At Rethinking Hell we’re not exactly Pentecostal. Then again, we’re not exactly not Pentecostal! Evangelical is exactly what we are, and that covers both bases. As we note in our official statement, “Evangelical conditionalists are uniform in our belief that the unsaved will not live forever, and yet we are as theologically varied as evangelicals holding to the majority view of hell, concerning various in-house debates over the nonessentials of Christian doctrine. We belong to many diverse denominations and faith communities: non-denominationalist, Baptist, Churches of Christ, Episcopalian/Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and to many evangelical organizations. We are scholars and laypeople, pastors, teachers, overseers, missionaries and ministry workers.”
But among Pentecostals in particular, the name Charles Fox Parham commands a degree of respect. He is known as “The father of modern Pentecostalism,” having been the main initiator of the movement and its first real influencer. It was his student, William Seymour, who established the famous Azusa Street Mission. Parham would soon become critical of what he saw as emotional excesses at Azusa Street, which led to a growing rift between the two. Seymour’s influence kept rising, while Parham’s dwindled.
One of the main reasons for Parham’s waning influence was his declared annihilationism. That’s right: the early founder of modern Pentecostalism was an annihilationist! In the inaugural issue of Parham’s newsletter, The Apostolic Faith, he presented scriptural answers to 37 questions on the topic of conditional immortality. Among his main points were that sin brings death (Rom 6:23), that both the body and soul are destructible (Matt 10:28), and that immortality belongs to God alone but is imparted to the saved (1 Tim 1:17; Rom 2:7).
At the time, the controversial nature of this doctrine helped to give Parham’s detractors the extra ammunition they needed to argue that he was unfit for enduring leadership. When Parham was invited to Azusa Street in 1906 many there were just as repulsed by what they termed his “no eternal hell” teaching, as he was by some of the practices he witnessed. The mission subsequently ended its association with Parham’s Apostolic Faith, and continued their newsletter of the same name under a new publisher. Parham continued to publish his newsletter from Baxter Springs, Kansas, and to teach conditionalism to his followers. But in the January 1907 issue of the Azusa periodical, Seymour would strongly denounce Parham’s views (based on a blatant conflation of final punishment with the intermediate state setting of Luke 16:19-31) and even hint that annihilationists themselves might wind up in hell:
Many people today do not believe in an everlasting hell; but we read in the precious Word of God that the Lord Jesus taught it . . . We can see that there is no annihilation in God’s Word for the wicked, but there is a blazing and burning hell awaiting them . . . Hell, no doubt, is millions of miles from heaven, but yet the rich man, we find, had good clear eyesight. He had the sense of hearing, taste, feeling, and his memory was perfect. He could recognize Lazarus and talk with Abraham and beg him to let Lazarus come with a drop of water for his tongue. If the doctrine of annihilation were true, then this rich man would have been burned into ashes, and there would be no more of him. But we see in the Word of God, that Jesus taught a burning hell . . . Many who have preached a no-hell Gospel will find out better when they die and come to the judgment, just as this man died, and in hell lifted up his eyes . . . This man may have been like many today that do not believe in everlasting hell, but in the annihilation of the wicked; but he now sees that there is a burning hell.
Despite his waning influence and succession to Seymour, the role that Parham played remains important today. According to one source, “However historians may view Charles F. Parham, he holds a very significant place in modern church history, and to those within the rank and file of the Apostolic Faith, will always view him as the original projector of the modern movement.” It’s not the purpose of this brief article to delve any further into that history, or to measure Parham’s precise historical importance or weigh his credentials. Those things aren’t of any direct relevant to our movement today. Instead, we hope to simply make more widely known the fact of Parham’s annihilationism, for whatever that might be worth to our fellow evangelicals. At the very least, we know that our Pentecostal readers will appreciate hearing about this largely forgotten fact.
What did Charles Fox Parham believe about hell and immortality?
Let’s take a look at what Parham believed, in his own words.
Firstly, we should note that Parham’s openness to experiencing manifestations of the Holy Spirit was not at odds with a strong commitment to biblical teaching and the centrality of Christ and the gospel. On the contrary, the early Pentecostal movement maintained an apostasy narrative regarding mainstream churches that drove interest in recovering not only the experiences of the early church, but also its teachings.
For Parham, one significant error of church tradition was “the native immortality of the soul instead of immortality through Christ alone, as clearly set forth in the Scriptures,” which he was dismayed to see creeping in to the movement he generally celebrated:
The Apostolic Faith Movement has circled the globe . . . many multiplied thousands have not only heard the old time gospel of saving grace, but have witnessed a return in great measure to the apostolic faith . . . Nevertheless there is much to be regretted . . . remnants of dead creeds and worn out doctrines of men that have deluged the people from the beginning of the dark ages until now, have been dragged into this movement and made to receive the stamp, Apostolic. Eminent men who have been converted from their creed bound, earth-born religious organizations have been instrumental in this. The preaching of the native immortality of the soul instead of immortality through Christ alone, as clearly set forth in the Scriptures, unbalances the scales of God’s justice, in distributing rewards and punishments . . . The redemption of the body for which we who are in this tabernacle do groan, has been glossed over and neglected almost to rejection entirely.
Parham was all the more dismayed at this because he had been buoyed by the return and rise of conditional immortality in his day:
The teaching of conditional immortality and destruction of the wicked is taught by . . . thousands of Christians, including many ministers, in all the churches . . . A noted English clergyman says, “I do not know an intelligent clergyman of the Episcopal Church, in England, who believes in the eternal torment of the wicked.” The Bible does not teach such an unbelievable lie, and no one can charge God with having such a revengeful attributed of character. The Bible everywhere teaches death, destruction, etc. To give the sinner eternal life, in any condition, destroys the necessity of Christ.
By this last point, Parham shows that he understood the deep connection between conditional immortality and the saving work of Jesus Christ:
If eternal torment is the wages of sin, then Christ has never paid the penalty, and we are all lost, but if death is the wages of sin, Christ has made full and complete propitiation for our sins. If all men have eternal life, whether in Heaven or Hell, it would be impossible to receive it as a gift through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The teaching that all men have immortal souls denies the Divinity of Christ, makes Him a liar and an imposter, and all His claims to bring life and immortality to men through His death are false.
Parham here alludes to the important text of 2 Timothy 1:10, which teaches that the good news of “life and immortality” was made possible since Christ abolished death. To him, the undermining of such a clear teaching justifies strong condemnation, and was also associated with the ongoing reformational dispute of grace versus works:
The teaching that all men have immortal souls has rendered possible the deplorable state of modern churchanity. Formerly, all evangelical Christians demanded of each candidate, that they be truly born again . . . Now they have also fallen in with the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian methods, taken into membership any who are willing to subscribe to their creeds, who promise to be faithful in their attendance and in financial aid. As they are already immortal beings all they need is a respectable moral life and doing the best they can . . .
If a man possesses inherent immortality, Christ’s life and sacrificial death were entirely unnecessary. If God so loved the world that He desired all men to enjoy Heaven with Him in Eternity, He need not have given His only begotten Son, but sent them godly or moralizing teachers, who could have instructed them, how to be too good to go to hell, so that God would be compelled to take them into Heaven. At the judgment, God could have simply separated the good ones from the bad ones, taken part to Heaven and sent part to hell. In a word, the teaching that everyone has an immortal soul denies Christ and makes Him an unnecessary factor in the plan of Salvation.
Orthodoxy freely admits that we only have eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord, but immediately gives a lie to the whole thing by telling the sinner that He has eternal life and can never die . . . Orthodoxy would freely admit most of the claim of those who believe in Conditional Immortality, that man only has life in Jesus Christ, but when this teaching would necessitate the destruction of the wicked, all Rome and her daughters set up a howl, for since the days of early Catholicism down to the present time, the theologians of all churches have rejoiced in the thought that God would eternally torment all who did not accept their interpretations of the Scriptures . . . By no possible twisting of the English language could you make the words death, destruction, perish, used universally in the Bible relative to the wicked, to mean eternal torment.
While we at Rethinking Hell don’t express such concerns in the same harsh terms, Parham’s essential point is worth noting: if eternal torment rather than death is what Christ rescues us from, how can this account for Christ’s death being the penalty that he took upon himself as our substitute? Parham’s and our criticism that eternal torment tends to minimize or ignore the central role of death in the gospel, applies equally to the minimizing of resurrection, or as Parham lamented in a quote further above, to neglecting the need for bodily redemption (Rom 8:23). He saw that belief in eternal torment and inherent immortality logically affected other doctrines, and hoped that Conditional Immortality might yet establish itself as the biblical remedy:
The doctrine of “Conditional Immortality” is not a new theory but if adopted, would revolutionize all so-called Orthodox creeds and doctrines. Unless you accept this doctrine as the basic foundation on which to build the superstructure of all other doctrines, the whole Bible becomes a maze of contradictions and lies. Orthodoxy teaches that all men have Eternal Life, either in Heaven or Hell, but we teach that man can only obtain Eternal Life and Immortality through the “new birth” . . . Conditional Immortality teaches that Adam was a perfect human being, without Immortality, that had he obeyed God, He would have continued to live forever, a human being in Eden. When Adam fell, he lost his physical life, and the privilege of everlasting existence. The entire Scriptures agree that Christ died to restore the human race to what was lost in Adam . . . Everlasting Life in the new Earth to all that are found worthy in the judgment. He is especially the Savior for those that accept Him in the new birth and obtain His life for their life, for spirit, soul, and body, making them worthy of Immortality at the resurrection and the glorified elect in eternity.
Parham’s understanding of Conditional Immortality thus included what today is called New Creation Theology, which places the emphasis on God liberating creation from decay, leading into a new heavens and earth, rather than a final split into heaven and hell (and transportation of people to those respective locations). He therefore understood the physical resurrection of the unsaved and their subsequent judgment to lead into the biblical teaching of Gehenna, which references an earthly location:
Orthodoxy teaches that multiplied millions, unjudged, are already in Hell. This is impossible; no one is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone until after the Resurrection and the White Throne Judgment . . . The lake of brimstone will cease to exist when it has consumed the wicked, for the ashes of the wicked are to be trodden under foot of the meek, who shall inherit the new earth. The wicked will be destroyed on this earth at the close of the judgment. The fires that purify this old world will destroy the wicked and make this world a Paradise for the righteous . . . After the final judgment the wicked are cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, which is the second death. The first death causes cessation of life in this world, the second death will cause a cessation of life in eternity. Hell, as a place of destruction, will be right here upon the earth. The purifying fires will burn them as rubbish, paving the way for the Paradise of God.
With continuing life in the world as a reference point, Parham responded to his critics who charged that such a destruction at Gehenna would not count as an eternal punishment. He rightly noted that eternal punishment is to be understood as the denial of the reward of eternal life, and therefore a final punishment of destruction is properly eternal since destruction denies life in an ongoing manner:
Another much used Scripture to prove eternal torment, is the sentence pronounced by Jesus, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous to life eternal.” This passage does not read punishment everlasting, as the orthodox would teach it, but everlasting punishment. When a man is hung for a crime, he receives everlasting punishment, as far as this world is concerned. When the wicked are destroyed in the lake of fire and brimstone, that is everlasting punishment, as far as eternity is concerned.
There is much in Parham’s approach to this subject that we as Evangelical Conditionalists might agree with. Despite his strongly-stated criticisms of the traditional/orthodox view of eternal torment, he was also able to temper his views for the sake of unity and dialogue. He had more to say than we are able to cover in a brief survey, but given the charge of his critics that he denied hell altogether, which is a charge we also sometimes face, it will be fitting to end with how he responded:
It is not my purpose to enter into any lengthy discussion regarding this subject; everywhere it is being discussed, pro and con, and those who are unprejudiced or teachable will be able to weigh both sides of the question and form their own conclusions. Among the awful charges that have ever been brought against me, perhaps the one most vehemently announced and maliciously peddled is that I am a “no-Hellite,” which is absolutely false, for I believe in a Hell hotter than orthodoxy teaches. One that utterly destroys the wicked. Destruction would satisfy all that justice demands, and God, if He be a God of Love, Justice, and Mercy, could ask no more than the wages of sin, which is death.