Four Views on Hell Book Review

The Four Views series by Zondervan examines controversial theological topics from four different viewpoints, recruiting scholars from the various perspectives to defend their beliefs.

This summer I led a group on the doctrines of hell and salvation, examining the differing beliefs held by Christians on these issues, and so I picked up a copy of Four Views on Hell (FVoH).

I must say, I was quite underwhelmed.  I give it a 4/10.  Should you read it?  Well, if you’re leading a group like I was, it’s probably still worth picking up, but it’s pretty poorly done.

For those of you who are interested, the more detailed analysis:

When it comes to hell, there are really three key questions:

  1. Who goes there?
  2. What is it like? or How bad is it?
  3. How long does it last?

This book attempted to tackle the last two of those questions.

The first two authors were in agreement on the duration of hell but disagreed on what it is like, with one holding that it is literal flames and the other saying it’s something else, that fire is a metaphor.

Some who hold the metaphorical view of hell say that hell really isn’t as bad as it’s traditionally understood to be.  However, that’s not the case for Crockett, the defender of that position in FVoH.  He believes that hell is really, really bad, just that it’s not actually fire.  Consequently you end up with a pointless debate about whether Hell is really bad and full of fire or equally as bad and full of some other kind of punishment.  Who cares?

The editors really should have picked someone who holds to the metaphorical view and believes the punishment found therein isn’t so bad.  Then at least there would be some reason for the debate.

The next, and probably the most ridiculous issue with the book is found in the third section.  It is on purgatory… which has nothing to do with hell.  Purgatory is (according to Catholic doctrine) where the souls of those who follow Christ go to finish being cleaned up before they actually get to go to heaven.  It’s not a pleasant place.  It’s a time of purifying and refining, of pruning, painful things that ultimately result in good, kinda like surgery.

But again, it has nothing to do with hell.  It didn’t belong in this book.  It really didn’t debate with any of the other authors.  It was basically a random aside on a different doctrine.

So much for the editorial issues.

As the book has four sections written by four different authors, it’s worth doing a quick analysis of each:

John F. Walvoord on the Literal or Classical View of Hell

This view holds that hell is everlasting punishment in a lake of actual fire.  This is probably the most common belief about hell among Evangelical Christians today.

Walvoord’s treatment is underwhelming.  Rather than examining key Scriptures through careful exegesis, Walvoord rather does a couple of word studies, lists lots of Scriptures, and then gives an anemic treatment of why hell is literally a lake of fire and offers an equally poor debunking of philosophical problems of an eternal punishment.

I suppose he provides the raw material for a reader to do their own Biblical study of the issue, but unless one were to spend significant time researching the topic on their own, a neutral reader is unlikely to come away convinced.

William V. Crockett on the Metaphorical View of Hell

This view holds that hell is everlasting punishment but that the depictions of hell as a place full of flames are metaphorical.

Crockett does a significantly better job of defending his position.  He looks at how the church has historically understood hell, talks about symbolism in Scripture, and then spends a fair amount of the chapter arguing against annihilationism, the belief that at some point the soul suffering in hell ceases to exist.

Zachary J. Hayes on the Purgatorial View of Hell

This is the view that those who are saved by Christ have to go through a period of sanctification (cleansing) before they go to heaven to be with God.

As I mentioned earlier, it really isn’t even a few of hell.  It has nothing to do with hell.

Hayes’ arguments for the existence of purgatory, which Protestants to believe in, come from church doctrine and apocryphal documents.  He probably makes fine arguments if you hold those as significant sources for theology and not so much if you don’t.

Honestly, I remember far less of this section as it really wasn’t related to what I was trying to study.

Clark H. Pinnock on the Conditional or Annihilationist View of Hell

This view holds that at some point the existence of those who are in hell will be terminated or annihilated.  It is predicated on the idea that we have conditional immortality.  That is, we don’t necessarily have to exist forever.  Immortality is not an inherent part of our nature but is a gift from God for those who follow Christ.

Pinnock’s article is probably the best of the lot.  He writes persuasively, examining both Scriptures and philosophical arguments.

If his analysis is lacking it is probably in that he doesn’t necessarily examine the Scriptures as comprehensively as one should.  He seems to skirt some of the more difficult Scriptures for his position to address, but overall he makes very solid arguments.