Summer 2018 Class Highlight: Annihilationism - (Part 1 of 3)

Part 2                                   Part 3

What happens to the lost when they face the final judgement? Edward Fudge argues that they face execution, not everlasting conscious torment.

Surprise! I have another “Semester Highlight” because I took a two-week summer class in May. It was my final theology class covering mainly the topics concerned with eschatology. One of the required papers was a critical review of anything related to eschatology of my choosing. I decided to dig into Edward Fudge’s argument for Conditional Immortality in Two Views on Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue. Robert A. Peterson represented the traditional (Eternal Conscious Torment) view. I’ve been interested in the debate but haven’t had the time to fully understand the argument, until now.

I’ll attempt to summarize my longwinded paper, which is itself a summary of Fudge’s portion of the book.

What is Conditional Immortality?

Conditional Immortality (CI) is more commonly labeled annihilationism. This view believes, along with Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) adherents, that the lost will be resurrected into physical bodies in order to face judgement. Conditionalists disagree about the nature of the judgement; for them, the judgement is death.

The reason few adherents prefer the term “annihilation” is because in today’s context it communicates the winking out of existence—as if the atoms that make up the bodies and souls of the lost will be erased from existence. For the conditionalist, the point is that the lost die—to say more is to speak beyond Scripture. The preference for “Conditional Immortality” is also based on the belief that immortality belongs to God alone and that he gives it as a gift only to the saved. Therefore, immortality after the Fall is no longer inherent in any human.

Clearing up a few misconceptions

· Both views believe that hell is a real and physical reality.
· Both views believe that the hell of final judgement is eternal (both deny universalism).
· When used by conditionalists, the term “annihilation” means death—whether it is the slow death of a terminal disease, the brief destruction of an explosion, or the excruciating suffocation of crucifixion. Death is the cessation of life.
· The common argument for conditionalism begins with neglected Scripture passages, not emotional pleas.

Why Read up on Conditional Immortality?

The debate is growing. I think more people will be asking these questions and very few scholars, especially in the U.S., are interacting with and answering the questions people have because of the growing debate. People like Preston Sprinkle and Chris Date are making a biblical case for conditionalism and gaining influence. However, traditionalist scholars are responding to a perceived emotional problem with hell, rather than interacting with the biblical arguments being made. Both Sprinkle and Date are indebted to Fudge for his thorough biblical survey of relevant texts and this makes Fudge an excellent choice for stepping in and trying to understand from where the conditionalists are coming. I think we’ll be in a much better position to respond to their view after understanding it as they present it.

Whatever weaknesses there are in Fudge’s argument, his method is not one of them. He works from Genesis to Revelation and deals with a mountain of biblical evidence as he builds a biblical theology of the final state of the lost. One can argue that he misinterpreted all these passages, but one cannot claim that his argument does not deal seriously and extensively with the biblical material. Perhaps the greatest weakness of his argument is the inclusion of passages that may well apply to the present age (the first death) and not to the age to come (after the resurrection). In this summary, I have left Fudge’s interaction with these dubious passages out because they tempt us to pick apart the fringes of an argument and feel justified in rejecting the entire thing. So, here, I have cut out the fat so that we must interact with the core argument and not with that which is neither here nor there.

The Case for Conditionalism

“Dust Creatures in God’s Image”

Fudge begins his survey in the creation story. In colorful fashion he describes Adam as a “life-size mud doll” who became alive with the breath of God.[1] Death in the Old Testament, according to Fudge, is to be cut off from God and go into Sheol—a place that even the faithful, such as Jacob, David, and Job expected to enter (Gen 37:35; Ps 49:15; Job 14:13).[2] More importantly, Jesus went to Sheol, Hades in Greek, and brought back the keys (Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18). From here Fudge notes that the OT writers expressed hope not in the inherent immortality of their own souls, but in the God who rescues out of Sheol (1 Sam 2:6; Ps 16:9-11). After all, God alone possesses inherent immortality (1 Tim 6:19).[3]

Fate of the Wicked in the Old Testament
The Flood

For Fudge, the Flood event is especially important because it is picked up by the NT writers as an example of God’s wrath and judgment (Mt 24; Lk 17; 1 Pet 3; 2 Pet 2, 3). The nature of the Flood as judgment is clear, it is not torment, but death, “Everything on earth will die” (Gen 6:17 NET). Genesis 7:21-23 describe the result of the flood, using words such as “die” and “destroyed” in their natural sense when applied to living things: the cessation of life.

Sodom and Gomorrah

For the same reason, the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is key because God’s judgement was death—which Fudge calls a “prototype of divine judgment”[4] based on 2 Peter 2:6, “…if he turned to ashes the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when he condemned them to destruction, having appointed them to serve as an example to future generations of the ungodly.”

A Consuming and Unquenchable Fire

Isaiah 33:14, “The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” (NIV) or “…Who among us can coexist with destructive fire? Who among us can coexist with unquenchable fire?” (NET). Apparently, some believe that if a fire is “everlasting” (so the NIV), then it’s fuel must also be conscious and eternal—Fudge is right to question this and makes good sense by pointing out that the eternal fire is one that is “unquenchable” (so the NET), it is one that cannot be put out, it is unstoppable and will, by all logic, completely consume.[5] If a house is being burned down by an unquenchable fire, it means it is a fire that the fire fighters were unable to put out.

Undying Worms and Fire

Isaiah 66:24, “They will go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against me, for the maggots that eat them will not die, and the fire that consumes them will not die out. All people will find the sight abhorrent” (NET). The assumption of the traditionalist, again, is that an unquenchable fire and undying worm necessitate an undying and conscious victim. Fudge claims that this is not so, and the immediate context makes this even more clear. Earlier in verses 16-17 we learn that these corpses are those whom “the LORD will kill” and “will all be destroyed together” (NET). There is no indication that “corpses” in 66:24 means anything other than exactly what it is—a dead body. Conscious experience is not in the context, but rather these corpses are fit for “both insatiable agents of disintegration and decomposition.”[6]

Daniel 12:2

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (NIV). Fudge notes that, “The Hebrew word translated ‘contempt’ here is the same word translated ‘loathsome’ in Isaiah 66:24 where it describes unburied corpses. The shame and contempt here are ‘everlasting’ because the loathsome disintegration of the wicked will never be reversed.”[7] The NET makes this connection more explicit by translating the same word “abhorrence” both times. In Isaiah 66:24 the lifeless bodies are an abhorrence, in Daniel 12:2, those not destined for eternal life are instead raised for abhorrence—which, if Fudge is correct, has a shameful death in mind. If Israel was a shame and honor culture, then the fear of being remembered forever in shame would be very motivating. The logic is that some rise for life, others rise for not-life—namely, they will be abhorred. Dead people can be abhorred or held in contempt, therefore, eternal consciousness is not necessitated by the mere idea of being abhorred forever.

Conclusion to Part 1

In the next part, I’ll summarize how Fudge interprets what Jesus had to say about the final state of the lost. This first part, however, is foundational because Fudge continually brings in background information from the OT to shed light on many of the New Testament passages. Even if Fudge errs, many of his observations are good and helpful. For example, there can be no denying that Jesus has Isaiah 66 in mind when he speaks of Gehenna in Mark 9:48, “…where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” This is, in fact, how we know that Isaiah 66 is speaking of the final state, because Jesus interprets it as such.

What Fudge succeeds at, I think, is demonstrating that the idea of eternal conscious torment is difficult to locate in the OT—something with which traditionalists generally agree.

Part 2 - Jesus' Teaching on Hell Part 3 - The Rest of the NT on Hell

[1] Edward Fudge, “The Case for Conditionalism,” in Two Views on Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, Spectrum Multiview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 20–1.
[2] Ibid., 22–3.
[3] Ibid., 23.
[4] Ibid., 27.
[5] Ibid., 31.
[6] Ibid., 31–2.
[7] Ibid., 33.