Four Views on Hell

Four Views on Hell. Preston Sprinkle, ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. 224 pp. $18.99.

Since the advent of Christian theology, the doctrine of hell – both in terms of its existence and its nature – has been vigorously debated. And the conversation continues. In recent years, personalities such as Rob Bell and Francis Chan have made noise with their popular-level books (and speaking engagements) on the topic (Love Wins, and Erasing Hell, respectively). Now entering the fray is Zondervan’s interaction with the subject in its Counterpoints: Bible & Theology series. Edited by Preston Sprinkle (co-author of Erasing Hell, and Vice President for Eternity Bible College, Boise Extension), Four Views on Hell (second edition – the prior edition was published in 1996) includes contributions by four Christian scholars, in a point-counterpoint format.

It’s significant to note that this is intended to be a survey of broadly Protestant, evangelical voices. All four contributors recognize the Bible to be normative, and likewise affirm the existence of hell. The diversity expressed in this volume, then, relates primarily to the nature of hell (as opposed to its existence). The viewpoints set forth here are as follows:

  • Ÿ Denny Burk: Eternal Conscious Torment
  • John G. Stackhouse, Jr.: Terminal Punishment (Annihilationism)
  • Robin A. Parry: Universalism
  • Jerry L. Walls: Purgatory

As Sprinkle writes in the introduction, “Evangelicals are reexamining some cherished doctrines, and the nature of hell is on the table.” (10). As this has taken place, alternative perspectives to the traditionally-held position of “eternal conscious torment” have gained ground – especially annihilationism and universalism. In addition, due to a growing ecumenism, “theological cross-pollination” has occurred, such that some evangelicals are now exploring (and in some cases embracing) the notion of purgatory (10).

While the first two views advanced in this volume are fairly straightforward (Denny Burk with the traditional view, and John G. Stackhouse with annihilationism), the second two will cause many evangelicals to do a double take. Is it truly being suggested that universalism and purgatory are live options for evangelicals? Well, yes – that is the insinuation – but a bit of further explanation is in order.

Let’s start with Robin Parry’s take on universalism. At the outset, it must be noted that it is not a pluralistic variety of universalism that Parry advances. Rather, Parry contends that there is only one way to God, namely, through Jesus Christ. While Parry affirms eschatological judgment for those who deny Christ in this life, he nonetheless believes (on the basis of key texts such as Rom. 5:18) “that in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ” (101). While admittedly a minority position among evangelicals, this take on universalism, says Parry, has historical support by prominent early church theologians (e.g., Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and the early Augustine). Whether one ultimately finds Parry’s arguments to be convincing, it cannot be said that he does not labor to defend them both biblically and historically. So much so, that editor Sprinkle calls Parry’s presentation here “a game-changer,” and while he does not agree with Parry, he nonetheless opines, “he has brought what is often assumed to be a heretical view into the arena of biblical exegesis and theology” (197).

For evangelicals, perhaps the most curious inclusion here regards the argument for purgatory by Jerry Walls. This view has traditionally been identified with Roman Catholicism. And yet, Walls here contends for an evangelical embrace of purgatory. On the whole, however, it must be ceded that Walls holds a fairly traditional view of hell. The difference is found in Walls’ argument “that the righteous in Christ will undergo a time of sanctification between their death and resurrection” (14). Passages such as Hebrews 12:14 and Revelation 21:27 are offered in support of this assertion. Notably, purgatory does not, for Walls, involve a chance for postmortem application of the atonement, but only an opportunity for sanctification: “believers who aren’t fully sanctified in this life will finish the process of sanctification after death” (14).

As Sprinkle writes in the conclusion, this book “is designed to spur the reader into thinking more deeply about various Christian views on the afterlife, particularly the nature of hell” (204). And that it does. Likely the most controversial aspect of this book will be its inclusion of universalism and purgatory as legitimate and biblically defensible options for evangelical Protestants. Nonetheless, the material here supplies a means of exposure to perspectives that are presently being entertained within the pale of evangelicalism, generously conceived. And, in doing so, Four Views on Hell accomplishes its task. All in all, regardless of whether or not one resonates with the viewpoints it adumbrates, this book nevertheless is to be commended for its lucid explication of four contemporary outlooks on the subject of hell.




About Tim Harmon

Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.