Hell and It’s Absence in the Book of Acts

“Of making many books there is no end…” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV).

The wise Teacher’s statement above not only applies to books but also to criticisms of Mark Driscoll’s tweets and the Bible’s teaching on hell and punishment. Blogger Ben Irwin has managed to do both in the same blog post. 

The former is not that hard. Driscoll is an easy target for the blogging equivalent of the “knock-out” game. It takes no courage to take a theological swipe at him, especially if one inclines to read a massive amount of theological assumptions into his 140 character missives.

My concern is the latter. In fact, I only post this because Irwin’s post was sent to me by someone asking my opinion. I shot back a hurried and succinct response, but a fuller treatment may be helpful for others who encounter arguments similar to Irwin’s. What follows is a slightly more developed response.

[Disclaimer: I am no advocate for, nor defender of, nor opponent of, Mark Driscoll. I am not riding in to come to his defense. This post is  only to help readers think through the interpretive issues raised in posts like Irwin’s. Also, I have no interest in engaging in any sort of theological spat in the blogosphere. That is why I am not linking to the blog post. If you wanted to read the whole post in context you can search for it.] 

Irwin took one of Driscoll’s tweets as a platform to challenge the role of hell in the proclamation of the Gospel. Irwin’s one question:

“So here’s my question for Pastor Mark Driscoll: If hell is so important to the gospel, why is it never mentioned in the book of Acts?”

Irwin’s logic is as follows: the book of Acts is a record of the early church in the decades after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. He points out that Acts records several proclamations of the Gospel (eight, by his count). However, “hell” is not mentioned in Acts at all. Therefore, hell must not have been an essential part of the early Christian message:

“In these eight sermons, there is not one mention of hell. In fact, hell is completely absent from the whole book. Judgment is mentioned once or twice, but the nature of judgment? It’s never part of their gospel proclamation” (emphasis mine). 

There are several propositions in that one quote. However, are they true? Several points need to be made:

1. The concept of “hell” includes more than just the study of the one word. 

Here is where doing theology by a concordance is not very helpful. Does the book of Acts not contain the Greek word for “hell”? Yes, its true. However, there are a cluster of words and phrases used to convey the entire concept, indeed doctrine, of the last judgment of which hell is a part (i.e. “wrath [of God]”, “the judgment”, “perish, destroy”, etc.). Paul, for example, never used the word “hell” in any of his letters. But the absence of the word does not mean that eternal punishment is not a factor in Paul’s message (e.g. see below). When one looks at the integrated collection of terms and word-pictures used then hell’s “complete absence” in Acts is ill-considered.

2. Is “hell” really absent from Acts?

When we understand that the Bible’s teaching on eternal punishment rests on more than the presence or absence of the word “hell” one can see a concern for the avoidance of God’s punishment evident in early Christian preaching. This is apparent, for example, in one of the eight kerygmatic sermons in Acts that Irwin mentioned: Paul’s speech to a group of philosophers in Athens (the Aeropagus) in Acts 17. The climax of Paul’s evangelistic discourse points to Jesus’ impending return as Judge: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31 ESV). To be sure, Paul doesn’t use the word “hell”. But if we remember that there are many terms to convey the concept of the final judgment of God—a judgment that precipitated Paul’s clear call for everyone to repent—then the suggestion that hell is “never part of their gospel proclamation” in Acts is untenable.

3. Lastly, why is the book of Acts elevated to a higher authority than other books of the New Testament?

The clear implication from this argument is that if “hell” (the word) does not appear in Acts, then that fact alone somehow trumps all of the other references to it by Jesus*, by Paul, by John, by the other New Testament writers…including Dr. Luke who wrote about it in the first of his two-volume work, the Gospel of Luke, to which Acts is the sequel. If hell/last judgment is not an important doctrine because it doesn’t appear in Acts then why does the same author write about it in the Gospel of Luke? (sampling of concepts in Luke here: Luke 3:7; 10:14; 11:31–32; 12:5; 21:23). Is the reference to hell, along with the eternal nature of it, by Jesus himself of no consequence because Luke didn’t record it in Acts? Is Jesus’ own revelation to John in the closing chapters of the Bible about the final judgment immaterial merely because the word “hell” isn’t in the sequel to Luke’s Gospel? And what about these words from Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1 (a book that pre-dates Acts)?:

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word [i.e. the gospel] in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:4–10 ESV emphasis added).

Notice the clear connection between Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel, the Thessalonians’ reception of it by repentance (“turning from idols”) and faith, and the corresponding salvation from “the wrath to come”. And this is in one of, if not the earliest, of Paul’s letters. Is the fact that Paul links reception of the Gospel with deliverance from wrath to come completely undermined because the word “hell” is not in any of the eight evangelistic sermons in Acts? The answer, for those who don’t elevate one part of Scripture over the others, has to be a resounding “no”. It may be convenient to take a fact about the absence of one word from one of the books of the New Testament and use it to reject a doctrine you disagree with…but it would not be doing accurate nor responsible theological interpretation.

nota bene: So why bother with this? Why spend another 1,500 words critiquing such lines of thinking? Why add another contribution to “the making of blog posts defending hell has no end”? Because I am some blood-thirty advocate for eternal punishment? No. Because its in there. Because Paul talked about it, Peter talked about it, John talked about it, as did Matthew and Luke, etc. And contrary to many today who suggest that fear of hell is never a good motivational device, Jesus had no problem using such a device (cf. e.g. Matt 5:29–30; 10:28). So why? Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news” and rescue from wrath and from hell is part of what makes “the good news” good news. I never cease to marvel at the irony of those who claim to pursue a bigger, more holistic, or even cosmic Gospel and yet have no room in that bigger, more holistic, cosmic Gospel for the glorious rescue of sinners from a well-deserved hell.

————————————

*Here are a mere sampling of Jesus’ references to hell, the judgment, “the last day”, wrath, etc. in both direct statements and their usage in parables: Matt 3:7; 5:22, 29–30; 7:13; 10:15, 28; 11:22, 24; 12:36, 41–42; 21:41; 23:33; 24:29; 25:41; Mark 12:9; Luke 10:14; 11:31–32; 13:3, 5; 19:22; 20:16; John 3:16–18, 36; 5:24, 27, 29; 8:24, 51–52; 10:10, 28; 11:25; 12:25, 47–48; 16:8, 11. 

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