Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Can the Traditional View of Hell Be Defended? an Evaluation of Some Arguments for Eternal Punishment

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Can the Traditional View of Hell Be Defended? an Evaluation of Some Arguments for Eternal Punishment

Article excerpt

Though the doctrine of hell is one of the tenets of traditional Christian belief, at present it does not seem to enjoy much popularity among believers. One rarely hears the doctrine explicitly addressed in a Christian church these days, and if hell is spoken about at all, it is commonly referred to in rather vague and tentative ways. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to claim that the average Christian believer finds it difficult to explain what function (if any) the doctrine of hell plays in his or her own faith. Even academic theologians find it difficult to account for hell in their talk about God and their exposition of the Christian faith. Thus Hendrikus Berkhof says concerning the dominant ecclesiastical idea of hell as eternal punishment that "there has always been a reluctance to engage in a deeper probing of this frightening conviction."1 Given the medieval imagery with which this concept of hell is still loaded, and the vengeful concept of God that it often presupposes, this reluctance is more than understandable.

Although in recent years there has been a turn in this neglect of the doctrine in systematic-theological and philosophical reflection, most of this reflection occurs against the backdrop of the supposed untenability-moral or otherwise-of the traditional view. Moreover, the traditional view is held no longer to accord with contemporary cultural norms and values and hence is said to be "culturally unavailable."2 In view of this, many theologians have felt the need to adjust their views on the matter, and to construct the doctrine in alternative ways. Thus, some hold the doctrine of conditional immortality; others postulate some doctrine of purgatory; still others teach universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma.

Though I agree with the need for an alternative understanding of the doctrine of hell, two things merit consideration at this point. First of all, theologians should be wary of conforming too readily to contemporary culture in their exposition of the Christian faith. Dean William Inge once admonished theologians for doing so, with the wise comment that "if you marry the spirit of your own generation you will be a widow in the next."3 Coherence with tradition is a virtue in theology, and rejection of traditional sources of authority threatens to reduce theology to subjective speculation, to abandon religiously fruitful insights, and to leave Christianity with no clear identity and content."4 That is not to say that appeal to biblical and ecclesiastical tradition is always decisive. Nor is it to say that revision is never appropriate-quite the contrary, as I will argue in the present paper. What it does entail, however, is the methodological point that doctrinal deviation from tradition should not originate from some unanalyzed conviction about what "modem people" can or can no longer believe in. Rather, such deviation should be preceded by an exposition of the untenability of traditional claims, and be based on good rational argument.

Here my second point applies: in much recent literature on the subject, alternative doctrines of hell are developed, whereas the classical view is rejected summarily. The doctrinal report The Mystery of Salvation by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England is no exception in this respect: after the brief observation that in the churches in the Western world there is "a growing sense that the picture of a God who consigns millions to eternal torment is far removed from the revelation of God's love in Christ," it goes on to affirm the doctrine of annihilationism instead.5 Apart from the fact that such alternatives are often liable to what Jonathan Kvanvig has called "the problem of arbitrariness,"6 one should at least spell out the reasons for looking for an alternative in the first place.

This is precisely what I intend to do in the present paper: I will inquire into some of the main arguments that traditionally have played a role in defending the classical concept of hell. …

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