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. “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.” Instead, Crockett suggests that much of the biblical language is “rabbinic hyperbole” and should be read as such. 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.
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. 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.
Pinnock, being one who supports an emphasis for the profitability of Scripture over inerrancy, 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. 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.” 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.
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.” 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. 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.” 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.  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, 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). 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.) 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.” He takes issues with the idea that hell could be a place of fire and darkness when fire produces light. He cannot understand how spiritual beings could feel the pain without nerve endings. 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. 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.” 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.” 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?” 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. 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.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. 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.
*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.