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.
That’s truly disgraceful. What’s perhaps worse is that people who do this – people with low, low standards of public honesty and fairness, who are clearly lax to the biblical virtue of truthfulness about others, will then accuse annihilationists of being liberals who are not willing to stick biblical teaching!
Well, as you mentioned in your open letter, it’s a losing strategy.
Not surprisingly, Christopher Morgan similarly redacts the Stott citation on page 196 of Hell Under Fire. But at least he doesn’t draw any unwarranted conclusions from the mangled quote.
I’m going to make the attempt to contact Randy directly about this before I make a comment over at my blog. You might want to contact him as well.
I did send a message through his website’s “contact us” page, as well as leave a comment on the blog post. I’m not expecting a response, but maybe I’ll be surprised.
@Ronnie: Why aren’t you expecting a response? Why mightn’t he retract a mistake, even if it was pointed out by one who didn’t hold a similar point of view?
I was not expecting a response because, in my experience, evangelical leaders and celebrities don’t take criticism well.
Not only did Mr. Alcorn never respond, but he never corrected his error. Worse still, he deleted the comments that I and others left on that page, pointing out his misrepresentation.
I agree, this is shameful, although probably unintentional. People simply cannot open their minds to anything that goes against what they’ve always believed and imagined. I don’t fully blame them, though, because the Bible tells us to guard against false teaching. Some people simply don’t trust their discernment (and to be sure, some people SHOULDN’T), so they over-filter anything that sounds different. It’s like a spam filter that throws legitimate emails into the junk bin.
Including all of John Stott’s quote would have been the intellectually honest way to go, and like you said, let the reader decide.
Just curious, what makes you think it was unintentional?
To add to my last comment, this kind of thinking and habit shows how much of an uphill climb annihilationists still have ahead of them. Like Ed Fudge says in his book, it’s curious that we had a great period of reforming and refining our theology, only to somehow conclude that our work is finished. Somehow, people think our theology is complete now. I still think we have a ways to go, and while we won’t ever get there 100%, we’ll get closer to the truth if people stay honest and wisely continue to seek.
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