Hell on Trial by Robert A. Peterson

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In the foreword of Hell on Trial David Wells insightfully writes, “The awkward fact is that the church, for nineteen hundred years, has believed in the uniqueness of Christ, the truth of his Word, and the necessity of God’s judgment of the impenitent; and we have to ask why, in the late twentieth century, some or all of these beliefs now seem to have become so unbelievable. . . . These truths today have become awkward and disconcerting to hold not because of new light from the Bible but because of new darkness from the culture.”

The five leading views on the subject of life after death are: Life after death is unlikely (Bertrand Russell), Universalism (John Hicks), Postmortem Evangelism (or unbelievers get a second chance after death) (Clark Pinnock), Annihilationism (John Stott), Orthodoxy (pp.3-16). In order to discern the truth on this subject Peterson systematically examines the evidence found in Scripture and church history.

Chapter 2, The witness of the Old Testament. The Old Testament believer’s “preoccupation was not with life after death; it was with loving and obeying the Lord in this life. Their ideal was to walk with God all their days and then to die at a ripe old age with their children and grandchildren gathered around them” (p.22). Sheol (a word translated “hell” some thirty-one times in the KJV refers to the place of the dead. Our author rejects the compartmental theory of Sheol, which taught that the dead were segregated into different compartments or “holding chambers” until the resurrected Christ delivered the righteous dead, taking them to heaven. He believes a better approach is to hold that Sheol has two meanings: originally it meant, “grave” and later came to mean “hell” (p.27). Still he is uncertain enough to say that he cannot endorse any one view on Sheol with confidence, except to say that whatever Sheol is it tells us nothing about life after death (p.29). At least two passages, however, give us a clearer picture of the final destiny of the wicked: Isaiah 66:22-24 and Daniel 12:1-2 (where the only OT occurrence of “everlasting life” is found).

Chapter 3, The witness of Christ as found in the book of Matthew. Jesus teaches that hell is real (5:21-22,27-30; 23:15,33); hell is ruled by God (10:28; 25:41,46); hell involves rejection (7:23; 8:11-12; 22:13; 25:30); hell involves pain (13:30, 40-43,49-50; 18:6-9; 24:51). “The word Jesus uses for hell is gehenna, the English rendering of a Greek word that comes from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, meaning “Valley of Hinnom.” In this valley human sacrifices were offered to the Ammonite god Molech during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh (II Kings 16:3; 21:6). Josiah later desecrated the valley (II Kings 23:10), but it had already gained an evil reputation, which continued into the first century A.D.” (p.41).

Chapter 4, The witness of Christ as found in the other three Gospels. In discussion of the eternality of hell based on Mark 9:42-48 one of Peterson’s views, which would not be supported by all those who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell, shows up. He rejects the idea that the fire of hell is literal, saying rather that it indicates pain (p.64). This seems to be a necessary deduction from the passage, which reads, “Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Unless one believes that Jesus is literally saying that worms will have eternal life, then Jesus must be speaking metaphorically about worms. If He is speaking metaphorically about worms, then why not about fire. Later Peterson says, “We need not, however, insist that there is literal fire in hell. Such language must be taken as symbolical of fearful and final reality which no man can describe” (p.87).

In his interpretation of Lazarus and the Rich man (Luke 16:18-31) Peterson offers an allegorical explanation. First, he believes the story to be a parable, not a factual account. He understands Abraham to stand for God, Lazarus to signify not the poor, but those whom God helps, and the rich man represents the unrepentant. The primary distinction to this approach is that upon death Lazarus is immediately ushered into the presence of God not into paradise or Abraham’s bosom. This is consistent with the author’s view of the OT Sheol. Later Peterson claims that the forgiven thief joins Jesus in the presence of God following their death on the cross (pp.184-185). However, this is inconsistent with Jesus’ declaration after His resurrection that He had not yet returned to the Father John 20:17). By trying to maintain the Reformed view of Israel and the church, Peterson backs himself into a corner.

“The author also thinks that John 5:28-29 speaks of a spiritual resurrection, not a physical one (p.71).

What has become apparent in these two chapters, a fact that will be confirmed throughout Hell on Trial , is that hell is a doctrine that finds almost all of its support directly from the lips of Jesus. Remove the words of Christ on this subject and we have very little clear teaching on subject of hell in the Bible.

Chapter 5, the witness of the apostles. The apostles write about hell but are less pointed in their description than Jesus. They also tend to speak of God’s wrath in general terms and give fewer particulars than Jesus did. Paul’s two strongest passages are Romans 2:5 and II Thessalonians 1:5-10, neither of which mentions hell directly. Hebrews 6:1-3 speaks of eternal judgment. Jude gives the fullest description of hell found in the epistles when in v.7 he talks of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire, and in v.13 says that the blackest darkness has been reserved forever for false teachers.

The Revelation gives us several passages that deserve attention. In fact Peterson believes Revelation 14:9-11 is, along with Matthew 25:31-46, one of the two most revealing passages on hell in the Scriptures (p.87). This brings us to another distinction of the author’s – he apparently sees no difference between hell and the Lake of Fire. In fact, one glaring deficiency in Hell on Trial is no discussion of how life for the damned differs after death (before their bodily resurrection) and life in bodily form after their resurrection. If the lost are in hell following their deaths they must be there in spirit form (unless they are given intermediate bodies). It would seem that their punishment during this state must of necessity be different than from that following their resurrection.

From Revelation 20:10,14-15 Peterson draws the conclusion that, “‘The lake of fire’ and ‘the second death,’ is synonymous with what Jesus called ‘hell’” (p. 90). Two other passages mentioned are 21:8 and 22:15. In chapter 10 he reiterates that the lost are cast into hell upon death, then later agrees that following the Great White Throne Judgment these same lost will be cast into the lake of fire, which Peterson also believes is hell (p. 195). If the damned are cast into hell at the final judgment, where have they been in the mean time? A better understanding would be to view hell and the lake of fire as separate entities, with hell focused on the spiritual and the lake of fire on the physical aspects of eternal punishment.

Chapter 6, the witness of Church history: the early church through the Reformation. While the teachings of the church are never definitive (the Scriptures being our only totally reliable source of truth) nevertheless, it is often instructive to consider what the church has historically believed. In reference to the subject of hell, “Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. . . . Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment” (p.97).

In this chapter Peterson showcases the orthodox views of Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. He also highlights two notable theologians who departed from the orthodox position on hell: Arnobius (annihilationism) and Origen (universalism).

Chapter 7, the witness of church history, the modern period. Notable scholars on both sides of the fence including Jonathan Edwards, W.G.T. Shedd and F. W. Farrar are mentioned in this section.

Chapter 8, the false witness of universalism. Most of this chapter is an analysis of the universalistic views of John Hick who rejects hell on moral, not biblical grounds. The postmortem evangelism of some such as Clark Pinnock is also handled.

Chapter 9, the false witness of annihilationism. Concerning annihilationism, the evangelical world was stunned a few years ago when John Stott went public with support of this position. Peterson dismantles Stott’s view showing how it does not fit the pictures found in the Word. “The bible uses five main pictures to speak of hell: darkness and separation (Luke 13:25-27); weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12); fire (Matthew 13:42,50); punishment (Matthew 25:46); and destruction (II Thessalonians 1:5-10) (see also pp.188-195).

Chapter 10 presents a systematic summary of the doctrine of hell. Chapter 11 ties up some loose ends, and chapter 12 shows why the doctrine of Hell is important. With 78% of Americans thinking that they have an excellent or good chance of going to heaven and only 4% who think they have the same chance of going to hell (p.236), it is very important that we are clear on the biblical teachings concerning eternity.

I believe this book, while having a few areas of concern, adds a lot to our understanding of this important truth.

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