Monday, August 22, 2011

"What Is Behind the Change?" Evangelicals and The Abandonment of the Traditional View of Hell

“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.

Fudge continues:

“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.


Edward Fudge said...


Thank you for stepping up to defend your view of hell. I appreciate your zeal and your studious effort. A major question that traditionalists still face is this: since Scripture envisions human immortality only of the redeemed, and since humans are totally dependent on God for existence itse3lf, on what basis can anyone who is totally separated from God exist forever for the purpose of suffering pain? God bless! - Edward

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


Thanks so much for responding here at the Center for Theological Studies. It is such an honor to have you comment here at my blog. I am rather speechless...

In regards to your question, there is an assumption you have regarding the Scriptures that I do not: that is, "Scripture envisions human immortality only of the redeemed." What I see from the text is that both believers and unbelievers will be judged for their deeds. I also see that death itself will be annihilated in the lake of fire before unbelievers are thrown into it (Rev. 20:14-15). Thus, I do not see unbelievers as not possessing immortality.

I think the issue with immortality comes down to a verse that Dr. Clark Pinnock used to argue for conditional immortality: that is, 2 Timothy 1:10, where it says that Christ "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (NASB). Christ abolished death, that is, did away with death...and then, He brought immortality "to light." What does this phrase "to light mean"? It does not mean that He brought immortality into existence---to "manifest" is different from "to create." If someone manifests something, he or she brings out what already existed but was hidden. To create means to bring forth something that did not exist prior to the time of its creation. To manifest and to create are two different things.

Christ brought immortality to the knowledge of mankind...but this does not mean that the gospel "created" immortality. Rather, the gospel revealed that which was hidden (Christ and immortality). Since God has always known His works from eternity, He always created man to live forever...this is why the fall was such a tragedy (Genesis 3).

Thanks Edward for responding. I look forward to more dialogue in the future. God bless.

Edward Fudge said...


Most traditionalists today disagree with Shedd's presupposition that every soul is immortal, and instead agree with Oscar Cullmann that the NT grounds the believer's hope of life everlasting in God's resurrection of the body and not in some imagined immortality of the soul.

Regarding your own assumption of universal human immortality, please consider the following.

1. I agree with you that the saved and unsaved are all raised from the dead and are judged for their deeds. However, there is an important difference according to Jesus. Those who have done what is good will experience a resurrection of "life," but those who have done the evil will experience a resurrection of judgment/condemnation (Jn 5:29). In keeping with this, Paul says that eternal "life" awaits those who by perseverence in well-doing have sought "glory, honor and immortality" -- which all belong together, and which all are said only of the saved (Rom 2:7). Evildoers will not experience (eternal) "life," but instead will experience the second "death."

2. You suggest that "death itself will be annihilated in the lake of fire before unbelievers are thrown into it (Rev. 20:14-15)." From this you propose that unbelievers will not finally die, since "death" has been annihilated. However, this proposal overlooks the fact that, in these very verses, John takes special effort to explain that the lake of fire is the "second death" that awaits all whose names are not found in the book of life.

The "death" that is annihilated in the lake of fire is the "first" (physical) death. The "book of life" is a symbol drawn from the practice of a city having a register of all living citizens. When a citizen dies, his or her name is taken from the book of the living (book of life). Just so, the day will come when humans all are divided into two groups: on one hand are the living citizens of the New Jerusalem, whose names are registered in the book of life. On the other hand are those who are cast into the lake of fire, where they experience the "second death." It is finally life or death.

3. You surmise that for my friend Clark Pinnock (now asleep in Jesus and resting from his labors), 2 Tim 1:10 was a key verse on immortality. Perhaps so, but not, I think, in the way you explain, but rather simply as a statement that Christ's own resurrection and the gospel that announces it uncover (bring to light) for the first time the only true immortality available to humans. And it is not the supposed immortality of the soul espoused by Socrates and Plato and their kin, but the embodied immortality of a whole person through the divine work of resurrection from among the dead.

I would say (and I think Clark would have agreed with this) that the central text on immortality is 1 Tim 6:16, which says that God "only possesses immortality," that is, only God is inherently immortal of his own nature. All human immortality is therefore derived and is a gift from God. I find it both interesting and very significant that EVERY time the NT uses the words "immortal" or "immortality," "incorruptible" or "incorruption" with respect to human beings, it always applies those words to the saved (never to the unsaved); always to an embodied whole person (never to a disembodied soul or spirit), and always a result of the resurrection (never the result of creation or even of present regeneration). Please tell me if you find any exception to this statement.

4. Finally, I note that 1 Cor 15 is the grand chapter of the NT concerning what we can expect when we "put on immortality" in the resurrection. It is crystal clear, I think, and therefore all but universally agreed, that the description throughout this chapter fits only the redeemed, not the lost. I commend this great chapter for your thoughtful consideration.


Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


Thanks for continuing our discussion.

About Dr. Pinnock...have you read his chapter in "Four Views on Hell," a book of the Zondervan counterpoints series? I recommend this chapter to you because I myself have read Dr. Pinnock...and I think I have good grip on what Dr. Pinnock means by 2 Timothy 1:10. If the conditional immortalist view is that one gains immortality by trusting in Christ, then this is made problematic by the verse itself. Immortality, on this view, would be created by the gospel, not pre-existing. In this way, conditional immortality disagrees with the idea of soul immortality that exists from birth (although, as you have said in your book, Plato would argue that the soul has eternally existed. If I didn't read your quote right about Plato, please explain this. I just wanna make sure I'm reading you correctly).

I want to also address the following statement you make:

"I find it both interesting and very significant that EVERY time the NT uses the words "immortal" or "immortality," "incorruptible" or "incorruption" with respect to human beings, it always applies those words to the saved (never to the unsaved); always to an embodied whole person (never to a disembodied soul or spirit), and always a result of the resurrection (never the result of creation or even of present regeneration)."

In my response to this, let me say that the apostle Paul referred to believers in the following manner: that when we are absent from the body, we are at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). If we are absent from the body, then we have dropped this physical flesh to be at home with the Lord. But, if we are home with the Lord (and absent from the physical body), how can we even exist? If believers die each day, and yet, the time has not come for the saints of God to be raised to eternal life (and given an immortal body of some sort), how then can they exist currently at home with the Lord? If the saints of God exist apart from a physical (or even immaterial) body, what explains their current presence with the Lord? The soul, as an immortal component, seems to me to be the only explanation for this. Having said this, there is no need for the claim of "immortal" in regards to the disembodied soul. The soul must be disembodied if, possessing no body, the person still exists in eternity with God (apart from physical death or the resurrection).

Let me say that your statement that the text never mentions immortality in regards to the unsaved is one that appears to me to be true. However, I think what you overlook in this observation is that the majority of the biblical text was written to "the saints of God" in Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, etc., the places where house churches were located. As a result, there is very little in the text that tells us of the eternal state of the ungodly (though I think Mark 9 provides a good example). From my own studies, the majority of what believers can know about the ungodly state is present in the book of Revelation, a place that you deny points to conscious torment in the afterlife because of the words for destruction that are placed within the NT. And yet, Revelation 14:10-11 tells us that the wicked will be "tormented day and night, forever and ever." I could easily say the same thing about annihilation that you have said about immortality: nowhere in the text do we ever find any statement that the torment for the wicked will come to an end. In fact, if Revelation 14 is correct, they are tormented for all eternity. The text in fact says, "they have no rest day and night" (Rev. 14:11) . How does this square with conditional immortality? The conditional immortalist (if I have read correctly), says that there will be some form of torment for a time, but then, the person will cease to be and the torment will end. Where is this assumption of annihilationism in Scripture?

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...

I have said all this to say that I think conditional immortalists desire Christians to read references to the lake of fire, "death," and "destruction" and "destroyed" and draw an inference in the following way: fire destroys, fire burns up...therefore, unbelievers will be burned up, annihilated, and will cease to be. However, I have far more references that the fire will not go out (Mark 9:44, 46, 48), and that the ungodly will not cease to be (Mark 9:43-48, not to mention Revelation 14:10-11 and others). This in and of itself lends credence to the traditionalist view.

I'm not simply rejecting annihilationism because it seems to me to be an interesting interpretation; I desire to see more of the view itself in Scripture. We have to reason with what the Scriptures provide regarding the ungodly. And it seems to me that annihilationists desire traditionalists to draw inferences in which there is little exegetical insight to agree with them. Traditionalists, on the other hand, have verses like Rev. 14:10-11 by which to make their case. Annihilationists will have to show that annihilationism is in the text and then draw inferences to the view itself before it will convince most traditionalists. Please do write again and continue this dialogue.