Summer 2018 Class Highlight: Annihilationism - (Part 2 of 3) Jesus' Teaching on Hell

Part 3 - The Rest of the NT on Hell

In my previous post, I defined Conditional Immortality and summarized Edward Fudge’s treatment of what the Old Testament taught on the subject. Now I move on to my summary of Fudge’s analysis of Jesus’ teaching. This is where things really get interesting because some of the main passages for both sides of the debate occur in the Gospels.

Jesus’ Teaching Concerning the Final State of the Lost

Fudge deals first with passages featuring Jesus and fire, and secondly Jesus’ teachings on hell not involving fire.

Jesus and the Imagery of Fire

John the Baptist says of Jesus in Matthew 3:12, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (NET). According to Fudge, the natural result of being burned with unquenchable or “inextinguishable” fire is that the object is burned up (see also Mt 7:19; 13:40; Jn 15:6).[1] Unquenchable fire, then, is not a fire that burns an object eternally, but one that cannot be prevented from completely consuming the object (Ezek 20:47-8; Amos 5:6; Mt 3:12).[2] I tend to think that the grammar and language is not definitive by itself, but it can become compelling when placed within a context.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

About the phrases “‘weeping’ and ‘gnashing of teeth,’” Fudge asks, “Should we imagine the damned enduring horrible pain forever…Or is there a better, biblical explanation?[3] About “weeping,” Fudge says that it is “a common biblical symbol for fear, misery or extreme grief—often because of God’s judgment on sinners…(Is 22:12; Lam 1–5),” or because of “the death or destruction of others (Is 16:9; Jer 9:1; Rev 18:9)” or “God’s coming judgment (Jas 5:1).”[4] About “gnashing of teeth,” Fudge says is used in both the OT and NT, always to describe the “fury of people who are so enraged at others that like wild beasts they could literally devour their victims (Job 15:9; Ps 37:12; Lam 2:16).”[5] This phrase is used of Stephen’s murderers (Acts 7:54). Theses phrases are not, according to Fudge, telltale signs of torment as often assumed. But even if this phrase indicated torment, it does not indicate length of time—remember that many conditionalists allow for degrees of punishment due either to predeath suffering, or more and less painful ways to be executed.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19–31 contains a story that Jesus tells concerning two people who die and enter the afterlife. Fudge calls this passage, when used to prove ECT (Eternal Conscious Torment), “A proof text that doesn’t prove.”[6] Fudge has two main critiques for taking this story as supporting eternal conscious torment. 1) It is not literal and may be a parable. The story “relates to its context from first to last,” and its purpose is not to describe the nature of the final state.[7] Instead, Fudge says, it is about Jesus warning “against self-justification, reminding them that God knows their hearts and that he often detests that people value highly.”[8] A serious issue with taking this story literally is that there is communication between the saved and the lost after death and at close range.[9] 2) Even if it is literal, then it can only be a description of the intermediate state because the final judgment has not yet occurred.[10]

This last point is important because just as popular evangelicalism has forgotten that the church has historically looked forward to the resurrection of our bodies (and not a disembodied soul in ethereal heaven), so it often forgets that the final judgement has not yet happened and, therefore, no one is in hell, but rather the intermediate state (whether conscious or unconscious).

Finally, there is no indication as to the length of time that the rich man will suffer—eternity is read into the text. Therefore, whether this story is literal or parable, it is not at conflict with conditional immortality unless it is claimed that the final state is in view and eternality is read into the text.[11] This story is likely not suitable for evidences as to the nature of the final state of the lost no matter the side of the debate on which one falls.


Important for Fudge are the various teachings of Jesus involving Gehenna. Both Fudge and Peterson (who argues for the traditional view in the same book) agree that the origin of this word is the valley of Hinnom which was the site of grotesque things potentially involving human sacrifice and use as a garbage dump.[12] Fudge notes that it was named in Joshua (15:8; 18:16) which became “the abominable site of child sacrifices to the pagan god Moloch…(see 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), earning it the additional name Tophet, which means a place to be spit on or abhorred (Is 30:33).”[13] As a concept it was developed in the intertestamental period to become a term for “the fiery pit in which the godless will meet their final doom”, being called “‘the station of vengeance’ and ‘future torment’ (2 Baruch 59:10–11), the ‘pit of destruction’ (Pirke Aboth 5:19) and the ‘pit of torment’ (4 Esdras 7:36).”[14] Fudge’s point with this survey of the development of Gehenna is to show that its name alone is not enough to demonstrate the exact nature of the final state when used by the biblical authors (although it was primarily a place of death and destruction which may or may not be significant).

In order to get at the nature of Gehenna, Fudge notes what meanings Jesus seems to impart to it. In Matthew 5:29–30 Jesus says it is so bad that, “The loss of one limb in the present is more desirable than the loss of the total self in the hereafter.”[15] He notes that the verbs used are of separation, the hand is cut off and “thrown away” which is better than the whole body being “thrown away” into hell. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (NET). Fudge’s interpretation of this verse is that “Man’s killing power stops with the body and ends with the present age. And the only death any human can inflict is temporary…But God’s ability to destroy has no limits.”[16] There is a parallel passage in Luke 12:4–5, “[D]o not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But…Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell…fear him!” Fudge believes this chronology matches the previously mentioned Isaiah 66 passage in which “God first slays his enemies, then throws their dead bodies into the consuming fire (Is 66:16, 24).”[17]

Jesus ties Gehenna to Isaiah 66:24 when he describes it as “a place ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ (Mk 9:48).”[18] Does the undying worm necessitate an undying meal? The traditional view is that if a worm never dies, then neither can its food. Fudge argues that this is clearly not the case because Isaiah 66:24 shows that these maggots are consuming the flesh of people who are already dead. The point, Fudge argues, is that nothing can stop the maggots or fire from doing what they do—consuming.[19] “And when that destruction is completed, it will last for all eternity.”[20]

Matthew 25:46 and “Eternal Punishment”

Does eternal punishment actually mean eternal punishing? According to Fudge, the destinies of the sheep and goats in the parable are parallel, “life or fiery punishment.”[21] “Punishment” here means that the “destiny of the lost issues from a judicial sentence.”[22] Punishment does not describe the nature of punishment by itself—the nature is already clearly described as fiery destruction. He notes that on earth the most severe punishment is capital punishment, which is not measured by the amount of time it takes to die, but “in terms of its lasting consequences…We consider it the greatest punishment of all because it forever deprives its victims of the remainder of their anticipated lives.”[23] Therefore, someone deprived of eternal life suffers an infinite loss. Even if Fudge is wrong, I think he is helpful because he reminds us to look closer—punishment and torment are not equivalent. The nature of the punishment could be torment, or it could be death—it may not be as straightforward as we have assumed.

To summarize Fudge’s main point about the use of fire would be to point to what fire does under normal circumstances: it consumes an object, reducing it to ash. The question Fudge poses, then, is whether the Bible presents fire in a fundamentally different way, such as a fire that burns without consuming—an oxymoron under normal circumstances. His answer is no. In fact, the parables and use of fire explicitly call it a “consuming” fire which does things such as “burning up” chaff. Therefore, he would conclude, the notion that unquenchable fire as one that does not consume, is a foreign idea that cannot be justified from the text. His questions are valid, and they need not unsettle us so long as we are driven to discover which is true.

Jesus’ Teachings that do not Mention Fire or Gehenna

The Wide and Narrow Gates

In Matthew 7:13 Jesus warns that the wide gate “leads to destruction” (NET). This is set against the narrow gate which leads to life. For Fudge, the contrast is clear: The narrow gate leads to life and the wide gate to “destruction” which is synonymous with death just as it is in the OT.[24] I realize now that not everyone immediately recognizes that “destruction,” “perish,” and “die” are all equivalent when it comes to life and not-life. In normal usage, the one who suffers each of these fates suffers death. I do not usually see traditionalists argue against this point, rather they would define death and destruction in a special and technical way that allows for conscious existence.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth Revisited

Jesus uses “weeping and gnashing (grinding) of teeth” in other places not in the context of hellfire.[25] In Matthew 8:11–12, Jesus speaks to “presumptuous Israelites” concerning their misplaced confidence in their place of honor in the kingdom and warns that they “will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (NET).[26] Fudge notes that the audience is explicitly in the parallel statement in Luke 13:28.[27] With this example, Fudge says it is important to notice that “Scripture’s imagery concerning final punishment is more diverse than we have sometimes acknowledged.”[28] He goes on to note other passages (Mt 22:13–14; 24:45–51), and specifically in Luke 12:47–48 Fudge finds there to be degrees of punishment “based on light spurned and opportunity neglected.”[29] Then Fudge points out that in none of these stories of people being cast into the darkness is anyone tormented alive forever—this must be brought into the text elsewhere.

Losing and Finding Life

Fudge finishes up his survey on Jesus’ teaching on the fate of the unsaved by noting the various parallels between life and loss of life.[30] In Matthew 10:39 and 16:25–26 Jesus compares losing one’s life and keeping or finding it. In Matthew 26:24 and Mark 14:21 Jesus says it is better not to have been born than it would be to betray him—apparently some suggest that the only thing worse than being born is eternal conscious torment. But Fudge counters by citing 1 Enoch 38:2, 5–6 which uses the same language and applies it to people who perish.[31] “Jesus says that Judas’s fate is worse than nonbirth, not that nonbirth is a fate worse than death.”[32] Finally, Fudge notes that in John 3:16 eternal life is contrasted with those who will perish, and he sees no reason not to take these words at face value.[33]

The last thing that Fudge says about Jesus’ teaching is that present choices have eternal consequences. Here he agrees with the traditional view in that both he and Peterson deny a second chance for repentance in the afterlife and that after the first death comes judgement based on one’s life.[34]

Conclusion to Part 2

What Fudge has succeeded at is demonstrating that there are no “zinger” passages in the Gospels that spell out the concept of Eternal Conscious Torment. However, there is also not a single passage that spells out the Trinity. The traditional view is based on the argument that eternality, consciousness, torment, and process can all be found in the text and, when combined, make for the traditional doctrine. Before Fudge, I assumed that that there was a “zinger” verse, but now I know that if the traditional view is correct, it is a systematic construction. I accept the doctrine of the Trinity on just such an argument and I have put in the work of assembling the pieces. I am now putting in the work on hell and finding it is not quite as straightforward as advertised—which is too bad, because we have no good reason to oversell any doctrine. We should emphasize what which Scripture emphasizes. The question going forward is, can eternality, consciousness, torment, and process each be proven to be a component of the final state? Or to say it another way, is the process of torment eternal, or is the result (death) of the judgement eternal? To answer the question, we must survey the entire Bible. Having summarized Fudge’s analysis of the OT and the Gospels, I’ll move onto how Fudge advances his argument in the rest of the New Testament in Part 3.

[1]  Edward Fudge, “The Case for Conditionalism,” in Two Views on Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, Spectrum Multiview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 38.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 39.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 40.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 41.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 40–1.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 42; Robert A. Peterson, “The Case for Traditionalism,” in Two Views on Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, Spectrum Multiview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 131.
[13] Fudge, “Two Views on Hell,” 42.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 43.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 44.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 40.
[21] Ibid., 45.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 47.
[25] Ibid., 48.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid., 49.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 50.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid., 50–1.
[33] Ibid., 51.
[34] Ibid., 51–2.