Release Date: September 24, 2013
Somewhere around 9 months ago, my then-5-year-old started asking questions about hell – or as he puts it “Satan’s place;” a place that he definitely does not want to go. And somehow, despite spending my whole life in church, along with years of Christian school and a graduate degree in Christian ministry, I didn’t feel confident in talking to him about it. My initial take was: let’s focus on the good stuff, not the bad stuff. If you’re on track with the good stuff, then you won’t have to worry about the bad. But around that same time, I began stumbling across some different thinking on the topic that got me really interested in learning more. So, while it’s not been a consistent topic of study, it has been on the radar for a while.
A few weeks ago I found myself looking for some reading on the sub-topic of conditional immortality. I was unwilling to spend the money to purchase what some consider to be the definitive work on the topic – Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes – and was fortunate enough to discover Nathan J. Anderson’s A Beautiful Hell trilogy. The collection, which easily could have been produced in a single volume, includes The Myths of Hell (Book 1), The Ache for Paradise (Book 2), and Does Hell Really Last Forever? (Book 3).
The author sets about with a single aim: to answer the question, “that has been haunting [him] for thirty years. What is it about Jesus’ death that saves us from hell?” He then structures his writing around finding answers that uncover deeper questions, answering those questions and finding more. He works this through from understanding what hell is and isn’t (Book 1) to why Jesus came and what his death accomplished (Book 2). He suggests that Book 3 is one that he had no interest in writing, but that his discoveries throughout the process seemed to demand it of him. The writing is academic, but still conversant and thought it may seem highly theoretical, the practical implications of his conclusions are nothing less than life-changing.
I have to say that this is one of the most fantastically well-researched books I’ve ever read. The author digs deep to uncover the various words in the original languages that we see translated as “hell” in our modern Scriptures, along with the variety of other terms and euphemisms that feed into the topic. I was fantastically grateful for his lengthy discussion on the rise of the “classical” position on immortality and hell that developed during the inter-testamental period in which he focused both on the Apocryphal writings and the Greek philosophers.
I felt that Book 1 was the strongest of the three – perhaps because it was the one that I most agreed with. The author brought a lot of clarity to the positions that I was already feeling drawn to, but we did not land precisely on the same opinions regarding some of the Book 2 topics. I appreciated his evaluation of the various atonement theories (another topic of great interest), but I think that there are some nuanced sub-points where we are not in alignment… and I think that the author would be ok with that.
For some, this is not a critical topic – especially when you get down deep into the sub-theories. Most religious institutions would hold this as a “secondary” matter; that is, one that is not critical to faith. While I agree with that, as I outlined in the beginning, this is a critical topic for me. Beyond understanding how to talk to my children, I’ve found over the last 9 months that my understanding of topics such as atonement, the (im)mortal nature of the soul, as well as the nature of both heaven and hell have a far-reaching impact on my faith and practice.