Keep in mind that we’re not simply trying to settle a doctrinal issue. We’re talking about people’s destinies. The thought that someone may end up banking on a second chance after they die even though the biblical authors never explicitly said this is … well …
These are eternal destinies we’re talking about. We can’t be wrong on this one.
These are perhaps the most sobering words in the new release from Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell. This book is an impassioned plea to deal squarely and honestly with the Bible’s teaching on hell. In a style Chan has come to be known for, it is conversational in tone and you can’t help but feel as if he’s sitting across a table at Starbucks sharing from his heart.
While reading, I recalled some emotions I experienced many years ago when preparing for a sermon on hell. Without question those weeks in preparation were difficult as I pondered many biblical texts that speak about life after death for the unbeliever (see my Is Hell Going out of Business?). Passages such as Rev. 14:11; 20:10 and Is. 66:24; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:8-9 are not easy to ponder and brought me to my knees on not a few occasions.
One of the unique contributions of Erasing Hell is Chapter 6, “What if God … ?” and the discussion around Rom 9:22-23. Anyone thoughtful about this passage knows it’s not easy to understand (the Greek is not entirely clear). The question here is: Are the vessels prepared for destruction participating in their own preparation (middle voice) or is someone(thing) outside them assisting their preparation for destruction (passive)? The middle/passive participle in v 22 “prepared for destruction”, argues Doug Moo, “does not clearly bring God into the picture” (Romans, p 607). Moo goes on to note that just as with v 23 where the “vessels of mercy” are clearly prepared by God (see ESV, NLT), so too God is involved in preparing the vessels of wrath for destruction. Though C. S. Lewis’s comment “The doors of hell are locked from the inside” is a popular response to this perplexing issue (see The Problem of Pain, and elsewhere), it may not bode well with the biblical data (see Luke 16:26, for instance). Aware of these interpretive difficulties, Erasing Hell puts forth the following challenges:
What if God, as the sovereign Creator of the universe, decided to create “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”? And what if He did so in order to “show his wrath” and “make known His power”? And what if it’s His way of showing those He saves just how great His glory and mercy is? What would you do if He chose to do this? Refuse to believe in Him? Refuse to be a “vessel of mercy”? Does that make any sense? Would you refuse to follow Him? Really? Is that wise?
Readers are invited to consider not if they want to believe in a God who would sentence some to eternal destruction, but if they could believe in a God who would do this. Before you answer, consider the following:
Notice that Paul does not explicitly say that God destroys sinners for the purpose of showing the world just how powerful He is. Rather, Paul simply raises it as a legitimate possibility. In other words, God may want to display His wrath and power by punishing sinners, or He may have some other purpose in mind. Either way, we must come to a place where we can let God be God. We need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how He is going to deal with people.
As the master Potter, God alone has the sole right to make a lump of clay into any kind of vessel he chooses. Any kind of vessel (Rom 9:20-21)! This is hard. It’s one thing to believe in the absolute, meticulous sovereignty of God and quite another to embrace it without reservation. However, one could simply respond with something like, “It’s not a matter of whether I want to or could believe in a God who would sentence some to eternal destruction, but whether I should given the biblical evidence. If I hold to the absolute authority of Scripture and find that it does not teach this, then I should not believe it.” Hum….
As for whether unbelievers will experience never-ending punishment or suffer only a limited time before their destruction (read “annihilation”), no surprise here. Chan (and co-author Preston Sprinkle) tentatively conclude that unbelievers will experience never-ending punishment for two reasons:
First, the contrast between “aionios life” and “aionios punishment” includes the notion of never-ending time. While it is true that aionios doesn’t always mean “everlasting,” when used here to describe things in the “age to come,” it probably does have this meaning…
Second, the punishment is said to be in the “everlasting [aionios] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). We know from other passages in Scripture that the Devil and his angels will suffer never-ending punishment (Rev. 20:10). Therefore, when Jesus says that unbelievers will go to the same place and suffer the same punishment, it logically follows that their punishment will also never end.
Nevertheless, this conclusion is tentative since they state (in a united voice), “While I lean heavily on the side that says [punishment] is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty” (p 86). Readers are admonished to continue researching but not miss Jesus’ point is “to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs” (p. 86).
This is a reasonable apologetic. If we take seriously the descriptions of hell in Scripture, just the threat of one day there should be sufficient to motivate us to consider the Gospel call. I can’t help but think, by way of contrast, of Psalm 84:10.
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
An important, easy read and excellent for continuing discussions that have the blogosphere ablaze!