The Failure of the Evangelical Imagination: A Brief Rant on Hell, Method and History

Well, my quarter is nearly over. In my directed study with Tommy, Chad and Banning, we spent a lot of time reading Second Temple Jewish literature, especially 1 Enoch and various articles on "eternal punishment" in Jewish belief.

It was this week that I had a thought that wouldn't leave me alone.

It came when I was reading 1 Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other Jewish texts around the time of Paul. In reading material about the death or destruction of the wicked (particularly in the Dead Sea Scrolls), I lingered on the idea that modern Christian doctrinal formation needs to take these texts into account when conceptualizing our doctrine of hell. I'm not alone in having this thought of course, but it came to full fruition when I read the second edition of the 4 Views on Hell book edited by Preston Sprinkle.

I want to start with some positives before I get into the meat of my criticism. As the editor, Sprinkle exhibited his common attitude of grace and charity toward all three views represented. Yes, only three views are represented, as Jerry Walls and Denny Burk are warring siblings within the family of eternal conscious torment. Second, the essays are generally well written in terms of presentation and engaging (which is both positive and negative).

Thus, my criticism of the volume is not directed at Sprinkle, but to the methodological lack of imagination displayed by the contributors in their avoidance of Second Temple Jewish texts. This is not a full-scale critique of the book, but I am using the book as a springboard for a larger criticism.

That criticism is this: evangelicals, in forming doctrine, often detach the text of Scripture from the history in which it was written. This is evident, as all four contributors do not speak at all of the surrounding history that inhabits their alleged views in the New Testament. Not even a footnote.

This leads to the title of my post. For instance, Denny Burk's argumentation simply treads a well-worn path set by others before him (c.f. his adoption of Robert Peterson's "Big Ten" on p.21 n.8). At this stage, if these three (four?) are the only evangelical options, one is left wondering how history fits into our doctrine, and if there exists a latent Supersessionism regarding how we read these Jewish texts—insofar as we are permitted to ignore history and simply strip-mine a few texts to create a wall of "distinct identity." One does not need a multitude of texts in order for a doctrine to be true: that is not my point.

But the point is that there is a reductionistic hermeneutic at play in our modern discourse on hell, one that prefers certain obscure verses in the Apocalypse to the broader language of destruction in Paul, Matthew, Mark, Peter, 2 Peter and elsewhere. Why are the two texts in Revelation given more prominence?

How has evangelicalism, however broadly defined, reduced the complex narratives of Scripture down to propositional slogans? How is this acceptable?

I am not arguing that the Wisdom of Solomon or Sibylline Oracles are inerrant and equally as authoritative as Romans or John or Hebrews or Genesis or First/Second/Third Isaiah.

What I am arguing is that evangelical academics, when arguing for their position in the so-called public square, need to use these Second Temple texts, no matter which view they are espousing. To restrict one's arguments exclusively to the New Testament, or in Burk's case ten isolated texts, is to ignore the breadth of history that got us these texts in the first place.

Third-Isaiah did not write in a vacuum, and neither did Mark or Paul when they quoted Third-Isaiah (c.f. Mark 9:43-49—Third-Isaiah 66:24; 2 Thess. 1:9: Third-Isaiah 66:15-16).

Understanding the times and rumors and events surrounding the New Testament is to enhance one's knowledge of history, and may help avoid the absolute reductionistic approach we find in many of our churches and denominations.

Jewish apocalyptic history is not a footnote to the Bible.