An Annotated Bibliography on Hell

Article
08.20.2010

The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, by Paul Helm. Banner of Truth, 1989. 152 pages. $8

Paul Helm is a teaching fellow at Regent College near Vancouver, and is widely known for his publications on the theology of John Calvin. His The Last Things is the final installment to a series of brief theological treatises, all published by Banner of Truth, which began with The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in Conversion (1986) and continued in The Callings: The Gospel in the World (1987). The Last Things is a brief, accessible, and practical treatment of the four subjects listed in its subtitle (in chapters 2-5, respectively), set in the broader theological context of our responsibility before God as his creatures (chapter 1), and concluding with a more practical discussion concerning how the believer’s life on earth is a foretaste of the glories of heaven (chapter 6).

The Last Things is marked by both sound exposition of Scripture and thoughtful application of Scripture to contemporary doubts and questions. Throughout the book Helm demonstrates how biblical teaching interfaces with current trends of thought about the afterlife in Western society, such as the denial of personal responsibility, the sentimentalization of death, and discomfort with any notion of divine retributive justice. In addition, Helm shows great pastoral sensitivity to commonly asked questions in the church, regarding, for example, whether heaven may be boring (95), whether Christians should ever desire death (54-55), whether it is permissible to hope for the salvation of the severely mentally handicapped and those who die in infancy (121), how to preach about hell both soberly and earnestly (125), and how the doctrine of hell squares with divine justice (110-117). In short, this book will prove helpful to a wide variety of different readers. The chapters on heaven and hell are particularly insightful and may be profitably read apart from the rest of the book by readers who desire a brief treatment of those topics.

*****

The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals. ACUTE, 2000. 148 pages. $14.99

This book is a report written by a working group of the Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE), an organization established by an Anglican group called Evangelical Alliance (EA) in 1995 to work for evangelical unity on controversial issues and to provide an evangelical voice on matters of public debate. The group consists of David Hilborn, Faith Forster, Tony Gray, Philip Johnston, and Tony Lane. The primary purpose of the report is to address the issue of conditionalism, or conditional immortality, along with its frequently consequent view, annihilationism (chapter 5 distinguishes between conditionalism and annihilationism and discusses their relationship). The book appears to be occasioned by tensions over the rising interest in conditionalism and annihilationism among evangelicals, particularly tensions in the history of the EA (see pp. ix-xi, 5-7, 63-67). Among the authors’ recommendations in chapter 10 is that the EA Basis of Faith be revised to include a clause discussing the general resurrection, the final judgment, and heaven and hell. (The Basis of Faith had dropped a reference to “everlasting punishment” in 1970 under the influence of John Stott. In 2005 the Basis of Faith was again revised to include an affirmation of “eternal condemnation to the lost.”)

This book will help readers who are interested in understanding the biblical and theological issues involved in the conditionalism debate. Chapters 6 and 7 provide particularly helpful overviews of the theological and exegetical arguments on both sides, while the survey of views on conditionalism in church history in chapter 4 and the discussion of “background issues” in chapter 2 provide good context to the debate. Readers should be aware that the authors, despite recommending greater clarity in the Basis of Faith (136) and despite rejecting universalism and post-mortem salvation (131), do refrain throughout from taking a definitive stand for or against conditionalism and/or annihilationism. The authors’ summaries of the arguments on both sides can introduce readers to the issues, but readers should turn elsewhere for a definitive biblical treatment of the subject. In addition, readers should be aware that the book focuses narrowly on the conditionalism debate, especially as it has played out in the United Kingdom, and thus is not the place to turn to for a general theological discussion of the nature of hell, as the title might imply.

*****

The Message of Heaven and Hell, by Bruce Milne. InterVarsity Press, 2002. 351 pages. $19.00

In this installment of the Bible Speaks Today Bible Themes series, Bruce Milne, who served for many years as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Vancouver, traces the themes of heaven and hell through their canonical development. The book is divided into three sections—the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament. This book is an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about what the whole Bible teaches concerning human destiny. Because it is canonically ordered, Milne’s book is especially helpful for seeing how the theme of human destiny develops across the Bible, and how particular texts (such as Psalm 16) and terms (such as “Sheol”) fit into a larger redemptive-historical context. Chapter 8 contains a brief critique of annihilationism, and chapter 11 has a very good discussion of the nature of the intermediate state, drawing from Jesus’ assurance to the crucified thief in Luke 23:43. The insights and applications from New Testament texts on heaven in the last section of the book (e.g., the comments on Romans 8 in chapter 14) are very edifying. The book concludes with study guide questions which may serve those who want to use this book in a small group or book study context.

Two minor criticisms: first, the book lacks any kind of index, which would have been helpful given its breadth. Second, after its initial grounding in Genesis 1-3, the Old Testament section focuses on only four texts: Psalm 16 (chapter 3), Psalm 72 (chapter 4), and Daniel 7 and 12 (chapter 5). One wishes for more discussion of other data in the Old Testament, such as the destinies of Enoch and Elijah, the summoning of Samuel from the dead in 1 Samuel 28, Isaiah 66:24, or other key “sheol” texts such as Psalm 49:14-15.

*****

Death and the Afterlife, by Robert A. Morey. Bethany House Publishers, 1984. 315 pages.

Robert A. Morey is the leader of an apologetics ministry called Faith Defenders (faithdefenders.com) and has authored several dozens of books on cults, new age thought, Eastern religions, and Islam. This book is his case for a Christian view of death and divine judgment over and against the competing views of other religions and non-Christian systems of thought. In the first half of the book, he outlines principles of sound biblical hermeneutics, discusses the biblical view of humanity, defines biblical terms for the afterlife, and then analyzes the rabbinic, biblical, and patristic texts dealing with divine judgment. In the second half of the book, he critiques the views of the afterlife advocated in materialism, annihilationism, universalism, and occultism.

While readers may be helped by Morey’s word studies and his survey of ancient literature Near Eastern literature on divine judgment, his analysis is not as compelling as the other books reviewed in this list.

*****

Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, by Robert A. Peterson. P&R, 1995. 258 pages. $16.99

Robert Peterson is professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. This book is his defense of the church’s traditional understanding of hell as eternal punishment. After surveying recent challenges to this view (chapter 1), Peterson examines Scripture and historical views on the topic (chapters 2-7), critiques universalism and annihilationism (chapters 8-9), and then summarizes the biblical presentation of hell (chapter 10). Peterson then examines hell in relation to other doctrines such as God, sin, punishment, Christ’s saving work, and heaven (chapter 11). Finally, Peterson addresses purgatory, the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, the fate of those who die in infancy, and then draws applications from the doctrine of hell for both believers and unbelievers (chapter 12).

Hell on Trial is clear, thorough, and consistently faithful to Scripture. Rather than tearing down straw men, Peterson interacts with the best arguments of well-known representatives of opposing views, such as John Hick (universalism), Clark Pinnock (post-mortem salvation), and John Stott (annihilationism). While the book engages deeply in the issues, it remains accessible to those without theological training. A particular strength of the book is Peterson’s tone, which is consistently courteous, honest, and firm. Throughout the book (and especially in the final two chapters) there is an evident concern for godly application of the truth. Finally, Peterson does not present his readers with hell for hell’s sake, but hell as the backdrop of the glorious news of the gospel. For example, on page 201 he writes, “When tempted to be overcome by thoughts of hell, I turn my thoughts to the cross, and my distress turns to gratitude. Think of it—the Son of God bore the terrors of hell to save us sinners! His love is incomprehensible.”

*****

Hell Under Fire, ed. Robert A. Peterson and Christopher W. Morgan. Zondervan, 2004. 256 pages. $19.99

This book is a series of outstanding essays by well-known evangelical scholars on various biblical, theological, and pastoral issues related to the doctrine of hell. After a helpful historical overview of “the disappearance of hell” in the church by Albert Mohler, four essays covering the Bible’s teaching on hell follow: Daniel Block on the Old Testament, Robert Yarbrough on the Gospels, Doug Moo on Paul, and Greg Beale on Revelation. Block’s survey contains a helpful discussion of key Old Testament terms, Isaiah 66:24, and Daniel 12:2, though as with Milne’s book one wishes for more analysis of other texts and the complexities of the meaning of “sheol” as it develops throughout the Old Testament. Yarbrough’s piece is noteworthy not only for its solid exegesis of passages on hell in the Gospels but also for his thoughtful reflections on Stott, 9/11, and divine justice in his conclusion. He makes the point that while hell is difficult to grasp, so is the injustice and suffering of this world, and there must be a proportionate response to it in divine justice (88-90). The essays by Moo and Beale are both superb expositions of Scripture and contain the most incisive critiques of annihilationism in the book.

Christopher Morgan surveys the whole Bible’s teaching on hell, highlighting the three recurring motifs of punishment, destruction, and banishment as descriptions of hell. Robert Peterson’s essay looks at hell from the vantage point of other topics in systematic theology, namely the Trinity, divine sovereignty and human freedom, and “already/not yet” eschatology. Looking at the topic of hell through the lens of these other topics in systematic theology both illuminates what hell is and deconstructs various false conceptions about it (for example, that God the Father alone is Judge, not the Son as well). In his chapter, J.I. Packer presents a sober but devastating critique of universalism. Among the many helpful aspects of his essay is his insight that all aberrant teachings on the afterlife are related to a deficiency in one’s doctrine of God (171-2, 189ff.). Morgan presents a critique of annihilationism, and then Sinclair Ferguson closes the book with a pastoral reflection on how the preacher should think and speak about hell. Ferguson’s chapter alone is worth the price of the book (although interested readers can find a condensed version of the chapter for free in this present eJournal), and readers who struggle with the concept of hell might consider starting their reading with Ferguson.

For the quality of its essays and the diversity of topics addressed, this book may be the most helpful place to begin in studying this topic.

*****

What is Hell? by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. P&R Publishing, 2010. 36 pages. $3.99

Peterson and Morgan team up again for this brief booklet, part of the Basics of the Faith Series put out by P&R, which covers basic issues in Reformed theology and practice. This booklet opens by addressing whether a loving God could send people to hell, then surveys the biblical teaching on hell as punishment, destruction, banishment, suffering, and eternal. Finally, the booklet examines how the reality of hell should affect our doctrine and practice.

This last section is particularly edifying in its call for both courage and humility in proclaiming the reality of hell in our cultural setting. While it is not designed for in-depth study, this booklet is a very helpful introduction to the topic. Christians may find this a helpful resource to give to unbelievers or new Christians who have questions about hell.

Since Morgan and Peterson clearly present the saving work of Jesus as the Bible’s answer to the problem of hell, this booklet could even be used as an evangelistic tool.