Death or Eternal Suffering—Which One Reveals How Much Jesus Loves You? (A Response to Timothy Keller)

Timothy Keller is a widely respected Christian pastor and much-needed public voice. But even our best and brightest are prone to saying questionable things due to the implications of their doctrine of hell. A case in point is Pastor Keller’s recent tweet: “Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.” This statement proved to be quite controversial, leading Keller in subsequent tweets and comments to seek to clarify what he had meant.

Now, to those like myself who believed for decades that the Bible taught a hell of eternal torment, Keller’s statement doesn’t seem controversial at all. It hits all the right notes for conservative evangelicals, and just feels appropriately pious and true. It’s one of those statements you whip out when you want to defend hell from its liberal or postmodern detractors. There are many variations on the theme—to do with God’s love, glory, holiness, or even His willingness to defer to the sinner’s own desires—but in each case the basic formula is the notion that the worse hell looks, the better God looks by contrast.

For example, if you think that the idea of a loving Creator tormenting people should cause us to raise at least one eyebrow, simply realize that people in hell are tormenting themselves, and you’ll soon feel much better about the whole thing. In time, you will see that God is really being magnanimous for giving them a separate place to do so. You know, forever.

Continue reading “Death or Eternal Suffering—Which One Reveals How Much Jesus Loves You? (A Response to Timothy Keller)”

Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked (Part 2)

In a recent article, guest contributor Terrance Tiessen, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, explained that after being convinced of conditional immortality he nevertheless thought for a while “that neither traditionalism nor annihilationism gains an apologetic advantage from the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement” because “Jesus neither suffered endlessly nor was annihilated.”1 Upon further reflection, however, Tiessen has come to conclude that “Since the penalty for sin is death, what Jesus suffered as our sin bearer was death,” while “the unrepentant wicked, who must pay the penalty for their own sin, necessarily die the ‘second death.'” He concludes, therefore, that “penal substitutionary atonement accords much better with conditionalism than it does with endless conscious torment.”2
Tiessen echoes my own sentiments, captured in the conclusion to my 2012 article “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked.” “Traditionalists say that Jesus died for our sins,” I wrote, “but what they mean is that he suffered pain leading up to his death . . . And because traditionalists don’t believe the bodies of the risen wicked will ever die, their view of eternal punishment is at the very least considerably more unlike the substitutionary death of Christ than [that of conditionalists].”3
However, I also noted the existence of “the reverse challenge from traditionalists who insist that conditionalism must be false because either Christ wasn’t annihilated or because of conditionalism’s allegedly heretical Christological implications,” and I said we at Rethinking Hell would address the challenge in the future.2 It is to this challenge that I turn now, if belatedly. Continue reading “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked (Part 2)”

  1. Terrance Tiessen, “What did Jesus suffer ‘for us and for our salvation’?” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted July 17, 2016, http://rethinkinghell.com/2016/07/what-did-jesus-suffer-for-us-and-for-our-salvation/ (accessed July 17, 2016). []
  2. Ibid. [] []
  3. Chris Date, “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted August 12, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/08/cross-purposes-atonement-death-and-the-fate-of-the-wicked/ (accessed July 17, 2016). []

What did Jesus suffer "for us and for our salvation"?

A podcast interview with me

Chris Date has begun a series of podcasts in which he will interview authors of chapters in A Consuming PassionI am the first person on deck, and Chris spent quite a long time talking with me about my journey to annihilationism. Whether or not you have read the series of blog posts I wrote, which were an early form of the material in my chapter for the festschrift for Edward Fudge, you may be interested in this interview.
Toward the end of the interview, Chris asked whether my becoming a conditionalist had affected any other areas of my theology. I said that this was not the case, outside of eschatology. In my experience to that point, I had seen no other dominoes fall as a result of my new understanding of the nature of hell. Chris was particularly interested in hearing whether my understanding of Christ’s atoning work had been affected by my coming to believe that God ultimately destroys the wicked rather than tormenting them endlessly. I answered in the negative. For good reason, this is a subject of great interest to Chris, and he noted that traditionalists tend to place a very heavy emphasis on Christ’s suffering, in order to demonstrate a coherence between what he experienced and what the unredeemed will experience.
Prior to that time, I had made comments on the issue a few times on this blog. While I was still a traditionalist, I had reached the conclusion that neither traditionalism nor annihilationism gains an apologetic advantage from the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. It seemed to me that Jesus neither suffered endlessly nor was annihilated. So there is not an exact likeness between Christ’s experience in bearing the penalty of our sin and unrepentant people’s experience in bearing the penalty of their own sin. That was still my view at the time of my podcast conversation with Chris.
It has been a few months since that Skype call conversation and the wheels have kept turning in my mind. To my own surprise and delight, I have come to see the matter differently. So, by way of moving further onward from my written work to date and my recorded conversation with Chris, I want to lay out here what I now believe and why. Continue reading “What did Jesus suffer "for us and for our salvation"?”

What I would have to deny in order to teach eternal torment

For some people, the concept of hell as a state of eternal torment is so central to their faith and their portrait of God that giving it up would mean giving up the faith altogether: giving up the authority of Jesus; giving up, in principle, the authority of Scripture; discarding the testimony of the church; and ultimately denying the gospel. This is the stance Tim Challies takes, somberly telling his readers that “If I am going to give up hell, I am going to give up the gospel and replace it with a new one.” Of course, by “hell,” he means eternal torment, not the biblical picture of final judgement and the loss of life and being forever.

Setting aside more popularist visions of hell like that of Challies and turning to the biblical account of life, death, judgment, and eternity, we could ask a similar question: If we were to give up the biblical position of immortality and eternal life found in Christ alone and to instead embrace the doctrine of eternal torment, what would we have to give up? What would be the cost of embracing the traditional view instead of the biblical one?

Continue reading “What I would have to deny in order to teach eternal torment”

Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked

Conditionalists believe that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (; emphasis added). Those who do not believe in him will not have eternal life, and will instead perish (). After rising from their first death to be judged, they will be sentenced to the second death (). Traditionalists, on the other hand, say the body that rises “dies not again,”1 confessing that “the evil ones … shall be made immortal” (emphasis added).2 Their language is unambiguous: “Every human being ever born lives forever;”3 “everybody lives forever;”4 the unsaved “will continue living in a state with a low quality of life.”5
Adherents to both views argue that the punishment Jesus Christ bore on the cross, in place of those who believe in him, poses a real challenge to their opponents’ doctrine. Conditionalists point out that Jesus was indeed executed, not eternally tormented. Traditionalists, however, point out Christ wasn’t annihilated, that he did not cease to exist.
Leon Morris writes, “The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith. Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.”6 If one’s view of final punishment logically leads to an unbiblical understanding of the atonement, it must be rejected. Contrary to the claims of traditionalists, it is often they, not conditionalists, whose eschatology clashes with what the Bible reveals about the cross. Continue reading “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked”

  1. Gill, J. A Body of Doctrinal Divinity: Or a System of Evangelical Truths (The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2001), 679. []
  2. The Belgic Confession, Article 37. http://www.reformed.org/documents/BelgicConfession.html []
  3. MacArthur, J. “The Answer to Life’s Greatest Question, Part 1.” http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/42-141 []
  4. Koukl, G. (Host). (2011, June 5). “Christopher Morgan on Hell and Inclusivism.” Stand to Reason [radio]. 1:09:25. http://www.strcast2.org/podcast/weekly/060511.mp3. []
  5. Habermas, G. and Moreland, J.P. Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Thomas Nelson, 1992), 173. []
  6. Morris, L. The Cross in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1999), 5. []

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.