I’ve recently read the book Rethinking Hell, a collection of essays in favor of annihilationism or conditionalism. You may access the full ten-page review by clicking on this following link: screwtape-reviews-rethinking-hell
I will also add the entire review below:
Screwtape Reviews Rethinking Hell:
Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism
Larry Dixon, Ph.D.
Columbia International University Seminary and School of Ministry, July 2014
My name is Screwtape. Perhaps you have heard of me. I don’t normally review theology books, but I could not resist reviewing the book Rethinking Hell.
Oh. You didn’t think we demons read? Of course we do. And we write, as well. (Where do you think all those sappy Harlequin romances come from?)
Most followers of Our Enemy Above don’t read. They fortunately seldom read The Book, that awful communiqué that talks about truth and — you know — Him. Sadly the books that I’ve inspired others to read, especially challenging what The Book clearly says, gather dust on the shelves of liberal theologians and pastors. [Interesting how those worn-out ideas are being “discovered” these days by some of those “Emergent” Christians]. Real followers of You-Know-Who seldom read good or even bad books. I want to do everything in my power to make sure they read this book. It’s that good, I mean, bad.
It is, of course, quite difficult to be objective about the subject matter. The editors of this book are dealing with where we and other followers of Our Father Below live! Some things they get right. And some things they get terribly wrong. But I’m a thorough-going pragmatist, so I don’t care whether they get things right or wrong, if it serves our purposes. And if what they get wrong makes Our Enemy Above look bad, then so much the better.
I’m not sure how much of what the contributors have put in this book comes out of a sense of embarrassment about our domicile. A whole gaggle of qualified scholars and theologians contributed to this volume. And although we can’t exactly see into their hearts, we know that the traditional doctrine is shocking enough that they had to write what they wrote. Motives will always be questioned, but that provides a great deal of entertainment for us demons, who couldn’t care less about such trivialities.
But allow me to be “objective” for a little while. I will assume the persona of a mature Evangelical theologian (one who happens to hold to the idea of eternal conscious punishment) who is reviewing this book — and then I’ll come back and I’ll tell you what I really think.
A (Mostly) Objective Review of
Rethinking Hell: Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism
Rethinking Hell: Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism, was edited by Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, and Joshua W. Anderson. The foreword is by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. The book is divided into six parts which have the titles: “Rethinking Hell,” “Influential Defenses of Conditionalism,” “Biblical Support for Conditionalism,” “Philosophical Support for Conditionalism,” “Historical Considerations,” and “Conditionalism and Evangelicalism.” There are aticles by twenty-two writers (some deceased). The book is a collection of articles written and published across decades and centuries.
Most writers appear to come from and/or were educated in countries other than the United States. More than one-half come from the United Kingdom. One chapter is a report from the United Kingdom’s “Evangelical Alliance.”
The editors have done a commendable job of assembling these articles which challenge the eternal conscious punishment (ECP) view of eternal lostness. In its place they argue for some form of annihilationism, that is, that the wicked will either cease to exist or be actively put out of existence by God at the judgment.
Some of the contributors show respect for the traditional view of ECP; others more vehemently reject “such a monstrous view of a god who would torture His creatures forever.”
The primary issues which are tackled in this book include the following:
1. Does the Bible categorically teach the ECP view — or is there equal or even superior evidence for the annihilationist position? The charge is made that the ECP view rests on just four core texts: Mt. 18:34-35; Mk. 9:43-48; Rev. 14:10-11; Rev. 20:10 (151). Some contributors (such as Marshall and Witherington) suggest that either view (ECP or annihilationism) is exegetically possible and equally orthodox (302).
2. All the contributors, it appears, agree that the concept that the human person naturally possesses an immortal soul is a Hellenistic view adopted by the early Christians. Some (Pinnock) even go so far as to say that the New Testament writers adopted a Greek perspective. The contributors argue that “eternal life” is a gift given only to those who believe the gospel. Man is not naturally immortal. Only God possesses immortality.
3. Church history shows that the ECP view has always had competition with other viewpoints (244). All the writers dismiss universalism as unbiblical. Marshall, however, says, “it is quite appropriate for Christians to hope fervently for the universal redemption of all humankind, especially since this is evidently something God personally desires (I Tim. 2:4; 2 Pe. 3:9).” (218).1
4. Evangelical annihilationists believe that their view is superior in a number of ways to the ECP view. They believe the ECP position violates the principle of proportionality — that is, the annihilationist view argues that it is unthinkable for God to eternally punish finite sins committed by finite human beings. The annihilationist view is set forth as a superior theodicy (a defense of God’s justice in the face of evil’s reality) because it posits a “clean universe” after God’s judgment.2 The ECP view is accused of holding to an eternal dualism of good and evil.3 The annihilationist view argues that its view of God’s character is far superior to that posited by ECP. F.F. Bruce is reported as saying, “Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God.” (280).4
5. It is predicted that contemporary Evangelicals will continue to join the annihilationist ranks, especially in light of such luminaries (Date uses the term “thoroughbred evangelicals”) as John Stott, Michael Green, I. Howard Marshall, and others advocating this “alternative” position. Rethinking Hell is part of a wider campaign to encourage such “conversion.” There is a rethinkinghell.com website as well as an annual “Rethinking Hell” conference. The primary American spokesman for annihilationism is Edward Fudge5 whose personal theological journey has been produced as a film entitled Hell and Mr. Fudge.
6. Rethinking Hell makes the point that Evangelical annihilationists are part of God’s family and should be welcomed as such. It is argued that their viewpoint is not heretical. This is merely a family squabble, says the Evangelical Alliance report, for the issue of the nature of hell is a secondary rather than a primary issue (288). It is claimed that annihilationists fit under Bebbington’s four key characteristics of an evangelical: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. (286). Roger Olson declares: “Annihilationism does not strike at the heart of the gospel or even deny any major Christian belief; it is simply a reinterpretation of hell.” (290-291).6
An Evangelical ECPer Might Raise the Following Concerns:
1. The biblical doctrine of death needs to be thoroughly researched. If death equals non-existence, then how does one explain passages such as Luke 16:19-31 (it is not sufficient to simply call this a parable and not pay attention to what Jesus says about the Intermediate State), Matthew 17:1-3 (where Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the Mount), and 2 Corinthians 5:8 (“to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”)? What is the annihilationist view of the Intermediate State? Presumably they believe in the resurrection of the wicked dead. But why would the wicked be given resurrection bodies if their ultimate end is destruction? If death equals non-existence, then how do annihilationists view the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross? Did the Second Person of the Trinity simply cease to exist temporarily?7 It appears that none of the contributors to this volume understand death to mean immediate cessation of existence, for they advocate some time of punishment for the wicked. Presumably they hold to the resurrection of the wicked who are then put out of existence. If, however, physical death is the separation of the body from the spirit or soul, then Jesus did not cease to exist at His death (His soul or spirit was simply separated from His body).
Certain Scriptural texts seem to indicate that death is not cessation of existence, but separation (such as 1 Jn. 3:14). If “death shall be no more” (Rev. 21:4), how are we to understand that? If death equals no-more-ness, then how can one cause no-more-ness to cease to exist? Wright acknowledges, “That the essence of human beings is not destroyed by physical death is certainly taught in the New Testament. But this scarcely constitutes ‘immortality’ in the stronger sense of being ‘incapable of dying.’ In fact, Jesus spoke about the one who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” ( 231). I know of no ECPers who would argue that God couldn’t put human beings out of existence, if He chose to do so.
Wright argues, “In short, hell is the infinite loss of God . . . ultimately the loss of God who is the source and ground of all life provides no way in which any creature could continue to be.” (Wright, 233). When we look at 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (“who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might”), Atkinson says, “To be destroyed from the presence of the Lord can therefore only mean to be nowhere.” (101). However, this is a philosophical, not a biblical, argument. Is it what the Bible actually teaches? Does the Bible teach that to be separated from God equals non-existence? (It certainly appears from Rev. 20 that the devil, the false prophet, and the beast continue to exist forever in torment).
2. More thought needs to be given to the definition of “destruction.” We commonly speak of a wrecked car as “destroyed,” even though it has not ceased to exist. Certain expressions (such as “cut off”) seem to be referring to the wicked person’s having no more influence on the earth (not cessation of existence). We read in Psalm 34:16- “The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”
Does an expression like “be no more” indicate extinction, or a person having no more impact on this world? We read of the wicked person in Job 24:20- “The womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.” In Psalm 39:13 we hear the Psalmist (not one of “the wicked”) pray, “O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.” Psalm 104:35 says, “Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the Lord, O my soul. Praise ye the Lord.” We read in Ezekiel 26:20-21 about the city of Tyre: “I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place in the land of the living. 21 I will bring you to a horrible end and you will be no more.” It appears that the Old Testament view of the afterlife is that the wicked will no longer have any impact on this life — it is as if they no longer exist in this world. Because at death, they don’t (exist in this world).
And why the expression “eternal destruction”? Is it intended to indicate the eternal results or the everlasting process of destruction or ruin which never comes to completion? Fire’s purpose is not just to consume. Sometimes it is used to get another’s attention (note the burning bush in Exodus 3 which was not consumed).8
3. If “eternal life” is the gift only of believers, when do they receive this gift? Ellis says that only those in Christ will “put on immortality” and “they will do so individually only at their bodily resurrection at the second coming” (129). Doesn’t the Bible teach that believers have eternal life now? (see Jn. 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 6:40, 47). And isn’t the concept of eternal life far more than unending longevity? Doesn’t it refer to a quality of life, a passing from death to life into fellowship with God?
4. If the NT writers succumbed to Hellenism (as intimated by Pinnock), then that seems to imply that some New Testament writers taught the immortality of the soul, but were wrong to do so. Other annihilationists argue vehemently that the Bible doesn’t teach the immortality of the human soul. One can’t have it both ways. Either the Bible teaches the immortality of the soul or it doesn’t. If it does, then the issue becomes one of inspiration and one’s view of the Scriptures.9
5. The question of proportionality of punishment needs to be carefully considered. Witherington agrees with Rob Bell regarding the injustice of infinite suffering for finite sin (298). But if eternal punishment for finite sins is wrong, how is eternal nothingness better? Marshall admits that, “An eternity of nothingness is as much an infinite penalty for finite sin as an eternity of pain.” (218). One could ask, if the wicked suffer at all, then why are they not then brought into heaven when their suffering is done? Why are they put out of existence? Isn’t suffering in hell in annihilationism really a kind of self-atonement? If their suffering is remedial (as several of the contributors argue), then why are they then extinguished?
One contributor asks the question, how could the redeemed enjoy God and heaven while loved ones are in eternal hell? (230). Is it better to think that they cease to exist? Is that a superior view? The question, “How can God in any meaningful sense be called ‘everything to everybody’ while an unspecified number of people still continue in rebellion against him and under his judgment?” is a great question. But couldn’t the same question be asked of the annihilationist about the extinguished members of creation?
7. We must discuss the nature of God’s judgment. Is the punishment retributive or remedial? There appears to be no discussion of God’s eschatological wrath in Rethinking Hell. Universalists argue for the punishment being remedial, educative. At least one annihilationist insists that God’s justice is in no way constituted by retribution or vengeance upon sinners, but is rather a “restorative and reconstructive justice, a saving action by God that recreates shalom and makes things right” (207). Marshall says that ECP teaches that “divine justice is essentially and ultimately retributive justice. More worrisome is that the doctrine of final damnation could be taken to mean that the God we are to imitate is finally vindictive, not forgiving, that salvation is, ultimately, the achievement of coercive power, not of self-surrendering love; that punitive pain is an everlasting reality, not a remedial or restorative mechanism.” (210). This perspective, to me, seems but a small step from universalism.
The idea of retributive punishment is thoroughly rejected by some contributors to this volume. Marshall continues, “Because the pain of hell leads nowhere, because there is no benefit for those who endure it, Kvanvig aptly describes hell as ‘paradigmatic . . . of truly pointless, gratuitous evil.’” (216). However, Marshall acknowledges the retributive nature of the New Testament when he writes, “the retributive language and imagery of the New Testament do not a retributivist theology make. And yet . . . retributional words and metaphors are still deliberately employed by the New Testament writers in discussing final judgment.” (225). That leaves me confused.
8. Marshall says that “Hell is nothing if it is not a problem!” (225) Marshall argues, “references to judgment and damnation still abound in the New Testament, and they pose profound problems, both philosophical and moral, for Christian belief.” (213). I don’t see hell as a problem, but as a solution. Marshall says ECP has two propositions that are unsupportable: (1) that redemption can be considered complete even though sin and suffering continue forever in hell, and (2) the reason why the wicked are kept alive by God in hell. (214). Concerning the first proposition, we confine violent criminals in prison for life and yet see our society as good and worthwhile, don’t we? Concerning the second proposition, why must we know the reason God keeps the wicked alive in hell?
9. There seems to be a consensus in this book that Jesus’ teaching on hell is “sketchy.” I would disagree (see my chapter in The Other Side of the Good News). Marshall quotes Kueng regarding Jesus: “Nowhere does he show any direct interest in hell. Nowhere does he reveal any special truths in regard to the hereafter. Nowhere does he describe the act of damnation or the torments of the damned. . . . The heart of his message, which is meant to be the eu-angelion — not a threatening but a joyous message — lies elsewhere.” (212-213). I would beg to disagree. Most of our information about hell comes from Jesus. We should not be surprised that annihilationists look at what Jesus says in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and dismiss it as irrelevant.10
10. Do annihilationists deny the Intermediate State? If the Bible doesn’t teach the immortality of the soul, but rather focuses on bodily resurrection, then what happens to both the righteous and wicked upon death? Did Old Testament believers cease to exist upon their deaths? Guillebaud says Luke 16 seems to deal with the Intermediate State and “is, therefore, outside the scope of this book, and we shall not discuss it” (156). But what if that parable is indicative of what awaits the wicked in the Eternal State, only with resurrection bodies? Witherington suggests “that the dead are still out there, and have not yet been consigned to hell” (294). He reiterates, “. . . while lots of people are in the land of the dead just now, none of them are yet in hell” (296). Upon what basis does Witherington make such statements? How does a text like 2 Corinthians 5:8 (“to be absent from the body [is] to be present with the Lord”) fit into the annihilationist viewpoint?
11. The annihilationist perspective is sometimes accused of removing a great evangelistic motivator for the lost. “If hell is not eternal suffering, but rather merely passing into non-existence, then what motive is there to believe the gospel?,” some might ask. Wright responds, “If human beings would not do to their worst enemies what God, according to some, purposes to do to creatures whom he loves, then this kind of God is not worth believing in and it is hard to blame people who find it impossible so to do.” (Wright, 231). There is an allure to annihilationism, it seems to me, which removes a biblical fear of God.11
12. Do annihilationists acknowledge a real devil? If so, upon what basis can they then explain away Revelation 20 and its connection with Matthew 25? Revelation 20:10 speaks of the devil, the false prophet, and the beast being “tormented day and night forever and ever.” How is that to be understood? If the false prophet and the beast are seen as symbols of the world in rebellion against God, what about the devil? Is he or is he not a real being? [By the way, as a finite creature, does not the proportionality argument apply to him?]
What if the words “tormented day and night forever and ever” really mean “tormented day and night forever and ever”? If the beast goes to his destruction (Rev. 17:8, 11), is not that “destruction” defined by the expression “tormented day and night forever and ever”? How does Atkinson’s statement that the lake of fire “is the agency of utter destruction” (113) square with this expression in Revelation 20:10 (“tormented day and night forever and ever”)? What about all human beings whose names are not found in the Book of Life, described five verses later in the same chapter of Revelation?
If the second death is annihilationism, how do we explain the words used of the unholy Three (“tormented day and night forever and ever”)? It is quite easy to say that Revelation 20:10 is “outside our scope because it is not concerned with human beings” (113). Guillebaud uses the expression “perpetual memorial” several times (167-168). He wants to see the torment as completed, but acknowledges that the first impression of those words (“the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever,” Rev. 14:10-11) seems to be that the torment will continue forever and ever. He argues that the fate of the unholy Three (Rev. 20) “is no sort of indication of the fate of ordinary human beings” (170).
But Matthew 25:41 and the rest of Revelation 20 makes the connection with human beings. Jesus speaks of “the eternal fire” which is prepared for the devil and his angels in Matthew 25:41. Wicked humans are cast into that place prepared for the devil and his angels. The burden is on the annihilationist to show that humans will cease to exist in the same place where the devil will continue forever in torment. Ellis suggests that Revelation 20:10 can’t be taken literally, because that will “contradict the teaching of Heb. 2:14 that Jesus will destroy the devil.” (132). Guillebaud uses Ezekiel 28:11-19 to argue that the devil’s existence will come to an end (171). Witherington says, “Annihilation or destruction of Satan, hell, and its inhabitants is a possible interpretation of the eschatological endgame . . .” (297).
13. Will some annihilationists eventually turn to universalism? N.T. Wright’s argument that “God’s love is the driving force of his justice” leads Marshall to write: “While it may include punitive recompense for wrongdoing, God’s justice is larger than retribution and is ultimately satisfied by healing and restoration, not by punishment. From this it follows that even the eschatological condemnation of the wicked at the Last Judgment must flow ultimately from the restorative love of God, not from the demands of retributive justice.12 It is out of undying love for every human being, not out of a need to exact retribution, that God declares eternal judgment on the impenitent.” (219). Quoting Travis, Marshall says, “there cannot be genuine retribution in the context of personal relationships. . . . To talk freely of punishment in the sense of retribution is to distort the Christian message and encourage misunderstanding. To speak of relationship or lack of relationship with God is to get to the heart of the matter.” (221). Marshall emphasizes, “God’s final word is not retribution but restoration, the recreation of heaven and earth so that sin, suffering, sickness, and death are no more” (227).13
My response would be: Aren’t those blessings reserved for the redeemed? There will be no sin, suffering, sickness, or death for the righteous. Marshall approvingly footnotes the universalist Bonda that all that are lost will come to conversion (227). Wright declares, “. . . this discussion leans in the wrong direction. The ultimate reality about God is not the iron logic of his justice and his laws but the illogical extravagance of his love. God’s essence is not wrath but love. Wrath is a temporary manifestation of his holy love, but not the last word.” (229). This is exactly the argument used by universalists in pressing their case that all without exception will be saved. Witherington adds, “While I certainly believe God is holy, just, and fair, I also believe God is loving, compassionate, and merciful, even to the lost or damned.” (298).
Those are some of my concerns with Rethinking Hell. We should heed A.W. Tozer’s statement that, “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”
Me again. I’m glad to step out of that role-playing. Whew. But doesn’t this discussion just give you goosebumps? It does me! We demons love it when Christians argue over our home. But we love it even more when they never waste a thought on what will certainly be the home of those who don’t turn to You-Know-Who. For many of the human vermin, they can’t imagine our destiny as their destiny, forever. So, they don’t fear nothingness at all and the prospect of temporary suffering followed by nothingness is quite attractive to them. Let’s do all we can to keep them thinking that way.
Gotta run. I want that clumsy nephew of mine Wormwood to read over my review. He did an okay job of inspiring the makers of the film Hellbound. Let’s hope he makes equally good use of Rethinking Hell.
1 But see my warning below that some annihilationists might move toward a form of universalism.
2 Guillebaud says that if Rev. 20:10 really means “that absolutely endless torment will be the fate of the devil and the evil power inspired by him, a tremendous problem arises as to the eternity of evil, with regard to which we could only wait for further light till we know as we are known.” (172).
3 Thiselton approvingly quotes Paul Tillich when Tillich says that there can’t be a dualism or split in the divine nature that would allow “for a realm of darkness, disobdience, and ruin to co-exist forever by his sustaining power.” “Splits in the nature of reality are for him [Tillich] demonic, and render the nature of an enduring hell absurd.” (176).
4 Pinnock wrote in his Criswell article: “How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself.” (“The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review 4, no. 2 [Spring 1990]). See also his article “Fire, Then Nothing,” (Christianity Today, 20 March 1987).
Millard Erickson responded to Pinnock’s statement by saying, “It is one thing to speak emphatically about one’s sense of injustice and moral outrage over the idea of God’s condemning persons to hell. If, however, one is going to describe sending persons to endless punishment as ‘cruelty and vindictiveness,’ and a God who would do so as ‘more nearly like Satan than God,’ and ‘a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz,’ he had better be very certain he is correct. For if he is wrong, he is guilty of blasphemy. A wiser course of action would be restraint in one’s statements, just in case he might be wrong.” (quoted in Michael Popock, BSac 156:623 [July 99] p. 359).
5 Fudge’s book The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment (third edition, 2011) receives several commendations throughout Rethinking Hell.
6 However, if it is argued that Jesus’ death equals His temporalily ceasing to exist, then some serious Christological issues must be raised.
7 Robert Peterson raises this issue with Edward Fudge in the book Two Views on Hell.
8 I use the analogy of the burning bush in Ex. 3:2 to argue that fire does not have to consume. See my The Other Side of the Good News: Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Christian Focus, 2003).
9 One may track Pinnock’s changing view of the Scriptures by comparing his early work (A Defense of Biblical Infallibility) to his later view (see his Scripture Principle).
10 If Jesus describes the Intermediate State accurately in Luke 16, then the burden is on the annihilationist to prove that the Eternal State will be categorically different for the wicked.
11 I tried to deal with this issue in my paper “If ‘Fire, Then Nothing,’ Why Be Good? The Ethics of Annihilationism” (ETS, New Orleans, 1990). J.I. Packer makes the valid point that nothingness is what we would all prefer to believe. See his article responding to annihilationism at http://www.the-highway.com/annihilationism_Packer.html.
12 This sounds very much like the argument of the universalist Thomas Talbott in his The Inescapable Love of God.
13 Matthew 25 indicates there are two final words (v. 34- “come” to the blessed and v. 41- “depart” to the cursed). See also Daniel 12:2. One wonders if Marshall has been reading Gregory MacDonald’s book The Evangelical Universalist.