Robin Parry has a lively review of Hellbound: The Movie on his Theological Scribbles blog. According to Robin the “focus was primarily versions of eternal torment vs. versions of universalism”. Annihilationism, which I would have expected to have entered the ring as the main challenger to the reigning traditional view, apparently doesn’t get much of a look in. Robin’s assessment may simply reflect his personal bias. Or it may point to the fact that Universalism really is coming to be viewed as the leading alternative to the pernicious and unbiblical doctrine of eternal conscious torment.
Either way, I’m surprised. The advocates of the traditional view—Robin lists ‘Justin Taylor, Mark Driscoll…, Kevin DeYoung, Bob Larson (exorcist), Hank Hanegraaff, Mike Bickel, street preachers, and some of those crazy “God hates fags” protestors’—are absolutely right to draw attention to the prominence and severity of divine judgment in the New Testament. They are absolutely wrong to interpret the horror and pain entailed in terms of the vicious punishment of individuals after death, but the motifs of eschatological exclusion and destruction cannot simply be dismissed on sentimental grounds.
On Huffington Post Travis Loller also notes that the “filmmaker seems to lean toward a view that holds out hope that hell exists but may not be eternal – that God wants to be reconciled to all people, and that the reconciliation can happen even after death”.
According to James McGrath “Brian McLaren suggests that Jesus was referring, much as Jeremiah was, to devastation that was going to come upon the living – weeping and gnashing of teeth – as a result of the course the nation was on, reaching a climax in AD 70.” Hallelujah! I had a long conversation with Brian on a bus journey through Burundi a few years back about the thesis of The Coming of the Son of Man, so I am pleased about that.
Mark Galli reviews the film for Christianity Today, is not greatly impressed, and comes to the thoroughly unsatisfactory conclusion that the God of “rough edges” that we find in scripture “will not be smoothed out, neither by the fundamentalists who think he is mainly interested in populating hell, nor the liberals who imagine hell is empty”. That’s really not very helpful. Either God torments some people in hell for eternity or he doesn’t. We can’t have it both ways.
And while we’re on the subject….
Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective
I have updated Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, adding a number of posts written over the last year. The basic format has been retained. The four sections consist of an account of the narrative-historical approach, responses to the recent debate, exegetical studies of the main “hell” texts, and the matter of resurrection and life after death.
The bottom line is that the New Testament does not entertain any notion of “hell” in the traditional sense. The language and imagery of Gehenna, fire, exclusion, anguish, etc., has reference to temporal, historical events—the judgment of God first against Israel, then against the pagan world.
What I would stress about the book is that the issue is not simply whether “hell” as traditionally understood exists, or even whether a doctrine of eternal conscious torment of the unredeemed is theologically or morally tolerable. The issue, to my mind, is how we read the formative Christian texts that we call the New Testament. To put it bluntly, do we read them from our point of view or from their point of view? Do we read them on the basis of our own doctrinal and cultural presuppositions? Or do we read them—as best we can—on the basis of the presuppositions of the communities that produced and read them? How we deal with this question of perspective makes a massive difference to how we construct our theological positions.
The Coming of the Son of Man back in print
I am also delighted that Wipf & Stock have been kind enough to republish The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, which has been difficult to get hold of for some time now. Thank you, Wipf & Stock. It is available on Amazon.