What Does the Bible
Really Say About Hell?
by Randy Klassen, Pandora Press
(Telford, PA), 2001, 144 pages
Review by Brad Boydston
8 January 2002
The subtitle of Randy Klassen new book is “wrestling with the traditional view”. I am sure, though, that there will be quite a few people who would like to wrestle with Randy as he tackles a subject which most people would just as soon ignore - hell.
In a nutshell he argues that the traditional understanding of an eternal hell is built on dubious biblical interpretation. While there is strong biblical evidence for hell there is little reason to believe that it is “eternal” - as eternal has been traditionally defined. Instead, hell is eternal in the sense that it works toward God's eternal purpose of reconciling all creation to himself.
“Since 'eternal' in the Hebrew Bible does not mean 'endless days' this surely must have been the understanding of Jesus and his disciples. In other words, hell is that state in which God's judgment is executed until repentance is made and then redemption is given. God is the Lord of both the living and the dead, so we dare not limit God's grace to the brief experience of our few days on earth.” (pp. 60-61).
In other words, Randy would see hell as being purgatorial in nature. “Hell, then, refers to that severe realm of judgment which continues until God's purposes are realized. To the God-rejecter, that may seem like an eternity. However, such a person is included in the love of God as demonstrated in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the whole world.” (p. 111).
He borrows the words of Robert K. Johnston, “God's YES is always bigger than his NO.” While God certainly is wrathful at times, his wrath is a short-term tool through which his long-term nature of love is ultimately exhibited.
Randy systematically examines the content of the apostolic preaching in Acts and notes the lack of reference to eternal punishment. Hell is never used as a club or a scare tactic when preaching the good news.
He then contrasts the contemporary view of hell with the view of Sheol in the Hebrew scriptures and argues that “Sheol is understood as that morally neutral place to which everyone goes, whether they have been good or evil.” (p. 39) And when God's judgment or punishment is spoken of as “everlasting” the Hebrew writers were not necessarily referring to a specific period of time - for “everlasting” (olam) can just as easily refer to “a long period of time” - a period of time until the work of redemption is complete. Thus eternity is not necessarily eternal in an overly literal sense.
Indeed, “literalism” and the literalistic mind set of fundamentalism is part of the problem, according to Randy. A literal eternal hell is the result of reading the scriptures in an overly literal sense - a sense that goes beyond the original intention of God and the human writers. This overly literalistic view of hell can be traced back to Augustine (of Hippo) who crafted the prevailing doctrine of hell, he argues.
Randy then examines the references to hell in the gospels and points to the origins of our understanding of eternal fire to Jesus' use of Gehenna (the seemingly eternal burning dump on the edge of Jerusalem). While judgment is real the use of fire to describe it is hyperbole.
Likewise, in the epistles, Randy contends, that while wrath is a common theme hell is not. “It is noteworthy to observe that nowhere is the church enjoined to rescue people from hell. The motive in their evangelism is to proclaim Good News precisely because it is such 'good news'!” (p. 55)
Randy then does a cursory historical overview of the post-biblical development of hell. In his overview he takes issue with the annihilationist understanding advocated by the likes of John Stott and Clark Pinnock. He contends that from a theological standpoint “'eternal' punishment for 'temporal' sins can hardly be considered justice.” (p. 87). And Randy sees annihilation as another form of murder.
“However, closure or annihilation still does not spare God the 'killer' label. Endless torment serves no purpose, but does annihilation of most people square any better with God's purposes? It seems to me that a chastening punishment with the intention of bringing about repentance still fits best with the Father whom Jesus revealed.” (p. 91)
Instead, he argues, it makes more sense that the love of God will ultimately prevail -- even in regard to the most evil person.
This is not an entirely original idea, as Randy clearly acknowledges. William Barclay was an advocate of this view. Karl Barth, while never developing the idea, seemed to imply it.
Randy is easy to read and his approach is mostly irenic (except his criticism of fundamentalist hermeneutics is stern - perhaps rightfully so). He does not seem as interested in presenting a new dogma as he is in engaging in a dialog (Each chapter comes with a discussion guide). I suspect that in reality he is still as much in process on this topic as any of us. For all Bible students are agnostic at some point when it comes to the topic of hell (Just how hot is hot?).
The publisher commissioned three Christian leaders (All are out of Anabaptist backgrounds. The publisher is a small Anabaptist press.) to respond to Randy's ideas. Their feedback is found at the end of the book. However, I found them to be somewhat fuzzy and not very helpful. I was disappointed that none of the respondents were from the realm of biblical/theological academia.
While appreciating Randy's tenor and finding his hopeful approach very appealing I am not convinced. I still have some questions that I would like to see more clearly addressed.
For example, I am not convinced that there is as much consensus on what constitutes the “traditional” view of hell as some people might contend. Historically, the church has attempted to steer clear of a lot of definition. True, individuals have advanced certain views but the overall consensus of the church has been less than clear. In the third century church leaders such as Tertullian and Cyprian were at odds with Origen. And we've been arguing off and on ever since.
In the Eastern church hell has never been as dogmatically defined as in the West. (This may be due to the fact that the East never got terribly excited about Augustine). Bishop Kallisos (Timothy Ware) in his highly respected overview of Eastern Orthodoxy writes, “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone's salvation, but long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception... Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, p. 262).
These sentiments reflect the “traditional” understanding of hell as it has been held by a large segment of the church. They are not exactly the view that Randy is arguing against.
This raises, too, an interesting dilemma for Randy. If hell is only temporal and all people will be reconciled to God in the end, how does this affect our understanding of free will? Is it possible that there are some creatures who are simply so stubborn that they won't want to be with God no matter how long and how hot hell gets? Many people experience judgment on earth and it seems to have little affect. Our prisons are full of repeat offenders. Is Randy overly optimistic?
What about the bus load of tourists from hell in C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce? When they visited heaven they were given the opportunity to defect but chose to return to what was for them a place more comfortable than the presence of God. Might it be that hell is an accommodation that God out of love allows?
The other issue that concerns me about Randy's approach is that he deconstructs what he sees as the traditional view but what he replaces it with is not built so much on direct biblical exegesis as it is on theological inference. He works backward from the idea of God as love and the reconciliation of all things. This isn't necessarily bad but it requires more than a 150 page book written on a popular level to make a strong case. What exactly is it that scripture teaches about ultimate reconciliation? Perhaps this is the crux of the issue.
I appreciate his tentative and humble attitude as he floats his ideas in a non-dogmatic fashion. For the fact is that once we get too dogmatic or too specific about hell we are probably going to be off base. Just why is it that God never revealed too much detail about hell?
This is a good read, very stimulating, and worth the short time needed to plow through it.