The traditional doctrine of hell has recently come under fire even from evangelical theologians. In the past twenty years or so, an increasing number of evangelical theologians have rejected the traditional understanding of hell and eternal punishment and have forwarded a view known as conditional immortality (CI), also known as annihilationism. Unable to accept the teaching of eternal punishment which has prevailed in the Church for two millennia, these theologians advocate instead the idea of CI arguing that God punishes the wicked by annihilating them after the last judgement.
The most serious objection to the traditional view of hell may be stated as follows: How can the loving God of the Bible punish sinners eternally in hell for sins they commit in time? Does not the traditional doctrine of hell present a vindictive and tyrannical God who is inimical to the God of the Bible?
CI did not suddenly burst unto the twentieth century theological world. Traces of this idea can be found among some patristic theologians who wrote within the first five hundred years of the history of the Christian Church. The clearest example came from the pen of Arnobius, a theologian in the fourth century, who wrote about the fate of the wicked in this way: ‘They are cast in, and being annihilated, pass away vainly in everlasting destruction … this, I say is man’s real death’.
The re-emergence of CI in the nineteenth century in conservative circles may be regarded as a response to the growing popularity of universalism, which maintains that ultimately every human being will be saved. CI is offered as an attractive middle path between the universalism of liberal theology on the one hand and the crude and offensive idea of eternal punishment on the other (especially in its medieval depictions in literature and art).
In 1846, F. D. Maurice was dismissed from his chair at King’s College, London, for suggesting in his now famous Theological Essays that eternal punishment has to do with the quality of God’s retribution for sins, and not with the duration. The popularity of the view, however, has not abated. In 1974, John Wenham wrote a careful study of this view in The Goodness of God, and in 1982 Edward William Fudge presented perhaps the most detailed study to date of this position in his The Fire that Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality. In his famous dialogue with liberal theologian David Edwards, John Stott hinted at his tentative openness to annihilationism.
How should one respond to CI?
The New Testament clearly teaches that hell has to do with the eternal punishment of the wicked even if its imagery concerning eternal punishment is not uniform. Thus hell is depicted as eternal, unquenchable fire (Matt 9:43), as darkness (Matt 25:30; 2 Pet 2:17), death (Rev 2:11) and exclusion from the presence of God (Matt 7:21-23). But the New Testament clearly presents eternal punishment as the converse of eternal life. In Matthew 24:46, Jesus says that the wicked will ‘go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’.
Augustine, the fifth century theologian, argues for the traditional view by pointing to the symmetry between ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal punishment’. In his commentary on Matthew 25:46, Augustine, as if replying to the proponents of CI of his day, wrote: ‘How absurd it is to interpret eternal punishment as meaning merely a fire of long duration while believing eternal life to signify life without end’. For the Bishop of Hippo, to propose that eternal life will be without end and eternal punishment will have an end ‘is utterly ridiculous’.
The Bible speaks not just of the love of God but also of his holy wrath which will be unleashed upon unrepentant sinners at the last judgement. Proponents of CI, to be sure, do not reject the idea of divine wrath. They see the annihilation of unrepentant sinners as a more fitting punishment than the eternal punishment of the traditional teaching. The traditional view teaches that sinners who commit temporal sins against God are punished for all eternity. According to the annihilationist, this is an affront to our understanding of justice because the punishment far outweighs the crime.
Traditionalists respond by pointing out that Scripture is replete with ‘disproportionate’ punishment meted by God: Lot’s wife was turned into stone for glancing back at Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:26), Uzzah was struck dead for touching the ark (2 Sam 6:6-7), and Annanias and Sapphira were slain for lying (Acts 5:1-10). Proponents of CI appear to have used the standards of justice that obtain in this fallen world, which are not binding to God, as their premise.
Theologians who hold the traditional view of hell also make the distinction between sin committed against another human being and that which is committed against God. The medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, therefore maintains that ‘a sin that is against God is infinite’ on the basis that ‘the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin’. Thus, Aquinas concludes: ‘Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against [God]’.
Proponents of CI are right in saying that the loving God could not possibly want his creatures to suffer eternally in hell. Hell is therefore not something God wishes for his creatures. It is the consequence of the creature’s rejection of God’s love. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has so eloquently put it, ‘Divine love is everywhere, and rejects no one. But we on our side are free to reject divine love: we cannot, however, do so without inflicting pain upon ourselves, and the more final our rejection the more bitter our suffering’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (February 2013).