Hell, Part One: The Controversy

Where can I begin? Could there be a more controversial topic than hell, that is, the question of final punishment? I hope those of you who have read extensively on this subject will forgive me for oversimplifying the range of options for interpreting the nature of hell. But I don’t have the space in one essay to provide nuance.

Four Views of Hell

The Liberal View

Liberal theology long ago rejected the biblical doctrine of hell as an element alien to Jesus’ message of divine love and God’s universal fatherhood. The NT writers unthinkingly took this doctrine over from the fantastic apocalyptic speculations of contemporary Judaism. According to liberal theology, everyone will be saved. No need for hell.

Hell in Traditionalist Theology

At the other end of the spectrum are “traditionalists”, who hold that the Bible teaches that hell is a place where unrepentant sinners are tormented endlessly. Once in hell no one leaves; you can’t die and you will not be pardoned. Many traditionalists believe that the human soul was created by God immortal so that it cannot die or that it is irrevocably sustained in being by God forever to endure just punishment.

The Conditionalist View of Hell

Those who call themselves “conditionalists,” despite some variation, hold that hell is a place where unrepentant sinners experience death, that is, capital punishment. They cease to exist, body and soul. The term conditionalism refers to the mode in which human beings can be made immortal. Eternal life is not a natural or created quality of the human soul but a gift of divine grace given at the resurrection of the dead to those who place their hope wholly in Jesus Christ. For conditionalists, Romans 6:23 states this teaching unequivocally:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Conditionalists argue that “death” in this text means literal death, that is, ceasing to exist, and not never-ending existence in agony, as traditionalists would have it. How long one spends in hell—on an infernal death row as it were—is a matter of debate among conditionalists. The point of agreement is that no one remains in hell forever and no one leaves except by dying. For a classic statement of conditionalism, see Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 3rd ed. (1982, 2011). See also Date and Highfield, A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge (2015).

The Evangelical Universalist View of Hell

In a fourth option, evangelical universalism, unlike liberal universalism, argues that the scriptures teach universal salvation. Robin Perry, aka Gregory MacDonald, articulates a particularly cogent case for universalism that includes an interesting doctrine of hell [The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed (2012)]. Parry attempts to account for all biblical data, some of which points in a universalist direction and some of which envisions a number of people serving some time in hell. Everyone will be saved eventually, but some will suffer in hell until they are ready for eternal life. Hell becomes a sort of purgatory, a place of purification for the sake of salvation rather than of punishment for the sake of damnation.

Next Time: Very soon I will post the second essay on hell, “Hell—Is There a Way Out?”

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10 thoughts on “Hell, Part One: The Controversy

    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Edward, I really, really wanted to send this to you before I posted it. But I thought I should not increase your work load at the moment. I am so glad you are able to read and respond to these thoughts. I will be very interested in what you think of tomorrow’s follow up where I evaluate all four views and offer my own take!

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  1. nokareon

    Space limitations are obviously at play here—but nonetheless, I have to tease apart a couple of the inflections that seem to fall under your third umbrella. The first, more popularly labelled “Annihilationism” would seem to correspond more closely to your remarks concerning capital punishment. On this view, God’s punishment is as judicial as on the the Eternal Conscious Torment view—it just consists of a cessation of existence rather than continual torment. I would contrast this with “Conditional Immortality,” as it has been called, which seems to correspond more closely to your remarks of eternal life or immortality not being a default state of human souls but rather a gift granted through the eschatological resurrection. In contrast to Annihilationism, God’s act is primarily to gift the resurrected life to those who have embraced the paradigm of His will, with those who embrace the paradigm of rebellion not experiencing that resurrected life as a result.

    I hold fast to the Conditional Immortality and reject Annihilationism (I would actually prefer ECT to Annihilationism). Annihilationism stems, I believe, from a society whose ethic has been polluted by a degradation of the value of life and the embrace of practices such as abortion and euthanasia. The Annihilationist hopes to soften the punishment of hell by posing a cessation of existence rather than a continual torment. However, I hold that the basic good of existence/life is such that such a fate would be far *worse* than the traditional view of hell—and thus, Annihilationism fails as a “way out” in softening the doctrine of hell as the Annihilationist wants it to.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Well, I can’t see how one can be a conditionalist without affirming annihilation…unless you think God continually “gives” people in hell immortal existence or that God saves everyone. But combining conditionalism with ECT leads to confusion. In the Bible the gift of immortality is the same as the gift of eternal life, i.e. salvation. In my view it would be strange to think God gives immortality to unrepentant sinners so that they can continue to suffer under conditions that would, without that gift, annihilate them. The next post will make my personal views, which do not fit perfectly in any of the four views, a bit clearer.

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      1. nokareon

        It looks like I could use some clarity in the way I stated things. I certainly do not hold to *both* Conditional Immortality and ECT simultaneously nor would I attempt to combine them, but was rather expressing that if Conditional Immortality failed, I would rather revert to the stance of ECT than of the first kind of “judicial” Annihilationism that I sketched out (and will now clarify a little).

        Rather, my overarching intention was to point out two “flavors” that seem to fall under your third category and are distinct enough in my understanding to warrant being two separate categories. The view that I would call “judicial” Annihilationism sees, along with the traditionalist view, human souls as intrinsically immortal and thus in need of “sorting” after death. God then grants eternal life, in the soteriological sense, to His followers, and those who are not His followers receive punishment for their sins. However, proponents of this “judicial” Annihilationism would then argue that, out of divine mercy, God punishes these souls with “capital punishment,” or cessation of existence, rather than a continual torment, which they would see as more cruel. It is that specific move that fails as I argued above.

        Then there is the view that I and others have called “Conditional Immortality” which does *not* view human souls as intrinsically immortal, contrary to both the ECT/traditionalist and “judicial” Annihilationist views. Rather, human souls cease consciousness/personhood at death unless they are reunited with resurrected bodies on the last day. Those who are not resurrected on the last day simply remain unconscious. If this has to be called a kind of Annihilationism, as you seem to want to call it, then I would call it “de facto” Annihilationism. The default state of the wicked at death is cessation of consciousness/personhood, and they remain this way without the gift of resurrected life on the last day. However, I would still be hesitant to call this Annihilationism of any sort, as the root verb “annihilate” seems to necessitate a pro-active act to destroy something that would otherwise go on existing, as you have in the “judicial” Annihilationist view.

        I hope that fleshes out my thoughts more clearly—I would love to get your thoughts on this.

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      2. ifaqtheology Post author

        Okay. I began my post by admitting that it was “oversimplified.” And you have proved it. There are indeed many nuances on each of the four positions, some of which may merit their own category. You will see tomorrow why I am not that interested in getting “in the weeds” on this subject. I am somewhat agnostic about whether the language of the NT will bear such weight. In co-editing The Consuming Passion, I found out how many variations of each position are possible! As far as I can tell, most conditionalists don’t accept the idea that physical death is the final death for unrepentant sinners mentioned in the scriptures. Most believe in a “resurrection of the just and unjust,” after which just punishment will be meted out, leading eventually to final death. I detect their hesitancy to label themselves annihilationists. As you can tell, I speak as a sympathetic outsider to conditionalism. You will see why tomorrow. Their critique of traditionalism is powerful, indeed devastating. But the affirmative case depends on some assumptions I find questionable.

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      3. nokareon

        Got it—I look forward to seeing what you have to say next time!

        I agree in your hesitancy to load the NT with a single “position” concerning the final fates of all people with any sort of precision. The NT speaks rarely of what has been called “heaven,” and even more rarely of what has traditionally been conceived of as “hell.” But what it does speak much of—and, I believe, clearly of—is eschatological resurrection in accordance with the Jewish hope. The theology of the resurrection of the body (exemplified and inaugurated by, but not limited to, Jesus’) is my starting point concerning questions of final destiny and what leads me closest to the Conditional Immortality position, though I’m hesitant to press the text for any sort of precision of detail concerning the final state of those who are do not experience the final resurrected life of Jesus.

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  2. Eric Greer

    Always enjoy your writing. I’m heading out to Pepperdine to visit our daughter this month. I will be staying with the Wallings on campus. Would love to buy you breakfast if you are available the morning of September 29. We met a couple of years ago at the University Church and I shared about my experience reading your chapter on God and providence in the Four VIews Book as it related to my combat experiences in the Gulf War many years ago.

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