“A Radical Revision of Church Teaching
on Hell and Eternity”
A review of
Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught
About God’s Wrath and Judgment.
By Sharon Baker.
Reviewed by Karen Altergott.
Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught
About God’s Wrath and Judgment.
Paperback: WJK Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Throughout most of this book, I was saying, “yes, but…” to the provocative ideas presented. Written in a style that is at once informal, because it relies on interjected questions from real and altered conversations, and substantial, because it uses academic theological work and frequent Old and New Testament passages, Razing Hell is a highly readable book. A slowly and carefully developed argument against a wrathful God who just can’t wait to throw unrepentant sinners into the fires of hell, this book arrives at a most persuasive conclusion that no faithful Christian can deny. God is, indeed, a God of infinite love and power. And all that power is devoted to reestablishing a relationship with each human being.
This is an important book. It goes deeper into the quest to understand Christianity for our time, and for all time. If you appreciated A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren, if you enjoy the open-minded yet thoroughly faith-centered books by N.T. Wright, I think you will appreciate this treatment of hell. Other contemporary works are a bit too disconnected from scripture or offer academic arguments that are a bit challenging to follow. Razing Hell starts with truly significant wrestling with theological ideas, like how can good but non-professing people like Lisa’s grandmother go to a place of never-ending suffering – hell? What possible reason is there to give non-believers that will lead them to accept Christ and live in the Way offered in Christ if there is no hell (Eric’s question)? And, how can it be justice for God to send weak and helpless human beings to eternal torture in return for merely temporal sins of omission or commission (Brooke’s question)? After raising questions that real believers and many non-believers struggle with, Sharon Baker examines scripture, church and cultural history, a deep understanding of the Hebrew text, and a reconciling treatment of Jesus that is in line with her new interpretation of Hell in the Old and New Testaments.
Here are a few hints of the answers Sharon Baker provides. The images of hell we rely on are developed through ancient church writers and church thinkers that were deeply influenced by their own cultures. Interpreting scripture with embattled, feudal, courtly, judicial, Enlightenment, suffering and oppressed contexts confuses the interpretation of the biblical texts. The biblical texts themselves are often misunderstood, given the richness of terms for hell and eternity in Hebrew and the narrow choice and limited understanding of the same terms in translation. The very image of God is distorted by those who ascribe violence and retribution to God instead of love and a desire for reconciliation. The idea of God’s forgiveness is often lost in some sense of payback, which is not forgiveness at all. Studying the differentiated concepts of hell – and how they were used in Old and New Testament – leads to a respect for the teaching functions of metaphor and hyperbole. A careful look at Biblical justice asks whether the notion of hell could ever be reconciled with God’s Kingdom of love. God’s love may well burn up the evil in us, but leaves us with the freedom to choose God now and at the time of judgment. Eternity is either entering into the at-one-ment with God or ceasing to exist altogether. Perhaps the most radical notion offered is the idea of the God of the second chance, suggesting that even at the time of death, at the judgment of God, there will be a chance to choose God, and faith.
A large portion of the book is devoted to Jesus’s ministry and his use of parables that depict choices we make and choices God wants us to make. Jesus introduces a way of living that emphasizes Kingdom living now, and the Kingdom of God is conceptualized as a place of peace, forgiveness, justice, hospitality, weakness and love. The advantage of faith is experienced during the life on earth lived in Christ as well as at the end of our temporal lives. The blessings of faith are experienced now, and enjoyed for eternity. Judgment involves the purification of all that is evil out of us. Evil, if it is all we are, means the end of existence, not eternal suffering. But who is entirely evil? The image of stepping into eternal life for Baker is that we will be purified by the refining fire of God’s love, perfected and go on to eternity in God’s loving presence. May Christ be by my side as I face judgment at the time of death, but also NOW, as I live each day of life.
How is it possible that in one book, a radical revision of church teaching on hell and eternity can be accomplished? Reading the texts carefully. Listening to God as God presents love and power and grace. Putting the whole Bible together as one message of salvation. That was all artfully done in Razing Hell. I highly recommend this book.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com