It is my tremendous honor to be invited to contribute to the RethinkingHell.com blog and podcast, and I would like to thank Peter Grice for inviting me.
Allow me to introduce myself and let you know a little bit about me. My name is Chris Date and I host the Theopologetics podcast, as well as contribute to my friend Dee Dee Warren’s The Preterist Blog and podcast. I am also a software engineer by trade.
I do not have any formal, higher education and lack any official ministry experience. That said, I believe theology and apologetics are nevertheless for every average Joe in the pews, and not just for pastors, philosophers, PhDs and the erudite in ivory towers (which some of my co-contributors are). And I am perhaps somewhat of an enigma, for while I am “rethinking hell”—by which I mean to say that I am a conditionalist or annihilationist (and I will refer to myself as the latter henceforth)—I’m also Reformed.
… their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence …
… and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other; although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.
… the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast aside into everlasting torments …
Given the above statements found in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF), statements that are reflected in other Reformed confessions, one might find it strange that I say I’m Reformed. Indeed my recent debate opponent once wrote, “Mr. Date also considers himself ‘Reformed’, which I believe is an odd identification to make given the crystal clear confessional/systematic position on eternal punishment.” One notable and published author who shall remain nameless, since his email is private communication (but I will give you a hint: he is very cantankerous) wrote in an email that I “cannot be Reformed as the first book Calvin wrote was against soul sleep and conditionalism. All the Reformed creeds are against it.” Well, if what makes one Reformed is one’s affirmation of a Reformed confession, and if a denial of elements of a mere three paragraphs out of 160 (by my count) disqualifies one as Reformed, then I guess I shall hand in my membership card. I find it strange, however, that an inability to affirm less than two percent of the LBCF would somehow disqualify me from the Reformed label. Denying certain elements of those three paragraphs in no way affects my ability to affirm the remaining 157 paragraphs.
As a matter of fact, I posit that I am able to make better sense of some of them. Take paragraph 3 of chapter 11 for example. When I affirm that “Christ, by His obedience and death … and by the sacrifice of himself through the blood of His cross, underwent instead of them the penalty due to them,” I actually believe that in His sacrificial death He suffered what the elect would have. Conversely, Reformed traditionalists cannot. Or take paragraph 3 of chapter 7 which says that “all the descendants of fallen Adam who have ever been saved have obtained life and blessed immortality,” and paragraph 1 of chapter 17 which says that God “continues to beget and nourish in [the elect] faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the spirit which lead to immortality.” I actually believe that life and immortality are the result of salvation alone. Conversely, my Reformed traditionalist brothers and sisters cannot.
Nevertheless, if people object to my self-identification as Reformed, then so be it. What I love about the Reformed tradition, what makes it great, is not its adherence to creeds or the teachings of the theological giants who have been its leaders but that at its heart, at its core, unlike Rome and even other Protestant movements the Reformed tradition seeks to subject the fallible and ever-changing thoughts and traditions of men to the authority of the holy, inerrant, unchanging word of God. And more than any other alternative, it elevates and glorifies God and truly recognizes the consequences of the fall and the total inability of man to autonomously free himself from slavery to sin.
But unfortunately my Reformed brethren are just as capable as anyone else of succumbing to zealously defending one’s tradition so fervently that it blinds one to the truth and subjects Scripture to the speculations of men. And so it is when it comes to the doctrine of final punishment, as I will seek to demonstrate here at Rethinking Hell in future posts and podcasts. Zeal in defending tradition appears to have blinded many to the truth of annihilationism as clearly and obviously—yes, I mean that!—laid out in Scripture. For whatever reason God has shown me mercy and opened my eyes to the truth; but I see no reason to abandon the Reformed tradition altogether. (Please bear in mind that I do not intend to start a debate over Reformed doctrine with this post. I simply wanted to explain why I call myself Reformed despite also being an annihilationist.)
But just how did a Reformed individual like me become an annihilationist to begin with? Well, I became a follower of Jesus Christ in the summer of 2002 and, from the beginning of my faith, without having had this explained to me, I believed the Bible to be absolutely authoritative and free of error. Due to interactions with Jehovah’s Witnesses very early on I quickly learned to defend the traditional view of final punishment as endless conscious suffering—we will come back to that in a moment—and my commitment to the authority of Scripture skyrocketed. At the same time I was completely unfamiliar with Reformed doctrine and continued to uncritically believe in libertarian free will (although I did not know it was called that). But when a dear friend challenged me with the doctrines of grace it was my deep commitment to the authority of Scripture that forced me, kicking and screaming, to eventually accept them.
Fast-forward to early 2011—or perhaps late 2010 (I am not exactly sure)—when, having become a fan of Dr. Glenn Peoples’ work and a listener to his podcast, I stumbled upon his treatment of hell. I found his case surprisingly strong and I began to wonder if perhaps I had been wrong about final punishment. I had already interviewed Glenn to learn about physicalism or monism and wanted to find someone else to present the case for annihilationism. So I reached out to Edward Fudge, author of The Fire That Consumes, who graciously agreed to let me interview him on the topic. After preparing for and conducting the interview I found myself squarely on the fence between annihilationism and the traditional view of hell. And over the course of the next several months—during which I read many and varied traditionalist authors and bloggers, interviewed traditionalist author Larry Dixon, moderated a debate on the topic and participated in one myself—that same deep commitment to the authority of Scripture once again dragged me kicking and screaming, this time toward accepting the truth of annihilationism.
Despite bald assertions to the contrary by some critics of annihilationism, this is not about the perversion of sola scriptura that is sometimes called solo scriptura (i.e., “my Bible and me under a tree”). No, I have read many authors and listened to many presentations critiquing annihilationism. I have examined many of the prominent works on the subject, both ancient and contemporary. For a long time I hoped—even desperately so—that one of them would finally refute the case that I had been finding so increasingly persuasive. Time and time again, however, they came up short, and woefully so. And they continue to do so. If it were true that the traditional view of hell had been clearly taught from the beginning of church history, then I am not sure what I would have done. Perhaps I would have thought myself insane. After all, I agree with Dee Dee Warren’s oft-repeated maxim that “theological novelty is not a good thing.” But since eternal torment has not been the consistent teaching of the church from the first century—which is something I intend to demonstrate in the future here at Rethinking Hell—I was left with no choice. My unwavering commitment, at least in intent, to the supreme authority of God’s word demanded that I reject what I had come to realize clearly as an unbiblical tradition, despite how cherished and zealously defended it is. After all,
The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and by which must be examined all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, and doctrines of men and private spirits can be no other than the Holy Scripture (LBCF 1.10).
In the opening chapter of his latest and final book, Hell: A Final Word, Edward Fudge reflects on the path that began with an assignment to research final punishment and resulted most recently in a feature film telling Fudge’s story. He writes,
God being sovereign, I trust that each event fell into place according to his agenda, through his power, and to his glory. At most, any of us just happens to be a hunk of mortal clay that he had prepared for some purpose, then picks up and uses when the time is right in his own eyes. If I am ever tempted to think otherwise, I need only remember that this entire chain of events resulted from an intensive restudy of the subject that I did not plan, and required a change of my own mind that I did not desire. Indeed, I would have happily avoided the entire matter and everything connected with it, had there been any honest way around it.
I can relate. I did not plan on reconsidering my view of final punishment either, and certainly did not desire to adopt a view considered heterodox, if not downright heretical, by those friends and teachers whom I deeply respect and admire. Some part of me honestly wishes I had never listened to Glenn’s podcast and had never interviewed Edward Fudge or read his book. Perhaps I would have been able to remain honestly and blissfully ignorant and would never have adopted this view so maligned by most of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ—many of whom might not consider me their brother as a result. But for better or worse I did listen to Glenn’s podcast, I did read Fudge’s book, and I did interview him, all as part of the sovereign decree of the Lord. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I see a little reformation on the horizon. I see the tide turning. I do not think it will be too much longer before annihilationism is accepted by the majority of Christians, even in America—although perhaps not by self-identified Reformed Christians like myself. And for whatever reason, the Lord’s will for now at least is that I contribute to the movement. Indeed I have been encouraged by several people who have told me that my work was part of what changed their mind on this topic. If, as seems clear to me, annihilationism most accurately encapsulates what God has revealed about final punishment in the Bible, then I am truly and incredibly blessed to be one person out of many that He uses to bring this truth to His people. On the other hand, if we have it wrong, and if it is I who has been blinded to the truth contained in Scripture, I can only speculate as to why God has taken me down this road. But being Reformed I rest assured of one thing: It will have been to His glory.
Soli Deo Gloria.