“Refuting the (Astrophysicist) Critics” Series Links
This article is the second in a series of articles addressing the case for traditionalism offered by the young-earth-creationist and astrophysicist Jason Lisle. To access other published articles in this series, use the following links:
Like many apologists for eternal torment, traditionalist Jason Lisle insists that conditionalists reject eternal torment for psychological reasons. “The idea of an eternity in hell is so offensive to many people,” he writes, “that they refuse to believe it. Instead, they choose to believe” in annihilationism.1Jason Lisle, “The Good News About Hell,” Biblical Science Institute [blog], February 14, 2020, https://biblicalscienceinstitute.com/theology/the-good-news-about-hell/; emphasis added. We “desperately want to deny the reality of an eternal hell,” he suggests, “because it is so unpleasant.”2Ibid.; emphasis added. Lisle attributes belief in conditionalism to “a tendency to minimize how heinous our sin really is.”3Jason Lisle, “Denying Eternity,” Biblical Science Institute [blog], January 2, 2023, https://biblicalscienceinstitute.com/theology/denying-eternity/. He is absolutely adamant: rejecting eternal torment “is always due to emotional preferences, not biblical exegesis.”4Ibid.; italics in original. It’s difficult to imagine a clearer example of what C. S. Lewis called “Bulverism,” which is “the substitution of psychological explanation for logic.” See, Lisle simply “assumes without discussion that the opponent is wrong, then busily explains how [the annihilationist] became so silly.”5Richard B. Cunningham, C. S. Lewis: Defender of the Faith (Wipf and Stock, 2008), 184. I’d encourage Lisle to stick to astrophysics and leave psychologizing to those with the proper training, because he’s dead wrong about this.
As Rethinking Hell’s Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism explains, annihilationists “are not seeking to construct a more tolerable version of hell, as though primarily motivated by an emotional aversion to the idea of eternal torment.” Rather, “We have been convinced primarily by direct statements of Scripture that the penalty God has outlined for those who reject his offer of life is clearly the eternal punishment of the ‘second death,’ rather than endless torment.”6Rethinking Hell, Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism,http://www.rethinkinghell.com/Rethinking-Hell_Statement-on-Evangelical-Conditionalism.pdf. Like most normal, healthy human beings, we think the prospect of dying and ceasing to be is dreadful;7Traditionalist Clay Jones documents humanity’s fear of death as annihilation in Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House, 2020). See also Christopher M. Date, “Dismissive of Hell, Fearful of Death: Conditional Immortality and the Apologetic Challenge of Hell,” Hope’s Reason 6 (2017), 14–30; available online at http://www.stephenjbedard.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/HRV6-Hell.pdf. and we’d prefer that our lost loved ones live forever; so if we were emotionally motivated to find an alternative to eternal torment, we’d have become universalists. We at Rethinking Hell have never advanced emotional arguments, in over ten years of ministry, and any honest evaluation of our body of work will conclude that Scripture, not emotions, ultimately determines our convictions.
The late Edward Fudge is perhaps the most prominent Christian known for defending conditionalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and his work clearly indicates that his commitment to Scripture is what moved him to embrace conditionalism. “I am a theist,” he writes, “a Christian and an evangelical, persuaded that Scripture is the very Word of God written. For that reason I believe it is without error in anything that it teaches, and that it is the only unquestionable, binding source of doctrine on this or any subject.”8Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Cascade, 2011), 4–5. He goes on to admit that it’s “always tempting to read into Scripture what we wish,” but he urges readers “not to confuse our own desires with the Bible’s teaching.”9Ibid., 6. In his published debate with traditionalist Robert Peterson, Fudge writes, “The growing evangelical rejection of the traditional doctrine of unending conscious torment is not propelled by emotionalism, sentimentality or compromise with culture but by absolute commitment to the authority of Scripture.”10Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (InterVarsity, 2000), 21. In fact, Fudge’s seminal work in defense of conditional immortality is so exclusively exegetical that John Stackhouse calls it “a juggernaut of biblical exegesis that simply crushes any alternative” but critiques it for failing to present its case “within a larger, compelling view of God.”11John G. Stackhouse Jr., “The Legacy of Edward Fudge,” A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge, edited by Christopher M. Date and Ron Highfield (Pickwick, 2015), 7.
If nothing else, I am proof that Lisle’s sweeping psychologizing is inaccurate. In over a decade of publicly making the case for annihilationism, I have repeatedly pointed out that I have no emotional aversion to the prospect of eternal torment. Indeed, my emotions attract me toward the traditional view, because if I once again believed it, I’d fit in much better with the conservative, Reformed evangelicals with whom I most identify. I’ve also frequently said I think God would be perfectly just in subjecting lost people to eternal torment, were he to choose to do so. At the tail end of my debate with Al Mohler, for example, I said, “I don’t think that if the traditional view is true that it paints God out to be unjust, or an unjust ogre.”12Unbelievable? [radio program], “Should Christians Rethink Hell? Dr Al Mohler & Chris Date Debate the Traditional & Conditionalist View,” January 2, 2015, https://www.premierunbelievable.com/unbelievable/unbelievable-should-christians-rethink-hell-dr-al-mohler-and-chris-date-debate-the-traditional-and-conditionalist-view/11580.article. I became and remain convinced of conditional immortality—despite wanting to believe in eternal torment—because I must bend my knee to the authority of Scripture. It’s that simple.
It may be true that some people are motivated by “emotional preferences” to find conditionalism in Scripture, but Lisle’s sweeping generalization is obviously false and unjustified. He would do well to re-read the Gospel of John, whose author seems to think Jesus is unique in knowing human hearts (John 2:24-25; cf. 6:61; Matt 9:4; 12:25). Lisle certainly isn’t capable of reading our minds, and I suggest he leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals.
Traditionalist Clay Jones documents humanity’s fear of death as annihilation in Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House, 2020). See also Christopher M. Date, “Dismissive of Hell, Fearful of Death: Conditional Immortality and the Apologetic Challenge of Hell,” Hope’s Reason 6 (2017), 14–30; available online at http://www.stephenjbedard.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/HRV6-Hell.pdf.
As a young-earth creationist for some twenty years, I’ve very much appreciated astrophysicist Jason Lisle’s contributions to the creation debate. But his blogging activity of late suggests that, while extremely intelligent and well educated in scientific matters, Lisle is nevertheless weak in the areas of exegesis and critical thinking when it comes to the hell debate, and uninformed about what those he critiques really believe. Case in point: his recent articles in defense of eternal torment (a.k.a., eternal conscious punishment, or traditionalism, owing to its historical dominance among Christian thinkers).
Seen by many around the globe as a trusted source of truth, Lisle and his ministry should be held to the highest standard of academic rigor and Christian integrity. They have over 14,000 and 93,000 followers on Facebook, respectively, where Lisle’s posts are engaged with by many commenters and often shared hundreds of times. Lisle clearly values careful research and robust exegesis of Scripture, and it is not unreasonable to ask that he approach this topic with the same degree of due diligence that he exercises in his areas of expertise.
I would have preferred live interaction—especially with someone of whom I’m such a big fan—but alas, I shall have to settle for refuting his “refutations” in article form. Rather than publish one article per each of Lisle’s, I’ll group what he writes into categories and respond to each category with an article of my own. I’ll make all of my articles accessible from this introductory article so it can serve as a sort of one-stop shop for those interested in how an annihilationist (or conditionalist, a believer in what’s called conditional immortality) might respond to his case if he were to interact with one live. I’ll return and update these articles if Lisle’s series continues and he offers anything meaningfully new.
“Refuting the (Astrophysicist) Critics” Series Links
The answer is itself quite simple: it depends what you mean by “hell.”
Some people define hell as a place of eternal conscious suffering, and if that is what you mean, then of course evangelical conditionalists deny the existence of “hell.” But if you, more broadly, mean a place or state of final punishment for the unrepentant, then yes, evangelical conditionalists (and most annihilationists broadly) definitely believe in hell. We just disagree with the majority of Christians about what hell ultimately entails.
And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Conditionalists point to it frequently for obvious reasons. Jesus told the disciples that God will destroy (Greek apollumi) both the body and the (supposedly immortal) soul in hell. Traditionalists, of course, have rebuttals to the conditionalist interpretation that you will come across.
…And then there is an unusual interpretation that rears its head every now and again that we will be looking at today. This is the view that this passage is not warning about what God will do at final judgment, but rather, it is a warning to fear the devil.
From Texas to Oklahoma to London and beyond, the first 10 years of Rethinking Hell saw some wonderful conferences which brought together fellowship, intellectual rigor, and spiritual enrichment – with a healthy dose of fun and good memories, of course.
And there is good news for those of you who haven’t gotten to be at every single one of them in person: the plenary presentations from each conference, as well as a number of breakout sessions, were recorded and are available on the Rethinking Hell Youtube channel! They can be found under Playlists, and links to each year’s conference playlist are given below.
Without further ado, let’s take a look back at some of the highlights:
2014 – Houston, Texas
The first Rethinking Hell conference took place from July 11-12, 2014. The theme was “The Legacy of Edward Fudge and the Future of Conditionalism,” and it was hosted at the immaculate Lanier Theological Library in Edward Fudge’s then-home of Houston, TX.
The honor of delivering the very first plenary presentation at the very first Rethinking Hell conference was given to John Stackhouse. Dr. Stackhouse currently holds the position of Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall College, though at the time of the conference, he held the title of Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College – a position originally held by J.I. Packer. Dr. Stackhouse’s presentation was titled “The Legacy of Edward Fudge.”
At the 2014 conference, we also had the privilege having of our own Glenn Peoples come all the way from New Zealand to give the second plenary presentation, titled “The Future of Conditionalism.”
In addition to our two plenary presenters, we had several additional distinguished guests join the conference for a panel discussion at the end of the conference. Second from the right was, of course, the late Edward Fudge (the conference’s guest of honor). In addition were, from left to right: Dr. John Stackhouse (plenary speaker), Dr. Thomas Talbott (universalist, professor), our own Dr. Glenn Peoples (plenary speaker), Dr. Shawn Bawulski (traditionalist, professor), and Dr. J. Lanier Burns (traditionalist, professor).
The second Rethinking Hell conference was held at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, from June 18-20, 2015.
The theme of this conference was “Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation.” The scope of this conference was expanded from 2014. Over three days, we had six plenary presentations delivered by three conditionalists, two traditionalists, and one universalist. There was also a concluding panel discussion, as has become the norm. Notably, in order to bring all three views to the table (conditionalism, universalism, and eternal conscious hell), this conference had three separate breakout sessions, each to feature papers given on one of the three views.
Above is a photo of the panel, featuring all six plenary speakers (from left to right): Dr. David-Instone Brewer (conditionalist), Dr. Robin Parry (universalist), Dr. James Spiegel (conditionalionalist), our own Chris Date (who needs no introduction), Dr. Oliver Crisp (traditionalist), and Dr. Jerry Walls (traditionalist). Pictured at the podium was panel moderator Greg Stump, a pastor and one of the original stewards of Rethinking Hell.
The 2017 conference was held at Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand on July 15, 2017. The host country of New Zealand was noteworthy for being the home country of RH contributor and highly influential conditionalist, Dr. Glenn Peoples. It also facilitated attendance by notable Australian conditionalists such as Ralph Bowles (who presented at the 2014 conference and was interviewed on Episode 48 of the Rethinking Hell Podcast).
Quite fittingly, the introduction to this conference was given by the founder of Rethinking Hell, Peter Grice (also from nearby Australia).
The 2018 conference saw a return to the United States, and was held at The Heights Baptist Church in Richardson, TX, from March 9-10, 2018.
Dr. Craig Evans of Houston Baptist University gave some a surprise by lending scholarly support toward a conditionalist view of hell in his presentation titled “Jesus, Hell, Hyperbole and Hope.”
Preston Sprinkle’s advocating conditionalism in his presentation, though expected, was still noteworthy because Dr. Sprinkle had previously co-authored the very popular defense of eternal conscious hell, Erasing Hell, with Francis Chan in 2011.
The 2019 conference was held at Emmanuel Enid Church in Enid, OK, from August 16-17, 2019.
Pictured above is Wade Burleson, then-pastor of Emmanuel Enid Church. The hospitality of Pastor Wade and Emmanuel Enid Church went above and beyond, and this was instrumental in making the 2019 conference a big success from every angle (attendance, quality of dialogue, fellowship, etc.).
The seventh annual Rethinking Hell conference was held at Christ’s Church Federal Way in Federal Way, WA, from November 6-7, 2020.
The worldwide chaos of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic may have meant face masks and renting an oversized venue to allow people to be spaced apart, but the conference still went on. Despite a few understandable hiccups (such as one plenary speaker having to give his presentation by video due to living in Canada), the conference still had great dialogue, great fellowship, and a surprisingly good turn-out. I am not alone when I say that I took away a lot from it and had a lot of fun.
Various circumstances led the 2021 conference to be held virtually from December 30-31, 2021. Despite not being in-person, it brought various presentations of depth and intellectual quality, discussing the very practical question of how to engage the culture regarding death and mortality, according to a Christian worldview.
The video presentations from the 2021 conference are now all uploaded to our Youtube channel, so what are you waiting for?
Perhaps the greatest discovery of all, from all the conferences we have had, is below:
I do not know if the above was the Whataburger where we stopped in Houston, TX (2014 conference). But I do know it is a Whataburger in Houston, TX. And that is how I discovered how great Whataburger is.
…That one might be a bit more personal to my experience. But needless to say, there have been some really great conferences on the topic of hell since Rethinking Hell was founded 10 years ago. Perhaps it might be practical for you to meet us at one in the future? Hope to see you there!
On April 29th, 2012, a Facebook group called Rethinking Hell was created by a Christian apologist in Australia named Peter Grice. 1 Due to geographical differences, the date of the group’s formation was April 30, 2012 in Australia. The world has never been the same since. 2 This statement may be a bit exaggerated.
Early on, Peter brought on three fellow stewards to help run the ministry:
They were also joined by contributors who had studied the topic of final punishment in-depth. This included Dr. Glenn Peoples, Ronnie Demler of the Consuming Fire blog, and, through a series of little things that happened to work out, yours truly. And the late Edward Fudge – the kind and humble titan of the movement – gave us encouragement, our first podcast interview, and one of the first cash donations to the ministry to get us going.
Ten years have gone by since that fateful day on Facebook. Many names and faces have come and gone, but the various ways that they have positively influenced the ministry and the greater debate on the nature and duration of hell remain. Since then, the ministry has grown and developed into an official non-profit organization. A second anthology of essays on hell, a festschrift in honor of Edward Fudge, was published in 2015. There have been hundreds of articles, podcasts, and videos. There have been eight conferences in multiple US States, England, and New Zealand. There have been numerous formal debates over video conferencing and in-person. And in many different forums and venues, there have been countless interactions and discussions between believers in the Lord Jesus Christ about a topic that many do not want to discuss, but one that we are all better for discussing when we do it.
I certainly like to think that, in all of this, a lot of good has been accomplished, and that this is only the beginning.
Ways I Have Been Blessed
Has Rethinking Hell been a blessing to you? I certainly hope so. Or, if you are new, that it soon will be.
Nevertheless, I figure that rather than telling all of you how much Rethinking Hell has helped you, I should instead contribute to this time of reflection and retrospective by sharing how I have been blessed by being part of this project over the last decade:
Community: This is the most obvious one. I have made friends along the way. I’ve gotten to form ministry and personal relationships with people who would otherwise just be names on the internet. If you’ve never been to a Rethinking Hell conference, I must say that, while the topic is as serious as a heart attack, the conferences are also a pretty great time. You meet new people, and you also get to finally shake hands and hug and do finger guns at people you knew online but who now become real. I have been personally blessed quite a bit by all of this.
Opportunity to sharpen my exegetical and critical thinking skills: Repetition makes ready, and studying a like this topic in-depth requires you to learn, to study, and to learn how to learn and study. And in my experience, doing this for one topic spills over into other topics. You are exposed to new knowledge and new ideas, some of which will change your mind. Even exposure to bad arguments helps you learn not only why they are bad, but how and why people come to believe what they believe. I believe I am a better expositor and thinker in general because of this project, and I hope to grow even more as time goes on.
An anchor: Life can get busy and things can get away from you. Having a reason to regularly keep my mind on the things of God has helped my spiritual life in many ways across the seasons of life.
For me, this has been (and continues to be) a labor of love. There would be no point in expending the time, energy, and resources needed for us to run the Rethinking Hell project if it was not benefiting others. But it would be dishonest and painfully false martyrdom if I were to pretend I have not also been blessed by the whole thing – including by you, the reader.
A Few Other Fun Questions:
Favorite Podcast Interview: The first podcast interview, with Edward Fudge, of course.
Favorite Conference: All the conferences I have been to have been great, but I will give this one to the 2018 conference in Plano (Dallas), Texas.
Something Fun I Didn’t Expect: How great Whataburger is. I live in California, so I have great burger chains like In N’ Out. Nevertheless, after trying it the first time at the 2014 conference in Houston, TX, I make sure to eat at Whataburger whenever we have a conference or event in Texas or surrounding states.
There will be more content celebrating this anniversary soon. But for now, to all our donors, fans, advocates, and you the reader (even if this is your first time), we thank you all so much! The Rethinking Hell project would not be what it is without you.
The traditional doctrine of hell has a number of scripture passages used to support it, a number of theological and philosophical arguments to support it, and no shortage of major church figures to appeal to in order to give it credibility. It also is based on some major assumptions that have little or no support.
As a result of this common experience, many today who believe in the doctrine of eternal conscious hell believe that it is not rightly called “torture,” and that descriptions of hell using that term are inappropriate.
Al Serrato, “Is Hell Torment or Torture and Does It Make A Difference?”, Cross Examined [blog], posted February 15, 2020, https://crossexamined.org/is-hell-torment-or-torture-and-is-there-a-difference/ (accessed February 24, 2021).
J. Warner Wallace, “Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended? (Free Bible Insert),” Cold-Case Christianity, July 1, 2014, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/can-the-existence-and-nature-of-hell-be-defended-free-bible-insert/ (accessed February 23, 2021).