Should we rethink “hell”?

I had an interesting invitation today from Chris Date, who  blogs at Rethinking Hell. He asked if they could interview me for a podcast, and if I would be willing to write an endorsement for their web site. I declined on the first request but acceded to the second. They have done a very fine bit of web page development, and they are offering a good resource for people wanting to examine what Scripture has to say about the final judgment of God’s enemies. They describe their project this way:

The Rethinking Hell project is a partnership between two groups of people: Evangelical Christians who have been through the above process concerning Hell and concluded that Conditionalism (see below) is the most biblical view, and others who are willing to investigate the case for Conditionalism and engage with us, to be found in the right process together.

You may never change your view.  We may learn things from you instead.  In fact, we’re open in principle to being wrong about Hell (remember, we already think we were wrong previously!).  Even if you don’t change your view, it will at least be properly informed and biblically scrutinized.  You will have tested your own willingness to let Scripture expose any misunderstandings, which is always worthwhile.

And here is what they mean by “conditionalism”:

 Framed against the biblical metaphor of fire, Conditionalists hold that God’s judgment ultimately consumes or annihilates a person. Ordinarily, fire consumes things that are tossed into it (in the case of people, they die). Universalists focus on the metaphor of fire signifying refinement and purification, burning away that which is unfit for Heaven.  Fire can work that way with metals, or a forest, for example. Traditionalists actually agree with Universalists that the fire does not completely destroy the unsaved, but side with Conditionalists in strongly rejecting any passage from Hell to Heaven. These two tenets of Traditionalism require that hellfire be the sort of thing that inflicts perpetual suffering. In terms of metaphor, fire certainly can inflict pain without causing death. Conditionalists would point out the obvious limitations on this.

So, should we rethink hell?

 If, by “rethink” we mean “think again” about it, then the answer is definitely yes. I don’t suggest, however, that there is anything seriously wrong with the traditional (eternal conscious punishment) view, requiring that it be rethought with the intention of revision. One does not need to have doubts about the position one holds, to seriously reconsider its truthfulness. Given that we are all fallible, we do well to be continually thinking again about the things we believe. Sometimes, when we study someone else’s reading of Scripture, which differs from ours, we end up believing exactly what we did before we started, but sometimes we change our minds – perhaps more than once, on a given subject.

Hell was prominent in the teaching of Jesus, so it is rather surprising how seldom we hear the word in evangelical churches. It is much more common on the streets of North American cities, where people regularly tell others to “go to hell.” But most of the people who say that don’t believe in hell. In fact, I hope they don’t, because if they did, this would be the most horrifying curse anyone can imagine. To wish upon a person that she or he be endlessly alienated from God, and remain under the wrath of his condemnation, would be a terrible thing. We can, and sometimes should, warn people, as in, “you are going to hell!,” but we dare not send them there. However awful a person’s deeds have been, and we can all think of truly horrific examples, we must hope that by God’s grace they will come to repentance and that we will joyfully fellowship with them in God’s renewed earth. I recognize that this desire itself can only come to us by God’s grace, but it is what we should seek. There is a place for imprecation, after the manner of the Psalmists, I believe. But, when we hope for God’s judgment of others, it must surely be for a judgment in this life which bears fruit in repentance and reconciliation.

Some who read this may wonder why I was interviewed for an interview by creators of a site promoting conditionalism, which I have generally called “ultimate annihilationism.” Is it because I am myself a conditionalist? The answer is “no,” but someone had pointed them to a blog post more than two years ago, on “Jesus Creed,” “in which you appear to say that you are ‘almost, but not quite, persuaded’ of conditional immortality/annihilationism.” This led them to wonder where I might be on the subject today.

Might I have crossed the line?, they wondered. I haven’t. I continue to believe that hell is eternal conscious punishment, but I am no less impressed with the quality of the exegetical work done by annihilationists, in particular by Edward Fudge in The Fire that Consumes.

Given the request I received today, I thought it might be timely for me to post my summary of the traditionalist critique of ultimate annihilationism, as published in the article on “Hell,” in the Global Dictionary of Christian Theology. I still find this critique persuasive, even though I acknowledge the force of the case for ultimate annihilationism, and I do not consider it to be a dangerous doctrine, as many fellow evangelicals do.

 3.3.2 Response to Ultimate Annihilationism.

(1) Many contemporary believers in eternal conscious punishment do not accept the Platonic view that souls are inherently immortal; they acknowledge that creatures exist only because God sustains them and that God can destroy both body and soul, but they insist that Scripture teaches the endless punishment of the wicked. The continued existence of condemned sinners is not the “life” which God gives only to those who are reconciled with him, but that does not mean that the wicked are annihilated.

(2) Scripture speaks of the punishment of the wicked as being of the same duration as the blessing of the righteous, i.e., eternal (aionios), or forever and ever (Is 33:14; 66:24; Jer 17:4; Mt 18:8; 25:41,46; Mk 9:43-48; 2 Thess 1:9; Jude 7; Rev 14:11; 20:10), and  nothing in the context of these passages indicates that the word “eternal” has a different meaning in the two cases.

(3) In response to the charge that endless punishment would be an infinite penalty for a finite sin, the point made above to universalists applies again, but traditionalists also observe that sinners continue to be consciously punished because they continue to rebel against God or because they are not repentant, even when they are subdued.

(4) The goodness and love of God are not compromised by his holiness and the exercise of his justice. It is because God is eternal that our experience of his love, either as fellowship or as wrath, lasts forever (Rev 4:9, cf. Rom 14:11).

(5) An exegetical problem occurs when annihilationists force a chronological lapse of time into New Testament passages in order to make a distinction between passages that speak of punishment and those which speak of destruction, which would allow for a time of suffering prior to annihilation.

(6) The terms translated “destroy” (apollumi, olethros, phtheiro)4 do not necessarily indicate annihilation, although it is a possibility in some instances. Even in the instances when “eternal” has a qualitative rather than a temporal sense, referring to destruction that lasts “for an age,” the age referred to is the age to come, which has no end.

(7) In regard to death being “no more” (Rev 21:4), the point is that death is now outside the new heavens and new earth, thrown into the lake of fire and not a part of the creation that replaces the old creation in which death is so large a factor since sin.

(8) As to the final victory of God, the comments above in response to universalism also address the annihilationist concerns. (375-76)

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8 Responses to Should we rethink “hell”?

  1. Chris Date says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent post. We at Rethinking Hell are not primarily interested in convincing people of conditional immortality (annihilationism). That is certainly part of our goal, but more importantly we hope to have a positive impact on the evangelical conversation on the topic, to encourage people of all positions on hell to engage in open and respectful dialogue with one another. I think if they emulate your approach as evidenced by this post, they would do very well :)

  2. Mario Morales says:

    Commenting only to receive follow-up (comment) emails.

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  5. Daryl Climenhaga says:

    Thank you, Terry. I waver between “ultimate annihilationism” and eternal conscious torment. I don’t see the former as somehow less fully a punishment than the latter. I wonder how one cast out from God’s presence would continue to exist in any meaningful sense: Outside omnipresence would seem to be outside existence. In either case the destiny of those outside of Christ is terrible.

    The difficulty that people in our society have with the idea of hell derives I think from our assumption that every problem should be fixable. Therefore God (the ultimate power) should be able to fix evil in people and bring them to himself. But this assumption rests on a further assumption: That our finite minds can define what God may or may not do. We start rather with God defining himself, and then derive our understanding from God. For us as Christians that means we start with Scripture, not with our society’s assumptions.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Good thoughts Daryl. I share your belief that ultimate annihilation is no less final. I am particularly unable to grasp the concern of some people (such as some of those who strongly condemned John Stott for his stance) that annihilationism would diminish our evangelistic zeal. The awfulness of being forever cut off from fellowship with God is so terrible that it is hard for me to fathom how either of these views would affect one’s passion for evangelism. I heard of evangelical churches that took all of John Stott’s books out of their library, and of teachers who no longer recommended any of his books, after he revealed that he believed in hell as ultimate annihilation. The church is a dangerous place sometimes.

  6. Roy says:

    The RH guys do a great job with their interviews. They’re very respectful and it’s good to understand why people believe what they believe. Think you missed out on a great opportunity :(.

    Re: your arguments.

    1. “… but they insist that Scripture teaches the endless punishment of the wicked …”.
    This is much easier said than demonstrated. Can you demonstrate Scripture teaches this?

    2. This is a little bit cheeky not looking at the word after “eternal” …
    Is 33:14 – “eternal burning”, but should be considered with the first partner in the parallel of “consuming fire”. (Ie, it can’t both consume and burn eternally – that seems contradictory).

    Is 66:24 – “fire will not be quenched” (It’s the fire, not the torment). I can see some bush-fire fighters talking about a fire that won’t be quenched.

    Jer 17:4 – “you have kindled a *fire* in My anger which will burn forever”

    Mt 18:8 – “eternal fire”

    Mt 25:41 – “eternal fire”

    Mt 25:46 – “eternal punishment”

    Mk 9:43-48 – “unquenchable fire” / “fire will not be quenched”

    2 Thess 1:9 – “eternal destruction” (This is not “eternal destroying”)

    Jude 7 – “eternal fire”. Btw is Sodom and Gomorrah still burning, which is an example of the “eternal fire”? Is the scripture wrong in its teaching? Or have we misunderstood what is meant by “eternal fire”?

    Rev 14:11 – “Smoke of their torment”. Okay, this is a tricky one. What do you make of the angel a few verses later shedding their blood?

    Rev 20:10 – Devil/beast/false prophet – thrown into the lake of fire, tormented day and night. However, what does this mean in context – particularly against a backdrop of apocalyptic language. Eg, the beast refers to Babylon – a corporate entity.

    3. Is there Scriptural evidence for this assertion?

    4. God is eternal, yes, as these verses point out. However, it doesn’t follow that God would torment people for eternity because He is eternal, after all, we are not God but His finite creatures. So, again, is there Scriptural evidence for this assertion?

    5. I’m not sure I understand this.

    6. Interesting the backflip here on what “eternal” means cf with your point #2. I don’t know Greek, but I know what ‘destroy’ means. It’s also worth looking up the word ‘perish’ in the dictionary and then doing a word search in the scriptures for ‘destroy’, ‘destruction’, ‘perish’. Eg John 3:16. Care must also be taken not to fall into the trap of looking at the semantic range without the context.

    7. I’m not sure if this has any bearing on annhilationism. Although the defeat of death should probably have a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection.

    8. No comment

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Roy, thank you for sharing your response to the key objections that traditionalists raise against the annihilationist position. I have no doubt that the interviewers at RH would have treated me well. I declined to be interviewed, however, because I am not really interested in defending eternal conscious punishment to convinced annihilationists. I think that the case for the latter position is very strong though I have not (yet?) been converted to it. I didn’t want to take the time necessary to pull together an explanation for my remaining a traditionalist, because I don’t think that anything important is at stake in this difference of interpretation, and there are other theological issues calling more strongly for my attention right now.

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