Time to Rethink Hell?

This is a formal statement from an organization called “Rethinking Hell!” This organization explains “our position in the Evangelical debate on Hell is that of Conditional Immortality, which holds that believers will receive the reward of immortality, while others will finally be destroyed (annihilated).” Below, you can read the group’s formal statement (also available to view on its website and to download in PDF format): 

Conditionalism is the view that life is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately be granted forever to the saved and revoked forever from the unsaved.

Evangelical conditionalists believe that the saved in Christ will receive glory, honor and immortality, being raised with an incorruptible body to inherit eternal life (Romans 2:7).

The unsaved will be raised in shame and dishonor, to face God and receive the just condemnation for their sins. When the penalty is carried out, they will be permanently excluded from eternal life by means of a final death, implicating the whole person in a destruction of human life and being (Matthew 10:28).

1. We Affirm the Essentials of Evangelical Christianity

Evangelical conditionalists readily affirm statements of faith that are characteristically evangelical, such as that of the World Evangelical Alliance ..

Many prominent evangelical leaders have held to the view of conditionalism without compromising their core theological commitments, and groups such as the Evangelical Alliance UK explicitly include conditionalism as an acceptable view. We call for unity among evangelicals on the essentials we all affirm, and for charity where diversity is not any cause for division.

2. We Believe in Hell

Evangelical conditionalists take the biblical language describing hell and final punishment quite seriously. While many of us recognize that Scripture often uses highly symbolic imagery to describe final judgment, we also believe that we interpret the biblical language overall much more straightforwardly than those who hold to ECT: the analogy of weeds being completely burned up in fire; the comparison of the fate of the unsaved to those who perished in the flood and in Sodom and Gomorrah; the biblical emphasis on the final death and destruction of the unsaved; and more. We don’t reject the existence of hell; we simply disagree concerning its nature and duration.

3. We Represent a Broad Range of Evangelical Backgrounds

Evangelical conditionalists are uniform in our belief that the unsaved will not live forever, and yet we are as theologically varied as evangelicals holding to the majority view of hell, concerning various in-house debates over the nonessentials of Christian doctrine.

We belong to many diverse denominations and faith communities: non-denominationalist, Baptist, Churches of Christ, Episcopalian/Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and to many evangelical organizations. We are scholars and laypeople, pastors, teachers, overseers, missionaries and ministry workers.

4. Scripture, Not Emotion, Ultimately Determines Our Convictions

Evangelical conditionalists hold to a view of hell that results from a firm commitment to the truthfulness and perennial relevance of the Bible, and not from a desire to have its message be more palatable to our own culture.  We 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. Neither do we assume, however, that the correct view of Hell must be whichever is perceived to be the harshest and most intolerable.

However we might feel emotionally about any view of the fate of the unsaved, we do not subject Scripture to our emotions. 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.

We believe that the punishment of annihilation as the permanent loss of life is a terrible fate, analogous to the most extreme form of human justice: capital punishment. The conditionalist view does not allow a Christian to escape from emotional anguish at the fate of the unsaved.  Imagining a person under judgement coming to the realization that they are bereft of hope, devoid of the gift of eternal life, and facing the end of their existence should produce a profound sadness at the present plight of the lost. It should kindle in us a deep desire to share the gospel of God’s forgiveness and the offer of eternal life, found only through Christ’s work on our behalf.

5. We Believe the Unsaved Will Be Raised from the Dead for Final Judgment

Evangelical conditionalists affirm the future, bodily resurrection of both the saved and the unsaved: those who are saved, to the resurrection of eternal life with God; those who are unsaved, to face final punishment, consisting ultimately in the destruction of body and soul, a permanent end to life and conscious existence.

6. We Believe Eternal Life Is Found Only In Christ

Evangelical conditionalists reject the unbiblical notion that all human beings are naturally immortal (which many holding the mainstream view accept), and affirm that it is only through receiving the benefits of Christ’s victory over death that any person can be made alive forever, which Scripture only describes as being given to those who are saved. Therefore, since immortality will not be granted to unsaved human beings, we see no way for them to have ongoing life or conscious existence. Though they will be raised from the dead to face judgment, their rejection of God’s free gift of eternal life in Christ will mean that they will have to face death a second time, from which there can be no return to life.

7. We Believe Final Death is the Just Penalty for The Unsaved

Evangelical conditionalists do not elevate the love and mercy of God above his holiness and justice. In principle, we do not conceive of the final destruction of the lost as an act of mercy, or form of “divine euthanasia.” The lost are not rescued from the serious implications of a “cosmic death penalty,” which is truly deserved as an expression of God’s perfect justice. God has shown mercy to the unsaved throughout their lives, but final punishment requires that with their very lives they must pay the price of rejecting God’s forgiveness and grace. (Note: the question of how death is experienced is addressed in 8.2.)

8. We Accept Diversity on Particular Details

8.1. We differ on whether final punishment is finite in duration

Conditionalists sometimes put forward the idea that the biblical word translated “eternal” means “age-lasting” rather than “everlasting” when describing final punishment, or that it refers to punishment in or of the everlasting age to come. However, many of us wholeheartedly affirm that “eternal punishment” is an apt phrase to refer to the fate of the unsaved. In these terms, the punishment of death involves an everlasting deprivation of life. We can therefore agree with proponents of ECT that the punishment is eternal in scope, even though we disagree about its nature.

8.2. We differ on the timing, nature, degrees and relative duration of suffering

All conditionalists agree that there will at least be mental anguish experienced by the unsaved, in terms of abject shame, dread, anger and bitter regret.

Those who describe final punishment as basically finite in duration do so by locating punishment in the experience of conscious suffering (whether mental or physical), which culminates in death. Since suffering is seen as the thing which exhausts God’s punishment, those who hold to this view tend to see this as relatively protracted, and varying by degrees among individuals. As a further difference, some might see here a more passive death, as God ceases to sustain life.

Those who instead locate final punishment primarily in death’s significance as the means of exclusion from eternal life, tend to emphasize that any suffering is part of the process of a person being destroyed. If they do hold to suffering (whether mental or physical) in addition to the generally accepted anguish prior to punishment, as many do, they tend to see it as relatively brief in duration, comparable to the experience of Christ on the cross. This may include varying degrees, with the caveat that these exhaust an aspect of God’s justice, while preserving death as the ultimate, universal penalty.

8.3. We differ on whether Satan and demons will be destroyed

Evangelical conditionalists, though uniform in their shared belief that unsaved human beings will not live forever, do not all agree when it comes to the eternal fate of the devil and demons. According to many conditionalists, these beings will be destroyed forever, sharing the fate of unsaved human beings. Others disagree, believing that demonic beings will be tormented for eternity. While this is an interesting question, it has no impact on our central concern about human beings.

8.4. We differ on anthropology and the intermediate state

Evangelical conditionalists also differ in terms of what we believe the Bible says about the constitution of human beings, and also about whether people are conscious in the intermediate state between death and resurrection. Some are anthropological physicalists or materialists who believe human beings are physical creatures, the functioning of whose minds is dependent upon their living bodies. Others are substance dualists who believe human beings have immaterial souls, but that they lack consciousness between death and resurrection. Still others embrace a traditional body/soul dualism and contend that the immaterial souls of human beings live on consciously after death, until a resurrection of the body. The same diversity of perspectives exists within evangelicalism more broadly, and therefore is not a logical requirement or consequence of CI.

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ScottS's picture

Tyler, thanks for the post!

So #6 stated:

Evangelical conditionalists reject the unbiblical notion that all human beings are naturally immortal (which many holding the mainstream view accept), and affirm that it is only through receiving the benefits of Christ’s victory over death that any person can be made alive forever, which Scripture only describes as being given to those who are saved. Therefore, since immortality will not be granted to unsaved human beings, we see no way for them to have ongoing life or conscious existence. Though they will be raised from the dead to face judgment, their rejection of God’s free gift of eternal life in Christ will mean that they will have to face death a second time, from which there can be no return to life.

There are areas in that statement I agree and disagree with, but where the disagreement resides is, to me, the key point that proves the Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) view is correct. So walking through the statement:

  1. I agree with and so also "reject the unbiblical notion that all human beings are naturally immortal l (which many holding the mainstream view accept)."
  2. There is truth and error in the next statement: "it is only through receiving the benefits of Christ’s victory over death that any person can be made alive forever, which Scripture only describes as being given to those who are saved." As I argued in my dissertation, the benefits of "Christ's victory over death" is the resurrection itself, being "made alive" again at all out of the penalty for sin, which was that death. So this gracious gift of God for all people is not something "only ... given to those who are saved" ultimately (as the conditional group acknowledges in their #5). The part that is truly "only" given to those ultimately saved is the "forever" part of the statement, as it is true that eternal life is only to those ultimately saved.
  3. The next error is in this statement: "Therefore, since immortality will not be granted to unsaved human beings, we see no way for them to have ongoing life or conscious existence." The view is conflating "immortality" with eternal life. In 1 Cor 15:35-49 makes it clear that the resurrected body is (A) "raised in incorruption" (1 Cor 15:42), (B) "raised in glory" (1 Cor 15:43; but glories may differ, v.40-41, and as Phil 3:19 notes, the enemies of Christ's work have shame as their glory; cf. Hos 4:7, Hab 2:16, and in comparison, even condemnation has a glory to it, 2 Cor 3:9-10), (C) "raised in power" (1 Cor 15:43), (D) "raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44), so that all people's new body (believer and unbeliever alike; just because the book is addressed to believers, the statements about resurrection should not be made devoid of the clear content of what that that resurrection body is to be: the unbelievers are not raised into a natural body again, composed of dust) will be made of a heavenly substance and have properties of Christ's resurrected body (1 Cor 15:46-49). This is what Christ purchased by His death in paying the penalty of death for sin, that people will be granted life again and immortality of the body with that grant. He did this for all people, good news for people to hang their faith on Christ's work for them, and thus so that those who do so believe could have eternal life, but the consequence is that those who do not believe face God's wrath eternally. And it is exactly this reason that ECT occurs
  4. The last statement is fine as it stands, except within that statement the view fails to connect the point that the resurrected body still remains immortal and fails to see that immortality is not the same as eternal life: "Though they will be raised from the dead to face judgment, their rejection of God’s free gift of eternal life in Christ will mean that they will have to face death a second time, from which there can be no return to life." This resurrected status Christ purchased will not be destroyed; the second death is not the same as the first death; it is not a separation of spirit from body, nor a ceasing to exist, but rather the casting of the immortal body into the lake of fire (which I believe is the immersion into God's own Holy Presence as a consuming fire; since they would not be cleansed by Christ's blood, they are forever being consumed as their own self-bodily offering, "purified" by fire), such that ECT is the result. I personally visualize this as a constant burning off of the top layer of "skin" for the immortal body, creating a forever ascending smoke, which layer immediately regenerates because of immortality and burns off again, over and over and over forever. Additionally, within this body will also exist worms consuming it, the body also regenerating immediately afterwards for continued worm fodder (Mk 9:44, 46, 48), and resulting in truly an eternal destruction process. The recipients are being destroyed inside out and outside in over and over again forever.

The immortality that Christ as purchased for all out of sin's penalty of death is the point conditionalists miss, and then conflating that with eternal life misses the fact that eternal life is granted for the purpose of an ever increasing knowledge of God (John 17:3) and eternal (second) death is for the purpose of an ever present experience of God's wrath (John 3:36; cf. 1 Thes 2:16) upon vessels prepared for that continual destruction (Rom 9:22).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

JNoël's picture

Rethinking Hell is an interesting concept to me, because I have, in my feeble humanity, struggled with the idea that an good God would set events in motion, choosing only a small (few) percentage of his own creation to live with him forever, thus, according to what we have in the Bible, force him to condemn the majority of his own creatures to "ECT." In my humanity, that hardly seems good to me.

But, God said it in his Word, so I believe it, and I trust that there is far more to his entire plan for all of creation than what was given us in the Bible. Just as Israel knew very little, so also we are limited by what is in the 66 books. For now, I only know in part.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Jay's picture

I struggled with this a long time ago, and a message by John Piper proved to be very helpful to me.  I'll cite it and then give the link at the bottom.  Here's the quote:

They said: It doesn’t work. You have 70 or 80 years in which to accumulate sins and then it is punished forever? That doesn’t sound right. Well, Jonathan Edwards thought probably more deeply about hell and more gloriously about heaven than anyone and I realize I forgot to bring a book along I was going to show you. It is by John Gerstner and it is called Heaven and Hell in Jonathan Edwards.

I want to read you a quote, probably the most important quote that I have ever read on the justice of hell that Edwards would speak if he were responding to Pinnock and Stott on this argument of disproportionally between a finite life of sinning and an eternal, infinite scope of suffering. Here is what he wrote:

The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another is proportionately more or less heinous as he was under greater or less obligations to obey him. And, therefore, if there be any being that we are under infinite obligations to love, honor and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty. Our obligation to love, honor and obey any being is in proportion to his loveliness, honorabless and authority, but God is a being infinitely lovely because he hath infinite excellency and infinite beauty. So sin against God being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment. The eternity of the punishment of the ungodly men, of ungodly men, renders it infinite and, therefore, renders it more than proportionate, no more than proportionable to the heinousness of what they are guilty of.

I have never seen any response to that from the likes of Clarke Pinnock or John Stott or others. In other words, the length of your sin is not what makes the length of your suffering just. It is the height of your sin that makes the length of your suffering just. The height of your sin is measured by the dignity of the one you are sinning against and it is an infinite dignity, which brings me very close now to what I mean by the echo hell as I move into this second meaning of justice or righteousness.

The righteousness of God or the justice of God is God’s unwavering allegiance to uphold the value of what is infinitely valuable, namely his own glory.

If you don’t buy that, you probably will not understand or embrace great swaths of the Bible. Let me say it again. Since God has no constitution or legal code outside himself by which to measure what is right and good in his own thinking and feeling and doing, it must be measured by himself.

What then is righteousness in God? God’s righteousness is his devotion to, his allegiance to, his absolute unwavering commitment to stand for and uphold and vindicate that which is infinitely valuable: himself. That is the righteousness of God. If he for one millisecond diverted from his passionate, infinitely zealous cause of holding up his glory, he would be unrighteous and unworthy of our worship.

Now given that definition, hell is just, because hell does that. You have got to ask this question. I mean, your reckoning in these days, I assume, with what you are going to believe about hell and heaven is simply massive.

From The Echo and Insufficiency of Hell at the Resolved 2008 conference.  The underscored section is Piper reading the book he refers to, and the bolded section is my emphasis.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm committed to the orthodox view, but I have to confess that the doctrine of Hell is the only doctrine I would like to be wrong about. From a mere mortal's point of view, it just feels out of balance. But what is faith about if not taking as truth what does not necessarily feel true? Further, faith is about accepting that what God has established is good, even if it doesn't feel like it's good.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Many of us who believe in salvation by grace alone also agree that God gives rewards to those who are saved, and those rewards are based upon works.

Many of us believe the lost are condemned because they are sinners who have never accepted Jesus, but they are judged and punished according to their works.  Annihilation sounds like a level playing field to me and doesn't match the proportionate paradigm of hell.

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