Hell is a subject which, in my experience at least, is not often openly spoken about in churches and among believers, but which nevertheless plays a vitally important role in the doctrinal apparatus of many Christians.
If I speak of a “hellfire and damnation” preacher, most people will immediately have a good idea of what I’m talking about and be able to form an associated mental picture. The thought of such a preacher might make many Christians squirm, but in the majority of cases, if those same Christians would stop and consider their most fundamental beliefs, they would have to admit that they and the hellfire preacher have much in common. The way they express those beliefs might differ drastically, but the basic message is the same: give your life to Jesus or burn in hell forever.
In fact, the belief in a hell of eternal, conscious torment for unbelievers is so deeply ingrained in the contemporary Christian psyche that to question its necessity is to run the risk of being seen as a doubter at best and a renegade or a heretic at worst. But is such a belief actually necessary to authentic Christian faith?
For those keen to explore the subject, there’s no shortage of books on hell, both old and more recent. Most either present and defend a clear pro- or anti-hell stance, while the occasional volume includes a range of differing views, usually set out by different scholars, and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut doesn’t really fall into either of those categories.
First, a little about its writer. Brad Jersak is a Canadian author and teacher based in Abbotsford, British Columbia. His active, ongoing experience in the evangelical and charismatic streams and his interest in the Orthodox Church, in which he is a confirmed Reader, give him a unique perspective on what it means to live out an ancient faith in a modern, fast-changing world. Brad has solid theological credentials and is currently part of the core faculty of Westminster Theological Centre (UK).
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut takes its title from Revelation 21:25. That might lead you to believe that the author is putting forward a resolutely universalist argument… in which case you would be wrong. Indeed, the strength and the genius of this book is that it presents a comprehensive survey of possible and historical views on hell and the afterlife, and shines a very compelling and biblically grounded light on the possibility of a hopeful future for all humanity, yet it manages to do so without once sliding into dogmatism.
The book is split into three sections. The first and second sections cover the various possibilities on hell and judgement allowed for by biblical and theological tradition, while the third is an inspiring study of the themes of judgement and hope in the book of Revelation. Included as an afterword is an essay by Nik Ansell, Assistant Professor of Theology at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada.
Perhaps the easiest way to give you an idea of where the author is going in Her Gates is to quote a short excerpt from its first chapter:
In short, I do not intend to convince readers of a particular theology of divine judgment. I hope, rather, to recall those relevant bits of Scripture, history, and tradition that ought to inform whatever view we take on this important topic. That said, the data summarized herein did lead me to four conclusions, which you may or may not share after all is said and done:
1. We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.
2. The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.
3. We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.
4. Revelation 21–22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatological hope.
(Page 10; emphasis in the original)
One might think that a book setting out a detailed study of such an emotionally charged topic would likely be heavy going, but that is not so. In Her Gates, Jersak pulls off the difficult task of writing with appropriate scholarly rigour while remaining broadly accessible to readers with little or no theological background. The tone is serious yet conversational, and footnotes are plentiful and informative without being overwhelming.
I read Her Gates having already spent quite some time thinking about the question of hell and forming some conclusions of my own. I came away encouraged in my own conclusions but also reminded of the many scriptural warnings about judgement and the fact that, because of them, we can be neither complacent nor presumptuous in our beliefs about humankind’s ultimate fate. I’m confident that others who come to this book from a different perspective will find in its pages both encouragement and challenge.
In summary, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut is a wonderful addition to any theological bookshelf. It gave me much to consider on first reading, and it’s a book to which I will no doubt return on many occasions.