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Hell is real and terrible. It is the fate of those who reject God. Evangelicals agree about this unhappy truth. Yet on some questions about hell disagreements arise.
Some evangelicals believe the wicked will experience perpetual, conscious torment after death. Others argue that the wicked will experience a limited period of conscious punishment and then they will cease to exist.
In this book you will find an irenic yet frank debate between two evangelical theologians who present strong scriptural and theological evidence for and against each view. Both make a case that their view is more consistent with Scripture and with the holy and just nature of a loving God.
Robert Peterson defends the traditional view that those who do not have faith in Christ will suffer eternally in hell. Edward Fudge advocates the conditionalist perspective that after a period of suffering, the unfaithful will experience a complete extinguishing, or annihilation, of existence. In addition, each author presents a rebuttal to the viewpoint of the other.
Here is a dialogue that will inform and challenge those on both sides, while impressing on all the need for faithful proclamation of the gospel of deliverance from sin and death.
About the Author
Edward Fudge is a theologian and practicing lawyer based in Texas. He is the author of The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (barnesandnoble.com).
Robert A. Peterson (Ph.D., Drew University) is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He was formerly professor of New Testament and theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania.
His books include Getting to Know John's Gospel: A Fresh Look at Its Main Ideas, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, Calvin's Doctrine of the Atonement, Adopted by God: From Wayward Sinners to Cherished Children (all Presbyterian & Reformed) and Hell Under Fire (coedited with Chris Morgan, Zondervan). He has written numerous articles, was a contributor to the second edition of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker) and edits Covenant Seminary's journal, Presbyterion.
Read an Excerpt
The Bible clearly teaches that those who persistently rejectGod's mercy throughout this life will one day face him in judgment andfinally be cast into hell. Hell is real. It is fearful beyond human imagination,and those who go there will never come out again. From at least the time ofAugustine (A.D. 354-430), most Christians have taught that God will keephell's inhabitants alive forever so they can suffer everlasting torment ofbody or soul or both, in an agony that somehow corresponds to the paininflicted by fire.
It is not surprising that when Jonathan Edwards preached on hell, colonialAmericans sometimes fainted with fright. Edwards admonished:
To help your conception, imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, all of a glowing heat, or into the midst of a blowing brick-kiln, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of fire, as full within and without as a bright coal of fire, all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! And how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you! ... And how much greater would be the effect, if you knew you must endure it for a whole year, and how vastly greater still if you knew you must endure it for a thousand years! 0 then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, ifyou knew, that you must bear it forever and ever! ... That after millions of ages, your torment would be no nearer to an end, than ever it was; and that you never, never should be delivered! But your torment in Hell will be immeasurably greater than this illustration represents.
A century later Charles Spurgeon minced no words as he describedhell's torment to his London audience:
Thine heart beating high with fever, thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony, thy limbs cracking like the martyrs in the fire and yet unburnt, thyself put in a vessel of hot oil, pained yet coming out undestroyed, all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune.
This style of preaching is now in rapid decline. Many advocates of thetraditional view now say the fire is likely metaphorical. Hell's pains resultmore from deprivation than from external infliction, they explain, and areprobably spiritual and emotional in nature rather than physical. The realagony will be the smitten conscience and the sense of loss, according tomost of Spurgeon's and Edwards's modern descendants. Evangelist BillyGraham is among those who reject the lurid descriptions of hell once popularamong advocates of everlasting torment. Says Graham in an interview:
The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God. We are separated from his light, from his fellowship. That is going to be hell. When it comes to a literal fire, I don't preach it because I'm not sure about it. When the Scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it's going to benot fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched.
The fact is that the Bible does not teach the traditional view of final punishment.Scripture nowhere suggests that God is an eternal torturer. It neversays the damned will writhe in ceaseless torment or that the glories ofheaven will forever be blighted by the screams from hell. The idea of consciouseverlasting torment was a grievous mistake, a horrible error, a grossslander against the heavenly Father, whose character we truly see in the lifeof Jesus of Nazareth.
Scripture teaches instead that those who go to hell will experience "everlastingdestruction" in "the second death," for God is able to "destroy bothbody and soul in hell." The actual process of destruction may well involveconscious pain that differs in magnitude in each individual case-Scriptureseems to indicate that it will. Whatever the case, God's judgment will bemeasured by perfect, holy, divine justice. Even hell will demonstrate theabsolute righteousness of God. From Genesis to Revelation, the Biblerepeatedly warns that the wicked will "die," "perish" or "be destroyed."Those who die this second death will never live again.
A growing host of respected biblical scholars now publicly question the traditionalnotion that God will keep the lost alive forever so he can punish themwithout end. These include such luminaries as F. F. Bruce, Michael Green, PhilipE. Hughes, Dale Moody, Clark H. Pinnock, W. Graham Scroggie, John R. W.Stott and John W. Wenham. These men represent evangelical Christian scholarshipat its best. They recognize that Scripture must judge all traditions andcreeds, not the other way around. They realize that most of the church waswrong for centuries on doctrines far more fundamental than the doctrine ofhell, and they understand that it would be presumptuous to suppose that themajority might not have erred on this point just as it did on others.
J. I. Packer rightly notes that "we are forbidden to become enslaved tohuman tradition, ... even 'evangelical' tradition. We may never assume thecomplete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practiceand excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scripture."John Stott reminds us that "the hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism isnot the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submitevery tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary,reform. The growing evangelical rejection of the traditional doctrine ofunending conscious torment is not propelled by emotionalism, sentimentalityor compromise with culture but by absolute commitment to the authorityof Scripture and by the conviction that a faithful church must be achurch that is always reforming.
Dust Creatures in God's Image
The Bible's opening chapter tells us that there was a time when humankinddid not exist, and that when God made us, he made us from dirtfrom thevery elements which also compose our planet. The author of Genesis allowsus to watch over God's shoulder as he makes the first human (Gen 2:7). Godcarefully shapes a human body from clay scooped from the earth. TheAlmighty stoops and breathes into its nostrils. Suddenly what began as alife-size mud doll becomes a living being! God names him Adam, a Hebrewword that also means "dust." Earthly elements plus the "breath of life" havebecome a whole manin Hebrew "a living soul." From a rib of Adam, the storycontinues, God then makes Evealso in the image of God (Gen 2:21-22).
Since humans did not exist until God formed them and gave them life,each moment of life is God's immediate gift of grace. Eventually Godreclaims the breath of life and we return to the ground from which we weretaken (Eccles 3:18-22). The Bible always portrays human beings within thisframework of God's creation. We cannot exist for even one moment apartfrom God, who made us.
The gift of life. The biblical view of humans as God's dependent creatures differssharply from the view taught by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.According to Plato, each human being has a body that is mortal and will finallydie. Plato taught that each person also has a soul that is immortal and cannotdie. Plato's student Socrates continued his master's philosophy. As he faced hisown execution, Socrates welcomed death, for to him it meant escaping thelower realm of mortal bodies and returning to the higher sphere of immortalsouls. Like his teacher Plato, Socrates believed that the soul cannot die nor ceaseto exist. Plato died before Jesus was born, and thus before Jesus revealed thatGod "can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt 10:28). Socrates' view alsodiffers from the view expressed by his predecessors, the Old Testament writers,who consistently dreaded death as the end of life. Unlike those Scriptures,Socrates did not view man in relation to the living God.
The most notable characteristic of the dead in the Old Testament is thatthey are cut off from God. This is a dreadful thought because, of all the livingcreatures, only humans know God person-to-person. Humans aloneexhibit volition and awareness of their mortality. Even though Adam lived930 years, he too finally died (Gen 5:5). As his descendants returned his lifelessbody to the soil, they must have grieved at the thought of their ownmortality and the brevity of their lives. The Old Testament writers disagreewith later Greek philosophers who portray humans as immortal soulsentrapped for a time in mortal bodies. They picture humanity's state afterdeath with the imagery of Sheol.
Sheolthe realm of all the dead. The word Sheol is used in the Old Testamentsixty-five times. The King James Version translators rendered it either"hell" (thirty-one times), "the grave" (thirty-one times) or "the pit" (threetimes). The translators of the American Standard Version simply left it"Sheol." In the New International Version the word is usually translated as"grave," though at least once it is rendered "the realm of death" (Deut32:22). Sheol is not a physical hole in the ground, but it might well be translated"gravedom." Biblical Greek writers used the word Hades (literally"unseen") for the Hebrew word Sheol, both in the Greek translation of theOld Testament and in the New Testament.
Job describes Sheol as "the place of no return, ... the land of gloom anddeep shadow, ... the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder,where even the light is like darkness" (Job 10:21-22). David calls it "theplace of darkness" and "the land of oblivion" (Ps 88:12). Although individualsare sometimes pictured in the Old Testament as conversing in Sheol orengaging in other such lifelike pursuits (Is 14:9-18), the Hebrew text tells usthat they are mere shades, shadows of whole persons who once lived andloved on the earth (Is 14:9).
Some writers have suggested that Sheol was a place of punishment for sin.The translators of the King James Version contributed to this misunderstandingby rendering Sheol as "hell." However, such faithful saints as Jacob, Davidand Job all expected to go to Sheol when they died (Gen 37:35; Ps 49:15; Job14:13). Most importantly, Jesus Christ himself went to Sheol (Greek Hades)upon his death (Acts 2:27, 31). On the third day Jesus came back from thegrave in victory, and he now holds as trophies "the keys to death and Hades"themselves (Rev 1:18). One day death and Hades also will be cast into the"lake of fire"which is a way of saying they will cease to exist (Rev 20:13-15).
No wonder that righteous men and women throughout the Bible repeatedlyexpress confidence that God will restore them from Sheol to enjoy lifein his fellowship again (1 Sam 2:6; Ps 16:9-11). No biblical character is eversaid to have placed hope in philosophical notions of natural immortality, orto have supposed that human beings have some mysterious part that cannotdie. Whatever the state of mortals between earthly death and the resurrection,their only hope for survival lies in the hands of the Creator whoalone is inherently immortal (1 Tim 6:16).
Excerpted from TWO VIEWS OF HELL by Edward William Fudge & Robert A. Peterson. Copyright © 2000 by Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
Introduction: What's All the Fuss About? PART ONE: THE CASE FOR CONDITIONALISMby Edward William Fudge
1. An Introduction to Conditionalism
2. The Old Testament
3. The Teachings of Jesus
4. The Writings of Paul
5. The Rest of the New Testament
6. A Final Word
A Traditionalist Response to Conditionalismby Robert A. PetersonPART TWO: THE CASE FOR TRADITIONALISMby Robert A. Peterson
7. The Road to Traditionalism: History
8. The Foundation of the House: Scripture
9. Seeing the Big Picture: Theology
A Conditionalist Response to Traditionalismby Edward William Fudge