Four Views of Hell edited by William Crockett and Stanley Gundry

 Critical Review
FOUR VIEWS OF HELL, edited by William Crockett and Stanley N. Gundry

Four Views on Hell, of the Bible & Theology Counterpoints series, offers the arguments and counterarguments of four scholars on the topic of hell.  The question is not whether hell exists, but what the Bible says about it.  Is hell literal or metaphorical; everlasting or does it have an end?  John F. Walvoord argues for the literal view, William V. Crockett for the metaphorical view, Zachary J. Hayes for the purgatorial view, and Clark H. Pinnock for the conditional immortality, or annihilationist view.  Subsequently, Walvoord and Crockett subscribe to an eternal position of their respective views; whereas, Hayes and Pinnock’s views have an end although for different reasons.  Although certainly some more than others, each view point is supported by scriptural references.  Therefore, it is not a matter of arguing for what the Bible teaches, but rather, each author attempts to present compelling arguments for his understanding and interpretation of the biblical teaching.  This critique will examine each argument, at times contrasting them against one, two or all three positions of the other writers in an effort to identify the most compelling of the four views. 
Brief Summary
            In contending for the literal view of hell, Walvoord implies an argument for a strictly literal interpretation of all material in the Bible.  Laying the foundation of his position, he says, “For those who believe in the genuineness of biblical revelation and accept the inerrancy of Scripture, the problem is one of understanding of what Scripture teaches.”[1]  He then hints that those who feel eternal punishment does not exist—as Hayes and Pinnock believe—have no problem with this belief if they also deny the inerrancy of Scripture.[2]  Walvord points to both Old and New Testament Scripture to argue that hell is everlasting and that it is a literal place of fire.  While much of his argument is spent advancing the idea of an eternal hell, he does state, “There is sufficient evidence that the fire is literal.”[3]  His primary evidence is the “frequent mention of fire in connection with eternal punishment.”[4]

            Crockett takes little issue with Walvord’s position that hell is eternal, but he sharply disagrees with the Walvord’s view of a literal hell made of an everlasting fire and smoke.[5]  “And herein lies the problem of the literal view:” writes Crockett, “In its desire to be faithful to the Bible, it makes the Bible say too much.  The truth is we do not know what kind of punishment will be meted out to the wicked.”[6]  Instead, Crockett suggests that much of the biblical language is “rabbinic hyperbole” and should be read as such.[7]  Crockett then argues that the literal language seems to contradict itself, and therefore should be seen as a metaphorical representation of hell—not necessarily any less horrific than the literal view, just not actually fire, smoke, and darkness.[8] 

            Hayes, on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach, describing an intermediate place between heaven and hell called purgatory.  It is not that Hayes believes purgatory is hell, but a temporary place of purification in preparation of an eternal life in the presence of God.  At the time of judgment, purgatory will cease to exist, leaving only heaven and hell.[9]  However, in no way is purgatory hell, nor will it become hell.  Hayes’ Roman Catholic argument is well written; however, Hayes dedicates his chapter to purgatory and not hell, so (as Pinnock rightly articulates), Hayes’ argument is not in line with the topic of the book, that is the biblical view of hell.[10]

            Pinnock, being one who supports an emphasis for the profitability of Scripture over inerrancy,[11] suggests that an alternative interpretation of hell is needed, one that does not paint God as one who would condemn the wicked to an everlasting torment.  Pinnock argues the case of the conditional immortality view, which is often referred to as annihilation.  Annihilation, as Pinnock describes, is the idea that those in hell do not suffer forever but instead eventually go out of existence.[12]  He writes, “Being unable to discount the possibility of hell as a final irreversible condition, I am forced to choose between two interpretations of hell: Do the finally impenitent suffer everlasting, conscious punishment (in body and soul, either literally or metaphorically), or do they go out of existence in the second death?  I contend that God does not grant immortality to the wicked to inflict endless pain but will allow them to finally perish.”[13]  Although not necessary for his view, Pinnock appears to find favor with a metaphorical view like that of Crockett; except that in Pinnock’s idea of hell, there is an end and the suffers are snuffed out completely, potentially by fire or some other metaphorical punishment.

Critical interaction with the authors’ work
            As the reader delves into the four views presented in Four Views on Hell, it becomes apparent that it is not the view of hell that is most significant, but instead how each writer treats Scripture.  At stake for Walvoord, is the idea that anything in the Bible could potentially be seen as metaphorical.  He starts by identifying how the people of the Old Testament, inter testamental period, and the New Testament understood words and concepts such as shoel, and hades.  However, to use these descriptions to support a literal view, one must also accept the earlier understanding of shoel and hades as literal.  Crockett challenges this thinking saying, “. . . in ancient times teachers often used words symbolically to underscore their points (rabbinic hyperbole, as we now call it.)”[14] Crockett sites the biblical examples of Luke 14:26 were Jesus calls his disciples to hate their mothers and fathers, Matthew 5:29 were Jesus tells his followers to gouge out their eyes if they cause them to sin, and Luke 9:60 explaining that the dead should bury their own dead.[15]  If indeed these statements were to be taken literally, it would stand to reason that either the disciples recorded in the remainder of the Bible were sinless or they had gouged their eyes out.  Yet, we do not see anything written about the disciples’ self-inflicted blindness, lending support to Crockett’s point.  Crockett also argues (against Walvoord) that the Jewish writers were seeking vivid images that were mostly symbolic.  He writes, “The object was to paint the most awful picture possible, no matter how incompatible the images.”[16] 

            In countering Crockett and the metaphorical view of Scripture, Walvoord suggests, “If prophecy cannot be interpreted literally, as they believe, it raises important questions about the literalness of hell itself and, in large measure, determines the view of eternal punishment that the individual may take.”[17]  He further states that those who do not view prophecy literally, take this position because they do not want to accept what the Bible teaches about the future, especially about hell and punishment.[18]  Walvoord offers support for a literal view of prophecy and by extension, hell, stating that over fifty percent of all prophecies have been fulfilled.  “In fact, it is difficult to find a single fulfilled prophecy that was fulfilled in other than a literal fashion.”[19]  However, a survey of the symbolic dreams of Genesis 40 and 41, which were interpreted by Joseph, lend more support for Crockett’s view over Walvoord’s. [20]  Despite his potential overstatement, Walvoord raises a valid question: What should be treated literally and what metaphorically? Walvoord’s approach removes the questions all together by treating everything literally.

            Crockett, who incidentally also edited the book, treats the specific scriptures that call for an eternal punishment as literal but the ones that suggest a fiery and black hell as figurative.  He suggests that the literal view is an embarrassment to Christian doctrine,[21] hinting that this may be the motivating factor for his interpretation.  (Pinnock also holds that this doctrine is troubling for Christianity, although he does not use the word ‘embarrassment.’)  Most of Crockett’s argument hinges two issues.  First, is the idea that other biblical passages are metaphorical, or “rabbinic hyperbole,” and therefore it stands to reason that the same is true regarding the passages explaining hell.  And second, is that the idea that the described fire does not conform to the physical attributes of fire on earth, therefore it must be symbolic and not actual fire.  To support his first point, Crockett uses much of Jesus’ words including examples previously mentioned as well as Matthew 7:5, 19:24, and Mark 6:23 among many others.  In support of rabbinic hyperbole, Crockett cites a number of extra-biblical documents written around the same period.  The Old Testament is used to make the same point of fire, showing that God is a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24), sitting on a throne “flaming with fire,” from which a “river of fire” flows (Dan. 7:9-10).[22]  Crockett also uses the New Testament’s use of fire.  But the most telling argument is Crockett’s use of hell’s opposite—heaven.  Discussing what the Bible says about heaven and why it is reasonable to think that it is metaphorical (but still great) he implies that the description of hell is also metaphorical (but still horrific.)[23]  To make his second major point, Crockett writes, “The strongest reason for taking them as metaphors is the conflicting language used in the New Testament to describe hell.”[24]  He takes issues with the idea that hell could be a place of fire and darkness when fire produces light.[25]  He cannot understand how spiritual beings could feel the pain without nerve endings.[26]  His first point is rather convincing; his second requires that one accept that hell conforms to the earthly rules of physics.

            Because Hayes placed his focus on the Roman Catholic view of purgatory rather than hell, his view does not fit within the scope of the book’s objective.  Hayes, like Pinnock, has the deepest desire to believe that the previous two arguments—both of which stand on the interpretation of eternal punishment—is too harsh of a loving God.  However, unlike Pinnock’s view of annihilation, purgatory is where those who die with unfinished lives can be purified.[27]  Hayes still argues that this purification is by no means pleasant but not eternal, and his Roman Catholic theology dictates that it is not the final destination.  Unfortunately, much support for his stance must come from Apocryphal writings and Catholic tradition rather than the Cannon accepted by the protestant faith.
            Pinnock’s argument, while interesting and compassionate, offers the greatest threat to the traditional view of hell and, more significantly, the approach to scriptural interpretation and generally accepted theological methods.  He seems ready to look for the most acceptable view rather than the one most fully supported by Scripture.  At one point, he writes, “Unfortunately, according to these doughty Princetonians, millions still get tortured forever even under their generous scenario.  We need something better than that.”[28]  At another point, Pinnock says, “Theology sometimes needs reforming; maybe it needs reforming in the matter that lies before us.  I believe it does and invite the reader to consider the possibility as a thought experiment.”[29]  He even asks, “Why do evangelicals who freely changed old traditions in the name of the Bible refuse to adamantly even to consider changing this one?”[30]  Pinnock’s concern is that people are not reading their Bibles because of the doctrine of hell, and therefore the doctrine is becoming a stumbling block.[31] He sees a non-profitable doctrine that needs an overhaul to regain a comfortable position again.  He writes,
 It is conceivable that the position I am advancing on the nature of hell is most adequate not only in terms of exegesis and theological, rational coherence, as I hope to prove, but also better in its potential actually to preserve the doctrine of hell for Christian eschatology.  For given the silence attending the traditional view today even among its supporters, the whole idea of hell may be about to disappear unless a better interpretation can be offered about its nature.[32]
       So, if given the opportunity to revise the doctrine of hell, what is it that Pinnock is proposing?  Using a short-supply of biblical passages, some extra-biblical religious writing, and the work of a number of church fathers, Pinnock argues for a hell where people suffer and are punished but eventually are extinguished.  This, he contends, is more in line with a god of love.[33]  While the counterarguments of the three other positions hold a great deal of respect for Pinnock’s view, they still content that it fails to take into consideration the larger body of biblical evidence.

            While Hayes and Pinnock hold a deep desire to see mercy and love in God’s justice (a desire we should all hold), their views are the farthest from the mainline and evangelical Christian views.  This alone is not a sufficient reason to discredit their views; however, of the four views, these two rely the least on the Bible, utilizing extra-biblical texts, reason, or simply their desire to see something other than biblical teaching.  However, this author believes the Bible, not tradition or desire to see something better should be used to determine the truth.  Walvoord and Crockett draw their ideas from the Bible and yet they come to different conclusions.  Walvoord holds to a literal view of hell and takes a literal view to the entire Bible.  Crockett’s argument does a nice job of demonstrating the error in Walvoord’s approach in laying out what turns out to be the most convincing of the four views.  However, Crockett’s view, that is, that hell is everlasting and awful but not necessarily fire and smoke, must be approached with great caution as well.  Surely not every item in the Bible can be seen as metaphorical, but from his approach, Crockett does not identify a method to determine what is literal and what is rabbinic hyperbole.  He only holds that hell is not literal.

Crockett, William V. and Stanley N. Gundry. Four Views on Hell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Baker reference library. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2001.

     [1] William V. Crockett and Stanley N. Gundry, Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1996), 12.
     [2] Ibid.
     [3] Ibid., 28.
     [4] Ibid.
     [5] Ibid., 29-31, 43-76.
     [6] Ibid., 54.
     [7] Ibid., 50.
     [8] Ibid., 30-31, 49-50.
     [9] Ibid., 93.
     [10] Ibid., 127.
     [11] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), 927.
     [12] Crockett, 142.
     [13] Ibid., 142-143.
     [14] Ibid., 30.
     [15] Ibid.
     [16] Ibid., 30-31.
     [17] Ibid., 78-79.
     [18] Ibid. 79.
     [19] Crockett, 79.
     [20] Walvoord states that he has written an exposition on every prophecy of the Bible although he does not state whether that includes the dreams of Genesis 40 and 41.
     [21] Crockett, 43-44.
     [22] Ibid., 53.
     [23] Ibid., 55-61.
     [24] Ibid., 59.
     [25] Ibid.
     [26] Ibid., 30.
     [27] Ibid., 96-97.
     [28] Ibid., 150.
     [29] Ibid., 143.
     [30] Ibid., 160.
     [31] Ibid., 136,  148.
     [32] Ibid., 137.
     [33] Ibid., 151-153, 165.

 *I have no material connection to this book.  This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.