This series on Hell has come to be dominated by the question, Does it exist? We’ve looked at the one bit of theology the ‘Hell’ position traditionally used to prove its case: the immortality of the soul. Now its time to hear from the annihilationists. What positive theology have they got to back their case? (We’ll get to exegesis and proof-texts later).
It has been the rise of biblical theology that has actually given the greatest impetus to the annihilationist view. I personally didn’t take this view very seriously until I started learning about biblical theology. Biblical theology looks at the large-scale narrative of Scripture. It interests itself in God’s purposes and at how how he brings them to fruition, and so reveals himself, over time, in history. It looks at the patterns and shape of salvation-history.
How does biblical theology shape our thinking about the ‘hell’ question? Perhaps we could give a summarised answer by quoting Tim Keller, at the Sydney City to City conference this week:
“Everything will be redeemed.”
When questioned about what he meant, Keller talked biblical theology (it was about the only time he did, so we got pretty excited!). He said that the creation was the object of God’s redeeming activity. And so rather than destroying it all, God was saving it. There is continuity between our world and the new creation. Eventually, the only thing that remains will be God’s redeemed creation, healed from all the ravages of sin. The ultimate symbol and firstfruits of this redemption is the body of Jesus, risen and whole, but with scars.
Let’s unpack that slightly further. God’s original goal of blessing for his creation was not ultimately destroyed by sin. Sin didn’t win the day, forcing God to start from scratch with ‘creation no.2’. Rather, in redemption God re-established his original purpose of blessing for his creation.
So the story at its absolute simplest goes like this:
God created an ordered world out of chaos. And it was good. And he intended it to get even better. But sin derailed everything, and brought destruction. So God by his Son conquered sin, completely erased it from his world, and by his Spirit he healed the creation, so that it was perfectly blessed after all.
That’s the story. That’s what Keller meant when he said, ‘Everything will be redeemed.‘ He’s not teaching universal salvation: he’s saying that in the end, there will be no trace of sin left in the creation, that God’s redemption will win the day, ‘as the waters cover the sea’. He’s thinking of Jesus saying ‘See, I am making all things new!’ (Rev. 21:5).
Now here’s the question that biblical theology throws up for us: where does everlasting hell fit into this story? I remember the strange feeling I got after a time of intensive reading and reflecting on biblical theology and the story of redemptive history, when I was at college. I’d been immersed in this mindset for a while, and then something reminded me of the doctrine of hell, and it kind of jarred, and I found myself thinking, ‘that’s a weird doctrine, how on earth does it fit in to all this stuff?’ Hell may be a necessary part of medieval cosmology, with its dualist, spiritualised future: a universe balanced in two halves, paradise and inferno. But is there room for Hell in the (very physical) new creation that the prophets foresaw? That’s the $64000 question.
There are two main options for an answer:
ANSWER 1. In the new creation, the world is made anew. But there is a zone where the effects of sin continue. Not everything is redeemed, there is a part of the creation where misery and death continue forever and ever. And for this zone there is no remedy. Ever. Heaven is a paradise, a palace of endless bliss – except that if you go downstairs, you’ll find the dungeons, and there is a torture chamber. (traditional view)
ANSWER 2. Part of God renewing the creation is to condemn, destroy and remove all that stands against God and his purposes of blessing. Sin and the devil and all those who side with him will be removed from the creation, i.e. removed from createdness, i.e. removed from existence. Like when a surgeon removes a cancer, God will cut these diseased parts out. In the end they will no longer be found. Anywhere. (annihilationism)
So what do you think: which of these answers best fits with the story biblical theology tells us?
Personally I think this is the most compelling argument for the annihilationist position. When Keller says, ‘Everything will be redeemed’, I’m hearing Answer 2. I doubt whether Keller himself holds to annihilationism. But the structure of his thought is definitely Answer 2.
If someone can show us how Answer 1 fits with the biblical meta-narrative, I’d be willing to give you a serious hearing. But on the surface of it, you’ve got your work cut out for you. It just prickles with apparent contradictions of the story. As a focus for this problem, we want an answer to the question:
In the new creation, where exactly is Hell?
I’m still trying to think through this issue. But from what we’ve seen, I’d be willing to go as far as this:
If we take seriously the Bible’s big story, it seems to rule out Answer 1 and require us to give Answer 2.
I feel uncomfortable about this. But there it is: I can’t seem to get around it.
Any help welcomed.