I was thinking this week about something that those with differing views on hell (traditionalists, annihilationists, and evangelical universalists) agree on—that any doctrine of hell must be worked out in the light of the cross. The cross of Christ is the end-time wrath of God against sin experienced by Christ within the present age.
So what do we learn about hell?
My thought was actually pretty simple: Jesus was neither annihilated nor suffered eternal conscious torment.
Traditionalists make much of the problems with the claim that Jesus was annihilated. The problems are essentially that if Jesus ceased to exist between his death and resurrection then there is either a problem with the Trinity (which temporarily becomes a Binity) or, if only Christ's human nature ceased to exist, a problem with the incarnation ( for "the man Christ Jesus" would be disincarnated and then re-incarneted again).
One also has a problem with the Bible and the tradition in that both indicate that Jesus did not cease to exist (nor to be human) during Holy Saturday.
But if Jesus was not annihilated then he did not experience the fullness of our hell (if hell is annihilation).
Annihilationists make much of the fact that Jesus did not suffer everlasting torment but really died. Indeed so.
Now traditionalists have a reply to this: Jesus was the God-man and, having an infinite divine nature, he could experience an infinite punishment in a finite period of time.
I am not convinced that this solves the problem for traditionalists. Aside from the fact that such considerations seem a million miles away from the theology of the NT two other issues niggle away at me.
1. Jesus the God-man could experience an infinite punishment in the smallest divisible segment of time—a nanosecond. So Jesus' sufferings did not need to last for more than a fraction of the blink of an eye. Anything more than that was simply for show. Was the cross mostly just for show? Or, if God decided to spread the infinte punishment across the time-period of Jesus' sufferings why that time period and not a shorter one, or a longer one? It seems arbitrary.
2. More worrying is that I would have thought that Jesus would have had to have experienced the infinite punishment in his human nature for it was as our human representative that he suffered. But the human nature of Christ could not experience an infinite, eternal punishment in a finite amount of time (unless one is Luther and thinks that Christ's humanity comes to share all the properties of his divine nature . . . an idea that I always thought to be mistaken).
To be honest, I don't know exactly what I think the cross reveals about hell. If anything, it lends support to the view that the eschatological wrath Jesus spoke of was a coming military destruction of Jerusalem by Rome (the view of N. T. Wright and Andrew Perriman). But the NT texts clearly look beyond such a divine judgement to a deeper, fuller one.
What I am wondering though is this: if hell is either annihilation or eternal torment then it does not look like Jesus suffered our hell.
If we sought to reconstruct a theology of hell around the revelation of the cross what would it look like?
I am not really sure but if you have thoughts do add them.
- Robin Parry
- Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).