In a sense, this post is a continuation of my review of Edward Fudge’s book, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011). If you have not read my review of Fudge’s book, read The Fire That Consumes: A Review.
The Biblical doctrine of hell can be summarized in a few words. The Bible teaches that hell is the place of final judgment for unbelievers. The judgment of the wicked is described in the book of Revelation as a second death in a lake that burns with fire and brimstone (Revelation 21:8).
The Biblical doctrine of hell discredits the teachings of universalism. Universalism teaches that because every human being is a person whom God loves, God will not allow people to suffer forever in hell. Therefore, although every person is a sinner, every human being will be saved through the death of Christ on the cross which brings universal redemption to all people.
The Biblical doctrine of hell also discredits the teachings of annihilationism. Annihilationism teaches that at death the wicked will cease to exist and will not suffer eternal punishment in hell. Those who advocate total annihilationism deny the Biblical doctrine of hell because total annihilationism denies even the possibility that the wicked will ever be confronted with the consequences of their sins. I will discuss the view of conditional annihilationism below.
Once Christians reject the teachings of universalism and annihilationism, they must either accept the teachings of traditionalism or the teachings of conditionalism, the view advocated by Fudge.
There are several factors that must be considered before one decides to accept the traditionalist or the conditionalist view of hell. In what follows, I will discuss in an abbreviated form, four issues that I consider to be essential in evaluating the views of traditionalists and conditionalist.
First, it becomes important to know whether human beings were created immortal or whether they became mortal because of sin. In order to know the answer to this question, we must study two passages in Genesis: Genesis 2:9 and Genesis 3:24.
Genesis 2:9 teaches that God placed the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. This tree is to be contrasted with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While the tree of life was designed to allow human beings to “live forever” (Genesis 3:22), partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would bring death to humans.
After Adam and Evil sinned against God, they were forbidden to approach the tree of life: “The LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’–therefore the LORD . . . placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:22-24).
Because the man and woman had partaken of the forbidden tree, now God takes the initiative to withhold from them the fruit of the tree of life lest “they live forever.” Thus, because of their sin, human beings are condemned to die. God told the man: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
This is the reason the Bible emphasizes the resurrection of the body: “the grave gave up their dead” (Revelation 20:13). “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44).
The Immortality of the Soul
The second important issue one must evaluate in determining the final destiny of the wicked is the question of the immortality of the soul. The view that the human soul is immortal comes from Greek philosophy. This view teaches that the human soul continues to exist after the death of the body.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word generally translated soul is nephesh. The nephesh is used in the Old Testament to designate an individual in its totality. According to Exodus 1:5, the descendants of Jacob who came to Egypt totaled seventy persons, or seventy nephesh (KJV: “souls”). The word nephesh is also used to designate animals: “God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures’” (Genesis 1:20). The creatures of the waters are called “living nephesh.” The Old Testament talks about living nephesh and dead nephesh. However, the inhabitants of Sheol are never called nephesh.
Fudge dedicates Chapter 3 of his book to the discussion of whether the soul is immortal. He discusses Plato’s view of the soul and how Christians in the second and third centuries adopted the Greek view in order to better dialogue with their world.
Although Christians believe that the soul is immortal, that the soul lives forever after death, this view contradicts the teachings of Scriptures, for the Bible affirms that only God is immortal: “It is [God] alone who has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). When the Bible says that “the soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20), the Bible is already affirming that “souls” die.
Sheol: Hell or the Grave
Another issue that one must consider in contrasting the traditionalist and the conditionalist views of hell is whether the Hebrew word “Sheol” refers to the grave or to hell.
The word “Sheol” appears sixty-five times in the Hebrew Bible. The King James Version translates the word Sheol as “hell” 31 times. The same word is translated in the KJV as “grave” 31 times and as “pit” three times. The Revised Standard Version never translates Sheol as “hell.” Most modern translations always use “Sheol” or “grave.”
In the Old Testament Sheol is the place where people go after death. Sheol is the abode of the righteous and the wicked. Sheol is never referred to as a place of eternal suffering for the wicked. The idea that a place of torment was prepared for the wicked developed in late post-exilic literature.
The word “Gehenna” is derived from a place called the “Valley of Hinnom,” a place where some Israelites burned their sons and their daughters in the worship of pagan gods (Jeremiah 7:30-32). So Gehenna (“The Valley of Hinnom”), became the symbol of hell, the place where people were to be burned alive.
Fudge dedicates Chapter 11 to discussion of Gehenna. He discusses the use of the Valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah and how Gehenna came to be used in Jewish literature. Jesus used the word “Gehenna” 11 times, always addressing his Jewish audience who were familiar with the valley of Hinnom. Jesus identified Gehenna as the place of final punishment for sinners. To Jesus, Gehenna represented the severe judgment of God, a punishment that will lead to the second death. Jesus said: “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (KJV: “hell,” Matthew 10:28).
The Character of God
Universalists believe that all human beings will be saved and will enjoy everlasting life because a loving God cannot allow people to suffer forever. It is true that the nature of God is love and compassion. This is clearly expressed in one of the greatest declarations about God in the Old Testament:
“The LORD passed before [Moses], and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Those who deny the existence of hell emphasize that God is merciful and gracious, a God who abounds in love and who forgives iniquity. What they do not emphasize is that he is also a God who does not clear the guilty, but who executes judgment “to the third and the fourth generation.”
Thus, God brings judgment upon sinners. The wicked prosper despite their wickedness, but when God’s judgment comes upon them, they will be destroyed, “completely swept away by terrors” (Psalm 73:19).
But God’s wrath is not eternal. Although God’s abundant and steadfast love lasts for a thousand generations, his wrath lasts only to “the third and the fourth generation.” This, in a sense, is the teaching of conditionalism or “conditional annihilationism.”
Conditionalists believe that the wicked will die and in the final judgment they will receive God’s sentence. Fudge summarizes the final destiny of the wicked as follows: “The Bible teaches that the wicked will finally and truly die, perish, and become extinct forever, through a destructive process that encompasses whatever degree and duration of conscious torment God might sovereignly and justly impose in each individual case” (p. 372).
Thus, conditionalists affirm the existence of hell, they affirm that the wicked will suffer the consequences of their sins in hell, but that hell is the second death. After a time of “conscious torment,” the words of scripture will be fulfilled: the wicked will “perish” (John 3:16), they will face “the second death” (Revelation 20:14), and their soul and body will be destroyed in hell (Matthew 10:28).
I believe that the Old Testament teaches that God’s wrath is not eternal. If God’s wrath only lasts “to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7), then, the conditionalist view of hell, that eventually the punishment of the wicked will come to an end, reflects the teachings of the Old Testament, the same teaching that surely was the foundation of Jesus’ view about the destiny of the wicked.
Although I had never made an extensive study of the Biblical doctrine of hell, Fudge’s book forced me to study and evaluate my own views on this issue. My view about the destiny of the wicked is based on what the Old Testament teaches. After comparing the teachings of the New Testament with what I knew about what the Old Testament teaches, it is obvious to me that what The Fire That Consumes teaches reflects the true Biblical teaching about the eternal destiny of the wicked.