Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Write-Up: All You Want to Know About Hell, by Steve Gregg

Steve Gregg.  All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.

This book is about three Christian views about hell.  The first is the Traditionalist view that hell is a place of conscious eternal torment for unrepentant sinners.  The second view is Conditionalism, which states that the wicked are destroyed in hell after a period of torment, the length of which depends upon the gravity of their sin.  The third view is Restorationism, which affirms that hell is a place of temporary discipline and correction, meaning that everyone will eventually be saved.

Although I have some disagreements with this book, I am giving it five stars, and the reason is that this is the book that I would give to people if I wanted for them to learn about different Christian views about hell.  To be honest, I was not expecting to like the book as much as I did.  I read an online summary of the book that said that it explained what the Bible “really says” about hell, and that was a huge turn off to me.  But, upon reading the book, I found that Gregg was quite sensitive to the nuances of biblical interpretation and history when it comes to the topic of hell. 

I have often been annoyed by shallow universalist arguments that I have read online, such as the argument that Gehenna in Jesus’ time was understood to be a garbage dump and not hell, or the argument that the Greek word aion and the Hebrew word olam absolutely do not mean eternity.   Gregg, however, avoided these sorts of simplistic arguments, although he struck me as rather critical of Traditionalism and open to Restorationism.  (Gregg claims that his treatment of the three perspectives is neutral, but Restorationism appeared to me to have the upper hand in this book.)  Gregg acknowledges that there were rabbis who regarded Gehenna as hell, even though Gregg seems to argue that Jesus himself was echoing Jeremiah in treating the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) as a place where the dead bodies of the wicked are dumped rather than as a place of the afterlife.  Gregg also contended that the words aion and olam can relate to eternity but do not always.

While I consider myself to be someone who is rather familiar with the debates about hell and the arguments of different Christian perspectives about the issue, I found myself learning new things from Gregg’s book.   For example, Jesus in Matthew 10:28 warns his disciples to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.  Gregg argues that this does not necessarily relate to an afterlife, but that it could be an expression for utter destruction in a temporal sense.  Gregg refers to Isaiah 10:18, where God’s military judgment on Israel is said to consume soul and body.

In terms of criticisms, I have two.  First of all, on page 308, Gregg responds to the Traditional argument that Jesus’ statements about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit contradict Restorationism.  Jesus said in the synoptic Gospels that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age and in the age to come, and some Traditionalists have contended that this undermines the notion that all people will eventually be forgiven by God and enter into eternal bliss.  Gregg offers different arguments against Traditionalism on this, but what he says on page 308 (or, more accurately, what he characterizes as a Restorationist comeback says) is that the person who blasphemes the Holy Spirit and serves a temporary sentence in a coming age is technically not forgiven, since the blasphemer has served his or her sentence, as opposed to being let off.  Presumably, the blasphemer serves a temporary sentence and then enters eternal bliss, and that does not count as the blasphemer being forgiven for his or her blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  That makes me wonder what Restorationists believe is the exact role of the cross of Christ in Restorationism.  Gregg says, for example, that Restorationists believe that the cross of Christ saves everyone.  But, if a sinner can go to hell and serve a temporary sentence and then go onto eternal bliss, and that temporary sentence is technically not forgiveness, then does the sinner even need God’s forgiveness to enter into eternal bliss?  If so, why?  How, according to Restorationism?

Second, I tend to disagree with Gregg’s conservative approach to the Bible, and that leads me to reject some of Gregg’s arguments.  Gregg more than once characterizes the Traditionalist perspective on hell as pagan, and Gregg presents the non-Traditionalist perspective that Jesus would not endorse a pagan view (and it seemed to me that Gregg agreed with this argument, notwithstanding his attempt to stay neutral).  But Gregg appears to presume here that the biblical writings were not influenced by foreign thought, as if God sealed the biblical writers in a pure container.  I believe that there is evidence, however, that biblical writers reflected the contexts and cultures of their time, whether that be ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman.

Daniel 12:2 states, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (NKJV).  Gregg notes that Daniel 12:2 says that MANY will awake, whereas John 5:28f affirms that ALL of the dead will be resurrected.  Gregg flirts with the possibility that the resurrection in Daniel 12:2 may be different from the resurrection that John 5:28 talks about, and that Daniel 12:2 may not be about an eschatological resurrection at all—-that it could be figurative like the resurrection in Ezekiel 37:1-14, or that it could relate to the events of 70 C.E.  A historical-critical way to understand Daniel 12:2 would be to say that Daniel 12:2 was about a literal resurrection, albeit not a universal one: that the person who wrote Daniel 12:2 was expecting for God to resurrect and reward those who were faithful to God during Antiochus IV’s persecution of Jews, while condemning the enemies of the faithful during that crisis.  My impression (and I am open to correction on this) is that Gregg does not regard the Bible as a collection of diverse theological beliefs, but rather sees all of it as the work of God.  The result, in my opinion, is that he really stretches in his attempt to explain away the resurrection in Daniel 12:2.  (Gregg’s argument, however, that the everlasting contempt in Daniel 12:2 does not necessarily mean that the wicked are in conscious torment, but could instead indicate the contempt that others have for the wicked, struck me as reasonable.)

Philippians 2:9-11 states: “Therefore God also has highly exalted [Jesus] and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (NKJV).  Some Restorationists have argued that this passage supports universal salvation, whereas some Traditionalists have maintained that the passage says that everyone SHOULD worship and confess Christ, not that they necessarily will.  Gregg responds that Philippians 2:9-11 refers to Isaiah 45:23, and that Isaiah 45:23 means that everyone shall now or will bow.  But, just because a New Testament author uses a passage in the Hebrew Bible, that does not mean that the New Testament author is being faithful to the original meaning of that passage.  If Gregg believes that it does, then he should argue for that, rather than just assuming it. 
 

Overall, however, I found the book to be a thorough discussion of the topic of hell.  See here for Booksneeze’s page about the book.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the Booksneeze.com book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

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