Many traditionalists share the unfortunate habit of suspecting the motives of anyone who believes that Scripture teaches something other than everlasting torment. Most critical evaluations of conditionalism that I’ve read contain at least a comment or two probing the hidden motives of those who adhere to the view.
In this article, Randy Alcorn, in an attempt to show that conditionalism is driven by emotion, and not exegesis, quotes John Stott in a way that is absolutely unconscionable. Alcorn begins by citing Clark Pinnock who frankly admits that he “was led to question the traditional belief in everlasting conscious torment because of moral revulsion and broader theological considerations, not first of all on scriptural grounds.” Alcorn then continues,
Note that Pinnock admits he reached his conclusions about annihilation “not first of all on scriptural grounds.” John Stott wrote about eternal conscious torment, “Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain…. Scripture points in the direction of annihilation.”
We should first note that Alcorn misconstrues Pinnock. Pinnock does not make a statement about how he “reached his conclusions,” he merely comments on what initially led him to question the traditional view. In any case, Alcorn’s insinuation is obvious: Stott, like Pinnock, is being driven by something other than a careful examination of the relevant biblical passages. After all, according to the quote, Stott says that eternal torment is emotionally intolerable and then somehow concludes that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation.
Alcorn then leaves no doubt as to what he’s getting at. He accuses Stott of allowing his exegesis to be driven by emotion; the thinly-veiled accusation takes the form of a rhetorical question:
But would John Stott, whom I greatly respect and who is an advocate of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, have ever said Scripture points toward annihilation if it were not for the emotional strain put upon him by the passages that clearly appear to teach everlasting punishment?
But is this what John Stott actually said? Let’s take a look at the entire quote in context. Take note of the portions that I emphasize:
Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what my heart tells me, but what does God’s word say? And in order to answer this question, we need to survey the Biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilationism, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture. (Essentials, 314; all emphasis mine)
Huge difference. By removing the clauses in bold, Alcorn completely alters the meaning of Stott’s words. Stott’s entire point is that despite his emotional misgivings, he is bound by what Scripture teaches! He earnestly acknowledges that emotions are unreliable and calls us to examine God’s word. Alcorn intentionally removes the bolded section, groups Stott with someone who admits to being driven, in part, by “moral revulsion” and then accuses Stott of reaching his conclusions the same way. In fact, later on Alcorn just bluntly asserts, “People believe in annihilation because it doesn’t seem nearly so bad as eternity in Hell.” Now if Alcorn doesn’t want to take a Christian brother at his word, fine. He should be upfront about it, quote Stott in context, and let the reader decide.
The second part of Alcorn’s citation is almost as bad as the first. He quotes Stott as saying that “Scripture points in the direction of annihilationism.” But Stott simply suggests that we be open to the possibility that Scripture teaches annihilationism. Alcorn incredibly just leaves out the first part of the sentence and gives his readers no indication of the tentative nature of Stott’s proposal.
I’m sorry, but this borders on intellectual dishonesty. How do evangelical authors get away with stuff like this? Perhaps Alcorn is just a sloppy writer who doesn’t understand how to properly cite somebody. Oh wait, Alcorn is a professional writer (“more than forty books”!). He knows exactly what he is doing.
After some superficial proof-texting (of Revelation 20:10 and 14:11), and a bizarre assertion that Revelation 19:20 “shows the beast and false prophet are humans” (huh?), Alcorn concludes,
If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding? (emphasis mine)
John Stott couldn’t agree more. Of course, Randy Alcorn’s readers won’t know that because Mr. Alcorn has intentionally mischaracterized him.
Randy Alcorn should publicly apologize to John Stott for his outrageous and uncharitable behavior. He should also publicly retract the statements and remove them from his website and from future printings of any books where the same statements appear.
I won’t hold my breath.