Hell is a sobering topic to say the least, but it must be studied if we want to understand God and represent His word. The time is ripe to reevaluate Scriptures’ teaching on hell since Zondervan just updated its “Views on Hell” volume. This is welcome, as the original book had a few quirks: separate chapters defending “literal” and “metaphorical” views of hell (that looked suspiciously alike), along with a Roman Catholic defense of purgatory in a book aimed for Evangelicals, and a highly-charged emotion-driven defense of Annihilationism that was more heat than light. More crucially, it had become quite dated and the discussion has moved forward significantly, with Annihilationism (aka. Conditionalism) gaining popularity and credibility, and evangelical Universalism even being on the table.
The new book, Four Views on Hell (Second Edition), edited by Preston Sprinkle (who himself has moved from Traditional to Conditional) has the following lineup:
- Denny Burk: Eternal Conscious Torment (the “Traditional” view)
- John Stackhouse: Terminal Punishment (Annihilationism or Conditionalism)
- Robin Parry: Universalism (of an Evangelical variety)
- Jerry Walls: Purgatory (of an Evangelical – that is, non-Catholic – variety)
I want to zoom in on Burk and Stackhouse’s chapters as, personally, I find theirs as the only two viable options. This week we’ll consider Traditionalism and next week Conditionalism.
Denny Burk: Eternal Conscious Torment
Burk acknowledges the difficulty in coming to terms with unbelievers facing the punishment of eternal conscious torment. How can a relatively short lifetime of sin (some longer and/or more sinful than others) be rewarded with an eternity of suffering? According to Burk, it is important to consider that “the seriousness of the sin is not measured merely by the sin itself…but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against” (p19, emphasis italics in original). In other words, the one sinned against is our eternally glorious Creator Himself, so we think too lightly of the seriousness of our sins. “The emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God” (p20).
The remainder of his chapter is given “to explain what the relevant texts of Scripture actually teach” (p18), as this is the most crucial point. To do so, he covers 10 texts that deal with hell and the final state of the wicked. Read in light of each other, these texts establish three characteristics of the damned: 1) final separation from God, 2) unending experience of punishment, 3) just retribution of sin. These three characteristics disprove universalism, annihilationalism and purgatory respectively.
Here are the texts and some summary highlights of Burk’s comments. The book will need to be consulted for his arguments:
- Isaiah 66:22-24. The final state of the wicked will be permanent and the degradation of their bodies unending, “[implying] that their experience will involve consciousness of their unending punishment” (p24)
- Daniel 12:2-3. This passage presents the two possible final and unending destinies of being “raised”: life or disgrace. That the text has unbelievers ‘awakening’ to disgrace “implies consciousness” (p25).
- Matthew 18:6-9. A final state experiencing ‘fire’, symbolizing “the pain that must be endured by those in hell” (p28).
- Matthew 25:31-46. The ‘eternal punishment’ is final and cannot be reversed.
- Mark 9:42-48. This passage alludes to Isa 66:24, which “presupposes a double resurrection in which the wicked are given bodies fit for an everlasting punishment…an experience of judgment that has no end” (p32)
- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10. The eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9) does not mean “to cease to exist” (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:3; 1 Tim 6:9), but “[its] primary sense is something more along the lines of ruin or loss, not annihilation” (p35).
- Jude 7. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah “functions typologically” (p37) of the final state: “the fire that was revealed in part in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah will be revealed in full at the final judgment in the age to come” (p37). Since the life (Jude 21) of the saved is eternal, the eternal fire “is of the same duration” (p37) also.
- Jude 13. The utter darkness links back to Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30, which refer to weeping and gnashing of teeth, “[suggesting] consciousness of their punishment” (p39).
- Revelation 14:9-11. The “pain and distress do not end but go on everlastingly” (40).
- Revelation 20:10, 14-15. The unjust “obtain bodies supernaturally fit to endure the same torment as the devil and his minions” (41).
Burk closes his chapter reflecting on God’s glory and wrath as well as the urgency of evangelism.
Burke presents a strong and balanced case for the traditional viewpoint. I suspect his argument will be airtight for those who already accept his view. Once I decided to step back and reevaluate Scripture’s teaching on hell, I have realized the texts don’t all say exactly what I thought they did. A few points of critique, then.
- Burk’s selection of texts is a far cry from being ‘the relevant texts of Scripture on hell’, but is rather 10 passages that may teach eternal conscious torment (or at least elements of it). But Scripture says much more about the punishment of sin than these texts alone. Death as punishment for sin becomes much more prominent (Rom 6:23; John 3:16) when we bring the many other texts into the discussion.
- Burk often assumes what he sets out to prove; primarily, the consciousness of those in hell. A close reading of these texts does not say everything Burk assumes they do. For example, Burk builds much of his case for eternal consciousness upon the fact that the unbelievers’ bodies in Isaiah 66:22-24 apparently do not perish. However, Isaiah’s dead bodies are… well, dead. Nowhere is it clear that they are conscious; a major point for his view.
- Jude 7 doesn’t say that the temporal fire of Sodom’s judgment was typological for the eternal fire of hell, but that Sodom experienced “eternal fire” too! If Jude calls Sodom’s (temporary) judgment of fire eternal, are we correct to assume the eternal fire of the unsaved is unlike Sodom’s?
Though many of his texts are more vague than ‘traditionalists’ often assume, it is difficult to respond to Burk’s reading of Revelation 14:9-11 and Rev 20:10, 14-15!
Next week we’ll consider Terminal Punishment.
Thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy!
My Digital Seminary exists because I was unable (time and money) to attend seminary. That said, I have been slowly working on a distance Bachelor’s degree, most of which I obtained through credits for teaching the courses at the Bible College where I taught. However, the final semester (this Autumn) is a thesis defense that requires full tuition and also physical presence (in Hungary, no less) for the defense and graduation. It all comes to $1,800.
We have been in ministry and lived on donations for 6 years now, and aren’t in a place to pay this. I am reaching out to friends, family and financial backers, but I want to do it here too, and ask anyone who has enjoyed My Digital Seminary to consider giving a small amount towards reaching this goal.
No pressure, just if the Lord leads.
Past and present Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) professors came together to produce a new pair of Old and New Testament introductions with Crossway. These “Biblical-Theological” introductions are intended for pastors and general readers, and are made by scholars who are “appreciative of dogmatics” (p10) — that is, unafraid of systematic theology — and who uphold biblical inerrancy and Reformed theology. In this post I will review A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, edited by Miles Van Pelt.
A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament
In addition to the above points, what sets apart A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (what a mouthful), is that the authors not only want to present the message(s) of each individual OT book, but to do so “in the context of the whole canon of Scripture”, including the “authoritative witness of the New Testament”, which provides “the full and final message of the Old Testament” (p13). This means that the treatment of individual book incorporates insights from the rest of the OT and the NT, hence the title of the book.
Yet another feature that sets this work apart is the approach of the editor, Miles Van Pelt. Van Pelt has a keen interest in reading the Old Testament as a unity, particularly by following the Hebrew canonical order rather that of modern English Bibles (see more here and here). The Introduction reproduces his material from the excellent and popular BiblicalTraining lectures on the subject. If the very structure of the Bible is significant, then each book’s location is relevant for “[discovering] its full and final significance” (p30). Van Pelt’s material here is excellent and I am glad to see it reach a wider audience. Those in the know may wonder why Van Pelt does not follow the (slightly different and arguably more ancient) order from the Baba Bathra like Dempster and DeRouchie, but unfortunately he does not address this question.
After the Introduction, each OT book is examined, following the Hebrew OT order. Each chapter includes usual topics such as authorship and dating, but most attention is devoted to the book’s message and theology, with some chapters summarizing the book’s contents. Despite Van Pelt’s earnest presentation and defense of the Hebrew OT order, and structuring of the book around this order, the individual authors themselves did not devote much attention to their respective book’s Hebrew-order placement. Most ignored the issue entirely. However, unsurprisingly, Van Pelt’s chapter on Song of Solomon is an exception.
On that note, the chapter on Song of Solomon was undoubtedly my favourite. This is because I have always struggled to understand the book, but Van Pelt’s perspective (known as the three-character view) was eye-opening and has sparked my own study of the book to see if it is the best way to read it.
It goes without saying that a book from Reformed Theological Seminary professors will have all the trappings of Reformed theology, such as Covenant Theology, Calvinism, Infant Baptism, the Tripartite division of the Law, and so on. However, non-Reformed readers should not let this dissuade them. Since this book covers the Old Testament, I did not find myself frustrated on every page despite disagreeing with (while being highly appreciative of) much in Reformed theology.
Odd are the two appendices by Richard Belcher: an exhaustive comparison of approaches to the Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9, and a discussion of the role of heavenly beings in Daniel. Though these appendices are strong in their own right, they seemed parochial and narrow for an OT intro, where topics such as OT textual criticism, the Septuagint, or the Ancient Near East would more broadly useful. In comparison, the companion NT introduction discusses general topics applicable to NT study, such as the NT canon, textual criticism, the Synoptic problem, and the use of the OT in the NT.
A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament is a fine addition to the admitted wealth of OT introduction texts available. With a solid lineup, A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament is very approachable for the general reader who wants to get to the heart of OT books and their message(s). Those interested in issues such as provenance, textual criticism, and cultural backgrounds will want to find additional resources, but as an introduction to the Old Testament that focuses on the message and theology of the books themselves, A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament is a highly recommended addition for any library.
Many thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy through their Beyond the Page program.
- The Big Picture
- Study Tools
- The Biblical Narrator
- The Tanak
- Patronage and Grace
- The Mark Sandwich
- The Psalter
G. K. Chesterton tells the tale of of a man who sails out to discover a new land, only to mistakenly return to England and proceed to plant a British flag in this apparently virgin land. For Chesterton, this allegory captures the adventure of discovery and the familiarity of home. I suspect when studying for The Birth of the Trinity, Matthew Bates had a similar experience to Chesterton’s Englishman, as I certainly did when reading his book.
The Birth of the Trinity
In The Birth of the Trinity, Matthew Bates attempts to prove that the “specific ancient reading technique, best termed prosopological exegesis, that is evidenced in the New Testament and other early Christian writings was was irreducibly essential” to the doctrine of the Trinity (p2, emphasis italicized in original). In other words, what best explains the origin of the Trinity doctrine? For Bates, the answer is the early church engaging in prosopological exegesis of the OT.
However, aside from being a useful term for impressing one’s audience, what exactly is prosopological exegesis? It is a method of interpreting the Old Testament by discovering and assigning persons to the unnamed speakers and/or addressees. Prosopological exegesis (hereafter PE) begins with the recognition that OT prophets climbed through “a divinely ordained tear between heaven and earth” to overhear divine conversations (Isaiah 6, Daniel 7). PE is seen in Peter’s reading of Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-32). Peter recognized David was writing the words of Christ as a Spirit-empowered prophet, and so he read the Psalm as “containing a real future conversation between the Father and the Son” (p6). Peter did not read the Psalm typologically, as if Psalm 16 contained David’s own experience and foreshadowed Christ. Rather, he read it prosopologically: David’s own experience was distinctly unlike that of the speaker in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:29), so David must be enacting the person (Gk. prosopon) of another. Discerning these occurrences is the heart of PE.
After introducing PE and its implications for the history of Trinitarian doctrine, The Birth of the Trinity discovers instances of PE in the New Testament and the early church (e.g. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Ps-Barnabas and Tertullian). Chapter 2 uncovers Trinitarian conversation before creation in Psalm 2, 110, Isaiah 42, and Genesis 1:26. Chapter 3 explores conversations pertaining to the Son’s mission in Psalm 40, Mal 3:1, Isaiah 61:1-2, and Isa 42:1-9. Chapter 4 finds dialogue regarding the Son’s death in Psalm 69, Isaiah 65:1-2, and Psalm 22. In chapter 5, the Son is rescued from death to praise His Father in Psalm 22, Isaiah 8:17-18, Psalm 116, Psalm 18, and Psalm 16. Chapter 6 finds Christ’s enthronement and conquest, in addition to the new creation, in Psalm 2, 110, 45, and 102. Along the way, Bates explores questions related to PE, such as the eunuch’s question regarding the true speaker of Isaiah’s prophecy (Acts 8:32-33; Isa 53:7-8) or the nature of the Son’s forsakenness in Psalm 22. Chapter 7 asks the natural next questions: was this a faithful reading of the Scripture? and even more provocative, ought we emulate it? Bates recognizes that this question is not unprecedented; the early church set forth guidelines for faithful utilization of PE in response to Gnostic PE (yes they did it too!). Bates then answers both questions with a qualified yes, offering his own guidelines.
As for the origins of the Trinity doctrine, The Birth of the Trinity has much explanatory power. I eagerly await the ripples the book will cause in scholarship. For one, theologian Fred Sanders already highly praised the work. Bates’ proposal is provocative and I expect to see many others picking up his baton and running further down the unexplored track.
Bates’ PE approach raises some questions as to how we ought interpret the original OT passage. First, must a passage only have one referent? If for example Psalm 18 is David speaking in the voice of the Christ, then what should we make of the Psalm’s appearance in 2 Samuel 22, where it is (apparently) applied to David’s life? Can David not be speaking of himself and the Christ? Second, if PE is a faithful reading of the OT, should (and if yes, then how should) one go back and read the OT passage in light of the NT’s connections with Christ? Third, if the NT reads a portion of a Psalm as about Christ using PE, ought we consider the whole Psalm as about Christ? These questions are not criticisms of the book so much as evidence of a highly stimulating read that ought to provoke fruitful reflection and research.
Aside from my near-absolute praise for The Birth of the Trinity, I have a few small complaints. First, though Bates is to be applauded for staying focused on presenting his unique thesis, I would have appreciated more representation and even critique of differing exegetical conclusions on a given passage before Bates provided his own. This would have helped clarify Bates’ own views whilst undermining the alternatives; poking prevailing interpretations in the eye before delivering the rhetorical KO of Bates’ exegetical blindsides (all done in Christian love, of course). Along with this, how the NT’s interpretations stood in relation, whether agreement or contrast, with prevailing contemporary interpretations of these same passages would be welcome. How did Second Temple Jews interpret these texts? Can we find instances of PE there? Of course, this would have resulted in a much larger book. Lastly, on that note, I just wish the book were longer; I want more!
The Birth of the Trinity is clearly written, compellingly argued, and for me, a thrilling and stimulating read. I am thoroughly convinced that the NT uses PE, and this has opened up these texts again for me in a refreshing way. Along with insights into the Trinity, virtually every page has creative and provocative exegetical insights. What’s more, PE has vast implications: including the NT use of the OT, Messianic fulfillment, Christology and Trinitarianism. The implications of Bates’ work are not simply intellectually stimulating, however; they reveal a personal Triune God. They reveal impassioned conversations between a Father who, for example, provides a body for His Son to accomplish redemption (Ps 40), and a Son who willingly substitutes Himself to receive the blows directed at His Father (Ps 69).
The Birth of the Trinity is unique for simultaneously discovering a dusty overlooked interpretative tool and also pioneering a bold way forward in scholarship. Much like Chesterton’s Englishman who discovered England, this is both a deeply rooted, traditional, and orthodox reading, and also a creative and exciting new method with “rich Trinitarian fruit […] that has not yet been plucked by scholarship” (p6-7). The fruit is so abundant that this is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year, and surely to be in my top five reads of the year. Though the Oxford University Press hardback is pricey, be on the lookout for the much more affordable paperback edition in September.
Many thanks to Ofxord University Press who provided a review copy.
Buy The Birth of the Trinity from Amazon
- Individual: Rather than mankind in general (Ps 8:4), the NT applies it to Christ (e.g. Eph 1:22).
- Eschatological: Rather than the original creation (allusions to Gen 1 in Ps 8), the NT applies it to the yet-future new creation (e.g. 1 Cor 15:24-26; Heb 2:8).
- Exaltational: Rather than mankind being a little lower than the angels (Ps 8:5), the NT applies it to Christ’s being raised above the angels (e.g. Eph 1:20-22).
How can these things be reconciled? Is the New Testament consistently misreading the Psalm? Or have we misread the Psalm? Or is there another solution?
I just read a (free) dissertation on Psalm 8 by Mark Kinzer entitled All Things Under His Feet: Psalm 8 in the New Testament and Other Jewish Literature of Late Antiquity, where he argues that to properly understand the NT reading of Psalm 8, we must understand Jewish tradition regarding Ps 8 from the time period surrounding the New Testament.
According to Kinzer, and he substantiates this with significant number of texts, there is precedent for each of the above points in contemporary Jewish interpretation of the Psalm. In other words, aside from some (very!) important differences such as Jesus being the fulfillment, the NT authors are reading Psalm 8 similarly to other Jews of the time. Kinzer establishes the following points from Jewish literature of the time.
- Ps 8 was interpreted in light of Gen 1-3, and applied specifically to Adam and his pre-fall status.
- Adam was originally exalted not only above all the animals but also above the angels. This is due to Ps 8:6’s “works of your hands” seen as including the heavens, that is, heavenly beings (“the works of your fingers”, Ps 8:3)
- Some Jews read Ps 8:4-9 as recording the words of an angel (or angels) jealous of Adam’s pre-fall status! God’s intention with Adam was met with critical questioning: “what is man that you are mindful of him?” These Jews probably saw these antagonistic angels in the references to conflict in Ps 8:3, 7.
- When Adam was tempted and fell, he, and mankind with him, lost his original state of glory (Rom 3:23). This means that Ps 8 describes a lost state of glory that has not been regained.
- Adam’s status and vocation was renewed in other individuals, which resulted in the Psalm being applied to them. It was applied to Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, and Moses in various literature, in light of their varied exaltation and glory. In some instances, these individuals acted on behalf of others.
The precedent of the individual use of Psalm 8 is seen in all the points above, particularly in reapplication of the Psalm to individuals who were seen to achieve an Adam-like state of glory. Points 2, 4, and 5 above set the precedent for an eschatological reading of the Psalm, as mankind’s glorious status in Psalm 8 was lost or marred. The exaltational use of Psalm 8 is clearly seen in points 2, 5 and even 3; God intended for mankind to rule over the angels.
Kinzer’s arguments are fascinating and largely compelling. It sheds light on passages such as 1 Cor 6:3 and adds support to the Divine Council worldview as argued by Michael Heiser and others.
Though I agree with the overall argument, I have some lingering questions that I hope to resolve!
What is the relevance of the near identical lines in Ps 8:4 and Ps 144:3? Does this play any relevant part in the discussion?
Is the Jewish literature misreading Psalm 8? The question still remains whether the Jewish literature read Psalm 8 legitimately. Kinzer shows that it is possible to read the Psalm in similar ways to these Jewish traditions. That there were numerous similar interpretations in antiquity, perhaps there are inherent qualities to the Psalm that provoked such conclusions.
Perhaps the following ideas are part of the answer:
- The Psalm was read redemptive-historically. That is, the Psalm was read in light of the fall. Mankind lost this glorious position, but it must be regained. So the details of the Psalm were read in light of the OT storyline.
- The Psalm was read prosopologically. Kinzer shows that for many Jews, verses Ps 8:4-9 were in fact spoken not by David, but by angelic beings in their jealousy of Adam’s creation status. This builds some support for the idea of exaltation over the angels in Ps 8. But is this simply reading theology (whether right or wrong) into a text, aka. prooftexting?
- The Psalm was read canonically. Perhaps the Psalm was read in light of its placement in the Psalter. The surrounding context speaks of David’s enemies (3-7) but also worldwide judgment on God’s enemies (9-13). Could this Psalm be seen in light of God’s future judgment of all enemies, especially fallen heavenly beings? What’s more, the fact that it is the 8th Psalm is provocative to me. We know that some other Psalms are numbered in an intentional and logical way, and 8 is the number associated with new creation. Could this really be a coincidence?
How do we resolve this idea of Adam’s exaltation above the angels with Psalm 8:5 clearly stating mankind was created a lower than the angels? This is the biggest question for me. It seems insurmountable at first, but the that this didn’t seem to faze Jewish interpreters makes me wonder. If resolved, it would establish the three ways the NT read the Psalm. Kinzer is well aware of this problem, and offers three options for resolving it:
- Mankind is created a little lower than God, not angels. The Hebrew word behind angels/God is elohim, which legitimately could go either way. Both options are seen in English translations. In support of the translation God is the fact that many Jews considered that Adam’s creation in the image of God (Gen 1:26) exalted him above the angels. Psalm 8 would simply be reiterating this point. Against this view is that other Jewish texts read elohim as angels, including the Greek translation of the OT. What’s more, the NT reads the verse as about angels (Heb 2:5-6), an important factor!
- Mankind is created a little younger than angels. Some have argued that “less than the angels” could be translated “a little younger than the angels”. That is, this verse doesn’t say that mankind was lower than the angels, but that they were created more recently than angels. This caused envy on the part of the angels, since mankind was raised to a higher level, despite being “the younger child”, so to speak.
- Mankind is under the angels for a little while. Hebrews 2:7 interprets the inferiority to angels as only temporary. The NT interpretation is a strong argument in favor of this view. However, against this view is that it appears that no Jewish literature of the period translated the Psalm this way. Though they the Psalm eschatologically, none seem to base it on this reading of Ps 8:5. Also, it’s unclear to me whether “little while” is a legitimate translation of “a little lower” in Ps 8:5.
All in all, Kinzer’s dissertation was fascinating and provocative. Though I am still unsure as to how this is a faithful reading (let alone the best) of the Psalm in its context, Kinzer certainly establishes that the NT reading didn’t appear out of nowhere. This was his goal, and he certainly succeeded. I do not believe the NT would misread the OT, and though Kinzer’s dissertation helped resolve 99% of the issues, I am still wondering how Ps 8:5 and Heb 2:7 works.
Download Kinzer’s dissertation here.