Monday, January 14, 2008

The Case for Conditionalism

I read the book Two Views of Hell recently. In the book two scholars, Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, offer the two most common views of Hell. Fudge makes the case for an increasingly popular view called Conditionalism, which is the belief that humans are not kept alive forever in unending torment, but that there is an end to the existence of the unrighteous. Traditionalism is, you guessed it, more traditional, and is the view that the majority of Christians have held throughout history, that souls live forever, the righteous to everlasting life and the unrighteous to everlasting torture in Hell. After each makes their case, the other critiques the author's view, so the book is a sort of conversation.

What I thought I would do is offer a thumbnail sketch of the arguments for Conditionalism. I'm choosing not to argue for Traditionalism because, frankly, so many hold to this view that the argument for it is probably obvious. Before I begin, though, a few words.

1. Please don't assume that I have signed my name on the dotted line for Conditionalism, or Traditionalism for that matter. I think this is an interesting discussion to have, but don't think I am advocating one view over another or that I'm trying to convert anybody.

2. Realize that I'm offering merely a cursory glance at Conditionalism, which may not even be fair to the view. If this topic interests you, I encourage you to check out some more material on this debate (see Fudge, The Fire That Consumes and Peterson, Hell on Trial).

3. I fully expect this picture of Condtionalism to make some people mad. What I want to know is, why? Why is it that the idea of the unrighteous not burning forever angers some so much? And, is that healthy?

Okay, here we go:

The basic premise is this: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

We see verses like this throughout scripture and there is no reason to expect that they should not be taken for their clear, literal meaning. The two destinies as presented by scripture are salvation or destruction, eternal life or eternal death, but nowhere in scripture is it stated that the lost will be forever kept alive to be tormented in Hell.

The King James Bible first uses the term "fire and brimstone" (translated in other versions as "burning sulphur") in Genesis 19:24 when talking about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This story is referred back to as "'an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly' at the end of time. (2 Peter 2:6)" pg 28.

In addition, "The writers of the Bible use the same verbs to describe the eternal fate of the lost that they use to describe the judgment brought by the great flood. Just as with the flood, the ungodly will 'perish,' 'die,' and 'be destroyed.'" pg 27

The wicked end up "like chaff that the wind blows away" (Psalm 1:4-6), and "Their destiny is destruction" (Phil 3:18). They can anticipate "only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God" (Heb10:26-27) etc.

The idea of humans possessing a soul that lives forever was first advocated by Plato. Fudge argues that it is this non-Christian source from which Christians (from about the time of Augustine) derive the idea that the soul lives forever and cannot be destroyed. But, scripture teaches differently. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Let it be made clear that Fudge does not deny Hell, but merely the idea that the wicked live forever in torment. Hell, according to Fudge, is the final destiny of the wicked where they will be consumed and be no more.

The problematic texts:

Now, there are a few instances that seem to suggest Traditionalism, that have been used by Traditionalists as proof texts for years, but it should be noted that they are in the minority, and if taken to advocate Traditionalism, they stand in opposition to many other scriptures that seem clear. Fudge's argument stands on the basic hermeneutical practice that one cannot take a few exceptions and reinterpret the majority of the verses on the topic to agree with the exceptions. On the contrary, one is to seek to understand the few that seem to be exceptions in light of the vast majority of plain and clear verses.

Isaiah 33:14 asks the question "Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?" Taken out of context, this could advocate for Traditionalism, but looking at the rest of the verse shows that wicked nations "will be burned to ashes" and like "bushes that are cut down and set on fire" (vs 12).

Isaiah 66:24 tells of a worm that will not die and a fire that will not be quenched. Concerning this, Fudge says, "In chapter 66, Isaiah anticipates the same scene [as in Isaiah 37] on a massive scale at the end of time. In this prophetic picture, as in the historical event of Isaiah's day, the righteous view "the dead bodies" of the wicked. They see corpses, not living people. They view destruction, not conscious misery. Discarded corpses are fit only for worms (maggots) and fire--both insatiable agents of disintegration and decomposition." pg 32 (emphasis original)

Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which is often used by Traditionalists as proof. Fudges argues that "Even taken literally...the story concerns only the intermediate state of two Jewish men who died while Jesus was still teaching on earth" (pg 40). He also says the story "tell[s] us absolutely nothing about the final destiny of the damned" (pg 41). In addition, to take it literally would require that we believe that the saved and the lost can converse with each other after death, in full view of each other and at close range. Fudge says "Few serious interpreters attempt to take the details of the story literally" (pg 41). This takes us to an area that needs a bit of elaboration. Whether there is an intermediate period of torment, and for how long that would be, and if each person would endure the same length of this period is not of Fudge's concern. You would find Conditionalists who hold each of those views. What the view is centrally concerned with, and what Fudge argues that the Bible is clear on throughout, is that the end is destruction for the wicked, not eternal life in torment.

Matthew 18:8-9 talks about the end of the wicked being thrown into "eternal fire." Fudges states: "Gehenna is the "eternal" fire for two reasons. First, it is not part of the present age but the age to come. It does not belong to time but to eternity. Second, those who go into it suffer everlasting destruction. When the unquenchable fire finally destroys the lost, they will be gone forever." (pg 44)

As Fudge wraps it up, he says, "the notion that the wicked will live forever in inescapable pain contradicts the clear, consistent teaching of scripture from Genesis to Revelation." (pg 80)

Thoughts on this compelling, but no doubt controversial view? In my mind, it seems more convenient to believe in Conditionalism rather than eternal torment (asking would a loving God keep sinners alive forever just to punish them?). But, the convenient view is not always true. Your thoughts?


Chip Burkitt said...

In a way, the whole argument is moot. There is nothing desirable about everlasting fire whether it consumes or fails to consume the wicked. However, I'd like to offer a few observations.

In Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, he concludes by saying, "Then they [the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." The clear parallelism here is between two destinies: one of everlasting life and one of everlasting torment. It's not clear to me how a punishment could be eternal that ended after a time.

Nevertheless, I agree that the concept of everlasting torment is fairly recent and not found throughout the Scriptures. I note, however, that life is always regarded as a blessing. The concept of an eternal life in torment is not found in Scripture because the ideas of "eternal life" and "torment" are mutually exclusive. How can one be said to "live" forever if that "life" is characterized by constant pain and misery? Wouldn't it rather be an eternal death, a death that does not die?

When we try to understand the fate of the wicked we get into deep waters almost immediately. For example, Jesus tells us that he will say to the unrighteous, "I never knew you." And Paul tells us that "the man who loves God is known by God," implying likewise that those who do not love God are not known by him. Yet God knows everything that can be known. How can anything exist which God does not know? If he does not know it (or acknowledge it) wouldn't it cease to exist? Hell then becomes the place excluded from God's knowledge, the place where beings who are utterly opposed to God endure the faint echo of his presence as if it were a constant thundering in their innermost being. No wonder the demons shudder. While the righteous bask in the glory of God, the wicked flee from the least hint of his light. How then if his glory fills the heavens and earth? Where will darkness hide? Perhaps there is but one fate for all people: to dwell forever in the presence of God. But to those who love God, that presence is like the fulfillment of every pleasant dream, while to those who hate God, it is like the burning of an unquenchable fire. Thus there can be no heaven for the wicked and no hell for the saints.

Nick said...

Thanks for the observations, Chip. A few responses.

There is nothing desirable about everlasting fire whether it consumes or fails to consume the wicked.

Fudge would absolutely agree. He would say that whatever else we decide about Hell, let us agree that it is a horrible place that we want no one to go. He would also say that conditionalism should by no means lessen our aversion to Hell, as some traditionalists have accused.

In Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, he concludes by saying, "Then they [the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Fudge addresses this as well (if you can think of a verse that mentions the judgment or the end of life, Fudge has comented on it. I just wasn't able to include them all in my overview).

He addresses this one by doing a word study on the word punishment, which meant "to cut short," "to prune," or "to cut down." Likewise, Capital punishment was also called eternal punishment because, even though the sentancing was short (only a few minutes) it was the worst punishment because the results last forever. "Jesus mentions in Matthew 25 the fate of the wicked in the most general of terms(eternal punishment), but Paul tells us its specific nature (everlasting destruction)." pg 46

Fudge would also say that to translate this verse to support traditionalism, one would have to ignore or reinterpret the clear meanings of dozens of other verses that referring to the end of the wicked as "destruction" or "perishing."

Again, I'm not sure if that answer is satisfactory for you or not, but that is Fudge's response.

When we try to understand the fate of the wicked we get into deep waters almost immediately.

Amen to that. I think we can all agree that there is much mystery concering the fate of the wicked, which is a major reason I posted on this topic.

Thanks for getting the discussion started, Chip.

Chip Burkitt said...

I'm not sure how Fudge's word study applies. The word translated punishment appears only twice in the New Testament (Matt 25:46, 1 John 4:18). The verb from which it is derived is also translated punish in two other places (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet 2:9). In none of these places is there anything to suggest the meaning of "cutting short" or "pruning." In the most concrete instance (Acts 4:21), the meaning of the word is obviously to punish with the intent of correcting unwanted behavior and deterring emulation. I think this is what we usually mean by punishment. It is a corrective for those who suffer it and a deterrent for those who hear of it.

We might ask in what sense eternal damnation is a corrective. This is a good question deserving careful consideration. I think I would have to say that letting evil go unpunished is against the nature of God.

I have a dear friend who was once a Jehovah's Witness, and she surprised me one day by referring to the annihilation of the wicked. It soon came out that one of the doctrines she still held from her days as a Jehovah's Witness was that the wicked would indeed perish and not suffer eternal torment. I was surprised at the strength of her arguments. In the end I don't much care. I don't think it's sufficiently important to merit much argument. Whether the second death is an everlasting dying or final annihilation, it's a horrific destiny.

Nick said...

I think I would have to say that letting evil go unpunished is against the nature of God.

Fudge in no way argues that Conditionalism lets evil go unpunished (not sure if you were saying that or not). As you said, either way it is a horriffic destiny.

As far as the word study, we both know that word studies involve the usage in literature outside of the Bible as well, so maybe he is considering those usages.

That is just a guess, though.

Either way, I think Fudge has a point when he says that "eternal punishment" can mean a pounishment that lasts forever. I think it is one of those things where traditionalists bring there biases to the table and say "It's so obvious" and Conditionalists bring there biases to the table and also say "It's so obvious." I think the language allows for either, so we have to look elsewhere.

Edward W. Fudge said...

Thanks for taking this subject seriously enough to give it careful thought! I especially appreciate your recognition, Nick, that this is not a topic for simplistic answers even if the conclusions we reach can be simply stated (as, for example, in John 3:16 and Romans 6:23).


Nick said...

I'm honored by your comment, Dr. Fudge. Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

I have held to a conditionist view for quite some time. I only recently read The Two Views... and am about to take on The Fire That Consumes. I am doing a research paper for Theology class on this subject and find the comments interesting. I too would like to understand why traditionalist get so angry. I think a lot of it has to do with the immortality of the soul issue. I appreciate the discussion.
God Bless.

Gordy Presher said...

Above you said, "In my mind, it seems more convenient to believe in Conditionalism rather than eternal torment (asking would a loving God keep sinners alive forever just to punish them?). But, the convenient view is not always true. Your thoughts?"

I think it's not just more convenient, but more scriptural and more consistent with God's nature and teaching elsewhere in the Bible.

I also think you should take a stand. More of us need to do that and in more public ways.

Cody said...

Thanks for the post! I'm with you on this issue. The conditionalist view has a lot of good support, though I don't see any reason to fight about it and I'm not firmly in either camp. We definitely need some thorough debate though. People should be aware of this view.

Anonymous said...

"In my mind, it seems more convenient to believe in Conditionalism rather than eternal torment (asking would a loving God keep sinners alive forever just to punish them?). But, the convenient view is not always true. Your thoughts?"

Conversely, I would caution against dismissing the case simply because it is convenient. I find in Christianity there is this unwritten rule that the hardest/harshest/most unpleasant way is the right way. If anything seems more pleasant, or easier, it must be wrong. That is not Biblical and is also not a measure that should be used when interpreting scripture. Whether it is more "convenient" or not is a non-issue. It is simply what is the truth?


Anonymous said...


"In a way, the whole argument is moot."

I would have to disagree- for me it speaks to the fundamental character of the God in whom I put my trust. If eternal torment is indeed unjust punishment then the traditional view could very well be slander against God's Holiness. To me, this is a question of utmost importance, and I am glad to see Nick have the courage to raise the issue.


nick said...

Aloha everyone!

Nick from Hawaii here. A different "Nick."

Unless we live in a cave we have probably heard of all the talk of “Torture” in the news lately with CIA tactics being uncovered.

Interesting how most people with a conscience can see such a thing is just morally wrong and fiendish.

I was thinking what if a person who commits such acts is a good person but has a side of them that is dark and sadistic. Would we be attracted to such a person? Would we want to call him our friend?

Take for example, Hitler. Say there was a side of him that seemed positive and good. He calls his mother, he goes on picnics with his family on the weekend, he gives to charity but then there is a side of him that tortures people in despicable ways. Would you be drawn to such a person or would such acts repel you away from him?

The Bible combines to teach that“the wicked will be no more.”

Psalm 37:10 (King James Version)

10For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be.

Could not help but think of a passage in Obadiah that tells us that the wicked will become as though “they have never been.”
Obadiah 1:16 (New International Version)

Just as you drank on my holy hill,so all the nations will drink continually;they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been.

I like the way the NASB puts it:
Obadiah 1:16 (New American Standard Bible)

"Because just as you drank on My holy mountain,All the nations will drink continually.They will drink and swallow And become as if they had never existed.

Lastly, any honest baptized school boy can see that "hell or hades" will be brought to nothing, it itself will be destroyed. (Revelation 20:14)

Jehovah bless!

Nick Batchelor