Do Christians still believe in hell today? A response to Robyn Whitaker

“If you don’t believe in hell, you’ll never heard the love of God.” (Tim Keller)

 

As part of commemorating Easter, the Conversation published two articles by Uniting Church minister and theological college lecturer, Robyn Whitaker. 

Whitaker is (as I suspect many pastors have done in the past few weeks)  offering a contribution to the public debate on hell, which has followed Israel Folau’s recent Instagram comments.

Whitaker provides an interesting and at times informative account of the biblical notions of heaven and hell, but readers are left wondering whether we are meant to believe that these destinations are believable today.

It is difficult to know what Whitaker personally believes about heaven and hell. Her excurses take us through some biblical material and references to ANE religions, but there appears to be a reluctance to share what she herself believes. More problematic is the direction she is leaving for her readers.  It feels like an ethereal rendition of John Lennon’s,

‘Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky’

 

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First of all, where does heaven and hell come from?

Readers are given the impression that heaven and hell don’t originate with God of the Bible, but rather they are evolving compilation of many different faith traditions. Whitaker notes the possible influence of cultures surrounding ancient Israel and Judea. While the Bible at times utilises words and images from surrounding cultures, that does not mean that the biblical concepts depend on or are derived from these religious settings.

The Bible describes heaven and hell as places created by and belonging to God, as much as this universe is made by the same God. Biblical authors may at times borrow language from other places to help readers understand what heaven and hell are about (of much greater influence on the New Testament is a heavy dependence on the Old Testament), but to imply that the Biblical teaching should be traced to another religious milieu is both unnecessary and counters the Scriptures themselves (i.e. Acts 17:16-31).

Whitaker not only suggests the Bible’s teaching about heaven and hell are sourced from other ancient religions, rather than originating with God himself, dotted throughout her presentation are misleading phrases like, “mythic stories”,  which reinforce the view that the Bible is either unreliable or is little more than a superb piece of fiction. The quote by Paula Gooder is telling in this regard,

“it is impossible to state categorically what the Bible as a whole says about heaven… Biblical beliefs about heaven are varied, complex and fluid.”

Two millennia of  Creeds, Catechesis, and doctrinal statements have achieved the very thing that Gooder says is impossible! That does not mean that every aspect of the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell are captured in any of these statements, but the essence of and a faithful representation of these teachings can be accomplished.

Second, is hell a real place?

Whitaker’s argument leaves readers believing that the answer is a likely, no. While Whitaker is more than willing to accept heaven as an ultimate place (by which she understands heaven to be the healing and transformation of this world), her confidence in a literal hell is lacking, to say the least.

For example, Whitaker makes a big deal of the Bible’s use of metaphors and imagery and does so in a way that explains away any imperative to believe these things are representative of real and concrete places.

Jesus frequently used allegories and analogies in his teaching to convey concrete realities. For example, the mustard seed describing the kingdom of heaven, or the farmer’s seed which represents the word of God. The illustrations are vivid descriptions describing very real things. Similarly, fire and smoke and gnashing of teeth may be rhetorical and symbolic but they are not describing a fiction destination but an eternal place.

Speaking of the book of Revelation Whitaker says,

“It should be noted that these are poetic and highly symbolic apocalyptic texts whose purpose is primarily to persuade people to stay faithful to their God, not to set out a precise agenda for the afterlife.”

Why create the dichotomy? Can’t such texts achieve both? The opening verses of Revelation certainly suggest that the book is presenting an agenda for life both this side of death and on the other side.

“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-4)

In addition, there are plenty of non-poetic and non-apocalyptic texts within Scripture that explain future resurrection to either eternal life or to judgment.

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)

“ If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Whitaker then suggests that the Bible itself implies that hell may not be a literal place. She contends,

“One challenge to the idea of hell as a literal place comes from the Bible itself. Parts of the New Testament record that when Jesus died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead.”

“These fleeting references were preserved in ancient Christian creeds. Medieval Christians called Jesus’ descent to the dead the “harrowing of hell”. The theology behind it is that even the realm of the dead (hell) and death itself have been transformed by God.”

If I have accurately joined her dots together, Whitaker appears to be making the same error that some Reformed and Medieval theologians made, and that is to conflate the realm of the dead with hell. Death and hell are not the same. As Michael Bird explains in Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction,

“The New Testament distinguishes hadēs (waiting place of the dead) from geenna (judgment place for the dead).”

Part of the confusion with Jesus’ descending to the dead (or to hell) lays with a mistranslation of the creed. As Bird explains,

“the Latin creed does not say that Christ descended into hell. This wrong “tradition” is based on a mistranslation of the Latin. The Latin ad inferos found in the creed means “to the grave, the place of the dead” (i.e., hadēs). It does not say ad infernum, meaning “to hell,” the place of punishment after death…A better English translation of the creed, which is used in the Church of England, is this: “He descended to the dead.” In other words, the wrong “tradition” about a descent into hell is really a wrong translation of the Latin perpetuated by the Reformers, who did not differentiate “hell” from “Hades.”

Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection did not close the door on hell or bring about its demolition, rather his atoning sacrifice saved from entering hell those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Him.

And what about this unnecessary yet loaded phrase, “fleeting references”? Again, Whitaker is carefully laying down rhetorical mines to undermine confidence in the Bible. It’s as though she is saying, because the number of references are few, the teaching can’t be all that important or all that reliable.  How many Bible verses are required before we ditch ‘fleeting’ and treat the subject with due seriousness? As it happens, the topic of hell and of a final judgment is pretty commonplace in the New Testament, with it being spoken of in passing commentary and in extended didactic argument and portrayed in lengthy apocalyptic teaching. Lest we forget, Jesus taught about hell more often than any other person in the New Testament.

“If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.” (Tim Keller)

Third, motivation for talking about hell.

Robyn Whitaker (perhaps as a swipe at Israel Folau), mocks Christians who talk about hell.

“Similarly, some Christians invoke hell to persuade individuals to repent of their sins. Such rhetoric is from a different time and place, when scaring people into faith seemed like a good idea.”

There is some wisdom here, at least in terms of emphases. Becoming a Christian is not primarily about avoiding hell. Preachers who fixate on hell and not on Jesus Christ are in danger of skewing the good news message of Christianity. The Gospel is wonderful and amazing news of reconciliation with the living God through Christ, but it not less than salvation from hell, but more. Keep in mind, it is Jesus who invoked hell as a means of warning people from ungodly living,

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”(Matthew 5:29)

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. (Matthew 10:28)

Fourth. What God do we believe in?

In her conclusion, Robyn Whitaker reveals what the conversation is really about. Our views about heaven and hell reveal underlying suppositions about what we believe God is like.

“It begs the question – does hell continue to exist? Many Christians today would say no. Others claim an ongoing belief in a literal place of eternal punishment, which raises a different theological question: what kind of God do you believe in to think God consigns people to eternal torment?”

What we say about heaven and hell reflects what we believe about the Bible and ultimately about God.

What God do we believe in? Do we believe in a God who is telling us the truth in his word or in a God who fibbing or who has changed his mind or is unable to keep his word?

The Bible speaks of God who is love and who is holy. It is because of this love and holiness that hell exists. It is because of this love and holiness, God sent his only Son as a propitiation for our sins, and thus offering forgiveness and eternal wonder instead of his just judgment.

Part of the biblical teaching on hell is to remind and even encourage people that God is just and will bring about righteous judgment. If there is no final judgment, then what are we to suppose to conclude about justice and about God’s character and about hope for those who have suffered injustice?

Is the Bible warning humanity about a judgment that will not come? Is God’s promise of eternal life not eternal? When Jesus promised to return at the eschaton was he telling a whopper? And where is Jesus right now, following his resurrection and ascension? Major aspects of the atonement lose their power and significance, and so does Christ’s resurrection. If we follow Whitaker’s line of thinking we are left with a very different Christianity and a very different God.

What impression do her two articles leave with the reader? We conclude that hell is a minor theme mentioned by a few bible writers who were depending on other ancient religions for the concept, but isn’t something Christians really believe today, except for those few left behind angry medieval preaching type Christians. We are left sensing that both hell and heaven are difficult to pin down, and among Christians, there are diverging views and it is not necessary to that there is such a place known as hell. Is this a helpful conclusion to leave both Christians and unbelievers alike? Is this a recognisable Christian message?

If our speech about heaven and hell leaves people in doubt as to their existence, we have failed to be clear and faithful. If the Lord Jesus taught these topics with clarity and concern, should we not also?

If our speech muddies the Divine promise of a new heavens and new earth and of eternal judgment for the unrepentant, we are misrepresenting God and we are stripping people of hope. 

If our speech denies either the existence of heaven or of hell, then we have failed to be Christian. Christians may wrestle with the biblical material and be confused at times, but to explain away either heaven or hell is to ultimately set ourselves against the teaching of Jesus Christ and against God-given reasons for which he died on the cross and was raised to life.

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

 

 

 

 


April 30th – A friend of mine who is familiar with Paula Goode’s writings has sent me a helpful email where she points out that Robyn Whitaker seems to have quoted Goode out of context. Far from undermining the ontological reality of heaven, Goode is simply noting the difficulty facing biblical writers in finding vocabulary and imagery to fully explain the wonder that is heaven.

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