R.C. Sproul on Hell: Wrong Five Times in Just Four Paragraphs

I recently ran across a blog entry entitled R.C. Sproul on Hell. The post is just an excerpt from one of Sproul’s books, prefaced by a comment that the selection is “a great treatment on the doctrine of Hell.” While I’m accustomed to shoddy work in this area, I think Sproul has set the bar pretty low here, which is especially surprising considering the blog author’s glowing endorsement and the fact that Sproul is, in general, a pretty careful thinker.

Sproul is actually wrong more than five times. His last sentence, for example, assumes a faulty view of the intermediate state, but that’s a debatable issue that would require quite a bit of space to bear out. Below is the actual text under consideration. Bolding and brackets have been added to indicate the claims in dispute. [1] through [5] are easily shown, I think, to be in error. [A] and [B] are more speculative claims that I won’t say are necessarily false, but deserve comment nonetheless.

The doctrine of eternal punishment, though unpopular and frightening, is part of the confession of every branch of the historic Christian church. [1] Only in the last century, under the influence of liberalism, have some reinterpreted the doctrine. While some flatly deny hell’s existence, others understand it to be a temporary place of purging or punishment. Others advocate annihilationism, in which God ends the existence of the unrepentant soul. Such theologies seek to escape or mitigate the implications of eternal punishment.

[2] The fact is, however, that virtually every statement in the Bible concerning hell comes from the lips of Jesus Christ. We cannot take Jesus seriously without also taking seriously what he said regarding eternal punishment.

There is very little about hell in the Old Testament [3] and very little in the Epistles. [A] It is almost as if God decided that a teaching this frightening would not be received from any lesser authority than that of his own Son.

[4] Jesus chose the most dreadful images he could find to describe the reality of hell. One is the image of darkness, which emphasizes separation from God. Another is that of fire, [5] or a lake of fire. I believe that the lake of fire is a symbol and that the reality is far worse than the symbol. [B] The wicked who are now experiencing the wrath of God would do anything to jump into a mere lake of fire.

1. Even if we give Sproul the benefit of the doubt, and assume that by “the last century” he means the 19th century, he would still be wrong. Anyone who disputes this can read Al Mohler’s chapter in Hell Under Fire. There we have an evangelical, contributing to a book that seeks to defend the traditional view of hell, who acknowledges that a variety of views have been held prior to the 19th century.

2. This is simply false, unless Sproul means that virtually every biblical reference to Gehenna comes from the lips of Jesus. If by “hell” Sproul means the ultimate end of the unsaved then the entire Bible has much to say about it—it just doesn’t say what he expects it to say.

3. The claim about the Old Testament is the subject of heated debate, but I have honestly never heard a traditionalist say that the Epistles have very little to say about hell. Doug Moo rejects this notion outright in his oft-quoted contribution to Hell Under Fire:

On the basis of a concordance, one might expect an article on Paul’s teaching about hell to be very short. In most English versions, the word “hell” never appears in the letters of Paul. And for good reason: Paul never uses the Greek words usually translated “hell” (geenna and hadēs). But this book is not about the word “hell” but about the doctrine of hell. If that doctrine is defined as teaching about the ultimate destiny of the wicked, then Paul says much about it.

4. If Sproul thinks that darkness and fire are the most dreadful images that Jesus could find, then may I suggest that Sproul believes our savior to have a deficient imagination. A quick skim through Dante’s Inferno will show that one can easily conjure up images much more dreadful than mere darkness and fire.

5. Jesus never spoke of a lake of fire. This is imagery from the book of Revelation. I can’t understand how Sproul would get something like this wrong. If Sproul does know that this imagery is from Revelation, then that would nullify his speculation found in [A]. It would also mean that by “hell” Sproul does not just mean references to Gehenna.

A. This claim is somewhat speculative (“it’s almost as if . . . “), but it does seem to echo the sentiment (also found in [2] and extremely common in traditionalist literature) that the words of Jesus are somehow more true or more important than the rest of Scripture. On a hunch, I searched the website of Ligonier Ministries (Sproul’s organization) and found the following in a FAQ section regarding their Reformation Study Bible:

We have chosen not to use red-lettering in the RSB for a few reasons. Red-lettering is a fairly recent tradition used by some (but not all) Bible publishers. The original Greek texts of the New Testament did not use red-lettering or any other means to distinguish Christ’s words, and the use of red-lettering can sometimes unintentionally lead readers to the conclusion that Christ’s words are more important or more inspired than the rest of the Bible (emphasis mine).

Oops! 🙂

B. If anyone thought that the traditional view of hell couldn’t be more horrific, Sproul somehow finds a way to make it worse. One must wonder what place there could possibly be for degrees of punishment if everyone in hell will suffer a fate that is literally worse than burning in a lake of fire for eternity.

Far from being a “great treatment” on hell, this is one of the most sloppy, inaccurate, and just poorly thought out pieces that I’ve read recently.

Update: I just ran across a blog post on a different site that also merely quotes R.C. Sproul on hell. This excerpt is from a different publication, but it contains many of the same errors. Sadly, some people are evidently not interested in thinking through these issues carefully—it’s enough for them to uncritically cite a evangelical celebrity who happens to take their view.

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7 Responses to R.C. Sproul on Hell: Wrong Five Times in Just Four Paragraphs

  1. live2believe says:

    I agree with this assessment: “it’s enough for them to uncritically cite a evangelical celebrity who happens to take their view.”

    It’s funny because believers are so quick (and able) to refute the arguments of a brilliant scientist, such as Dawkins, but they drop their guard and don’t even bother to think critically about a Christian point of view. This is a bit hypocritical. I’m not even sure that’s the right word…but the same critical standard should be held for everything.

    For instance, my favorite apologist, William Lane Craig, doesn’t hold to the annihilationist or conditionalist view. But that doesn’t mean I should adopt his views on every topic wholesale. We’re not members of a political party here where we feel compelled to agree on every point. We can assess the merits of each topic on its own.

  2. Rinku Mathew says:

    Hi Ronnie,

    While I think your criticisms are spot on and while I carry no brief for Sproul’s presentation of the traditionalist’s account of the impenitent’s final state, even though I am a traditionalist, I read a line in Fudge’s oeuvre today which suggests to me that this is (perhaps) the thought Sproul wants to express in [2]. Quoting Fudge, “Indeed, Jesus tells us more about the final end of sinners than any other speaker or writer in the New Testament” (p.37, Two Views on Hell). And the reason why Sproul writes “the Bible” instead of the “New Testament” is that he considers the destruction language of the Old Testament otiose and unilluminating about the nature of the final punishment.
    Again, I’m not defending Sproul here as much as trying to understand what he’s trying to get at.


  3. Ronnie says:

    It is, of course, possible that Sproul meant such a thing. I don’t, however, see anything in the quoted text itself that would lead one to suppose that.

    I think the impulse to go the extra smile, so to speak, and recast his statements as charitably as possible stems from the fact that Sproul is usually so careful and keenly insightful. The fact that he is so off base on this issue is a mystery to me as well.

  4. Pingback: Torture | Consuming Fire

  5. consumedbyfire13 says:

    I had a huge grudge on Christianity for a long time. I shut the door on the Bible at the early age of TEN years old. It was after watching a play of Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s flames. I was literally appalled by a god that would give such unfair judgments. I could not and did not want anything to do with such a God. It’s not because my heart was hardened but because I was that offended.

    15 years later my life changed in a matter of *one *week (not year). The Holy Spirit came on me and put it on my heart to get to know God. It was something I had been wanting to do for several years as He clearly saved my life years before. I went along with what God was telling me. I knew that I was going on a spiritual journey and would never be the same. God took me by the hand and lovingly guided me. I didn’t know what I was going to find. I just know that I was very intrigued with what was happening to me. Remember, I still am not a Christian at this time.

    A couple days went by and I was thinking about God all day. I was lost in the presence of God. He tugged on my heart to read the Bible. I was rather frightened when He did and I said “Lord, this can’t be your Word. I have tasted and seen that you are soooo good!” I got closer to God through worship. Whenever I worshiped I could feel the love of God pour on me. His love is better than any drug. You are never the same after experiencing His love. So after worship, I was laying down to sleep and I closed my eyes and I saw something in the distance. I closed my eyes again and focused on what was in my vision. I was (what I’d call) taken up in the spirit. I felt like my spirt had traveled thousands of miles in a couple seconds. God had taken me away. I was zoomed in closer on this location. I saw a very very black pit full of square pieces of paper burnt to ash. There was a powerful feeling of doom and gloom at this place. This is when God started speaking to me. I heard Him audibly, He said in a straight-forward manner: “This… is hell. The people here are dead. There is no consciousness here; now will you read my word?” I immediately felt God’s pain. He is so sad for the wicked that die. He wants everyone to live. I felt the sheer holiness of God. I was in such a panic and started, instead of saying “believe in Jesus or burn in hell” I was saying “believe in Jesus or you will grieve God”.

    I remember a couple days later after accepting Jesus I had felt the heart of God and felt His pain and I just fell to the floor, I didn’t even bow down, I just fell! The holiness of God just demanded that I were to do so! The revelation of the *true reality of hell is one of the most important things to learn about God and His holiness. I find it ironic that Sproul would write such a thing on hell. I can confidently say that he doesn’t have a grasp on the holiness of God, not that I do either, but part of His holy character is that He would not consciously torment *anyone for an eternity for a finite crime. This is such an imperative truth to learn about God. So anyways, pressing forward with the testimony, if you want to hear it.

    After 15 years, God had finally came to me and had given me proof that His word is true and that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is untrue and not biblical. After this I saw the goodness of God. Within a few days He tugged on my heart to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I said a simple prayer “Jesus, if you are real, please reveal yourself to me and I will accept you.” I went to sleep that night and woke up six hours later. The instant I woke up I knew I felt different. The first thing I noticed was how alive I felt. I felt so full of energy. I felt sanctified, holy. I even felt like Jesus! I knew that Jesus was living *inside of me. I was one with Christ. The unity was so powerful and comforting. I felt such peace that I never felt before. I then heard the Father tell me “you are saved now because you accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

    In one week’s time I was set free from the bondage of lust, selfishness, pride, and fear of death. As well, I had demons in me that Jesus delivered me from. I couldn’t tell you what all Jesus has done for me. I will say this, none of it was me. I had tried to change for years, but only got worse! God changed me, I made no effort to change. He made the intervention in me when I stopped trying to deal with life on my own. I came to God humbly and simply told Him to help me. That’s what He was waiting for.

  6. Dick Matz says:

    What I find surprising, given RC Sproul’s clearly thought out partial Preterist position and views, is that he doesn’t consider that many of the Lord’s references to punishment by fire clearly describes what took place in 70 AD when Jesus came in judgement of the Jewish nation that rejected Him.

  7. Stephen John says:

    Jesus said, “And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell,” (Matt. 5:29-30).

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