“What if the biblical foundations thought to support unending conscious torment are less secure than has been widely supposed? What about a growing doubt concerning the idea that God, who gave his Son to die for sinful human beings, will keep billions of those same people alive forever, only to torment them without end? Since publication of The Fire That Consumes in 1982, earnest believers throughout the world have voiced suspicions just such as these” (Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011, page 5).
This new series will analyze the ideas set forth in the work of Edward William Fudge. Fudge is credited by Clark Pinnock for Pinnock’s eventual espousal of the doctrine of annihilationism (see his “A Wideness in God’s Mercy”). He is also credited with the conversion of retired pastor Neal Punt, author of “A Theology of Inclusivism.” Fudge made a significant impact on both of these men, who not only came around to embrace annihilationism, but also inclusivism. Interesting...
In the introductory chapter, titled “Rethinking Hell: Apostasy or New Reformation?”, Fudge details the change of thought of many evangelical pastors over the last twenty-nine years regarding hell (since the publication of the first edition of The Fire That Consumes back in 1982). There are many pastors such as Al Mohler who say that the traditional view of hell has not been abandoned because of conviction, but because of “theological compromise” (The Fire That Consumes, page 4). Here, however, Fudge believes there is more to the change of views regarding hell than issues of compromise; instead, more people are revising their view of hell because they are coming to hold the traditional view in suspicion:
“What if the biblical foundations thought to support unending conscious torment are less secure than has been widely supposed?”
In other words, people are doubting the traditional view because it is “less secure” than other views on hell, has less evidence for attestation. This usually refers to a change of conviction regarding the biblical evidence.
“What about a growing doubt concerning the idea that God, who gave his Son to die for sinful human beings, will keep billions of those same people alive forever, only to torment them without end?” (The Fire That Consumes, 5).
This amounts to, “People have come to disbelieve the horrific idea that God would consciously torment for all eternity those who do not believe in Him.”
Notice that first, “God gave His Son to die for sinful human beings.” This shows God’s universal love, His love for the entire world and every person in it. And for these individuals, Fudge says, the ideas of God’s universal love and conscious torment in hell for unbelievers do not reconcile. But is this true? Is it true that the love of God (Jesus dying for sinners) cannot be reconciled with eternal conscious torment?
No, not at all. The ideas here can be summarized in two words (one for each idea): love and judgment. And the individuals who are turning away from the traditional view of hell are doing so because they cannot reconcile love and judgment.
I discussed this very same thing with an atheistic agnostic this summer (yes, an “atheistic agnostic”). I asked him, “Do parents love their children when they punish them?”, to which he responded, “Don’t go there---that’s not the same as banning a child from playing video games for a week.” I agree with him that conscious eternal torment is not the same as banning a child from playing video games; however, at the same time, this atheist missed the point of my question. The question itself was posed regarding finite sin, that which is committed regarding finite things. But is belief “finite”? Is belief an issue of the here and now, time? No. Actually, according to Jesus’ own words, belief/unbelief impacts eternity:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NASB).
“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18, NASB).
The King James Version substitutes in the place of “judged” the word “condemned.” I think this brings out the serious consequences of unbelief.
Now, back to the question: Is belief/unbelief “finite” in nature? Someone could say, “Yes it is, because it is for a limited time---one’s time on earth as a human being.” This definition of finite is a definition, but it does not match the point Jesus is getting at. For Jesus, it is not just that faith/unbelief impacts eternity; rather, it is faith/unbelief until death that impacts eternity. This is why we find these words of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel:
“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
And these words in Revelation:
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10c).
It is endurance “to the end” and faithfulness “until death” that results in eternal life. While faith and unbelief are of a finite duration (in terms of human life), their impact stretches beyond human life into eternal life---either life in Heaven with God or life in Hell with Satan. Because God places such eternal stakes on belief and unbelief, we must come to see all of life the way God does. If a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3:8), then a lifetime with God (something counted miniscule in the grand scheme of world history) is greater in nature than we can understand. If this is the case, even a finite lifetime can be deemed eternal by God.
All of the above exposition is to make the case that what is deemed “finite” to us, or “temporal” in human understanding is deemed by God to be of “eternal” estimation. However, here is where some would object to the divine estimation and say that God’s judgment isn’t fair...
But, would you then not be guilty of reducing the divine to the human? Would you not be guilty at this point of presuming to know how to best evaluate and judge unbelievers instead of allowing God to exercise His sovereignty to judge?
This is the exact problem with the question above regarding God’s universal love and conscious eternal torment: if God is sovereign enough to choose to die for sinful humanity, does He not also have the prerogative to consciously torment unbelievers for all eternity? I think He does. And this is where many annihilationists seem to focus more on pointing out the horrific nature of conscious torment, rather than pointing out the horrific nature of unbelief. If you ask me, I think that unbelief unto death is just as horrific (if you use this word in this context) as conscious torment for all eternity. But whom am I, and what is the significance of my estimation? Before we listen to any one human’s thoughts on the subject, shouldn’t we listen to what God has to say?
If one rejects God’s love (His sacrifice that purchases eternal salvation), what else is there to accept but God’s wrath (eternal condemnation)? When Esau rejected his birthright (and the father’s blessing), what else could he receive but cursing (Hebrews 12:17)? How then, is it unbelievable to entertain the idea of conscious eternal torment, when God’s eternal love has been shunned and rejected?
I will stop here for now. However, let me say that annihilationists are plagued by the question, “How can a loving God consciously torment guilty sinners?”; when one considers this last question, though, one must remember that it was in the prerogative of God’s love that He sent Jesus to die for sinful humanity...if His decision to love is His prerogative, so is His decision to punish. God bless.