Hot Debate

I was talking today with a friend who is struggling with the notion of a God who can punish eternally. Most people of all religions believe one of three things: 1) all are saved and go to some form of heaven, 2) some are saved and some are not but those not are eternally punished with the earth that is destroyed by fire, 3) others believe creation will be restored and there will be a one-time punishment of the rebellious in the end times.

So I decided to offer this review and opinion of a helpful book, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, by Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson (Intervarsity Press, 2000). The thorough and helpful book that anyone considering the end times ought to read is available through Edward’s web site:

For two millennia Christians have credulously believed the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul, says Edward Fudge, in Intervarsity’s new book, Two Views of Hell. Fudge says these Greek ideas have devastated the church’s doctrine of hell. He believes the Bible teaches that the wicked will be completely annihilated rather than consciously tormented forever.

The book is a debate between Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, who holds the traditional view, held since the time of Tertullian and Augustine, that unrepentant sinners will be tormented in hell without end. Where we come down on this issue, say the authors, shapes our views of God, sin, the end times, and evangelism. So the exchange between Fudge and Peterson is, like the subject matter, hot.

Fudge believes the traditional view is based more upon human philosophy than scripture, is not consistent with the nature of the merciful God revealed in Christ, and seriously affects the Christian witness. Peterson, on the other hand, says Fudge’s conditionalist view, also called the annihilationist view, represents a growing scholarly and popular trend to portray God as “gentler and kinder.” Peterson, however, believes this picture of God to be out of focus contradicting clear teaching in scripture. He believes the idea of conditional immortality does serious damage to evangelism and leads to watering down of key church doctrines.

The book is brief, and in its 228 pages–which includes endnotes, name index, and scriptural index–Fudge presents his case for conditionalism, and Peterson responds. Then Peterson presents his case for the traditionalism and Fudge responds.

The book opens by establishing doctrines upon which the authors agree. Both deny universalism, the idea that all will be saved and hell does not exist. Both reject post-mortem evangelism, “the idea that persons have an opportunity after death to believe the gospel of Christ.” This is not to be confused with the end times scenario portrayed in the wildly popular Left Behind book series. The plot begins at the beginning of the dispensational tribulation and portrays a second crack for living unbelievers to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. I asked Fudge and Peterson about Left Behind and both were quick to make a distinction between a second chance before death, as Left Behind portrays, and a second chance after death—they reject the latter, leaving the former, the Left Behind scenario, speculative. They agree that scripture teaches a future Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment, followed by terrible suffering for the lost.

The firestorm of debate, however, is over exactly how the lost are punished. Fudge says the wicked will be punished in hell, then completely wiped from existence. Peterson, on the other hand, holds that the wicked will be tormented without end. At the center of the debate is the word “eternal.” Both Fudge and Peterson say the meaning is plain in most texts—but they give plainly opposite interpretations of this word in Matthew 25:31-46. Peterson, who says this passage is the “single most important passage in the history of the doctrine of hell,” says the words “eternal fire” in v. 41 mean everlasting torment. He correlates this text with Revelation 20:10, where Satan is thrown into the “lake of burning sulfur” and “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Fudge, on the other hand, believes “eternal” in Matthew 25:41 refers to the finality of the punishment, that it will stand forever. Fudge says, “once destroyed, they (unrepentant sinners) will be gone forever.”

Two Views of Hell is not simply a word study book on the terms “hell,” “eternity,” and “punishment.” The authors also draw from church history and attempt both scriptural exposition and theological reflection. Yet without consciously referring in the book to their different approaches, the two come to the topic not only with different views of hell but also with different theological methods. Fortunately, as Peterson points out, it’s not these methods or approaches that, in the end, make a view right or wrong.

Peterson uses systematic theology by discussing New Testament texts, church tradition, and the doctrines of man, Christ, and end times that support the traditional view of hell. While most texts were not written specifically so we could fully understand hell, Peterson seems to acknowledge this by setting up each passage in its context before drawing his conclusions.

Where Peterson builds on church tradition, Fudge employs historical theology to critique the way doctrines have come to us through church history. Fudge looks at how the doctrine of hell has been influenced by the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul, an idea Fudge believes to be unbiblical. Fudge says this leaves us with a view of eternal torment which came down to us through ideas foreign to scripture, church politics, and personal vendettas. “If we ever begin to suppose that ecclesiastical tradition outweighs scriptural teaching in authority,” says Fudge, “Protestants ought all to line up and apologize to the pope of Rome.” Nevertheless, Fudge and Peterson both claim to draw their conclusions based upon sola scriptura as Martin Luther claimed.

Fudge, for example, nearly a dozen times says we ought to let scripture interpret itself. The caveat of this, however, is that scripture does not interpret itself. Humans interpret scripture. And we interpret it imperfectly. So we do our imperfect best to be faithful to scripture while drawing on what others have legitimately believed in the past. Which is exactly why Peterson is right to build on church tradition, but Fudge is also right to critique the process through which we received the doctrine of hell. The church tradition, which Peterson highlights in support of his argument for eternal torment, has some weight, but scripture, rather than tradition, is our sole final authority. While giving respect to those who have lived for and died for their beliefs, we ought to continually come to old doctrines with fresh study and insight.

While much of what we know from scripture about the end times is unclear, many build their end times analogies and theories upon a dozen scripture references. C.S. Lewis approaches the simultaneous existence of a joyous heaven and a tormenting hell by taking a philosophical approach to good and evil. In his famously hosted omnibus trip to hell, Lewis compares the tiny influence of hell upon the fortitude of heaven with a drop of ink in the Pacific Ocean. Even awful torment of the wicked cannot touch those filled with joy in heaven.

Ironically, in Seinfeld, the television sitcom that defined humor in the 90s, Puddy (Patrick Warburton) is not ambivalent about the ferocity of hell, and he tells Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) plainly what hell is going to be like. “It’s gonna be rough,” Puddy says with a matter of fact deadpan.

Two Views of Hell has once again opened the debate over the nature of God’s punishment in hell. Is God’s punishment eternal in the sense that the wicked are tormented consciously without end or in the sense that the torment will be done once and for all and will be an eternally lasting destruction? Can we know precisely how the wicked will be punished in hell any more than we can envision exactly how we will live forever in heaven?

Does the side of the fence where we stand on this issue necessarily shape, as Fudge and Peterson say it does, our view of God and Christ? Perhaps the foundation of our view of God is not in knowing exactly how the wicked will be punished and how the saved will live eternally but in the fact that He will graciously save undeserving sinners who repent and punish the unrepentant sinners. Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz and author of Theology for the Community of God says, “the debate raised by annihilationists reminds us of the difficulties that arise whenever we attempt to pinpoint the eternal situation of the lost.”

The debate can do some good, Grenz adds, “if it leads us to realize that we ought never to speak about the fate of the lost without tears in our eyes.”

While writing this review, I decided to put the scriptures used by both authors to the test of the plain reading that they both confidently say is possible. I gave each scripture one of three categories: traditional-leaning, conditional-leaning, and neutral or inconclusive. I looked at the following scriptures: Isaiah 66:22-24; Daniel 12:1-2; Matthew 18:6-9, 25:31-46; Mark 9:42-48; II Thessalonians 1:5-10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:11-13. Both authors chose various other scriptures to support their argument, so I included Matthew 13:30-43; 16:19-31; Isaiah 33:10-24; Revelation 19:11-16; John 5:28-29; II Corinthians 5:6-8. I found that what Peterson calls “plainly biblical” (179) and Fudge repeatedly refers to as “the natural and obvious” (63) or “ordinary” (29) meaning is not quite as clear as the nose on your face. The majority of the passages, in my opinion, come up neutral.

I can’t understand the plain texts well enough to have anything but a neutral view on this issue (between the two views promoted in the book), but I lean toward believing because of God’s nature that he will redeem, restore, and punish, though I am not confident that the punishment for evil will be ongoing for eternity.

5 comments on “Hot Debate

  1. Terrific review. I’ve always liked what Fudge has had to say on various topics. Peterson I do not know. Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. It is an area to do some exploration.


  2. Through some of my seminary classes, I have begun to rethink the doctrine of hell as it has been handed to me. As of yet, I’ve yet to come up with “my view” of eternal punishment. But there are some deep problems I have with the idea of eternal punishment in hell.

    I am not a dualist. I do not believe that there are two separate, equal realities–Good and Evil–that both exist eternally. I believe that there is only one ultimate reality, the Good, or God. Evil, as we call it, is not a separate reality but a distortion of the Good.

    God, then, is the sustainer of reality. He is not only the Creator of all that is, but all that is exists through him and in him. Therefore, if there is eternal punishment in hell, it does not exist because of the power of Evil or of Satan, because all things exist through/in God. If hell exists, it can only exist by God’s sustenance.

    I have heard some say that hell (eternal punishment) is what happens when God completely removes his presence from a person, but this cannot be. Nothing can exist apart from God. For there to be an eternal hell, God must eternally sustain that hell. It is because of this that I have a hard time accepting the idea of eternal torment. I do not think that it is in God’s nature to sustain eternal punishment. Instead, if Hell is what happens when God removes his presence from a person, then Hell is annihilation. Hell is nothingness.

    Thanks, Greg, for bringing up the topic. A difficult one, indeed.


  3. Matthew 25:46 seems to be the only scripture which implies that people receive “eternal punishment”; in others they are sent to it, or the punishment/fire is described as “eternal”.

    Jesus tells a story about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) sent to their respective rewards at the same time, and the rich man being aware of the Lazarus’ bliss compared to his own torment – and apparently convinced that if Lazarus were sent to his still-living brothers, they would repent. But there is no intimation about the duration of his “agony” and “torment.”

    We’re always tempted, I think, to try to create God in our own image; to “deconstruct” Him as if we could possibly understand Him. We want to think that a good God could not eternally punish the temporarily sinful. Yet we have no frame of reference for measuring – as C.S. Lewis does in your citation – the magnitude of justice in eternity. We have only history, and our even shorter lifespans.

    Why would Jesus hold one generation guilty for the blood of all martyred prophets (Luke 11:50)? Is it because, by rejecting Him, they made all prophets of Him out to be liars? And does their punishment go beyond the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem?

    We can debate on and on, but we may never fully understand in this life. What we can understand is that there will be punishment, and that it is to be avoided at all cost; and that there will be reward, and it is to be yearned for, anticipated and cherished at all cost.

    Our knowledge is not nearly so important, then, as our faith. Is it?


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