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It is evident now that traditionalists throughout most of church history generally held to the gruesome and lurid doctrine of hell that many traditionalists today try to disavow. But there do remain a few loose ends. The first is Martin Luther and his view on hell. The second is the Eastern Orthodox Church, and just how to fit them into the mix. Read more about The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular Belief About Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 3) …
What Is The Historical View? ((I think it is also worth noting how many of these below use language that is contrary to scripture. The unsaved live, do not die, are not consumed etc. For more on this, see Episode 58. See also Ronnie Demler, “Sic et Non: Traditionalism’s Scandal,” A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality Written in Honor of Edward Fudge (Pickwick, 2015), 255-276)) ((Of course, as has been pointed out here numerous times, we have good evidence to see some degree of conditionalism among the earliest church fathers (and even some who came later, such as Arnobious of Sicca). There has also been a considerable universalist presence historically. The aim here is to show what typically has been believed about hell specifically by those who believe that it entails eternal conscious suffering of some sort.))
Whether the view is right or wrong, one thing that is true about the tortureless, “darkness” form of hell described in part 1 is that it has not been historically common. That isn’t to say that it has never popped up ever. In part 3, we will look at some potential deviations and some blurring of the lines. And even beyond that, when you have 2,000 years and significant chunks of civilization holding to a set of beliefs (Christianity), you are bound to get someone believing something at some point. So I am not saying that no one ever held it in the history of the world until the 1900’s or anything that extreme. But when we think of great names in Chrisendom who also believed in eternal conscious punishment of the unsaved, one thing that you find across the board is a view of hell as a horrible, torturous place of vengeance and violence. Though not completely universal, this has been the predominant view in church history (among traditionalists).
In light of this fact, many traditionalists today who sneer at annihilationism because it departs from the more historical view may find that their own views fare no better.
If there is one area where traditionalism has an advantage, it is in church history. After all, there is a reason why this is called “traditionalism” and “the traditional view.”
That isn’t to say the view has always been held unanimously (although it is all too often treated as though it has been); resources here at Rethinking Hell address conditionalism among the earliest church fathers. ((Glenn Peoples, “Church Fathers Who Were Conditionalists,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted July 22, 2013, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/07/church-fathers-who-were-conditionalists/ (accessed December 19, 2013).)) ((Chris Date, “Deprived of Continuance: Irenaeus the Conditionalist,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted November 3, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/deprived-of-continuance-irenaeus-the-conditionalist/, (accessed on December 19, 2015).)) Universalism also appears to have had a considerable following in the early church. ((Richard Baukham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey Richard Bauckham,” Themelios 4, no. 2 (September 1978): 48, reproduced at Theologicalstudies.org.uk, n.d., http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/article_universalism_bauckham.html, (accessed on March 21, 2016).)) The same can be said for the generic denial of “eternal punishment,” which at the very least precludes traditionalism. ((Augustine, Enchidrion: On Faith, Hope, and Love, Trans. Albert C. Cutler, (Southern Methodist University, 1955), Chapter 112, reproduced at Tertullian.org, n.d., http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm, (accessed on March 21, 2016).)) Nevertheless, the traditional view has been the predominant view in church history, and this is an advantage for traditionalists.
Well, it has been an advantage for traditionalists. Simply put, many traditionalists today, and quite possibly you who are reading this now, envision hell in ways that depart materially and substantially from what traditionalists throughout church history have taught about hell. And therefore, the strongest argument for the traditional view, that of church history, is lost for many traditionalists today. ((This point is hardly new with me. Fellow Rethinker Ronnie Demler made this very point in his talk given at our inaugural rethinking Hell conference in 2014, which was recorded and presented as Episode 58 of our podcast (see 51:11-53:07). Glenn Peoples also made this point in a talk given at, recorded in Episode 52 of his podcast, Say Hello to my Little Friend (starting around 10:38 to about 15:00). I do, however, really want to drive the point home of how true this is, especially in part 2.))
The story of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31, is one of the most commonly cited passages of scripture that is said to teach that hell is a place of eternal torment. However, being commonly cited does not mean that it actually means what they say it means.
Now, we’ve gone over elements of this passage in some detail already on this blog. My goal here is to give an overview, to put in one place a more introductory explanation, primarily for those who are fairly new to the hell debate and are not as familiar with the case for conditional immortality.
So, what about this passage?
Read more about Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-31 (The Rich Man and Lazarus) …
In the debate concerning the final fate of the unrepentant, the argument is frequently made that a finite number of sins warrants infinite punishment because the sins are against God, who is infinite. The level of punishment deserved, it is argued, is based not on the sin but rather on who is sinned against. Since God is perfectly holy (usually described as “infinitely holy”) and is infinite and eternal, any sin against God warrants infinite and eternal punishment.
For the sake of ease, I will refer to this as the “infinity argument” here.
Consider the words of Jonathan Edwards:
But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.
So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment. ((Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d., http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/je-justice.htm (accessed on March 20, 2016).))
Having held to evangelical conditionalism, a minority Christian view on the doctrine of hell for some time now, I find that it has taught me a lot about things that go far beyond final punishment. Some time ago, I wrote an article spelling out a number of these lessons (see Part 1).
This article will add to that list of lessons that. Though they were driven home as I discussed this particular issue with others, they can nonetheless have application in many other matters.
If you have been a conditionalist for a while, you will have certainly heard it stated that annihilationism can’t be true because people suffering in hell would want to be annihilated, and therefore annihilation is actually a good thing, not a punishment.
This traditionalist objection has always made me cringe because the fact that it misses the point is almost self-evident: annihilation is a bad thing because it is worse than the alternative fate of eternal life with God. That seems pretty simple, right?
However, I have never really laid down in one place a solid rebuttal to this argument. I hope to rectify that here. Because it is accepted by many, and because healthy dialogue is seldom furthered by simply telling others “you’re wrong, stupid,” I’d like to take this opportunity to break down this line of reasoning and explain where I think it falls short.
Firstly, I actually agree that annihilation is a less terrible fate than eternal torment – at least the historical Christian version of eternal torment that involved fire and unbelievable pain and suffering, that is. By comparison, death would be an improvement. Annihilationists are divided on this, but that is where I stand. Therefore, if some people were in hell, being horribly tormented, burned alive (or its equivalent) in the presence of Jesus and the angels (which is as much a part of Revelation 14:9-11 as the references to the smoke of their torment and “for ever and ever”), and these people were given the option to be destroyed or to stay in that condition for eternity, they would surely choose destruction. And in doing so, they would be better off than if they stayed alive in traditionalist hell for ever and ever. To this extent, I agree with the traditionalist sentiment behind this argument.
That said, this is irrelevant as to whether or not evangelical conditionalism is true.
Of all the passages used to defend the traditional view of final punishment, one stands out as by far the most difficult for the conditionalist. ((Some would point to Revelation 14:9-11 as being equally or more difficult. However, this is only true if one is not aware of Isaiah 34:9-10. Revelation 14:9-11 doesn’t actually say anyone is eternally tormented. Rather it is inferred that smoke rising forever means that the fire burns forever and thus everyone being burned is eternally tormented in an ever-burning fire. However, Isaiah 34:10 uses the idiom of smoke rising forever to speak of the destruction of a city, not of anyone or anything actually burning and producing smoke. The resources in the footnotes for Revelation 20:10 can also give more explanation of this passage.)) As you might imagine, I don’t consider the challenge to be insurmountable. However, it is a challenge. This is the one passage in the entire Bible that actually says, on its face, that anyone will be tormented for eternity. ((Some passages mention torment (e.g. Luke 16:19-31), some mention eternity (e.g. Matthew 25:46), and some say things that one who has been told from childhood that hell is a place of eternal torment will understandably assume is referring to eternal torment (e.g. Mark 9:48). Revelation 20:10, however, actually outright says, of the devil, beast, and false prophet, that “they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”))
The explanation I would give, which many other conditionalists would give (in varying forms), is itself simple: John sees a vision where three beings are thrown into a lake of fire to be tormented for ever and ever, but the vision itself symbolizes the destruction of the things the images represent in real life.
In Part 1 of this review, we looked over the first two sections of Dr. Timothy Keller’s article, “The Importance of Hell.” Here in Part 2, we will pick up where we left off, starting with the third section of Keller’s article. After through the rest of the article in some detail, I will give my own concluding thoughts on the importance of hell.