Sure as Hell: Is Scripture really clear about final punishment?

In a recent discussion with Chris Date on the Rethinking Hell podcast, Professor Jerry Walls of Houston Baptist University expressed his incredulity that we could think the Bible is really so clear on the subject of hell. But I don’t think his reasons for giving up that certainty are particularly compelling.

Jerry recalled a claim by John Stackhouse that Conditional Immortality enjoys about as strong a basis in Scripture as any doctrine. This is a claim I’ve made a number of times and I’m inclined to believe it (I tend to believe a claim before I make it). Conditional immortality is taught at least as clearly as the other doctrines that Scripture most clearly teaches and which are important to Christian orthodoxy. The exegetical case is simply overwhelming, as I and others have sought to show elsewhere. I maintain that not only is our view taught as clearly in Scripture as any other doctrine (e.g. the doctrines we find in the Nicene Creed), but it is in many cases taught more clearly.

So what is Jerry’s objection to this claim? Does he seek to refute the exegetical case? No, in fact he does not directly try to show that it is weaker than we say it is. Does he offer a counter-case from Scripture, showing that there’s an even better exegetical case for another view, or that other doctrines are taught much more clearly? He does not. He reminds us several times in the interview that he’s really not a biblical exegesis guy, he’s a philosopher (although I would add that there’s no good reason why a person can’t be both). Instead Jerry offered two responses to this claim about the exegetical case for conditionalism.

First, Jerry offered naked incredulity. He said:

You’re telling me that a doctrine that has been overwhelmingly a minority position, that has only recently gained any kind of significant traction in the church at large, is as clear as the deity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the incarnation, justification by faith, the Trinity? You honestly say it’s that clear? No way! There’s no way. The very fact that you’ve got a book about four views of hell where people are debating this, all of whom are competent scholars and so on, shows that it’s nothing like that clear.

It almost goes without saying that this is not, on paper, an especially compelling objection. It is merely an expression of the fact that Jerry finds our claim of clarity pretty striking. Literally, it is a question: “Really? Do you think the biblical case for conditional immortality is stronger than the biblical case for these other things? really?” But of course, our initial claim already presupposes the answer to this question: Yes, that is precisely what we are saying, and we believe that we’ve shown it to be so. If he thinks otherwise (although he did not respond by making that case) then Jerry is wrong and the facts are available to him to show him as much. The biblical teaching in favour of conditionalism is as clear as anything else Scripture teaches, including those doctrines Jerry lists. It’s clearer than the deity of Christ, although the Bible does, in the final analysis, teach that Jesus is divine. It’s clearer than divine aseity, clearer than the Trinity, certainly more often emphasised than the resurrection of the dead, and a whole lot of other things besides. We are not dissuaded by your incredulity.

We realise the Bible could be clearer about this or pretty much anything else.

Let us be clear: The claim isn’t that conditionalism is taught as clearly as possible in Scripture . Of course anything could be stated more repetitively and explicitly. Fill every page with it! Write an entire book of the Bible all about how conditionalism is true! No, we realise the Bible could be clearer about this or pretty much anything else. The claim is that the biblical teaching about eternal life (or the alternative, death) is at least as clear – more so in fact – than other doctrines we believe. If he says other important doctrines can’t intelligently be denied, Jerry is mistaken. Some careful cases against the Trinity or the deity of Christ, for example, are frankly better than some pop apologetics arguments for those doctrines, even though on balance we should certainly think those doctrines are biblical. Indeed, the arguments people raise against these tenets of orthodoxy, unsound though the arguments are, are typically much better than the truly terrible arguments many evangelicals use against conditional immortality. The exegetical case for conditionalism is much stronger than Jerry realises if he thinks he can just screw up his nose at the claim that it is taught more clearly in Scripture than the other major Christian doctrines. He simply doesn’t appreciate how utterly the cases for contrary views wither in the face of the biblical evidence for our view. The arguments that demonstrate the clarity of Scripture on this subject have been made and if you want to show that they are not as good as we say they are then roll up your sleeves, because you have work to do.

Second, Jerry appealed to the consensus of the church.

This, at least, is an argument (unlike Jerry’s expression of personal incredulity). In short, the argument goes like this:

  • If the evidence that the Bible teaches conditional immortality were as clear as we say it is, then there would not be as many Christians as there have been in history and are today who think that the Bible does not teach conditional immortality.
  • But obviously there are this many Christians, both in history and today, who think that the Bible does not teach conditional immortality.
  • Therefore the evidence that the Bible teaches conditional immortality is not as clear as we say it is.

The matter is not as simple as just showing Bible verses to people, who will immediately accept the best interpretation of those verses.

As you might expect, we reject the first premise. The clarity of the evidence that conditional immortality is biblical does not logically imply that there could not be widespread opposition to our view. The host of the episode, Chris Date, suggested to Jerry that he was being somewhat naive (and I’m inclined to agree). The matter is not as simple as just showing Bible verses to people, who will immediately accept the best interpretation of those verses. If only people were this reasonable – including ourselves! Like it or not, people are partisan, and their own traditions wield a great deal of control over their thinking on this and many other subjects. Fortunately Jerry granted this, but his response diverted from the point: But I am not someone who is a slave to my traditions, who is afraid to question those around me, he said. Surely that is obvious.

Well maybe it is obvious, but it’s beside the point. Jerry’s objection was that the number of Christian thinkers over the years who have not shared our view suggests that our view is not clearly taught in Scripture, even if it turns out to be true. The objection was never that since Jerry Walls doesn’t hold our view, it can’t be as clearly taught in Scripture as we maintain. The existence of intelligent dissenters, obviously, does not mean that a doctrine is not clearly taught in Scripture. And the existence of broad trends of thought against our view can be plausibly explained by the power of traditions.

As Jerry is aware, a number of early church Fathers did hold and teach conditional immortality. Jerry has a history of making the argument that since eternal torment is the historical view of the church, conditionalists have the burden of proof. I am quite comfortable that we have met that burden, but more to the point, after first hearing Jerry make that argument I brought to his attention the fact that conditionalism was prominent among the early Fathers – a fact which seemed to take him by surprise but which, to his credit, he acknowledged. But why do traditions to the contrary exist at all, asked Jerry, if the case for our position is so clear? We must be willing to give “an error theory,” a plausible account of why the doctrine of eternal torment was introduced, when the biblical material speaks as plainly as we say it does about the fate of the lost.

I am not as certain as Jerry is that we need to be able to produce a correct “error theory.” If we can make the case that the Bible teaches conditional immortality (as we have) and if we can also show that it was taught among the early church Fathers until eternal torment became the dominant view from the time of Augustine onwards (as we have), why can we not simply demand that our detractors prove that the change was for the better? It might be nice to be able to get inside the minds of those who made these mistakes and explain why they made them, but we certainly need not surrender our evidence-based conclusions until we can do so.

If you believe that all human souls live forever … then lost souls have to go somewhere for eternity, and that place is hell.

Nonetheless, Chris offered an explanation, one that numerous other conditionalists have offered. In the world into which Christianity was born and in which it continued to grow, there was a widespread belief in the immortality of the soul; the view that souls just live forever in one form or another. One of the most widely noted examples of this belief is platonism. If you believe that all human souls live forever, and if you believe, as orthodox Christians do, that not everybody in the end will be saved, then lost souls have to go somewhere for eternity, and that place is hell. Hence, there exists an explanation of why people might have adopted belief in eternal torment even though it is not taught in Scripture. At this point in the interview Jerry objected, saying that the fact that a view is platonic does not mean that it is wrong. But this is to disrupt the flow of thought. What Jerry had asked for was an an explanation of how or why the doctrine of eternal torment might have gained prominence in the Christian movement. That is why Platonism was introduced, as widely held platonic views would explain why people were so open to believing in eternal torment. The fact that the influence was a platonic one was never offered as evidence that the resulting belief was untrue. The biblical case for conditional immortality, along with belief in the authority of Scripture, is what gives us reason to think that the doctrine of eternal torment is untrue.

There are numerous sources of influence that might contribute to belief in the immortality of the soul, or additionally to belief in eternal torment.

What’s more, it is not just Platonism that could provide an external influence on Christian theology to make the doctrine of eternal torment a live option. As Jerry remarks in the interview, he has heard from others (he mentions Ben Witherington) that there were Jews who believe in eternal torment prior to Christ. This is true, although there were also Jews who were annihilationists. The intertestamental literature bears clear testimony to this fact, which just shows that somebody needs an error theory about why some people prior to Christ started believing something false. Beyond Platonism strictly speaking, there are numerous sources of influence that might contribute to belief in the immortality of the soul, or additionally to belief in eternal torment. Belief in souls that live on was common in the ancient world and influences in Egypt, Persia and Asia were in no short supply, and belief in suffering in the afterlife existed in multiple forms. The point is, there is absolutely no difficulty in realising that Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds would have had a prior belief in the immortality of the soul, and some of them would have had a belief in suffering in the afterlife as well. The widespread presence of this belief in the Christian world provides a perfectly adequate back-story as to where these beliefs could have come from.

Why would you make claims about history … without examining that history?

It is hard not to feel some frustration at Dr Walls here, and if anywhere is the place to talk about this particular frustration, this is probably it. He wrote a book on hell as well as a book on heaven, hell and purgatory. Yet he was quite unaware, until I brought it to his attention, that conditional immortality had prominence among the early Fathers, saying instead that eternal torment was the consensus and so conditionalists are the ones with the burden of proof. This is simply not the case. And yet, even having been made aware of this historical reality, he is still carrying the attitude earned by his ignorance of the fact. He is still saying – although he now knows better – that conditional immortality only recently gained traction in the wider church. Not so! Why would you make claims about history – claims that evidently play an important role in how you assess our position, without examining that history? In spite of his writing books on these subjects, he just assumes that there is no explanation in the ancient world for how people’s theology might have been influenced by dualism or belief in eternal torment unless it was really taught in Scripture. But all of this information is given good coverage in what is probably the standard text on conditional immortality, namely Edward Fudge’s The Fire that Consumes. Has Dr Walls not read it? Google, of all things, would have remedied this lack of awareness. In conversation with Chris, Jerry indicated that he had a conversation with Ben Witherington, who conveyed to him that some Jews believed in eternal torment prior to Jesus. This is not research. Conditionalists shouldn’t have to bring these historical facts to Jerry’s attention to satisfy him. Why isn’t he familiar with this stuff? For some readers, he is now a “go-to” resource on the subject of hell, yet one of his principal arguments against conditional immortality is fueled by what we have to call ignorance.

In short, we can show that conditional immortality was taught in the early church and may well have been the dominant view. I am not aware of a persuasive “error theory” about how the church could have almost immediately fallen into error from the time of the Apostles and started teaching conditional immortality. Eternal torment is thus not the consensus of history. It is true that eternal torment became the majority view, although conditional immortality re-emerged in pockets later. The presence of belief in the immortality of the soul and in suffering in the afterlife in the world into which Christianity was born and grew provides a plausible theory of why the doctrine of eternal torment influenced Christian theology in spite of conditional immortality being the clearly biblical position. The other explanation, of course, is the momentum of tradition once a doctrine has already influenced Christian theology. Once a theologian like Augustine had advocated the doctrine of eternal torment so vociferously, there would have been a natural reluctance for later theologians to have gainsayed him (and as the historical evidence shows, it was from the time of Augustine that conditionalism faded among Christian theologians).

Evidence that the Bible teaches something in particular is really no different than evidence for any other claim, whether about Scripture or something else. All of us, I suspect, can think of examples of significant communities of people whose shared commitments lead them to believe something false, in spite of it being, in our view, clearly false. I do not believe there is any scientific plausibility to the view that the earth is young (thousands, rather than billions, of years old). Having checked with Jerry, it seems that he shares my view. But there are people who not only believe it, but who think the scientific (not just the biblical) evidence supports their belief. These are not small numbers of people. Polling suggests that about 40% of Americans believe this. It is therefore easily the dominant view among American Evangelicals. Are Jerry and I willing to say that this substantial number of Evangelicals are not just wrong but clearly so? Yes. Of course, young earth creationism is not “the consensus” view, but then eternal torment is not the historical consensus either. The situations are therefore in parallel, but Jerry has no problem saying that a significant majority of Evangelicals believes a falsehood in the face of very clear physical evidence to the contrary, while thinking that it is arrogant to believe that a majority (again, not a consensus) believes a falsehood in the face of very clear biblical evidence. I think Jerry is treating conditionalism specially.

I’m aware, of course, that many Evangelical readers of this blog may themselves hold to young earth creationism. So too do some people involved in the work of Rethinking Hell. My point is not that you are wrong, whether I think so or not. My point is only that Jerry does not hold to this view, and as such already believes that a significant number of sincere Christians can be wrong about their interpretation of evidence, affected in their interpretation by an ideology to which they hold.

Jerry is free to say that such confidence is “arrogant,” as he did in this interview, but to put it with a bit of the sort of snark I am sure Jerry appreciates: We don’t really care about his feels. Your reaction to our articulation and assessment of the evidence is one thing. Your view of whether or not it seems striking that not everyone shares our view of the evidence is another. But what we would be more interested in (and this is not directed just at Jerry but at everyone) is your demonstration that the evidence is not what we say it is. That’s going to take a bit of work.

Glenn Peoples

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