Better names for the two main alternatives regarding the nature of hell

While I blew the driveway clear after another blizzard, I thought about hell. There is no connection between those two activities, lest you think I am about to explain what it is, but I was listening to a fine podcast from Unbelievable, in which James White and Roger and Faith Forster discussed the nature of hell. (You can watch that discussion here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bui8k-ZgiY)

White represented the view he called “eternal conscious torment,” and the Forsters argued for “conditional immortality.” These are commonly used designations for what I see as the two main alternatives within evangelical theology these days. The former is often dubbed the “traditional view,” and the latter is the self-designation preferred by most of the annihilationists who converse in the Rethinking Hell Facebook group. But I propose that these two types would be more clearly designated by the names “endless conscious punishment” and “ultimate annihilation.” Let me explain why I think these terms are better.

Why the name “endless conscious punishment”?

Conscious

A very common name for this position is “eternal conscious torment,” and you will notice that “conscious” has survived in my own proposal. That is probably the most important term in both names, because the question of consciousness is what primarily distinguishes this position from annihilationism which asserts that, at some time, the people under God’s judgment are no longer conscious, because God has annihilated them.

“Endless” rather than “eternal”

“Eternal” is too ambiguous a term to be helpful. Evangelical annihilationists argue that they too believe that God’s judgment of the wicked is “eternal,” in the sense that it never comes to an end, contrary to universalism, for instance. But even in the New Testament, where ai?nios is very often the term we translate as “eternal,” it does not mean “endless.” Sometimes, it simply means something like “throughout the age” (cf. Rom 16:25; 2 Tim 1:9 and Titus 1:2), but it refers to something which has had an end. That is the sense which some annihilationists apply to ai?nios, often translated as “eternal,” when they speak of God’s eternal punishment of the wicked. It is a judgment that has an end, but not before God’s purpose has been accomplished, and the punishment is endless in its irreversible finality.

Annihilationists might protest my proposal, therefore, on the grounds that they too believe in endless punishment. That protest has some validity, and this is why “conscious” must be part of the name for what has been commonly called “eternal conscious torment.” Both positions assert the irreversibility of God’s declarative judgment of the wicked, but the key difference between them is that one asserts that the punishing continues endlessly and is consciously experienced by the judged, whereas the other understands “death” to be the primary form of punishment, and so consciousness comes to an end when the punishment reaches its climax, at which time God ceases to maintain the existence of the judged. So, taken together, “endless” and “conscious” nicely capture the distinct belief of the first position.

“Punishment” rather than “torment”

I know that torment is used on occasion to describe the state of the wicked, either in the intermediate state (Lk 16:23, 28) or in the eternal state (Rev 14:11; 18:10, 15). But I doubt that the term communicates well the point of God’s action towards the persistently unrepentant, to people in our time and culture. People commonly think of “torment” as an inherently evil action when one brings it upon another; it appears abusive. It does not conjure up in many people’s minds the concept of appropriate retributive punishment, yet that is what I take to be the primary point of the biblical teaching regarding God’s judgment. It glorifies God because it is a demonstration of his justice and, as such, it is good and right and deserved, and it is in no way abusive.

In the light of what I have said above, I suggest that “endless conscious punishment” represents most accurately the understanding of the state of those who deliberately, persistently, and unrepentantly rebel against God as this has been believed by the majority of Christian theologians throughout the church’s history, i.e., the view commonly dubbed “traditional.”

Why the name “ultimate annihilation”?

The inadequacy of the term “conditional immortality”

The Forsters, along with many other Christians in our time, identify their understanding of the  biblical teaching concerning hell as a belief in “conditional immortality.” This name does not communicate clearly the core beliefs of this perspective for various reasons. First of these is that “immortality” is an ambiguous term because it has at least 5 senses within Scripture and theology. (1) It refers to  independent life, and in this sense it is only true of God (1 Tim 6:15, 16). Only God has “life in himself” (Jn 5:26), so anyone else who is alive has that life from God. (2) It has been used of endless existence or indestructibility, and some Christians think that this is true of all spirits, including the human soul, but this is a Greek philosophical concept, which Scripture doesn’t teach. Most Christian theologians now assert that, in the  biblical view, if people continue to exist it is because God sustains them, not because of some metaphysical necessity. God could destroy a human soul if he chose (Mt 10:28).

(3) “Immortality” can refer to humanity in a state of freedom from the necessity of death. In this sense Adam was immortal before the fall, but he was still liable to death in case he should sin, which he did. (4) It could refer to the state of being completely immune from death, which many theologians believe would have been true of Adam and Eve if they had passed the probation. This will be the  condition of believers in glory – it is the immortality that is a gift of God to those who are in Christ (e.g. Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:53; 2 Tim 1:9-10). (5) The eternal life which God gives to believers can also be dubbed “immortality.” They have it immediately upon their union with Christ (Jn 3:15,16). It is the quality of life which is God’s life, in which we now participate in Christ and which will be more fully our experience in glory.

When we take into account these various meanings of immortality, “conditional immortality” obviously connotes nothing helpful. Because of the first sense, we must say that any being who has an endless life (cf. meaning 4), has it conditionally. So all Christian theologians should affirm the conditional immortality of believers and annihilationists are not distinctive in this regard. Given the widespread rejection of the Greek philosophical notion of the intrinsic immortality of the human soul, even among proponents of eternal conscious punishment, ECP also affirms “conditional immortality.” If, as ECPers believe, the wicked exist endlessly, it is by God’s sustenance, not because they are inherently indestructible.

“Annihilation”

Annihilation connotes very clearly what many evangelicals who reject ECP believe will be God’s final act of judgment upon the wicked. According to the position that is defended very thoroughly by Edward Fudge (The Fire that Consumes), the “destruction” that is the fate of the wicked is literally extermination or annihilation. I can think of no term that captures this idea more clearly than “annihilation.” One might think that the term “destruction” would do equally well, but it faces the problem of being a biblical term which ECPers understand in ways that include the continued existence of the wicked. “Annihilation,” however, is not specifically used in Scripture, and its meaning is unambiguous.

“Ultimate”

Some theologians who identify themselves as Christian have denied that the wicked are raised, and they post that the wicked cease to exist when they die. More commonly, however, some propose that those whom God condemns in the final judgment will be annihilated immediately, as has been suggested tentatively, quite recently, by David Powys (“Hell”: A Hard Look at a Hard Question). I doubt that this position will be widespread but it has been suggested and it should not be cavalierly dismissed. My skepticism that it will gain much traction comes from the fact that, though all are sinners, some people sin more grievously than others. For God to  punish people like Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, and even mass killers on a smaller scale, with the same severity as he punishes a young child who violates his conscience in telling a lie or stealing a toy, seems patently unjust. The principle of proportionality that informs our sense of justice is explicit in Jesus’ parable regarding the master’s treatment of the faithful and the unfaithful slave (Lk 12:47,48).

Within evangelical circles, what I hear most commonly offered as the better alternative to the theory of ECP is the theory that I propose should be called  “ultimate annihilationism.” (Not suprisingly, that is the name I gave it in the article on “Hell,” in Global Dictionary of Theology, 374a.)

Shakespeare wondered what was “in a name,” since he thought that a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, II, 2), but I think that approach would head us down the road taken by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (as per my post here). When our intention is to communicate our thoughts, we do best to use words which are heard by others as we intended. So, naming is important, and these are the terms I will be using for the two positions identified in this post, unless/until I am convinced that others will do the job better.

Addendum, Mar 22/13

This post elicited some response in the Facebook group for “Rethinking Hell,” which is primarily a gathering place for annihilationists, though others are welcome. There, Peter Grice suggested that “endless suffering” would serve my purpose, since suffering entails consciousness. That name for the first position I discussed has significant merit. I am inclined to stay with “eternal conscious punishment,” however, in order to make explicit that the suffering of hell’s residents is God’s just judgment of them for their intentionally committed sins in rebellion against God.

In my first draft of this post, I had spoken of death as being the endless effect of God’s judgment, when his justice had been served upon the wicked during an appropriate time of suffering. Chris Date corrected me, pointing out that annihilationists characteristically believe the penalty for sin to be death (at least primarily, if not solely). Consequently, the destruction of the wicked in annihilative death is endless punishment.

I am grateful to these and others who participated in discussion of my thoughts. It was helpful to me.

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2 Responses to Better names for the two main alternatives regarding the nature of hell

  1. Stan Fowler says:

    Terry, I am in total agreement with your choice of terminology. Thanks for articulating the rationale so clearly. The topic is generating a fair bit of discussion in my cirlces, and it always helps to use terms that have descriptive power.

  2. Terrance Tiessen says:

    In the wake of animated discussion of this post, in the FB group for Rethinking Hell, I have edited the post slightly, and added an addendum.

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