The book Four Views on Hell centers on the eternal destiny of those who die outside of the grace of God in Christ. The writers’ four positions defended in the book are “The Literal View” (John F. Walvoord, former President of Dallas Theological Seminary and author of some 30 books on Christian theology, including The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit and Every Prophecy of the Bible), “The Metaphorical View” (William V. Crockett, professor of New Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary), “The Purgatorial View” (Zachary J. Hayes, retired teacher of theology at the Catholic Theological Union), and “The Conditional View” (Chark H. Pinnock, Professor of Systematic Theology at McMaster Divinity College and author of more than a dozen books, including A Wideness in God’s Mercy: the Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions and Unbounded Love: a Good News Theology for the 21st Century). The book is arranged so that each author is allowed to present his view in as compelling a fashion as he is able to achieve, after which the other authors are allowed to respond critically to the presentation. Ultimately, Walvoord’s presentation of a literal interpretation of the Biblical data regarding Hell is most compelling although Crockett raises several persuasive points for his own position.
Summary of the Book
Perhaps a more appropriate title for this book would have been, “Three Views on Hell plus One View on Purgatory,” as Walvoord, Crockett, and Pinnock exhaust their efforts in discussing the traditional view of Hell while Hayes puts forth a defense for the idea of Purgatory found in Roman Catholic theology. John Walvoord takes center stage and his defense of the traditional evangelical view of Hell forms the foundation for the book as the remaining authors’ writing on Hell attempt to either modify (Crockett) or refute and update (Pinnock). Walvoord presents a straightforward defense of a literal view of Hell filled with the unredeemed who are perpetually and eternally tormented in a burning flame.
William Crockett is largely in agreement with Walvoord regarding the eternal timeframe of Hell as well as Hell’s population. His position diverges from Walvoord’s on the nature of the torment that those in Hell will receive. For Crockett the Biblical images of flame and darkness are best understood as images or symbols most familiar to the original Biblical audience that would communicate agony and torment, and thus we should understand the flames and darkness not as literal components of Hell but rather metaphors for the anguish experienced by those in Hell.
Zachary Hayes, while still in some ways discussing the eternal fate of those outside of God’s grace, diverges from the other three authors’ discussion of Hell. Hayes’ focus is on Purgatory as a place where penitent humans are gathered after death in order to have their sins expiated. His defense focuses on an apology for Roman Catholic theological method and, while quite thorough on this subject, never really alights on the subject of Hell.
Clark Pinnock’s position is the biggest divergence from the traditional view contained in the book. While agreeing with Walvoord and Crockett that some will ultimately leave mortal life unreconciled to God, Pinnock finds the idea of eternal torment in a literal lake of fire both inconsistent with the Biblical text (in some places mirroring Crockett’s understanding of Biblical hellfire as metaphor) and the character of God as understood by the rational mind. For Pinnock the final fate of the damned is not eternal conscious torment but rather final extermination in non-existence (although he speculates that this dissolution of being might very well be proceeded by an undefined period of torment).
Critical Interaction with Each Author’s Work
Position 1: The Literal View
John Walvoord presents the case for a literal understanding of Biblical data regarding Hell in a logical and direct fashion. For Walvoord the Biblical exegesis is the supreme and only standard of theological information. Furthermore, the Bible makes the reality of an eternal literally burning and darkened Hell so clear that to question the traditional doctrine amounts to questioning the authority of the Word of God (pg. 37). Any objections to the traditional position arise, in Walvoord’s thinking, from either a sentimental reluctance to embrace the clear Biblical teaching or a theological commitment not arising from the text itself (11-12).Walvoord understands the Hebrew word sheol to be the most common reference to Hell in the Old Testament. Sheol is, at least, a reference to the grave (14-15) and is a place of darkness and punishment for the wicked (16). The Greek word hades, generally speaking, is the New Testament equivalent of sheol and leaves room for ambiguity in regards to duration and condition for those departed souls contained therein (19). Walvoord sees a much clearer description of the state of the wicked in the afterlife in the Greek word gehenna which, according to Walvoord, references eternal torment (as does the equivalent word tartaros) (19). Gehenna references the Valley of Hinnom where criminals were buried and refuse burned during the days of Christ’s life (20). Gehenna thus directly references a perpetual burning, for Walvoord the precise reason that Christ drew so heavily on this word to describe the tormented state of the wicked.
Walvoord’s defense of Hell as eternal torment centers on the text of Revelation 20:15 (26). In verse 10 of this passage the devil, the beast, and the false prophet are consigned to a lake of fire where they will be tormented continually, forever and ever. Since this same location is put forth as the place into which the wicked deceased are cast in verses 12-15 the duration for the unredeemed humans who join the devil, beast, and false prophet must necessarily be the same as well. Walvoord thus contends, “Scripture never challenges the concept that eternal punishment is by literal fire” (26). Any objection to this clear truth is sourced not in exegesis but rather in sentimental theological argumentation.
Position 2: The Metaphorical View
William Crockett contends that while the Bible does indicate that the unredeemed dead will suffer eternally there is no justification for a literal view of a “burning abyss” because the Biblical data uses the fire motif as a means of communicating a warning of eschatological doom (44). Crockett encourages his reader to not get caught up in the specific images of fire and darkness but rather to in a sense look behind the images to the reality they point to, namely eternal torment of the worst kind.
Where Walvoord consciously relied only on the text of Scripture to demonstrate the validity of his position Crockett is much more comfortable citing notable theologians and Christian figures like J.I. Packer and Billy Graham to make his case (45). He also makes much of the history of interpretation regarding the Biblical data, proposing that there was “no uniform view” amongst the early church regarding the specifics of Hell (46) with a commitment to a literal interpretation becoming dominant only in the 18th and 19th centuries (48).
Crockett’s case is strongest where he points out that Biblical imagery is often used to describe that which is beyond human comprehensions and thus beyond being captured in human language, specifically in regards to Heaven (55). The absence of widespread defense of the literal physical dimensions of heaven (Revelation 21:12) or physical properties like streets of gold (vs. 21) most likely indicates that Christians are more aware of the potential symbolism of these descriptions (55). Furthermore, Crockett rightly points out that rabbis made use of hyperbole to drive home important points in their teaching leaves room for the possibility that the Bible’s descriptions on Hell are similarly hyperbolic (50). Conversely, Crockett’s case is weakened by his reliance on theological debate from the ages, particularly when he cites Jewish rabbinical contradictions regarding Hell (59). His assertion that the Biblical imagery of flame in Hell conflicts with the Biblical teaching about Hell as a place of darkness is also simplistic and ignores the radical difference between the age to come and the present age.
Position 3: The Purgatorial View
Zachary Hayes’ presentation of the Purgatorial View is the oddball aspect of this particular book. It stands alone as a presentation of an intermediate and ultimately cleansing state of those who die in imperfect relationship to God, as opposed to presenting anything on the topic of Hell.
Hayes operates on an entirely different soteriology than any of the other three authors. While Walvoord, Crockett, and Pinnock assume two categories for all of humanity – saved or unsaved; redeemed or damned – Hayes works off a third category that occupies something of a middle ground. To his mind those in Purgatory are those who have died and “still in need of…purification” (93). This category of people is not condemned to Hell, though not quite fit for heaven, and thus in need of refinement through suffering before being admitted to Heaven.
Hayes also operates on a unique theological methodology, at least unique to Four Views on Hell. Whereas the other three authors give at least preference to Biblical revelation Hayes considers Biblical revelation a peer to human reason and the historical development of thought in the church. Interestingly, Hayes cites Cardinal Ratzinger in defense of the idea that a purging suffering after mortal death is needed to expiate sin (99). That Ratzinger was elevated to the Papacy after the publication of this book speaks to the power of the voice of Catholic theologians in not only the development, but also continuation, of uniquely Catholic purgatorial doctrine.
Hayes sees the need for Purgatory in the gap that exists between fallen man and Holy God. To Hayes’ mind this gap requires purification in the creature, but purification is not always accomplished perfectly before the mortal life ends. Thus, the deceased have need for not only suffering beyond this life to cleanse from sin but also the involvement of believers still alive acting on behalf of those who have already passed away (96-98). Hayes concedes that this purgatorial view is without clear affirmation in scripture (104) but makes the claim that there is nothing contrary to the doctrine of Purgatory in the scriptures (107). These two claims represent the most fatal weaknesses in Hayes’ presentation, destructively eroding his prior attempts to build a convincing case for the existence of Purgatory.
Position 4: The Conditional View
Clark Pinnock’s presentation of what he calls the Conditional View can also accurately be described as annihilationism. Furthermore, his position represents the greatest departure from the traditional position amongst the three authors who address the subject of Hell. According to Pinnock the early church embraced too much Hellenistic philosophy, an embrace that has done more to shape the traditional view of Hell than the actual text of Scripture.
Pinnock makes much of a supposed contradiction between the Bible’s presentation of a loving God and the traditional idea of a literally burning Hell where sinners are tormented forever (140). Pinnock also makes much of his argument on the basis of his assertion that the Bible is largely unclear as to the specific details regarding the final destiny of the damned (144). In this point Pinnock comes into the same orbit as Crockett in their mutual belief that scripture is largely ambiguous in presenting details regarding the specific elements of Hell. Finally, Pinnock relies heavily on human rationality as an accurate tool in evaluating God’s plan for history. In Pinnock’s presentation God must conform to a contemporary understanding of what is and is not just.
Pinnock gives much attention to the early church’s embrace of Hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul (147). However, he never appears to consider whether or not he has also absorbed his own day’s philosophy regarding moral absolutes and their resulting consequences. His position is also weakened by his reliance on metaphysical ideas of harmony in the universe as if God is obligated to conform to a contemporary metaphysical definition of what constitutes harmony (151). Pinnock also acknowledges his position’s inability to address texts that suggest degrees of punishment in Hell like Matthew 10:15 and Luke 12:47-48 (154).
Walvoord’s initial presentation of Hell as a place of eternal torment for the unredeemed, literally burning and literally dark, is the strongest and most compelling contained in Four Views on Hell. Walvoord steams straight ahead in laying out a clear and logically ordered presentation of Biblical data in defense of his position. While he sometimes attempts to force certain texts (like Ecclesiastes 9:4-6 and Isaiah 14:9-10) into service to his cause overall he acquits himself well as an able defender of the traditional view of Hell.
Crockett’s presentation, although overly reliant on theological arguments (to the detriment of exegetical work), raises significant questions regarding the intention of the imagery employed by Biblical writers to describe Hell. That the images of Heaven are perhaps symbolic in what they attempt to present about Heaven appears to be reasonable justification for questioning whether or not the images of Hell should also be understood symbolically.
Hayes’ presentation is flawed in its understanding of the nature of man, the potential of man’s works – be it in acquiring righteousness or working off sinfulness – to accomplish salvation, and what was accomplished by Christ’s righteous life, vicarious suffering, and triumphant resurrection. Further exacerbating the problem is his willingness to allow the voice of man credibility equal to God’s revelation. It is no surprise then that his conclusions go so far beyond anything exegetically justifiable.
Clark Pinnock’s position is a similar exaltation of man within the theological method. His confident and condescending surety of his own position’s accuracy and objectivity repeats many of the errors he ascribes to the early church. His presentation is a thinly veiled attempt to repurpose God’s revelation as a theological source secondary to human reasoning. Ultimately Pinnock’s attempt to camouflage himself as an orthodox theological explorer comes up far short of his goal.
 “John F. Walvoord,” Website name, http://www.walvoord.com/author_bio.php?author_id=1 (accessed February 28, 2010).
 “William Crockett,” Zondervan.com, http://www.zondervan.com/Cultures/en-US/Authors/Author.htm?ContributorID=CrockettW&QueryStringSite=Zondervan (accessed February 28, 2010).
 “Zachary J. Hayes,” Zondervan.com, http://www.zondervan.com/Cultures/en-US/Authors/Author.htm?ContributorID=HayesZ&QueryStringSite=Zondervan (accessed February 28, 2010).
 Although, in fairness, this absence could also be because there has been no widespread attack on the descriptions of Heaven similar to the attacks on the Biblical descriptions of Hell.