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Does Soteriology Today Need a Concept of Hell?

Introduction

In this paper we will explore and determine and answer to the question set. We will investigate how the word ‘hell’ is translated within the New Testament. Having established that, we will examine how it is interpreted in relation to salvation, specifically looking at three views. We will explore and gain an understanding of what soteriology is and how it relates to the Ordo Salutis. Finally we will research if soteriology today needs a concept of hell, and if not, what does it need.

A concept of Hell

In forming a concept of Hell we start with the knowledge that in the New Testament we are the word ‘Hell’ being used indirectly in its translated form. We understand the word ‘Hell’ better when translated from the Greek or Hebrew, through which we understand it to be Gehenna, Hades, Sheol and Tartarus. The translated word is used it is in context and have unique meanings:

  •         Gehenna – Hebrew – gê’ hinnōm: The Valley of Hinnom (Jer. 7:31) the bible mentions it “12 times”[1] in reference to ‘hell’; 11 of which were attributed to Jesus Christ.
  •         Hades – Greek – άδη: appears “10 times”[2] in scriptures and refers to the place of the dead e.g. (Rev 1:18, rev.20:11-15)
  •         Sheol – Hebrew שׁאול: appears “63 times”[3] in the bible as the place of the dead, Hades or Hell. Astley neatly describes it as “A subterranean location from which God was absent, and where darkness reigned”[4]
  •         Tartaros – from the Greek – ταρταρόω: appears once in the New Testament as a place of torment and refers to the angels who God did not spare and he “cast them into hell.” (2 Pet 2:4)

Having established how the word Hell is used in translation, let us turn to how it is interpreted in reference to salvation. Let us briefly explore three views on the subject:

  1.      Traditional: Many, if not most, humans will not be saved. Upon death they face the final judgement and are given eternal life or eternal condemnation. The latter is a place where one’s sin finds a conscious place of punishment, whereby torment (literally or metaphorically) separates us from God. Once you enter, you cannot leave.
  2.      Immortality vs Annihilation: Our soul is not naturally immortal. Eternal life is a gift to those who believe. Those who deny their sinful state will be punished, their awareness of that will be temporary. When Christ comes again those who are unrepentant will be destroyed. The fire of hell is not a torment, it is a consuming fire. Some believe that there is a second chance after death to repent.
  3.      Universalism: All will be saved by God restoring his creation in harmony. God’s love is unfathomable against human resistance. God has the power over sin and evil and will overcome it. Eternal damnation is a contradiction in the light of God’s love. If hell exists, the punishment is temporally an ultimate union with God beckons. The devil will repent eventually.

It is interesting that the language that is associated with “hell” is laden with metaphoric and symbolised images. Yet there is nothing within these doctrines that supports hell as being the abode of Satan or is essential concept as an antonym to salvation. Perhaps through the metaphor we have become drawn into a false importance of what hell actually intended to represent. It is very easy for the human to place evil in a convenient construct such as ‘hell’ rather than associating it with the ownership of wicked human flourishing within himself. The Psalmist is direct in his approach that evil flourishes, “such are the wicked; always at ease, the increase in riches” (Ps. 73:12). Yet he shows that true good human flourishing can emerge when we can say “but for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of your works” (Ps 73:28).

 

An understanding of Soteriology

Soteriology (in the Greek Soteria) is God’s plan to redeem sinful man. In its totality it holds time, eternity (past, present and future). It is offered or speaks to all of humankind, in fact all of creation, there are no exceptions to that. Salvation is focused upon Jesus Christ. The word salvation in theological terms signifies the process of work of God on humankind’s behalf expressed as the Ordo Salutis.

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In his chapter on “Dimensions Of Salvation”[5] Plantinga enters into a discussion about “Ordo Salutis (according to Hoekema)[6] comprising of “calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption sanctification, perseverance, and glorification.”[7] The ordo Salutis gives us a convenient set of dimensions of salvation. Also, it offers a clear theology of salvation in such a coherent way that God answers the very questions of life that people are concerned about. An effective form of evangelisation for the preacher, and for the hearer it can make sense of the past and present issues related to salvation. There has to be a Christological dimension too; God as Creator and Christ as the Redeemer have connected dimensions and activities. We see this most poignantly when Fiddes states in his chapter “Salvation as event and process”[8] that there is a scriptural unity with creation and redemption: “a frequent way of portraying God’s creation of the world was as a deliverance from the hostile forces of chaos.”[9]

In part the hymnologist Marty Haugen captures the essence of the relationship that is born out of salvation between God and man; his hymn “Word That Formed Creation”[10] encourages us to know that the “Word Brings Salvation” somewhat like the beginning of the Ordo Salutis. Indeed when sanctification commences within, the sinner acknowledges his need for God and yearns forgiveness. This process of forgiveness aids the sinner “who in faith, a is becoming more righteous through the process of sanctification, has in this process the vocation of participating in God’s mission (missio Dei) ….. Including the reconciliation of persons and social structures.”[11] The very process of reconciliation brings together past events and the present process.

In the modern era we encounter an excess of issues relating to the significance and necessity for salvation. Alongside that there is an importance implied upon the death of Jesus as the means of salvation, but some theologies of atonement somewhat playdown Jesus’ life and ministry. Fiddes makes a key point on this matter: “Jesus, in his whole ministry, offered God’s forgiveness of sins and acceptance into the coming Kingdom of God. Even if we had no examples of Jesus actually speaking about forgiveness, the offer will be through unmistakably in the way he acted.”[12] When speaking about salvation, the key components of salvation are found in connecting the historical Jesus and the Spirit of the risen Christ. Schillebeeckx in his chapter “Christians find God above all in Jesus Christ”[13] discusses the matter of the transition of Jesus to Christ. This is very important in understanding how we should talk about God to others:

“therefore we cannot speak meaningfully about God ‘as Christians’ without Christology and we cannot speak about Christology without Pneumatology. And it is impossible to speak about either Christology or new Pneumatology without a living church community, and thus without at least an implicit ecclesiology.”[14]

This use of language is so very important in how we communicate to others what salvation is and how they can accept it. It is right to use metaphor, but we must understand what the metaphor really is and how it can be effective. Using words like ‘hell,’ ‘damnation,’ ‘purgatory’ and the like without fully understanding what the translation means, is quite foolish. We have to discover how these words were intended to be used scripturally. A badly constructed inspiration metaphor can lead people not into salvation, but into a sense of loss or nothingness. Yet drawing from the humanity of Jesus and how God becomes present through Jesus’s actions and words is a more appropriate use of metaphor in salvation language; ergo “Jesus is the definition of God.”[15]

Therefore, it is possible then that an understanding of the doctrine of soteriology can be found within the narrative of evil and good human flourishing and what God offers us in Jesus Christ. It is healthy for a person to reflect upon his wicked human flourishing. Volf in his chapter on “embrace”[16] explores deeply the consequences of individuals being involved in the ethnic cleansing of those who are innocent and perhaps that their actions include moral evasion. Certainly for those who were the recipients of this ‘ethnic cleansing’ were faced with truly evil people, perhaps experiencing a ‘living hell.’ For salvation to work, for it to be received, for it to be experience, there has to be a language that is genuine and has no room for denial. This is true for all sin, but is more nuanced when our language towards those who commit the most heinous sins, acknowledges that they “need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers.”[17] As mentioned above it is convenient to have a concept of hell in order to place evil there rather than dealing with it. Salvation offers an answer to all sin because Jesus on the “cross breaks the cycle of violence”[18] because Jesus as ‘The Christ’ bore the carnage of the offender’s behaviour, he did not engage in “revenge, but sought to overcome evil by doing good – even at the cost of his life.”[19]

It is important to state the obvious, that today we live in a post- ‘Good Friday’ society. During Jesus’s life and ministry he spoke to and engaged with the pre-Good Friday society. We can learn from these interactions and observances and apply them into the modern era. Aulen in “Christus Victor”[20] engages in a healthy exploration of “The Drama of Redemption in the Pauline Epistles”[21] he summarises this with “classic idea of atonement has never found more poignant expression than in the great passage, 2 Cor.v.18f.[22] It is this scriptural text whereby we understand that God reconciles us to himself through Christ. And that it was Christ gave us the gift and ministry of reconciliation in order that we can be ambassadors. Migliore takes this further with the “Doctrine of Christology”[23] by setting out five principles embracing faith has been cognitive, theoretical and historical knowledge. That Christ is the hope of Israel. That the work and person of Christ are inseparable. That we should understand suffering and hope in each situation. Finally, “the living Jesus Christ is greater than all of our confessions and creeds, and he surpasses all of our theological reflection about him.”[24]

Conclusion

In conclusion we have shown that soteriology today does not need a concept of hell in order to present a credible doctrine of salvation. The Ordo Salutis sets out a good process and separates the dimensions that constitutes a credible doctrine of salvation. We have stated that it is important to acknowledge what hell is and to reflect upon what it means to receive/accept salvation in the minutes of human flourishing, whether it be evil or good. It is essential that the doctrine focuses upon what God gifts to humankind through Jesus Christ. It involves understanding what Christ, through his own words, his actions achieved and what those who witnessed Jesus first-hand experienced. A

All that is required today is to take an academic word like soteriology and apply a basic concept to it: namely that the doctrine is the study of Jesus Christ, and He is what Christianity is all about.

 

Bibliography

  • Astley, Jeff, Christian Doctrine (London: SCM Press, 2017)
  • Aulen, Gustaf, Christus Victor (London: SPCK, 1931)
  • Fiddes, Paul, S, Past Event and Present Salvation (London: DLT, 1989
  • Holy Bible NRSV (London: SPCK 1995)
  • Ancient and Modern, Large Print Edition, December 2015
  • Migliore, Daniel, L, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology: 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
  • Plantinga, Richard, J, An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010)
  • Schillebeeckx, Edward, Church: The Human Story of God (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990, translated version)
  • Volf, Miroslav, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)

[1] Holy Bible NRSV (London: SPCK 1995): Mat: 5:22; 5:29; 5:30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33, Mk 9:43; 9:45; 9:47, Lk 12:5;

[2] Holy Bible NRSV (London: SPCK 1995): Mat: 11:23; 16:18, Lk 10:15; 16:23, Acts 2:27; 2:31, Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13; 20:14

[3]Holy Bible NRSV (London: SPCK 1995): as per online search from Bible Gateway https://mobile.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=sheol&qs_version=NRSV&limit=100

[4] Jeff, Astley, Christian Doctrine (London: SCM Press, 2017) p208

[5] Richard, Plantinga, J, An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) Chapter 12 p 313 – 333

[6] Plantinga, Theology p 320

[7] Plantinga, Theology p 320

[8] Paul, S, Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation (London: DLT, 1989

[9] Fiddes, Event, P 17

[10] Ancient and Modern Large Print Edition December 2015 Hymn 220

[11] Plantinga, Theology p 332

[12] Fiddes, Event, P 176

[13] Edward, Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990, translated version) Chapter 3 PP 102-186

[14] Schillebeeckx, Church p 109

[15] Schillebeeckx, Church p 179

[16]Miroslav, Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996) chapter 2 pp 57-98

[17] Volf, Embrace p 85

[18] Volf, Embrace p 291

[19] Volf, Embrace p 292

[20] Gustaf, Aulen, Christus Victor (London: SPCK, 1931)

[21] Aulen, Victor pp 66 – 73

[22] Aulen, Victor p 71

[23] Daniel, L, Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology: 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014) PP 168 – 204

[24] Migliore, Seeking P 174

 



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