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Friday, March 30, 2007

ECM and Hell--Hard to Accept

[This is a post in a long series examing the emerging/emergent church movement in light of various Scriptures. The series starts here, if you'd like to get up to speed.]

ECM and Hell--Hard to Accept

Yesterday, I posted that heaven is not spoken of much, despite the fact that the language in Scripture would allow the teacher to exercise some ambiguity in his desire to be accurate. Though heaven cannot be fully grasped, the topic is largely ignored. I don't believe I've heard anyone in the emerging camp refute heaven, the topic is usually left to neglect. It's not denied, just disregarded.

Many consider hell the counterpart of heaven. While these are the two possible destinations, it's important to realize heaven and hell do not have a ying-yang dimension. Hell is not the direct opposite of heaven. However, hell is treated almost in direct inverse to heaven. Heaven's language can be shadowy, yet many in the emerging church choose to ignore it. Hell, on the other hand, can have rather direct language, yet many in the emerging church choose to deny it. Take a look at some of these passages:

Matthew 5:22--hell is fiery
Mathew 5:29-30--people can end up in hell
Matthew 10:28--soul and body can be cast into hell
Matthew 18:9--hell is fiery
Matthew 23:15--the Pharisees teaching led people to hell
Matthew 23:33--hell is judgment
Mark 9:43-48--hell's fire is unquenchable
Luke 12:5--the authority to cast into hell is Christ's
James 3:6--evil words will be judged in hell
2 Peter 2:4--angels are in hell, there are pits of darkness in hell.

This was hardly an exhaustive search. I simply went to biblestudytools.net, typed in hell and searched in NASB. These were the New Testament passages that came up. With a decent internet connection, this "study" took all of five minutes. This does not even include other teachings from Jesus (regarding the eternality of hell) or Old Testament teaching. However, expanding the search to include these areas would not cloud the topic, but would shed more light. Yet, many claim to have studied and don't know what to make of hell.

[Still others take the most cowardly approach. They postulate that hell "may" not exist. They present all angles, highly emphasizing the perspective that denies its existence, and thing shrink away when challenge. They will not state what they believe, only what the options are and that they think we should reexamine things. Clearly, they want to undermine the orthodox perspective, but they don't have to answer for what view they may espouse. No matter what perspective they end on, such double-mindedness is not pleasing to the Lord.]

Some claim they will not speak of hell for fear of the "fire and brimstone" preaching they've heard in the past. But wouldn't it be reclaiming a doctrine to preach on it with the compassion and grace they believe was missing before? Others claim that they can't preach on it because it may scare some people, and scare tactics are never good. While I do not believe the gospel message is simply avoiding hell, doesn't Jesus teaching show that He believed than an accurate view of hell could motivate? Are we more theologically sound teachers than Christ? Others will not preach hell because they cannot imagine a God who could create such a place. But the Scriptures say that He did, so what diminsion of God are they missing? Is there something they are ignoring that makes it hard to teach such things?

I believe there is. And I believe it's denial/neglect is the root of every post within this series. I also believe this denial/neglect is the root of most of the problems within our own fellowship, emerging or not.

And I'll share more, starting April 9.


  • At 4:54 PM, Blogger BReformed said…

    You might be interested in this comment by Alexander Mack:

    "According the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, 'the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.' However, that it should last for eternity is not supported by Holy Scriptures."

    One wonders what part of eternity is not "forver and ever"?

  • At 8:32 AM, Blogger Dale Harris said…

    You also might be interested in the fact that many well-respected scholars think the fire language is figurative. Lee Stroebel's chapter on Hell in "A Case for Faith" is pretty interesting in that regard. I haven't come to a stone-cold lead pipe lock conclusion personally.

    Also, while I agree that the ECM does manuever around some specific "Hell" language in the NT, I do think that if they have legitimate doubts about the literary terms employed borne out of careful study we should allow them the time they request to do more study. There does exist legitimate disagreement within the orthdox camp, as evidenced by people like John Stott and even Alexander Mack (which I just learned ... thanks David). If this ambiguity is, however, just a smokescreen to avoid truth issues, then I think it's clearly a bad thing. I guess at the end of the day I don't want to judge motives. It's cool to point out error, and it's cool to point out that saying "I don't know" can be an error of ignoring clear revelation in favor of false humility, but I think we have to be careful when other evangelicals are also a little unsure on certain points.

  • At 1:26 PM, Blogger danny2 said…


    i appreciate you trying to make me "cool," but that's something no one else has ever accused me of...so don't feel the obligation.

    i have not pointed out any of the errors in these posts because it is fun, a hobby, or even the trendy thing to do. i'd love to just mind my own business, but as i mentioned before, that's not the option of an elder.

    my concern about those who request more time to study the literary devices used to study hell is not that they want to study more. it is that their attitude is largely hostile toward the idea, treats the entire concept of hell with disregard and disgust (calling it everything from manipulation, to scare tactics, to ugly vengance).

    i agree that we should tread lightly when we speak of another's motives. i have purposefully avoided quoting any of the current "thinkers" within the ECM movement to avoid the accusations of pigeon holing the whole movement under one man, quoting a guy out of context, or that i need to read all 87 volumes of a man's work to really know what he is saying. however, a quick examination of the writers and speakers today suggest not that they are truly studying hell to get to the fuller, stronger meaning. most of the guys speak in such a way that exposes they have a problem with it...so they need to look for ways to excuse it away.

    while i think the argument as to real fire is pretty juvenile (Christ uses the same word for literal fire as he does to describe the fires of hell), i'll also acknowledge that the fire does not quench, so i will offer some grace that the fire may/may not look a lot like fire we see here on earth.

    however, to those who want to claim the fire is not eternal. i'm not going to say they are not brothers, but they shouldn't be grace brethren:

    12. FUTURE LIFE. The conscious existence of the dead (Phil. 1:21-23; Luke 16:19-31), the resurrection of the body (John 5:28-29), the judgment and reward of believers (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10), the judgment and condemnation of unbelievers (Rev. 20:11-15), the eternal life of the saved (John 3:16), and the eternal punishment of the lost (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:15).

  • At 2:00 PM, Blogger Journeyman said…

    According to your statement then.... those who claim that "the fire is not eternal, I'm not going to say that they are not brothers, but they shouldn't be Grace Brethren" ...this exclusion would also have to apply to & include Alexander Mack (1679-1735)himself, who baptised 8 people in the Eder River at Schwarzenau, Germany in August of 1708 in what became the beginnings of the brethren movement.Hmmmmm,interesting indeed!

  • At 3:25 PM, Blogger Dale Harris said…

    Isn't there a difference between "eternal punishment" and "literal, eternal fire"? I think you can hold to the first without necessarily having to hold to the second.

    Also, just because the Greek word for "fire" is the same doesn't really influence your argument. I can use the same English word to say "LeBron James is on fire" as I would to say "the fire I roast hot dogs in" and clearly have two different meanings ... one figurative, one literal. It's all about context.

    And by the way, I was using the word "cool" figuratively to mean "acceptable."

    By the way, it seems Mack is reading Scripture to say that although the smoke (maybe as in, result of the punishment?) is eternal, the actual punishment is not (maybe as in allowing for annihilationism in Mack's view?).

    All that to say, we're on rough ground when we exclude the founder of our movement from our movement, and we should tread carefully, being sure that our exclusions have clear biblical rather than traditional interpretative (i.e., last 120 years) warrant. And if we can't even agree within our own camp, maybe we should be slow to judge the ponderings of others who have difficulty reconciling God's love with a doctrine of his eternal anger ... not saying they're right just that you can understand their philosophical presuppositions that make them want to re-examine the Bible to see if the long-held traditional view is actually correct.

    But lest you think I'm a closet ECM-guy, I believe that eternal punishment is a true, literal thing ... I'm just not sure how the fire comes into play.

  • At 3:55 PM, Blogger BReformed said…

    Alexander Mack did believe the fire of hell is eternal. (See "Rights and Ordinances", 1715, Son's Inquiry #57.) What Mack questioned (and he left open for debate) was whether the human soul occupied the eternal fire eternally. Mack did say, however, "...it is much better to practice [belief and obedience] that one should try to become worthy in the time of grace than to deliberate how or when it would be possible to escape from [hell] again." (See "Rights and Ordinances", 1715, Son's Inquiry #58.)

    I'm Grace Brethren (at least for the next week or so) and I am one of those who holds that the fire language is literal, but I do not believe that the "unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:17) of hell conforms to the properties of our physical universe. Fire, as we know it, is a "mixture" of heat and light energy, wherein photons are moving so fast that the sensory perception of them is manifested in what we call a flame.

    The soul is something other than combustible energy, as it is manifested from the very breath of God, and the fire that torments the rebellious soul for ever and ever (Rev. 14:10-11) must be of a design that consumes the physically intangible nature of what the soul is.
    We know the Lake of Fire itself was created for beings of a higher order than humans (Matt. 25:41.) It seems obvious that whatever consumes the soul is at least additive to that which merely consumes our organic substance (Matt. 10:28.) The question at hand is whether consumption of the soul has finality.

    The ambiguity on this issue arises from a desire to explain that which is supernatural along with an inclination to paint God more like a human judge. That was Mack's problem, and he admits this when he qualifies the tenuous position of his answer: "Unfortunately, in this day, everything is completely distorted by the great power of imagination of those people who teach and write books about restoration.". Imagination indeed.
    It's like the saying I tell my four children: "I may have told you everything you know, but I haven't told you everything I know." So it is all the more with God and His realm in the eternal context. God has told us there is a Lake of Fire, and that it is unquenchable. He also says the torment of the transgressor goes up forever and ever (Isa. 66:22, 24.)

    The fact that transgression puts a person in hell tells us plainly that the extent and continuity of hell is directly coupled to the extent and continuity of the atonement. The law (which all men have transgressed) and its eternal fulfillment by Christ negates the postulation of a non-eternal punishment. The fact that God was separated from God (a proposition of eternal proportions) on the cross, to solve (reconcile/justify/atone) a transgression of eternal proportions, exposes the folly of supposing the debt does not need to be satisfied eternally by the transgressor. The transgressor has no option but to persist eternally in order to keep up payments toward his personal, eternal debt incurred through his personal transgression.

  • At 4:28 PM, Blogger BReformed said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 9:18 PM, Blogger danny2 said…


    just like what makes me a calvinist is my devotion to the Word, not to john calvin...

    what makes me brethren is my devotion to the Word, not to alexander mack. (mack's perspective on hell isn't the scariest thing i've read from him...but i'll also acknowledge he didn't have the access to the Word, languages and sources that we do today.)


    many in the ECM camp love the end of matthew 25 (feed hungry, clothe naked, visit those in prison) but they seem to ignore some pretty specific things...

    25:41 "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels ;

    lest we think that was figurative (which there is zero indication in the text that it is), consider:

    25:46 "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

    if eternal punishment is figurative, then we must assume eternal life is too.

    if eternal life is figurative...i'm pretty bummed.

    punishment is eternal and fire is eternal...why should we assume those correlate?

    i'm not sure if you really want to talk language or not (for you still have not commented about "uparchontes" on your own blog)...but there have to be some indication that the language is figurative.

    in acts 2:3, we understand the fire to be figurative because luke uses "orao" (not the cookie, but the word for appeared). similar to john's language about heaven, luke is saying it was like tongues of fire, but the like allows us to know they really aren't tongues of fire.

    in james 3:6, it's obviously figurative when james says, "the tongue is a fire." we've seen tongues and we know they are not literally a fire. you're correct, we know james is being figurative due to his language.

    however, what language clues are given about hell to suggest the fire isn't real?

    can someone please even explain what fire is? while i get david's description, let's be honest, we're not even sure whether to call it light, heat or what? we can't quite understand fire on this globe, yet our whole purpose for saying Jesus and others are using figurative language is because we can't picture fire and darkness....please!

    this is the kind of stuff that leads to scofield to suggesting his gap theory. it's not that the text supports the idea, it's that we are frantically trying to scramble around to show science we are relevent. (what they can't figure out we'll quickly admit Scripture must not be saying.)

    eternal fire. eternal punishment. eternal life.

    since i love the last one so dearly, i choose to see all three as literal.


    i know you're frustrated with some current fellowship situations you see...yet whatever happens, i'm not sure i see you ceasing to be grace brethren. at least i keep telling myself that.

  • At 6:21 PM, Blogger ~~anna~~ said…

    I just read your last post that talked about Heaven, but wasn't sure if I posted there if you would see it. So, hope you don't mind my jumping in here instead.
    I'm currently reading a book by Randy Alcorn called "Heaven". Have you by any chance read it? I'm still taking it all in, but it is quite interesting.

  • At 6:55 PM, Blogger danny2 said…

    i've read his "treasure principle" and part of "money, possessions and eternity" but have not read "heaven."

    so far, i like what i've read of alcorn...i've heard people discuss "heaven" before. at times it sounds like he does really good exegetical work about heaven, other times it sounds highly speculative. i'd enjoy the exegetical parts.


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