Dear Tim @Challies, You Don’t Have to Deny Hell—or Anything Else

Dear Tim,

You may or may not know who I am, but you and I have actually appeared in print together. An article you wrote on hell was placed right next to an article I co-wrote on technology in the July–September 2012 issue of Answers magazine. A few months after that issue was published, I was asked to resign from my position at Answers in Genesis due to my belief in hell as annihilation.

A sampling of church history’s finest “hell deniers”

But that’s enough about me. I’d like to respond to your recent blog post, “What I Would Have To Deny To Deny Hell.” In your post, you assert that a denial of hell would also necessitate a denial of the following:

  • What Jesus taught
  • The plain sense of Scripture
  • The testimony of the church
  • The gospel

Denying hell?

Before I examine your four main points, let’s be clear about what you mean by “denying hell.”

You referenced a certain “disaffected Evangelical” who “had decided to use his platform and popularity to question the very notion of hell.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume you are referring to Rob Bell. His view of hell is certainly different from the one you hold (different from the one I hold as well), but is it fair to say that he has denied hell?

I’m no student of Rob Bell, but it’s my understanding that he advocates universal reconciliation (or Christian universalism if you prefer). Yet this perspective does not deny hell in any way. Held by such distinguished theologians as Karl Barth and George MacDonald, not to mention the church father Origen, universal reconciliation understands the nature of hell to be restorative, rather than retributive.

You and I disagree with the exegesis of those who hold this view, but the claim that they deny hell is entirely untrue and unfair.

What then of annihilationism (or conditional immortality)? Held tentatively by John Stott and held firmly by such church fathers as Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, this perspective understands the nature of hell to be ultimately destructive, eventually resulting in complete cessation of being for its inhabitants.

You and I disagree with each other on the exegesis here, but again, the claim that such a view denies hell is untrue and unfair.

I believe in hell. I do not believe in some version of hell that owes more to Dante and The Far Side than sacred writ, but the hell I see revealed in the Bible.

I agree with those words verbatim. I simply see the biblical revelation of hell a little differently from you. And the proponents of universal reconciliation have yet another way of looking at it.

In fact, I don’t know of any major Christian theologian who actually denies hell altogether. A different perspective on the nature of hell is not a denial thereof.

So let’s be honest—when you say “deny hell,” you really mean “disagree with my understanding of hell.” But I digress. Let’s see if an understanding of hell that is different from your own would really necessitate the four denials you have asserted.

Denying what Jesus taught?

I could point to Matthew 10:28, where Jesus said that hell involves the destruction of both body and soul. Or I could point to Matthew 13:24–43, where Jesus said that the unrighteous—like the weeds in his parable—will be completely burned up (rather than continue burning forever). Or I could point to Mark 9:47–48, where Jesus quoted Isaiah, comparing hell to a pile of rotting corpses (rather than conscious persons in torment). Or I could point to John 3:16, where Jesus contrasted eternal life with perishing, rather than eternal torment.

But of course you would respond with a different interpretation for all of those verses. So which one of us is denying Jesus’ teachings? Neither of us. We can both affirm the truthfulness of everything Jesus said while acknowledging that you and I interpret some of his teachings differently.

As for the specific parable you cited, it speaks of Hades, not hell. So whatever one might think about the validity of this parable’s descriptions, it refers to the intermediate state, not to the final punishment.

Denying the plain sense of Scripture?

In addition to the words of Jesus I referenced above, I could point to Romans 6:23, where Paul said that the wages of sin is death, rather than torment. Or I could point to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where he said that the eternal punishment is one of destruction. Or I could point to Hebrews 10:27, where the author said that God’s adversaries will be consumed by fire, rather than be tormented in it forever. Or I could point to 2 Peter 2:5–6, where Peter said that the flood of Noah’s day (in which the unrighteous were destroyed) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (“reducing them to ashes”) were both appointed as examples of the destruction that is to come for the ungodly.

Or I could point to any one of the many Old Testament examples:

“For look! The day is about to come, burning like an oven, and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble. The coming day will consume them,” says Yahweh of hosts. “It will not leave behind for them root or branch.” (Malachi 4:1, LEB)

I could go on, but I think that’s enough to make the point. You of course have responses to all of these passages (and some of them are really good responses), but that doesn’t change the fact that “the plain sense” of such texts leads to annihilation, not eternal torment.

For any position you might take, you’re going to find some verses that “plainly” agree with your view, and you’re going to find some others that will need an explanation. The work of the biblical exegete is to compare all such passages and determine the contextually correct meaning (not necessarily the “plain” meaning) from the big picture.

And we must maintain humility while doing so. The idea that your view follows the “plain sense” while other views ignore it is just not accurate. We’re all doing our best to understand the Scriptures correctly. Have some grace toward those who disagree with your interpretation.

Denying the testimony of the church?

I already gave examples from the early church fathers who supported universal reconciliation and annihilationism. The fact of the matter is that all three views have been present since the early church—no matter how strongly some proponents of eternal torment may try to deny it.

Furthermore, annihilationism has never been condemned by any church council. And the teachings of Origen were not condemned until the Second Council of Constantinople—300 years after his death. If you consider that council to be authoritative, then you’re also going to have to agree with their decision that Mary ought to be called the “Mother of God,” rather than just the “Mother of Christ,” and that she remained a perpetual virgin. Not many Protestants are willing to accept those parts of the council.

I won’t deny that annihilationism and universal reconciliation have tended to be minority views throughout church history, but so has Protestantism as a whole. And you, Tim, are a Protestant in the Reformed tradition, which bears the slogan “always reforming.” This means that no teaching is beyond biblical scrutiny. No point of theology is so locked down that it cannot be altered if Scripture so demands.

I realize that you honestly do believe the Bible teaches eternal torment, and that’s fine. But even you would change your view if you thought that the Bible taught otherwise. Scripture, not church history, is our authority.

Denying the gospel?

We need to be very careful here. A denial of the gospel is no casual claim to throw around. Though you may not have phrased it as an accusation, you have essentially attributed the teaching of a false gospel to many of your brothers and sisters in Christ. I hope that was not your intention.

If we are going to assert that a certain eschatological understanding amounts to a different gospel, we had better have solid biblical support for such a claim. More specifically, the Bible must very explicitly define the gospel to include the point in question.

With that in mind, I would challenge you, Tim, to show me where the Bible states that hell (of any understanding) is a part of the gospel. To my knowledge, such a biblical statement doesn’t exist.

Jesus died to save us from our sins—this is a part of the gospel according to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4. But the Bible never says that Jesus died to save us from hell. Hell is simply the option that remains for those who reject Jesus’ salvation from sin.

And again, even if hell was a part of the gospel proper—which it isn’t—no one in this debate is denying hell. We simply have different perspectives on the nature of hell.

Conclusion

Tim, your reading of the Bible leads you to believe in eternal torment, and so you hold fast to the position. That is commendable. I would not ask you to believe something that you think the Bible contradicts.

However, my reading of the Bible leads me to believe that eternal torment is not taught anywhere therein. My denial of your interpretation is not a denial of hell; it is simply a different perspective on it.

Your view is not the only one that claims the authority of Jesus’ words; it is not the only view that is based on biblical exegesis; it is not the only view that has historical grounding in the church; and it certainly is not the only view that agrees with the gospel.

So I would encourage you, Tim—please be gracious to your brothers and sisters in Christ whose studies of the Scriptures have led them to different conclusions.

Your brother,
Chuck McKnight