Hell's Slippery Slope?

In doing my research for the next Building Blocks book, one of my subjects is the nature of hell. I picked up the book Four Views on Hell looking for anything new or useful. I didn’t find anything new, but “useful” worked out a little better.

The proponent of the view most like my own is William Crockett, and he made several points similar to my own about the contrary images of fire and darkness. He did not relate the metaphors to honor and shame as I did, but would probably find that agreeable.

What interests me more, though, is the response of John Walvoord, who took the point for a literalist reading of hell. Essentially, Walvoord refused to engage Crockett’s arguments about the nature of ancient language (which were much the same as mine) and also did not address the problem of contrary images. Instead, Walvoord opted for what amounted to what could be called a “slippery slope” warning – which is not a real argument, but an implied threat of undesirable results.

How do I mean? Consider his arguments as summed up:

The Metaphorical View Raises Questions about the Accuracy and Inerrancy of Scripture.

It does? How so? Walvoord’s implication here is that a metaphor is an “inaccuracy” whereas a literal reference is an “accuracy”. But that is simply false. What is questioned here is not the accuracy or inerrancy of Scripture, but the accuracy of someone’s interpretation of it. Walvoord’s premise, then, that the metaphorical view means that Scripture does not describe hell “accurately” is also misplaced. Who regards a metaphorical description as wrong because it is literally inaccurate?

From here, Walvoord issues what amount to candy-coated threats that this sort of reading will “shut up” the Scriptures, but the reality is that it will open them up – not shut them.

The Metaphorical View Requires a Nonliteral Interpretation of Prophecy. Actually, that is a false step; no such “requirement” follows – even though I happen to agree against Walvoord that much end times prophecy IS making use of metaphor. However, in the end of this section, Walvoord turns to ad hominem and claims that people who argue for a metaphorical hellfire just do so because they find a literal hell repulsive. This again is refusing to engage the arguments.

The Metaphorical View Lacks Proper Exegesis that Includes All the Pertinent Facts Relating to this Doctrine. What that mouthful means is, Walvoord is not sure how this can be handled by the problem of sin being an “infinite offense” against God, which is something that I noted was no longer a problem at all:

Under the honor and shame paradigm, sin is particularly an honor offense against God, in effect an insult to His honor and place by means of disregard of His authority and rules.

The paradigm demands that such insults to honor be repaid with shame. In this instance it remains that the value of the response must be equitable -- hence Jesus, in his divine identity, remains the only adequate payment for this honor offense; his blood alone is adequate to take away sin. However, because it is a matter of quality and not quantity, and is an "either-or" rather than a mathematical-value proposition, it is no longer necessary to argue that a sin is an "infinite offense" or to even deal in terms of quantity.

Indeed, the matter of quality rests on that while all of God's honor is ascribed (due Him by nature), no ascribed honor of our own can match His (being born into a good family), and we are otherwise only capable of having what they call "acquired" honor.

I expect Walvoord was not informed of what relevance honor and shame may have had to this issue; other than that, anything else? No, not really: Other than a few statements to the effect he finds it unbelievable that passages that say “fire” don’t mean literal fire (though I assume he found it credible that passages that refer to metaphorical “water” don’t refer to literal water).

The main point here is Walvoord’s appeal to a “slippery slope” which he apparently felt would cause us to cascade down the whirlpool of misinterpretation. In a sense he was correct, though: Once the door of possibility opens, it does open more. But that begs the question of whether the slope is one we ought to be going down in the first place. Walvoord looks into the maelstrom and sees darkness and death; we see paradise and Pellucidar. I see Walvoord warning us that we should not understand the Bible as people in its day would understand it – though he would not have seen it that way, but rather as taking us away from a proper hermeneutic – that happened to match with modern perceptions as opposed to ancient ones.

In the end, the “slippery slope” warning is little more than an attempt to coerce by way of threat that something held dear will be lost. And it is true that some Christians hang on to the modern hermeneutic, kicking and screaming, lest they lose other parts of it as well. On the other hand, much thankful feedback has come my way from persons who saw the dropping of the hyper-literalist hermeneutic as a burden from which they were gladly relieved. And I daresay those reflections were from persons I’d regard as more mature on their faith.

This is an ideological battle, however, and we cannot afford to lose it. A church body that will not move off immaturity will not be equipped to equip, much less convert, an entire world.