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A Snyder’s Soapbox Review of, “Is There Anything Good About Hell?” by Paul Dirks

If you are like me you’ve probably not heard of Paul Dirks. As it turns out, we’ve been missing out. He is a very thoughtful man. Here is a short bio I pulled from Amazon, “Paul Dirks is Lead Pastor of New West Community Baptist Church, where he has served for 12 years. He lives in New Westminster, BC, Canada, with his wife Rachel and their five children. Dirks has published on other topics including sexuality and gender at The Public Discourse.”

When I was contacted via e-mail about doing a review, I was a bit dubious. Most of the people who contact me for reviews are from backgrounds that eschew deeper theological thinking. I refuse some, and others I warn, and ask if they are certain they want me to do a review. After reading a bit about the book’s topic, and corresponding with Paul a couple of times, I became more enthusiastic about his work.

The book was a much more thorough treatment of the topic of Hell than I anticipated. Paul cites many source texts, and they are included in the Bibliography for one to verify. This was a pleasant relief from the hearsay that floods arguments from social media keyboard warriors and, “Biblical scholars.”

The notion of Hell, and the included eternal suffering, is very unpleasant. So much so, that most people attempt to convince themselves it doesn’t exist, or that they are a good person, and would never end up there. As a Christian, it has bothered me, and it was one of the main reasons I began to read the Bible before I was a Christian. Before I understood certain attributes of God, I couldn’t figure out how to make hell fit with what I knew. All I could do, was trust what the Bible said. A book like this might have saved me some time. I don’t want to give away the key arguments against Hell, and for Hell, because Paul does a great job of laying those out in the book. I do want to encourage you to give it a read if you have been struggling to understand how the fact that there is a Hell, and people will end up there, and it is a good thing. This book does a pretty good job of explaining it all. However, at times, it might be a bit too much for some newer Christians, or people who aren’t used to following a thought through. It isn’t as accessible as some other works on the topic, but it is more thorough, and nuanced. On the other end of the spectrum, high minded theologians might see it as an offering for the neophytes among them. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you are on, I do think you’ll agree about the value of this work for the body. With that in mind, I recommend his book. I Think it adds value to the individual Christian’s library, and can be a valuable aid in helping a friend understand as well. Get a copy for yourself, and one to give away. You can buy them on Amazon.

Since Paul was amicable to the idea of doing some Q. & A. I thought I’d include that as part of the review. Those follow below. My Questions are numbered and his answers follow each one.

1. I think understanding God’s authority in juxtaposition to our human subjection to that authority, properly understood, should bring sharp contrast to the monolithic difference between the two. Do you think that this contrast of an infinitely authoritative Creator and His subject creatures, is sufficient for most Christians to understand the justice of an eternal Hell? Why/why not?

I think that goes a long ways to understanding the justice of hell, but there are hurdles for most people in how God’s characteristics (love, goodness, mercy, justice) interrelate. Furthermore, there are questions like those the apostle Paul asks and answers in Romans 9 concerning God’s authority itself. But I think you are generally correct. Cultures which tend towards understanding authority and subjection, even in society, tend to have far less concerns with the doctrine of hell.

2. The thought of going to Hell is very disturbing. There are times when Christians doubt that God has justified them, and they begin to fear that they will end up in Hell. Could you briefly explain where assurance is found?

Eternal torment in hell is indeed disturbing. Praise God that He offers absolute assurance of salvation in an historical and objective work–the substitute death of Jesus Christ upon the cross for our punishment –the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God (1 Pet 3:18). The saint ought to now hear “it is finished” (Jn 19:30) echo in his soul when faced with doubts, and claim passages like Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” A proper understanding of inherent (if imperfect) righteousness also helps for assurance. When rightly understood, unbelievers do not thank God, acquiesce to His will, or love the brotherhood of believers. All these and more are “green shoots”–signs that a person is a new creature in Christ, in spite of remaining sin and struggles. The book of 1 John is helpful in this regard.

3. Do you hate neck ties? I was just curious. Thought I’d throw you a softball.

Nope! In a different cultural context, I would have no problem wearing a necktie most days.

4. How has the governments response to the coronavirus impacted your local Church?

In my view, our government (and most around the world) significantly overreacted to COVID. There were points over the last year or so that the uneven application of their regulations were unfair towards churches and certainly undermined guaranteed charter rights of worship. At almost every point we have opened to in-person services as soon as possible, while also offering on-line services. I am thankful for the unity of our church and elders, without which we could not have navigated the complexities of this time. Even with that unity, it has been challenging. I do wish I had given more time to doing personal visits during what was a more extended lockdown than I expected, but our church has mostly weathered the storm and is doing quite well. The maturity of our saints has been evident in all this.

5. How has good theology helped keep fear in its proper place?

Yes, it has been crucial. I see so much fear around us, and not only from unbelievers. Truths like the immanence of death, the providence of God in health and healing, the focus we are to have on eternity, the fear of God which drives out the fear of man, are all helpful for peace during these difficult times.

6. What was the deciding factor in determining to write your book?

As I state in the introduction, a statement from a man I greatly admire that he “wished there was no such thing as hell,” really provoked me. As a reformed theologian who believes in God’s sovereignty, election, and that He does all things ultimately for His glory, there was something not quite right about that statement. I think that thought also reflects what I see in practice, that many preachers speak of hell in a biblically imbalanced way, emphasizing the sinner’s choice to be there and describing it as a place apart from God. These things are not untrue, but they don’t capture the centre or balance of Christ’s words on the subject. So I guess that I saw within my own tribe an imbalance that needed to be corrected and a puzzle that needed to be solved. I love digging into theological puzzles and I felt like there was a book in it that had never been written (Hartman’s Divine Penology is probably the closest thing). Since then I have come to realize how many otherwise-mature Christians struggle with the doctrine of hell, and it has been encouraging to offer help and some answers.

7. On page 133 I found Anselm’s argument “…that our sins are worthy of an infinite punishment because they are committed against an infinite majesty…” to be sufficient. This concept is where I stopped when I was looking into the justice of Hell as an expression of God’s love. I found satisfaction there, so I didn’t delve deeper. How difficult was it for you to read many of the other arguments, isolate them, and refute them after dealing with this argument?

I think different people find different arguments compelling or sufficient. Anselm’s argument is brilliant because it ties God’s infinite honor (a somewhat abstract concept) to our infinite obligation to Him and then proves it’s infiniteness by a ratcheting measurement of differing obligations (there are places in Jonathan Edward’s preaching that he also makes many of these connections.) Those who dismiss Anselm’s argument by saying it is tied to his feudal context haven’t understood him at all.

To be honest, I love reading the opposing arguments. It’s another puzzle. I know enough (God’s word is sufficient) to know they are wrong, but there is reward and even enjoyment in discovering how they are wrong and seeing what truths or emphases surface in refuting those positions (as well as which nuggets of truth are there in the erroneous positions.) For instance, I remember coming across Kronen and Reitan’s argument in “Species of Hell” and thinking, “now finally, that is a decent argument against hell–how are they wrong?” (See chapter 9). Conundrums are some of the best aids to developing clarity.

9. I understand that a loving God must also be just. How difficult was it for you to connect in your arguments God’s justice via hell, and His love?

I think the challenge for some people, and a challenge also to communicate, is how justice requires punishment. We live in a world in which the retributive aspect of punishment is routinely downplayed, if not denied altogether. Once you have arrived at the understanding that justice requires punishment of evil, then the connection to God’s love (or goodness) is easier to make. For much of history, starting with the church fathers, it has been an accepted axiom that the one who loves love must therefore hate hate and punish it, as the two are necessarily equivalent. I don’t think most people today, including Christians, would consider that axiomatic.

10. Do you have any other writing projects in the pipe?

My wife would laugh at this question! Yes. The question is what will actually see the light of day anytime soon. I am currently working on a study guide for Is There Anything Good About Hell? Within a month or two I will be releasing L. B. Hartman’s peerless but obscure work on hell and justice, Divine Penology. I wrote an extended biographical introduction for the book, which was very enjoyable. No biography exists of this notable 20th century Baptist pastor and author. I am also doing a significant amount of reading and work for a future book on the Trinity, very tentatively called The Eschatological Trinity, but it may be five or six years before that sees the light of day. I have a couple other smaller projects that might be published prior to that, including a fictional short story which I may release in serial fashion, chapter by chapter, via podcast.

11. What Bible are you currently using, and which one would you like to get in the future? I know this is unrelated, but it is relevant to my platform.

I’m a big fan of the ESV, although I am not dogmatic about translation choices. A year and a half ago I “splurged” on a Schuyler Personal Size Quentel in calfskin. Beauty is a virtue and though I tend towards being economical, I have enjoyed having a bible that is aesthetically pleasing to look at and a pleasure to use. It’s relatively small, but the typography and layout compensates significantly for the font size and its close to perfect for carrying around with me everywhere. Because I use Logos for much of my study, I don’t buy print bibles very often. I was intrigued with the Weidmann ESV journaling bible you recently reviewed, and that might go on the gift list for my wife. I think I can get away with saying that–I doubt she’ll read this!

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