Jesus Creed


Nathan Wigfield. Review of Sharon L. Baker, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgment
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). [This review was published at Nate Wigfield’s site originally.]
I have to say that I am appreciative to Sharon Baker for requesting that an advance copy of her book, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment, be sent to me for review.  My hope is that, in reading this review, you might be compelled to get a copy for yourself.
As one might gather from the title, Razing Hell challenges Christians to rethink their traditional views of hell and/or eternal punishment and invites them to consider an alternative that is more consistent with the revelation of God in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  Sharon Baker believes eternal hell – the belief that God would punish without end those who have rejected him in time – is one of the most disturbing notions in Christianity.  Therefore, she asks us to join her on a quest for a new view of hell that permits us to affirm with Scripture that, while nothing impure will enter the gates of God’s holy kingdom (Rev. 21:27), there still will be a day when “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow… and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11; see also Rom. 14:11).”

Baker does not ignore parts of the Bible that depict God as a wrathful deity who endorses and even executes violence against his enemies. As most know, we have no problem finding passages that support this kind of view in the Old Testament. But Baker reminds us that the notion of redemptive divine violence has also been written into the central event of the New Testament – that is the passion of Christ.
Traditional theories of atonement – theories for how God became reconciled to the world through Christ – have most often painted God’s forgiveness as conditioned by an economic exchange at best and as a Father’s violent, punitive act upon his Son at worst. Either way, Baker insists that these theories have left us with a view that “God will not forgive unless God first receives some sort of compensation for sin (46).”  This is nothing other than a retributive form of justice that we have projected onto God, Baker claims.
The concern for Baker is not only that these kinds of depictions of God’s justice have influenced our views of hell as eternal punishment.  They have also served to perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence in the name of God. But is this the kind of justice displayed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ?  Baker answers with an emphatic “No!” As such, she explains, it is not the way of God. And therefore, it ought not be the way of Christians.
According to Baker, when we read the Bible, we must put on our “Jesus-colored glasses.”  For those of us in the Christian tradition, we believe that “Jesus reveals God so that the way Jesus acts is the way God acts. What Jesus says is what God says (70).”  We must then read the biblical story through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  Baker believes that, when we do this, we quickly find that “violence and retribution do not fit into the gospel message or into the ethics of God’s kingdom (79).”  Thus, we must reconsider the nature of divine justice.
Baker’s alternative to the retributive justice we have often projected onto God is a “restorative or reconciling justice” – a justice that is served by “reconciling with the guilty and restoring the relationship (81).”  Assuming a Jewish understanding of sin as giving us a picture of “shackles, something that binds us, that paralyzes us,” she suggests that, rather than requiring payment of some sort, that God forgives means God releases us and “breaks the shackles of sin, much like a crippled person is healed and released from illness (96).”
This kind of forgiveness does exactly the opposite of retribution. Instead of requiring compensation for the offense, God sacrifices and releases us from the need to balance the accounts, redefining the relationship by the hope of a restored future.  In other words, in forgiving, God foregoes the need for retributive justice for the sake of a renewed relationship with all that God has created. Rather than requiring payment, God’s forgiveness is the free gift that liberates us from the past and “transforms the future from one of condemnation and retribution to an open future of redemption and reconciliation (98).”
How does this change our approach to hell?  For Baker, it causes her to go deeper into the biblical narrative to find an alternative.  On the premise that fire is often mentioned in the Bible as a symbol for God’s judgment, she interprets the fire imagery for hell in the New Testament to be no different. It is a metaphor for God’s judgment. The question is, What do we mean by judgment? Biblical passages that use the symbol of fire for judgment often speak of a fire that “burns up whatever is evil, wicked, or sinful,” but leaves behind “whatever is righteous and pure (113).” It seems that this metaphor of fire is a purifying fire of sorts, one that refines metal or precious stones so as to melt away their impurities. Instead of its destruction, it is a renewed object that passes through.  Judgment then is nothing other than “part of the reconciling activity of God (122).” In other words, “The wrath of God, rather than anger, is love that burns away the sin, purifying the sinner so that true reconciliation and restoration can take place (122).”
While the metaphor of fire for God’s judgment is helpful, Baker treats Jesus’ words on hell in the New Testament primarily as a teaching device.  This would not have been unusual in the day and age of Jesus, she says.  It was not uncommon in the Middle Eastern world to use “the most explicitly vivid metaphorical language… to make an important point (136).”  And the point was not that people were literally in danger of being thrown into a garbage dump in the southwest region of Jerusalem (Gehenna), but that people were at risk of missing the fresh movement of God among God’s people and in the entire world.
But what do we make of those passages that refer to hell as “eternal punishment,” one might ask. Does this not suggest that people who reject this movement of God will inevitably find themselves engulfed in the eternal flames of hell? No, says Baker.  While the translation of the word eternal is inconsistent (sometimes translated as an age, other times as eternity), “the question of eternality as never ending only truly applies to God (138).” Thus, a reference to eternal fire refers not to something apart from God, but “to the fire that surrounds God (138).”
The question remains (and it is the question everyone wants to ask), If this fire that surrounds God is a purifying fire that melts away all that is impure and leaves behind that which is righteous and pure, and we all stand (believers and unbelievers alike) before God on the Day of Judgment to pass through that fire, does anyone perish? Does anyone suffer the torments of hell? While Baker says she is not a universalist, that she believes “God respects the freedom given to us to choose for ourselves whether or not we want a relationship with God,” she also questions whether there will be anyone at all, in the aftermath of God’s judgment, who will reject God (141).  After all, “Only something impure could reject God (145).”
What I gather from Baker’s conclusions is that the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross and announcement of God’s kingdom was not to satisfy the wrath of his Father and pay a penalty for sin or to sweep us off our feet so that we could one day go to heaven.  Rather, at the cross Jesus put God’s forgiveness on display for the world to see, showing what God was willing to do to establish the earthly reign of his kingdom and invite all of us to be a part of it despite our sin.  She says, “The very nature of our reconciliation with God through Jesus makes us God’s agents, God’s ministers of reconciliation – not so that we can work to keep people out of hell, but so we can transform the world through reconciliation (176).”  In other words, salvation is now.  Salvation is the invitation to enter the kingdom of God today and realize that God has forgiven us though we often do not know what we are doing.
Baker admits that she does not “know with absolute certainty what will happen at the end of time… how God will see that justice prevails or that every knee will bow or every tongue confess Jesus as Lord (180).”  She does know, however, that retributive justice and redemptive violence continue to threaten our world.  “As we go about our business,” she says, “the world seems to become more and more violent. Innocent multitudes of people suffer injustice and violence every second of every day (180).”  Her answer is to give up the idea of retribution altogether, which includes our distorted notions of hell and God’s justice.
In my view, what drives Sharon Baker to reconsider traditional views of hell, God’s wrath, and judgment is the fruit that such views have born in the world. &nbs
p;If we believe we have been called to imitate a God who requires the violent punishment of his Son in order to forgive and torments countless others in the eternal flames of hell, this will most certainly influence our pursuit of peace and reconciliation here on earth. And it has. Instead of embracing the radical notion of forgiveness toward restoration, we continue to exact justice through violent means. While some will disagree with, and outright condemn, her conclusions based on their understanding of biblical revelation and/or Church tradition, I think the value of Baker’s work in this book is in her courage to call traditional theological foundations into question on the basis of the immense amount of violence and destruction such views have caused historically.
Do not get me wrong. Baker’s theological proposals have a biblical argument that demands consideration.  I happen to think, however, that the strength of her argument is in the practical urgency for alternative views of God’s justice.  It is a tragedy that, among those who uphold the banner of redemptive violence (especially at a global level), the voices of Christians are often the loudest.  What Sharon Baker sets out to do in Razing Hell is remind those who follow Jesus that the way to peace is through restoration and reconciliation, not retribution.  This is fundamental to the Good News of Jesus Christ.  And yet, our traditional notions of hell contradict this very claim.  If we are going to be agents of God’s kingdom of peace and justice here on earth, we best go deeper into Scripture and tradition for an interpretation of hell that more closely reflects the revelation of God in the life and teachings of Christ.  Baker does just this.  And, while volumes could be written on some of the topics she has chosen to address, she has accomplished the difficult task of writing a thoughtful book on hell that is accessible to the average Christian reader.  I look forward to the conversations this book will most definitely spark!
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