The old song "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" may well apply to this article. It's a subject that was broached by a speaker recently and was the impetus for me to re-study the subject. I'll suggest some books germane to the subject if space permits.
You may wonder why broach such a thorny subject when rarely is it ever mentioned from pulpits today. Here are two reasons why I'm writing this:
1. It speaks volumes about (in my opinion) the character of God, His love, His righteousness and His justice, and 2. it determines how we present the gospel, the biblical message of salvation, to the lost, especially as to the character of God we expect people to worship and love and respect, not fear.
The following is a brief explanation of the two most common views of Hell:
The traditional view briefly tells us that the lost at death will eventually be judged and committed to Hell. Hell in the traditional view is a horrific place of conscious eternal torment forever and ever, the victim experiencing Hell in all his/her senses. Note that I said "conscious eternal torment (torture) of the soul and body. Think about that soberly before you read further.
The conditional view (also called the annihilation view) teaches that at death and the final judgment the unbeliever will be judged and committed to Hell for a period and then will cease to exist. Probably some punishment is suggested here, but it won't be eternal (forever). The lost will simply cease to exist. The saved, the believers, will be judged, and will enter Heaven and will be with God forever to enjoy a most blissful eternal existence. The word "conditional" used in this context means ones immortality (soul and body) is conditioned on one having been born into God's family by accepting the Gospel (good news) invitation for salvation. I believe this view is more compelling for the following reasons:
1. What Scripture teaches: having read and reread several books on this subject where both views were explained by committed Christian scholars, I've concluded that both views can be convincingly defended from Scripture, by offering different definitions for words, changing the meaning of phrases, how certain texts supporting one's position are presented and others neglected, and, sadly, even attempting to impugn the integrity of those whose position the theologian writing disagrees with.
2. Immortality of the body and soul: I find virtually no suggestion from Scripture that unbelievers have immortality. Only God and believers are immortal. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was introduced into Christian teaching from the philosophy of Plato and was forever popularized by Augustine, and because of his stature has remained to this day an orthodox teaching.
3. The righteousness and justice of God: The moral argument. I contemplated this for a long, long time before I crossed the Rubicon and embraced the conditional position. It is beyond my ability to conceive of our God of love and mercy and justice as manifested in the flesh in Jesus Christ to vindictively, cruelly, and fully considered, sadistically orchestrate such a horrific concept of Hell to mean the conscious eternal (forever) torture of unbelievers. I've laid awake for many hours trying to put a different face on the traditional view of Hell, but my stomach churns and I simply couldn't do that.
4. I also found it interesting that the people defending the traditional position in the books I've read are virtually all Calvinists, and of course that means they believe in predestination, i.e. God elects some for salvation and rejects or passes over the rest. The non-elect are then condemned to the horrors of an eternal Hell according to the traditional view of the destiny of unbelievers, even non-elect babies as Calvin taught. Is it possible to believe that our loving merciful God would create human beings simply to torture them forever in Hell? The conditional view avoids that dilemma and that is why I'm comfortable embracing it and can still worship my loving Heavenly Father with all my heart and mind.
I'm really sorry not to be able to cite the many biblical verses and passages germane to this subject.Two passages supporting conditionalism (my opinion) are Ezekiel 18:4 and II Thessa. 1:9. Some find Matt. 26:45 definitive in their defense of traditionalism. I don't.
Books that might interest readers: Two Views of Hell - Edward Fudge (conditionalist) and Robert Peterson (traditionalist). Four Views of Hell - Zondervan Counterpoints Series, William Crockett, general editor and Stanley Gundry, series editor Erasing Hell - Francis Chan - a traditional view yet he doesn't go all the way with the "forever" concept of hell either. The Fire That Consumes - Edward Fudge - An Evangelical Book Club Selection
I hope you, my friends, will make sure you never know what Hell is like by turning your life over now to God and receiving Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Here's wishing you a very meaningful and blessed Easter.
Paul Williams is a retired veterinarian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Marietta and attend Evergreen Bible Church.