I wrote this review in 2017 for my doctoral program. Interesting topic, but written to academic audience.
I raised a few eyebrows in 2005 when I took an annihilationist view in my final Statement of Faith paper in seminary. One faculty member reviewing my statement for graduation urged me to “reconsider the merits and strong biblical support for the traditional view of hell.”
After reading The Fire That Consumes by E. W. Fudge, I am indeed reconsidering the merits and strong biblical support for the traditional view, and finding them somewhat wanting. To summarize what’s at stake, the traditional view of hell has been “eternal/never-ending, conscious torment” of the damned. The Conditional Immortality or annihilationist view, a minority view held by a growing number of Evangelical scholars, holds that souls in hell are eventually destroyed and don’t suffer unendingly.
On this issue, I think many begin with a priori philosophical, moral, Christological, and especially emotional convictions, and then hope the texts can be jostled together in a way that supports what they want to be true. But in which direction do the actual biblical (and other ancient Jewish) texts most often point?
In The Fire That Consumes, E. W. Fudge places the textual evidence front and center in the debate. Since I began my reading sympathetic to a Conditional Immortality view, I found Fudge’s analysis of the texts quite persuasive and reaffirming of my prior leanings on the issue. I came to this study in limbo between the ex-human/sub-human existence views of N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope and Greg Boyd’s das nichtige view expounded in his book Satan & the Problem of Evil (which he no longer holds by the way), and the Conditional Immortality view.
Fudge begins with a few chapters of prolegomena on how the dominant view took root in the history of interpretation, our tendency for blindspots and to let tradition prevent us from fresh engagement with Scripture, the influence of the Greek concept of the immortal soul over against the biblical teaching,* and, of course, the meaning of that pesky, determinative word in the debate: aionios (‘eternal’). I think the traditionalist is hard pressed to confine this word to mainly a temporal sense, and the Conditionalist has much to support a broader qualitative sense of ‘eternal.’
I’m intrigued why Traditionalists aren’t more easily pacified by the fact that, even in the Conditionalist view, “this retribution will encompass whatever conscious suffering divine justice might require” and for as long as deemed just (41). In other words, the damned are not necessarily instantly snuffed out of existence, which is a punishment deemed too light for those who object to Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality (as well as many who hold to it).
When surveying the OT and Apocryphal texts, I was surprised to see how consistently the various images for judgment more naturally support the idea of utter destruction and never ongoing torment. We find worms devouring a corpse until there’s nothing left of it or an irresistible fire consuming until there’s nothing left to consume. The wicked will pass away like smoke or chaff. There’s repeated descriptions of destruction, burning up, perishing, the wicked being ‘no more.’ The Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah provide foundational models that also point toward utter destruction rather than ongoing torment.
At the same time, Fudge concludes his survey of the Apocrypha saying, “Judith contains the single explicit reference to conscious everlasting pain” (93). Other Pseudepigraphical and Qumran texts continue to support this general view. Especially relevant to this course, and my favorite aspect of this study, is tracing the degree to which Jewish thought morphed in the Second Temple Period, influenced by Greek philosophy and rise of Jewish Apocalyptic and it’s sources that shaped the world of the New Testament. Richard Bauckham’s warning was a key insight for me in this study: “Heavily influenced by apocalyptic as primitive Christianity undoubtedly was, it was also highly selective in the aspects of apocalyptic which it took over” (100).
What ultimately matters is what Jesus himself believed about final judgment. He warned that God “is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna”, not tormenting it forever. This shows Jesus does not hold the Greek view of the immortality of the soul. Gehenna, for Jesus, is a vivid symbol for the place of rejection, exclusion, separation from the life of God, a place of complete destruction, where the fire consumes and the worm devours. Jesus quotes Isaiah about “their worm” and “the fire” (Mark 9:48) to argue that “The Fact that the fire is ‘not quenched’ means that it keeps burning until nothing put in it remains. The fact that the worm does not die has the same significance—its work of devouring dead bodies is not cut short by the worm’s own demise” (126).
Moreover, Jesus teaches that “Eternal life is the opposite destiny of the destiny awaiting the wicked. Jesus teaches that the final options are eternal life or destruction, finding life or losing life, life or perish, eternal life or condemnation” (145). The language of “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth” refers to remorse and defiant rage, not to pain and agony for whatever length of time (132). For Jesus, “the wicked will become like weeds, straw, fruitless trees, all burned up with fire that is not resisted or thwarted in its task…The wicked lose their lives. They perish. They are destroyed” (169).
In conclusion, the language and images of eternal judgment and the destiny of the unrepentant wicked are best understood as warnings to repent rather than descriptions of what exactly becomes of those who do not. Yet, the evidence seems to weigh more heavily in favor of a Conditional Immortality view. The Traditionalist view is propped up by a long history of collusion with foreign ideas read into the text, a refusal to admit such missteps and an unwillingness to reexamine the evidence. I agree with Richard Bauckham’s summary statement as a great place to conclude:
The NT uses a variety of different pictures to describe hell: fire is one of them, destruction another, exclusion from the presence of God another. Burning in fire for eternity is the picture which got fixed in much traditional teaching about hell as though it were a literal description. The NT does not require us to think of hell in this way. Hell is not an eternal chamber of horrors across way from heaven. Hell is the fate of those who reject God’s love. God’s love cannot compel them to find their fulfillment in God, but there is no other way they can find fulfillment (156).
*Many Christians have been taught that Adam and Eve were originally created as immortal beings and only became mortal after the Fall. However, John Walton and others have argued that Adam and Eve were always mortal but would not die so long as they had access to the antidote of death—the Tree of Life. Had they not sinned and remained in the Garden, would would never had tasted death. However, God banished them from the Garden and put an Angelic guard at the entrance so as to prevent them access to the Tree of Life, lest they go on living forever in their sinful and rebellious state. See e.g., John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve and his other Lost World books.