Exploring Hell Part 1
Recently, I’ve been studying the topic of Hell, and specifically an alternative understanding of the doctrine of Hell know as Conditionalism or sometimes Annihilationism (though both names allude to particular aspects of the same understanding of Hell, they seem to be used interchangeably to represent the same perspective). The Conditionalist view of Hell seems to me to make much better sense of what the Scriptures say are the “wages of sin” and the destiny of the unredeemed than traditional view of Hell does.
While I am heavily leaning in the direction of the Conditionalist view at the moment, I am still open to the possibility that it is wrong and that Tradition is correct. After all, some of the biggest names in the history of Christian Theology have held to the traditional view, and I know these men are much more authoritative on God, the Scriptures, and what they have to say on this topic than I. That said, I also believe that these men are not inerrant, and believe that it is possible they are all wrong, and therefore feel it necessary to investigate the topic for myself.
I personally have never been fully convinced of or satisfied with the traditional understanding of Hell, and so when listening to the Unbelievable podcast with Justin Brierly (http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable or find him at @UnbelievableJB on Twitter), and Chris Date (@datechris) was on talking about his website http://www.rethinkinghell.com, I checked it out, started listening to his Podcast from episode 1, and find myself immersed in a study on this topic. All I can do is turn to the Scriptures, and study the topic diligently, and carefully follow the evidence and arguments, and see what seems to make the best sense of the entire biblical narrative, and how each view of Hell fits into that narrative. After over 20 hours of Podcast episodes, and writing a 13 page research paper on the topic of the Doctrine of Hell for my History of Christian Theology class, the Annihilationist view of Hell seems to make more sense to me.
While almost every Christian is familiar with the Traditional view of Hell as an everlasting punishment in a lake of fire where the unsaved will experience an eternity of everlasting conscious torment, very few Christians have even heard of Conditionalism, and even less have a proper understanding of what it holds, and why Conditionalists feel scripturally justified to defy tradition on this topic. This first post will give a brief nutshell view of Conditionalism, and then address a particular passage that Traditionalists point to in favor of their view of Hell, and why I don’t think it supports their view.
Conditionalism, to try and put it in a nutshell that does justice to the topic, is called such because those who hold this position believe in conditional immortality. This means that human being do not possess a soul that is innately immortal, and the only way to be given immortality is through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. John 3:16 exemplifies the view quite well, when one does not already have their understanding of the passage shaped in light of traditionalism. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” According to Conditionalism, those who aren’t saved by the blood of Christ shall perish, but those who believe in Jesus shall be given the gift of eternal life. This is rather plain to see if you simply look at the statement’s logical inversion, where we see that “whoever does not believe in him shall perish, and shall not have eternal life.” Those who aren’t saved, don’t have eternal life, and will perish. This is the Conditionalist view of Hell. It is not eternal conscious torment, it is perishing. Whether there is torment and suffering as a part of this annihilation or not is a matter of differing opinions among conditionalists, but all agree with Romans 6:23 when it states that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” Two things to note there; first, the wages of sin is death, not an eternity of conscious torment, and second, that eternal life is a gift of God. Why would God give the unsaved this “gift” only so they could writhe in pain and agony for eternity while they are tormented with fire for eternity? Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:28 “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.” Jesus right here specifically states that God destroys both body and soul in hell. This does not say he keeps them alive with the gift of immortality that only He can grant us so that we can suffer eternal conscious torment, it says God will destroy both body and soul in Hell!
One final aspect of Conditionalism that I find most convincing has to do with Christology. If Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, in order that we won’t have to, don’t we see a picture of a man who is judged, condemned, tortured, then killed in a horrific way? In what meaningful sense can Jesus be said to have paid the penalty for our sins if what He experienced was not the same as what we are destined to experience if we reject Jesus as Christ? Under traditionalism, the Cross made no sense to me, but under a conditionalist understanding, I can make perfect sense of Jesus being tortured, mocked, shamed, ridiculed, and ultimately put to death in a horrific way and thus paying our penalty in a literal way, but being the God-man, His infinite perfection paid for our finite imperfections, and Jesus was then given the gift of eternal life, the first fruits of the resurrection, and raised to the new life that we will all one day share in this gift of eternal life as the redeemed of God,
thus grants us a way to be free from the penalty of sin, that is, death. Only as the Redeemed of God do we have eternal life, and we see in the cross a perfect picture of what awaits the unsaved sinner, and in his Resurrection, a perfect picture of the life of the saved. Thus we have a glorious picture of penal substitution, that paints a vivid picture in His own life, death, and ultimately, gloriously, the Resurrection, of the fate of all men, one way or another.
So, with all this talk about the wages of sin being death, and eternal life is a gift of God to those who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, where did the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment come from?
This question demands an entire research paper all its own to fully flesh out the origins of this view, but there are at least two passages in Revelation that seem to clearly paint a picture of Hell as being an eternity of conscious torment. My intentions for the remainder of this post is to share my thoughts on one of these passages, and leave the other (and the rest of what I want to say on this topic) for later.
The passage in question is Revelation 14:9-11:
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
The particularly problematic verse is 11. It seems to clearly teach, when this passage is taken literally, that they will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angel and in the presence of Jesus (the Lamb), and that the smoke from their torment will rise for ever and ever. However, when reading any Scriptural passage, especially one as visually rich and theologically complex as apocalyptic literature, it is necessary to understand the context of that passage in order to properly form any sort of theological doctrine from it. We must pay special attention to previous passages in Scripture that the author was specifically alluding, because these passages clue us into what the author was trying to teach by the picture he paints with his specific choice of imagery.
It just so happens that this is exactly what is going on in this passage. Here in Revelation 14:11 John uses wording that would have set off alarm bells to a Jewish audience to language they have heard elsewhere in Scripture, specifically, Isaiah 34. In Isaiah 34, the prophet is speaking about the LORD judging the nations, and in verses 8-10 we read:
“For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause.
Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch,
her dust into burning sulfur;
her land will become blazing pitch!
It will not be quenched night or day;
its smoke will rise forever.
From generation to generation it will lie desolate;
no one will ever pass through it again.”
Here we see God judging the nation of Edom, and it states that it will burn with a fire that is not quenched night or day, and the smoke from it will rise forever. Do you see the similarity between the imagery used here and in Revelation 14?
This imagery from Isaiah would have been very familiar to a Jewish audience whose lives were saturated with the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and thus when they read something that sounds very much like Isaiah’s wording, it would have clued them into what the Author was communicating by alluding to this previous passage. It would have been further clear that Edom was not, in point of fact, still burning in their own day (let alone nowadays), and the smoke was not literally still rising for ever and ever. So clearly they would have understood that this was imagery with an allusion to the passage in Isaiah. They would have known that the purpose was not to communicate that there would literally be smoke rising forever, because this wasn’t the case in Isaiah. They would have known it was used to paint a picture of the finality of it, the irreversibility of the fate that awaited Edom, with no hope of rebuilding, and thus the finality and irreversibility of the fate of those who worship the Beast in Revelation. When we read the passage in Revelation in isolation of its context, however, it is easy to see how the passage is taken literally, and thus an idea of the torment being eternal is born. But when read in context of its allusion to Isaiah’s passage about the judgment of the nations, we realize this is a picture of the finality of the judgment.
There is so much more to be said on this topic, and I’m sure those who still hold to the Traditional view have many more questions. Good. I hope this generates loads of discussion, and conversation on the topic, and that we can all reexamine our own views on this topic, and can examine some theologically viable alternatives to our understanding. Please feel free to leave a comment and get some dialogue going!