Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Three Views on Hell and Hermeneutical Principles

Here are three views on hell:

1. Everlasting punishment.  Some people are punished forever.
2. Annihilationism: No one is punished forever but some are annihilated.
3. Universalism: (it comes in different varieties but here is the most plausible view by my lights) Some people are punished in hell for a finite time, then are saved and go to heaven.

My study of what the Scriptures say on the issue (and Biblical scholarship) suggests to me that 1 and 3 have perhaps a slight edge over 2 but that 1 and 3 have equally strong cases to be made.  By a study of "what the Scriptures say on the issue" I mean what they say fairly explicitly on the matter without taking everything said in the Bible and drawing lots of inferences (e.g. that God is loving, loving in the Scriptures entails this and that, etc.)

So what to think?  Well one could be agnostic on the matter.  The Bible just isn't clear so, who knows. But perhaps we can do better.

Here are some alternative ways one might come down on one side of the issue:
1. As I previously alluded to, consider what the Bible says as a whole about other things (love, justice, God's nature, etc.) and derive some probabilistic conclusions from premises from what else we know from Scripture.
2. Take into account what we know about God through personal experience.
3. Consider philosophical arguments about the nature of God, perfect justice, perfect love, punishment, etc.  In short, invoke perfect being theology.
4. Consider the weight of tradition and the fact that the Church is the "pillar and ground of truth" [this might be a species of 1 and 3 so for this post I'll ignore it]

It appears that options 2 and 3 are off the table (and perhaps 1 as well) for my friend Preston Sprinkle.  In a recent series of posts on the issue of hell he says:

[T]here’s a famed theological formulation that was forged in the middle-ages that goes something like this: “A sin committed against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment.” (Was it Anselm?) I’ve heard others say similar things like: since God is infinite, then the only just punishment would be an infinite punishment. Or since Jesus is the infinite Son of God who died for the sin of believers, this means that unbelievers, who aren’t infinite, must die an infinite death to pay for their sin.
Maybe this is true, or maybe it’s not. Maybe pink bunnies would turn blue if I held them underwater for more than 7 minutes. I don’t know. What I do know is that most of the typical theological formulations (about God, not pink bunnies) are not derived from detailed exegesis of Scripture. The debate about the duration of hell must stick very close to the text and not try to solve the question by theological formulations where we try to figure out what hell must be like based on what we think God is like.Okay, so what are the best arguments for ECT?

What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?  Apparently NOTHING.  All debates about hell must not stray from exegesis of Scripture.  There's no place for "blue bunny" speculation from the likes of Anselm (and, yes, Anselm famously makes that argument though, in my view, unsuccessfully).

Here are some problems, it seems to me, with this way of thinking:

1. There will be no reason to think that the Scriptures are inspired.  There will be no non-circular reason for thinking that one should trust God or a Bible inspired by God.  Why should we read the Bible?  Because it's from God.  Why should we trust God?  Because the Bible says He's trustworthy.  This way of thinking, I believe, is by and large the way of Muslims and Mormons but has by and large not been the way of Christianity.

2. As such the only apologetics will be presuppositional apologetics (of the likes of Van Till).  There will be no appeal to common ground in presenting a positive case for either theism or Christianity.

3. The Bible itself says that people can know things about God apart from Scripture.  Why close a blind eye to those things if they might be a service in settling a theological dispute?  (Romans 1 is the obvious text but there's the story of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Melchizadek, presumably the three wise men, presumably some of the "God-fearing Greeks" in Acts, etc.  There is also the early church whose only "Bible" was the Old Testament).

4. The method which focuses only on what can be known by exegesis appears to contradict what we know about how to test for successful theories.  Here is what I mean (and we'll stick with science): When two theories--two models for explaining some phenomenon--both seem to account equally well for the data, the theory which also would account for some other set of observations or data in an unrelated area or field is to be preferred.   One doesn't turn a blind eye to what we know in other areas of investigation; rather theories which tend towards being "theories of everything" are more likely to be true.

Let me give a Biblical illustration to make the point.  There are passages in Scripture which might be taken to suggest that the earth is flat (the "four corners of the earth") or that the sun moves around the earth ("the sun rises in the east," "the sun stood still" in Joshua).  Before (and during!) Galileo's day it was not unreasonable to think that the earth was in the middle of the solar system and the Scriptures were reasonably interpreted as saying what seems like common sense (it LOOKS like the sun is moving and doesn't FEEL like the earth is).  But then suppose one thinks that (a) what the Scriptures say is what God says (b) God does not lie or say things that are false and (c) a reasonable interpretation of the Biblical passages equally favors interpretations for and against the sun moving around the earth.  What then would be wrong with taking all that science tells us and concluding that the most reasonable interpretation is that the Bible is not telling us that the sun moves around the earth?

5. Finally, returning to the apologetics issue once more, in sticking only to exegesis as one's hermeneutical method, one cuts off any explanations or "just-so" stories that might tip the balance in favor of thinking that Christianity is true (or a particular interpretation therein).  Here is an illustration: There are plenty of people today who think that there is no hell.  God, they think, if there were a God, would not be in the business of sending people to hell and there would be no such place.  Why not?  One reason might be that it would be unjust; but God is perfectly just and would never permit such a place.

What does one say to such a person? Well, one could point to such and such Scriptures, but that won't help anyone who doesn't believe God exists or doesn't think the Bible is inspired.

But that's not the only option. One could do like Anselm tried to do and give a plausible explanation for why it would not be unjust (in Anselm's case he argues that it's just to infinitely punish someone who wrongs an infinite being).  Such an explanation need not be a theodicy (an account which is taken to be the true explanation for some apparent evils).  It could merely be an explanation that for all we know is true. (For example, for all we know it's not unjust to punish a person for wronging a being who is infinite; here's a plausible story for thinking this might be true; etc.)

Moreover, one might simply begin by noting that we can easily imagine scenarios where an infinite punishment would not be unjust.  Here is such story (a modification of an example by Alexander Pruss): Suppose someone justifiably but incorrectly believed there were an infinite number of persons in the universe.  Suppose this person also believed that by setting off a new type of atomic bomb that it would set off a chain reaction destroying every element in the universe (I believe it was said of Oppenheimer that he thought there was a 30% chance that the first atom bomb would melt the universe!)  Suppose someone tries then to blow up the universe.  One would then be guilty of attempting to murder of an infinite number of persons.  It is plausible to think that such a person would be guilty of an infinite punishment.  So it seems possible that someone could be guilty of an infinite punishment and thus possible that an infinite punishment of a finite person is not unjust.

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