Rethinking Hell is a compendium of readings by evangelical authors who advocate conditionalism. Conditionalism—also known as “conditional immortality” and “annihilationism”—is the belief that hell is “the wicked’s final total destruction,” not their “unending conscious torture,” as Edward W. Fudge states the distinction in his essay. It is a minority position among evangelical Christians, but one that has been gaining ground since the publication of Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes in 1984.
Because conditionalism differs from the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment, and because traditionalism is far and away the majority position among Christians, including evangelicals and Pentecostals (my theological tribes), it might be helpful to summarize why conditionalists think theirs is the correct biblical interpretation. Glenn A. People’s essay, “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism,” outlines its “principle arguments” under four headings:
- Immortality: “Eternal life in the sense of life without end is not a natural human possession. We are bereft of it because of sin, and God promises to give it to those who are united to Christ. Immortality is therefore not universal or inherent but conditional.” See, for example, 2 Timothy 1:9b–10.
- A World Without Evil: “The biblical writers anticipate a time when everything that exists will be united under Christ,” for example, Ephesians 1:9–10 and 1 Corinthians 15:24–28. “Creation itself will be brought into a state of sinless perfection to the praise of God’s glory, and the dualistic portrait of eternity with heaven on one side and hell on the other side finds no home in Scripture….”
- Substitutionary Atonement: “The New Testament is replete with the language of Jesus dying for sin, for sinners, and for us. Whatever else this might mean, it at least means that in Christ’s passion and ultimately his death we see what comes of sin,” for example, 1 Peter 3:18.
- Destruction: “[E]vangelical conditionalists observe that Scripture uses a range of language and images to refer to the fate of humanity without salvation through Christ: punishment, darkness, fire, death, destruction, being blotted out, and so on. Without any doubt, however, the overwhelming preponderance of the clearest such language speaks of the final death and destruction of the enemies of God.” For example, see Matthew 10:28, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 2 Peter 2:6.
Arguments 1, 3, and 4 recur through Rethinking Hell’s twenty-two chapters. In addition to these biblical arguments, several of the chapters make historical arguments to the effect that conditionalism was a live option among Christianity’s theologians in the second and third centuries. Only with Augustine in the fourth century does eternal conscious torment become the majority point of view, one shared by Augustine’s descendants in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and Evangelical Revivalism.
At a philosophical level, conditionalists argue that eternal conscious torment is disportionate punishment, thus violating the character of God and the lex talionis principle of biblical law. Traditionalists typically respond in one of two ways to this: First, that an eternity of punishment is appropriate, since sin is an offense against an infinite God. This is a longstanding reply, memorably articulated by Thomas Aquinas. More recently, a second reply has been offered: an eternity of punishment is warranted because in hell, sinners continue to rebel against God. As C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”
The most common objection to conditionalism is the use of the adjective “eternal” to describe the fate of the wicked. Jesus juxtaposed “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46. Since Augustine, this has been taken to show that the life of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked are both everlasting. The standard conditionalist reply is that the consequences of hell, that is, annihilation, are everlasting, not the experience of hell, that is, punishment. While this understanding may work in many cases, traditionalists argue that it doesn’t work for Revelation 20:10, which speaks of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet being thrown into “the lack of burning sulphur,” where they will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” In 20:15, anyone “whose name was not found written in the book of life” was thrown into the lake as well, presumably to suffer the same fate.
I mention these objections and replies to illustrate basic elements in the debate between traditionalists and conditionalists.
Rethinking Hell is a good book, though if you are looking to purchase and read just one book advocating conditional immortality, I would recommend the third edition of Edward W. Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes. Advocates in both camps agree that this is the classic modern statement of the position. Still, this book has its value, even if—or perhaps especially if—you do not agree with its conclusions.
Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, and Joshua W. Anderson, eds., Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).
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