THE PROBLEM OF THE DOCTRINE
Now that we have considered the subjects of the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. two of the “concomitants of the second advent.” our study of the Bible’s teaching regarding the future brings us to the subject of the final state. Here, as with many aspects of the Bible’s teaching about the future, we enter territory that is only broadly described in the Scriptures. Much of what. in our curiosity, we would like to know (or think we know) about the future is not told us. Only the important and necessary truths are. I will attempt to stay with these, therefore, in what follows, resisting the temptation to wander off into uncharted territory.
Even if I am fairly successful, however, in remaining within the boundaries of Scripture on the topic of the final state, there is no avoiding the obvious fact that one side of the Bible’s teaching about the final state, namely, the eternal punishment of the unbelieving and impenitent in hell, is today either neglected or disapproved. This is only a polite way of saying: the doctrine of eternal punishment is to most people, in the environment of post-Christian and post-modern North American culture, simply abhorrent and unacceptable. Nothing can more quickly compromise a person’s credibility today than the discovery that they believe the doctrine of hell in anything like its historic Christian understanding. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a doctrine more at odds with the affection of moderns for the virtues of “tolerance” and “openness.”1 What could be more offensive to modern sensibilities than the conviction that those who do not believe in Christ or repent at the preaching of the gospel are destined to suffer eternally in hell?
A quick glance at recent treatments of the doctrine of hell readily confirms its unpopularity. Authors speak of Hell on Trial,2 The Other Side of the Good News,3 “On Banishing the Lake of Fire,”4 and The Problem of Eternal Punishment.5 Roman Catholic theologians speak of “anonymous” Christians (Karl Rahner) or of a larger hope that all will be saved.6 Even among evangelical authors, alternative views of the final state for those who are not saved are being affirmed. The doctrine of hell, never an easy doctrine to affirm, has become the subject of renewed discussion, most of it by those who are looking for some alternative to the traditional view. At no time has it been more unpopular, even within the church, to affirm the doctrine of everlasting punishment.
THE HISTORIC OR TRADITIONAL VIEW
Due to the unpopularity of this doctrine and the frequent attempts to revise it today, even within conservative evangelical contexts, it is necessary to begin with a brief statement of the historic position of the church on the subject of hell. Only against the background of this historic understanding can we evaluate the more common revisions to this understanding that are being proposed. What has the orthodox Christian church historically taught regarding the doctrine of eternal punishment or hell?
If I were to summarize the doctrine in my own words, it would go something like the following. All those persons whom God does not save through the work of Christ will be, subsequent to the resurrection and the final judgment. consigned to hell. Hell, though its exact nature and location remain somewhat undetermined, will be a place of un~ ending punishment for God’s enemies. Those who have lived in enmity against God will find themselves forever banished from His blessed presence, in a state of conscious awareness of His disfavor.
Among the Reformation confessions, the following statements well represent this traditional Christian understanding of hell:
And therefore the consideration of this judgment is justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked and ungodly, but most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and elect; because then their full deliverance shall be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruits of their labor and trouble which they have borne. Their innocence shall be known to all, and they shall see the terrible vengeance which God shall execute on the wicked, who most cruelly persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world, and who shall be convicted by the testimony of their own consciences, and shall become immortal, but only to be tormented in the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels (Belgic Confession, Art. 37).
The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. XXXIII.ii). Though these confessional statements set a proper standard of sobriety and reserve in what they say about hell, and though their focus remains primarily fixed upon the comfort that God’s people derive from the gospel and its promises, they clearly affirm a doctrine of eternal punishment. The language used, echoing that of the Scriptures, underscores the reality and horror of hell as a place of unceasing, consciously felt punishment upon the wicked and unbelieving. With an economy of words, these confessions affirm what the orthodox Christian church has always taught respecting the doctrine of hell. Even though they do not attempt any detailed description of hell as a place of eternal punishment, they clearly affirm its reality.
IDENTIFYING THE ALTERNATIVES
If this is the shape of the historic doctrine of the church, what are some of the more common alternatives to this doctrine that are being proposed today? Without attempting to be exhaustive in what follows, the chief alternatives to the historic doctrine are universalism and anninilationism. Each of these alternatives takes various forms, but, for my purpose, I will mention only the most important variations among them.
Universalism is the teaching that, in the end, all men will be saved. No human being will ultimately fail to enjoy the fulness of salvation, by whatever means or route that salvation be obtained. Universalism can take, broadly speaking, one of two forms: pluralistic or Cnristian.7 Pluralistic universalism teaches that there are many ways of salvation, the Christian faith being one among them, each of which has its own legitimacy and integrity. Christian universalism teaches that Christ is the one way of salvation which all will ultimately travel, either in this life or in the life to come.
In its Christian expression, universalism affirms that Christ alone is the Mediator and Savior of all. No one will obtain salvation apart from the saving work of Christ. However, this saving work is universal in its scope or reach; no one will finally be lost or suffer eternal punishment in hell. All human beings without exception will be saved through the work of Christ. Christian universalism, like pluralistic universalism, is able to accommodate various forms and expressions. Sometimes, for example, those who advocate a Christian universalism will include the provision for a second opportunity for people to be saved after death, or they may speak of a period of purgatory, subsequent to death, during which some are fitted for the enjoyment of salvation as they suffer a temporary punishment for the sins committed in this life.
Annihilationism (conditional immortality)
Annihilationism is the view that, with the exception of those who are saved and enjoy everlasting life in God’s presence in the life to come, all those who are lost will ultimately be annihilated. Those who are lost will not suffer any unending torment in hell. Rather, the punishment of the wicked will take its final form in their extinction. The punishment of the wicked will be eternal in the sense of result, but not in the sense of experience.
Annihilationism can and does take many forms.8 It is clearly the most tempting and therefore dangerous alternative to the traditional doctrine of hell among evangelicals today. In the form of what is called conditional immortality, it has captivated an increasing number of evangelical theologians, some of them of considerable ability and influence.9 As this language suggests, conditional immortality teaches that only those who meet the conditions for benefiting from Christ’s saving work (however those conditions be described) will obtain immortality. All others will be annihilated, either immediately upon death or subsequent to a limited period of suffering or punishment after death. In its most common evangelical form, the annihilation of the lost will take place after they have endured some kind of punishment for tneir sin and disobedience. So far as the doctrine of hell is concerned, conditional immortality denies any doctrine of unending or conscious torment of the wicked.
Since this common form of annihilationism, conditional immortality, is the most subtle and dangerous alternative to the historic doctrine of eternal punishment, I will focus upon its arguments in what follows. If the arguments of the more conservative defenders of this view cannot be sustained — as I believe they cannot then it follows that the more radical denials of the doctrine of hell cannot be sustained either. Consequently, I will conclude this article by noting the primary objections to the doctrine of hell often cited by advocates of conditional immortality. In my next article, DV, I will provide a response to these objections. By responding to these objections, the biblical case for the traditional doctrine of hell will be presented.
THE PRIMARY OBJECTIONS
Among contemporary advocates of annihilationism or conditional immortality, there are several objections to the traditional doctrine of hell that are commonly raised. Though these objections may not be stated in the same way or have the same degree of importance among different advocates of this position, they tend to recur in the writings of those who oppose the doctrine of eternal punishment.10
The first and perhaps most important objection to the doctrine of eternal punishment is the claim that the Bible speaks of the ultimate destruction of the wicked (e.g. Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 2 Pet. 3:7). The idea of destruction, it is argued, suggests the annihilation, the ceasing-to-be, of the wicked, rather than their continued existence in a situation of torment or punishment. In the Scriptures and in our ordinary use of this language, destruction usually means the cessation of something’s existence. Edward Fudge, an influential defender of annihilationism whose 1982 book, The Fire That Consumes,11 was an alternative selection of the Evangelical Book Club, argues that this is the uniform testimony of the Old and New Testaments. The destruction of the wicked after the final judgment means simply that they are removed from existence.
A second and related objection to the doctrine of eternal punishment appeals to the biblical imagery used to describe this punishment. Just as the language of destruction suggests complete cessation of existence, so the imagery of fire suggests a process or act whereby the sinner is completely consumed. Like the burning of the chaff at the return of the Judge in Matthew 3:12, so the burning of the wicked at the last judgment will utterly destroy and remove them.
The third objection to the doctrine of eternal punishment takes advantage of the apparent ambiguity in the language of “eternal.” In the history of the church, the parallel between “eternal” life and “eternal” punishment in a passage like Matthew 25:46 has been a basis for arguing that hell is a place of unending punishment. However. manyadvocates of the doctrine of annihilation maintain that. in the case of eternal punishment, this need only mean that the punishment has an unending result or consequence. It does not require the conclusion that the punishment involves an unending awareness of God’s judgment.
Annihilation is an eternal punishment, but only in the sense that these consequences never end.
In addition to these more directly biblical objections to the doctrine of eternal punishment. there are several objections of a more theological nature. These objections raise questions about the consistency of the doctrine of eternal punishment with other doctrines clearly taught in the Bible.
The first of these theological objections and the fourth objection that I will mention argues that the doctrine of hell is incompatible with what we know of the love of God. The horrible prospect of God’s punishing sinners unceasingly in hell for their sins seems repugnant to the love and goodness of God, especially as this has been revealed in the gospel. Those who raise this objection insist that God could not possibly eternally punish the sinner in hell, were He a God of love. Clark Pinnock, a leading evangelical proponent of the doctrine of annihilation as an alternative to the doctrine of hell, has put this objection in the strongest terms:
Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. 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 … Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on his own enemies for all eternity?12
The fifth objection to the doctrine of eternal punishment is similar to the fourth in that it argues that this doctrine is incompatible with what we know of the justice of God. If justice in its most basic meaning has to do with due proportion or receiving one’s due, this objection maintains that an eternal punishment of the sinner in hell would be a punishment that outweighed the crime. The doctrine of hell, it is objected, teaches that a limited offense will receive at the hands of God an unlimited penalty. But this is manifestly unjust. It would be a clear case of the punishment being far more weighty and grievous than the crime committed.
The sixth and last objection to the doctrine of hell argues that it would mar the perfection and glory of the eternal state. To say that God’s purposes in history would terminate in part with the eternal punishment of the wicked in hell, seems to suggest that the redemptive work of God in history will fall short of bringing about the fulness of blessing and joy. The beauty of paradise regained will be marred by the continued and eternal presence of sinners under the judgment of God in hell. Consequently, the eternal joy and perfection of God’s kingdom will have to compete with the jarring reminder of sin and sin’s consequences. According to this objection, the consummation of God’s purposes in history would then be a little bit like a story without an altogether happy ending. The joy of heaven would be muted by the presence of hell.
To these objections and the biblical case for the doctrine of eternal punishment. I will turn in my next article.
1. The limits of tolerance, ironically, are qUickly met, when you affirm or defend the doctrine of eternal punishment! I do not mean to suggest by these comments that it is only today that the doctrine of hell has become an unpopular one. Certainly, there is something intrinsically difficult about this doctrine. Indeed, if God has no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23), surely the same ought to be true among those who are His children.
2. Robert A Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995).
3. Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint, 1992).
4. Chapter 13 of D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996). It should be observed that Carson does not favor “banishing” the doctrine; he is describing the tendency to do so as one dimension of the contemporary “gaging of God.”
5. J.I. Packer, The Problem of Eternal Punishment (No. 10 of Orthos, a series of papers from Fellowship of Word and Spirit).
6. E.g. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? (San Fransicso: Ignatius Press, 1988).
7. See Trevor Hart, “Universalism: Two Distinct Types” (in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. by Nigel M. de S. Cameron; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992):1–34.
8. Kendall S. Harmon, “The Case Against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge” (in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell): 191–224, carefully distinguishes three kinds of annihilationism. The first kind he calls “conditionalist uniresurrectionism” because it teaches that all people are annihilated at death and only those who are saved are raised to everlasting life (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Socinians). The second kind he calls “conditionalist eventual extinctionism” because it teaches that all human beings are raised, those who are saved to everlasting life, those who are lost to endure a period of suffering before they are annihilated (e.g. Seventh Day Adventists). The third kind he calls “immortalist eventual extinctionism” because it teaches that, though all human beings were created immortal, the wicked will be annihilated after they have raised and experienced a period of punishment. These variations among annihilationists represent different views of man’s immortality and of the intermediate state (if one is affirmed). For our purposes, these kinds of precise distinctions are not so important.
9. To mention only a few: Clark H. Pinnock, John R.W. Stott, John W. Wenham, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Edward William Fudge, and Stephen H. Travis.
10. Though stated in my own words, I am following Carson’s delination of the principal arguments against the doctrine of eternal punishment (“Banishing the Lake of Fire”).
11. Houston: Providential Press, 1982. The title of Fudge’s book says it all.
12. “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitient,” Criswell Theological Review 4 (1990): 246–47, 253. John Stott expresses a similar view, but with less hyperbole, in Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (with David L. Edwards; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988): 314–315.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-American Seminary in Dyer, IN, and is a member of First South Holland CRC, South Holland, IL. He is also a contributing editor of The Outlook.