Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book Review: "Hell: the Logic of Damnation" by Jerry Walls

Book Review: Hell: The Logic of Damnation

Jerry L. Walls, (1992, Notre Dame University Press)

 After listening to Jerry Walls speak during a panel discussion at the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s annual meeting, and after I asked a question, he suggested that I read his book on hell.

 So I did!

Actually, I decided to get the whole set of his books. 

  • Hell: the Logic of Damnation 
  • Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy  and finally,
  • Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation 

But this review is on the first book. 
I will review the other two in the weeks to come.

After a tough semester in my philosophy classes at the University of Colorado Boulder, I wasn’t prepared for how renewing the writing of Jerry Walls was for me; this book was just the thing to build back up my shaken confidence in what the attributes of God are, and for those attributes to not be in philosophical conflict with each other.[1]

As I began reading, I had a bit of concern that there was some “gotcha” waiting; some deeply troubling undermining of what my understanding was of the why’s of the doctrine of hell and who might end up there. But I found that as I followed the argument further, I could see how Walls supported God’s perfect goodness along with the philosophical and theological grounds for the doctrine of hell. I have thought along these lines myself; that it could be possible that people might put themselves in hell; that hell’s gates are “locked from the inside” as written by C.S. Lewis. And Walls make very clear that we do have only hypotheses based on the scriptural record and theological writings.

I thought Walls handled the philosophical writings of John Hicks and other proponents of universalism with a lot of philosophical charity; clearly representing the arguments for universal salvation, and the consequences of following the argument to where ever it leads. The same can be said of looking Calvinism squarely in the eye, something I have been starting to do as well.

A brief personal note: I am not saying I am changing, revising, or revealing any theological positions that I may or may not hold; for I’ve been too busy doing philosophy to deeply study theology; give me some time, no pouncing allowed! 

My only disagreement with Wall’s argument is his appeal to the authority of the church fathers; that in his conclusion against universalism he questioned how could it be possible that “... so many Fathers of the Church down through the ages completely misinterpreted what scripture plainly teaches at this point?”[2] I do believe that scripture is clear on this point, but my own “hobby horse” is the treatment of women by the Church, which if we still go by the authority of the Church fathers, I would not even be in college. So my point is, we have come a long way since then, and the Church fathers aren’t always right.  I think that this argument can stand on its own with support from authority, rather than an appeal to authority, which sounds a bit band-wagonish to me. *grin*

I truly agree that the doctrine of an eternal hell should be looked at and discussed and added to the teaching syllabi in church adult classes. This is too important a doctrine to “sweep it under the rug,” for all Christians need to understand it from a standpoint of a perfectly good God.  If they are not taught it, they will encounter the doctrine of hell at the wrong end of a lecture at college, with a professor complaining how morally reprehensible the Christian God is for condemning some poor soul X, to eternal torment. Why not think, teach, and preach this thoroughly under the auspices of our churches, and as a part of biblical and apologetics training.  

Walls writes in his conclusion, that he believes the doctrine of hell can be compatible with, “…a very robust account of God’s perfect goodness…”[3] which I will heartily agree with. I think that we actually do a disservice to the teaching of scripture by passing over difficult saying and teachings within the Bible. After all, there are actually more mentions of hell and those who will end up in hell, in the words of Jesus than anywhere else in the Bible…go ahead and check!

As an interesting aside here, I generally purchase second-hand books to save money, but also it is amazing and fun for me to see who first owned the book. In this occasion, this former book’s owner was a pastor. Reading his margin notes and underlines was fascinating, as I could tell he started this book with a “chip” on his shoulders, not wanting to agree with anything written. But as I read further, the notes became more and more positive, with even a few smiley faces by the end. So it would seem there may be more people who need to spend some quality time reading this little book on the doctrine of hell.

A final thought would be a recommendation for readership. I would recommend this book for someone who has studied philosophy of religion or theology, and understands the issues surrounding the attributes of God, and that have some biblical studies under their belt. This is a text that someone without some advanced study could read, but they might miss some of the more important points that are trying to be advanced.

All in all I think that Jerry Walls did an outstanding job at tackling a complex, un-palatable and difficult topic. Here is a book that will help bring us back to think and to talk about hell, so maybe less people will end up there.

[1] Those of you who have taken PoR in secular college classes, and hold to a classical understanding of the attributes of God know what I’m talking about.

[2] J. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (1992, Notre Dame University Press) 158

[3] Ibid. 157

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