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

This is my third and final post in a series presenting a summary of Edward Fudge’s biblical argument for Conditional Immortality, more commonly known as Annihilationism.

In part one I summarized Fudge’s treatment of the Old Testament.

In part two I summarized Fudge’s treatment of the Gospels and Jesus’ Teaching.

Now I move onto Fudge’s analysis of the rest of the New Testament.

The Writings of Paul

God Will Avenge Evil

Fudge walks through Paul’s writings by way of noting theological features, beginning with Paul’s assertion that “God will avenge evil.”[1] This is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:6, “the Lord is the avenger” (NET). Fudge is keen to point out that this verse says there is avengement, but not how it is accomplished. Paul also develops the consequence that Jesus speaks of when he says that the wicked will be excluded from the kingdom (Gal 5:16–21).[2]

God Pours out His Wrath on Sinners

Fudge believes that Romans 2:6–11 and 2 Thessalonians 1:6–10 is “Paul’s most detailed discussion of final punishment.”[3] In the Romans passage Fudge finds it important that eternal life is linked with “glory and honor and immortality” while “wrath and anger” is for those who are selfish, disobey truth, and are unrighteous—in other words, immortality is for the saved, it is not a feature of God’s wrath and anger on the unsaved (NET).[4] Important in Paul’s theology is that God’s wrath is on sinners (Rom 1:18) and Jesus rescues from wrath (1 Thess 1:9–10). What happens when God pours out his wrath? If God poured out his wrath on Jesus as a substitute, then it is something that culminates in death—Fudge believes that this actual example speaks more clearly than any image or allusion in apocalyptic literature.[5]

The Wicked Will be Destroyed

In 2 Thessalonians 1:6–10 Paul says that “punishment” “will be meted out “with flaming fire” which results in “the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord” (NET). Again, the issue of interpretation is whether “eternal destruction” means eternal destructing (a process), or whether it refers to an everlasting state of having been destroyed (eternal results)—the grammar alone is not definitive, though it may be suggestive. Fudge has continually argued that destruction of the wicked in the OT always culminates in death and so the more figurative meaning of destructing needs to be stated in a way that distinguishes it from what would be expected based on previous usage. The word translated “destruction” here is ὄλεθρος (olethros), which can mean “a state of destruction” and potentially “act of destruction.”[6] BDAG (the most authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT) suggests “eternal death” as the translation for the phrase.[7] Every other time this word is used in the NT it refers to “execution, extermination and death” (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Cor 10:10; Heb 11:28).[8] Naturally, then, Fudge affirms the standard definition of “eternal,” by writing that it means everlasting with respect to quantity, but he adds that it should be taken as qualitative also, “because it belongs to the age to come and not to the present order of created space and time.”[9] And what does “away from the presence of the Lord” mean? Both traditionalists and conditionalists believe that hell is where God’s wrath burns against the unrepentant—but this raises the question debated among traditionalists: is hell eternal separation, or eternal torment via God’s wrath? This question poses no problem for the conditionalist because to be separated from the author of life is to be destroyed, to die.

It does not take long to see that “destruction” is a major piece of Paul’s theological vocabulary. “This is a sign of their destruction, but of your salvation” (Phil 1:28). Later in Philippians 3:19 Paul says of Christ’s enemies, “Their end is destruction” (Phil 3:18). In Galatians 6:8 Paul says, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction” (NIV). In this instance, “destruction” is φθορά (phthora) which can mean the “dissolution, deterioration, corruption” as in the example of Mithridates, “…who was allowed to decompose…maggots and worms swarmed as a result of the destruction and putrefaction.”[10] This word is also used for abortion, and “total destruction of an entity.”[11] 1 Corinthians 3:17 is blunt, “If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (NET). Fudge makes an important point to consider, because the saved and lost have different destinies, they have different resurrection bodies—only those whose “citizenship is in heaven” will have bodies transformed “into the likeness of [Jesus’] glorious body” (Phil 3:18–21). Glorified bodies are fit for eternity—this is part of what Jesus secured with his resurrection. It would seem, in this system, that the lost would be resurrected with merely mortal bodies fit for judgment leading to punishment culminating in destruction, death, perishing. In Philippians the destiny of destruction is directly contrasted with the destiny of having glorified bodies.[12]

The Wages of Sin is Death

People who fit the prideful and immoral description found in Romans 1:21–31 “deserve to die” (1:32).[13] This also corresponds to “God’s first word on the subject to Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen 2:17).”[14] “Scripture always portrays human life as God’s gift and death as the inevitable punishment for sin. Paul speaks for all Scripture authors when he warns that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23).”[15] Fudge believes that everyone will die (Gen 2:7; Eccles 12:7), but that the first death is “temporal” and “not the end of the story—for either the saved or the lost.”[16] All will be resurrected, but the saved will be resurrected to immortal bodies while the wicked will not be granted immortality and will finally “perish in the second death—which is the everlasting and total destruction of both body and soul in hell.”[17] Paul also uses death as a natural consequence of sin in Romans 6:21, “So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death” (NET). This “death” is contrasted with the “eternal life” of 6:23.

Sinners Will Finally Perish

In 1 Corinthians 15:18, Paul says that “those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished,” if “Christ has not been raised” (15:17). Sinners perish because they are resurrected with a perishable body. Other places where the word behind “perish” is used include 2 Peter 3:6 to describe the fate of the victims of the Flood, “…the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water” (NET). Paul also uses it to describe those who died by snake bite in the OT, “And let us not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by snakes” (1 Cor 10:9 NET).

Fudge completes this section on Paul’s theology of the final state of the unsaved by quoting R. F. Weymouth,
My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying “destroy,” or “destruction,” are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this.[18]
Non-Pauline Writings in the New Testament

The Book of Hebrews

In Hebrews 2:3–4 and 12:25, the author makes it clear by rhetorical question that there can be no escape for those who reject Christ. Final judgement is a fate that cannot be escaped or reversed.[19] Hebrews 10:26–27 says that those who “deliberately keep on sinning” are in danger of “judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies” (NET). Does this fire consume, or does it torment without consuming? Fudge says that “This consuming fire is nothing other than God’s holiness, viewed from the standpoint of one who despises it.”[20] He notes that the phrase is repeated in Hebrews 12:29, “For our God is indeed a devouring fire,” which is itself a quote from Deuteronomy 4:24 and 9:3. In Hebrews 10:28–29, those “who rejected the law of Moses” were “put to death…How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God…?” (NET). What is the parallel? Are the OT rebels’ deaths a great consequence, but eternal torment a greater punishment, or is it a better parallel to see temporal death as the highest punishment in this age and eternal (second) death as the highest punishment in the age to come? The author of Hebrews himself seems to say the latter is true, “But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls” (NET). Jesus had to die as a substitute—did his resurrection secure the immortality of the lost also? If not, then it is worth considering the possibility that the lost are resurrected for the purpose of judgement, but the state of their bodies is not different than that of any other person resurrected into a non-glorified body (such as Lazarus).

The Book of James

James 4:12 offers yet another contrast of salvation and destruction, “But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?” (NET). Fudge comments, “Since God gave the law, only he has the right to call people to account regarding it. Besides, only God can execute any judgment sentence—for good or for ill. The final alternatives are salvation or destruction.”[21] James, like Paul, ties sin directly to death, “…when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death” (1:15 NET). It follows, then, that James would conclude his letter by telling the readers that they “should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (NET).

The Writings of Peter

2 Peter 2:6 has already been mentioned, but it deserves mention here. It describes the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah and claims it to “serve as an example to future generations of the ungodly,” or, “an example of the things coming to the ungodly.”[22] The context of this verse is explicitly the final state since the example here is parallel to “the angels who sinned…threw them into hell…to be kept until the judgment” (2:4). There is little to be learned from “hell” in this verse because whatever it refers to precedes judgment—this discussion is limited to the nature of that judgement. 2 Peter 2:12 may also be relevant, but it is a technical discussion.[23]

The Book of Jude

Jude 7 could not be clearer, “Sodom and Gomorrah…are now displayed as an example of suffering the punishment of eternal fire.” Fudge notes, “The Bible nowhere even hints that that Sodom and Gomorrah’s inhabitants are presently enduring conscious torment.”[24] The fire is eternal because it is divine and because it “destroys sinners totally and forever.”[25] And if there is any doubt as to whether any bodies were left to suffer, 2 Peter 2:6 says, “He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes” (NASB).

The Book of Revelation

Anyone familiar with the debate has Revelation in mind as a key point of conflict between Conditionalists and Traditionalists. There are several reasons for this: 1) In one passage, the literal words communicate the idea of eternal conscious torment explicitly (another passage implicitly) and 2) Revelation is notorious for its apocalyptic images, concerning which many Bible teachers disagree. Revelation has an interesting place, then, because many on each side of the debate would prefer not to have this book contain the decisive words.

Revelation 14:10–11

Fudge notes several instances of the destruction of the wicked but acknowledges that these may be temporal deaths, and some have to do with institutions—a point that is a challenge for both the traditionalist and the conditionalist. It may be most useful to cover the main challenges to Fudge’s view in Revelation. The first one is Revelation 14:10–11,

"…that person will also drink of the wine of God’s anger that has been mixed undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured with fire and sulfur in front of the holy angels and in front of the Lamb. And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night."

Fudge notes four features of this passage which he says are all very familiar in the Bible and adds that this “provides us with an outstanding opportunity to let the Bible interpret itself.”[26] 1) Drinking the wine of God’s fury; 2) being tortured with fire and sulfur in the presence of the Lamb and angels; 3) smoke that rises forever; and 4) having no rest day or night.

1) Cup of Wrath

Fudge cites various OT passages where the same image is used as a “symbol of divine judgment…in varying strengths, signifying degrees of punishment (Ps 75; Jer 25:15–38).”[27] Sometimes people are destroyed, some people recover. When Jesus drank from this cup, it culminated in his death (Mt 26:39). In Revelation the cup image includes “‘torture and grief,’ but it ends in ‘death, mourning and famine,’ and in consumption by fire (Rev 16:19; 18:7–9; 19:15).”[28] Therefore, this part of the image is consistent with death as the nature of the second death.

2) Fire and Sulfur

This is, according to Fudge, clearly in reference to the many times already mentioned that the OT uses fire—as that which consumes as in the case of Sodom.

3) Smoke Rising Forever

Fudge believes that the meaning of rising smoke is made clearer by its use in Isaiah 34:10–11, “Night and day it will burn; its smoke will ascend continually…The LORD will stretch out over her the measuring line of ruin and the plumb line of destruction.” This passage is a judgment of Edom. Fudge claims that meaning of the smoke is that the destruction will never be reversed—the proof of its destruction (smoke) continues.

4) Denial of Rest

About the denial of rest day and night Fudge notes that the genitive is used which would indicate kind of time, “The people in John’s vision have no guarantee of rest during the day, and there is no hope that relief will come at night.”[29] It is unpleasant, but that it is eternal torment is not more probable than a suffering that culminates in execution.

Revelation 20:10–14 and the Lake of Fire

The image of a burning lake of fire “is found nowhere else in the Bible, although the Old Testament provides a similar vision of a fiery river which flows out from God’s flaming throne (Dan 7:9–10).”[30] In the Daniel passage, “the beast was killed and its body destroyed and thrown into the flaming fire” (7:11). It seems that when the NT is at all ambiguous, the OT background for that image is not (as with Sodom and the Flood).

The most challenging passage to conditionalism has to do with the lake of fire, Revelation 20:10, 14,

And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are too, and they will be tormented there day and night forever and ever…Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death—the lake of fire.

An honest and straightforward reading of this verse reveals that John saw an image of the Beast (and others) being continually tormented forever. An honest and straightforward reading of any one of a dozen previously mentioned passages conflicts with this. Therefore, how can the tension be best explained? First, Fudge notes that the beast and the prophet are probably metaphorical representations of governments and metaphors cannot be eternally tormented.[31] The devil joins not two individuals, according to Fudge, but images of institutions. It becomes difficult to take this verse in a straightforward sense without acknowledging it as an image of a literal truth, as opposed to a direct revelation devoid of any imagery. Additionally, Fudge argues that even if the beast and the prophet are individuals, theirs and Satan’s torture is in no way necessarily the same as that of unsaved humans—it is possible that the fate is the same, it is also possible that when the mortal unsaved are cast into the lake, they are burned up unlike the devil—grammar necessitates neither.[32]

And what does it mean that Death and Hades were also cast into the lake of fire? Are Death and Hades eternally tormented, or are they destroyed? Isaiah 25:8 says God “will swallow up death permanently.” 1 Corinthians 15:26 says, “The last enemy to be eliminated is death.” Especially important is the phrase in Revelation 20:14, “This is the second death.” This phrase occurs a second time in Revelation 21:7–8, “The one who conquers will inherit these things…But to the cowards, unbelievers…their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.” Fudge says that the lake of fire is clearly the second death.[33] The image of eternal torment is never applied to human beings (it is applied to Satan and his demons), but the identity of the lake of fire as a second death is applied to humans.

A Critical Decision

The key interpretive decision here is whether the unending torment of Revelation 20:10 provides the content and meaning of the phrase “second death” in Revelation 20:14, so that “second death” means eternal torment. Or, whether the unending torment is an image (hyperbolic and apocalyptic) of what is literally a second and final death. Something to consider is that it is normal for visions and dreams to receive a literal interpretation after the image is described (as with Joseph and his interpretations of the prisoners’ dreams and the visions of the Pharaoh). If “second death” is the image, then we are in a position of interpreting as if the literal interpretation precedes the image. It is interesting to me that most scholars rebuke others for taking John’s vision literally—except for here, it seems.

The next crucial interpretive decision has to do not with the immediate context, but with the canon-wide context. Should we interpret all passages that contrast eternal life with death and destruction in light of this passage? Or interpret this passage in the light of the other passages that emphasize the cessation of life for the lost?


The last few questions are what made me wonder if my own conclusion is due more to the cultural lenses with which I view the biblical text. I can make sense of whatever feels right in my gut—but I want to know what Jesus really meant, what the Bible really teaches. Honest questions deserve good answers. I think it is worth looking into, but with humbleness and caution—the person is on dangerous ground who rejects what has been the majority view of the church for 1500 years.

But now I have introduced a whole new discussion, the history of the doctrine in the Patristics. Questions to answer here, include: Was Annihilationism condemned in any church councils? Did some of the Church Fathers import the Greek notion of an “immortal soul” into the text?

Then there are the theological arguments and implications. Will God destroy all evil, or immortalize it so that as long as God exists, so does evil? Jesus covered our sins with a substitutionary death, he did not pay for them merely with his suffering—how significant is that? These are still being developed because the debate stuck at whether Conditionalism is “biblical.”

I think Fudge has shown that there is a biblical case to be made. There needs to be more dialogue between the Conditionalists and Traditionalists because I see less engagement and more dismissal from Traditionalists. We should not be afraid of what an honest study will find if it finds truth. It seems premature to choose a side because, in all honesty, the traditional view is at the greatest disadvantage. I say this because Conditionalists come to debates ready and the Traditionalists seem to assume a handful of proof texts are all that is needed to refute conditional immortality. The view of eternal conscious torment is playing catch up—we’ll be in a better position to choose between the two once the traditionalists take up a full biblical study.

That is my goal with this summary of Fudge’s work: to keep the conversation going so that our theologians and biblical scholars can articulate rather than assume their view of the final state of the lost. Or, maybe, rather than the need for a clear winner, perhaps both should be considered as legitimate and faithfully orthodox positions to hold.

May we discuss.

[1] Edward Fudge, “The Case for Conditionalism,” in Two Views on Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, Spectrum Multiview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 53.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 54.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 55.
[6] BDAG, 702.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Fudge, “Two Views on Hell,” 56.
[9] Ibid., 59.
[10] BDAG, 1054.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Fudge, “Two Views on Hell,” 57.
[13] Ibid., 61.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., 62.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 63.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 66.
[21] Ibid., 67.
[22] 2 Peter 2:6, NET, note 26.
[23] “But these men, like irrational animals…born to be caught and destroyed—do not understand whom they are insulting, and consequently in their destruction they will be destroyed” (2 Pet 2:12). The Greek is τῇ φθορᾷ αὐτῶν καὶ φθαρήσονται in which the verb is preceded by the cognate noun in the dative case, making it a candidate for being interpreted as a “Cognate Dative” which would intensify the verb, “…they will be totally destroyed.” See Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 168.
[24] Fudge, “Two Views on Hell,” 71.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 75.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 76; see Wallace, ExSyn, 122–123.
[30] Fudge, “Two Views on Hell,” 77.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid., 78.
[33] Ibid., 79.