Book review: Hell Yes / Hell No

by John Noe, Ph. D.

★★★★★

Is God really going to banish the majority of his creation to eternal torment? Well, to start with, what and where is this eternal torment? Noe starts his in-depth study by discussing four words in the Bible that have been translated in different versions of the Bible as “hell.” These four words are Gehenna (the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, where the fire burns non-stop), Sheol (the realm of the dead as they await resurrection, primarily in the Old Testament), Hades (which Noe labels as the Greek equivalent of Sheol), and Tartarus (referenced only in 2 Peter as a place of banishment for sinful angels.) This mismatch of meanings hardly lends strength to the doctrine of eternal damnation. Is today’s understanding of hell merely a Christian invention?

Christian Universalists have a hard time believing a God of Love could be so cruel as to torture anyone for an eternity. Thankfully, a number of verses in the Bible give a different picture; a picture of universal acceptance into heaven. Noe provides a very impressive, scriptural study of both sides of the argument. Recognizing that each side has an exhaustive battery of “proof verses,” and that scripture itself reminds us we are delving in a great mystery (see Romans 11:33-36), he cautions us against disregarding contrary opinions, and suggests we proceed with a high degree of humility.

While Mr. Noe and I will never be exactly on the same page (he “is not and has never been a liberal Christian” while I am precisely that), I am awed by his research. I can respect Noe’s Sola Scriptura stance so long as he takes a good, hard, scholarly look at what the scriptures really say (and do not say!), and this he has done. The key word in this argument, undoubtedly, is the word “all.” When the Bible says, “all,” does it really mean all?

Christ gave himself a ransom for all men.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

The examples of universal language in the scripture are numerous. Underlining this topic is one all-important question: Why did Jesus die? Especially in the minds of Universalists, who posit that everybody eventually winds up in heaven anyway. You may begin to think about the redemptive power of the Cross a little differently after this study with Noe. Consider, for example, Paul’s comparison of Adam to Christ: “So it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” Christian Universalists now charge, “if people are burning in hell, Adam did not foreshadow Christ, he eclipsed Him … religion makes Adam more powerful than Christ.”

Noe proposes a reevaluation of the texts, and mediates a sort of reasonable vote on various topics. Perhaps by tallying up the strengths of the Universalist texts against the strength of the Exclusivist texts—bearing in mind what we have learned about the Greek words and meanings behind what has often been translated as hell—we can reach a conclusion.

It’s no slam dunk. In fact, the voting results in a push, until Noe introduces a tie-breaker topic titled God’s Revealed Character and Nature. Under this topic, he lobbies for a kind and loving God, based on the weight of scripture that describes God as someone who would never banish anyone to eternal torment. The scales are thus tipped in favor of Universalism … as we guessed all along.

Engaging, interesting, intelligent, thought-provoking, this is a book every Christian should read. But I cannot leave this topic without reminding you of Noe’s beginning assumption, a trust that scriptures are divinely inspired and internally consistent. This is me talking from here on; not Noe.

I can respect Noe’s desire to give equal weight to all scripture, but this is the very reason these arguments crop up. It’s not that the scriptures are ambiguous—common sense can usually determine what the author has in mind to say—it’s that in places they are flat-out contradictory. This study highlights this problem very well.

The majority of the Universalist texts derive from Pauline writings. The original Paul, not later pseudo-Pauline writings such as II Thessalonians. Paul, I confess, may have been a Universalist—though, whether in his beliefs or in his dream for mankind I cannot tell. Matthew, with his repeated divisions and images of punishment and gnashing of teeth, is most certainly an Exclusivist … and a terrifying one, at that.

So if we are to take a vote to decide whether the doctrine of Exclusivity or the doctrine of Universality is correct, here is how I think we should be voting, recognizing that different writers held different opinions:

Is Paul right or wrong?

Is Matthew right or wrong?

Is Hebrews right or wrong?

Is James right or wrong?

Or do we scrap them all, and go with Revelation’s afterlife vision of a bodily resurrection and a kingdom established on the earth?

Regardless of my differences with Noe, this is a study that’s worth the effort, and Noe tackles it in fair and scholarly fashion. Five stars, for sure.

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