“Hell and Mr. Fudge”

Regular readers know that I consider Edward Fudge something of a spiritual hero. He’s an elder of the Churches of Christ, he’s an author, he posts daily spiritual thoughts on the Internet, and … he’s a lawyer. What’s not to like?

Like me, Fudge grew up in north Alabama. He grew up in Athens and I grew up in Russellville. And we have both been out recently with back surgery for recurring pain issues.

Fudge grew up in the non-institutional Churches. My family was part of a church that split over the issue (I was probably 3 or 4 at the time), but we were on the “liberal” side, favoring the permissibility of using the church’s general fund to support orphan care. However, many of my best friends growing up were the sons and daughters of local non-institutional preachers.

I can identify with Edward Fudge far better than most. But unlike Fudge, while I’ve dabbled a bit in book publishing, I’ve never written a book that dramatically challenged much of what Western Christendom thinks on a major subject.  And therefore, unlike Fudge, no one is going to produce a movie based on my life and studies.

In 1982, Fudge published The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, now in its third edition. In this massive work, Fudge argues that the damned do not suffer perpetual conscious torment but rather are punished by God as justice demands and then ultimately destroyed. Contrary to the teachings of Plato, immortality is a gift given by God to the saved, and therefore the damned are mortal and do not live forever.

(Joh 3:16 ESV) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

(Rom 2:7 ESV)  7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;

(1Co 15:53-54 ESV)  53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

(2Ti 1:10-11 ESV) 10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,  11 for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,

(Mat 10:28 ESV) 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Fudge’s book is now considered the standard work on the topic and has influenced theologians from many denominations across the globe. Moreover, thanks to the Internet and Amazon, the book has recently begun to have even greater influence than it achieved at first. In fact, quite a few theologians either now agree with Fudge or at least are open to his views.

As a result, Fudge has recently also published —

Hell: A Final Word, covering the same material, but written in a more accessible style.

Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue, in which Robert A. Peterson and Fudge argue the two sides of the question.

The question of whether hell is forever or finite is a fairly arcane one, until it becomes personal, that is, until a beloved friend who has never known Jesus dies. And when that happens, it’s no easy thing to imagine him being tortured forever — especially when that friend is a child.

And it was exactly this circumstance, the loss of close teenage friend, that caused Fudge to question the issue. Amazingly enough, he was later hired by an independent minister to research exactly this question — and so he did — ultimately concluding that Western Christianity has been wrong about hell for nearly 2,000 years. (Fudge recounts his life story in this article originally published in New Wineskins.)

And then even more amazingly, late in life, Fudge was asked for the movie rights — and I have to say that theological texts just don’t have movie rights. I mean, while I believe The Fire That Consumes is a brilliant, masterful work, it reads more like an encyclopedia than a novel. In fact, the book, in its original version, says nothing of the story that led to its writing.

But someone figured out that there must actually be a fascinating, powerful story behind the book, and they made a film out of it: “Hell and Mr. Fudge.” It’s a beautifully made and acted film. You can just tell that the director, screenwriter, and actors felt a passion for the story. They do a truly marvelous job of telling the story — despite the obvious difficulties of basing a movie on an obscure doctrine taught by a non-institutional Church of Christ preacher, working out of Athens, Alabama.

I mean, there’s not a single car chase or explosion. There are no sex scenes. There are no space ships. And the climax of the story is reached when Fudge realizes that immortality is not inherent in the nature of our souls but a gift from God.

And yet I found myself just blown away by the excellence of the writing and acting telling a story that hits all too close to home. After all, part of the story, inevitably, is the hateful, brutal criticism faced by Fudge from his fellow Church of Christ ministers and members. Sadly, I must say that the characterization of Fudge’s opponents is altogether too accurate — making the film just a tad uncomfortable for me to watch as it brought back memories of some of the similar criticism I’ve faced.

I was glad to see Carl Ketcherside featured in the movie. Ketcherside is another of my spiritual heroes. He preached for the non-institutional Churches of Christ but became one of the leading thinkers in what we sometimes call the “progressive” movement within the Churches.

Indeed, I found it impossible not to closely identify with Fudge, as he struggled to study his way out of legalism and then to teach what he’d learned. My own journey hasn’t been nearly as difficult at Fudge’s, but I really do identify.

The film is now available on DVD for $19.95. (It can’t be had on Amazon.) It would make an excellent, enjoyable introduction for a Bible class or small group studying the doctrine of hell.

I know that many classes have enjoyed studying N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. I think Fudge’s work on hell fits in very nicely with Wright’s teaching on heaven. In fact, it was my study of Wright’s book that led me to study Fudge’s. You see, Wright argues that heaven and earth will be merged into one at the end of time, as fairly plainly stated in Rev 21 – 22.

It occurred to me that, if heaven is going to be here, not out there somewhere, then there’s really no place to fit hell. After all, the end of time is described as a time of purging the effects of sins from what God has made in order to make all things new — again.

(Rom 8:20-22 ESV)  20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope  21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

(Rev 21:5 ESV) 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

And so, if the path to heaven is purging what’s sinful and accursed, then gehenna is more about destroying the unredeemed, unholy things resulting from sin rather than a perpetual torture chamber.

(1Co 3:12-15 ESV)  12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Sorry. I keep wanting to argue the case, when I should be talking about the movie. But, of course, the two are closely tied and the movie does make its own arguments — although not in nearly the detail that readers of this blog would quite properly insist on.

I doubt that the movie would, by itself, persuade a viewer. Its coverage of the key arguments is too brief and abbreviated to persuade anyone looking for a comprehensive presentation of the case. I mean, there are a lot of passages to consider, and no movie could comprehensively consider all the key texts. But the movie would be a great place from which to start a study of this critically important doctrine.

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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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7 Responses to “Hell and Mr. Fudge”

  1. I felt the movie is primarily a study of the vitriol used by Fudge’s opponents than a study of the doctrine of hell. “Hell” just happened to be the issue of the moment, and it’s an issue that crosses denominational lines. That’s what makes the movie so gripping. The film does not identify the church for which Edward preached. The application is interdenominational.

  2. Royce says:

    The greatest contribution to the churches of Christ, and to the church at large by Edward Fudge is his consistent stand for Christ and the gospel of Christ in the face of a barrage of false gospels whose savior is self. At least some of his harshest critics have at least two things in common. They don’t know him and they dislike the Christ he preaches.

  3. Dan Harris, Birmingham says:

    I lived in Athens in the mid 1970s. Many there hated his (Mr. Fudge’s) name. But I’m not sure that there was any more ignorance on Jefferson St. in Athens in the 1970s than there was on Madison Ave. in New York City. My challenge has become not to hate and despise ignorance, but to love and dispense the truth of the gospel. May God bless all who call on his name in faith.

  4. Steve says:

    Ed Fudge appears to be a virtuous man and exemplary Christian. I wish him well. Being from Northeast Arkansas and a lifelong member of the Church of Christ, I am somewhat aware of the hurt and mistreatment that often occurred in our disputatious culture. This experience moved me in another direction. I have taken comfort in learning that a form of universalism dates back to very early in Christian history. There is some ambiguity and dispute about where they finally stood in relation to an affirmation of a doctrine of salvation for all. However, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Capaddocians and others explored the notion of apocatastasis, in a nutshell, the restoration of all things. It is referred to in scripture and its interpretation is related to the idea of universal salvation. But, one interpretive obstacle they encountered was how to reconcile this with what is said in the New Testament about punishment and Hell. It was considered, for example, that the lake of fire could be a purifying fire that prepares the soul for eventual salvation. Perceived in this way, punishment is remedial rather than a final unrelenting torture. They discussed how that the meaning of the Greek term for “eternal” can have different meanings and opens the way for such an interpretation. In the writings of these church fathers as well as contemporary proponents of the teaching, one finds a list of scriptures which in their view support eventual salvation for all. Given the accidents of where and to whom one is born and the role of genes and environment, this notion seems to me more fair.

  5. laymond says:

    Steve says, ” this notion seems to me more fair.” The fact remains Steve is not the judge. The bible plainly states we are to be judged by The Word of God. If the Sermon on the Mt. is not considered “the word of God” I don’t know what is.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    I have shut down comments on this topic. Ad hominem arguments are not allowed. It’s not negotiable.

    I’ve also deleted comments I consider to violate site rules as well as the responses to them (even if fair and just), as the deletion of the violative comments destroys the context for the others.

    I apologize to the readers for not dealing with this thread sooner, but I’m still pretty limited after my surgery.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for your comment. I have to say that I find little support for universalism in the scriptures. There are far too many references to people being lost and so suffering eternal death or destruction. It’s actually a fairly prominent doctrine.

    For that matter, why the missionary work recorded in Acts? Why did Peter call Israel to faith in Jesus in order to be saved? Saved from what?

    It’s just really hard to read Acts, esp. the first few chapters where God-fearing Jews are called to repent through faith in Jesus to avoid damnation, and remain a universalist.

    Therefore, it makes much more sense to me to see gehenna as the consuming fire of God’s wrath, which punishes justly and then destroys, that is, causes the damned to suffer a permanent, eternal death — rather than perpetual conscious torment. The lost suffer a just punishment (which might be hardly any at all for a young person) and then cease to exist.

    The saved are spared just punishment, but rather are protected by their relationship with Jesus, by possession of the Spirit. They survive the fire of purification and are given a new body, provided by the Spirit to allow for a perpetual life in the new heavens and new earth with God.

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