Top 5: Building Theological Depth

For this top five, I want to share five books referenced in Is There Anything Good About Hell? which could help establish a younger or less mature believer in some deeper theological thinking. None of these are about hell or punishment itself and I have deliberately not included longer works: systematic theologies, commentaries, or other reference-type works. I also ruled out sermon compilations, or larger collated works (no Jonathan Edwards or Charnock here). If when you think of theological books, you are a toe-dipper, think of this top five as the moment you take a breath and submerge under the water. It may take a moment to acclimatize, but when you do it will be so much better!

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The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, Harry Buis

Excellent, medium-length book which surveys both the historical and biblical doctrine of hell with breadth. Not much new here, but a solid resource.

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Excerpts

Preface
This book is not written because the author takes delight in the subject. The thought of hell terrifies. It ought to make us all shudder. But it is a fact taught in God's Word. To deny or to ignore any Scriptural teaching is a serious matter. . . We have been led to a serious study of this subject for several reasons. One is that there is no other doctrine that is clearly taught in Scripture which is so generally denied or ignored in our modern theological world.
38
In his pronouncement against Judas, Jesus describes the punishment of the wicked by means of another comparison. "The Son of man goeth, even as it is written of him; but woe unto the man through whom the Son of man is betrayed: it were better for that man if had never been born" (Matthew 26:24). According to this passage the fate of Judas will be far worse than annihilation.
p43
 The teachings of our Savior may be summarized as follows: There are only two ultimate destinies, heaven and hell. The existence of the wicked in the future state is a very terrible reality and endless. Part of the punishment lies in exclusion from the presence of Jesus himself. There are degrees of punishment depending upon the kind of life lived on this earth, and upon the greatness of the opportunities which were neglected.
p53
The masses of Christians in the early Church certainly believed in the doctrine of eternal punishment. Gibbon considered this to be one of the five most important reasons why the Gospel spread in such amazing fashion.
p100
John Charles Ryle (1816-1900), Bishop of Liverpool, certainly believed in it. He said, "Let others hold their peace about hell if they will — I dare not do so. I see it plainly in Scripture, and I must speak of it. I fear that thousands are on that broad road that leads to it, and I would fain arouse them to a sense of the peril before them. What would you say of the man who saw his neighbor's house in danger of being burned down, and never raise the cry 'Fire'? Call it bad taste, if you like, to speak of hell. Call it charity to make things pleasant and speak smoothly, and soothe men with a constant lullaby of peace. From such notions of taste and charity may I ever be delivered. My notion of charity is to warn men plainly of their danger. My notion of taste is to declare all the counsel of God. If I never spoke of hell, I should think I had kept back something that was profitable, and should look on myself as an accomplice of the devil."
p116-117
A Just God Would Not Give Infinite Punishment for Finite Sin.
This is a very popular argument of the universalist. To this it may be replied: Sin against God is a very serious matter. As Shedd so well explains: "Those who deny the position that sin is an infinite evil forget that the principle, upon which it rests is one of the commonplaces of jurisprudence: the principle, namely, that crime depends upon the object against whom it is committed as well as upon the subject who commits it. The merely subjective reference of an act is not sufficient to determine whether it is a crime. The act may have been the voluntary act of a person, but unless it is also an offence against another person, it is no crime. To strike is a voluntary act; but to strike a post or a stone is not a culpable act. Furthermore, not only crime, but degrees of crime depend upon the objective reference of a personal act. Estimated only by the subjective reference, there can be not only no culpability, but no difference in culpability. Killing a dog is no worse than killing a man, if merely the subject who kills, and not the object killed, is considered. Both alike are voluntary acts, and of one and the same person. If therefore the gravity of the act is to be measured solely by the nature of the person committing it, and not by that of the thing against whom it is committed, killing a dog is as heinous as killing a man.
p127
It is no coincidence that our present age which laughs at the idea of hell is an age of gross immorality. As Sheila Kaye-Smith says, "Every significant religious revival has been accompanied by a quickening sense of the danger and terror of hell."

“Peerless”: Review of Hartman’s Divine Penology

Decretum Books will soon be re-publishing L. B. Hartman’s phenomenal book on justice and hell, Divine Penology (public domain), which will include a biographical introduction. This has been a fascinating project, as no significant biography of Hartman exists at present. Appendix B in the new publication is a glowing review from Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper, Vol. 67, in 1899, which captures many of my own thoughts about the work, idiosyncratic as it is. It is printed here in hopes it will whet your appetite for this “peerless” treatise.

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On Predestination, Reprobation, and the Love of God, John Piper & Thomas Talbott

Two leading theologians from opposite viewpoints spar over reprobation and how eternal punishment interacts with God's love and His eternal decrees.

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Excerpts

329
It would be fair to say that more than any other evangelical author, Peterson has been the bastion of traditional doctrine of hell in recent times and the most vocal critic of annihilationism.

335
John Stott has commented that "it would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are not in fact destroyed."

344
Responding to the claim that the text teaches eternal torment, Fudge commented, "[I]t is an 'everlasting' contempt, because the state is irreversible."

 

The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, Sperry Lewis Johnson

Three-part sermon series on hell by an excellent expositor. Deals excellently, if succinctly, with universalism and conditionalism.

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Excerpts

Sermon I
Now, the question, of course, is an unpopular one. We never will find that people rejoice in the idea of an endless punishment of the finally impenitent. Even good Christians are troubled by it. They puzzle over it. It is an unpopular subject. But the question is really, is it truth? Just as Mr. Russell was saying, “Is it that which is true?” And if it is that which is true and if we yield ourselves to that truth, we will find that ultimately it will be good for us.

Just yesterday I was reading a new book that I had received and on one of the pages beginning it there is a quotation from the pope. And even the pope in this quotation says, “Let us never forget that sin is sin.” That’s a biblical expression. He goes on to say, “The destructive nature of the error is still more apparent in practical theology. Could it be proved that the Christian church have been deceived in finding, the doctrine of Endless Punishment in the Christian Scriptures, and that there is no such thing, havoc would be made of all the liturgies of the Church, as well as all of its literature.” And he goes on to talk about the fact that the Christian church has been built up upon belief in the doctrine of eternal punishment.

The suffering that Jesus Christ undergoes is not remedial suffering; it’s retributive suffering. He dies under the judgement of God. This is what we teach. This is what the Scriptures themselves proclaim. Suffering that is merely educational doesn’t require vicarious atonement in order to release from it. But suffering that is judicial and punitive can be released from the transgressor only by being inflicted upon a substitute. And so, the only way in which we can be delivered from retributive judgement, the kind of judgement that would bring us to hell, the only way we can escape from that is by substitution. We cannot bear it ourselves. It’s eternal judgement. We need someone to bear it for us. And the story of the gospel is that Jesus Christ does bear it for his people.

Sermon II
Another thing, the extinction of consciousness is not of the nature of punishment. The essence of punishment is suffering. And suffering belongs to consciousness. If we say that an individual is to suffer punishment, there is no suffering of punishment if he’s not conscious. Consciousness belongs to suffering. And if the eternal punishment of individuals is something of which they do not know anything, have no concept of it happening, do not experience it, how can it be called eternal punishment? But the Bible calls it eternal punishment.

Now, spiritual death and eternal death are the same thing. Eternal death is simply spiritual death prolonged into eternity. And so, if consciousness characterizes spiritual death now, why should it not characterize spiritual death after we die? In other words, in eternal death, we have spiritual death simply prolonged. All sentimental arguments about a father not punishing his children forever measure God by human sinful men’s thoughts. He is not measured by us. Scripture reveals what we know about him.

Sermon III

Now, fear is a legitimate motive for the doing of the will of God. There are lots of people who seem to think that if a person does obey God by reason of fear, that that’s not the kind of obedience that God is interested in. Well, of course, God would love to have us obey him because it is right for us to obey him. In other words, right for right’s sake is certainly a high motive for doing the will of God. But men are not angels.

So, hell is rational because sin is an infinite evil. And in order to be properly punished, we should have an infinite punishment. Robert Browning said once, “There may be a heaven, there must be a hell.” As he looked out over human experience, it seemed reasonable to him, more reasonable that there should be a hell than a heaven. And someone else has said, “If there is no hell, we’d be compelled to invent one.” And if you read your newspapers day after day and see the level of the crimes in the United States of America, the wickedness, the utter carelessness of human life, I often almost every time I open the paper, I often feel there has to be a hell, and the sooner the better for some of the crimes that are committed these days.

Fallacies in the Annihilationism Debate, Peoples and Peterson

Peoples and Peterson interact over Peterson's traditionalist critiques of Fudge and others. Peterson corrects a couple of points, and clarifies others, ably answering the major objections.

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Excerpts

329
It would be fair to say that more than any other evangelical author, Peterson has been the bastion of traditional doctrine of hell in recent times and the most vocal critic of annihilationism.

335
John Stott has commented that "it would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are not in fact destroyed."

344
Responding to the claim that the text teaches eternal torment, Fudge commented, "[I]t is an 'everlasting' contempt, because the state is irreversible."

 

The Decline of Hell, D. P. Walker

An in-depth survey of views on hell in the 17th century. Fascinating and insightful, if narrow in its scope. Most of the usefulness of the book is in unearthing many of the philosophical questions, conundrums and attempted explanations.

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Excerpts

p20, citing Lampe on the phrase "for ages and ages"
Hence it is abundantly clear that the Holy Ghost intended this, that he might express eternity more vervously than it had formerly been done in human language, and remove all possible evasions which the genius of the language seemed otherwise to admit.

p44
Thomas's (Aquinas) own justification of eternal torment is more subtle and satisfactory. Since the torments of hell are infinite in duration but finite in intensity (though much more intense than anything in this life), the sin must be both infinite and finite; it is infinite in that it is a turning away from God, but finite in that it is a turning toward the creature.

p140, summarizing Lady Conway
A creature can make limitless advances towards food, because God is infinite and the creature can approach indefinitely near to Him without even becoming Him. But the same infinite progress towards evil is not possible, because 'there is no Being, which is infinitely and unchangeably Evil, as God is infinitely and uncheangeably Good'. Thus 'there are limits and bounds to Evil; but none unto Good'.

p262
Eternal torment is nowadays an unpopular doctrine among most kinds of Christians; the God of love has nearly driven out the God of vengeance; vindictive justice has had to take refuge among the advocates of hanging; and it is no longer considered respectable to enjoy the infliction of even the justest punishment. I am not asserting that we now behave or feel less cruelly , but only that we are more worried about the abominations we commit.

What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment? Reply to Dr. Farrar, E. B. Pusey

A response to Farrar's popular, universalistic teachings, Pusey argues for the orthodoxly of eternal punishment. Although not the greatest theologian, the most useful parts of the book are the Hebraists considerable documentation of early church beliefs and testimonies on hell. This alone greatly commends the book.

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Excerpts

p18-19
Fire is the most excruciating suffering, of which we have any experience here. The flesh shrinks from the slightest touch of it. Since then S. Paul has said of the Day of Judgment, "knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men," I dare not myself lessen any terror, to which our Lord's words may give rise. The dread of hell peoples heaven: perhaps millions have been scared back from sin by the dread of it.

p38, quoting Greek Scholar Riddell on "aionios"
In the New Testament it occurs seventy-one times: of eternal life, forty-four times; of Almighty God, His Spirt and His glory, three times; of the kingdom of Christ, His Redemption, the blood of His covenant, His Gospel, salvation, our habitation in heaven; of the glory laid up for us, thrice; our inheritance, consolation, of a sharer of eternal life; of eternal fire, thrice; of punishment, judgment, destruction, four times. of the future then it is no where used in the New Testament, except of eternal life or punishment.

 

Hell on Fire, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson et al.

Thorough scholarship from some of the best theologians alive. Stand-out chapters begin with Mohler's opening historical survey, which is worth the price of the entire book on its own. Block's OT survey, and Morgan's chapter on images of hell are also exemplary. If the greatest criticism is the book's cover, it's very, very good.

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Excerpts

Mohler

A second issue is a changed view of justice. Retributive justice has been the hallmark of human law since premodern times. This concept assumes that punishment is a natural and necessary component of justice. Nevertheless, retributive justice has been under assault for many years in Western cultures, and this has led to modifications in the doctrine of hell.

Sin has been redefined as a lack of self-esteem rather than as an insult to the glory of God. Salvation has been reconceived as liberation from oppression, internal or external. The gospel becomes a means of release from bondage to bad habits rather than rescue from a sentence of eternity in hell.

The temptation to revise the doctrine of hell—to remove the sting and scandal of everlasting conscious punishment—is understandable. But it is also a major test of evangelical conviction. This is no theological trifle. As one observer has asked, “Could it be that the only result of attempts, however well-meaning, to air-condition Hell, is to ensure that more and more people wind up there?”

Block, on Isa 66

The chapter climaxes with the glorious picture of Yahweh displaying his glory and setting a sign (the cross!) among the nations, which rallies worshipers to find whatever means they can to bring their gifts and offerings to Zion. But when the worshipers leave the city, they pass by the city dump, where they observe the endless fire consuming the refuse and the maggots () ceaselessly eating away at the decaying corpses of those who have been unceremoniously dumped there—undoubtedly those whom Yahweh has slain in his fury (Isa. 66:16). The gaze of the worshipers has less to do with gloating over the deaths of their enemies than with recalling the fate that would have been theirs—but for the grace of God.

Morgan

So hell as destruction is best understood to show that hell is final and utter loss, ruin, or waste. Destruction is a graphic picture that those in hell have failed to embrace the meaning of life and have wasted it. Trying to find life in themselves and sin, they have forfeited true life. Only ruin and garbage remains.

Whereas punishment stresses the active side of hell, banishment shows the horror of hell by highlighting what a person misses. When average evangelical church members are asked what hell is like, their likely response will be that hell is “separation from God.” While the idea of separation is certainly correct and included in this New Testament concept of banishment, separation alone does not do justice to the force of this picture of hell. Banishment is much stronger than separation. It suggests God’s active judgment while separation could simply imply divine passivity. Banishment also stresses the dreadfulness and finality of the predicament. The Scriptures demonstrate that Christ eternally excludes the unrighteous from the kingdom. The wicked never experience unhindered fellowship with God. They are forever banished from his majestic presence and completely miss out on the reason for their existence—to glorify and know their Creator.

The three pictures of hell also appear to illustrate the biblical doctrine of the atonement. On the cross, Jesus died as a substitute for our sins and drank the cup of wrath—punishment (Matt. 26:42; Rom. 3:21-31; 1 Peter 3:18). On the cross, Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins—death (cf. Heb. 9-10). On the cross, Jesus experiences separation from the Father’s fellowship as he cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

Peterson

God’s lordship in judgment means not only that he pronounces the sentence, but also that he rules over hell. Unfortunately, some have erred at this point. John Gerstner is an example when he writes, “Hell is where Satan rules…where his complete fury is unleashed.”6 Gerstner does not deny that God rules in hell but affirms that Satan also reigns there, under God. But this is erroneous, for hell is where God alone rules and where his complete fury is unleashed against Satan, his angels, and wicked human beings.

Passage after passage points to a holy and just God who gives sinners what they deserve. Judgment is according to deeds, or more precisely, according to thoughts (1 Cor. 4:5), words (Matt. 12:36), and deeds (Rev. 20:12-13). Those whose lives are characterized by evil thoughts, words, and deeds reap God’s wrath. When one inquires of the judgment passages why sinners end up in hell, Scripture repeatedly shouts the answer: corrupted human freedom and evil deeds.

Morgan

Interestingly, John Wenham even suggested, “The ultimate horror of God’s universe is hell.”52 While hell indeed may in some sense rightly be seen as an awful reality, sin is actually the ultimate horror of God’s universe. Hell is merely the punishment. Sin is the crime. Which is worse, murder or the life sentence? Obviously, the crime is worse than the punishment. So often the contemporary conditionalists minimize the biblical teaching concerning retributive punishment, however, and replace it with a human-centered view. Yet the Bible is clear: Sin is inherently against God, who is infinite in all his perfections. Thus, sin is an infinite evil and merits endless punishment. So it is better to view hell not as a horror in God’s universe but as a demonstration of final and decisive justice in a universe once marred by sin.

But the coexistence of heaven and hell does not hinder the glorious victory of God or the utter happiness of the redeemed. Through punishing non-Christians eternally in hell, God will vindicate his majesty, display his power, glorify his justice, and indirectly magnify his grace.

Ferguson

A Christian, then, looks at life in the light of the destination to which it leads, and sees every person within that framework. Famous words penned around 1843 by the still young but soon-to-die Robert Murray M’Cheyne express well this view and its implications: “As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell. Oh, how I wished that I had a tongue like thunder, that I might make all hear; or that I had a frame like iron, that I might visit every one, and say, ‘Escape for thy life!’”

 

Hell: major twentieth century attempts to defend hell, Tony Gray

While too enamored with C. S. Lewis and the free-will view of hell, this long and in-depth thesis provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of the modern debate on hell from a philosophical perspective.

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Excerpts

p29
What is the purpose of punishment? Augustine provides three possible reasons: "punishment may be a means to purification; punishment may be imposed as a retribution for sins; or punishment may serve to exercise and display the virtues of the good." 53 Augustine favours the last two reasons, and in particular this display of virtue fits neatly into Augustine's aesthetic scheme. John Baillie describes Augustine's bland assurance that the universe is no less admirable and beautiful a place for having a chamber of horrors eternally present within it, so long only as each horror of pain perfectly matches and balances each horror of sin.

p64-65
But why would that punishment be meaningless? Moberly argues that punishment can only be labelled 'retributive' by the person who recognises it as such. Presumably the person in hell is so base and vile that there is no possibility of redemption. If they are so disfigured, they then no longer possess the possibility of moral choice, and so are not able to sin. This means that their punishment must be for sins committed in the past. However, retribution for past sins can only be recognised as such if the person being punished has some sense of guilt. The base and vile person in hell has no moral insight, and therefore is not able to recognise the guilt of their past actions.

p73
Are there then attributes of God which may prove to be morally explanatory for the equal punishment view of hell? However, this does not appear to be so. For example, God is perfectly good and essentially so, but degree of perfection in moral character is not morally explanatory either. If it were, then killing a saint would be worse than killing a non-saint, and it is not (all else being equal) . 14 ° Thus Kvanvig concludes that, Although we should not underestimate the differences between God and us, none of the intrinsic characteristics of divinity as opposed to humanity seems capable of sustaining this response to the moral objection to the equal punishment version of the strong view of hell.

p214-215
Finally/ Lewis deals with the question of whether hell defeats God's omnipotence. In the light of many other discussions that deal with this question, Lewis presents us with a position which is refreshingly honest. In creating beings with free will/ omnipotence from the outset God's omnipotence is defeated (although Lewis maintains that logically God is still omnipotent in the sense that he can do anything which is not self-contradictory) , but this defeat is in fact a miracle. The miracle because God is able and willing to create something that actually resists its creation. It is in this context that one of Lewis' most famous and oft-quoted statements concerning hell appears: I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful/ rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.

p242
Finally, for Lewis divine retribution is no longer the prime justification for hell. Human choices and the characters they form determine how people will then be judged. Free will provides the clue as to why there will be a hell/ but Lewis is perceptive enough not to abandon all accounts of God's punishment. It is this careful thinking that may offer a modern defence of hell which also retains elements of the traditional doctrine. That is/ a hell which not only results from human free will and the desire to be without God/ but which is also a result of God's just punishment.