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.