After my debate with Joshua Whipps was published, I suspected that I would hear about it on the Dividing Line (DL), a webcast hosted by one of the theologians and apologists I respect and admire most, Dr. James White of Alpha & Omega Ministries (AOMin). Joshua frequents the AOMin chat channel, and he talked to Dr. White both leading up to and immediately following the debate. The thought of listening to Dr. White review the debate terrified me, but not because I feared being challenged by his arguments; rather, I have such deep respect and fondness for him and his ministry that to hear him speak negatively about me would crush me.
Tuesday’s DL came and went with no mention of the debate, and in it Dr. White said he would be speaking about Islam on Friday’s show. And so I didn’t listen to Friday’s show live, but as I prepared to leave work I visited the AOMin blog and my heart began racing as I read the words, “Started off with a quick review of a recent debate on annihilationism, then took calls. The first two were on the same subject, so we covered a lot of ground on the topic today.” I could feel my heart beating in my neck as I opened my Zune software, downloaded the episode, synced it to my Windows 7 phone and began to listen. But very quickly my terror was replaced by relief and my admiration for Dr. White swelled. I know not everybody is a fan but, I must confess, I love the man and his ministry.
Sure Dr. White mischaracterized conditionalism a few times during the review, and offered what I thought to be fairly poor arguments against it. He even alleges that when I originally reviewed Edward Fudge on my podcast I was promoting his position, rather than trying to critically examine it. I’ll get to all of that in a moment. But I think it’s very important that I first give him the credit and praise he is due for what he said that so moved me.
First and foremost, for an apologist often criticized for allegedly being unkind and uncharitable, Dr. White seemed to me to be quite respectful and did not come across as particularly mean. Sure, he strongly disagrees with conditionalism and takes issue with what he perceives to be certain elements of our position, but in comparison to the manner in which many other critics speak their concerns, Dr. White came across as downright friendly. I think many traditionalists could learn a lesson from him; if conditionalism truly is not the biblical view of final punishment, then we conditionalists are perhaps far more likely to be responsive to those who exhibit an attitude like his. And it wasn’t merely the tone and tenor of Dr. White’s review that impressed me.
At about 16:30 into the program, Dr. White was critical of one element of my closing argument, in which I defended my self-identification as Reformed on the grounds that my view of final punishment prevents me from affirming less than two percent of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF). He correctly pointed out that one who denies the supreme authority of Scripture, the nature of the atonement, the Trinity or the nature of Christ could probably say they’re able to affirm most of the LBCF as well. This is a fair point, and while I did try to demonstrate throughout the debate that my view of final punishment does not negatively impact other core Reformed doctrines, and that I am in fact better able to affirm some of them, Dr. White was nevertheless right to suggest that I should not defend my Reformed-ness on the basis of what percentage of the LBCF I’m able to affirm.
Approximately 20 minutes into the program, Dr. White took his first of two calls on the topic, and I deeply appreciated his response to the caller’s question. Essentially the caller asked whether conditionalism should be considered heterodox or outright heresy by Reformed traditionalists. Dr. White began by sympathizing with, but nevertheless criticizing, fundamentalists who insist that anything less than 100 percent agreement on everything they think the Bible teaches disqualifies one from being considered a Christian. He said that even the Reformed confessions acknowledge that some issues are laid out more clearly in Scripture than others, and admitted that monotheism is an example of a doctrine that the Bible teaches more clearly than the nature of final punishment.
Consequently, Dr. White said that traditionalists should think very carefully about how to respond to issues like those raised by the caller; he suggested that conditionalism is perhaps responded to more often than not with a “territorial,” even “xenophobic” attitude. He said he knows a lot of heretics who are annihilationists, having suggested at around nine minutes into the program that most individuals and denominations who accept our view go on to further, more serious error. But he insisted that that doesn’t mean that everybody who is orthodox when it comes to every other issue yet disagrees with traditionalists on this topic is a heretic. At about 28 minutes he repeated the sentiment, saying that while he thinks almost everybody who embraces conditionalism goes on to accept very serious error he does not think that just holding to annihilationism means one is not a Christian.
I felt particularly vindicated at about 26 minutes into the show when Dr. White said I was correct to criticize my opponent during the debate for simply referring listeners to his web site for his treatment of the various texts I cited. Periodically, Dr. White devotes an episode of the DL to what he calls “Radio Free Geneva,” the opening theme of which contains a quote from a debate where George Bryson answered a question from Dr. White by saying, “Read my book.” In my debate, I criticized Joshua for doing the same thing, repeating that quote. And while I agree that the onus was not on him to present a positive case for his position, I was nevertheless relieved to hear that Dr. White found that particular criticism of mine legitimate, at least to some extent.
At around 30 minutes into the program, the caller mentioned that I had begun to contribute to a website promoting conditionalism (this one!), and Dr. White expressed his concern about balance. He said he almost never sees someone adopt our view of final punishment and maintain theological balance, which I understood to mean that many make final punishment the primary area of their focus and ministry. I respect that concern—and the manner in which Dr. White expressed it (unlike that of another critic’s review of the debate)—and I think it’s very legitimate. That’s the biggest reason I’m excited to contribute to Rethinking Hell: it will allow me to leave this issue behind in my blog and podcast (for the most part), once again addressing a wide variety of topics, while periodically addressing this one here. I would ask that anybody reading this please pray for me, that I would maintain balance, and not get so wrapped up in discussing conditionalism that it’s all I ever think and talk about.
So when all was said and done, my fondness and respect for Dr. White and for AOMin did not wane, it swelled. Again, I think many traditionalists could learn from Dr. White. I emailed him after the program was over, thanking him for his kindness and respect, and I hope he knows how much I love him and his ministry. That being said, I do have some criticism for some of the things he said.
At about five and a half minutes into the show, Dr. White began his treatment of the topic by recalling that some time ago he was referred to an interview I did with Edward Fudge on my Theopologetics podcast. He said it was clear to him that I was not challenging Fudge and his view, but rather promoting it. Perhaps that depends on how one defines promote, but I want to deny that I was doing such a thing. I had not yet become convinced of conditionalism, and I told Dr. White as much when he emailed me asking if I had become an annihilationist. I did challenge Fudge with many of what I perceived to be the common objections to his view, and for the most part I found his answers compelling. Consequently, I found myself on the fence between conditionalism and the traditional view of final punishment; if that came across as promoting Fudge’s view, well, then I regret that. All I intended was for my listeners to carefully consider his view, and if they found it lacking, I wanted to hear about it.
After that interview I reached out to many noteworthy critics of Edward Fudge and his view of final punishment, inviting them to let me interview them: Robert Peterson, Christopher Morgan, Douglas Moo and others. Only Larry Dixon, author of The Other Side of the Good News, accepted my invitation. I was still very open to the traditional view, and hoped my guest would be able to present a powerful response to conditionalism. I gave him an hour to promote his book and to present a positive case for the traditional view, and spent the second hour challenging him—just like I did with Fudge. If I seemed like I was challenging Dixon more than I did Fudge, perhaps that’s because by that point I was more knowledgable of the particulars of the debate. Or perhaps it’s because conditionalism has better answers. Either way, many of my listeners were as disappointed with the quality of Dixon’s response as I was.
The point I’m trying to make is that when I interviewed Edward Fudge I was not “promoting” his view in the sense it seems Dr. White claims I was. I had tried to challenge Fudge, and was impressed by his responses. I apologize if I did not challenge him as powerfully as many would have liked, but I will stress that this was an interview, not a debate. My reason for doing the interview was not to persuade my listeners of one view or the other, it was to get listeners who had perhaps not thought very deeply about this debate to examine it more closely. And I tried to get a competent follow-up guest to offer a challenge from the traditional side. I’m sure many wish that Peterson, Morgan or Moo had accepted my invitation instead of Dixon.
Moving on, at about eight minutes into the program Dr. White said that many New Testament scholars today are conditionalists, but he suggested that it’s not for exegetical reasons. Instead, he suggested that it’s hard to affirm the traditional view of final punishment and get people to like Christianity; he said at about the 10-minute mark that he could wish conditionalism were true, for it would be a lot easier to get around in the world. Perhaps that is the motivation for many conditionalist scholars; I don’t know. Speaking for myself, however, I can say that leading up to my interview with Fudge, I never hoped and wished that conditionalism is true, was never concerned with how those to whom I evangelized might respond to the traditional view of final punishment I held. I suspect I’m not alone in having been convinced of conditionalism purely on exegetical grounds.
At around 12 and a half minutes into the program, Dr. White mischaracterized conditionalism—unintentionally, I’m sure—which he repeated at about 34:30. According to him, our view is that there will be punishment, even severe punishment, commensurate with the degree of one’s sin debt, but that once that punishment has satisfied the wrath of God, the sinner is destroyed. While this may be the view of some conditionalists, it’s certainly not the view expressed by me during my debates, or by the conditionalists who have appeared on my show. While we are open to some amount of suffering as part of the process of annihilation, perhaps accounting for degrees of punishment (although we propose other explanations for degrees of punishment as well), we have consistently affirmed that the primary punishment for sin is death. That is to say, punishment is not measured primarily in the suffering experienced as part of being executed—although different methods of execution are more violent than others—but in the consequent, everlasting lifelessness. Punishment, in our view, doesn’t satisfy the wrath of God and then terminate in destruction; the punishment that satisfies the wrath of God is destruction.
Based on his misconception of conditionalism, Dr. White suggests at about 12:30, and again at around 35 minutes, that the ongoing sins of the wicked in final punishment serves as a challenge to our view. Because he thinks the idea is that the risen wicked are punished for a time commensurate with their guilt and subsequently destroyed, he thinks that we must deny that they will continue to sin because, if they did, it would require ongoing punishment (and the wrath of God would never be sufficiently satisfied). But if, as we contend, their punishment is their execution, and if the wicked will never live again, then their punishment can account for even those sins committed as part of the execution process. Besides, it seems to me that Scripture records only one judgment upon resurrection, a judgment based on sins committed in this life. Revelation 20:11-13, for example, portrays the risen being judged according to deeds recorded in books, with no indication that those books contain an infinite record of future deeds in addition to their past ones. I think it’s dangerous to go beyond what the Scripture records, speculating about punishment for sins committed after resurrection.
At approximately 13 minutes, James begins to explain what he sees as the biggest problem with our view. He claims that conditionalists like Fudge and me limit the meaning of New Testament texts to the meaning of the Old Testament texts they reference. According to him, we do not allow Christ or New Testament authors to transcend Old Testament categories and types, insisting that whatever was communicated by phraseology and images in the Old Testament must be the meaning of their citations in the New. And yet when it comes to messianic and other eschatological references to Old Testament texts, we abandon that hermeneutic and give New Testament texts freedom we don’t give them when it comes to final punishment.
This is simply false. No conditionalist I have ever spoken with—including Fudge—denies the freedom of New Testament references to Old Testament texts to expand upon and transcend their original meaning. Interestingly, it often seems to me that traditionalists limit how New Testament authors can cite Old Testament texts, insisting that in doing so they must transcend and expand upon their original meaning. Well, even if that’s the case, the question is how do they expand upon that original meaning? In Mark 9:48, for example, when Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24’s unquenchable fire and undying worm, what indication is there that He’s changing the meaning of those idioms and images, from describing irresistible reduction to lifelessness and the shame of having one’s corpse unburied, to describing fire which burns and torments living bodies for eternity? Our argument is not that the original meaning cannot be expanded upon, we just think traditionalists cannot identify any texts in which it is being expanded in such a way as would support eternal conscious torment.
I only have a few other more minor thoughts. At around 26:30 James expresses concern that in my debate it sounds like I deny the present reality of a new quality and character of life in regeneration, but that’s not the case. Quite the opposite, I affirmed the qualitative difference in the life of a believer from that of an unbeliever, affirmed the present reality of regeneration, but suggested that when it is described as coming to life, it is doing so either proleptically or figuratively. And at about 30 minutes into the program, Dr. White wonders aloud about where I can go to church now, asking what good Reformed churches teach conditionalism. I have never attended a confessionally Reformed church, and while my church’s official position on the topic is the traditional view of final punishment, I have met with my pastor privately and explained to him where I stand and why, and I have not been excluded from fellowship. If anybody would like to contact the pastoral staff of my church, feel free to email me and I will send you their details.
None. I’m very happy to report that I don’t think there was any ugliness. Dr. White was, in my estimation, kind and gracious, even if he got some things wrong, misunderstanding and mischaracterizing our position in certain ways. And I’m sure any conditionalist who has listened to his review of my debate would agree that his arguments against our view were not persuasive. But they were delivered respectfully and, as I said, I think many traditionalists could learn from his delivery. Even the callers were respectful, one of them saying at about 29:20 that I’m a “great, nice guy,” which I found touching.
If you have not yet listened to Dr. White’s review of my debate, whether you’re a traditionalist or a conditionalist or hold some other view of final punishment, I encourage you to give it a listen. I’ll close with the way DL episodes are often posted at the AOMin blog: Here’s the program.