Surprised by Hell: Evaluating the Evidence (extended)

It helps, I think, to take a step back and try to absorb the evidence in the context of the scriptures and Christianity. We have two views:

* The traditional view, at least as old as Tertullian (writing from 197 – 220 or so), that those without Christ die and their disembodied souls suffer everlasting torment in hell.

* The annihilationist or conditionalist view that only God is immortal, and he gives immortality only to those in Jesus. Those who die outside of Jesus face judgment and are then destroyed in an agonizing process that ends, leaving nothing left. They are not tormented forever.

As we’ve seen, there are certainly verses that both sides can claim as their own. But on the whole, the overwhelming support is for the annihilationist view. Moreover, the verses that argue for the traditional view, on close inspection, aren’t nearly as persuasive or as certain as they at first appear.

Of course, the traditional view has found its way into our translations, which often translate aionios as “everlasting.” With so many “everlasting”s in the English text, it’s no surprise that the traditional view seems obvious. But on closer inspection, we find the annihilationist view fits the evidence better.

Moreover, the annihilationist view better matches the new earth/new heavens view described by Wright in Surprised by Hope. If the saved live on a renewed, refreshed earth, rebuilt after destruction of all else by fire, why do we need hell? Those outside of Jesus were burned up in the fire that burned up the old earth!

(2 Pet 3:7) By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

(2 Pet 3:10) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Where is hell in this understanding? It just doesn’t fit.

* Consider the weight of the evidence. There is a handful of verses that speak in terms of eternal punishment, but most speak of the everlasting agony of the devil and his angels. Those that speak of damned humans are far from unambiguous.

But there are dozens and dozens of verses that speak in terms of the damned receiving destruction or death. Some are quite clear —

(2 Pet 3:7, 10) By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. … 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Ungodly men will be destroyed by the same fire that destroys the old heavens and earth. Both are destroyed. Why would we think the humans will survive the destruction and the heavens and earth will not?

* The conditionalist position is quite consistent both with the Old Testament and Greek use of the key words. The traditional view is not.

* The conditionalist position is consistent with substitutionary atonement. The traditional view is not.

* The conditionalist position is consistent with Jesus’ teachings on degrees of punishment. The traditional view is less so.

* The conditionalist position is the more just, as we’ll consider in a post tomorrow. The traditional view is less so.

* On the other hand, the traditional view has the support of most of the Patristic evidence, the medieval Catholic Church, Dante, and is so thoroughly established that most modern scholars simply assume it to be true. Very few seriously consider the conditionalist arguments or seem to even be aware of them.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink.
My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.

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