Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 4:  Chapter 8 – Hell

In his chapter on hell, Lewis takes the three notions of “destruction”, “eternal torment”, and “privation” and then works them into a systematic unity. This leads to two difficulties. First, Thiselton points out: (a) that the Bible has three traditions in it about hell that seem to contradict one-another: (i) hell is eternal torment; (ii) hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation; (iii) all are saved; (b) that all three traditions have been considered to be “orthodox” in the history of the church, even though “eternal torment” has been the dominant view in orthodoxy; (c) that it would be hermeneutically-premature, given where scholarship has reached, to press these three contradictory traditions into a unity in favour of any one of the traditions, which seems to militate against Lewis’s conclusions.

Second, if Thiselton is correct, then Lewis entirely dismisses one biblical tradition – that of universal salvation. Even if it were right to press all the traditions into a unity then Lewis would still have to press (i) “hell is eternal torment”; (ii) “hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation”; and (iii) “all are saved”, into a unity – along with his emphasis on “privation”.

Some, for example D.A. Carson, are adamant that eternal torment is the nature of hell, and that all who do not believe in Christ go there. Lewis, on balance, seems to favour a kind of qualified annihilationism whilst still holding onto a perspective-dependent notion of eternal torment. Others, such as G. MacDonald (alias R. Parry), reconcile the biblical traditions in favour of “all are saved, but in some cases only after prolonged periods of punishment in hell”.

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Gunton (via Thiselton) on Atonement

In chapter nine of Thiselton’s 2015 Systematic Theology, he asks the question, ‘Why Consider Historical Theologies of the Atonement?’  The section he covers on Colin Gunton’s 1988 work ‘The Actuality of the Atonement: A Study in Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition’  is not only astonishingly concise but well worth popping into this blog:

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Colin Gunton (1941-2003).  Gunton also contributed a classic modern study in his Actuality of the Atonement…He had two aims.  One was to show that interpretations of, and approaches to, atonement were complimentary, not alternatives.  The other was to exhibit the value and power of metaphors among images of atonement.  He regarded Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel as indirectly responsible for the “intellectual and cultural poverty” that characterizes much of our age.  He singled out especially Hegel’s devaluation of “images” (Vorstellungen) in religion, as against the critical “concept” (Begriff) in philosophy.  Metaphor, Gunton argued, was “an indispensable means for the advance of cognitive knowledge and understanding” (17).  Janet Martin Soskice and Paul Avis also argued this convincingly.  Metaphor and discovery occur together “with metaphor serving as the vehicle of discovery” (31).  He appealed for this explicitly to Paul Ricoeur, Eberhard Jungel, and Janet Martin Soskice, as well as to Coleridge.

actuality-of-atonementIn the course of more detailed theological argument, Gunton challenged the comprehensiveness of [Gustav] Aulen’s [Christus Victor) approach, and showed concern that he advocated “too triumphalist a view of the atonement” (58).  He valued the victory motif as a metaphor, rather than the “laws for a theory of the atonement” (61).  This approach also tended too readily to personify the devil, which seems to happen in Gregory of Nyssa.  “Evil powers” may includes “political, social, economic, and religious structures of power,” as George Caird, Oscar Cullmann, and others have maintained (65).

In his chapter 4 Gunton considered the justice of God, and corrected misunderstandings of Anselm.  God governs the universe in a way analogous to the duty of the feudal ruler “to maintain the order of rights and obligations without which society would collapse” (89).  He affirmed the grace and love of God, but insisted on “some objective righting of the balance” in the governance of the universe (91).  Here he appealed to P. T. Forsyth, Balthasar, and Barth, as well as to Anselm and Luther.  This governance is “the central metaphor” (112).

In chapter 5 Gunton sought to rescue the concept of “sacrifice” from being regarded as an outworn, “dead” metaphor.  He carefully examined sacrifice in the OT, together with the work by Mary Douglas and Francis Young.  In this respect, he argued, Calvin was faithful to priesthood and sacrifice in Hebrews, and to the passage about “correct exchange” that we noted in the early Epistle to Diognetus.  He concluded, “There are in Calvin elements of a substitutionary understanding of the atonement; indeed it seems unlikely that any conception that remains true to the Bible can avoid it” (130).  The two final chapters return to Gunton’s regular theme of the Holy Trinity, and the need to reconcile the various approaches to the atonement.  He concluded:  Jesus is “our substitute because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves” (165, italics mine).

Among Gunton’s eighteen or so books, this book is a masterpiece.  It seems to address a central nerve in the [atonement] debate, and should not be underestimated. “

Dodman Cross

 Dodman’s Point, Cornwall

Prophecy: “Ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as ‘spontaneous’ mini-messages” it is not!

Some thoughts……

On Prophecy

Broadly speaking, my view is that prophecy is either an anointing of the Spirit or a gift of the Spirit, depending on which form of prophecy is in view.

I believe that the biblical prophets had a unique anointing that nobody else has had since the closing of the canon.

The canon of Scripture is slightly disputed in that 1 Enoch is part of the Ethiopian canon. It is interesting that 1 Enoch correctly predicts the ambiguity surrounding its future reception!  Beyond disputes about the extent of the canon (there is no canonical statement about the limits of the canon!), I am a cessationist when it comes to the anointing of the biblical prophets.

I am not a cessationist when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, since such a view seems absurd given Paul’s and Peter’s view of the church as a body that grows out of each part doing its work and administering God’s grace in its various forms.

To distinguish between more and less “spectacular” gifts in this respect seems arbitrary, since each part of a body remains important. To say that any gift has ceased is to say that a part of the body has become unnecessary, which is precisely what Paul warns against.

To distinguish between the inaugural and the continuative has some validity: the Scriptures constitute a once-for-all inaugural revelation; but the Holy Spirit relates the Scriptures to us ever-freshly in a continuing manner. However, when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, the inaugural vs. continuative distinction becomes invalid as stated above, and it is better to speak in terms of anointing (inaugural) vs. gifts (continuative).

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What the prophet does and why the lambs bleat

What is your notion of a prophet?
I suspect the Western Protestant Church has made a right hash of this ministry.

Reducing it to mere predictions.

Either doom or glory, or vague hope & polite niceness.

Reducing it to clichéd slogans that mean anything and everything ….and nothing.
Reducing it the “wacky fringe of the church”:
The bigger the beard the greater the prophet!

Reducing it to spontaneous mini-messages of bespoke theological preference!
Reducing it to magic, on a par with ancient and modern gnosticism:
God’s weird little secrets made known to the special weird few!

No.

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False Prophesy is Pie in the Sky!

We need less (zero) ‘Personal Idiosyncratic Eschatology’ (or P.I.E. for short – I made that up all on my own); and more of what Eugene Peterson in his brilliant book Run with the Horses refers to as the true nature of the Prophet:

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1. A prophet lets people know who God is and what he is like, what he says and what he is doing.

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2. A prophet wakes us up from our sleepy complacency so that we see the great and stunning drama that is our existence, and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not.

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3. A prophet angers us by rejecting our euphemisms and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are!

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Against Self-Sufficiency

ACTI have finally laid my mitts on a veritable gold mine – A. C. Thiselton’s Systematic Theology.  There will likely be many snippets from this surprisingly little book in the future, so here’s the first one, concerning ‘Theological Principles Relating to Ministry’:

“The most profound of a number of principles concerns the mutuality or reciprocity of the church and the ministry, as against self-sufficient individualism and autonomy.  We have already identified this as a key principle in relation to the church.  Whatever the seductions of post-Enlightenment secularism about a self-contained, self-sufficient individual, no Christian individual possesses all the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  For a healthy Christian life we depend on others, especially the teaching and guidance of Christian ministers, as Paul stressed in 1 Corinthians, and Calvin in his Institutes….

…The qualities expected . . . . are enumerated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 . . . . These include at least the following seven:

  1. being skilled in teaching (Gk. didaktikos);
  2. being level-headed or avoiding extremes (nephalios);
  3. disliking conflict (and so constituting a focus on unity, amachos), or, in other words, managing conflict resolution;
  4. being self-disciplined, or prudent (sophron);
  5. being gracious, tolerant, and courteous (epieikes);
  6. being able to win people’s approval or being dignified, in the sense of having gravitas or weight (kosmios);
  7. having ability to manage (proistanai), whether a household or a church.

Other passages also suggest:

8. being a leader in mission (Matt. 28:19), and;

9. having a pastoral heart (John 21:15-17).

To be a “shepherd” implies not only “feeding” but also protecting the flock against enemies and marauders. . . . .

. . . . .Everything rests on mutual dependency and lack of self-sufficiency.  In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul explains to the church in Corinth that either by rejecting specific ministers or by limiting themselves to the ministry of choice favourites, they are depriving themselves of what God wills to give them.  Paul writes, “Do not deceive yourselves. . . .All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas. . . . all belong to you” (1 Cor. 3:18, 21-22)”

p. 321-325

yellow flower opening

I think this photo – © me – would also make a better cover than the one on the book!

An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

What follows is part of a wider response to various questions that theologian Rob Knowles has responded to.  Here, after writing a thorough response and critique of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, to which the opening of the article below refers, Rob proceeds to outline the actual biblical view(s) of what is associated with biblical notions of judgment and hell.

This debate suffers from the worst kinds of crappy-Christian polemics, historical amnesia and hermeneutical foreclosure, and dare I say, the real possibility that many Christians are going to be really cheesed off if God does indeed save everyone! Similarly, if God does or will save everyone, would that constitute what my brother refers to as ‘a pleasant hostage situation’?

If someone of the scholarly stature of A. C. Thiselton can confidently and unashamedly assert that within the Bible there exists three contradictory traditions, the interpreting community that is the Church had best sit up and pay proper theological attention!  At the very least, this would make an interesting discussion actually worth listening too, if our three traditions named in my title ever got into that pub!

Anyway, enjoy.  Cheers….

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How could hell be just?
I have already said a lot on this question in my earlier theodicy on “the problem of evil”. There I offered a highly modified version of C.S. Lewis’s theodicy in his book, The Problem of Pain (see above). The theodicy went into some detail on the question of hell, and broadly rejected C.S. Lewis’ thinking on the matter in favour of A.C. Thiselton’s view, which we might call the “deliberate ambiguity” approach to hell. Lewis’s theodicy, in my view, was at its strongest in describing how, given that God had decided to create “persons” with (at least some measure of free will), then this was impossible without (a) some kind of neutral background – creation or “nature”, and (b) the possibility of us deciding to do wrong. These two factors explained 80% of the suffering in the world: that is, when it comes to the question: “why is there so much suffering in the world?” our answer is – roughly speaking – about 80% in agreement with the atheists. They say: there is no God; there is suffering; so humankind must have caused the suffering. We 80% agree that humankind must have caused the suffering – with the qualification that demonic influence on humanity also has to be accounted for.


The main exception to this was (c) what Lewis referred to as remedial suffering – suffering associated with God’s disciplining intervention into our lives, and with our going “cold turkey” on sins once we had decided to follow God – a “cold turkey” experience that Lewis, rightly, likened to crucifixion, since Paul speaks of the crucifixion of the sinful nature in the Christian.


In my view, though, Lewis’s theodicy was at its weakest in its depiction of God as being less than able to fully resolve the problem of human sin – as though the Almighty God was threatened by sin, and could only partially guarantee a partial salvation that heavily depended on our co-operation and works. The effect was to leave the reader exhausted, thinking that his or her works could be the deciding factor in his or her salvation.
To my mind, this view, whilst rightly stressing human responsibility, fails to present the biblical picture of God’s sovereignty. Yes, God is the crucified God, who suffers with us in weakness. And, for God as a man in Jesus Christ, nobody can under-estimate the suffering of the cross, and the difficulty God faced at that point, given the parameters that he had placed upon himself.

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Nothing to Proclaim

Last night I attended the excellent ‘Holy Ground’ event put on by Exeter Cathedral.  It was only my third visit but whenever I can’t go I often hear reports of what was on and how it went.

I really like the willingness of the Exeter team to reach beyond the pre-existing boundaries, to host speakers who will challenge and dare I say, yes I dare, upset/offend.

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As a worship experience, God is worshipped in wonderful Trinitarian language, and Christ is proclaimed through thoughtful, contemporary liturgy.

Last night after the Eucharist service, we listened to the guest speaker, Tony Windross.  I’d never heard of Tony, an Anglican minister somewhere in Cornwall.  He presented his case as his book title says, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith’. 

I sat there and listened; I tried to really listen, and see if I could hear anything worth dying for; indeed anything worth living for; anything that didn’t tear up my epistemological foundations with sweeping assumptions and generalities.

But it seemed to me that Tony had nothing to proclaim.  I totally agree with him that the Church-in-the-pews for too long has lived in the toxic environment of infantalisation and anti-intellectualism.  I myself have commended a book arguing the same things in Relating Faith, a book written by one of the cleverest Christians I know!

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