Should Christians “re-think” the doctrine of hell? The editors of a new volume entitled Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism certainly think so. (At the outset, I should disclose I personally know two the editors: Greg Stump was my pastor at the church I attended in California, and Josh Anderson was a friend and fellow student at Talbot School of Theology). Theirs is a compendium of articles written over the last hundred years or so that claim three things: (1) the human soul is not naturally immortal, (2) the duration of punishment suffered by the wicked is finite, and (3) the effect of the final punishment on the wicked is the cessation of their existence. The authors of these articles, hailing from vastly different neighborhoods of evangelicalism and the broader Christian world, argue for each of these claims via biblical exegesis, historical survey, theological consideration, and philosophic argument. That these three claims–that go by the names “annihilationism,” “conditionalism,” or “conditional immortality”–could garner support from such a diverse cross-section of believers merits serious attention (I will refer to this view as “conditionalism” hereafter).*
The case for conditionalism can begin in different places. One might be motivated by the biblical language of “destruction” and read the metaphors of “unquenchable fire” and “undying worms” as referring to powers that bring about the end of one’s existence. Or one might begin with considerations about the human soul and the asymmetry of its properties in the afterlife: the righteous are given the gift of immortality while the wicked are brought to the end of their mortality which counts as the everlasting effect of divine punishment. Another starting place could be the sense of disproportionality the doctrine of eternal conscious torment requires: no finite sin could merit infinite punishment. Still another could be a moral or aesthetic judgment about salvation history: a really good or beautiful world, the kind that God would create and re-make, would not include a place where there is everlasting misery.
No matter where one begins, one can marshall biblical evidence to support one’s case. Texts that speak of destruction and death seem to indicate an end of existence rather than eternal endurance (Matthew 7:13-14; 10:28; Luke 13:3; 17:29-30; John 3:16; Romans 6:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Heb 10:39 2 Peter 2:6), and those that are marshalled in support of eternal conscious torment can be better read as an unendurable punishment that causes the eternal effect of non-existence (see here for explanations if you are interested). Texts that support the idea that immortality is contingent upon God’s grace, and not an essential property of the human soul are found in Genesis 3:22-23, Revelation 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 15:50-53. And most interestingly, the New Testament speaks of a proportionality condition with respect to punishment in Luke 12:47-48.
If conditionalism is right, then why has the view of eternal conscious torment been so dominant throughout church history? Answer: early on the the Church Fathers were influenced by Platonic philosophy, which taught the soul was naturally immortal. This influence reached its apogee with Augustine who argued that eternal conscious torment was the only interpretive option available since the soul could not be annihilated. Not even an omnipotent God could undo his own handiwork: once made, the human soul cannot be unmade; thus,the full power of God’s wrath could only be expressed in unending torment.
There are objections to conditionalism, of course, most which focus on matters of biblical interpretation, and I will not rehearse them here (for more see this pair of essays by Alan Gomes: 1, 2). Since I am trained as a philosopher, I will focus on some of the philosophical motivations for the view. With respect to proportionality, the objection that finite sins do not merit infinite punishment is ambiguous. In what sense are sins finite? Is it in terms of the amount of time it takes to commit them? If so, why couldn’t this undermine conditionalism as much as it does traditionalism? After all, the consequences of sins are eternal in both. Interestingly, this does not go unobserved by a contributor in this volume who argues that a good God could never perform divine capital punishment on sinners, and opts for a view where one goes out of existence as a result of one’s own spurning divine grace. According to this author, God is not in the business of meeting out punishment in the afterlife, which seems implausible given the biblical evidence cited above.
Perhaps the finite/infinite distinction is to be understood in terms of harm: no sin could do infinite harm; therefore, it is not worthy of infinite punishment. But this is far from obvious. Suppose Smith would have repented at time t2, had Jones not murdered him at t1. Since Smith is forever shut out from the presence of God, Jones’s sin causes Smith an infinite loss. Assuming Jones does not repent, why shouldn’t Jones be suffer this same infinite loss too? Thus, the proportionality objection proves too little and the goodness-of-God objection proves too much. Conditionalism should probably just stick to the biblical arguments and not wander into these rhetorically empty maneuvers.
One of the more interesting suggestions that deserves more attention is how the death of Jesus relates to the kind of punishment the wicked might face. Glenn Peoples writes, “In identifying with sinners and standing in their place, Jesus bore what they would have borne. Abandonment by God, yes. Suffering, yes. But crucially, death.” As a theological consideration, I have often wondered if this where we should look to understand the sort of fate we might face if we refuse Christ as our substitute. Of course, this would assume a version of penal-substitutionary atonement that is not definite, an assumption that many are not eager to embrace.
While the book becomes repetitive after about 200 pages, one cannot help but feel challenged by the depth and breadth of biblical exegesis marshalled in support of a view of hell that is growing in influence. Recommended.
*Here is a short list of the adherents:
John Stott (the British version of Billy Graham – conservative Anglican)
John Wenham (a widely cited defender of biblical inerrancy – conservative Anglican)
John Stackhouse (the successor of J.I. Packer at Regent University)
Clark Pinnock (the bad boy of the evangelical theology – open theist)
Basil Atkinson (helped start Inter-Varsity Fellowship – evangelical at Cambridge)
Earl Ellis (Baptist theologian at Southwestern – conservative evangelical)
Anthony Thiselton (conservative hermeneutics expert at Nottingham)
Philip E. Hughes (Calvinist theologian who taught at Westminster – Anglican)
Richard Swinburne (Oxford philosopher of religion – in a league of his own).
Irenaeus (Church Father, disciple of Polycarp)