Rethinking Hell was recently brought to the attention of readers of the New York Times, along with work of Edward Fudge and the subject of conditional immortality. Not too shabby! In the article, one theologian dismissed the comments of Church Fathers who supported conditional immortality as “vague.” But are they really?
On October 10 2014, Mark Oppenheimer’s “Tormented in the Afterlife, but Not Forever” appeared at the NYT website. The writer describes the work of Edward Fudge in writing The Fire that Consumes, interviewing Edward himself for the story.
Mr. Fudge’s inquiry into the nature of damnation resulted in his seminal 1982 book, “The Fire That Consumes,” in which he argued that the suffering of the wicked in hell is finite, that after a time their souls are extinguished. This view, called “conditional immortality” or sometimes the more macabre “annihilationism,” is in direct opposition to the traditional Christian view that suffering in hell lasts forever.
As well as interviewing Rethinking Hell’s own Chris Date and my fellow keynote speaker at the 2014 Rethinking Hell conference Professor John Stackhouse, the story gives very good, fair coverage to the issue in a short space, summing up evangelical conditionalism like so:
Advocates of conditional immortality say that their view reflects a common-sense reading of the Bible. They point to passages like , where Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The “eternal life” of the saved is contrasted with the ultimate “death” of the unsaved. And in the Book of Revelation, Jesus refers to a “second death,” which these theologians say means the dying-again of the resurrected wicked. Their final, irreversible punishment may involve torment, but it will come to an end.
The piece is a summation of a sea change in evangelical theology rather than an argument for or against conditionalism. However, one disagreement did rise to the surface in comments from Chris Date and Shawn Bawulski, a speaker at the 2014 conference and past interviewee here in the Rethinking Hell podcast.
Here’s what Chris is quoted as saying about the teaching of the Church Fathers on the subject:
“I don’t think the traditional view became popular among Christians until the late second and early third centuries,” said Christopher M. Date, a software engineer and independent theologian who helped organize the recent conference. He believes that conditionalism was the rule for early thinkers like the second-century bishop Irenaeus, who wrote that God “imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved,” while denying that same continuance to the unsaved.
Oppenheimer apparently sought a reply from Bawulski:
But Shawn Bawulski, who teaches at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and has written in opposition to conditionalism, said that while “you can find early Christian writers who would say things sufficiently vague” that they might support a conditionalist view of hell, “you don’t have much by way of conditionalism in church history until Victorian England.”
Effectively, the reader is asked to accept that anything the Church Fathers might have written that appears to support conditional immortality only does so because it is so vague that it is open to multiple equally plausible interpretations.
[pullquote]One of the constant refrains that we hear from traditionalists is that the new Testament doesn’t say what the early Church Fathers said, and therefore we should not interpret the New Testament writers to be annihilationists![/pullquote]In light of the actual written evidence from the Early Church Fathers themselves, this pleading seems simply incredible. In fact, one of the constant refrains that we hear from traditionalists is that the new Testament doesn’t say what the early Church Fathers said, and therefore we should not interpret the New Testament writers to be annihilationists!
Let me explain: As readers will know, the biblical writers often describe the fate of the lost with language of death and destruction. We are told that the wages of sin is death, that God gave us his Son so that we will not perish (which just means die) but have everlasting life instead, that the path that seems right to a man ultimately leads to death, that we should fear God who can destroy life and body (usually translated “soul and body”) in hell, and that those who reject the gospel will be punished with “everlasting destruction” and so on. However, we also know that traditionalist theologians do not take these terms at face value, since they do not believe that the lost will really die or be destroyed.
Notice what a number of traditionalists say about the biblical language of destruction. Often traditionalists will reach for biblical instances where the word apollumi appears in a different grammatical form (for example, the wine that is “lost” when poured into old wineskins in ) and note that in this different form, “the word does not mean that a thing ceases to exist,” and therefore, in the biblical passages that refer to final punishment we should assume that it also does not mean that a thing ceases to exist. Of course the argument is highly fallacious for a couple of reasons (e.g. of course different forms of a word can have very different meanings, and we can never assume that all the possible meanings of a word in all its different forms are available to us in every passage containing that word). Even so, we are often told that in the passages that refer to the fate of the lost, really the writer is not offering support for a conditionalist view, because the word “destroy” does not necessarily mean that a thing ceases to be, is reduced to nothing, loses its being, loses existence and so on. If the Bible had used those phrases, we are led to believe, then our traditionalist friends wouldn’t be traditionalists, but would agree that Scripture teaches the literal, final destruction of the lost.
However, the very phrases that our traditionalist friends say are not suggested by the biblical language of destruction are used by some of the early Church Fathers. Virtually all traditionalists who have looked into the matter agree that Arnobius of Sicca, who died in AD 330, was a conditionalist. But there were earlier Fathers who were no less clear in their comments. As has been discussed elsewhere at Rethinking Hell, Irenaeus of Lyons was a conditionalist. Irenaeus notes that God called the planets and stars into existence, and that they, along with all created things, “endure as long as God wills that they should have an existence and continuance.”1 There is no vagueness about the meaning of these comments. But then Irenaeus, using exactly the same language, goes on in the same chapter to say that the lost will not exist forever:
And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. And, for this reason, the Lord declared to those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him: “If you have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is great?” indicating that those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.
Using language that is no less explicit, Athanasius the Great (AD296 – AD373) notes that God created humanity from nothing. Human beings didn’t exist before God made them, but came out of “non-being” into being. But because of sin, the creation of humanity was literally being undone:
The human race then was wasting, God’s image was being effaced, and His work ruined. Either, then, God must forego His spoken word by which man had incurred ruin; or that which had shared in the being of the Word must sink back again into destruction, in which case God’s design would be defeated.2
It is perfectly clear that by “sink back into destruction,” Athanasius is referring to a return to the state out of which humanity came: nothingness. The only means of escape from this fate, Athanasius said, is through the Incarnation of the Word (Christ), so that “whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.” To call this a “vague” reference to real and complete destruction is to say that it is somehow unclear that we once did not exist, which is absurd. And Athanasius is not talking here about a universal immortality where everyone gets immortality whether they are saved or not. The resurrection to which he refers here is “grace.” Athanasius is explicit elsewhere (Discourse 3 Against the Arians, ) that it is only in “receiving Him” that we can “partake of the immortality that is from Him.”
To call this evidence “vague” is surely a highly motivated move. Indeed, this is exactly the language that our traditionalists friends tell us is missing from the New Testament, which is why they do not feel compelled to read that biblical evidence as we do. The issue is not that Irenaeus and Athanasius were not clear. They certainly were! The issue is that what they say is simply not compatible with what is now the traditional view of hell, so it would be better—politically, anyway—to agree that their statements are less than clear and so we should overlook their testimony. Irenaeus and Athanasius are not alone. With them, Ignatius of Antioch, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas and Arnobius all held this view, showing that prior to the influence of Augustine of Hippo, the conditionalist view was clearly mainstream.
If you’d like to see more of the evidence of this, here it is!
(If you prefer things in writing, the evidence cited in this clip is presented in an article of mine over at Afterlife.).
6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
6:1 He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5 And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marveled because of their unbelief.
And he went about among the villages teaching.
7 And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54 And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55 and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.