Yes, Fire and Darkness Can Coexist

In the conclusion of my most recent article (posted nearly four years ago!) I wrote the following: “I understand that many ‘traditionalists’ today soften the traditional view so much that penal suffering is minimized or denied altogether (which is another topic for another day)…” Today is the day that I pick up on that thread—better late than never, I suppose.

I previously suggested that the dominant view of hell throughout church history envisions the damned endlessly suffering physical torture—typically by means of fire, among other torments. That hell will involve literal fire was a view held, for instance, by Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, just to name a few.

Of course, there have always been some exceptions. I am not a scholar of church history, but I think it’s accurate to say that the literal fire view of hell was held by the overwhelming majority of Christians up until the 16th century (Calvin, for instance, famously viewed the biblical fire imagery metaphorically). And even then, the literal view was dominant until at least the Enlightenment, and was only eclipsed by the so-called metaphorical view very recently, sometime in the 20th century (thanks, C.S. Lewis). In his 1910 entry, “Hell,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Joseph Hontheim writes:

The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation. Nevertheless, Scripture and tradition speak again and again of the fire of hell, and there is no sufficient reason for taking the term as a mere metaphor.

Likewise, in the first edition of Four Views on Hell (1996), William Crockett, himself an advocate of the metaphorical view, concedes: “[The] metaphorical understanding of hell rather than a place of literal heat and smoke . . . has been advocated only since the sixteenth century.” Continue reading

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Torture

It’s often the case that traditionalists will object when their detractors use “torture” to describe the traditional view of final punishment. In Hell Under Fire, Christopher Morgan challenges Clark Pinnock on this point: “…notice [Pinnock’s] pejorative use of ‘torture’ rather than an appropriate word like ‘punishment'” (207). In the same volume, Robert Yarbrough, while responding to Edward Fudge’s assertion that “Scripture nowhere suggests that God is an eternal torturer,” writes: “Some of Fudge’s language can be set aside as overwrought rhetoric. The historic view does not view God as ‘an eternal torturer’; hell is not unjust torture but is rather, according to Scripture, a just recompense for people who are without excuse…” (78)

The above quotation of Fudge can be found in Two Views on Hell. In that volume, Robert Peterson responds: “I hold to the traditional view of hell. But I most certainly do not think that ‘God is an eternal torturer…'” (85, Kindle ed.)

To many of us not wedded to the traditional view, “torture” just seems like an appropriate description of what the Church has historically taught will be experienced by the damned after judgment: in addition to being deprived of God’s goodness and blessings, the unrepentant will forever suffer excruciating pains of both body and mind (what medieval theologians called the poena sensus, or pain of sense). Being punished with prolonged, agonizing pain is just the dictionary definition of torture.

One thing is for certain, many historical descriptions of hell sure sound like torture:

…Thine heart beating high with fever; thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony; thy limbs crackling like the martyrs in the fire, and yet unburnt; thyself, put in a vessel of hot oil, pained, yet coming out undestroyed; all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on; every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune of Hell’s Unutterable Lament; thy soul for ever and ever aching, and thy body palpitating in unison with thy soul…

Continue reading

Posted in history, terminology | 9 Comments

Is “Traditionalism” a Pejorative?

Occasionally, some adherent to the traditional view of final punishment (viz. everlasting torment) will get up in arms over being called a “traditionalist.” Usually, the offender will be charged with poisoning the well and intentionally using “traditionalism” to illegitimately score rhetorical points (e.g. “You’re insinuating that we believe this simply because it’s a tradition!”) Recently, a blogger went so far as to call the expression “purely pejorative.”

Those who take exception with their view being called “traditionalism” are often new to the debate and typically unaware that that’s simply what the view is called in much of the contemporary literature—both by opponents and adherents of the position. A handful of examples should suffice to make the point.

Robert Peterson, arguably the most popular contemporary critic of conditionalism, has self-identified as a traditionalist as far back as 1994. His opening salvo against conditionalism, published in JETS, is entitled A Traditionalist Response
to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism. Since then, Peterson has continued to use “traditionalism” and “traditionalists” to describe the view and its adherents, respectively (for example, see here and here).

Alan Gomes, in his 1991 article published in the Christian Research Journal, likewise uses the expression freely: “…the recent Evangelical Affirmations Conference . . . officially repudiated universalism, even though traditionalists could not muster enough support to secure a repudiation of annihilationism.” In Part Two he writes, “Third are exegetical arguments that attempt to neutralize verses the traditionalists commonly offer in proof of their position.” In fact he uses the expression throughout Part Two. Gomes’ article remains a favorite among internet defenders of traditionalism. Continue reading

Posted in terminology | 15 Comments

Nature of Final Punishment Debate on Unbelievable? Radio Show

Friend and fellow conditionalist Chris Date, host of the Theopologetics podcast, recently appeared on the Unbelievable? radio show to debate Steve Jeffery on the nature of final punishment. Click here for the audio stream.

As is often the case, the format did not allow for in-depth examination of the salient arguments and texts. That said, it was a decent overview of some of the important issues and—perhaps more importantly—a model of irenic and charitable exchange over an area of disagreement between two Christians.

As an interesting aside, Steve Jeffery disclaims the nomenclature of “everlasting torment” and instead prefers “eternal conscious punishment” on the grounds that “torment sounds pointless” (to use his words). This is despite the fact that it’s the very language of torment as found in Revelation 14 and 20 that Steve finds so compelling.

Chime in on the Facebook pages of Unbelievable? and Theopologetics.

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Conditionalism Debate

My debate with TurretinFan is now up at Theopologetics. Feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in the comments.

Citations for Quotes Used in Opening Statement

“Annihilationism is the belief that those who die apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ will be ultimately destroyed.” (Christopher Morgan, Hell Under Fire, 196)

“The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (The Belgic Confession, Article 37: The Last Judgment)

“…every human soul is immortal. No soul, no inner person in any human being ever goes out of existence. Every human being ever born lives forever. Our bodies die, our souls go on eternally. We are created immortal.” (John MacArthur, The Answer to Life’s Greatest Question, Part 1)

“That’s one of the passages that does talk about the resurrection. There will be a time in the future [crosstalk] and everybody lives forever—but not everybody has the quality of life that those who have eternal life have.” (Greg Koukl, Stand to Reason, June 5, 2011 broadcast, quote starts at 1:09:00)

“Likewise they shall be passible, because they shall never deteriorate and, although burning eternally in fire, they shall never be consumed.” (Thomas Aquinas, The Apostles’ Creed)

“And here the bodies of all the wicked shall burn, and be tormented to all eternity, and never be consumed; and the wrath of God shall be poured out on their souls.” (Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption)

In fire exactly like that which we have on earth thy body will lie, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all they veins roads for the feet of pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall forever play his diabolical tune of ‘Hell’s Unutterable Lament.'” (Charles Spurgeon, Sermon on the Resurrection of the Dead)

“…the soul in torment shall never die, or lose any of its powers and faculties” (John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible“)

“…thou art a fallen creature, having only capacities to live here in sin, to live forever in torment.” (Charles Spurgeon, Sermon 167)

“…it is clearly more immoral to extinguish humans with intrinsic value than to allow them to continue living in a state with a low quality of life.” (Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death, 173)

“They will not be destroyed, but instead, will be left in a conscious state to experience the torment and anguish of their punishment forever.” (Jim Wallace, Is There an Eternal Conscious Hell?)

“No, men are not destroyed, they are in torment.” (Greg Koukl, Hell, Yes! The Terrifying Truth, quote starts at 35:00)

Posted in annihilationism, conditionalism, debates | 2 Comments

What Part of “Will Consume” Did You Not Understand?

The author of the book of Hebrews wrote:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrew 10:26-27)

Apparently, traditionalists never got the memo:

But if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed.

-Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 18

As the soul too, is a proof that not everything which can suffer pain can also die, why then do they yet demand that we produce real examples to prove that it is not incredible that the bodies of men condemned to everlasting punishment may retain their soul in the fire, may burn without being consumed, and may suffer without perishing?”

-Augustine of Hippo, City of God

Likewise they shall be passible, because they shall never deteriorate and, although burning eternally in fire, they shall never be consumed.

-Thomas Aquinas, The Apostles’ Creed

The fire you burn on earth is of a preying and devouring nature; for whatsoever it takes hold of it consumes to ashes; and when it meets with no more fuel it goes out. But here it is not so. For though it burns with that tremendous fierceness, which none but those that feel it know, yet does it not consume, not never will. We shall ever be burning, yet not burned. It is a tormenting, but not a consuming fire.

-John Bunyan, Visions of Heaven and Hell

Woe to the soul that is thus set up as a butt, for the wrath of the Almighty to shoot at; and as a bush that must burn in the flames of his jealousy, and never be consumed.

-Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest

And here the bodies of all the wicked shall burn, and be tormented to all eternity, and never be consumed; and the wrath of God shall be poured out on their souls.

-Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption

So the fire of hell, as it will burn, torture, and distress rebellious sinners, it will preserve them in their beings; they shall not be consumed by it, but continued in it: so that these words are a reason of the former, showing and proving, that the soul in torment shall never die, or lose any of its powers and faculties; and particularly, not its gnawing, torturing conscience; and that the fire of hell is inextinguishable; for though sinners will be inexpressibly tormented in it, they will not be consumed by it; but the smoke of their torments shall ascend for ever and ever; and that they will be so far from being annihilated by the fire of hell, that they shall be preserved in their beings in it, as flesh is preserved by salt.

-John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible

The bodies of the damned will all be salted with fire, so tempered and prepared as to burn the more fiercely, and yet never consume.

-John Whitaker, Sermon on Death, Judgment, and Eternity

When thou diest, thy soul will be tormented alone; that will be a hell for it, but at the day of judgment thy body will join thy soul, and then thou wilt have twin hells, thy soul sweating drops of blood, and thy body suffused with agony. In fire exactly like that which we have on earth thy body will lie, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all they veins roads for the feet of pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall forever play his diabolical tune of ‘Hell’s Unutterable Lament.’

-Charles Spurgeon, sermon on the Resurrection of the Dead

Posted in conditionalism, history | 8 Comments

Randy Alcorn Takes John Stott Out of Context

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.

Posted in sloppy scholarship | 10 Comments

Erasing Hell is Actually a Decent Book

Today I received my copy of Erasing Hell, coauthored by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. I was more than a little annoyed by Chan’s teaser video, so my expectations were admittedly low.

I’m happy to say that the book isn’t half bad. The authors approach the issue with a level of humility, care, and sensitivity which, as I was reading, genuinely struck me as uncontrived—and my phoniness detector is fine-tuned!

For a popular-level work, it is well-sourced and well-researched; 25 of the 130 pages are endnotes. While the authors do end up affirming that the torments of hell last forever, they do so cautiously and undogmatically (even going so far as to say they are “not certain” of the duration). In spite of this (and don’t get me wrong, it’s a significant point of disagreement), I agree with many of their conclusions, although I admit I only briefly skimmed the chapter on universalism.

What struck me over and over again was the fact that Chan and Sprinkle get things right that many “big name” traditionalist scholars get wrong. Here are a few that I can remember (there are others, but I didn’t take notes):

  • That first-century Jews held a range of views regarding final punishment, including total destruction
  • That Isaiah 66:24 does not teach everlasting torment
  • That Luke 16:19-31 is not a true story, that it’s not about final punishment, and that it says nothing about the duration of final punishment
  • That expressions like eternal fire, unquenchable fire and undying worm do not obviously denote everlasting suffering
  • That 2 Thessalonians 1:9 does not obviously teach everlasting suffering
  • That some of Jesus’ and many of Paul’s descriptions of final punishment at least sound like total destruction

I won’t spend much time on what I disagreed with. The authors make the common mistake of conflating “everlasting punishment” with “everlasting torment,” not acknowledging that annihilation is a type of everlasting punishment. This drives conditionalists up the wall.

Not surprisingly, the three verses that Chan and Sprinkle believe point towards everlasting torment are Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:11, and Revelation 20:10. I’ve said for a while now that the entire case for traditionalism, over and against conditionalism, rests almost entirely on these three verses, and that the others which are so often cited are hardly even worth considering. While I obviously disagree with their interpretation of these passages, I am impressed that they candidly admit that the passages which probably teach everlasting torment are few and far between, and not unambiguous at that!

That being said, I do wish the authors would have spent more time interacting with conditionalist scholarship, and less time interacting with, say, Rob Bell. Of course, I understand why they thought it was important to do so, so maybe they could have gone without the sample chapter from Forgotten God (another one of Chan’s books)—although that decision may have been out of their hands.

Despite these disagreements (and a number of quibbles that I didn’t mention), I do believe this book will move the conversation in a healthy direction. There is little within that will come as a revelation to any serious student of conditionalism, but a lot, I think, that will surprise the average guy in the pews who believes that final punishment will consist of everlasting torment.

Posted in books | 4 Comments

Glenn Peoples Puts Traditionalist Scholarship on Blast

Glenn Peoples, one of the most able contemporary critics of traditionalism, has posted a lengthy open letter delineating the current state—and major failings—of traditionalist scholarship. Here’s just one gem that I think will ring true for any serious conditionalist:

From behind the barricades, you have become convinced that the biblical case against your view is insubstantial and can be blown down like a house of straw. I have met, either in person or online, countless people who initially told me that they had “looked at both sides of the issue,” by which they meant that they had read one or more of your works in which you—so they believed—laid out the merits of the biblical case for annihilationism and then destroyed it. When presented with just a few responses to these rebuttals as well as a few further considerations, it is as though their world has been turned upside down. They had no idea how compelling the arguments for annihilationism were, and as a result of our encounters many of them are now either undecided or they have embraced annihilationism.

Make sure you check out Glenn’s other articles on the issue here.

Posted in bad arguments, sloppy scholarship | 1 Comment

Has Christopher Morgan Read Isaiah 66:24?

On June 5, Christopher Morgan was a guest on the Stand to Reason radio show, hosted by Greg Koukl. In case you’re not in the know, Morgan is among the most vocal contemporary defenders of traditionalism, and is often consulted as an authority on the issue (for instance, here and here). As might be expected, Morgan was brought on to discuss the recent hullabaloo surrounding Rob Bell, and to more or less offer a defense of traditionalism.

There is so much to say about the entire interview, but I’ll focus my comments here to one statement in particular that elicited from me what could best be described as an incredulous guffaw. At around 1:09:30, while discussing the Old Testament evidence for future punishment, Morgan makes the following statement:

[Isaiah 66:24] talks about where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched and the permanence of the suffering of the wicked.

Now the title of this blog post is obviously tongue-in-cheek and intentionally provocative. Of course Morgan has read Isaiah 66:24. I can’t help but assume that he’s studied it in depth. If I’m correct, then Morgan has a lot of explaining to do.

It might be helpful to quote the verse in context. The following is Isaiah 66, verses 15 through 24 (emphasis mine). The ESV translators entitle this section Final Judgment and Glory of the Lord.

“For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many.

“Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.

“For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth
that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the Lord.

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

The text speaks for itself. There is no hint, let alone mention, of permanent suffering here. God will slay his enemies, and their strewn corpses will disgracefully be left out to be consumed by fire and maggots. So why would Morgan assert that the passage, “talks about the permanence of the suffering of the wicked”?

How could Morgan, someone who has practically made a career of studying and defending the traditional view of hell, be so obviously wrong about this? For him to say such a thing is sloppy at best and intentionally misleading at worst. I suppose he should be given the benefit of the doubt, but this sort of thing happens so often in traditionalist scholarship that it’s difficult to remain charitable.

Interestingly, in Hell Under Fire (the anthology of which Morgan was both a contributor and general editor), Old Testament scholar Daniel Block, in his chapter entitled The Old Testament on Hell, states in no uncertain terms that Isaiah 66:24 does not make reference to everlasting suffering. He asserts that, at best, such is a thing is only implied (page 62). But I think even that is going too far—the passage implies no such thing.

Now if Morgan wants to argue that Jesus borrowed the language of Isaiah 66 and used it to describe eternal torment or that the scene in Isaiah 66 typologically prefigures eternal torment, then that would be a different claim. It would be a mistaken claim, but not egregiously mistaken, like the claim that Isaiah 66 itself “talks about” permanent suffering.

Posted in sloppy scholarship | 1 Comment