This is the third, final and well overdue installment of a review of Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell. Part 2 of this review can be found here.
If the first part of Razing Hell seeks to illumine for the reader the problem with hell, and the second section begins to lay a foundation for rethinking the image of God that gives rise to the problem, the third part (chapters 9-12) closes the deal by offering “A new view of hell”.
Chapter 9 opens with a demonstration of the same lack of nuance (read caricature) that hampers the first two sections. Consider this excerpt:
“Although the image of God as a wrathful, seething, destroying judge, out to put the thumbscrews to all who provoke God’s anger, remains prominent in the Christian tradition, we will consider an alternative interpretation of God’s judgment.” (112)
Really? Prominent in the Christian tradition is a depiction of God as a wrathful, seething, detroying judge out to put the thumbscrews to people? This sounds like new atheist styled rhetoric. To call this an uncharitable characterization of the tradition is, to say the least, an understatement. This is really unfortunate, for when Baker paints such a stark picture of the tradition she critiques, she ends up doing nothing more than undermining her own credibility.
Baker begins chapter 9 by focusing on the biblical concept of fire. After noting the scriptural associations between God and fire she concludes: “Fire comes from God, surrounds God, and is God.” (113) The fire of God exists to burn up that which is “evil, wicked, or sinful” (113) “Because fire burns away impurities, any pure works built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ will remain…. The impure works do not survive the fire.” (114)
In order to illumine the nature of her posthumous proposal, Baker introduces us to a fictional despotic leader called “Otto” who faces judgment day. Otto was “an international leader who has launched preemptive wars and terrorized nations with his arrogant dominance….” (115) Hmmm, sounds like a thinly veiled allusion to a recent US president. Otto’s middle initial wouldn’t happen to be “W”, would it?
Baker then describes George W — oops, I mean “Otto” — entering into God’s presence. This provides the occasion for Baker to explain what she believes it means to burn in God’s fire. And with that she indulges herself in a little Lewisean Great Divorce speculation (actually it is even more reminiscient of George MacDonald’s obscure novel Lilith):
“All the while the fire of God burns, devouring Otto’s wickedness and evil deeds. Lest you think he gets off too easy, this is hell for him. With gnashing teeth and uncontrollable weeping, his heart breaks, and he cries out in utter remorse, in unmitigated repentance and the unendurable and seemingly unending pain he feels as the fire burns off the chaff of his evil deeds, the victims are vindicated. The one thing victims most often wish for is that their offender feel remorse and know the terrible pain he has caused them. Otto’s immense remorse and pain at the knowledge of his sin against them satisfy this need.” (116)
This makes it clear that in Baker’s view the metaphor of fire that is so central to images of hell is a purgative and reforming fire which has the primary purpose of bringing folks like Otto to repentance for their sins.
You might be wondering at this point whether Baker is a universalist. However, she avers that there are no guarantees that these posthumous purgative fires will succeed. In her eschatological reconstruction this metaphorical fire may keep burning until nothing is left:
“The possibility exists, however, that Otto does not accept God’s offer of restoration, or that after the testing by fire nothing remains of him at all. Nothing.” (117)
So there you have it. For all those of you who have been wondering what alternative Baker offers to ECT, she most clearly aligns herself with two historic positions: a doctrine of the second chance and annihilation for those who don’t avail themselves of that second chance. These are legitimate eschatological positions to be debating, to be sure. But it is disappointing that Baker does not present a more rigorous case for these two positions. Instead, she seems to leave much of the heavy lifting to emotional persuasion, speculative reconstruction, and intuitive appeal. For example, consider the question that closes the chapter:
“Which vision of hell most coheres with the God revealed in Jesus–the view of hell in which persons suffer for all eternity with no hope for reconciliation with God, or the view of hell in which persons understand the depth of their sins, take full responsiblity for them, and reconcile not only with God, but also with their victims?” (124)
In the next chapter Baker seeks to explain the images of outer darkness, gnashing teeth and the Lake of Fire. She prefaces this discussion with the hermeneutical principle: “Context is king!” (126) As you can guess, Baker argues that close attention to the context of the various biblical texts that have been taken to support ECT suggests they do not actually support the view and may support her alternative proposal.
Baker begins with a discussion of Gehenna.
“Theories of final judgment and eternal punishment in flames came from Persian religions like Zoroastrianism. This theory of hell as a place of eternal punishment and fiery torture seeped little by little from Persia into the Jewish culture and belief systems.” (128)
Unfortunately Baker seems to commit the genetic fallacy by assuming that if a doctrine can be shown to have a genetic precursor in Persian theology then it is thereby false (or at least suspect). The problem is that this doesn’t follow since God could have providentially determined that a Greek or Persian source would be the way that Christians came to understand a particular doctrine more fully. Look at the way Paul freely borrows from aspects of Stoic theology to make his points in Acts 17. Despite the illegitimacy of this line of argument, it remains a very common practice to critique a doctrine simply by demonstrating “Greek” or “Persian” or otherwise “unbiblical” origins.
Baker then proceeds to survey a range of biblical images on hell. At that point she avers that whatever we understand hell to be, “this ‘reality’ should harmonize with the character of God that we see revealed through Jesus and through the major themes of the Bible, such as God’s mercy, love, faithfulness, and desire to reconcile with all creation.” (131) Baker aims to reconcile these texts with the perfect loving nature of God by appealing to hyperbole and metaphor.
Next, Baker addresses the Greek term aionios which is commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal” in Matthew 25:41, 46 and thus seems to establish that some people (i.e. “the goats”) will go to an eternal hell of punishment. Baker rightly points out that things are by no means that clear for aionios is always connected to a period of time. (From the Greek noun aion we get our English word aeon which refers to a long span of time.) Extrapolating a bit from her three page discussion, one could interpret Jesus as stating that after death the sheep will enter into a period (aion) of life, and the goats into a period of judgment which will result in the latter group being either purified into sheep or turned into charred goat chops. (In addition, at the start of chapter 12 Baker describes the description of the sheep and goats as “hyperbolic language” that Jesus employs “to motivate his followers to live kingdom lives by loving and caring for others.” (168))
Further on in the chapter Baker explains her view more fully in response to a pointed question by “Brooke,” one of the three interlocutors in the book, as to whether she is a universalist. She responds pointedly:
“No. I believe that God respects the freedom given to us to choose for ourselves whether or not we want a relationship with God. We either choose God during our lifetime on earth, or we can choose God at the time of judgment, after going through the fire that burns away impurities….” (141)
I have two observations about this passage. First, as noted above, Baker is espousing a doctrine of the second chance, a posthumous offer of salvation. Since the nineteenth century many theologians have defended this position. As for the ole’ Hebrews 9:27 trump card, Baker provides a rebuttal in the voice of her interlocutor Eric: “The Bible does say that people are judged after they die. But can’t God forgive sin at the time of judgment?” (106) While this is an interesting comment, I’d like to see much more explicitly defending the doctrine of a second chance against its many critics.
My second observation is that while Baker explicitly rejects universalism here, her comments earlier about the possiblity of posthumous repentance seem to suggest that on her view universal salvation is, at the very least, a real possibility. Consequently, I would think it misleading for her to reject universalism in toto. She’d be much better off embracing hopeful universalism, i.e. the hope that all are saved based on the real conceptual possiblity that all might respond favorably to those posthumous purgative fires. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, every Christian who is not absolutely certain that some will be damned ought to hope that all will be saved.
Baker concludes the chapter by reflecting on how her view elevates the power of the cross. In response to ECT she observes:
“What does such a heavy loss say about God’s power? About Jesus’ work on the cross? In fact, traditional views of hell do not bring God glory; they usurp God’s glory by diminishing his power.” (149)
This is only partially correct. It is true that Arminian views seem to usurp God’s glory by diminishing his power (i.e. he is unable to persuade people to repent). But Reformed understandings that present God as willing from eternity that some people will to reject him as objects of wrath appear to diminish his goodness and love.
In this penultimate chapter Baker turns to address how this relates to the atonement: “if everyone stands before God, engulfed in the flames of divine consuming love, what difference does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus make?” (150) Baker observes that the New Testament presents a family of metaphors of atonement including “economic, substitutionary, militaristic, sacrificial, and priestly.” (152)
While Baker recognizes a range of metaphors of redemption and reconciliation in scripture, she is unequivocal in her disdain for penal substitution:
“We fail to take into consideration the fact that God required the horrific, unjust death of an innocent man, a man we say is God’s own Son. We don’t notice the fact that God will forgive sin only if this atrociously painful death occurs, only if someone innocent takes the hit for sin.” (154)
When it comes to an actual theory of atonement, Baker explicitly rejects the notion that God had to punish his Son to achieve reconciliation. Indeed, she suggests quite the opposite: “by taking restorative measures, God in Christ interrupted the cycle of violence with divine love that sought and acted to reconcile and restore rather than punish and retaliate.” (155)
The problem here is that the penal substitutionary view Baker is critiquing presents God as “taking restorative measures” and thus acting “to reconcile and restore rather than punish and retaliate.” This is yet another example where I find myself in sympathy with aspects of Baker’s position but find her working against her own argument by misrepresenting the views of others. Her argument would have been much stronger if she had labored to challenge the concept of restoration through punishment rather than tendentiously characterizing penal substitution as non-restortative.
I also must take issue with Baker’s presentation of the biblical materials on sacrifice and atonement. She writes:
“The priest kills the animal only for its blood. It has nothing to do with punishing the animal in place of punishing the people. It has everything to do with blood as the life force that cleanses and purifies the people.” (158)
This idea that the blood symbolized a releasing into life for the individual is a popular one, but it is not a plausible way to read the views of the ancient Hebrews. As Leon Morris observes,
“When a sacrifice was offered we should see it as a killing of the animal in place of the worshipper and the manipulation of the blood as the ritual presentation to God of the evidence that a death has taken place to atone for sin. When the New Testament writers refer to the death of Christ as a sacrifice, we should not understand them to be making some far-fetched identification of his blood with his life. Rather they are solemnly referring to the significance of his death.” (The Atonement: It’s Meaning and Significance, 62)
In other words, it is the death which is understood to be efficacious in atonement and this is representative of the penal substitutionary view.
(For much more on this topic, and why Baker’s reconstruction of the biblical concept of atonement is not tenable, see the fine volume of essays The Glory of Atonement: Biblical, Historical and Practical Perspectives (InterVarsity, 2004.)
Throughout the book Baker emphasizes that doctrines have practical, real world implications. So it is little surprise that in the final chapter she draws together the practical, ethical implications of her view. She stresses that “Christ enables us to live a new kind of life, loving the unlovable and forgiving the unforgivable, promoting peace and justice rather than violence and abuse….” (170) She then goes on to explain that this kingdom in which we are called to participate is one of peace, forgiveness, justice, hospitality, weakness and love.
I agree with Baker’s final emphasis and I share her vision for the peaceable kingdom. I also agree with her that traditional views of penal substitutionary atonement and eternal conscious torment have some fundamental tensions, if not incoherencies, in reconciling key oppositional concepts like wrath and mercy, justice and forgiveness, hatred and love. These tensions are not present, or at least not present to the same degree, in Baker’s own proposal of hell (and atonement).
At the same time, there are key aspects of Baker’s presentation which are deeply unsatisfactory. As I have documented in this review, she has a tendency to caricature others and to draw on emotion, speculation and intuition where closer exegetical, theological and philosophical work is required. I applaud her desire to rethink the tradition but find the results only marginally successful.
Let me close with an illustration of the core problem. Just over a century ago Canadian Pacific Railways built the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. The great railroad hotel was to be built on the harbor. But unfortunately the ground was unstable and boggy. The only way to make the hotel last was to provide a proper foundation. To this end the construction workers drove over 2600 wood pilings into the bog — practically an entire forest! — in order to serve as a foundation on which the hotel could be built.
Those who want to challenge a well entrenched theological position with an alternative construction face a similar challenge to the builders of that original hotel. They must take the time to lay the foundations, driving the necessary biblical, theological, philosophical and historical pilings into the bog on which to build their alternative construction. Forgoing that important structural work by appealing to caricature and emotion, intuition and speculation, simply does not provide an adequate foundation to ground a theological edifice built to last.
Thanks to the publisher (Westminster John Knox) for sending me a review copy of the book.