Further Reflections on “Approaching” Hell

By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, June 6th, 2011

The Great River of Christian Tradition

Last week I wrote against what I identified as the Ida Syndrome (the Ice Dancing Approach to scripture). With its attempt to glide across the expanse of scriptural texts, I described this approach as a more sophisticated version of proof-texting. Its basic components are as follows: 1) mistakenly equating depth as a well-choreographed assembling of scriptural texts or isolating a particular trajectory within scripture; 2) selective reading of parts of Christian tradition as somehow supporting the whole; 3) a failure to understand the underlying ideas and structural relations between various doctrines within Christian tradition; 4) a fracturing of the narrative whole of scripture in favor of supporting a particular position.

These components continue to work into the interpretive project within evangelicalism as the continuing debate about hell reveals. And let me be a little bold here: Sometimes, and I did say sometimes, an embrace of the Ida Syndrome really amounts to a lack of theological imagination, by which I mean a failure to allow the great river of Christian tradition to fill the mind with images and ideas that provide the foundation for interpreting scripture. I have found that some theologians or thinkers who claim, “it’s not a logical or rational position,” simply lack the imagination to see (in Johannine terms) how something could be the case. They fall back onto “logic,” but what counts as logical is not what follows the rules of logic, but what they imaginatively conceive as possible. This is one reason why Christian writers like Dante or even C. S. Lewis reverted to mythical and poetical accounts in order to place Christian ideas into a new imaginative framework so as to reveal what is indeed possible.

With this in mind, let me further identify some of the doctrines that are related to the doctrine of hell and the questions it poses.

First, any consideration of hell as a telos of human existence must wrestle with atonement and how it occurs. In my perusal of Rob Bell and some of the bloggers who support and resist Bell’s interpretation, I have found the doctrine of atonement repeatedly coming up. In particular, it is a particular theory of the atonement known as penal substitution. On both sides, there seems to be a lack of historical understanding about when and where penal substitution came about, and how it functions in relation to other doctrines. Reformed folks, in particular, defend it because it sits best within a conservative Reformed framework that supports the Reformed doctrines of election and predestination.

Historically, penal substitution represents a Reformation intensification of Anselm of Canterbury’s account of satisfaction as the primary lens to view the atoning work of Christ. Thus, it emerged in the 16th century in particular because it fit well with forensic ideas that were on the rise, particularly from 1530 on. In addition, penal substitution has always had its detractors within Protestantism, and even within the revivalist stream of Protestantism that fuels the evangelical movement. It was attacked by Reformed revivalists who considered themselves followers of Jonathan Edwards like Edward’s grandson, Timothy Dwight. It also came under attack in the holiness movement around the 1870s as Christus victor emerged from German writers (most notably the Blumhardts) to support the idea that bodily healing was part of the atoning work of Christ.

Any discussion of hell should take into consideration how the atoning work of Christ actually happens. If it is Christus victor, as one could argue the Book of Revelation supports, along with Paul and the Gospels, then this will alter the way one thinks about God’s wrath and Christ’s death as an act of judgment. It is primarily an act on judgment on those enslaving powers of humanity, which includes sin as a “disease” at work within humans.

Second, any consideration of hell as a telos of human existence must wrestle with the full implications in relation to the image of God and its restoration in the sanctifying work of the Spirit. I have found that some of those who reject the doctrine of hell seem to be rejecting extreme versions of forsensic ideas in which salvation is really about a transaction by which individuals get into heaven. Jesus’ work is essentially reduced to a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. Such detractors do not even realize that they actually continue to operate within an extreme version of forensic justification. Thus, they simply claim that all are forgiven and justified in Christ and thus get out of jail whereas the anti-Bell folks claim that only those who have consciously embraced Christ in faith are justified and thus get out of jail.

Both perspectives fail to understanding the developmental dimension of human life as exemplified by the doctrines of creation out of nothing and sanctification. I am beginning to think that it is a relatively recent trend within Christian tradition to consider the original humans as created directly by God in a state of perfection from which they fell. Instead, from at least Irenaeus on, the original humans were viewed as innocent but incomplete and thus in need of growth and development. As Hugh of St. Victor puts it in the twelfth century, humans were created with being, but they needed to develop into beautiful being. They needed to be “formed.” This is the point behind the doctrine of sanctification. It is about restoring God’s original intention of beautifying humans through a cooperative process in which humans put on Christ and so come to reflect the beauty of the one eternal Son.

But, if humans really must grow and develop, then the opposite is also the case. They can not only cease to grow, but actually trend in the opposite direction by deforming their lives rather than forming them. I find it interesting that in its original Latin context, the term vitium (vice) referred to physical deformity like arms and legs that are misshapen. This was utilized as a metaphor for what happens to humans infected with the disease of sin. The point here is that any extreme form of forensic analysis is simply wrong and does not take into account how choices develop ingrained dispositions or characters.

So, what is hell? Is it something that humans create? This is certain what Dante suggested in Inferno, and even the atheist, Jean-Paul Sartre affirmed in his play “No Exit.” ¬†After figuring out rather quickly that hell does not consist of torment, fire, or physical torture, Sartre’s characters slowly realize what Garcin announces at the end, “There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people.” In Sartre’s version of hell, three individuals who were abusers of others in life are thrown into a single room where the characters they spent a lifetime cultivating now spend a second lifetime destroying one another through the subtle art of psychological assassination.

Third, the current discussion of hell is opening back up the issue of character development in relationship to human destiny and thus the question of purgatory. If one is going to argue that hell must be left behind, then one will have to grapple with how character development occurs. This is where the discussions about “innocent” suffering become quite complicated. Certainly, infants and children who die in abusive situations are innocent sufferers, but the Christian tradition has always discussed such cases in terms of exceptions because neither infants nor children can make genuinely moral decisions. The same is true of those with mental disabilities.

There is always a point at which humans become responsible for their own development as moral agents and thus become the shapers of their own character and destiny. In most of history, this age was viewed as being between 12 and 14 years, but in the past 150 years, we have pushed that age up to 18 years old, at least, in terms of making decisions as an adult citizen. So, when does a person become responsible for the shaping of his/her own character? If through free choice, humans make decisions about what they will do and who they will become, how can even God simply reverse character without violating human freedom? Does this not turn human activity into a relatively meaningless exercise? The implication, of course, is that if there is no hell, then there is certainly a long purgatorial experience after the death of many persons. As the followers of the series Lost saw, this what that show ultimately pointed toward.

Well, once again, I’ve gone a little long in my post. I hope that my readers will see how the doctrine of hell forms part of a larger tapestry that must be taken into consideration. The simple rejections by some fail to take that larger tapestry into consideration, and in my view, do just as much damage to the faith once delivered as those who single out one trajectory within scripture as THE only way to understand hell. Both groups continue to promote the idea the Christian tradition must be picked apart and dismantled, and sometimes this dismantling extends to scripture itself.

Tags: , , , , ,

Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Monday, June 6th, 2011 at 9:00 am and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies, Theology, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to “Further Reflections on “Approaching” Hell”

  1. Jesse says:

    Thanks for these posts Dale; I am really enjoying them, and sharing them with friends with whom I am in continual dialog about the doctrine of hell.

    I think I understand your underlying point that, “The simple rejections by some fail to take that larger tapestry into consideration…” I would offer in response, that what has led me to reject many of the current doctrines and understandings of hell is that they do not seem in line with the “larger tapestry” of Christian history. When I hear Evangelical Christians talk about hell as simply “eternal torment for everyone who doesn’t verbally confess ‘Jesus is Lord’”, I think to myself, “This doesn’t line up with everything else I know about Christian doctrine, Scripture, and the Church fathers.”

    So, to put a spin on your point, it is the larger tapestry of Christian tradition that causes me to reject the contemporary Evangelical Christian understanding of hell. (Note: I’m not rejecting all the concept of hell in total).

    I think this is also part of your underlying point (as I read your final paragraph again). I certainly agree that the doctrine of hell is a key part of our entire understanding of God, human history and development, salvation/atonement, etc. And perhaps this is why people so vehemently defend their current understanding, because to change how we understand hell means to change almost everything.

    Thank you again for these posts.

    • Jesse: In short, exactly. Neither side in this debate (not in reference to you), it seems to me, is situating their arguments in light of the broader tapestry. What some persons define as “orthodoxy” can turn out to be a narrow trajectory in the same way that what other persons reject as “orthodoxy” is only a narrow slice. My point to those who simply reject the doctrine of hell is, well, the tradition as a whole did not reject it and you need to understand why before you simply do so. You are right that rejecting a certain interpretation of hell is not rejecting the whole tradition.

  2. David Woods says:

    Dr. Coulter,

    While perusing your blog (when I should have been studying), I came across your post about hell and in light of the Rob Bell controversy, I read further. As I am in agreement with your overall perspective, I have no specific comments on that subject at large. I am however, intrigued by your statement in point two which says:

    “Both perspectives fail to understanding the developmental dimension of human life as exemplified by the doctrines of creation out of nothing and sanctification. I am beginning to think that it is a relatively recent trend within Christian tradition to consider the original humans as created directly by God in a state of perfection from which they fell. Instead, from at least Irenaeus on, the original humans were viewed as innocent but incomplete and thus in need of growth and development.”

    I must admit that this is the very first time I have ever come across any suggestion other than humans being created in original righteousness. My experience with systematic theology is extremely limited, but what I have understood is that humanity, bearing the imago dei, possesses an original righteousness, complimented by human freedom. The exercise of that freedom in rebellion against God forfeited that original righteousness. H. Ray Dunning, in Grace, Faith & Holiness puts it this way:

    “Original righteousness, then, is constituted by a fourfold freedom. The use of the concept of freedom in this context presupposes the reality of freedom as the power to choose to be or remain in this relation of freedom” (p. 278)

    There is no mention of the need for maturation to maintain the righteousness. Have I missed a significant development in ontology of which I need informed? I will certainly be doing some research on Irenaeus and Hugh of St. Victor!

    Again, off the trail of your overall discussion, but something that piqued my interest as I read. Now… back to what I should be doing! – David

    • David:

      While I cannot say for certain, at this stage in my own research, it seems like the idea that humans lost “original justice” stems from Anselm in the late eleventh and early twelfth century. From what I can tell, most Christians talk about sin as a condition humans enter into after the fall and they also talk about how this impacts humans as the image of God. In other words, I think dominate talk centers around humans as the image of God. After the fall, they become “diseased” and enter into a situation of “life in death,” which is to say that they become enslaved to a particular way of living that can be described as “death.” So, the focus is on what happens to the image of God.

      Anselm construes the image of God in terms of original justice or righteousness, which then gets lost. When Anselm’s idea gets developed by twelfth and thirteenth century thinkers, it turns out that original justice refers to the original harmonious constitution of the human person. In other words, it does not mean that the original humans were created in a complete or perfect condition that had no need for growth. Instead, they were created with the optimal conditions both internally and environmentally to grow.

      I won’t go into details here, but when you begin to construe the situation in this way, then there is room for evolutionary development, but, from a Christian perspective, this development is not an inevitable result mere biological adaptation. Instead, it is a result of working toward moral and spiritual wholeness.