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.