Book Review: Is Hell for Real?

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Is Hell for real? Or does everyone go to heaven?

This is one of the big questions. Questions we want pastoral answers to, evangelistic answers to, biblical answers to, historical answers to, theological answers too. This book, by gathering a range of excellent contributors, attempts to engage with the question of hell, and the questions behind that simpler question.

Hell, Heaven, and the fate of every human who ever lived are words that resonate with nearly everyone currently alive today. Everyone has an opinion. Some people claim to know what happens. Some people claim to be saved, to be theologically correct, to be in relationship with the terrible judge of all. Others are content to wait in the hope of total reconciliation, of a love they hope the creator has for his creation.

What we think about Heaven and Hell is incredibly important because it affects our daily life on earth.

I echo Rob Bell’s recent book/furore (Love Wins…) because one cannot now read this book without having this in mind. But that is a shame, because this is an excellent book. Simply put, this is a short, pithy, hard hitting, broad ranging and excellent scholarly yet accessible survey of the afterlife. Which seeks to be fair to the biblical account. And be respectful of todays culture. The book is made up of several essays – from each of the contributors.

Mohler opens the book with Chapter One: “Is Hell for Real?” This is an incredibly important chapter. And his conclusions, as one might expect, are orthodox, and echo a real hell. This chapter is not the strongest in the book – but serves as a useful introduction and Mohler’s writing style is excellent. His opening salvo sets the tone for both his contribution and the book, and I would share it with you:

“The Rejection of Christianity’s historic teaching on hell has come swiftly in our culture. It is now routinely dismissed as an embarrassing artefact from an ancient age – a reminder of Christianity’s outdated worldview.

       Yet the disappearance of hell within the church’s walls, at least in some circles, presents a kind of mystery. How did such a central doctrine come to suffer widespread abandonment among some Christians?

This clear, simple question is the heart and thrust of the book, and Mohler sets the stage for some dramatic prose and rapier-like insight.

Yarbrough offers up the next chapter – “What Jesus said about Hell”. This is important. Jesus was the mightiest expression of God’s love – in many ways – and to explore what he said on this issue is incredibly important. Jesus is the reason for Christianity – we follow the Christ. Jesus’ Church must follow where he leads on all issues – even the thorny issue of the afterlife and hell. As Yarbrough points out, “we should be wary of the current impulse to dilute Jesus’ words on hell. As North Park University Professor Scott McKnight has written: “What Christians have believed about hell has been constructed almost entirely out of” what Jesus teaches in the Gospels. If his words about hell are set aside, then nearly all of his teachings must be neutralised“. No Christian honestly wants that. There is no Christianity, religion or relationship, without Christ. Yarbrough proceeds to examine every passage on hell from the canonical Gospels. This is an excellent chapter – clear and scholarly.

In the third chapter we have an interesting approach as Christopher Morgan offers Three perspectives on Hell – showing different ways that Christians have approached it. For me this was one of the less engaging chapters of the book – I have a clear view at the moment – but it is useful, particularly if you thought that all Christians believe in a red fiery place with pointy sticks. The Fourth chapter is three persepctives on Hell – similar to the third chapter. These two chapters fill out the book strongly, with a good grasp of scripture, church history and various other influences.

The fifth Chapter is vintage Packer. Here J.I.Packer answers the question “Does everyone go to heaven?” clearly, calmly, and convincingly. I am someone who has never been much convinced by a universalist perspective – but I completely ‘get’ why one would be. Packer demolishes this thesis, calmly and clearly. Packer makes a bold statement on the issues at stake here: “Universalism is a challenge to Christian Orthodoxy; whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant evangelical, for the Church has officially declared universalism a heresy since the second Council of Constantinople in AD 553. In recent years, however, universalism has made something of a comeback“. Setting the scene in grand terms, Packer gets serious quickly. He is very aware of why universalism is popular, especially today: “First, living in multireligious communities and rubbing shoulders regularly with people of many faiths, we should like to be able to tell ourselves that their religions are as good for them as ours is for us“, secondly that “few today are clear on the specifics of the Christian way of salvation… Little problem is thus seen in treating all religions as one, and thus universalism is taken for granted“. Thirdly and Fourthly come the issues of the decline of Western Christianity, and establishing a relational and fruitful rapport with non-Christians. Packer is aware. And his case is strong – I cannot encourage you to read this book, even if its only this part. Packer’s conclusion is a tour de force:

Universalism does not stand up to biblical examination

 

The final part of this book is an appendix by Tim Keller entitled “Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age”. This is a stunning essay, classic Keller, showing that we must be intelligent in our preaching of Hell to everyone – traditionalists and progressives alike. As Keller once preached: “Until we come to grips with this terrible doctrine, we will never begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a fleabite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself“. I fully intend to more theologically explore Keller’s piece in a future post.

Needless to say, this is an excellent book. Short, clear and robust, I think it is essential reading on the subject. Highly recommended.

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