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Is Hell the Enemy of our Hope?

April 7, 2010

The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. Prov. 16:4.

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? Rom 9:22-24.

But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. II Pt. 3:7

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Matt. 25:41

Is hell the enemy of hope? Can true hope only exist in a world that rejects the reality of hell? Is denying the existence of hell the only way to get to hope? German theologian Jurgen Moltmann thinks so. He has made the study of hope something of an academic speciality. I recently saw one of his newer works on a library shelf in Osijek, Croatia. Remembering that he was a favorite of my own seminary professors in Kansas City, I pulled if off  and began to read. Reading quickly turned into arguing. This post is part of that argument. What drives me here is not a lust for theological combat. Rather, I take this argument “public” because I believe Moltmann’s position to undermine the very foundation of the hope it purports to advance.

I think it is fair to say that Moltmann is not a careful biblical exegete. He does not pretend to be. As a liberal scholar he does not feel any compulsion to do his thinking under the authority of Scripture. While he uses biblical texts to clothe his ideas, he does not care to wrestle those ideas (or those texts) through the length and breadth of Scripture. As a theologian untethered to Scripture, Moltmann is happy to think about God in abstract principles. This abstraction provides enough freedom from the contours of Scripture for him to engage in “creative theological projects”, as the back of one book describes it. In many of his works, this creativity is focused on securing hope by destroying hell.

I bring this up because if you are a theologian dealing with abstract principles rather than a biblicist letting the text of Scripture deal with you, the great enemy of hope becomes for you not sin, the flesh, or the devil, but the Christian depiction of hell. If this hell is your target, you launch your attack by saying less than the truth about sin and more than the truth about the cross. This is the pincer movement Moltmann regularly utilizes in his assault, all the while using the language (i.e. sin, cross, resurrection, Christ, and even hell) that we hold dear.

Here is what I mean by “less than the truth about sin.” After discussing Adam and Eve’s decision in the Garden, Moltmann “creatively” suggests, “the temptation today is not so much that humans want to play God. It is much more that they no longer have the confidence in humanity that God expects of them. This resignation leads to dejection, which leads to inertia, the despondency of which infects everything living with the germs of decay.” So in Moltmann’s equation, sin equals a lower level of confidence in ourselves than God excepts. This is the sin that issues forth in decay – the corrupting of what God has created good. So the sting of death is still sin for Moltmann. Only sin has been redefined as the inertia brought about by a low self-esteem, rather than rebellion against God. This (re)definition of sin radically changes the remedy that is required. If sin is lacking the confidence God expects us to have in ourselves, then our salvation, the atonement required to reconcile us to God, and the judgment of God against those who remain in their sin takes on a decidedly human-centered focus. This means hope is human-centered (the way we feel about ourselves) and hell is the enemy of hope (since few things could be less empowering to humans than eternal conscious torment!). This is saying less than the truth about the true identity and magnitude of sin.

What I mean by “saying too much about the cross” is that Moltmann takes the precious promises of God to His elect that were purchased by Christ in his suffering and casts them at the feet of an inconsiderate humanity. In Moltmann’s scheme, what Christ has done he has done for everyone in the same way and with the same effect. This leads Moltmann to celebrate, without any caveat or exhortation to repent and cast yourself on Christ, “Christ has delivered us from hell, therefore we shall not be afraid of hell, nor certainly shall we threaten anyone else with hell. Hell is no longer inescapable, and in hell no one must ‘abandon hope’, as Dante told the damned they must do.” In fact, Moltmann goes on, “if there were still any lost in hell, it would be a tragedy for Christ, who came to seek and save that which is lost.” There are glorious kernels of truth here. If we believe in Him, Christ has indeed delivered us from hell by suffering our damnation in our place. Those who are “in Christ” must not live any longer in fear of hell. It is true that hell is no longer inescapable – a way of escape has been provided by our gracious God! Jesus’ mission on earth was indeed for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost, and none of those He came to seek and save will be lost!

But when Moltmann takes those biblical truths and abstracts them into universal theological principles that are not tempered by the rest of Scripture, he lays the groundwork for universalism and destroys the only authentic, biblical ground of hope. In this he says too much about the cross – not because Jesus’ sacrifice lacked the power to deliver every human from hell, but because the Father purposed that this power should benefit only those who believe. The cross does not destroy hell for everyone. It’s biblical purpose is to make possible a way of undeserving escape. Thus hell can continue after the crucifixion without being twisted into an indictment against the cross or a “tragedy for Christ.” The continued existence of hell does not mean the cross of Christ has failed. It means that rejecting God in Christ is a sin of infinite demerit.

One gets the sense in reading Moltmann that there is boogeyman behind him. How else can you account for his porous exegesis and his theological gymnastics than to say that he laboring desperately to escape from something? It is not difficult to discern what it is Moltmann is trying to avoid. He tells us it is hell, the enemy of his hope. “In hell, all the senses are tormented. Sight through eternal darkness. Hearing through weeping and gnashing of teeth. Smell through the stench of sulfur and burning flesh. Taste through the bitterness of eternal death. Feeling through eternal torment.” Moltmann cites this description from 19th century theologian Gottfried Buchner. He then goes on to call such a view “a cruel apocalyptic fantasy” and “absurd.” He calls it an “un-Christian” view of hell. In fact, he argues, the concept of hell itself is un-Christian, having been taken over by the church from other religions. “What is Christian,” Moltmann offers, is “to look at Christ.”  One wonders what would happen if we confronted him with the fact that the majority of the New Testament teaching on hell comes from the lips of our Lord Himself. To do so would to bring him face to face with the boogeyman of his theological nightmares!

In the next post I will try briefly answer Moltmann’s objections and demonstrate how hell is, paradoxically, required for any true, enduring and biblical hope.

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