March 14, 2011

A Christ-Centered Doctrine of Hell?

In the church and seminary world, terms like Christ-centered and Christocentric get tossed around like stones in one of those little tumbler machines: Christ-centered preaching; a Christocentric hermeneutic; those of you who live in these worlds will know what I'm talking about. Don't take this as a criticism. I'm in favor of a Christocentric approach to, well, everything. I'm simply making the point that when I hear "Christ-centered" used adjectivally, I'm not usually taken aback due to the term's common usage. But I was recently introduced to a new application of this term in a way I not heard it applied before: Hell! A Christocentric understanding of Hell? Who'd of thought?

I encountered this idea in this lecture by Sinclair Ferguson: "Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment: The Justice and Mercy of God." I was taken aback and unsettled. Typically when we think of Hell, we are thinking of separation from Christ. The idea that Christ is at the center of the doctrine of Hell is not something you hear everyday neither is it all that comforting. Ferguson commented briefly on the idea from Matthew 25:41. He basically suggested that we need to get our minds around the reality that the one who consigns people to everlasting torment is not some vague deity; in scripture, it is none other than Jesus, the man from Nazareth and the Lord of the cosmos. I was amazed. Such clarity. Such concreteness. Such biblical fidelity. Wow! I couldn't help but reflect a bit more on this passage. Those reflections will make up the remainder of this post.

Matthew 25:41 comes as part of the well-known passage of scripture in which Jesus describes his own coming judgment of the nations during which he will separate people like sheep from goats - the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Those on his right are blessed by the Father and brought into God's kingdom. Those on the left are said to be accursed and sent away into the "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (25:41). After Jesus provides evidence to substantiate his judgment, he concludes by saying, "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (25:46).

There are various exegetical question that can and should be raised with regard to this passage. But in a post that may already be too long, I only want to focus on one. Perhaps we can attend to others at another time. A key issue has to do with the Greek word aiōnios that appears three times in vv. 41 and 46 and is translated is typically translated into English as eternal or everlasting. A standard New Testament Greek lexicon (by Bauer, Danker, et al.) indicates that aiōnios can refer to (1) a long period of time, (2) a period of time without beginning or end, or (3) a period of unending duration. I've recently heard it suggested that the term can refer to intensity of experience, but I've seen no textual evidence to substantiate this claim nor have I actually found this as an option in any standard lexicon. Those who reject the eternality of Hell have to claim that aiōnios does not here mean eternal and usually opt for a definite and limited period of time or an intense experience of punishment or pruning. Outside of the New Testament, aiōnios often describes the perpetual nature of the Emperor's power. More important for our interpretive method is the actual context of the word in the text in question. As they say: context is everything!

In the passage in question, aiōnios describes fire and punishment which are set in contrast to aiōnios as a description of the life that is the reward of the righteous. Thus, if we take the reward of the righteous to be of unending duration or eternal life in the age to come, then the only legitimate move is to take the fire and punishment to be of an eternal nature as well, since they are set in direct contrast. To do otherwise would be to destroy the logic and thought flow of the passage as a whole and v. 46 in particular.

Further, in Matthew's gospel aiōnios is used twice in another passage to refer to the nature of the life that is the reward of the righteous (19:16, 29). I don't think there is evidence that this reward should be taken as limited in duration. Thus, neither should the punishment. At the end of the day, the context demands that the punishment of the unrighteous be taken as an eternal reality in contrast to the eternal reward of the righteous. Anything less involves a suspect interpretive approach.

The big thing to see, though, is that the one who says he will consign the unrighteous to eternal torment is not some vague deity or amorphous god; it is none other than the babe of Bethlehem who has become the resurrected Lord. It is the concrete, particular, and historical person of Jesus of Nazareth who says "depart from me into the eternal fire."

Popular presentations of the gospels often depict Jesus as the original flower child spouting of poems and nice pseudo-religious maxims. But the gospels present a very different portrait. In Matthew 25, it is Jesus who sends people to everlasting fire. Until we get our minds around that, we have not yet begun to grapple with the Jesus we meet in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Until we understand that the doctrine of Hell is a Christological doctrine, we have not yet understood Hell or the Christ who says he will consign the unrighteous to eternal fire. These are weighty things and deeply uncomfortable. But they are quite biblical and thus necessarily objects of our study and reflection. The Christ who is the only true object of our faith is the very same Christ who will determine the population of Hell.

Have you thought about Hell from a Christ-centered perspective before? Do you think this is a helpful way to come at this issue? Do you find this idea unsettling? Satisfying? Both?


Jennifer Allen said...

Hi Matt! I've been casually keeping up with all the debates through you and your posts, but today I finally watched the video of Rob Bell's new book. He's vague, of course, trying to sell the book, and his message is questionable. But I think he can't, or isn't doing it rightly, define Good. Lots of people do seem to have problems with this one, mostly because we base our definition on ourselves. (Which is foolish, by the way.) The question isn't really about heaven or hell, but is God good? And if we think God isn't good in all His works, because, again, we are assuming ourselves good, and we would never condemn anyone to an eternity of Hell, we deny that God is the only Good. That's in Matt, 6 maybe. The Greek version is more clear. And just to be honest, I can think of a few times that I would have relished to send someone to hell, so the matter of fact that Jesus will only justly, and without blemish, condemn people is much more in their favor than if it was one of us poor sinners. The Bible has spiritual aspects, but most of the book is about living now in this world rightly. And since its beginning declares that God created all, it should be a general conclusion that He knows how this life best works. And He does, and all of His laws and instructions, and wisdom, teach us how to live peaceful, joyful lives. If we do not choose His way, in life and in death, than we are obviously denying His Lordship. Anyway, sorry this is so long, I don't usually like to weigh in on these discussions because I'm not trained like everyone else, but it seems pretty much like commonsense to me.

The said...

(Note: I must have accidentally typed in "The" in my profile but my name is Mark). Christianity Today currently has another article on Rob Bell's book which suggests that Bell does indeed tend toward universalism, or the idea that we will all make it to heaven (eventually) regardless of our personal confessions or actions. It's an appealing, "feel-good" thought. But, as Matt has pointed out, it's not Biblical and goes against historical understandings. In fact, if univeralism is true then it eliminates perhaps the primary need for Christ. Bell is certainly generating interest, but he is not really plowing new ground as he (and his devotees) seem to think. There really is nothing new under the sun. Is love all you need? Well, we need more love, but we need truth every bit as much. Just ask anyone who's ever responsibly brought up a child.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for reading and commenting. Don't worry about weighing in. Most folks who have done so in this conversation aren't trained. I agree that the traditional understanding of Hell seems fairly straightforward in the text.


Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your comment. I agree that Bell is not bringing a new take on this. I think he agrees as well as best as I could tell from the interview he did on Monday. Interestingly, he denies being a universalist in that interview as well. I'm increasingly curious to read the book.