Heaven and Hell: A Biblical Guide. By Robert P. Lightner. Taos, NM: Dispensational Publishing House, 2017. 112 pp. Paper, $9.95.
This book is written by Robert Lightner, Professor Emeritus at Dallas Seminary. It is a collection of papers broadly related to the topics of heaven and hell.
Chapter 1, “Heaven,” only briefly addresses the nature of heaven. The bulk of the chapter is taken up with discussing the eternal fate of those who are incapable of believing in Jesus (pp. 7-25) and the ministry of angels (pp. 29-45). The discussion of the angels was helpful; the discussion about the fate of those incapable of believing (e.g., infants and the mentally disabled) was unconvincing.
Lightner claims those incapable of believing automatically get eternal life: “No one will spend eternity in the eternal punishment of hell who was not able to believe, to meet God’s one condition of salvation” (p. 8). His proof for that conclusion mostly consists of arguments from silence and personal incredulity based on the Bible’s description of God’s good character: “It is highly inconsistent with His goodness to believe any who die who cannot believe are doomed. Rather, I believe all such receive eternal life since Scripture nowhere teaches the contrary and since such belief is in perfect accord with God’s Person” (p. 11). Lightner’s arguments are made weaker given that he does not consider any other option (e.g., that they will be resurrected in the Millennium, or Molinism). Oddly, he does not even consider the Calvinist option—that people are unable to believe because God did not choose to bring them to faith—even though he later takes the Calvinist view of election (see pp. 75-76).
Reading this section made me wonder: in Lightner’s view, what happens to children who die five minutes, five days, or five months after they become capable of believing? Are they automatically doomed? Is that fair?
Chapter 2, “Hell,” seems to be some reflections on the first edition of the Four Views on Hell book published by Zondervan. Lightner only briefly overviews the evidence for eternal conscious torment (pp. 51-57). Given the title of this book (i.e., Heaven and Hell), and the amount of controversy over the nature of hell, this reviewer wishes Lightner had spent more time defending the traditional view. In fact, that is why I bought the book—to see his defense of eternal conscious torment.
Chapter 3 concerns the issue of suicide. Lightner argues the Bible does not address whether suicide is right or wrong. He (correctly) denies that believers who commit suicide will lose their salvation (p. 61). And he counsels against suicide and for letting God be the one who decides the time of death.
Chapter 4 offers a helpful overview of the distinction between the Judgment Seat of Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment.
Chapter 5, “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” will be of particular interest to JOTGES reader. They may find, as I did, that while Lightner is Free Grace friendly, there are serious inconsistencies in his presentation of the saving message.
For example, Lightner says, “Man’s faith must have the proper object before salvation results” (p. 87). That is true. However, it is hard to determine what Lightner thinks that object is.
On the one hand, Lightner insists that Jesus Christ is “the object of our faith” (p. 86). On the other hand, he says that believing in our sinfulness is essential, too: “To be sure, there are essentials the sinner must know before he can be saved. He is a guilty sinner (Rom 3:23); sin’s wages is death (Rom 6:23); Christ died in the sinner’s place (Rom 5:8; 1 Cor 15:3); and the sinner must trust Christ alone as his sin-bearer (John 3:16; Acts 16:31). These are the essentials of the gospel (p. 86).” Does that mean there are actually two objects of faith—Jesus and ourselves (i.e., our own sinfulness)?
Even though Lightner declares that one must acknowledge his sinfulness, he later denies you must confess your sins to be saved: “The unsaved are never told to confess their sins to be saved” (p. 95). So you must know but need not confess.
Lightner includes belief in the divinity of Christ as part of the object of salvation: “It is always faith in God’s Son as the Divine substitute for sin which brings life to the spiritually dead sinner” (p. 87, emphasis added). Elsewhere Lightner seems to contradict himself by saying the content of saving faith has not always been the same but has changed over time: “the complexity of that faith has not always been the same” (p. 88). People have only ever been saved through faith, but after Calvary, the content of saving faith has changed. Now it must include belief in the meaning of the substitutionary death of Christ: “Since God has made known to man the meaning of the death of His Son, faith is now placed in His person and work” (p. 88). The implication is that people were saved by believing a different message during Jesus’ ministry. Is that true? Is Jesus’ evangelism obsolete?
In some passages, Lightner is strong that salvation is by faith alone (pp. 85-86). He correctly denies that water baptism (p. 88), prayer (p. 95), and confession of sin (p. 95) are co-conditions with faith for salvation. However, he thinks that repentance, “almost a synonym for faith,” is part of believing (p. 93). But if it is almost a synonym for faith, doesn’t that mean it is not a synonym for faith? And if it is not a synonym for faith, then why add it as a co-condition with faith for salvation? (In a footnote, Lightner references Robert Wilkin’s PhD dissertation in support of that idea that repentance is a change of mind, without indicating that Wilkin has since publicly rejected that view of repentance.)
Lightner denies that we need works to be saved or to stay saved (p. 87). However, he says that true believers will want to work and that this will eventually become manifest in doing good deeds: “The person who is truly born again will want to serve Christ. Life cannot be hidden very long” (p. 87). That kind of statement will undermine assurance by making it depend at least partly on the works we do, instead of wholly being based on the promise Jesus made.
Although Lightner believes in eternal security, I could not find any place where he says the eternality of salvation is part of the object of saving faith. He thinks we must believe in the person and work of Christ, but he is less clear on whether we must also believe the promise of Christ.
There is much to commend in this book. The author takes many strong Dispensational, Pre-Millennial, Pre-Tribulational positions that JOTGES readers will strongly appreciate. However, due to the uneven nature of the chapters, and given the unclear presentation of the saving message, this is not essential reading.
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