I’ve spent more time on the conditional immortality argument than I meant to, but I’m not surprised — and I will be getting to the age of accountability issue. But I’ve enjoyed the exchange because since I first covered this position, I’ve learned a lot. My understanding of the topic is now much deeper than when I began — and much of that is due to comments from the readers.
Edward Fudge maintains a web page with extensive material in support of the conditional immortality viewpoint. He also includes a list of famous biblical scholars who agree with that viewpoint. I would add Patrick Mead and Al Maxey to the list.
Now, before someone fires off a comment about following the Bible rather than men (as though anyone here thinks otherwise), I should say that I reached my conclusion from Bible study — seeking to disprove Fudge. I made most of the same arguments I’m responding to here, and I learned that Fudge’s position fits the scriptures far better than the traditional view.
Now, nothing I teach rejects the reality of an actual hell. I don’t accept the view of N. T. Wright that hell is purely separation from God. It is separation from God, but it’s also an agonizing death. It’s the natural result of God’s purification of the heavens and the earth, which will be by fire. It will just be finite.
(Mat 25:44-46 ESV) 44 “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“Eternal” does not mean everlasting. As shown in an earlier post, it refers to punishment in the next age. I’ll add some additional evidence for that claim here –
(Tit 1:1-2 ESV) Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began
“Before the ages began” translates “before time of eternities.” In our minds, “eternity” begins when Jesus returns, and there’s just one eternity. You won’t read of “eternities” in contemporary Christian literature.
But if we take “eternal” to be a reference to an age (aion in the Greek or aeon or eon in English), the translation becomes “before the time of the ages.” (The adjective is plural.) The Jews saw world history as a series of ages, with the final age being what we call eternity. Thus, “before the time of the ages” means before the Creation.
Thus, “eternal life” in the same verse must be taken as “life in the age,” with the implication being that the “age” is the next age. (The same expression, “before the ages began” is also in 2 Tim 1:9.)
(Rom 16:25-27 ESV) 25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
“For long ages” is literally “time of eternities.” Translate “eternities” as “of the ages” (the adjective is plural) and the ESV “long ages” is about right.
But the same word is translated “forevermore” in v. 27, although the Greek is “into the eternities,” that is, “into the ages.” Thus, the translation really ought to be “be glory throughout the ages …” to suit the parallel in v. 25.
“Eternal God” is “God of the ages” as well.
The English hides the parallels in the Greek emphasizing the continuity of the gospel throughout the ages — ages past, present, and future. God is the same God in all the ages, working one plan, that was once a mystery but is now revealed in Jesus — and so God should be glorified throughout the ages — even into the next age. But the English takes the same word — “eternal” — and translates “long ages,” “eternal,” and “forevermore,” concealing Paul’s thought.
(Mar 9:43-48 ESV) 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 44 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 46 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
“Hell” is gehenna, found only in the synoptic gospels and James because gehenna was the garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem. The metaphor wouldn’t have made sense to the Greek world. Thus, other New Testament writers use “death,” “destruction,” “the lake of fire,” and such when they speak of the fate of the damned.
“Unquenchable” in v. 43 and “‘where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” are both references to Isaiah 66, and we must take Jesus to have known the words of Isaiah very well. He was explicitly referring to Isaiah’s description of hell, expecting his hearers — First Century Jews — to be familiar with the last chapter of Isaiah.
(Isa 66:22-1 ESV) 22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.
24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
We covered this very passage in a recent post. Suffice to say that Jesus meant what Isaiah meant, and Isaiah did not mean that those cast outside the city into darkness would suffer forever.
(Rev 14:9-11 ESV) 9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Yes, the damned will be tormented. I’ve said that several times already. I’ve not denied the Lake of Fire, gehenna, or God’s vengeance against the ungodly. Rather, my point is that the torment doesn’t last forever — not for mortal man.
“Forever” translates ?????? ?????? or aionas aionon, that is, “eternities of eternities,” or more correctly, “ages of ages.” What does that mean? Revelation is built on the prophecies of the Old Testament. It doesn’t just borrow the style and literary genre; it assumes the readers are familiar with the scriptures, that is, Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, etc.
The primary parallel is –
(Isa 34:10 ESV) Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever.
The Revelator replaces “generation to generation” with “ages of ages” because, well, there will be no generations in hell!
The parallels of Rev 14:9-11 to this passage are obvious, and yet this passage speaks of the destruction of the nation of Edom. Edom was in fact destroyed, and yet the smoke of its destruction burned out a very, very long time ago. Rather, the prophet’s language says that God’s wrath is unquenchable — cannot be put out by others — and the consequences of his destruction is forever. But the citizens were defeated and died. And the fires went out. The memory, however, lasts forever.
Also, consider –
(Isa 1:27-31 ESV) Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. 28 But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed. 29 For they shall be ashamed of the oaks that you desired; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen. 30 For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. 31 And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them.
In a very typical prophetic expression, the damned will “burn … with none to quench them.” The idea isn’t that they burn forever, but that the fire that burns them cannot be put out or resisted.