Make sure you get the title right. We’re not talkin’ about raising hell as in some good ole’ boys going cow tipping in the moonlight. No, we’re talkin’ about razing hell as in leveling the whole idea.
In fact the title is something of a misnomer, typical advertising hyperbole. This book isn’t really about literally getting rid of the idea of hell as Robert Ingersoll or Richard Dawkins might. Indeed the author, Sharon L. Baker (Assistant Professor of Theology at Messiah College) observes, “I have no intention of doing away with hell. I can’t. I have too high a respct for the authority of the Bible as God’s Word.” (xiv)
However she immediately follows that with a surprising statement: “So I am very concerned about remaining faithful to Scripture; but I’m even more concerned about remaining faithful to the God of love, who desires the salvation of all people ….” (xiv, emphasis added)
It is an interesting and perhaps revealing statement. Those less inclined to defend Baker’s bibiological credentials could well read that as an admission that her ultimate commitment is to a prior conception of God as love and that she will make her doctrine and interpretation of scripture subservient to that conception.
Be that as it may, the target of the book is hell understood as eternal conscious torment (henceforth ECT). That is the real idea that Baker wants to raze. The argument proceeds in three parts. Part 1 (chapters 1-4) seeks to lay out ECT and summarize some of the core problems with it with respect to the image, justice and forgiveness of God. Part 2 lays the foundations for an alternate theory of hell by rethinking the violence of God (chapter 5), the image of God (chapter 6), the justice of God (chapter 7) and the forgiveness of God (chapter 8). Finally, in Part 3 (chapters 9-12) Baker develops her alternative reading of hell which centers on the image of the fires of hell as refining fires that purify those not yet in relation with God at death while consuming all those who even in eternity reject the offer of salvation.
In this first part of the review I’m going to focus on Part 1 of the book (Introduction-Chapter 4). The next two parts of the review will then deal with the final two parts of the book.
Baker opens with the observation that “Many others have gone before us who just couldn’t harmonize the knowledge of the love of God through Jesus with the image of God as a merciless judge who sends billions of people to hell.” (xiii) That is the dilemma that stands at the heart of the book. How do you reconcile a God of unimaginable love with the equally unimaginable horrors of hell? Baker introduces her conversational style in the introduction through three interlocutors based on three people from her life: one personal friend and two students. Throughout the book she often comes back to her conversations with Lisa, Brooke and Eric as a way to root the discussion for the reader.
In the first chapter Baker provides an overview of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and then summarizes seven main conceptual problems with the doctrine. All of these points constitute legitimate problems for the traditional view and, if developed with sufficient rigor, could constitute significant objections to it. However, Baker’s exposition is hampered in a couple places with her retreat to distorted and prejudicial analysis. Consider as an example the second problem which relates to the “eternal hopelessness” of ECT. Baker writes:
“Let’s take my grandfather, for example. I loved my grandfather and spoke with him often about the forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. He would listen longingly, but just could not bring himself to believe that life continued on after death. He died an unbeliever. What if, after coming face-to-face with God after death, my grandfather, who truly desired to believe the gospel but just could not, firmily believes and desires to receive forgiveness and reconcilation? Traditional theories of hell tell us that he has no hope.” (13)
I’ll give Baker points for using a personal and emotionally charged example. I think it is important to root the discussion in concrete relationships with real people. My problem with this passage arises with the fact that her emotionally charged example is also one that is considered impossible by traditional theories of ECT. No traditional theory of hell (at least none that I’m aware of) allows for the possiblity that any of those who die outside Christ may desire salvation in the next life. Instead, death is taken to mark the shift in a person’s character from one that could possibly repent to one that is an inveterate, eternal rebel.
This is doubly unfortunate because Baker could have presented a legitimate objection by arguing that the traditional view entails a switch in her grandfather’s psychological demeanor — from desiring to believe to cursing rebellion and hatred — which is utterly implausible. But as it stands her analysis is tripped up by a distortion of the relevant issues. And that in turn reduces her emotional appeal to a manipulative ploy.
The second chapter focuses on reconciling the image of God as “retributive and violent” with the image of him as “loving and forgiving…” (19) While Baker notes many sides of the violence of God, the one she settles on is one oft-overlooked: the Flood narrative. She recalls:
“when I started shopping to decorate the nursery for my first son, I contemplated buying wallpaper with cute little pastel drawings of Noah’s ark scattered around in whimsical fashion. Go into any children’s department in any major retail store, or type “Noah’s ark” into an Internet search engine, and you’ll find an almost unlimited number of fanciful toys, cute little stuffed animals, framed pictures, action figures, children’s videos, and art deco clothing depicting the story of the flood. Since we are so incredibly immune to the horrific nature of the story, we don’t realize that we are decorating our children’s bedrooms, the places where we hope they spend their nights in peaceful slumber, with a story describing the murder of nearly the entire human and animal population! A large-scale mass murder committed by God!”(23)
While I could do without the exclamation points! (sometimes less is more), this is an effective passage. (I’ve discussed the same issue here.)
Baker then provides an overview of some of the common defenses of divine violence including “Divine immunity” (i.e. God is God, period) and “greater goods”. However, none of these is quite sufficient to alleviate the cognitive dissonance of images.
In the next chapter Baker turns to the question of (divine) justice. In a brief discussion of Deuteronomy 28 she observes: “The message is clear: love and obey God or pay the price! Real tit-for-tat theology here, retributive justice at its worst.” (31) Some people may want to lynch Baker for that kind of irreverent candor. On the one hand, in her defense she doesn’t say anything that Christians don’t already wrestle with (as becomes clear from her interactions with her three interlocutors). On the other hand, her candor also comes across as a bit too flip for the subject matter. Consequently, I tend to find it distracting at best and grating at worst.
Baker then recounts what was clearly a significant experience when she was a seminary student and asked a Southern Baptist professor about God’s love and mercy for his enemies:
“The professor became red in the face, took a step forward, and with his finger pointed at my face said, ‘God is a God of WRATH and VENGEANCE [he spoke these words in all capital letters, I’m sure of it, and probably bolded too]! He will DESTROY the wicked! I’m tired of hearing about love! Love has no place here! And if you can’t get on board, you can drop the course!” (32)
Since I wasn’t in the classroom I can hardly comment on whether Baker’s recounting of events is entirely accurate (but one can’t help but wonder if time has embellished the exchange). Regardless, the anecdote does call to mind a statement in the previous chapter: “we use these stories and this image of God to justify our own violence.” (28) One suspects that Baker sees a natural (if not necessary) link between the anger of the professor and the theology that he professed.
At this point Baker turns to discuss theories of atonement which traditionally embody retributive forms of justice; “Lurking behind these theories is the ghost of a punitive father, haunting the image of forgiving grace, a cruel father who demands the blood of an innocent person in retribution for sin, finding the death of his own son an agreeable way to save the world.” (35) One definitely captures more than a whiff of the “cosmic child abuse” objection in that passage. The chapter also clearly conveys her preference for restorative forms of justice.
Baker then turns to the image of forgiveness. In this chapter she recounts an exchange with a cousin who forcefully rejected God. “He explained that if God truly loved everyone, then forgiveness would come freely and easily without all the religious bustle and brouhaha, all the jumping through hoops to pacify an angry deity.” While Baker didn’t know what to say at the time, she observes now that “the meaning of forgiveness or pardon is to set the guilty party free from punishment, from any debt, to let go of the offense without conditions attached.” (42-3)
At this point Baker returns to the topic of atonement by discussing several theories including Christus Victor, satisfaction, moral exemplar and penal substitution. Her summary of the different positions is cursory at best, a fact that is best demonstrated in her dismissive treatment of penal substitution. She notes that “many Bible scholars do not believe we can find biblical support for this theory” but “if we read Hebrews 7:26-27 and 9:11-12 through the lens of a punishing God, we can interpret them as support for this model of atonement.”(46)
Talk about damning with faint praise. It is merely “possible” to interpret two passages “through the lens of a punishing God”? I dare say the New Testament is saturated with the categories of penal substitution. (For a good overview see the recent book Pierced for our Transgressions or Leon Morris’ classic book The Atonement.) It is inexplicable to me how Baker, a professor of theology, can make statements like that. The very worst way to engage critically with penal substitution as a theory of atonement is to act like it doesn’t exist.
Baker closes the chapter by returning to the theme that one’s theology determines one’s ethics: “If we believe that God’s forgiveness trades in exchange, we will imitate it and withhold grace from those we are commanded to love.” (47)
That statement nicely summarizes my complaint with this first part of the book. It simply lacks rigor of argument as it makes incautious and undefended assertions. Note the complete lack of qualification in this closing statement: If a person believes penal substitution (i.e. that God’s forgiveness “trades in exchange”) then that person will withhold grace from others. Not might, not may, not even probably could, but will. This is really an extraordinary statement, and it must be said, an offensive one.
One wonders if Baker would be making those kinds of leaps if her theology professor had been John Stott rather than an angry Southern Baptist.