March 26, 2023 Editor

The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teachings on Hell

WN:

I knew I would eventually review this book.  But it took me seven years after its publication to do so.  I will explain why below.  But first a description of the book.

There is a “Foreword” by Dr. J. I. Packer of Regent College; an “Introduction” by the author; then six Chapters under the following headings: “Must We Even Discuss the Other Side?” (1); “The Other Side: Will It Have Any Occupants?” (2); “The Other Side: Will It Have Any Permanent Occupants ?” (3); “The Other Side: Will It Have Any Redeemable Occupants?” (4); “The Other Side According to Jesus” (5); “Must We Decide about The Other Side?” (6).  There are finally Notes, Scripture Index, and Subject Index sections.

The central conclusion of the book in the author’s words is that there is an

. . . adequacy [in] the traditional view of hell… and that alternative views do not adequately reflect the scriptural data concerning hell…  Pointing out the weaknesses in the three alternative positions to hell does not in itself prove the truth of the traditional eternal conscious punishment view (pp. 172 & 173, emphasis added).

Dixon continues at that point to “set out four areas in which the traditional position enjoys biblical, as well as rational, support.”, after allowing that the traditional view  “might also be erroneous (p. 173).”  I shall return to that possibility.

Widely read evangelical author J. I. Packer in the Foreword underscores the author’s conclusions:

To believe what the Bible appears to say about human destiny apart from the grace of God is a bitter pill indeed, and no one should wonder that attempts are made to explore alternative understandings of God’s revelation on this topic.  It is suggested that the Bible is unclear, or incoherent, or inconsistent, or untrustworthy, when it speaks of the outcome of judgment after death, or alternatively that virtually the whole church has for two thousand years misunderstood the texts.  I do not think so, nor does Dr. Dixon…  For one I am grateful for his work, and commend it to all who are willing to be biblically rational on this sombre subject (p. 7).

Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Matt. 9:13).–Jesus

The implication is clear throughout the book and from Dr. Packer’s words: one is simply unbiblical to deny the traditional view that hell is eternal conscious punishment for all unbelievers who fail to accept Jesus Christ as personal Saviour this side of death.  As the author says at the end of the Introduction:

May we be ready to pay [the] price to bring lost people to Christ so that they won’t spend eternity on The Other Side of the Good News (p. 14).

Dixon spends the bulk of the book refuting three alternative views so designated by him.  In his words:

Some today suggest that all without exception will be saved, whether they want to be or not (universalism, discussed in chapter 2).  Others argue that hell is God’s consuming of the wicked (annihilationism, addressed in chapter 3), not His eternally tormenting them.  Still others hold forth the hope that death is not the end of opportunity for redemption, but perhaps a door to future chances for salvation (post-mortem conversion, the subject of chapter 4) (p. 13).

The author does not wince at taking on theological heavywieghts such as Karl Barth, C. H. Dodd, and Nels Ferré (all described by Dixon as outside evangelical orthodoxy). He also challenges evangelical heavyweight theologians such as Clark Pinnock, John Stott, and Donald Bloesch. He is overwhelmingly punching above his weight!

Dixon in particular bemoans the erosion of evangelical theology as seen in these and other evangelical leaders’ views of the traditional doctrine of hell.  He writes:

The evangelical Christian, who can’t forget hell, often seems, in boxing terms, to be up against the ropes.

He describes the buffeting such an evangelical Christian endures from the cults who scorn hell, and says,

He then returns to his corner for some encouragement and promptly receives several left hooks from his own manager….  One is hardly surprised that some young fighters for the faith seem ready to throw in the towel (p. 149).

His plea is poignant; one can feel his pain as a “fighter for the faith” at this sense of betrayal.  Throughout much of the final chapter, he critiques in particular Clark Pinnock, whom Dixon quotes on p. 149:

[E]verlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom He does not even allow to die.

Dixon’s dilemma is clearly stated:

Obviously, no follower of Christ wants to be guilty of presenting God as one more heinous than Hitler. However, if the Bible is clear on this issue, the Christian must not throw in the towel (pp. 149 & 150).

And the author proceeds to present God in his holy hatred of sinners precisely in those terms: as one more heinous than Hitler.

The crucial conditional fulcrum for the entire thesis is Dixon’s statement: “if the Bible is clear on this issue”. Dixon and Packer, and indeed a host of Christian voices throughout the ages (though with significant exceptions in every age — some of whom are adduced by Dixon), say the Bible contains indeed precisely such clarity about hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment.

Before offering a critique, I would agree with Clark Pinnock’s comments on the back cover: “Dixon’s book is well-written and researched, colorful and interesting, concerned and passionate.”  Dixon is in the pulpit, and his polemical preaching style is arresting.  No boring academic read is this!

I nonetheless feel a personal sadness in critiquing Dixon’s conclusions.  On p. 178, he writes:

A former missionary friend, who has since moved away from the traditional doctrine of hell, said to me that ‘God’s penultimate word is wrath, but His ultimate word is love.’

I am that “former missionary friend.”  We served together doing evangelism in West Berlin from 1972 to 1974.  The author’s rejoinder to my statement was: “We would have to disagree (p. 178)”.  We did disagree at the time he was writing his book when I visited him; we disagreed after he gave me Chapter Five to read in manuscript form; we still disagreed in subsequent (one-sided) correspondence from me.  Though I am left-handed, I did not intend giving Larry any “left hooks”.  That he stopped dialoguing with me is my greatest sadness.  The “former” in his description of me seems regrettably to define equally both “missionary” and “friend.”

The crucial conditional fulcrum for the entire thesis is Dixon’s statement: “if the Bible is clear on this issue”. Dixon and Packer, and indeed a host of Christian voices throughout the ages (though with significant exceptions in every age — some of whom are adduced by Dixon), say the Bible contains indeed precisely such clarity about hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment.
I am compelled to respond to Larry’s work because of my own vocation: since 1974 I have ministered in criminal justice, and have wrestled from the outset with thinking biblically God’s justice thoughts after him, in particular with reference to judgment and punishment, including the doctrine of hell.  I have become convinced over the years that

God’s justice is predominantly, and normatively, redemptive or restorative in intention (Chris Marshall, “Judgment and Justice: Some Brief Observations,” presented at a postgraduate seminar at the Bible College of New Zealand, May 3, 1999., p. 1.)

l knew one day I would review Larry’s book.  I do so dutifully but with no joy.

How can one presume to fault this book’s conclusions shared, as Packer rightly indicates, by majority Christians throughout church history?  How can I presume to do so in just a few lines, when really a long paper or full-length book is needed?  Nonetheless this is my attempt.  I do so aware of the danger that my critique in part can be turned on me too.  We are all inclined to wrongly “handle the word of truth”.  (See II Tim. 2:15.)

I used two analogies in my dialogue with Larry years ago, which are pertinent, and address the “if the Bible is clear on this issue” question Larry begs above.

First, I suggested to Larry that the Bible is like a gigantic jig saw puzzle with identically cut square pieces.  It is hopeless to put the puzzle together theologically without the proper picture of God on the box to direct one.  This is what academics call the question of hermeneutics: how one interprets the biblical texts.  That “portrait of God” we are told in John 1 and Hebrews 1 is the face of Jesus, on whom we are to gaze steadfastly (Heb. 3:1; 12:2).  Jesus is the hermeneutical key.  But which “Jesus” (or box cover)?

God’s justice is predominantly, and normatively, redemptive or restorative in intention.–Chris Marshall

I told Larry that I remembered as a teen a photograph being circulated around our church with the story at the bottom told of a photographer who captured the image after a pristine snowfall.  It was, we were told, the face of Jesus as seen in traditional artists’ depictions.  But all any could see initially were dark blotches on white.  Then suddenly, the face of Jesus leapt out!  Then try as one might, one could never miss the face again from any angle or direction.  But many never could see other than dark blotches.  I suggested to Larry, respectfully I hope, that he was looking at a “dark blotches” violently punitive picture of Jesus on a box cover that was the wrong choice (a heresy in its original Greek meaning), a failure to “see” the real face right before his eyes.  I said I believed that differed, in the end profoundly, from the picture of Jesus who exemplified and said:

But love your enemies, do good to them…  Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:35-36, emphasis added).1.

Richard Hays, in his massive, authoritative study, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic (Harper, 1996), says:

This is the place where New Testament ethics confronts a profound methodoligical challenge on the question of violence, because the tension is so severe between the unambiguous witness [for total nonviolence] of the New Testament canon and the apparently countervailing forces of tradition, reason, and experience (p. 341).

It is possible for “virtually the whole church” (Packer) to be wrong.  With all due respect, and with profound sadness, it has been wrong about Christian nonviolence.  Dixon’s “traditional doctrine of hell” is a special category of that same majority Christendom error. The picture on the box of God in Christ for Dixon is sadly one of ultimate violence.  I suggest that only if “Jesus” is a “dark blotches” box cover can one agree with Dixon’s assertion: “Jesus is our primary source for the [traditional] doctrine of hell (p. 147)”  The nub of the issue is our picture or vision of God in Christ.

One evangelical New Testament theologian, in an outstanding draft manuscript on hell, writes:

Jesus shows that those who think of God in terms of strict distributive or retributive justice fundamentally misunderstand God (Matt. 20:1 – 16) (Chris Marshall, “Judgment and Justice: Some Brief Observations, presented at a postgraduate seminar at the Bible College of New Zealand, May 3, 1999, emphasis added.

He has further addressed this issue in Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001).  Yet, I suggest, this is the central “dark blotches” misunderstanding of the picture on the puzzle cover of God in the book under review.  God is depicted as ultimately violently retributive towards the wicked.  On the contrary, Marshall, in surveying the biblical evidence, writes in the conclusion of his paper:

For our purposes the point to notice is that God’s final word is not retribution but restoration, the re-creation of heaven and earth so that sin, suffering, sickness and death are no more.

This is the place where New Testament ethics confronts a profound methodoligical challenge on the question of violence, because the tension is so severe between the unambiguous witness [for total nonviolence] of the New Testament canon and the apparently countervailing forces of tradition, reason, and experience.–Richard Hays
God’s ultimate word biblically is, indeed, nonviolent, all-inclusive (Greek teleios in Matt. 5:48) love, which subsumes all biblical categories of wrath, judgment and punishment!  I submit gently, but firmly that, to miss that is to miss, simply, the Good News.

The second analogy I mentioned to Larry is of a document written in Roman script so that an English speaker can read the letters, but the reader does not know a word of the language.  (We were at one time both this way with the German language.)  It is crucial nonetheless that the reader understand the message in the document.  So she phones a friend who speaks the language fluently and reads the document out loud over the phone, seeking an accurate translation.  The native language speaker in exasperation finally says that she can barely understand anything at all, for all the accents seem to fall on the wrong syllables!  (Any English reader who knows German can relate!)  In reading Larry’s fifth chapter years ago, and later the entire book, I respectfully submit that he consistently puts the accents on mainly the wrong biblical syllables.

One example suffices: Larry’s central, I believe, misuse in Chapter Five of the story of the rich man and Lazarus to discern explicit details about the nature of eternal punishment for the wicked.  He quotes approvingly one author who says: “while it was not Jesus’ primary intent here to teach us about the nature of the intermediate state, it is unlikely that He would mislead us on this subject (p. 133).”  Really?  One could likewise say (and some amazingly do!) that Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:31 endorses war despite his repeated nonviolent call to “love your enemies”, or his words to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane about two swords being enough (Luke 22:38) was a call for disciples to take up arms despite Matt. 26:52 where Jesus tells Peter to sheathe his sword (thereby disarming the church forever, commented Church Father Tertullian!)  Repeatedly, in this reviewer’s estimation, Larry (and yes, most Christians throughout the ages!) puts the accents in the Scriptures he adduces in mostly the wrong places.

In this respect, Chris Marshall says:

But it is crucial to recognize… the figurative, parabolic nature of the language used to describe realities which, ex hypothesi [by their very nature], lie outside human experience (Beyond Retribution,p. 14).

He then quotes one writer who says:

Such language is ‘figurative and connotative rather than denotative and literalistic’….  To imagine some kind of cosmic torture-chamber where the lost suffer endless or prolonged retribution is to miss the figurative, apocalyptic nature of these utterances, as well as the paraenetic or pastoral intention behind them (Beyond Retribution, p. 14).

God’s ultimate word biblically is, indeed, nonviolent, all-inclusive (Greek teleios in Matt. 5:48) love, which subsumes all biblical categories of wrath, judgment and punishment!  I submit gently, but firmly that, to miss that is to miss, simply, the Good News.

I contend that Larry sustains just such a profound misreading of biblical texts throughout his entire book.

So Marshall urges with reference to specific details about the fate of those who reject God that

Perhaps a humble agnosticism is the wisest option…

Neither Jesus nor Paul supply specifics about the fate of the wicked, concludes Stephen Travis in Christ and the Judgement of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament Thought, Pickering, 1986).2  Neither should we.  And therefore I will not speculate further in this review.  I do not have an alternative view.  God knows, and that is enough!  That Larry presses the biblical texts beyond what they were meant to bear seems a singularly consistent fault of his hermeneutic.  It is so often what non-Christian cults do – ironically enough given his critique of the cults’ critique of traditional Christian teachings on hell!

But Larry will have none of this, and writes an entire treatise based upon a consistent misreading of the founding texts.  How can this be?  A book-length treatment of precisely this issue with reference to misguided Christian retributive views in criminal justice is Timothy Gorringe’s God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge University Press, 1996).  At one point Gorringe asks, with reference to a pervasive and lengthy Christian tradition of retributive views towards “criminals”:

How is it that the question whether the law might be wrong, or even wicked, does not arise for these good Christian people (p. 5)?

Likewise, Father George Zabelka, Chaplain to the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb squadrons, upon repentance for blessing the murder of hundreds of thousands in an instant, wrote that the just war theory is “something that Christ never taught nor hinted at.”  Yet almost all Christians have embraced just war and retributive justice theories throughout much of the Christian era. Why, when it is biblically so unfounded?

Similarly, while we both acknowledge that we follow the same Lord and equally take seriously the Bible, I could wish that Larry would ponder more what he allows is at least possible, that biblically the traditional view of hell “might also be erroneous (p. 173).”  In Jesus’ direct allusions to hell, not once are “unbelievers” in view, but always the religiously self-righteous.  Disturbingly, Douglas Frank, an evangelical author, in Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century (Eerdmans, 1986), characterizes evangelicalism as centrally prone towards being pharasaical.

We are the Phasrisees of our time, if anyone is., he writes (p. 229).

A Baptist pastor friend puts it:

Every Sunday in the pulpit I stand in danger of leading my flock to hell!

I did have a look at Dixon’s book …. What a depressing piece!! It illustrates the problems in pulling out a single theme for analysis in isolation from the larger context of the biblical story.–Chris Marshall
In this reviewer’s estimation, what is lacking in Dixon’s reading of the biblical texts is a Gospel imagination overwhelmed by grace, which leads to a consequent theology of the subversion of all retribution and violence in God and humans.  In short: Christian conversion is wanted. Like the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Dixon seems unaware of the “deeper (James called it “royal” – James 2:8) law” of love on which “hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:34 – 40).” We sing after all “Amazing Grace”, not “Amazing Justice,” Debbie Morris points out at the end of her gripping story, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking: Only One Woman Can Tell the Entire Story (Zondervan, 1998). She gets it, Larry does not. It is apparently that stark.  This is what Jesus often spoke of such as in Matt. 13:13ff (and elsewhere):

This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’

In Dixon’s reading, grace seems to have been arrested mid-stream in favour of  a horrible retributive justice for the wicked – which is exactly mercy’s inversion. The author in interpreting Scripture on hell looks like the man in Matt. 18 who was forgiven an overwhelming debt, yet doesn’t get it at all, and withholds forgiveness at the first opportunity!  In reality, the text shows that the “forgiven” man apparently didn’t really experience forgiveness, or he would have been forgiving towards even the “ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35).” Again, Dixon presents like Jonah who becomes furious at God for showing mercy to Ninevah.  Yet, Jesus taught, a “greater [in mercy] than Jonah is here {Matt. 12:41)!” Or the author sounds like the elder brother in the “Prodigal Father” story (Luke 15:11ff) who just cannot fathom the Father’s unconditional mercy towards the wicked son.

Like the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Dixon seems unaware of the “deeper (James called it “royal” – James 2:8) law” of love on which “hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:34 – 40).”  We sing after all “Amazing Grace’” not “Amazing Justice”–WN; Debbie Morris

Dixon seemingly has no categories for a consistent hermeneutic of grace. In his theology, God’s grace is for a moment, but his wrath endures forever, to invert Psalm 30:5.  Sadly, he, and many interpreters like him, appear, like Saul, to have “given approval (Acts 8:1)” to the same sacrificial violence that Jesus castigated in Matt. 23:33 – 35, and fell victim to! 3

As Marshall says:

Throughout Christian history, the fear of being consigned to hell by a truly merciless God has fuelled and justified all manner of horrific violence (Beyond Retribution, p. 6).

Dixon writes, in apparent approval of one such instance of “horrific violence,” the Gulf War:

A brave journalist who was in Baghdad when the bombs landed, cried out in his television report, ‘I have been in hell!”  As horrible as war is we would have to say to him, ‘No, you haven’t.  If we understand Jesus correctly, war is only a small foreshadowing of that final condition of the forsaken (p. 214).

The grand and joyous paradox of the Gospel, for those with eyes to see the wildly liberating “picture on the box cover” is: God’s final judgment is his mercy! – just as the doctrine of original sin is a post-resurrection Christian doctrine of grace and forgiveness. (See James Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (Crossroad, 1998) for a brilliant biblical reading of original sin in this light.)

No contemporary biblical theologian this reviewer has read captures this eschatological insight better in fact than James Alison in Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (Crossroad, 1996).  The book is a sustained call for Christians through conversion to acquire an “eschatological imagination” that subverts ultimately an unchristian “apocalyptic imagination” such that,

The percpetion that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion (p. 48).

Therefore,

The commonly held understanding of hell remains strictly within the apocalyptic imagination, that is, it is the result of a violent separation between the good and the evil worked by a vengeful god.  It seems to me that if hell is understood thus, we have quite simply not understood the Christian faith; and the Christian story, instead of being the creative rupture in the system of this world, has come to be nothing less than its sacralization.  That is, the good news which Jesus brought has been quite simply lost (p. 175).”

The grand and joyous paradox of the Gospel, for those with eyes to see the wildly liberating “picture on the box cover” is: God’s final judgment is his mercy! – just as the doctrine of original sin is a post-resurrection Christian doctrine of grace and forgiveness.
In the end, the greatest critique of Dixon’s thesis is simply this: there is biblically no “other side of the good news”!  There is Good News, period!  Hell too is embraced by God’s love. Dixon presents a “gospel” without good news that reads, à la Four Spiritual Laws, thus:

God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life…  But if you don’t buy in before death, God hates you, and has a horrible plan for your after-life!

No genuine love affair human or divine is imaginable with that kind of time-limited vicious threat hanging over one’s head.

I could wish Dixon on this issue would return to Scripture with eyes to see and ears to hear – and recover a truly Gospel-soaked “eschatological imagination”.  Chris Marshall, in personal comment to me wrote similarly:

I did have a look at Dixon’s book …. What a depressing piece!! It illustrates the problems in pulling out a single theme for analysis in isolation from the larger context of the biblical story (May 9, 1999, E-mail correspondence).

In the end, the greatest critique of Dixon’s thesis is simply this: there is biblically no “other side of the good news”! There is Good News, period!  Hell too is embraced by God’s love.

There is ultimately no room for Dixon’s thesis in the biblical Good News that is shot through with God’s “Amazing Grace” — how sweet the sound!  Dixon consistently gives grace a terribly sour note!  I suggest he is not compelled to his view by biblical evidence but by a misguided hermeneutic: the wrong “box cover”.  Biblically, God’s love is the ultimate word, and judgment and redemption equally are subsumed under that love.  In the end, “mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13)!” in an amazing paradox of grace whereby God is both “just and justifier” (Rom. 3:26).   For, as Jesus said repeatedly (Matt. 9:13 and 12:7): “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

I call on Dixon, Packer, and all who hold to an ostensibly sub-Christian, though longstanding “traditional doctrine of hell”:

Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Matt. 9:13).

Such a call is above all a call to conversion. 

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Footnotes:
  1. Interestingly, Larry does not once in his book refer to this clarion call of Jesus based upon this “box cover” portrait of who God fundamentally is: love. Nor does C.S. Lewis when he says why he is not a pacifist. See on this my: Christian Pacifism and Its Cultured Naysayers 2023/03/18)

    Larry says:

    One’s doctrine of the final judgment of the wicked is a direct reflection of one’s doctrine of God (p. 165).

    Indeed.  And one’s doctrine or picture of God — the box cover — is ultimately seen in Jesus (John 1 and Hebrews 1).

    Gandhi said of Christians and nonviolence generally,

    The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians((quoted in Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 216.[]

  2. See also, by Kevin Paul Kinghorn and Stephen Travis: But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger.

    []

  3. The work of René Girard, especially in The Scapegoat (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford University Press, 1987), gives a sustained biblical critique of this form of sacrificial violence. The Girard Reader (Crossroad, 1996), edited by James Williams, is the best introduction to Girard’s thought.[]

Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.