Kevin DeYoung’s doctrine of hell

Kevin DeYoung’s defense of hell has received a lot of attention, thanks to the controversy surrounding Rob Bell. I’m not interested in that controversy as of yet, since nobody has even read the book, but I do want to make some counter-proposals to DeYoung’s defense of hell. First, a quick note:

I am not a universalist, and I neither deny the existence of hell nor the possibility of people therein. As I see it, if Christ’s atonement necessarily requires the abolition of hell, then a lot of Scripture verses would read differently. The continuing threat of eternal reprobation is presupposed by the Evangelists and Apostles. They did not extend the “triumph of grace” quite so thoroughly as to deny the continuing threat of the demons and reprobation.

Yet, hell is not necessary. At least, it is not necessary for the reasons that DeYoung lists. Hell is necessary to the extent that God deems it necessary, and we really can’t go beyond that. DeYoung goes further and seriously misunderstands the sufficiency and completeness of Christ for knowing God’s wrath and mercy.

DeYoung rightly recognizes that Paul warned about “the judgment to come.” We can safely say that Paul was not working with universalist presuppositions and neither should we. It is clearly a part of both Jesus’ exhortations (most famously in Matt 25) and Paul’s (Acts 24, which DeYoung references). I’m on board with DeYoung on this point but not on the next point:

Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies. The reason we can forgo repaying evil for evil is because we trust the Lord’s promise to repay the wicked. Paul’s logic is sound. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). The only way to look past our deepest hurts and betrayals is to rest assured that every sin against us has been paid for on the cross and or will be punished in hell. We don’t have to seek vigilante justice, because God will be our just judge.

This is where I lose DeYoung. He states, “The only way to look past our deepest hurts and betrayals is to rest assured that every sin against us has been paid for on the cross and or will be punished in hell.” No, every sin has been paid for on the cross. There is no remainder of sins that require further justification in hell. Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all. The punishment of hell is not for any lack in the atonement of Christ. The law really is abolished and, thereby, not the standard of making things “just.” DeYoung wants a little bit of law operating still, such that the law functions for hell the way that Christ functions for heaven. Yet, Christ functions for both, as the judge of all. Hell is by way of Christ: the denial of personal communion through him to the Father.

…we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means. Divine mercy without divine wrath is meaningless. Only when we know that we were objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3), stood condemned already (John 3:18), and would have faced hell as God’s enemies were it not for undeserved mercy (Rom. 5:10), can we sing from the heart “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”

Yes, but this wrath is most fully expressed in the abandonment of the Son, forsaken on the cross. We don’t need hell in order to understand what mercy means. Because the Son “became sin,” he became reprobate and cursed. In the Son, we know fully well of the mercy through wrath that won our salvation. The continuing threat of hell is not necessary for us to know this. Hell does indeed reveal this wrath, but it is not necessary in order to grasp it. That’s the distinction that DeYoung is missing. He thinks that because hell reveals God’s wrath, hell is necessary in order to reveal God’s wrath. The problem is that DeYoung fails to fully grasp the completeness of Christ’s work of salvation, so he fails to read these categories (vindication, wrath, mercy) through Christ. Instead, hell provides the filler for these categories, such that hell is necessary for knowing God’s justice, love, and even the joy of heaven (DeYoung’s 6th point). Hell is functioning in a way, for DeYoung, that Christ should function.


It should be noted that DeYoung is excerting from his book, Why We’re Not Emergent, where the focus of the excerpt is wrath and not hell per se. Yet, he thinks this exposition of wrath makes for a good defense of hell. I’m sure that if DeYoung read this post of mine he would object and say that he doesn’t intend to supplement Christ with hell, yet that’s the upshot of his argumentation.



  1. I’m sure that if DeYoung read this post of mine he would object and say that he doesn’t intend to supplement Christ with hell, yet that’s the upshot of his argumentation.

    Indeed. Here are DeYoung’s eight reasons, with “the wrath of God” replaced by “faith in Christ crucified”:

    We need faith in Christ crucified to keep us honest about evangelism.

    Second, we need faith in Christ crucified in order to forgive our enemies.

    Third, we need faith in Christ crucified in order to risk our lives for Jesus’ sake.

    Fourth, we need faith in Christ crucified in order to live holy lives.

    Fifth, we need faith in Christ crucified in order to understand what mercy means.

    Sixth, we need faith in Christ crucified in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be.

    Seventh, we need faith in Christ crucified in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters.

    Eighth, we need faith in Christ crucified in order to be ready for the Lord’s return.

    No supplements required.

    • Exactly!

      I commend DeYoung’s attention to Scripture, where wrath and condemnation are indeed part of the larger proclamation of the church, but they cannot be isolated (given an independent function) from Christ.

  2. Thanks for adding something of substance to the discussion, Kevin. Two quotes came to mind as I read this post:

    ‎”One cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy’ in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own.”

    — Wright, Surprised by Hope, 180


    “My thesis is that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance . . . . My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West . . . . But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit . . . . Your point to them—we should not retaliate? Why not? I say—the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God . . . . Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword . . . . It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land–soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind . . . if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.”

    —Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 303–304

    I know these quotes don’t undermine your point here, especially if the locus of “divine vengeance” of which Volf speaks is the cross of Christ. Both of them do speak of a future judgment of past sins post-crucis; nevertheless, you’re right—any talk of talk of future judgment outside the context of the cross is biblically unintelligible.

    • I like the quotes. I really need to read Volf at some point.

      The issue raised by Wright is particularly a concern of mine. I’ve been greatly helped by Simone Weil’s idea of God’s abandonment of creation — a highly complex theodicy which would require more than a combox to articulate. Simone Weil should be taken-in very carefully: she was a modern-day Marcionite and Cathar, among other eccentricities. But, she was the most beautiful soul of the 20th century.

  3. The sense I have from having recently read both J. McCleod Campbell and T. Torrance is that in the life of Jesus evil was overcome by righteousness being righteousness. we want evil to be squashed by brute force, but Jesus has defeated evil by his faith and his faithfulness. “Be of good cheeer, for I have overcome the world” The Incarnation and Atonement of Christ are complete. At the same time Revelation demonstrates to us that a full vengeance will be visited upon those opposed to God. But this wrath does not add to the Atonement.

    • Good thoughts. I really need to read the Incarnation and Atonement lectures by Torrance. I’m currently trying to read Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, and it is not easy going! It’ll be nice to read something from TFT that’s consumable by the average student.

      It seems that two things need to be said about wrath, which line-up with what you’re saying from Torrance: (1) wrath is not quantifiable and (2) the total qualitative “value” of wrath is completely transposed into mercy by the obedience of the Son. Because of point #1, point #2 does not rule-out the possibility of wrath being exhibited apart from forgiveness (i.e. condemnation).

  4. One of the best ever visual descriptions of hell was painted by Hieronymous Bosch – notably the right hand panel of his Garden of Earthly Delights.

    The same dreadful vision can be seen by turning on your TV set, and not just by watching the “news”.

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