Episode 129: Eternal Torment vs. Conditional Immortality, Audience Q&A–Chris Date and Tony Costa Debate Hell, Part 3

Chris Date debates the nature and duration of hell with traditionalist Tony Costa on Chris Arnzen’s “Iron Sharpens Iron” radio show. In this episode, after summarizing how they each think the debate went, they answer audience questions in a follow-up to their two-part debate.

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Episode 126: Rethinking Hell Live 01, Responding to William Lane Craig

A special episode of the podcast introducing listeners to the new weekly YouTube live stream, Rethinking Hell Live, streaming Mondays at 6pm Pacific/9pm Eastern. In this audio version of the inaugural episode, Chris Date responds to clips on YouTube featuring Dr. William Lane Craig.

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A Case for Conditionalism

What is conditionalism? Basically, there are three views on hell, and they are all represented within evangelicalism. There is traditionalism, universalism and conditionalism. Setting aside for the moment that there are different varieties among these views, I will speak in general terms about each position:1Most seem to believe in a form of “separationism.” Along with this is a form of “lewisianism” in which all who are in hell, ultimately choose it, and hell’s door is locked from the inside (C.S.Lewis). Yet there are those, like N.T.Wright, who suggest a kind of “dehumanization,” that those who refuse to respond to the gospel, and only worship themselves, “that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not,” but however, he admits that this is wandering into “territory that no one can claim to have mapped” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York, NY: Harper One, 2008], 183.). To illustrate this, some point to Smeagol’s ghastly transformation into Gollum in the LOTR Trilogy. Yet, ironically, Gollum is eventually annihilated in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom.

  • The predominant view is traditionalism which is the perspective that we are all eternal beings who will live forever either in heaven or hell.2The label “traditionalism” suggests that the alternate views are not found in church tradition, which is untrue. Within this view are two alternatives as to the nature of hell. Eternal torment is the more “traditional” view where the unbeliever is tormented in literal fire. Eternal separation is a softer and increasingly popular view where the unbeliever is eternally separated from God – in this view the fire is treated as a metaphor. In either of these, the unbeliever will never die or be freed from this state of punishment. This is the view I grew up with and came to believe for most of my life.
  • Universalism is the view of hell as a place of burning which is refining and purifying with the ultimate purpose that all will eventually come to a place of repentance and restoration with God and then enter Heaven. The length of time for this purified repentance will vary for each unbeliever, but God’s love, according to Universalists, is powerful enough to bring all to repentance and restoration. In other words, hell will eventually empty itself and cease to be.
  • And just briefly, because it will be fleshed out more: conditionalism is the view that we are not all eternal or immortal beings, unlike God. Eternal life and immortality is “conditional” upon faith in Jesus Christ, and is given only as a good gift, not as a curse. When the condition of salvation is not met, hell is a place of complete destruction and annihilation. In this view, the unbeliever eventually perishes and ceases to be.

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1. Most seem to believe in a form of “separationism.” Along with this is a form of “lewisianism” in which all who are in hell, ultimately choose it, and hell’s door is locked from the inside (C.S.Lewis). Yet there are those, like N.T.Wright, who suggest a kind of “dehumanization,” that those who refuse to respond to the gospel, and only worship themselves, “that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not,” but however, he admits that this is wandering into “territory that no one can claim to have mapped” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York, NY: Harper One, 2008], 183.). To illustrate this, some point to Smeagol’s ghastly transformation into Gollum in the LOTR Trilogy. Yet, ironically, Gollum is eventually annihilated in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom.
2. The label “traditionalism” suggests that the alternate views are not found in church tradition, which is untrue.

Twelve Biblical Principles to Help the Rethinking Hell Movement Fight the Good Fight

As we enter 2018, my sense is that God has been growing the Rethinking Hell movement at an encouraging pace. I don’t have statistics to prove it, but my feeling is that belief in Conditional Immortality is on the rise. This is something to thank God for.

There’s still a lot of work to do. On the one hand, the belief that God will torture the unrighteous forever is still very widespread and is still the dominant belief in most Christian churches and institutions. This error is deeply rooted. On the other hand, as more and more people become skeptical of eternal conscious torment, by no means are all of them embracing Conditional Immortality. The error of Universalism seems to be on the rise.

God has called many of you who are reading this to work to help others understand what the Bible truly teaches about Hell and the final fate of the unrighteous. How should we think of this work?  It is a labor of love. It is a teaching ministry. And, like all of God’s work and like every ministry, there is an aspect of spiritual warfare involved.

We are in a spiritual struggle.  In a sense, all of life involves spiritual warfare.  Our efforts to correct a very longstanding, broad, and deeply rooted misunderstanding of the Bible involves us in one aspect of the good fight we are called to fight.

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The Neglected Doctrines of Resurrection and Bodily Transformation

Today in Protestant circles we still hear a lot about the immortality of the soul, despite this doctrine being passionately rejected by Martin Luther 500 years ago.1 Martin Luther, “Assertio Omnium Articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. Novissimam Damnatorum,” article 27, Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. 7, pp. 131,132. But we rarely hear of the immortality of the body, an important feature of resurrection, nor do we even hear that much about resurrection in general!2 For example, the otherwise commendable Reforming Catholic Confession fails to include the resurrection of the unsaved, and only alludes to a resurrection of the saved by mentioning “glorified bodies” (even this much requires additional understanding to link the two concepts). Will all rise physically from the dead, like Jesus did—or only the saved? And if all rise in physical bodies, will the bodies of all be fitted with immortality, never to die again—or only those of the saved?

These kinds of questions are essential for assessing any doctrine of salvation and damnation, and yet they are often absent from the hell debate, and from broader discussion. Both heaven and hell are widely seen as ethereal destinations, to be arrived at immediately upon dying. But this truncated version of the biblical schedule of events renders resurrection and final judgment superfluous, even incoherent. Why were the unsaved sent straight to hell before Judgment Day, the very point at which they will be sentenced to hell? And if the saved and the unsaved already reside in the place where they’ll spend eternity, why bring them out? If they are brought out in resurrection, only to be shortly sent back there but this time in a physical form, how can those realms be suited to both physical and nonphysical habitation?

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1. Martin Luther, “Assertio Omnium Articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. Novissimam Damnatorum,” article 27, Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. 7, pp. 131,132.
2. For example, the otherwise commendable Reforming Catholic Confession fails to include the resurrection of the unsaved, and only alludes to a resurrection of the saved by mentioning “glorified bodies” (even this much requires additional understanding to link the two concepts).

“Fixing John 3:16”—500 Years After the Reformation

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

The most famous verse in the Bible is broken.

What the Bible says is not the problem, of course. But—and here’s the scandal—the message of John 3:16 has been dramatically changed.

What’s actually broken is the popular understanding of the verse. It turns out, this towering text has been widely and wildly misunderstood. For a long, long, time.

That’s quite a problem! And it’s not going to just fix itself. According to a growing number of Bible scholars and teachers around the world, something must be done to set the record straight.

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Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 2): Separation or Obliteration?—The Present Controversy

Note: This article is part of a series. Part 1 presented a clear and consistent understanding of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 based on relevant context. Here, Part 2 justifies that reading by dealing with more complex matters of translation and interpretation, interacting with respected critics.

Around the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul wrote the following to the church in Thessalonica:

…which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe…

This is how the NKJV renders 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (note in particular verse 9, in bold). Some other translations render this passage a little differently, so you might be surprised to learn that it is often touted as a text which speaks in favor of traditionalism. On its face, “affliction” leading to “everlasting destruction” at the revealing of Christ from heaven sounds a lot like the punishment that conditionalists believe will befall God’s enemies. And as the previous article in this series shows, a simple yet thorough reading of the text in its context does indeed support conditionalism.

Despite this, some traditionalists well-versed in the biblical languages have raised arguments suggesting we should look beyond the apparent meaning of this passage. We will now consider their arguments, as we study this passage more closely. What we will discover will add nuance to our understanding, but it will also confirm that the simple, obvious reading is just what Paul intended.

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Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence

Note: This article is part of a series. Here, Part 1 presents a consistent, straightforward conditionalist understanding of 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Since conditionalists question the NIV’s interpolation (“and shut out from”)—practically the only time we would quibble with any modern English translation—Part 2 will cover the more complex issues raised by a traditionalist reading, showing that the simple face value reading is correct. All references are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

2 Thessalonians 1:9 is one of those texts which first convinced me to take the idea of annihilation seriously. Not just in isolation, where it seems obvious that destruction due to Christ’s coming is the point, but in the context of what is being said in the first couple of chapters of the epistle. (The NRSV even uses the word “annihilating” a mere eleven verses later concerning the “man of lawlessness,” which is intriguing enough on its own!) The overall impact of the passage I think should give anyone pause about this issue, since it portrays the day of judgment and the fire of judgment differently from familiar expectations from Christian tradition. Too often, our critics treat a single word of this verse as an isolated proof-text, or suggest that’s how we treat it, when of course each side must give due consideration to the fuller structural context.

“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”—2 Thessalonians 1:9, KJV

The conditionalist reading is that the glorious presence and power of the Lord causes the punishment of destruction, which is everlasting because it is God’s permanent judgment. Let’s explore how this makes the best sense. Continue reading “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence”