Peterson notes that Jesus is referring to eternal destinies and his disciples.64 Peterson also demonstrates that Jesus uses picturesque language for the drowning of a person to leave the listener or reader with a horrific image to show the severity of one who causes another to stumble.65 We also agree with Peterson’s comment that when speaking of cutting off appendages Jesus “means that his hearers should take drastic action rather than sin and face the horrors of hell.”66 Although we differ in the translation of skandalizein (Peterson translates it as “to sin” while we translate it “to stumble”), he does maintain the force of the hyperbole as we do. However, Peterson talks of “the torments of hell” in relation to “eternal fire.”67 At this point we disagree. This text makes no mention of torment. If we are to be true to the text and allow it to speak for its self, we have to recognize that the text reveals eternal punishment and not necessarily torment. However, despite this difference, Peterson still demonstrates that the text does indicate eternal punishment. The only problem is he was a little irresponsible with his choice of words. This particular text teaches eternal punishment, not torment.

In his treatment of Matthew 25:31-46, Peterson notes Jesus is talking about the end times, a time of judgment.68 He rightly considers that the symmetrical design of the passage to indicate that the two destinies mentioned will be everlasting.69 However, Peterson does not refer to the grammar to prove his point, but rather, to a linguistic structure that may or may not be true. Although it is quite possible that what he says is true, referring to the grammar would have been a stronger basis for supporting his claim, a claim that is truly navoidable when examining the grammar in Greek, which we have done. Furthermore, Peterson, comparing Scripture with Scripture, identifies that the accursed ones will suffer the same fate as the devil when he considers Revelation 20:10.70 Peterson makes a good connection between these two passages of Scripture, and we accept his hermeneutical practice of comparing Scripture with Scripture.

In his treatment of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Peterson notes that Paul is describing judgment for oppressors, the ones who are ignorant of God and do not obey the Lord’s gospel.71 Peterson does well to note that the punishment language of destruction could mean annihilation, but that when we consider the word for “destruction” in terms of its adjective, “eternal,” or as Peterson has it, “everlasting,” it must mean a destruction that will not end.72 We agree with Peterson, and we applaud him for the way that he notes the language could mean annihilation but that with all things considered it does not, but rather, it means a state of destruction that has no end.

In his treatment of Revelation 14:9-11, Peterson rightly notes that the Last Judgment is in view.73 He notes that the language of Revelation 14:9-11 points towards “the terror of falling into the hands of the living God.”74 He does well to note that the horrific image of fire is not to be literally understood,75 which we determined to be true as well. Peterson also correctly notes that the torment mentioned will be endless.76 Our exegesis is very close to, if not the same as, Peterson’s regarding this passage.

In his treatment of Revelation 20:10-15, Peterson does well to show that unsaved humans suffer the same fate as the devil, the beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire.77 The devil will be eternally tormented in the lake of fire, and Peterson rightly points out that the same fate awaits the unsaved.78 Peterson’s hermeneutics are very good, and we agree with what he has to say regarding this passage.

Overall, Peterson’s exegesis is sound and valid. Much of what we discovered in our own exegesis was also demonstrated in Peterson’s. Our exegesis of the same passages demonstrates that Peterson is not erroneous. His exegesis is trustworthy. Therefore, we can place confidence both in Peterson and the traditional view. The traditional view is present in our own exegesis as well as Peterson’s; it merits our confidence because of it is founded on sound exegesis.

In sum, the traditional view—eternal punishment—is a biblically sound position in accord with what we have studied. Peterson’s argument for the traditional view is good, and it was confirmed by our own exegesis. We can confidently say both by Peterson and ourselves teach eternal punishment. This exegetical comparison has determined that Peterson points us in the right direction; we can be confident in what he teaches because his exegesis is sound. Therefore, we have a good start to this study, but the research should not stop here. More Scripture should be studied; more research conducted; more exegesis performed. However, at this point in our research, we can say that the Bible points towards the traditional view of hell, a view that affirms that hell will entail eternal punishment.

Bibliography

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd edition (BDAG). Revised and edited by Frederick Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

 

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revleation: a commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and Donald Hagner. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Paternoster Press, 1999.

 

Bruce, F. F. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Vol. 45 of Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by David Hubbard, Glenn Barker and Ralph Martin. Waco: Word Books, 1982.

 

Fudge, Edward, and Robert Peterson. Two Views of Hell: a biblical & theological dialogue. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

 

Hagner, Donald. Matthew 14-28. Vol. 33b of Word Biblical Commentary Series edited by Bruce Metzger, Ralph Martin and Lynn Losie. Dallas: Word Books, 1995.

 

Keener, Craig. Revelation. NIV Application Commentary. Edited by Terry Mucket, Eugene Peterson, Scot McKnight, Marianne Thompson, Klyne Snodgrass, Stanley Gundry, Jack Kuhatschek and Verlyn Verbrugge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

 

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Edited by D.A. Carson. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Leicester, England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Apollos, 1992.

 

Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and Donald Hagner. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Bletchley, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Paternoster Press, 2005.

 

Peterson, Robert. Hell on Trial: the case for eternal punishment. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1995.

 

Wanamaker. The Epistles to the Thessalonians. New International Greek Testament Commentary.

 

Witherington, Ben. Revelation. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Edited by Ben Witherington. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

 

 

 

1 Robert Peterson, Hell on Trial: the case for eternal punishment (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1995), 23-5.

2 Peterson, Hell on Trial, 27-9.

3 Ibid., 29-36.

4 Ibid., 39-56.

5 Ibid., 57-75.

6 Ibid., 77-96.

7 Edward Fudge and Robert Peterson, Two Views of Hell: a biblical & theological dialogue (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 130-7.

8 Fudge and Peterson, Two Views of Hell, 137-40, 159-64.

9 Ibid., 140-5.

10 Ibid., 145-9.

11 Ibid., 149-53.

12 Ibid., 153-6.

13 Ibid., 156-9.

14 All translations of the biblical texts are my own according to Nesle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed.

15 Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, vol 33b of Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce Metzger, Ralph Martin and Lynn Losie (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 520.

16 Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 520.

17 Ibid., 521.

18 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Leicester, England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Apollos, 1992), 461.

19 John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald Hagner (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Bletchley, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Paternoster Press, 2005), 736. Nolland writes, “One is left to imagine what the fate of those who cause a little one to stumble might be.” The simple truth of the matter is we do not know why it would be better for the one who causes another person to stumble.

20 Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 522.

21 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 461.

22 Ibid., 461.

23 Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 523.

24 The use of the first class condition in the Greek expects that the protasis, the “if” clause, is true. By saying, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble,” in Greek, using ei (if), one is essentially saying, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, and it will, then . . .”

25 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 463, 464.

26 Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition (BDAG), Revised and edited by Frederick Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 33.

27 BDAG, 898.

28 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 463.

29 Ibid., 464. Morris writes that “hell indicates place, whereas ‘eternal’ points to the unendingness.” Tied together with “fire,” they both speak towards the punishment of the wicked; one identifies where, and the other identifies for how long.

30 Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 736.

31 Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 1036.

32 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 634.

33 Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 741.

34 Note that the eternal fire was not created for the wicked ones, but rather for the devil and his associates in the spiritual realm.

35 BDAG, 555.

36 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 641.

37 F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, vol. 45 of Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David Hubbard, Glenn Bakrker and Ralph Martin (Waco: Word Books, 1982), 151. Bruce writes, “Fire figures especially in depictions of divine judgment.” Fire language is commonly used throughout the New Testament to indicate divine judgment or punishment.

38 Charles Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: a commentary on the Greek text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Paternoster Press, 1990), 227. Wanamaker writes, “The author of 2 Thes. 1:8 uses the image of the flaming fire to portray the frightening experience awaiting the enemies of God when God inflicts vengeance on the Thessalonians’ oppressors.”

39 Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, 227. On the apocalyptic element of the text, Wanamaker writes, “The apocalyptic orientation of much of the imagery of 2 Thessalonians warns against overly literalistic attempts at interpreting what is said because the power of apocalyptic results from its imaginative or symbolic presentation.”

40 BDAG, 77.

41 Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 150.

42 BDAG, 301.

43 Ibid., 250.

44 Ibid., 702.

45 Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, 228.

46 Ibid., 228-9.

47 Ibid., 228.

48 G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald Hagner (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Paternoster Press), 760. Beale also notes that fire is used in this way in Revelation 1:14; 2:18; 3:18; 4:5; 8:5, 7-8; 15:2; 19:12. There is no shortage of texts where fire language depicts judgment. It is clear that this language is metaphorically pointing to judgment.

49 Beale, The Book of Revelation, 759.

50 BDAG, 168.

51 Beale, The Book of Revelation, 760.

52 Ibid., 760. Beale lists all of the following passages as containing the spiritual and psychological suffering type of trials: 9:5-6; 11:10; 18:7, 10, 15; 18:7, 10, 15: 20:10.

53 Ibid., 763.

54 Ibid., 764. Cf. also Ben Witherington, Revelation, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, ed. Ben Witherington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 192, and Craig Keener, Revelation, NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Mucket et al. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 374-5.

55 Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1029.

56 Ibid., 1036.

57 Cf. BDAG, 168.

58 Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1030.

59 BDAG, 289.

60 Ibid., 32.

61 Ibid., 568.

62 Keener, Revelation, 470. Keener writes, “Although fire can communicate instant annihilation rather than eternal torment, earlier Christian tradition portrayed an unquenchable burning (Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:17), and Revelation elsewhere speaks of eternal torment (14:10-11), implied also in this context for the lake of fire (20:10).” Just as fire language is metaphorical for judgment, the use of the lake of fire is also metaphorical, and it speaks towards eternal torment.

63 Witherington, Revelation, 252.

64 Fudge and Peterson, Two Views of Hell, 137.

65 Ibid., 137-8.

66 Ibid., 138.

67 Ibid., 138.

68 Ibid., 140.

69 Ibid., 141.

70 Ibid., 142.

71 Ibid., 150.

72 Ibid., 150.

73 Ibid., 160.

74 Ibid., 160.

75 Ibid., 160.

76 Ibid., 161. Note also Peterson’s exceptional study of the phrase “for ever and ever” in Revelation. Peterson writes, “The [thirteen] occurrences [of ‘for ever and ever’ in Revelation] fall into several categories: God (either the Father, the Son or both) is to be praised ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 1:6; 5:13; 7:12); the risen Christ is alive ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 1:18); God the Father lives ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7); Christ will reign ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 11:15); the smoke of the burning city Babylon goes up ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 19:3); the devil, beast and false prophet will be tormented ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 20:10); and the saints will reign ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 22:5).” Peterson rightly concludes that Revelation 14:11, in light of his insight into the phrase “for ever and ever” in Revelation as a whole, indicates “that the sufferings of the lost in hell will never end.”

77 Ibid., 164.

78 Ibid., 165.

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Review of “Two Views of Hell”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class in systematic theology.

Introduction

In learning about hell, Two Views of Hell: a biblical and theological dialogue, co-authored by Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, is quite helpful, because it examines the biblical corpus to determine how we should understand hell. The two evangelical positions presented in the book wrestle with the key biblical texts that deal with hell, therefore giving the reader a solid biblical foundation for understanding hell in addition to good summaries of the two evangelical positions. This book summarizes two views of hell in debate form. The first view, presented by Fudge, is the conditional or annihilation view, which maintains that God will cause all those who are not saved to cease to exist, which I disagree with. Peterson argued for the second view, the traditional view that I affirm, which asserts that God will eternally torture the unsaved. Two Views of Hell posits that there is an evangelical controversy on the understanding of hell, so that, although the authors argued for the superiority of their own positions, it demonstrates that the evidence for this controversy is mixed. While conditionalists have logical reasoning and traditionalists have sound lexical and grammatical analysis as their strengths, the reader has to make a decision based on which side has the most conclusive evidence, since neither side is completely indisputable. Let us now turn to the two positions and examine them and determine which one was not only more convincing but also which one is the best argument.

Two Views of Hell

The Conditional View

The conditional view has a lot going for it. It is logical, sensible, and reasonable. It makes sense that God, since he is a loving God, would not necessarily desire for the people he created but are not saved to endure eternal torture. Therefore, it is only logical that God would annihilate them for love’s sake. It is sensible because it gives just results. God is a just God. Therefore, he cannot torment someone for all eternity, since that someone only missed the mark for a short time. Sure, he can torture them to a just degree, but then he will bring them to utter destruction, both out of love and justice. It is reasonable that God would annihilate those who are not saved, because it is based on Scripture, especially those passages that talk of death and destruction awaiting those who are not saved. Although the conditional view has good logic and reasoning, it suffers from poor hermeneutics and unsound arguments.

The conditional view suffers due to two major flaws—eisogesis and unsound reasoning. These eisogetical interpretations and unsound arguments can be seen in several areas of Fudge’s presentation, including, but not limited to, his treatment of the lake of fire in Revelation 20:13-15, “quench the fire” in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31, the similes in Psalm 1, “eternal contempt” in Daniel 12:1-2, Judith and Isaiah, the end of weeping, “eternal”, the cross, Hebrews 6:7-8, and Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4. Errors like these prevent me from affirming his position. We will now examine the following flaws: “quench the fire” in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31; Judith, Isaiah, and Tartarus; and “eternal.”

Fudge made a mistake in saying that the unquenchable fire mentioned in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31 is indicative of total destruction. He notes that passages like Isaiah 34:10-22, Ezekiel 20:47-48, Amos 5:6 and Matthew 3:12 use unquenchable fire to signify an un-extinguishable fire that “consumes until nothing is left.” Although that may be true in other passages, it is not necessarily the case here in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31. In fact, there is no linguistic evidence present in this passage to indicate what Fudge argues for. Indeed, he is importing foreign information into this passage. He is not performing exegesis, but rather, eisogesis, which means that he is making the text fit his understanding rather than make his understanding fit the text. Furthermore, the words of Isaiah indicate precisely the opposite of what Fudge argues—a non-stop, un-extinguishable or eternal burning.

Another mistake Fudge makes is his inconsistent remarks on how Greek philosophy has influenced our perception on hell. Fudge rightly notes that much of the language and thought of immortality comes from Greek philosophy. He specifically notes its involvement in Judith 16:17, a Jewish apocryphal book, which resembles Isaiah 66:24. He says that Isaiah’s mention of unburied corpses was tied to shameful destruction and has no understanding of everlasting pain. He argues further that Judith added the Greek philosophical understanding in natural immortality and imported it into the text of Isaiah 66:24 and combined them to form a new whole. Fudge negatively critiques the Judith text—as well as several of the greatest leaders in the history of the church—for being culturally influenced and maintaining eternal torment. However, he fails to note the cultural influence that is involved in 2 Peter 2:4. Tartarus is mentioned as a place reserved for the judgment of the rebellious angels in this passage. Fudge rightly notes that Tartarus is a place mentioned in the Odyssey, and it was “the place where the Titans were chained for endless punishment.” Fudge essentially entirely dismisses the importance of Tartarus, saying that it is mentioned in reference to angels and not to humans and therefore has no bearing on the discussion. But it is of utmost importance.

The use of Tartarus by Peter demonstrates cultural influence or syncretism. Either way, something that was not biblical became biblical, whether because Peter decided to make it as such (syncretism—taking a part from another religion and making it part of one’s own) or he was convinced that it was a true place (cultural influence—being influenced in such a way that cultural values, myths, etc. become truth to a person). Fudge does not recognize these options here. As a result, he does not take cultural influence or syncretism seriously, which he should if he is going to be consistent. On the one hand, he criticizes Judith for being culturally influenced; on the other hand, he has nothing to say about Peter being culturally influenced, even if only as a possibility. Fudge has undoubtedly presented an unsound argument. His view is unsound because it is inconsistent; one cannot have a sound argument if it is inconsistent.

A mistake that Fudge also makes is his use of linguistics. For example, when speaking of present choices having eternal consequences, Fudge examines the use of “eternal” in the New Testament. Of all the times it is used, he only focuses on a handful of them. Of that handful, Fudge looks at how it is used in one instance—Mark 3:29—to describe sin. He takes the words “eternal sin” to demonstrate that “eternal” is indicative of the outcome or result, not the duration of the sin. Then, Fudge takes this understanding of “eternal” and forces it upon every instance of the word in the New Testament, generally speaking. His linguistic reasoning is unsound. A word may be used in one particular way at a given moment, but it does not necessarily have to be used in that same way everywhere else that it may occur. This problem is one of the major features to Peterson’s rebuttal. Fudge’s evidence here suffers from unsound reasoning.

A final mistake made by Fudge, which is rightly highlighted by Peterson in his rebuttal, is in his treatment of Revelation 20:10-15. Peterson points out that Fudge argues that this passage identifies annihilation for all who are not saved. Peterson demonstrates the problems with Fudge’s treatment. First, “Fudge fails to mention the devil, who, along with the beast and the false prophet, is cast into the lake of fire.” In commenting on this failure, Peterson shows that Fudge is being inconsistent. Fudge claims that the beast and the false prophet are not real people, so their punishment is not the same as that of humans. However, as Peterson points out, the devil is included in the lake of fire for eternal punishment as the beast and the false prophet. Fudge has to consider the devil as a real individual if he is an Evangelical Christian. Revelation 20:13-15 identifies that the devil is going to be thrown into the lake of fire; then, a few verses later, the unsaved are thrown into the same place. Since we know that the lake of fire will be a place of eternal torment for the devil, why would it not be the same for the unsaved? Again, Fudge’s argument is unsound.

I do not affirm the conditional view, because, while it is appealing and logical, it suffers from an unsound argument based upon an eisogetical foundation. It is not so with the traditional view, however, to which we now examine.

The Traditional View

The traditional view does not have a lot going against it. It suffers from a few unnecessary or unhelpful points in the argument, but overall it is quite good. One of its problems is an unnecessary appeal to historic church leaders. Peterson’s use of Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and others are of little importance. In effect, he is merely namedropping, an unnecessary feature. It is expected that many historical church leaders would champion the traditional view. To spend an entire chapter on demonstrating the traditional view of these leaders is overkill. Peterson had good reason to include it, however. Fudge had previously attacked church leaders from history who maintained the traditional view for being culturally influenced by Greek philosophy. Therefore, Peterson was attempting to demonstrate that Greek philosophy did not influence the historical church leaders, but rather Scripture did. This attempt was unnecessary and unhelpful for a couple of reasons. First, no one can escape cultural influence. Given the time of many of the church leaders from history, it ought to be expected that they would be influenced by Greek philosophy. Second, mentioning the church leaders from history has no conclusive effect. It is nothing more than namedropping, and it does not help to further the argument.

Another problem that faces the traditional view, which is not unrelated to the first problem, is the question of cultural influences that Fudge brings to the table. Truthfully, Peterson did not directly address the problem. Fudge says that many Christians based their position on Greek philosophy through cultural influence. Peterson does well to show that the various leaders supported their argument through Scripture, but he fails to show whether or not they were culturally influenced in their exegesis and understanding. Therefore, his treatment of the church leaders from history was unhelpful.

A final problem for the traditional view is its attempt to use the cross to further its argument. Peterson identifies that the cross event is a substitutionary atonement. Christ was our substitute and he took our punishment for us. However, Christ did not suffer an eternal torment; rather, he suffered the equivalent to it. Peterson wrote, “[H]is temporal anguish was equal to the eternal condemnation due sinful human beings.” Since Jesus is God, he is infinite, so he suffered an equivalent punishment by dying on behalf of the world to satisfy justice. It was because Jesus was God that he “was capable of suffering in six hours on the cross what we can suffer only over an infinite period of time.” However, we have no reason to believe that his temporal punishment was the equivalent to an everlasting one. Fudge does well, in his rebuttal to the traditional view, to point out that Jesus did in fact die and was not tortured forever. Peterson’s treatment of the cross is overly complicated, and it is therefore unhelpful. Although his position contains some slight setbacks, Peterson’s exegetical skills clearly make up for his imperfections.

I affirm the traditional view, because it performs strong exegesis, especially lexical and grammatical analyses of ten key texts—Isaiah 66:22-24, Daniel 12:1-2, Matthew 18:6-9, Matthew 23:31-46, Mark 9:42-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Jude 7, Jude 13, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:20, 14-15. All of these exegetical studies perform exceptional hermeneutics. We will now examine the following highlighted areas: Matthew 18:6-9; Matthew 23:31-46; and Revelation 20:10-15.

Peterson examines Matthew 18:6-9, in which Jesus mentions two key phrases, “eternal fire” and “fire of hell.” Peterson says that these phrases, combined with the rest of the passage, focuses on eternal destiny for the wicked. He notes that the passage is said in response to a question from the disciples, who asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds with an unlikely answer. He said that whoever would make himself low like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, Peterson claims, is saying that true disciples are those with childlike humility. Then, Jesus employs a graphic image to describe the punishment of sinners. He describes the drowning of a person. Jesus identifies that his hearers should do whatever it takes to keep them from sinning so that they do not face such harsh punishment. Peterson demonstrates that Jesus is making a contrast between heaven and hell in this passage. There are two options. First, there is life. Second, there is eternal fire, which is the fire of hell.

Peterson compares his summary with the conditional view’s treatment of the same passage, Matthew 18:6-9. He rightly notes that Fudge starts with this passage and then switches to other passages without directly dealing with the text at hand. Fudge does not deal with the text in its context as Peterson does, but rather, he appeals to other passages and imports their content into the present text. Peterson accomplishes two things. One, he reveals the lack of credibility to Fudge’s treatment of Matthew 18:6-9. And two, he shows that he has done a better job of interpreting the text. He concludes that the reference to eternal fire indicates that there will be an eternal punishment for the wicked, and even though the text here does not specify precisely what kind, it does not need to. I affirm as Peterson does that the text leaves the reader with the knowledge that the wicked will be tormented for an eternal length of time.

Peterson’s linguistic skills are clearly seen in his treatment on Matthew 25:31-46. Although he continues his exceptional exegetical skills that he employed all throughout his treatment of biblical passages, which we have seen in his section on Matthew 18:6-9, his section here on Matthew 25:31-46 really shines bright. Especially in regard to the last sentence of the passage, Peterson rightfully appeals to the symmetry of terms. On the one hand, we have eternal life, and on the other, eternal punishment—all in the same sentence. In referencing a notable and highly distinguished Greek lexicon, Peterson appeals to linguistic authority, something that Fudge does not do, to define “punishment.” He notes that it could mean “long-continued torture,” “divine retribution” or “eternal damnation.” If we combine this lexical data with the fact that Jesus teaches that the wicked will be thrown into eternal fire, the interpretation of eternal tormenting comes across very strong.

In comparing his interpretation to that of Fudge, Peterson demonstrates superiority in his presentation. He shows that Fudge’s use of “punishment” in Matthew 25:31-46 is wrongfully rendered, being purposefully adapted to fit the needs of the conditional view, and I agree with his assessment. Fudge argues that eternal punishment does not indicate eternal suffering in hell, but he has not appealed to any linguistic authority to support his argument. Peterson rightly identifies that “eternal” modifies both “punishment” and “life” within the same sentence. Therefore, while Fudge renders “eternal” one way for “life” and another for “punishment,” Peterson correctly renders it the same for both nouns. He does well to identify that Fudge errs by saying “eternal life” is never-ending bliss while “eternal punishment” is irreversible annihilation. Peterson clearly gives the best treatment of this passage, utilizing not only sound exegesis, but also excellent linguistic analysis.

Peterson also works through Revelation 20:10-15 in addition to the texts from Matthew that we have already looked at. Peterson’s exegesis here is exemplary. He does well to include the whole context, which is crucial to understanding the last clause of the passage, to demonstrate that the text says that the wicked will suffer eternal torment in the lake of fire. Indeed, the devil is included with the beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire where they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. All those who are not saved will be thrown into the lake of fire—where there is eternal tormenting—along with the devil, beast and prophet.

In comparing his treatment to that of Fudge, Peterson points out Fudge’s poor assumptions that persuaded his understanding of the text. He notes that Fudge assumes that the beast and the prophet are institutions, not persons, and are incapable of eternal suffering. I disagree with Fudge on this point, because he fails to recognize the whole context, while Peterson does take it into consideration. The context includes the devil in the lake of fire, and since the devil is an individual capable of punishment and suffering, Fudge has come to a wrongful conclusion. Peterson’s exegesis of the passage is superior, and I affirm with him that the lake of fire will hold eternal torment for all those who are not saved, the devil, the beast and the false prophet.

Conclusion

In this debate on hell, Fudge presented an understandable case, using logic and reason to attempt to establish his view. However, Peterson noted the poor quality of Fudge’s case, and gave it some devastating comments in his rebuttal. Peterson’s case was very good too, using exemplary hermeneutical tools to establish his view. Fudge was not quite able to tear down Peterson’s presentation in his rebuttal, although he did have a few good things to say in response to him. Overall, Peterson won the debate. He had the best case with the most conclusive evidence. Yet, the book still demonstrates that the evidence is mixed in this debate, and it requires that a decision should be made based on the most conclusive evidence. In the end, the traditional side had the most conclusive evidence with its sound exegesis. I affirm that the traditional view as it contains the most conclusive evidence. Although I realize that the evidence is mixed, as the two views stand in juxtaposition, I have to choose the traditional view, because it is much more sound as it is constructed on excellent exegetical methods while the conditional view is not. I affirm that Scripture teaches that hell is non-fellowship with God, as both views do, but that it also proclaims eternal torment for the unsaved in hell, as does Peterson.

Bibliography

Fudge, Edward and Peterson, Robert. Two Views of Hell: a biblical & theological dialogue.

Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.


A Comparison of “Resident Aliens” with “The Emerging Church”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class in systematic theology.

Introduction

Much ink has been spilt on the relationship between the church and the world. Many authors have written books on how we ought to change the church in how it relates to the world. Two such books, Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, fall into this category. The first book, Resident Aliens, written by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, focused on distinguishing the church from its surrounding culture. The second, The Emerging Church, written by Dan Kimball, focused on conforming the church to cultural preconceptions on spirituality. Although these two books are similar because of a common audience, subject and goal, they are very different due to their main agendas, ministry focuses and warnings. In comparing the similarities and differences, and positives and negatives, we will see that both books give a good reality check for the church, but that one of them, The Emerging Church, presented a better overall case and had a greater impact on the reader.  It is to the comparison of these two books that we now address, starting with their similarities.

Resident Aliens vs. The Emerging Church

Comparing and Contrasting

Similarities

Both of our books were written to pastors. These books were written to pastors to help encourage change within the church. The first book, Resident Aliens, was written in the 1980s to exhort pastors to care for the Christians in their churches. Likewise, The Emerging Church, was written within the last five years to exhort pastors to effectively reach out to the emerging culture. Both of these books share a similar audience. Both of our books were written with role of the church in the world in mind. Although they take different approaches, both books have the same subject. Both of our books have goals to change the church. The differences are that they want do change the church in different ways. Even though our books, Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, share similar audiences, roles and desires, they are quite different from each other. Now that we have addressed their similarities, we can now examine the differences between these two books.

Differences

The main agendas for our books seem to be opposites. Resident Aliens seeks to distinguish the church while The Emerging Church seeks to conform it. The former defines the church as a colony and Christians as resident aliens, and as such it argues that the American church needs to distinguish itself from its surrounding culture. The latter presents its case that the church needs to adapt to the changes in culture in order to be optimally effective missionaries in the emerging world. These main agendas are opposites–on the one hand, the church should get uninvolved with culture, and on the other, the church should get involved in the culture. However, when we consider that the objects of culture are different in these main agendas, we have to maintain that they are not truly opposites, because they are not focused on the same exact things. Therefore, we can say that they have exhortations that seem to stand in tension with each other, but they are not opposite or contradictory arguments. They are in fact different but not opposites. Our books’ main agendas are different, as we have now seen, but their ministry focuses and roles for the church are different as well.

Unlike the main agendas, the ministry focuses of these books are complete opposites. Resident Aliens is focused on ministering to Christians whereas The Emerging Church is focused on ministering to non-Christians. The goal of Resident Aliens is to change the church for the purpose of helping Christians fulfill what they are called to–to be “faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God.” This book does not lack a missional focus, as it identifies the importance of the church determining to worship Christ in all things, to be faithful and effective as it brings new people into the alternative “countercultural social structure called church.” The goal of The Emerging Church is to change the church for the purpose of helping non-Christians come to Christ while still allowing for the edification of believers. These books identify different roles for the church. Resident Aliens identifies that the role of the church is to be different than the world, but The Emerging Church identifies that the the church’s role is to adapt to the world. Proclaiming different roles for the church could seem to be contradictory, but we have to remember that these two books have different ministry focuses. We cannot examine the proclaimed role for the church without looking at the proclaimed ministry for each book, otherwise we will make the mistake of believing these two books to contradict each other. By looking at the role and ministry incorporated in each book, we can see that the agendas are truly different but not contradictory.

Now that we have compared and contrasted the two books, we should examine the positives and negatives of Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, so that we can determine which book has the better overall case for their different agendas in an effort to identify the book that had the greatest impact on the reader.

Considering the Positives and Negatives

Resident Aliens did a fantastic job of presenting a correct understanding of the role of the church members as witnesses of God. A church without witness would be pointless, so it is imperative for a book that deals with the role of the church to include such a vital understanding. However, it did not do so well in presenting a clear theme of distinguishing the church from the world. It seems to either neglect or be ignorant of a dual kingdom citizenship for believers in the church. The idea of “already but not yet” is hard to find in this book, leaving its main agenda somewhat incomplete and unclear.

The Emerging Church did an exceptional job of demonstrating a correct understanding of church leadership from a biblical perspective. The way that it used the contemporary analogies from Star Trek to portray its understanding of the true biblical portrait of church leadership was brilliant and stimulating. The one thing that it lacked was that out of all the examples it gave for reaching the emerging culture, it failed to give any suggestions outside of a worship gathering setting. It identified the importance of discipleship, but in the end no concrete examples were given, at least not in the same way that concrete examples were given for worship gathering sets and room structures.

Conclusion

Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, with their different agendas, ministries and church roles, and similar audience, goal and subject, had different impacts on the reader. The first book was good, but the second was better for three reasons.

First, The Emerging Church is much more contemporary than Resident Aliens. It is up to date and much more relevant. Resident Aliens is much older and is incapable of relating to the current reader in the same way that The Emerging Church can. Therefore, The Emerging Church is more desirable because it is much more impacting as it reaches into and attempts to affect a time that the reader is currently familiar with.

Second, The Emerging Church has a much more fluid presentation than Resident Aliens. It seemed to have a textbook feel to it. It was easy to follow because of its small sections and well-thought out structure. It was aesthetically pleasing with fun graphics and colorful design. Most importantly, its content was lively, interactive–especially with the discussion questions at the end of each chapter–and well-written. Its content was not any more important than what we find in Resident Aliens, but much of what we read depends on how it is visually, artistically and logically presented. Therefore, in respect to the overall presentation of the books, The Emerging Church is superior.

Third, The Emerging Church has a much better argument for the role of the church as witnesses than Resident Aliens. Although the role of the church as witnesses is not foreign or nonexistent in the latter, it is clearly the dominant focus in the former. As a result, the entire book is built on the role of the church to adapt to the culture for the purpose of being a witness in an effort to reach the emerging culture.

In sum, Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church are similar but different books written for different times. Therefore, it is hard to simply compare them side-by-side. However, we can compare them in terms of personal impact. Even though it was much longer, The Emerging Church was the book that had the greatest impact because it is more contemporary and relevant, it has a better overall presentation and it has a better argument for the role of the church. Both books are good and both serve the church well. Resident Aliens is a valuable resource in talking on how the church should continue to exist in relation to the American culture as a colony, and The Emerging Church is a valuable resource in talking on how the church should continue to reach out to the American culture as a witness.

Bibliography

Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William. Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon, 1989.

Kimball, Dan. The Emerging Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

Evans’ “We Have Been Believers”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class in systematic theology.

 

Sadly, the Bible has been a source of grief throughout certain points in history, such as the American slave trade. James Evans pointed out this unfortunate problem in United States’ history in his book, We Have Been Believers. Evans noted that the church has been guilty of eisogetically studying the Bible so as to use it for its own benefit at certain points in history, and the American slave trade is no exception. He perceives that there are four things a preacher or theologian must take into account before properly ministering to African-American theologians, which are as follows: one, cultural influences cannot be escaped; two, the Bible must be allowed to speak to today; three, the biblical story is more important that the individual words that comprise the story; and four, the Bible’s authority must be understood within the history of its acceptance, which was during a struggle for liberation. These four perceptions have impacted my philosophy for ministry and me by forcing me to realize that I need to be sensitive when utilizing the Bible, by urging me to be cautious of cultural influences, and by challenging me to make Scripture relevant. Let us begin by quickly examining the four perceptions that Evans presented in his book and then briefly look at the three ways his perceptions have had an impact on my ministry philosophy and on me.

Evans’ four perceptions are an answer to a simple question that asks, “What does the history of African-American biblical interpretation mean for systematic theology?” For Evans, it is a four-fold answer. He wrote, “First, it means that social location conditions biblical interpretation. . . . Second, what the Bible means takes priority over what the Bible meant. . . . Third, the story takes priority over the text. . . . Fourth, the African-American theologian must articulate the liberating hermeneutic that grants authority to Scripture in the experience of black Christians.”1 It must be admitted that cultural influence cannot be escaped in biblical interpretation. The Bible must continue to speak to today and not to the past. The meaning behind the words is more valuable than the words themselves. In speaking to black people, the black Christian tradition concerning the Bible must be utilized. These four perceptions have had an impact on my ministry philosophy and on me in three ways.

First, Evans’ four perceptions have brought me to the realization that I need to be sensitive when referring to the Bible. The Bible has been a source of grief in many people’s lives, so to refer to the authority of Scripture is not always helpful and is sometimes harmful. I need to be sensitive to this possibility at all times if I am to effectively minister as a church leader and even as a person. If I do not, then not only will people not want to hear me at the pulpit or in the front of a classroom, but even more broadly I will be disdained as an individual.

Second, Evans’ four perceptions have urged me to be cautious of cultural influences. I cannot be irresponsible and eisogetically interpret the Bible. I would make myself unworthy of anyone’s trust should I do so. However, I must be mindful that I cannot fully escape my cultural influences, but at the very least I must try to allow Scripture to speak to me and to my contemporaries without allowing my own culturally influenced perceptions speak to Scripture.

Third, Evans’ four perceptions have challenged me to make Scripture relevant. Although exegetical and historical studies are exhilarating and fruitful, they are not enough. Scripture must be spoken in such a way that it ministers to today’s people. It spoke in the past and it should speak to today. The challenge is how I will allow for Scripture to speak to today in my teaching, preaching and writing? I must find a way to allow Scripture its own place to speak to today.

I believe Evans is correct in his perceptions, that culture influences biblical interpretation, the Bible must speak to today, the story behind the words is more valuable than the words, and black Christian tradition must be utilized for ministering to African-Americans. These perceptions have persuaded me to realize that I need to be sensitive when referring to the Bible, to be cautious of my own cultural influences as well as others’, and to be a vessel for which Scripture can speak to today. My ministry is impacted through these three persuasions because all my preaching, teaching and writing must pass these three types of tests—relative (Am I relating well or turning people off by using Scripture in this way?), cultural (Am I pulling this idea out of or placing it into Scripture?), practical (Am I allowing Scripture to be relevant or am I making it an archaic book that is irrelevant?). Personally, Evans’ four perceptions speak to me entirely in relational terms. It is helpful to be reminded to be cautious of eisogesis and to make Scripture relevant, but most of all to be mindful of others’ feelings. How can I make an impact as a person and as a teacher, preacher or writer? Evans makes it clear. I can have an impact in my life by be responsible with the Bible and by making the message of the Bible relevant.


1 James Evans, We Have Been Believers: an African-American Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 51-2.

The Problem of Suffering

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on systematic theology.

 

Introduction

Why is there suffering in this life? Some argue that it is by the hand of evil that suffering comes. But this answer naturally leads to another question, which asks, “Where did evil come from?” Some argue that God created evil in his sovereignty, while others argue differently. Suffering and evil pose a large problem for many, especially when it comes to placing faith in God. Not only does it pose a problem for people, but also for theology. There are many systematic theological interpretations and views, but many—if not all—do not do well in answering the problem of suffering and evil. And how exactly do systematic approaches attempt to answer the problem of evil? The answer rests in the interpretations of the doctrine of the providence and sovereignty of God.

However, there is a problem in this doctrine, because God is an infinite God, which means that finite humans cannot completely understand him in his nature and in his ways, meaning that we cannot infallibly know the providence and sovereignty of God. Although we may not fully comprehend the eternal God, we can examine several different interpretations and applications of the doctrines of the providence and sovereignty of God to the problem of suffering and evil in an effort to determine how we might apply them to the problem ourselves in our lives and ministries. The application of this theology is absolutely imperative, for as faith without works is dead (cf. James 2:14ff.), so also is theology without practice. Yet, before we can apply our theology, we must first come to an understanding of the doctrine of the providence and sovereignty of God. We will first define our terms, and second we will examine the major systematic approaches—Arminianism, Calvinism, Open Theism and Molinism—to the providence and sovereignty of God before looking at how each fails in dialogue with the problem of suffering and evil. Then, we will look at other views and interpretations before we determine the best way to approach an answer to our problem before we get practical.

Providence and Sovereignty in Dialogue with Suffering and Evil

Sovereignty and Providence

Definitions

Before we look at systematic approaches to the providence and sovereignty of God, we ought to define what it is that we are specifically looking at. Providence is understood in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 as God’s power upholding creation while at the same time ruling over creation in such a way that every single event, whether rain drops or hurricanes, sickness or health, or life or death, is not happenstance, but rather by his hand (Migliore 2004, 118). Therefore, the providence of God includes his sovereignty, which is his supreme control over all things, including humanity (Geisler 1999, 15). The various approaches looked at below, however, take different interpretations of these definitions. We should grasp these different views in order that we might learn how we can apply God’s providence and sovereignty to the problem of suffering and evil.

Systematic Approaches

Arminianism

The sovereignty of God in Arminian theology does not mean determinism, but rather, a control over all things that is not absolute, meaning it is not meticulous in governance to the point that it excludes human free will (Olson 2006, 116). In other words, the sovereignty of God in Arminianism upholds that God has a contingent control over all of creation, including humanity, whom He has given the right to choose. The providence of God is understood in the classical sense in Arminian theology in three parts: God’s preserving (sustaining); concurring; and governing (2006, 117). God’s sustaining means the providential preservation of creation, which includes the laws of nature (2006, 117). God’s concurrence is his consent for any and all of creation’s choices and actions (2006, 117). God’s governance involves how God governs, rules, leads and guides the world (2006, 117). It is in the interpretation of how God governs that Arminian theology is different from Calvinism and the others.

Arminian theology upholds that the governance of God involves his exercise of control, but that he does not use that control to the point that he excludes human free will nor does it make him the creator of evil (Olson 2006, 117). In fact, Arminians reject meticulous control on the basis that it will not make God the author of sin and evil (2006, 118). However, Arminians do argue that God “indirectly [causes sin and evil] to happen; God renders it certain because he wants it to happen for some greater good and ultimately for his own glory” (2006, 119). The issue for Arminians is not that they deny the sovereignty and providence of God, because they actually uphold it, but they interpret them differently than Calvinists and others do (2006, 119). Yet, Calvinists and others seem to have a misunderstanding of Arminian theology, because they often claim that Arminians deny the sovereignty of God on the basis that God’s sovereignty is incompatible with human free will.

Calvinist authors Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, in Why I am Not an Arminian, write that Arminian theology is lead by human free will toward an indeterminist incompatibilism, where divine sovereignty and human free will are incompatible, because human beings are free, which means that God simply cannot be sovereign over the history of humanity (2004, 138). In other words, Calvinists argue that Arminians believe that if our choices are determined and are therefore necessary, then such decisions are not actually free, meaning that humans are not responsible for their choices (2004, 138). Furthermore, they argue that Arminians believe that because the Bible declares humans are morally responsible for their choices, God must not determine human choices; therefore, he is not sovereign (2004, 139). These arguments may be true of some Arminians, but certainly not all, as Roger E. Olson, an Arminian and a theology professor, has contested in his book, Arminian Theology: myths and realities, that “Classical Arminians do believe in God’s sovereignty and providence over human history” (2006, 119).

Arminian theology believes in the providence and sovereignty of God, despite what outside critics say, but Arminians define sovereignty in such a way that they do not uphold meticulous governance. Human free will is important in Arminianism, but it is not the sole feature of God’s providence. Arminian theology believes God does not meticulously govern and determine every little detail of our lives, particularly our choices and actions, but he is still sovereign and in control over all that happens in creation so that he points all things to a good end (Olson 2006, 121). For Arminians, “God’s governing providence is comprehensive and active without being all-controlling or omnicausal” (2006, 121).

Calvinism

Whereas the sovereignty of God in Arminian theology does not mean determinism, in Calvinistic theology it does (Geisler 1999, 17). God’s sovereignty means that he has absolute control of all things (1999, 15). Therefore, Calvinistic theology upholds the providence of God as meticulous governance with his absolute control over all things (Peterson and Williams 2004, 144). In other words, God’s providence means that he oversees and guides all of creation (2004, 157). Calvinists believe that God governs all things in his sovereignty, and that nothing that comes to pass has any effect on his sovereign ordinances (Walls and Dongell 2004, 122). In fact, God knows all things, including what humans will do in the future, precisely because he has determined beforehand what they will decide to do and what actions they will perform” (2004, 122). This determination is part of the Calvinist’s doctrine of the theology of the governance of God, which is part of the doctrine of providence. Calvinism varies drastically from Arminianism simply in the determinism factor in the governance of God.

There is some diversity in Calvinistic theology, however, just like any systematic theology, when it comes to interpreting how the determinism of all events affects human free will. Some Calvinists actually sacrifice human free will in order to uphold God’s sovereignty, thus denying the whole of the biblical corpus in an effort to uphold one facet of Scripture. However, there are Calvinists who, although they believe in meticulous determination, uphold human free will in tension with God’s sovereignty as two noncontradictory parts to the whole of providence. Norman L. Geisler, a moderate Calvinist (as opposed to an extreme Calvinist), views providence like a two-sided coin: one side is the divine sovereignty of God; on the other is human responsibility or free will (1999, 19). Geisler argues that there is no contradiction between the two in chapter three of his book, Chosen But Free: a balanced view of divine election. Geisler points out what he calls the law of noncontradiction, which states that there is a contradiction only “if two logically opposite statements are said of the same thing at the same time and in the same relationship” (1999, 46). Because foreknowledge and determination are in different relationships to events than human free will, there is no contradiction between the two. For example, to say that Jesus’ death on the cross was determined by God and to also say that Jesus’ death on the cross was freely chosen by Jesus himself is “not contradictory because they are said in a different relation (or ‘sense’)” (1999, 46). However, to say Jesus freely chose it and to say Jesus did not freely choose it would be a contradiction, or to say God determined it and to say God did not determine it would too (1999, 46). Geisler successfully demonstrates that providence is not self-contradicting, but it does pose a mystery for humans.

Other Calvinists, like Peterson and Williams, seem to claim mystery as an ignorant end-all argument, which emphasizes that God is infinite and we cannot understand how in his Sovereignty and meticulous control over all our decisions and actions we can have free will and be held morally responsible for them. This argument is based on the sole fact that the Bible inevitably teaches both, and it is therefore not contradictory (Peterson and Williams 2004, 149). Despite the fact that the sovereignty of God and human free will seem to overlap or even call each other into question throughout Scripture, the Bible teaches both, so Calvinists affirm both, and many claim that the two are compatible without ever working them out as such (2004, 1999). However, this argument presupposes a major and vital assumption: the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Because Calvinists assume that the Bible cannot be wrong, they also believe that it can in no way be in contradiction to itself. This logic invariably means that since the Bible affirms both God’s sovereignty and human free will, they must in some way not be contradictory, else the Word of God be erroneous. For Peterson and Williams, this argument is good enough on its own and how God’s sovereignty and human free will work out in the providence of God does not need any further explanation. However, this reasoning will not work for many looking with a critical eye at the issue of providence, and so this understanding poses a problem for critical thinkers.

Calvinists believe in the sovereignty of God and the meticulous governance of all creation. However, human free will is in fact important in Calvinistic theology and is not completely discarded for the sake of God’s sovereignty, but it is still subject to the providence and sovereignty of God (Peterson and Williams 2004, 144). For Calvinists, God’s sovereign lordship over “his creation includes the moral responsibility and freedom of human beings” (2004, 144).

Open Theism

Many Arminian or incompatibilist critics seem to confuse these groups with Open Theists, who are actually different from those who uphold Arminian theology. Open Theism is actually the theology that denies the sovereignty of God in its traditional sense, not Arminianism. Open Theists uphold that traditional views of God have been largely shaped by Greek philosophy rather than by biblical exegesis (Walls and Dongell 2004, 142). For this reason, Open Theists argue that doctrines dealing with God as absolutely immutable or unchangeable are ones that were influenced by Greek philosophy rather than by Scripture (2004, 142). Furthermore, Open Theists believe that God is omniscient only in the sense that God knows all that can be known or what is logically possible to know (2004, 142). Since future events are up to humans to choose and enact, in order to be truly free they cannot be known by God according to Open Theists, who determine that God must not know future free events, but he still knows all things that are logically possible to know (2004, 142). Open Theists are making their argument that God knows only that which can be known on the basis of the limitations understood in the doctrine of omnipotence. The logic of Open Theists is as follows:

Most traditional accounts of omnipotence do not claim that God can do literally

anything. Rather, they hold only that God can do anything that is logically possible and

compatible with his perfect nature. Thus God cannot lie or make a square circle. . . .

The fact that God cannot make square circles or married bachelors does not in any way

detract from his perfect power. Similarly, it is argued, the fact that God cannot know

what is impossible to know does not detract from his perfect knowledge. If it is

impossible in principle to know future free actions, then omniscience does not pertain to

such action. (2004, 143)

 

God is viewed in Open Theism as all knowing of logical facts, but human freedom is unknown territory to God, yet this in know way diminishes his omniscience.

Therefore, in His sovereignty, God created a world that is “logically possible and compatible with his perfect nature” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 144). In his sovereignty, it is admitted by Open Theists, God could have created a world in which libertarian freedom did not exist, so that he meticulously controlled everything (2004, 144). However, because it is obvious that there is human freedom, God made a world in his sovereignty in which it functions from human free will rather than by meticulous control (2004, 145). Open Theists point out that this reason in no way diminishes the sovereignty of God; God is not less sovereign in a world he chose to grant free will any more than in a world where he meticulously determines everything (2004, 145). Therefore, sovereignty for Open Theism is simply human freedom to choose in accord with one’s will (2004, 145).

Open Theists continue their argument, claiming less control does not mean less sovereignty, because God himself chose to have less control” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 145). They do contend, however, that God still maintains control throughout all events. Therefore, Open Theists argue that life is like a chess game, where God is the chess master and we are the novices, so that even though God does not know all our exact moves until we actually make them, he does have ultimate control of life all throughout and will achieve his end goal, and nothing can catch God off-guard (2004, 146).

Open Theists deny the traditional understanding of sovereignty and completely uphold human free will. However, human free will was and is God’s will for us to have according to Open Theists, which means that God’s sovereignty is seen in the fact that we have free will. For Open Theism, providence is God’s sovereignty expressed in human free will combined with God’s intervention throughout history to bring about his end goal (Roy 2006, 261).

Molinism

Molinism takes a “middle” approach to Calvinism and Arminianism. Now, by “middle” we do not mean in between Calvinism and Arminiansm, but rather in between natural and free knowledge. Molinism upholds middle knowledge, which is all knowledge that falls in the middle of natural and free knowledge. The natural knowledge of God is truths that are essential, meaning all truths that could not be other than they are, like mathematical truths (Walls and Dongell 2004, 135). The free knowledge of God is the opposite of natural knowledge, and it is truths that could have been other than they are (2004, 135). Middle knowledge, therefore, is everything in between these two in that it shares a characteristic from each, which is seen in the following statement:

On the one hand, it is similar to natural knowledge in that it is known by God prior to his decision to create and it does not depend on what he decides on that score. On the other hand, it is similar to free knowledge in the sense that it pertains to truths that are contingent rather than necessary. . . . the object of middle knowledge, broadly speaking, is what all possible created free wills would do in all possible circumstances or states of affairs. (2004, 135)

 

Therefore, Molinism is represented in this conditional statement: “If A, then Y, but if B, then Z”; and so on and so forth. Middle knowledge itself is God’s knowledge of all possible employments of free will in any given event or choice, including the one that will actually be employed (2004, 134). Providence is therefore seen in Molinism as God’s arrangement of the world as he chooses in accordance with his middle knowledge (2004, 137).

In Molinism, God has no control of his middle knowledge (Walls and Dongell 2004, 137). Yet, even though he does not have control over it, he does possess such knowledge. In terms of the providence of God, Molinism gives an explanation for how God can have control over various circumstances without being a determinist of human choices (2004, 138).

Molinism suffers from its inability to work out God’s foreknowledge with middle knowledge. It does not logically work to exaplain “how God can have foreknowledge of our future free choices as well as the middle knowledge on which such foreknowledge depends” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 141). Like some Calvinists who claim ignorance, it has been suggested within the Molinist interpretation that we simply need to embrace mystery at this juncture (2004, 138). On the basis that there are several things about God that we do not know and are a mystery to us, it seems fair to accept that we cannot even begin to understand how God knows future free choices (2004, 138). This ignorance causes a problem for us later on in our dialogue with suffering and evil, however.

Molinism upholds the sovereignty of God in His providence while still allowing for human freedom, but it goes beyond Arminianism or Calvinism by believing God knows all choices that one could make in addition to the one choice that one will make. God still has complete control while humans take their own paths, and God also knows all the possible paths that they could have also taken.

Suffering and Evil

Now that we know what it is exactly that we are looking at and the different interpretations involved, we can begin to look at how they interact with the problem of suffering and evil. The question is, “How can we affirm the providence of God in the face of evil and suffering?” The doctrine of providence really is haunted by the reality of evil, and therefore we ought to look at how the aforementioned systematic approaches attempt to solve the problem of suffering and evil.

Arminianism, Open Theism, and Molinism

Arminianism, Open Theism and Molinism, all operating off of the importance of human free will over or in the sovereignty of God, uphold that God is not the author of sin or of evil, but rather humans are. Since they have free will, the problem is not God’s, but humanity’s. Humans are responsible for all the suffering and evil that exists in the world, and in his Sovereignty, God permits and allows suffering and evil to exist as a result of human free will. In Open Theism, God does not actually intend for evil events and suffering to happen, but they happen because humans bring it upon themselves, and yet, at times God will turn the events of suffering and evil into good, and others he will intervene and keep them from happening at all (Roy 2006, 263). In Arminianism, God permits things to happen in his sovereignty, and to this permission he has ordained the events, but he can turn those events into good (Olson 2006, 119). In Molinism, God permits things to happen in his sovereignty, because in the end he knows that the bad events will eventually become good in the choices that we make along the way (Walls and Dongell 2004, 137-8). These answers to the problem of suffering and evil are helpful, but they are not flawless.

Calvinism

Because Calvinistic theology upholds that God is meticulously sovereign, it also upholds that God has ordained sin, evil and suffering since before the dawn of time. However, moderate Calvinists would say that the Bible does not say that God authored sin, evil or suffering. Therefore, Calvinism upholds that all events, the good and the bad, the directly and the indirectly caused, happen because God intends for them to happen (Walls and Dongell 2004, 127). Therefore, sin, suffering and evil do not exist outside of God’s sovereign rule (Peterson and Williams 2004, 158). However, Calvinism’s answer is not without its problems, either.

Problems

None of the aforementioned theological approaches can fully answer the problem of suffering and evil, which means we still have a problem. Calvinism suffers from the fact that it relies on philosophical judgments at particular theological junctures, especially here in the problem of suffering and evil (Walls and Dongell 2004, 149). In presenting its case for the providence of God in the problem of suffering and evil, “Calvinism depends on both a controversial philosophical judgment and a contested interpretation of Scripture” (2004, 149). As it is, popular Calvinism is not fully able to support its claims for the meticulous governance in suffering and evil. Arminianism and Molinism fail to address that God created the world knowing beforehand that sin and evil would eventually enter it, which in essence means that he ordained it from the beginning (Peterson and Williams 2004, 157). Molinism also suffers from the fact that it fails to logically work out God’s foreknowledge of future free choices with middle knowledge. Because it is not able to work this problem out, neither can it even begin to answer the problem of suffering and evil in God’s providence. Open Theism does not give any help in answering the problem of suffering and evil, because while humans are responsible for it, God still intervenes part of the time, but the problem then becomes why God does not intervene all the time (Roy 2006, 263). The question in Open Theism is, “By what basis ‘will God’s wisdom decide which evils to prevent and which to permit’ (2006, 263)?” None of these theologies have proven infallible. Now our question is, “What can we do as Christians who believe in the providence of God since suffering and evil exist?”

Getting Practical

In every aforementioned systematic approach, no matter how we look at them, all of them uphold some sense of God’s providence and sovereignty. How, then, can we apply God’s providence and sovereignty to suffering and evil? The answer is simply to draw applications from the fundamental truth that God is in fact, whether we know how or not, in control of all things, events and people in some way or another. Daniel L. Migliore provides some helpful guidance in answering our problem in his book, Faith Seeking Understanding: an introduction to Christian theology. He does recognize that the providence of God is severely challenged by the reality of evil (2004, 118). To start, he explores how some theologians have looked at the providence of God in the past in relation to suffering and evil. First he looks at Augustine and then he looks at Calvin.

Migliore shows how Augustine talked of God’s allowing or permitting events to occur and uses all events, including the good and the bad, to accomplish his divine purposes. Migliore writes of Augustine’s understanding, “God exercises sovereignty over evil by bringing good out of what by itself is only negative and destructive” (2004, 122). In his City of God, Augustine wrote, “By the ineffable mercy of God even the penalty of man’s offense is turned into an instrument of virtue” (13.4). To sum up Augustine in the light of the way Migliore describes him and his theology of providence, he believes in a sort of salvage providence, where God obviously uses good events for his good purposes, but he also salvages bad ones and uses them for good purposes too. Calvin, however, does not see the providence of God in the same light.

Calvin upholds a providential micro-management. In this micro-management of God, things do not happen by fortune, chance or caprice, but by God’s secret plan (Migliore 2004, 122). In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote, “[N]othing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by God” (1960, 1.16.3). Everything that happens, whether good or bad, is specifically ordained by God as part of his meticulous plan according to Calvin as Migliore interprets.

It seems that the Arminian, Open Theistic and Molinistic theologies of the providence of God seem to align themselves with Augustine in some way or another, while Calvinism obviously follows Calvin. But these interpretations are not the only ones that exist. Building off of the systematic approaches, there are a number of various non-systematic interpretations that are quite practical in dealing with the problem of suffering and evil. Migliore highlights three other different yet practical answers to the problem of suffering and evil in the providence and sovereignty of God.

The first answer Migliore highlights is the incomprehensibility of God interpretation. This answer states, “We do not know why there is so much evil in the world, or why it is distributed so unevenly, but we are nevertheless to trust God and have patience” (2004, 123). This interpretation calls people to claim ignorance and that we do not need to understand why we are in a world with suffering and evil because God is God and we cannot conceivably fathom it. It is true that “[w]e must surely agree that our knowledge of God’s ways is limited and that sometimes silence is a far more appropriate response to the enormity of suffering than feeble attempts to answer the question why” (2004, 123). However, we really ought to be weary of suppressing all questions and be careful of encouraging the unchallenged acceptance of any or all suffering (2004, 123).

The second answer Migliore highlights is the punishment versus the chastisement of God interpretation. In this answer, suffering can be looked at in two different ways. It can be considered as the punishment of the wicked, or it can be considered as the chastisement of the children of God. This answer says, “[B]oth the good and the wicked receive what they deserve, if not in this life, then in the life to come” (Calvin 1960, 1.5.10). This interpretation calls people to unquestionably accept suffering and evil as part of either God’s punishment or chastisement. However, there is a problem with this answer, because Jesus explicitly calls this line of thinking into question, like in John 9:1-3 and Luke 13:4 for example (Migliore 2004, 124). Indeed, human actions have consequences, and sometimes a person’s reckless and sinful behavior brings suffering in its wake, but not all suffering can be caused by sin alone, and it certainly cannot be attributed solely to the sin of the one suffering (2004, 124).

The third answer Migliore highlights is a divine pedagogy interpretation. It states, “Christians are to view all suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth” (2004, 124). This answer focuses on learning to have contempt for our present lives and to meditate on our future lives (2004, 124). This answer believes that “God sends poverty, bereavement, diseases, and other perils to wean us away from this earth, to cause us to fix our eyes on heaven rather than on the goods of the present life” (Calvin 1960, 3.9.1). This interpretation calls people to hate God-given life and place all hope in the future. Unfortunately, this answer is problematic, because it leans toward calling suffering itself good, and it seems to devalue this life for the sake of the next, at least at the surface level. Additionally, in this answer, Paul is often quoted to support it, but he must be understood in that his primary thinking of suffering is about events of suffering that are willingly assumed for the sake of Christ and the gospel, not for any or all suffering in general (Migliore 2004, 124-5). Furthermore, advocates of this divine pedagogy quote Romans 8:18 as proof, but Paul’s statement here “ought not to be used to obscure the distinction between suffering that is willingly accepted for the sake of God’s reign and suffering that arises from conditions that can and should be changed” (2004, 125). At best, in this answer we can learn from our suffering like Jesus did (Heb. 5:8), but we should not convert suffering into the general truth that it is good (2004, 125).

Thus far, none of the systematic approaches proved fully capable of providing a sound argument for the providence of God in the problem of suffering and evil, nor have any of the non-systematic answers proved completely sound. Where then shall we go? Shall we protest God and put him on trial for being silent and inactive in the midst of suffering and evil (Migliore 2004, 129)? Shall we affirm that God is in fact not all sovereign and give up hope (2004, 129)? Or shall we fall back on the idea that evil and suffering exist for the sole purpose of providing opportunities for us to grow and thus accept human suffering (2004, 130)? We can turn to two places in theology: first, the Trinity; and second, the fundamental premise of any orthodox theology that in some sense God is sovereign.

Turning to the Trinity

The Trinity would be a great place for us to turn to in order to understand the providence of God in dialogue with suffering and evil. When we look at the cross event in the Trinity, which was no doubt part of God’s plan and thus within His providential care, we see all of the suffering in the world as encompassed in the Son’s affliction, the Father’s grief, and the Spirit’s comfort, and it is the Spirit “who inspires courage and hope to pray and work for the renewal of all things” (Migliore 2004, 132). Therefore, we can “couple emphasis on the suffering of the triune God with hope in the eschatological victory of divine love over all evil and the participation of creation in God’s eternal joy” (2004, 133). We accept suffering in the present because we have hope in the future, knowing that God will eventually end all suffering and bring us into his eternal presence.

The central feature of the Trinitarian understanding of divine providence in dialogue with the problem of suffering and evil is fixed on the power love, which is at work in Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection (Migliore 2004, 133). This understanding is not based on the “logic of control” but on the “logic of Trinitarian love,” which is “the self-giving love of the creator, redeemer, and consummator of the world” (2004, 133). The Trinitarian view upholds that the “God who creates and preserves the world is not a despotic ruler but ‘our Father in heaven’; not a distant God but a God who becomes one of us and accompanies us as the incarnate, crucified, risen Lord; not an ineffective God but one who rules all things by Word and Spirit rather than by the power of coercion” (2004, 133). This Trinitarian power of love teaches us three lessons.

One, providence does not mean fatalism. Migliore writes, “The love of God the creator and provider is at work not only where life is sustained and enhanced but also where all that jeopardizes life and its fulfillment is resisted and set under judgment” (2004, 133). Therefore, the providence of the triune God does not foster fatalism, and evil itself is to be resisted, as seen in Romans 12:21, for example (2004, 134).

Two, God is always faithful. Migliore writes, “The love of God the redeemer is at work both in the heights and in the depths of creaturely experience, both when the creature is strong and active and when it is weak and passive” (2004, 134). As indicated in Romans 8:28, God is ever faithful (2004, 134). In fact, “God does more than work for the preservation of life and against all that threatens it; God also intimately accompanies creatures in their activity and in their suffering” (2004, 134). God is not so far removed from his creation that he does not or cannot relate with it, including events that are full of evil and suffering. Indeed, “God is present as co-sufferer with all the wretched of the earth, whether in cancer wards or in concentration camps” (2004, 134).

Three, new life testifies to God’s Spirit still at work. Migliore writes, “The love of God the sanctifier is at work everywhere, preparing for the coming reign of God, planting seeds of hope, renewing and transforming all things” (2004, 135). The simple fact of the matter is that the “appearance of new life in the midst of death, wherever it may occur, is a sign that God’s Spirit is still at work, transforming the groaning creation and moving it toward the completion of God’s purpose in Christ” (2004, 135).

Turning to Fundamental Sovereignty

The fundamental doctrine of sovereignty is also a great place to turn to in order to understand the providence of God in dialogue with suffering and evil. We must understand that at the very least “[w]e can be confident that God reigns and that evil is firmly under God’s control” (Migliore 2004, 123). This truth has three lessons.

First, this lesson “teaches us the humility to receive adversity from God’s hand even though we cannot understand the reason” (Migliore 2004, 123). Although we may or may not have it all figured out, we do know that God is sovereign; therefore, we ought to humble ourselves and accept God’s providential control over anything that happens to us, thus trusting in him to provide and care for us in the good and the bad events that fill our lives. Second, this lesson teaches us “to give thanks for the times when we prosper” (2004, 123). Because God reigns, when we come to times in our lives when we prosper, we ought to give thanks to God who has allowed us to prosper, or who has given us our prosperity. Third, this lesson teaches us that “trust in God’s providence sets us free from all undue anxiety and care” (2004, 123). The truth is that God’s reign over evil and all creation empowers us to trust God in all circumstances, even when things are looking grim.

Calvin sums these lessons up in these words: “[G]ratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge [of providence]” (1960, 1.17.7). God’s providence leads believers to gratitude, patience and freedom. When we understand God’s providence in the general sovereignty of God, we learn to live through evil in the comfort of God’s power as he suffers with us while we work against suffering and evil.

Conclusion

Even though we might not understand God, His providence or His sovereignty completely, because we are finite creatures and He is the infinite Creator, we do know that in at least some sense He is in control over all things and events, and so we conclude that we can believe in God’s providence despite the problem of evil and suffering. Suffering and evil pose a huge problem for systematic theologians throughout the various theological interpretations that exist. None of the systematic approaches to the providence and sovereignty of God seem adequate enough to infallibly answer the problem of suffering and evil. Each one has its own faults. Other attempts to answer the problem of suffering and evil within the framework of God’s providence and sovereignty have proven practical but somewhat misleading, yet at least they are practical. Despite their shortcomings, the sovereignty of God in any orthodox biblical account of God should be recognized as a great source of comfort, because “God is in control and all things are indeed ordained and governed by him in some sense” (Wall and Dongell 2004, 151). Roy is right when he says, “[I]n and through every experience of suffering and evil, God is at work to accomplish his good purposes” (2006, 266). Therefore, there is hope in the midst of suffering and evil for all those who recognize in at least some sense that God is in fact in control over all creation and that nothing falls outside of his power and authority, and while suffering and evil pose a problem for theologians, they do not pose a problem for God.

Additionally, when we look at the cross event, we see a God who suffers alongside the sufferer—Jesus Christ. This fact also gives courage to those who affirm the providence of God to seek refuge in Him. Prayer becomes an essential tool for all those who are going through suffering or some sort of evil event, because it enables God to meet His children where they are at; through prayer God suffers with us, and through prayer we humble ourselves, yielding ourselves to God’s providential control. Furthermore, because God is in control, we can also thank him in prayer for the times that we prosper. But when we undergo suffering, we can approach him in prayer, express our anxiety and feelings to him, knowing that he has everything under control. We must learn to, in light of his sovereignty, humble ourselves and trust Him in times of suffering and evil, realizing that all trouble and hardship is “foreseen by God and ordered and used by him for their ultimate good” (Roy 2006, 266).

In light of all these interpretations, there are two things we must bear in mind as we learn about providence and sovereignty in tandem with suffering and evil. First, no image of God and no doctrine of providence “can be compelling that is not rooted in and tested by the gospel of the crucified Lord” (Migliore 2004, 137). Second, prayer is necessary in the life of the Christian and in theological work, “most especially in response to the continuing power of radical evil” (2004, 137). Although the search of faith for understanding never actually reaches full comprehension now in the present, “the call to discipleship in faith, hope, and love is clear. Christians know that they are summoned to watch, pray, and struggle for God’s new world of justice and peace in the company of all who are afflicted and cry for deliverance” (2004, 137).

Reference List

Augustine. City of God. Quoted in Daniel L. Migliore. Faith Seeking Understanding: an

introduction to Christian theology, 2nd ed., 122, n. 10. Grand Rapids and

Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

 

Calvin, Jean. 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vols. Ed. John T. McNeill.

Philadelphia: Westminster Press. Quoted in Daniel L. Migliore. Faith Seeking

Understanding: an introduction to Christian theology, 2nd ed., 122-4, n. 11, 14, 19.

Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

 

Geisler, Norman L. 1999. Chosen But Free: a balanced view of divine election. Minneapolis:

Bethany House Publishers.

 

Migliore, Daniel L. 2004. Faith Seeking Understanding: an introduction to Christian theology.

2nd ed. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

Olson, Roger E. 2006. Arminian Theology: myths and realities. Downers Grove: InterVarsity

Press.

 

Peterson, Robert A., and Williams, Michael D. 2004. Why I am Not an Arminian. Downers

Grove: InterVarsity Press.

 

Roy, Steven C. 2006. How Much Does God Foreknow?: a comprehensive biblical study.

Downer’s Grove and Nottingham: IVP Academic and Apollos.

 

Walls, Jerry L. and Dongell, Joseph R. 2004. Why I am Not a Calvinist. Downers Grove:

InterVarsity Press.

Kärkkäinen’s “Trinity and Religious Pluralism”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for the first quarter of systematic theology.

 

Introduction

Did Jesus Christ not emphatically proclaim that he is the only way to God and to heaven?  It would seem that Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen has forgotten that Jesus did in fact claim himself to be the exclusive means by which anyone can be in a relationship with God or to have a ticket into heaven when first glancing at his book, Trinity and Religious Pluralism: the doctrine of the trinity in Christian theology of religions, which is designed to progress some new theological territory in systematic theology.  This territory is referred to by Kärkkäinen as “theology of religions.”  In this book, Kärkkäinen goes through and critiques nine trinitarian theologians and their theology of religions in exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralisms categories , some of which I liked and others I did not.  In order to proceed, we must first define our terms.

Trinity and Religious Pluralism in Review

Defining our Terms

This book is primarily focused on theology of religions, but what is it?  Kärkkäinen defines theology of religions as that which “deals with how Christianity should relate to other religions” (2004, 1).  Essentially, theology of religions can be defined as a Christian understanding of Christianity in relation to all other religions.  Kärkkäinen did well, however, to define the terms by which he would be categorically referring to in regards to theology of religions: exlusivism; inclusivism; and pluralisms.

Exclusivism is defined by Kärkkäinen as the theology of religions that holds to salvation as “available only in Jesus Christ, to the extent that those who have never heard the gospel are eternally lost” (2004, 3).  This category claims that Jesus Christ is exclusively the only way to heaven and he is the only way to God, and therefore all other religions do not lead to God or to heaven.  This category did not receive much treatment, if truly at all, in Kärkkäinen’s book, probably because there are not very many theologians who have actually written on theology of religions from this perspective.  At any rate, this category is not given much space in his book.  Inclusivism and pluralism, however, are apparently Kärkkäinen’s main focus.

Inclusivism is defined by Kärkkäinen as the theology of religions that holds that “while salvation is ontologically founded upon the person of Christ, its benefits have been made universally available by the revelation of God” (2004, 3).  This category of theology of religions basically upholds that Christ’s salvific act was universal and therefore the effects of it affect all men through the working of the Holy Spirit.  The most ink was spilt on this category within Kärkkäinen’s book, as five chapters out of 12 were devoted to it.  Still, a significant amount of space was devoted to pluralisms.

Pluralisms is defined by Kärkkäinen as the theology of religions that holds that “other religions are legitimate means of salvation” (2004, 3). Pluralisms, which is used by Kärkkäinen as the singular, not plural, despite the way he spells it, allows for other religions to be true in that of themselves as they function for different end goals.  It allows for all regions to be correct and that, for example, both Jesus Christ and Buddha are both means for bringing salvation.  This is different from, for clarity’s sake, inclusivism, because while pluralisms hold that all religions are legitimate in their own right, they have different end goals and they are all true, inclusivism holds that God–the God of Christianity–works in all religions to bring about salvation through Jesus Christ.

To sum up our terms, let’s conceptualize our categories in relation to theology of religions in terms of God’s grace umbrella–God-provided salvation.  First, exclusivism states that only Christianity is included under God’s grace umbrella.  Second, inclusivism states that other religions are also included with Christianity under God’s grace umbrella.  Third, pluralisms state that each religion has its own grace umbrella.  It is within these categories that Kärkkäinen critiques nine trinitarian theologians: Karl Barth; Karl Rahner; Jacques Dupuis; Gavin D’Costa; Wolfhart Pannenberg; Clark Pinnock; John Hick; Raimundo Panikkar; and S. Mark Heim.  Barth represents most closely the exclusivism category, while Rahner, Dupuis, D’Costa, Pannenberg and Pinnock represent the inclusivism category, and Hick, Panikkar and Heim represent the pluralisms category in Kärkkäinen’s book.

The Three Categories and Their Respective Theologian Representatives

Kärkkäinen’s critique of Barth can be summed up with this statement: “It was Barth who claimed that what makes the Christian doctrine of God different from the gods of other religions is the Trinity” (2004, 1).  Basically, for Kärkkäinen, Barth represents the exclusivism category in the fact that Barth states that the trinity is the end of the dialogue.  Barth’s understanding is, according to Kärkkäinen, that the Trinity makes Christianity different (2004, 1).  By means of talking of the exclusiveness of the Trinity, Christianity is therefore the only way to heaven and to God.  This is the only time we will see a hint of this line of thinking in the book.  The rest of the book details inclusivism and pluralisms instead.

Rahner basically says that the grace of the Trinity has affected the world for all ages (2004, 42).  The Trinity, then, is not really exclusive to Christianity, but it can also be implicitly found in other religions, due to the universal nature of the salvific act of God through Christ.  Dupuis understands that the Trinity is relational and is present in other religions as well as in Christianity (2004, 59).  Therefore, the Trinity is not confined to Christianity merely based upon the fact that this religion claims the Trinity for itself, because the Trinity is relational, and it can relate to people outside of the Christian religion.  D’Costa understands that the existence of the Trinity in other religions also reveals the existence of the church in those religions (2004, 69-70).  This means that the church is not just those involved in the Christian religion, but extends to all who belong to a religion, which implies that everyone belongs to the church–the bride of Christ.  Pannenberg perceives that the Trinity is the common ground for evaluating all religions (2004, 89).  This line of thinking makes the Trinity to be the place where all religions convene together, a place of convergence, therefore making all religions in some way salvific through the Trinity.  Pinnock upholds that the Trinity uses all religions to transform the friendship between God the Father and humanity (2004, 101-2).  This makes the Trinity out to be involved in all religions to bring about God’s salvation for humankind.

The development, therefore, of the Trinity within the category of inclusivism goes from affecting the world, to relating to the world, to existing in all religions, to becoming the converging point for all religions, to employing religions for redemption.  Inclusivism’s use of the Trinity has broadened in its development throughout Kärkkäinen’s book.  Having a firm grasp of the trinitarian development of inclusivism in juxtaposition of the exclusivism’s use of the Trinity, we can now proceed to the development of the Trinity in pluralisms.

Hick understands that the Trinity is not three in one, rather essentially three modes, and the modes represent different ways by which God can be known (2004, 113).  Therefore, the Trinity is used here as a proof for the fact that there are multiple ways of going about religion, or at least multiple ways to know God.  Pannikkar holds that the Trinity is a way to structure the world, and it can therefore be seen in any aspect of life, including religion, which means that the Trinity is the originating and driving force behind all religions (2004, 121-3).  This makes the Trinity the motivating force in all religions, but more importantly it makes the Trinity ambiguous so that it can be seen in anything and thus claim anything, in this case various religions, to be of God or working for God.  Heim basically says that the diversity of the Trinity demonstrates that there is a diversity in religious goals (2004, 136).  This makes the idea that because there is diversity within the Trinity, there must also be diversity among religions, which would mean there must be diversity in terms of religious goals.

The development of pluralisms’ use of the Trinity, then, goes from different ways for knowing God, to seeing the Trinity in anything and everything, including religions, to having different goals of religions.  The use of the Trinity in pluralism does not broaden the perspective of the Trinity as inclusivism does, rather it multiplies the use in its categorical perspective.

Personal Matters and Conclusion

Before Kärkkäinen closed his book with a drug-out summary of his critique of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralisms, he performed a short case study focusing in on the way Catholicism and Islam relate to each other in theology of religions.  It demonstrated that Islamic followers criticize Christianity for upholding the Trinity, which they claim is a distortion (2004, 156).  To them, the Trinity is really “tritheism” (2004, 156).  Our author clearly shows that “the doctrinal concept of God is not the same in these two faiths” (2004, 157).  This implies that pluralisms do not function well between the two religions being studied, thus ruling it out as a viable option as a theology of religions.  Kärkkäinen does well to show that “For Christians it is clear that the trinitarian faith is monotheistic, but for Muslims it means blasphemy” (2004, 160).  These two religions cannot stand together.

Kärkkäinen’s final critical comments in the last chapter seemed drug out a bit.  He continued going on and on about one particular point that could be boiled down to a simple statement.  In truth, the whole book can be boiled down to this statement: the only way to approach theology of religions is through the Trinity, which has had a vast array of approaches in that of itself, including, but not limited to, a narrow, broad, and multiple use of the Trinity for inter-religious dialogue.  Additionally, the three categories are washed away in the end, even by our author, in the fact that it is impossible to have an inclusivism or pluralisms view “without sacrificing the built-in tendency of each religion to assume the finality of its own truth claims” (2004, 166).  It just is not possible to uphold inclusivism or pluralisms for this reason.  We know that that Trinity is exclusive to Christianity, and salvation is exclusive to Christianity; however, exclusivism does not mean exclusion!  Therefore, the whole purpose of theology of religions is this: “to learn and share but also to persuade the Other [all religions and all other people outside of Christian religion] (contra Dupuis and pluralists), yet in ways that honour the Other and give him or her the right to make up his or her own mind” (2004, 181).  It seems, then, that Kärkkäinen has not lost sight of the fact that Jesus did in fact make strong claims to be the exclusive way to God.

Kärkkäinen sought to review the categories of theology of religions in this book.  He did do well in critiquing several trinitarian theologians and their perspectives on theology of religions in relation to the Trinity.  What I have determined from reading this book is that the bottom line is that there are really only two categories: exclusivism and non-exclusivism.  It is impossible to hold to a true category that upholds either inclusivism or pluralisms because such categories deny exclusive truths of the respective religions.  Furthermore, the whole purpose of theology of religions is not necessarily to determine how God will save humanity, whether through one particular religion or through various methods, but rather to learn to respect other religions and to respectively persuade them towards Christ (2004, 181).  Thus, theology of religions is really, at least in the sense of Kärkkäinen, an apologetic for witnessing to people of other religions.

 

 

 

 

Reference List

 

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti.  2004.  Trinity and Religious Pluralism: the doctrine of the trinity in

Christian theology of religions.  Aldershot, England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate

Publishing Limited and Ashgate Publishing Company.

Plantinga’s “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for the first quarter of systematic theology.

 

Introduction

What do we know about sin?  The Bible tells us about sin, so why is it that many people attempt to describe sin outside of the biblical terms already set before us?  Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., wrote a book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: a breviary of sin, in which he attempts to resurface what was once a most serious treatment of sin (1996, ix).  Unfortunately, Plantinga predominately resorts to describing sin in terms that fall outside the biblical vocabulary.  Indeed, Plantinga’s treatment of sin is an experiential-conceptual summarization of sin and is far from having a solid biblical foundation, because it is based primarily on modern-day case studies and vocabularies of sin with seemingly few biblical references.  Of course, there are times when Plantinga intertwines biblical texts with modern-day ideas of sin, but for the majority of his book the Bible is sparsely referenced.  Before we analyze the book, we ought to gain a familiarity with Plantinga and his treatment of sin.

An Analysis of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

A Book Review

Plantinga begins his book with a broad definition of sin–the vandalizing of shalom.  For him, shalom represents the way things really ought to be in life (1996, 10).  However, he decides to define sin more explicitly.  First, he defines what qualifies something as a sin: “any act–any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed–or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame” (1996, 10).  Second, he defines sin in criteriological terms: “such instances of both act and disposition” (1996, 13).  Basically, for Plantinga, sin is the disturbance of shalom–wholeness, justice, and peace (1996, 10, 14), and from here the rest of the book can be quickly summed up, for the rest of the chapters rest on this definition of sin.

Plantinga describes sin as the corrupting of spiritual hygiene in the second chapter.  Specifically, he argues that sin is the corruption of shalom, which is brought about in the fact that human nature is despoiled (1996, 31, 32).  This leads into the next chapter, which talks about sin as the perversion, pollution, and disintegration of shalom (1996, 39).  Plantinga seeks to demonstrate that perversion leads to pollution, which leads to disintegration, and all of which is brought about by corruption (1996, 47).  Thus far, sin is at its most basic level a disturbance of shalom, which leads to spiritual corruption (an attack of the spirit, which breaks it down so that it becomes vulnerable for more sins), which leads to perversion (being twisted), which leads to pollution (spiritual uncleanness, which weakens through addition and division), which leads to disintegration (the breaking down of structural integrity at the personal and social levels; it is a spiritual deterioration), which leads to death.  Plantinga continues in the next chapter to show this progression of corruption.

On the one hand, sin despoils, but on the other, it generates (Plantinga 1996, 53).  Plantinga writes that “sin is both fatal and fertile” (1996, 54).  In other words, according to Plantinga, sin is like cancer, which “kills because it reproduces” (1996, 55).  Not only that, but it repeats its own history (1996, 58).  However, we might not know why, and we might not know why people sin for that matter, but we see the pattern of historical repetition, and such is the progress of corruption–it continues on throughout time.  In other words, corruption takes its toll in every generation.  This is not enough description for Plantinga, however, who turns to a new descriptor of sin in the next chapter.

Plantinga describes sin as a parasite next.  Basically, for Plantinga, sin piggy-backs on good and sucks the life right out of it so as to gain life for itself.  Plantinga writes that it is a “fearfully powerful spoiler of the good” (1996, 88), which shows that good is the original and evil is nothing more than the derivative (1996, 89).  Beyond this, however, in the next chapter, Plantinga describes sin as masquerading around in disguise of good (1996, 98).  Sin is therefore a self-deception, “a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche,” so as to “forget that certain things are wrong and that we have done them” (1996, 105).  Therefore, it is a corrupted consciousness (note the progression of corruption here).  At this point, Plantinga has described sin in several different non-biblical terms, and now his focus will turn to the qualification of sin as folly.

Plantinga shows that “not all folly is sin, but all sin is folly” (1996, 121).  We know this to be truth because not all follies disturb shalom (1996, 119).  Furthermore, sin is the best example of folly (1996, 121).  In the next chapter, however, Plantinga argues that while not every addiction is sin, there are addictions that are sin (1996, 129).  In such cases, addiction is also folly, but more than that, it is really all about idolatry (1996, 148).  Moving on, Plantinga addresses the methods of sin–attack and flight.

Sin can be actively aggressive.  Plantinga calls this active aggressiveness “attack.”  It is an assault on humanity, as is made self-evident in lying, which Plantinga demonstrates how it leads to envying, which leads to coveting, which leads to anger, and all of which stems out of pride (1996, 155-67).  However, sin is not solely actively aggressive.  It is also passively aggressive.  Plantinga calls this side of the aggression of sin “flight.”  Flight is really for Plantinga an evasion of moral responsibility (1996, 180).  Plantinga demonstrates that evasion is practiced in agency, conforming, conniving, leaving town (abandoning), specializing (performing), minimizing, going limp, cocooning and amusing ourselves to death (1996, 176-93).  Specifically, flight from shalom is not fulfilling one’s responsibility in finding one’s role in the “building of shalom” (1996, 197).

So there we have it–sin is the disruption and vandalizing of shalom, whether intentionally or unintentionally, through corruption and the effects of corruption, actively or passively, throughout all generations, for which we are held accountable to and will be judged accordingly.  Now that we have a good grasp of the content of the book, we can now analyze Plantinga’s treatment of sin.

A Book Analysis

Plantinga resorts to an experiential-conceptual summarization of sin as opposed to bliblical exegesis of particular passages to describe sin, nor does he use popular biblical terms to describe sin, like transgression or iniquity.  Although his vocabulary and case studies are helpful, for the most part they simply do not do a very good job of getting the biblical ideas of sin across.  In order to come to a solid understanding of a biblical idea, we have to come to understand it in its biblical context and terms.  Therefore, because Plantinga failed to address the concept of sin in its biblical settings through exegesis, his descriptions, metaphors and terms are insufficient to serve his purpose–to bring out a lost awareness of sin.  In other words, sin is a biblical idea, and in order to fully understand that biblical idea it will take biblical terms and examples to come to a complete awareness of it.  Because we barely received any of this biblically grounded description from Plantinga, his description falls short.  His concept of sin as a parasite is a case-in-point.

Plantinga sought to demonstrate sin as a parasite in the fifth chapter.  He wrote that evilness appears alongside good, and this is because the two are intertwined and grow out of each other (1996, 80).  The question that arises is whether or not sin and evil are a created thing, a descriptor of something, or something else entirely.  What comes to mind is James 4:17, which redefines our concept of sin to be that it is an unfulfilled good.  The idea is that it is a depraved or despoiled good.  In fact, Plantinga addresses this with the words of C. S. Lewis near the end of this chapter.  While Plantinga writes, “[S]in is a parasite, an uninvited guest that keeps tapping its host for sustenance,” Lewis says that sin is only “spoiled goodness,” and Augustine says that evil does not exist except that it is a privation of good (1996, 89).  In the insufficiency of his modern terminology, we see some inconsistency.

Plantinga’s analogy is saying that sin is its own being apart from good and it leeches onto good to find life, but Lewis and Augustine are saying that sin is not its own being and that it is a corrupted good.  In other words, for Lewis and Augustine, sin is an issue of degrees on the goodness scale, which differs from Plantinga in whom sin is an actual force that thrives off of sucking the life out of goodness.  The problem is that Plantinga tries to use Lewis and Augustine to support his idea that sin is a parasite, when in reality they do nothing of the sort.  If this is wrong and Plantinga would disagree with this assessment, then it is his own fault, because he did not otherwise make his point clear enough in his book, as it really does point to a contradiction or inconsistency in the different descriptions of sin.  But despite this seemingly apparent contradiction, we do not see biblical terminology, rather case studies and modern-day vocabulary, which further substantiate the insufficiency of his treatment of sin.

Plantinga filled his book with all sorts of modern-day case studies of sin, which demonstrate how human nature has been infiltrated by sin.  Murder stories, abuse stories, a Yale University psychology study, and other perverse cases were told to demonstrate and substantiate his points about sin.  Although they were good in demonstrating the perversion of human nature, they really did not do a great job in bringing home the biblical concept of sin as a whole.  Something was missing; that something was solid biblical support.  Scriptural texts specifically, yet sparsely, addressed (not merely referenced in footnotes) in his book are used in such a way that he is making the texts conform to the points that he wants to make.  Unfortunately, this makes his points stand on a shaky foundation.  Mentioning Scripture in passing or quoting a few words of a passage without yielding its context hardly constitutes the necessary Scriptural support for making one’s claims.  In fact, Plantinga makes his claims first and then gives Scriptural support for those claims second.  If he really wanted to do a good job of resurfacing the seriousness of sin, then maybe he should have allowed the biblical text to speak for itself, then bridged the gap between the biblical audience and today’s audience, and then finally applied the basic theological principles of that text into today’s cultural context.  Plantinga’s method, as is evident in this book, starts by applying his concepts of sin, which he forcefully places into the biblical text, in today’s context first, neglecting to bridge the gap between the two cultures, and then partially quotes a Scripture, generally speaking.  Indeed, his concepts of sin are structured on a shaky foundation of Scripture that is very insufficient for the task.

If Plantinga would have done some exegesis of James 2 and 4:17, Romans 3, and 1 John 1, he could have made some of the main points that he did, but would have been more Scripturally grounded, for the ideas of sin as corrupted and neglected good, that all have this corruption, and all are self-deceived are inherent in these texts.  Plantinga’s experiential-conceptual summarization of sin is un-biblically founded, and even his biblical descriptions and references are found wanting, which is the largest failure of his book, as seen in his description of sin as a parasite.

Plantinga failed to address key passages of the Bible, and he also failed in allowing other things in his book to distract the reader.  His abundant comma splices detract from the impact of his sentences, his vocabulary choices at times detract from the value of some of the concepts, and his use of long segments on a particular point are seemingly drawn-out and boring.  Perhaps he uses grammar rules unfamiliar to this reader, and perhaps the vocabulary of this reader must be broadened, but at least if Plantinga had done some exegesis in place of giving lengthy and drawn-out segments of insufficient descriptions of sin, he would have had better support for his arguments.

Conclusion

Plantinga did a good job in giving modern-day examples and case studies of sin.  Sin is a present-day reality just as much as it is a biblical one.  His book will serve pastors well in giving practical examples and concepts of sin in our cultural context today.  However, it will not serve pastors well in the sense that it does not do good or any exegesis, so the pastor must work that out on his or her own and may find that the results differ from Plantinga’s experiential-conceptual descriptions of sin.  In addition, we really cannot fault Plantinga for not doing any exegesis in the sense that it was not his intention to do so.  However, in order to come to terms with a biblical idea, one must dive into the Bible to gain a firm grasp of that idea.  Plantinga failed to do so in his book, and therefore it is only fair to say that he has only skimmed the surface of the whole concept of sin, and he has not fully submerged into Scripture to resurface our awareness of sin but merely dipped his feet in.  His treatment of sin abandoned biblical terms, concepts and theological principles regarding sin for modern-day examples and terminology.  His treatment was good, but it was not great, and it was definitely insufficient for the job at hand.  Overall, I disagree with Plantinga’s hamartiology as a whole because of his methodology and terminology, and ultimately, even though I agree in certain areas with him, I reject his assessment as being an inadequate one that clearly falls short of the Bible’s treatment of sin.

 

 

Reference List

 

Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. 1996. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: a breviary of sin. Grand Rapids,

Michigan and Leicester, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and

Apollos, 1995.  Reprint, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Apollos (page

references are to the reprint edition).