rethinking hell

I prepped for today’s class discussion on hell by reading a new book, Rethinking Hell, which I kindly received from one of the editors. The book is a collection of evangelical authors arguing for conditional immortality—often referred to as annihilationism—which says that the damned in hell do not suffer forever but mercifully die and go out of existence. The smoke and worms may last forever, but not the people who are sent there. Most of the essays in the book have been published elsewhere, but this book makes it easier to find them. It’s like the Amazon of Annihilationism, which is also where you can buy one.

Because these chapters were written separately, there is a bit of redundancy in bringing them together. But in some ways that is a benefit, as one can see how various authors explain differently the key passages, such as Rev. 20:10 and 14:11, that seem to teach that suffering in hell lasts forever.

Regarding Rev. 20:10, which says that Satan, the beast, and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” Edward Fudge says the beast and the false prophet are merely the “personification of civil and religious powers opposing Christ” (40). Harold Guillebaud agrees they are not human beings, or at any rate not “ordinary human beings.” If the beast and the false prophet are humans, they are “incarnations of Satan, filled with his spirit,” and so deserving of prolonged torment (170). But even Satan’s suffering must eventually come to an end, or evil is eternal. How can God claim to have defeated evil if Satan continues to exist? (172). I would respond by saying that since Satan will exist in hell, a place of torment outside of this restored world, it would be easy still for God to claim total victory.

I read first Ralph Bowles’ chapter on Rev. 14:11, which I consider the clearest passage for unending suffering. I commend his chapter for your consideration. Bowles’ argument is essentially that Rev. 14:9-11 presents an “inverted parallelistic structure,” which means that the phrase “the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever” does not chronologically follow the judgment of verse 10. John is not saying that sinners will suffer forever after the Last Judgment, only that they will suffer as long as their torment continues. I can see how Bowles’ argument would persuade those who want to be convinced, but skeptics like me might think he is working too hard to explain away an uncomfortable truth. At least it would seem difficult for lay Christians to follow the turns of his argument.

What most interests me are the theological implications of this revised view on hell. Annihilationism is not the same thing as denying the existence of hell, but it does push in that direction. The whole point behind annihilationism is to soften the suffering in hell. The authors freely admit this is what they are doing, as the concept of unending suffering is “so terrible a burden on the faith and conscience” of Christians (168). One friend confided that he was an annihilationist because unending suffering in hell was unthinkable. I responded, “I know, and that’s the point. It’s supposed to be unbearable. It’s hell.”

The annihilationist’s softer view of hell does produce a lighter view on sin. Several authors claimed that finite creatures could not deserve infinite punishment, and God would be unjust to inflict that upon them (xiii, 205, 216-17). Nigel Wright claims that a God who inflicts unending suffering on others is “not worth believing in and it is hard to blame people who find it impossible to do so” (231).

Annihilationists emphasize the love of God, but at the expense of his justice. Wright writes, “The ultimate reality about God is not the iron logic of his justice and his laws but the illogical extravagance of his love” (229). There seems to be a short step from annihilationism to inclusivism—if God doesn’t think our sins deserve unending punishment, then also he may not think they deserve to keep us out of heaven. We may not need to believe in Jesus to be saved. It may be enough to respond to whatever light we have. There is a reason why this book includes a chapter by Clark Pinnock, and why at least one author is open to the possibility of universalism—perhaps God will save everyone before it’s all said and done (227).

Rethinking Hell is a helpful book, and it comes with a website for those who want to continue the conversation. I am not convinced by the arguments, and I am troubled by the dangerous trajectory I noted above, but it’s an important discussion to have, and I’ll have it later today.

8 Comments

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  1. Is Horton’s section on the topic good? Could you give a couple of bibliographic recommendations (besides, obviously, “In Christ Alone”)?

  2. Mike,
    I am always amazed when people say “I could never believe in a God who X” when in saying it they may have disbelieved in the God Who Is. While there are many difficult passages in the bible I do not see how trying to make it palatable helps anyone know the Risen Christ. If God in Christ is revealed as the final judge, and if as judge He threatens eternal hell how does it help the lost to tell them that “it really is not all as bad as that, you will only be damned for a little while and then nothing.”? I know this is the ultimate hard topic but I grow weary with those who try to soften the edges of hard Truth to (I suspect) assuage their own fears.
    Larry

  3. Two questions come to mind.

    Will God annihilate beings created in His own image?

    In His work on the cross on behalf of guilty sinners, was Jesus Christ annihilated?

    Cheers….

  4. “death, that is to say, the sum of the curse” – Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989). Hughes was a proponent of conditional immortality, a variant of the heresy of annihilationism. I would contend that he had, in the published statement of his cited in part above, expressed in summary form a definition of death that should have led him elsewhere than conditional immortality, but did not. First define what the curse is, then define death as the sum of those elements, and eternal death must be seen as eternal continuation in a condition under the curse, i.e., experiencing those very elements of which death is the sum. No form of annihilationism, conditional or otherwise, can consistently embrace such a definition.

    I questioned Dr. Bruce Waltke about Dr. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes at Pinebrook Bible Conference (East Stroudsburg, PA) in 1990 since at that time both men were, at least in my understanding, on the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. This was one year after the publication of P. E. Hughes’ book, The True Image. I had such high regard for Hughes, especially for his work on Hebrews and 2 Corinthians, that I was struggling with the issue of how he could have aligned himself with the heresy of conditional immortality. I asked Dr. Waltke privately if Hughes was driven to this by the exegesis of specific Scripture passages or something else. I also asked him how Hughes could continue on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary while holding such a view since it appeared to be contrary to the Westminster Standards. Dr. Waltke asked me if I was aware of the fact that Dr. Hughes had recently passed away. I was not. He told me that he felt Hughes had not come to this view exegetically, but that his convictions on the matter were “philosophically driven”. He went on to make me aware of the facts that:
    1) Dr. Waltke had been asked to head up a faculty committee to investigate whether Hughes should continue on the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary or not based on the conflict between his allegiance to conditional immortality and the Westminster Standards;
    2) The committee had concluded that given his continued belief in conditional immortality Dr. Hughes should not continue on the faculty;
    3) Dr. Hughes was then approached, and agreed with the committee’s findings;
    4) However, before any action could be taken he passed away.
    Needless to say, I never forgot this conversation with Dr. Waltke from 22 years ago this summer.

  5. FYI: Make that “…24 years ago this summer.” I wrote that 2 years ago!

  6. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III October 1, 2014 — 1:49 pm

    Dear Mike,

    The heresy of Annihilationism has been around for a long time. Some of the early church fathers had made statements that could have been taken to be annihilationism, e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.38.3; 5.23.1. In the 19th century E. White, J. B. Heard, the prebendaries Constable and Row in England, Richard Rothe in Germany; A. Sabatier in France; Switzerland had E. Petavel and Ch. Secretan; United States: C. F. Hudson, W. R. Huntington, C. C. Baker, L. W. Bacon and Horace Bushnell. I would add that the Jehovah Witnesses also have a form of Annihilationism and Hell.

    Regarding this statement from above, ““so terrible a burden on the faith and conscience” of Christians (168).” I question as to why this is a burden on the faith and conscience of Christians? As a Christian I do know that one of the reasons that I believed was the “threat of hell.” One of the greatest sermons in American Christianity, Jonathan Edwards’, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” promotes the threat of hell, but that threat is for “sinners” who have not believed. It seems that there is a misplaced guilt being put on the Christian as well as a mistaken notion that a “loving God would not send some one to hell.” There is an inadequate view of the nature of God. Your comment on an the lack of emphasis on the justice of God is spot on.

    Finally, suffering is not what man likes to hear or experience. The current attempts of ignoring certain NT passages regarding the sufferings of Christians proves that point. It is also the very point that “atheists” use to prove the non-existence of God. This just proves that “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.” God is holy. He cannot have sin in His presence. It is banished from Him. That banishment does not mean Annihilationism.

  7. Hi Mike,

    Thanks so much for reviewing our book! Of course there’s a lot I’d say in response to your post and the comments from your readers, but I’m just thankful you took the time.

    Would you be interested in debating the topic in written or audio form? I am a conservative, Reformed Christian who to this day does not question the justice of the traditional view, and was instead convinced by exegesis of annihilationism. It was particularly traditionalist proof-texts like Rev 14 that convinced me, which upon closer examination prove to be far better support for the final annihilation of the lost than for their eternal torment. I’d love to have the opportunity to demonstrate that in a debate of some sort with you. Let me know, and thanks again!

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