I prepped for today’s class discussion on hell by reading a new book, Rethinking Hell, which I kindly received from one of the editors. The book is a collection of evangelical authors arguing for conditional immortality—often referred to as annihilationism—which says that the damned in hell do not suffer forever but mercifully die and go out of existence. The smoke and worms may last forever, but not the people who are sent there. Most of the essays in the book have been published elsewhere, but this book makes it easier to find them. It’s like the Amazon of Annihilationism, which is also where you can buy one.
Because these chapters were written separately, there is a bit of redundancy in bringing them together. But in some ways that is a benefit, as one can see how various authors explain differently the key passages, such as Rev. 20:10 and 14:11, that seem to teach that suffering in hell lasts forever.
Regarding Rev. 20:10, which says that Satan, the beast, and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” Edward Fudge says the beast and the false prophet are merely the “personification of civil and religious powers opposing Christ” (40). Harold Guillebaud agrees they are not human beings, or at any rate not “ordinary human beings.” If the beast and the false prophet are humans, they are “incarnations of Satan, filled with his spirit,” and so deserving of prolonged torment (170). But even Satan’s suffering must eventually come to an end, or evil is eternal. How can God claim to have defeated evil if Satan continues to exist? (172). I would respond by saying that since Satan will exist in hell, a place of torment outside of this restored world, it would be easy still for God to claim total victory.
I read first Ralph Bowles’ chapter on Rev. 14:11, which I consider the clearest passage for unending suffering. I commend his chapter for your consideration. Bowles’ argument is essentially that Rev. 14:9-11 presents an “inverted parallelistic structure,” which means that the phrase “the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever” does not chronologically follow the judgment of verse 10. John is not saying that sinners will suffer forever after the Last Judgment, only that they will suffer as long as their torment continues. I can see how Bowles’ argument would persuade those who want to be convinced, but skeptics like me might think he is working too hard to explain away an uncomfortable truth. At least it would seem difficult for lay Christians to follow the turns of his argument.
What most interests me are the theological implications of this revised view on hell. Annihilationism is not the same thing as denying the existence of hell, but it does push in that direction. The whole point behind annihilationism is to soften the suffering in hell. The authors freely admit this is what they are doing, as the concept of unending suffering is “so terrible a burden on the faith and conscience” of Christians (168). One friend confided that he was an annihilationist because unending suffering in hell was unthinkable. I responded, “I know, and that’s the point. It’s supposed to be unbearable. It’s hell.”
The annihilationist’s softer view of hell does produce a lighter view on sin. Several authors claimed that finite creatures could not deserve infinite punishment, and God would be unjust to inflict that upon them (xiii, 205, 216-17). Nigel Wright claims that a God who inflicts unending suffering on others is “not worth believing in and it is hard to blame people who find it impossible to do so” (231).
Annihilationists emphasize the love of God, but at the expense of his justice. Wright writes, “The ultimate reality about God is not the iron logic of his justice and his laws but the illogical extravagance of his love” (229). There seems to be a short step from annihilationism to inclusivism—if God doesn’t think our sins deserve unending punishment, then also he may not think they deserve to keep us out of heaven. We may not need to believe in Jesus to be saved. It may be enough to respond to whatever light we have. There is a reason why this book includes a chapter by Clark Pinnock, and why at least one author is open to the possibility of universalism—perhaps God will save everyone before it’s all said and done (227).
Rethinking Hell is a helpful book, and it comes with a website for those who want to continue the conversation. I am not convinced by the arguments, and I am troubled by the dangerous trajectory I noted above, but it’s an important discussion to have, and I’ll have it later today.