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Hell Under Fire: Part 1 of our Interview with Christopher Morgan

Categories Theology

Hell Under Fire As the discussion around the doctine of hell continues, Chris Morgan was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to do an interview about the current controversy and the book Hell Under Fire.

Our thanks go out to Chris for his willingness to share these words with all of us here at Koinonia.

Q: First of all could you give us a little of your own background and your experience working on Hell Under Fire?

I am 39 years old and have been blessed beyond measure to be married to Shelley and raise our daughter Chelsey. I serve as a dean and professor of theology at California Baptist University in Riverside, California, where I have had the privilege to learn theology alongside 18-22 year-old college students since 1999. I have also served as a senior pastor for more than 12 years and currently share the preaching responsibilities at Helendale Community Church (SBC) in Helendale, California.

Regarding hell, I have been thinking about hell and issues surrounding it since seminary. I found two of my favorite writers and heroes—Jonathan Edwards and John Stott—at odds over the aspects of the doctrine of hell. So I sought to understand why.

This led me to present papers on hell, write a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject, and then later author Jonathan Edwards and Hell (2004). I also saw the need for this important issue to be addressed by an array of biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors, so my friend Robert Peterson and I assembled a team of first-rate contributors to honestly examine the biblical teaching related to hell. 

 Following a careful theological method, we organized the volume as follows: 

1. Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell (R. Albert Mohler Jr.)
2. The Old Testament on Hell (Daniel I. Block)
3. Jesus on Hell (Robert W. Yarbrough)
4. Paul on Hell (Douglas J. Moo)
5. The Revelation on Hell (Gregory K. Beale)
6. Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell (Christopher W. Morgan)
7. Systematic Theology: Three Vantage Points of Hell (Robert A. Peterson)
8. Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately be saved? (J. I. Packer)
9. Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever? (Christopher W. Morgan)
10. Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell (Sinclair. B. Ferguson)

Since then, Robert Peterson and I have continued to address the issue, co-editing and contributing to Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (2008) and co-authoring What Is Hell? (2010).

Q: Hell Under Fire was published in 2004, and since then the conversation has come back with some significant momentum. Why do you think this specific doctrine has become central to the conversation?

Over the past several years, it has been my experience that certain common questions seem to keep re-emerging. They include: would a loving God really send good people to hell? Is Jesus really the only way? And why do bad things happen to good people?

The first two concern hell and are readily used in our culture to insinuate that Christians are narrow-minded and intolerant. So, in a sense, the historic doctrine of hell stands for everything the contemporary culture rejects—that God’s love is not sentimental but interconnected to his holiness and justice, that humans are universally guilty and pervasively corrupt, that Jesus is the only substitute/representative/sacrifice for human sin, that faith in Christ is the only means to receive the benefits of his saving work, and that God’s ultimate victory does not mean the elimination of all sin from the universe, but the appropriate and final punishment of it. 

Q: When we debate the theology of hell, what might be at stake?

That is a hard question. Some fear that everything is at stake, and thus the impassioned reaction to any deviation from the historic Christian position. Others imagine that virtually nothing is at stake, only a trivial, speculative view of the future. 

I would suggest that though hell is not the point of the biblical story, it plays an important role as a backdrop, much like sin. It is not as critical as the deity of Christ or his being the only Mediator, but it is inescapably linked to such key doctrines—God, sin, and Christ’s saving work.

Further, I would also suggest that one’s doctrine of hell rarely drives the other aspects of a person’s theology. Instead, I submit that the reverse is true. A person’s view of hell is often the corollary to other more central doctrines—the love of God, the justice of God, the nature of God’s victory, guilt and corruption in Adam, and so on. 

This means that a shift in a person or group’s view of hell is often an indication that these other beliefs have shifted as well. Unlike some, I do not see modifications related to hell as a slippery slope, but more like a thermometer. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview where Chris gets at the questions behind the question of Hell and gives his thoughts on where the debate will be in five years.

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