As our interview series continues, I’d like to take a few weeks to discuss the topic of hell. I’ve got some great guests lined up, including a Christian universalist (who supports the view that one day God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ), a traditionalist/exclusivist (who supports the view that only Christians are saved and the lost suffer in an eternal hell), and a conditionalist (who supports the view that immortality is conditional upon belief in Jesus Christ, so the unsaved will ultimately be destroyed and cease to exist rather than suffer eternally in hell).
We begin with conditionalism, which is sometimes referred to as annihilationism. Conditionalists begin with the premise that only God is inherently immortal. For humans, immortality is God's conditional gift, bestowed at the resurrection but only to the redeemed. Those who reject God's grace throughout life do not live forever. When John 3:16 says the options are eternal life or perish, conditionalists say that means just what it seems to say.
According to conditionalism, at the end of the world, the good and bad alike are raised to face judgment. The righteous enjoy eternal life with God; the lost are sentenced to hell. But God does not keep billions of them alive forever to torment them without end. Instead, those in hell suffer such precise pains as divine justice may require, in a destructive process that ends in extinction. This is the second death, the wages of sin. Eternal punishment is eternal destruction, eternal capital punishment.
Our guest is the man widely attributed with the renewal of conditionalism in our time: Edward Fudge.
Fudge is the author of The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, the book Christianity Today identified as the standard reference on conditionalism. He and theologian Robert A. Peterson of Covenant Seminary co-authored Two Views of Hell, with Peterson making the case for the traditionalist viewpoint of conscious, unending torment and Fudge presenting the conditionalist alternative.
You had a lot of questions for our guest - over 200! I think you will be pleased with his thorough, thoughtful responses.
From Robyn: What scriptures have pointed you in this direction? What process led you to your convictions?
Thanks to Robyn for this question that reminds us of what matters most.
During the summer of 1976, Christianity Today published an article of mine entitled "Putting Hell in its Place." In it I noted that Jesus uses the word gehenna eleven times in the New Testament and that he is the only person in the New Testament who uses gehenna regarding that reality. Since no one else in the New Testament uses this Greek word for hell to talk about hell, I surveyed a dozen texts that mention two possible outcomes of final judgment, to see what words they do use to discuss the dreadful option.
An Australian theologian and publisher named Robert Brinsmead, a former Seventh-day Adventist, read the article. Brinsmead had rejected all the SDA's distinctive doctrines except its view of hell as a place of total destruction rather than a place of everlasting torment. At the time, he was seeking a non-Adventist researcher with a background in biblical languages and theology whom he could commission to research the topic thoroughly and provide him with the findings. After reading my article in CT, he thought I might fulfill his need.
Brinsmead visited my home in Alabama and offered me the research project, which I accepted. My assignment was to uncover, analyze and organize everything about the end of the wicked from the whole Bible, Jewish literature from the time between Malachi and Matthew, and major Christian writings throughout church history. I had held the traditional view of everlasting torment all my life and never expected to change my mind. But the following data impressed me and finally left me no choice.
1. Immortality is conditional.
First Timothy 6:16 says that only God has immortality in himself. Humans are not naturally immortal. The notion of immortal souls is a pagan Greek myth, brought by converted philosophers into the early Christian church. I have documented a direct relationship between the notion of the immortality of the soul and the idea of unending conscious torment. You can read the whole story detailed in The Fire that Consumes, summarized in Two Views of Hell, and popularized in Hell--A Final Word.
In the Bible, human immortality is always God's gift to the redeemed, is always given in the resurrection, and always involves a whole, embodied person. Every moment of our existence is a gift from God. Those who go to hell are completely cut off from God, the only source of life and ground of being, and they finally must cease to exist.
2. The wicked will perish and become extinct.
Neither the word gehenna ("hell" in the New Testament) nor the traditionalist idea of unending conscious torment is in the Greek Old Testament. Yet the Old Testament says much about the final end of the wicked--in principles, pictures, prototypes, and prophecies.
Old Testament evidence:
When the Old Testament talks about the final end of the wicked, it uses language that sounds like total extinction.
It is a principle of divine justice that evildoers will answer to God, either now or later. What can they expect when that happens? Many Psalms give the answer, and Psalm 37 is a typical one. It says the wicked will perish, vanish, be cut off and be no more. Other Psalms say that God will break the wicked in pieces, slay them, and blot them out of the book of the living.
The Old Testament uses at least fifty verbs and seventy metaphors or similes to picture the final end of sinners. They will be like:
chaff blown away,
a snail that melts,
grass cut down,
wax that melts, and
smoke that vanishes.
If the wicked die in health, wealth and fame, they do not escape judgment. We know their end. God will not be mocked.
The Flood (Gen. 6-9) and the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19) both serve as New Testament prototypes of final judgment (2 Peter 3; Jude 7). As the Flood destroyed with water, the wicked will also be destroyed with fire. Sodom was reduced to ashes and became an example of what awaits the wicked. Jude says that Sodom (which was destroyed forever) provides an example of eternal fire.
The Old Testament contains many prophecies of the final judgment, but I will mention just two. The book of Isaiah closes with a scene of the redeemed in the New Jerusalem. God has killed the wicked, whose corpses are being consumed by gnawing maggots and smoldering fire (Isa. 66:24). This is the origin of the familiar "worm that dies not" and "fire that is not quenched." Later, in the Apocrypha, Judith changes Isaiah's picture of dead bodies being consumed to a scene of living people being tormented forever (Judith 16:17).
Malachi foretells a time when the wicked will be set ablaze and burn until nothing is left except ashes under the soles of the feet of the righteous (Mal. 4:1-3).
New Testament evidence:
When the New Testament talks about the final end of the wicked, it uses language that sounds like total extinction.
John the Baptist -- He introduces Jesus as the End Time judge who will separate between "wheat" and "chaff," and who will "burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12).
Jesus Christ -- By the time of Jesus, Gehenna was a name used for the place of final punishment. It was itself named for a valley outside Jerusalem that had once been the site of infant sacrifices and other abominable practices. Jesus mentions Gehenna eleven times.
Jesus warns that God is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matt. 10:28). Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). The verbs "destroy" and "perish" here both stand for the same original Greek word. It is sometimes used figuratively but we have no reason to think that it is so used here.
There are two eternal destinies according to Jesus: eternal life and eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46). Both are eternal because they belong to the Age to Come, and also because they do not have an end. We know what "life" means, but what is the form of this "punishment"? It is the destruction of both soul and body (Matt. 10:28), a destruction that is eternal (2 Thes. 1:9). It is eternal, total, capital punishment that will never be reversed.
Apostolic preaching -- What did the earliest evangelists say about hell? Final punishment is mentioned only once in the Book of Acts, when Peter warns that anyone who rejects God's greatest Prophet (Jesus) will be "utterly destroyed" (Acts 3:23). The Greek Old Testament uses this same verb in the Flood story and also to describe capital punishment.
Paul -- The apostle Paul says more about final punishment than anyone else in the Bible and he never uses the word "hell." His favorite way of describing it is to say that the wicked finally die, perish and are destroyed. (See Rom. 6:23; Rom. 2:12; 2 Thes. 1:9.)
Hebrews -- The anonymous author warns that apostates will be destroyed (10:39), and speaks of a raging fire that consumes (10:27-31; 12:29).
Peter -- For Peter also, hell means destruction or perishing, as in the destruction by the Flood or of Sodom (2 Pet. 2-3).
James -- The brother of Jesus describes the end of sinners in terms of death (1:15) and destruction (4:12) in a day of slaughter (5:5).
Jude -- Sodom's annihilation is an example of the "punishment of eternal fire" Jude 7).
John -- Among Revelation's symbolic pictures, John sees the wicked tossed into a lake of burning sulfur identified as "the second death," in contrast with the redeemed who enjoy access to the "water of life," the "tree of life" and the "book of life" (Rev. 21-22). John's Gospel speaks of two final rewards: to perish or to have eternal life (John 3:16).
These are some of the major biblical texts that led me to change my mind about the purpose of hell and the final end of the wicked.
From Christina: What, in your opinion, is the strongest argument for the traditionalist side and how would you answer it?
If by "strongest" you mean the argument from whose clutches those bound by it find it most difficult to escape, it is not a scriptural argument at all. It is the argument that says: "The church has always taught unending conscious torment and therefore it must be right." Aside from the fact that the assertion itself is false, the sweeping change of mind on this subject is driven most of all by a close reading and examination of the Bible. If someone puts ecclesiastical tradition ahead of biblical teaching, that person is rarely motivated to consider change.
At first reading, the strongest scriptural argument for the traditionalist side might be the moment in John's vision on Patmos when he sees the beast and the false prophet tossed into the lake of fire where the devil already is, with the comment that they are tormented day and night forever (Rev. 20:10). However, there is good reason to conclude that even this passage does not support the traditional side.
The lake of fire and brimstone, or lake that burns with fiery sulfur (NIV) is named for the agent of destruction that rained down from heaven on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, leaving in its wake only rising smoke—clear evidence of a completed wipeout (Gen. 19). It is surely significant that John borrows language from the annihilation of Sodom to name and to describe the site of final punishment.
Death and hades are also thrown into the lake (Rev. 20:14). Commentators and theologians from all major views of hell are agreed that this refers to the disappearance of death forever and to the everlasting cessation of hades. For these two abstractions, both incapable of sentient suffering, the lake of fire stands for their extinction and annihilation.
In these closing chapters of Revelation, the word "torment" itself sometimes means a total destruction and death. The wicked city "Babylon," is pictured as a woman. In Chapter 18, her judgment is "torment and grief," which turns out to be death, mourning, and famine, and she is consumed by fire. It is not unthinkable, therefore, to understand "torment" of the devil, beast and false prophet as death and consumption by fire which is never reversed.
Interestingly, there are no people in this verse--only the devil, beast and false prophet. The latter two are symbolic personifications of anti-Christian institutions: ungodly government (the Roman state) and antichrist religion (the emperor cult). By the time the vision reaches the point described in Revelation 20:10, all human followers of the beast and false prophet already have been killed, either by sword in the first diabolical mustering of troops against the Rider on the White Horse (Rev. 19:21), or by fire from heaven in the second such adventure a thousand years later (Rev. 20:9).
For humans, the final options are either life or death. Whenever John mentions humans in the lake of fire, he is always careful to identify the lake of fire as "the second death." Then, to strengthen the symbol, he contrasts the second death with something representing life, whether the book of life (Rev. 20:14-15), or the spring of the water of life (Rev. 21:6-8).
Even if we knew none of the above, it would not be proper to interpret dozens of clear statements throughout the Bible to fit one or two symbolic passages in the Book of Revelation. It is a well-established rule of interpretation that one should read symbolic or unclear texts in the light of texts that are non-symbolic and clear, not the other way around.
Nor is it appropriate to choose an opinion supported by a handful of texts at best and to discard an alternate view that has the support of many multiples more of scripture passages from Genesis to Revelation. The preponderance of evidence favors the latter, and this principle justifies our accepting the conditionalist case even if we have a few unanswered questions remaining.
From Charlie: What are your thoughts regarding those not rescued by Christ. Not just those who reject Christ, the Church, and the Christian way, but specifically those who never knew "the way"--those from ancient times who never knew YHWH because of Israel's ethnocentricity, or people in the world who never knew Christ due to Christian's disinterest or inability to minister "effectively" to various places in the world. What do we do with the non-Christians? Do we really believe that God will only accept people who, from year 33 to now, have the title “Christian”?
Everyone who is finally saved will be saved through the atonement that Jesus accomplished. There is no other basis of salvation (Acts 4:12). To say it another way, the atonement of Jesus is so large and so powerful that it takes care of everyone who finally is saved. Even the Old Testament saints, who never heard the gospel as we have, will enjoy eternity with God because of what Jesus did for sinners.
How many others, if any, will enjoy the benefits of Jesus' atonement although they never knew about it in this life? God has not told us, and we simply do not know. We are specifically forbidden to judge the final destiny of others. That makes very good sense because we do not know their hearts or their circumstances, and we lack the ability either to save or destroy.
I shudder when Christian preachers give assurances of salvation to everyone who might be listening. I grieve when Christian preachers make dogmatic assertions about people they say will be lost. The gospel promises the believer in Jesus (and no one else) immortality and eternal life. God is faithful, and he will never do less than he has promised. But he is also generous, and he is perfectly free to do as much more as he sees fit (Matt. 20:1-16).
We see the heart of Jesus in his prayer from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34). God is on the side of saving, not of condemning (John 3:17). For that, as one ignorant person who desperately needs God's forgiveness, I am eternally grateful.
From Simon: The story of the rich man and Lazarus is problematic on many levels--it posits that we enter bliss or punishment immediately, rather than after resurrection and judgment. It is the one Bible passage I find impossible to reconcile with conditionalism, but neither is it compatible with either of the other two views on offer. How do you read it?
Although it comes up early in almost every open discussion or Q/A session concerning final punishment, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus says nothing about the nature of hell or what happens to those who finally go there. It is Jesus' solemn response to some Pharisees who love money more than God, who feel secure in the high esteem they enjoy with the public, and who ignore--even mock--the teaching of the Son of God himself and squander the opportunities God gives them to repent. All this we learn from the context before we ever reach this parable (Luke 16:1-18).
This is a familiar parable told by the rabbis and found in several versions. Jesus apparently borrowed it, then changed the characters to emphasize his points of interest. The dead rich man is pictured in Hades (the unseen realm of the dead, mistranslated as “hell” in the KJV), not Gehenna (“hell,” the place of final punishment). Meanwhile, the rich man's brothers are still living on earth, where Moses and the prophets are still the final authority. Hell is nowhere in sight.
At most, this story might say something about an intermediate state for unfaithful Jews at some time before Jesus died and rose from the dead. However, neither the context nor the punch-line is about any intermediate state of the dead, so we need not think that this parable teaches even that. Some traditionalist authors conclude that this parable has no place in a discussion of hell.
From Christina: Do you believe in the possibility of post-mortem salvation? Might someone choose in favor of God after the resurrection of the dead and consequently spend eternity in heaven rather than be destroyed?
I know nothing in the Bible that holds out the prospect of conversion after death, after the resurrection, or (as universalism has it) after entering hell itself. Instead we read that it is appointed for us to die and face judgment, and that today is the day of salvation. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus also illustrates the necessity of responding to God now before it is too late.
The strange picture in First Peter 3 about Jesus preaching to spirits in prison does not have anything to do with post-mortem evangelism. Close study shows it to match other Scriptures that picture the ascending Jesus declaring his victory over Satan to fallen angels who once influenced the world to sin, but who now are being held in spirit-prison as they wait for their day of judgment.
Ironically, traditionalists plant the seeds of universalism when they say that people in hell continue to sin, which requires God to increase their punishment. If people in hell can affect their future for the worse, they should be able also to change it for the better. On this question, annihilationism offers a bright light and clear lines found at neither extreme.
From Rachel: What was it like having a movie made about your life?
That would be "Hell and Mr. Fudge," featuring Mackenzie Astin as the adult me, Keri Lynn Pratt as my wife Sara Faye, and John Wesley Shipp and Eileen Davidson as my parents (www.hellandmrfudge.com).
What thoughts and feelings emerged as I experienced my personal story through a feature movie? Four words capture my answer. To begin with, it was surprising. And humbling, to be sure. Exciting--to watch producers, screenwriter, director and others take the little stories scattered throughout my life and knit them into a beautiful, compelling, award-winning work of art. Most of all, the experience has been gratifying, as God has taken the story he first caused to be lived out in my experiences, and now is blessing others by its retelling in this first-class feature film.
From Jennifer: I grew up in a conservative, evangelical environment, but have spent the last few years with a growing sense of discomfort with the cookie cutter set of doctrines that I was raised with. I have struggled with how to continue to attend church and fellowship with fellow Christians, torn between keeping silent on my differing beliefs and suffering the disconnect from others, or speaking up and risking their correction, concern, and judgment. I am tempted to simply walk away entirely. As a “someone” with a very public view that is contrary to the "official" party line, and who has ministered in so many different churches--evangelical and otherwise--what has your experience been in this area? Have you faced more ostracizing, acceptance, interest, judgment, indifference from your fellow Christians? How have you handled this and continued to be in fellowship with other Christians without capitulating or walking away?
Believe me, Jennifer, I have encountered all the reactions you name. The author of one recent article called me a false teacher, a heretic, an unbeliever, an apostate, and even a crank! Now that one stung! Even when wrong, I am really a very nice guy! (By the way, everyone is a “somebody”—some are just bigger targets than others.) We cannot control how others treat us, but we can decide how we will regard and treat them. Someone else's misbehavior is no cause for us to imitate them instead of imitating Christ.
I have found that most people react positively and express interest in further study, including teachers and preachers who work with integrity in the face of constant critics and detractors. Some people do prefer conformity over conviction, and they react to diligent study with studied disapproval. It is a bit bewildering to hear these same people proclaim allegiance to Scripture alone as their final authority.
To all the "Jennifers" out there, know that God’s people are not limited to any particular congregation, denomination or fellowship. If your present congregation does not permit honest, open study of the Bible and does not find its unity in Jesus Christ, his saving work for us, and his Spirit in us, I encourage you to look elsewhere. Life is too short to waste, which happens when one’s church does not point to the solution but instead is part of the problem. God bless you!
Thanks again for your questions! You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian," "Ask Shane Claiborne," "Ask Jennifer Knapp," and many more— here.