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Weak chapter on hell
on 17 November 2014
Phil has some excellent books, particularly his "Straight to the Heart" series of devotionals. Some of the chapters in Gagging Jesus are also good, but the hell chapter is misleading.
I realise that this is meant to be a quick, snappy and accessible explanation of Jesus's "controversial" statements, rather than a theological treatise. However, he spends more time in the chapter on hell quoting from atheists than he does anything else! He makes out that universal restoration was condemned at the second council of Constantinople, when the reality is far more nuanced to the point of making this effectively untrue: Origen himself *may* have been anathematised (although there is controversy over this due to evidence that his name was added to the anathema of Canon 11 at a later date). But just because someone is supposedly "anathematised" does not make *everything* they teach wrong; Phil Moore himself quotes Origen positively in another chapter of this book!
There is serious doubt over whether the 15 additional anathemas levelled at Origen were a product of this council, and *even if they were*, none of them pick out universal restoration per se as a heresy. They speak of a teaching that all men were pre-existent before their births, and will return to a nameless unity beyond death, as long as lots of crazy stuff about Jesus graduating through being an angelic being, a devil being and so on.
There is precious little in the way of evidence to suggest that universal reconciliation (i.e. not subscribing to the idea of eternal torment for unbelievers) was anything other than orthodox until the messy affair of the fifth council of Constantinople. Gregory of Nazianzus was also very much a proponent of the temporary, purifying nature of "hellfire" and he presided over the first council of Constantinople (the second ecumenical council).
He also gives anyone willing to heed him a warning about the pompous, argumentative and ambition-driven nature of these councils; quite why Phil Moore (speciously) gives the judgement of one of these very human affairs priority over the word of God is anyone's guess. Personally I couldn't give a fig what a group of bishops have been bullied into saying - I presume Phil doesn't accept all of the pronunciations of the Roman Catholic church with such readiness?
Back to the quotes from the atheists and somewhat perverted appeal to reason, Phil basically argues that even non-believers somehow know that the doctrine of eternal hell is "justice" because of a few newspaper headlines that call for Osama Bin Laden to "rot in hell". I've met various heavily reformed believers who have persuaded themselves of the same; that somehow, sinners writhing in agony for trillions upon trillions of years is "justice", and gives us "hope" that justice will be done.
All I can say is that this sort of "justice" is the result of a twisted, carnal mind, not the Spirit of God. God's laws make very clear that judgement and punishment have two aims; to restore people to the order of God's law, and to make restitution to the victim. How does torturing someone for eternity bring back a murdered loved one? It doesn't, clearly, but Phil seems to think that this is fair and somehow balances. You might miss your relative desperately but don't worry, you can take solace in going to watch the perpetual agony of the person who took them from you.
Does this sound like the God who says "love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you"? Is it a Christian attitude to think "don't worry, I can forgive them because I believe they will rot in hell for all eternity"?
No. Neither does it sound like the God who's laws insist that the punishment fit the crime - "an eye for an eye". You could murder a child every day of your life for 80 years, and still not come close to deserving conscious torture for eternity!
Phil uses the Augustinian reason to believe in eternal hell: that it is compared with "eternal life", and makes no sense if one is truly eternal and one is temporary. This seems reasonable, but all I can say is look at the word aeonian and say whether it means "never-ending". It doesn't. So no, in this verse, it is not eternal/never-ending life *or* judgement that is being referred to.
However, I find it baffling how people come up with *this* seemingly logical argument, and yet when it says "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive", they ARE willing to say that yes, all die in Adam, but no, not all will be made alive in Christ.
Finally, near the beginning of the chapter (I don't have the book in front of me) Phil says something about how Jesus mentioned hell far more than it is mentioned in the Old Testament. Well, no s**t Phil, because "hell" is never mentioned in the Old Testament... which kind of makes one wonder why it would suddenly crop up as a developed doctrine in the New Testament, doesn't it?!
In conclusion, I can understand where people get the idea of eternal hellfire from. It's not entirely their fault; they have fallen victim to poor translation and to hagiography and suppression by corrupt and ungodly men of the church. But the fact is there is very good scriptural support for universal restoration, and an end to Gehenna fire, and this is why even the Evangelical Alliance (not known for their woolly stance on theological issues) accept it as a variant of evangelical belief. There are many examples of evangelical theologians who attest to the scriptural veracity of this doctrine, not just the latest liberal nice guy Rob Bell. To present eternal hellfire as the only valid understanding of what Jesus says, and to make out that this is clear-cut, is just not true.