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Monday, March 19, 2012

Views of Hell - Part 3

I do not think it is entirely too presumptuous to say that the conditional/annihilationist view of Hell situates itself upon the premise of being prima facie more compatible with the Christian conception of an all-loving God. Though this view also boasts its own scriptural support, such support is largely secondary (or tertiary) in respect to the views compatibleness with logic and Christian notions of love and justice. This is not to say that the other views operate apart from expressed notions of logic, merely that the C/A view requires less logical epicycles in order to arrive at its conclusions.

The issue primarily turns upon the notion of infinity or eternality. The seemingly temporal crime of unbelief, under a traditional view of Hell, is to be met with an ostensibly cruel and infinitely long punishment of conscious torment. While no C/A opponent denies that hell exists—to them it is an unquestionable reality—all of them question the nature of hell. The horrific scene of everlasting suffering of body and soul, where the plight of the damned brings ecstatic delight to the ascended saints who behold it, is untenable for a mind committed to mercy, love and divine justice. The scene that proponents of the C/A view reject is nowhere more potently expressed then by the revered 18th century protestant theologian, Jonathan Edwards:

Hell is a spiritual and material furnace of fire where its victims are exquisitely tortured in their minds and in their bodies eternally, according to their various capacities, by God, the devils, and damned humans including themselves, in their memories and consciences as well as in their raging, unsatisfied lusts, from which place of death God’s saving grace, mercy, and pity are gone forever, never for a moment to return.

Scriptural Support for Conditional/Annihilationist view of Hell

Proponents of this view argue that the traditional view of the nature of hell is simply unscriptural and logically impractical. They do not deny the reality of hell (as many Universalists do) or that the ultimately impenitent sinners will indeed suffer there, they simply assert that the most theologically coherent, scripturally cogent interpretation of hell is that of final destruction rather than endless torture. You see brief shimmers of this idea in C.S. Lewis’ approach to hell when he refers to it as the “outer rim where being fades away into nonentity.” That is to say, Hell is not a new beginning of immortal, torturous existence, but a phasing into nothingness.

The Old Testament lays the groundwork for the vision of Hell that is portrayed in the New Testament. Firstly, it typically refers to Hell as a place of final destruction (see Psalm 37). Hell in the OT was translated Sheol (literally grave). The conveyed idea was absolute death and nonexistence. Isaiah 5:14 portrays it as Death itself with mouth wide open:

So Death will open up its throat, and open wide its mouth; Zion’s dignitaries and masses will descend into it, including those who revel and celebrate within her.
Jesus was not light on the topic of Hell and was potent in his warnings regarding it. He was, however, not explicit regarding the details. What we do see echoed in Jesus and other New Testament writers is the same idea of Hell as destruction and absolute death. For instance Jesus warned that we should fear God because he is the one who can destroy both body and soul in Hell (Matt. 10:28). Jesus was no doubt harkening back to the words and sentiment of John the Baptist who envisioned the impenitent wicked as chaff about to be burned (Matt 3:10, 12). The imagery is familiar, as Jesus also warned something similar in Matthew 5:30 when he referred to the wicked being thrown (as garbage) into the fire. This illustrious imagery resonated with the original audience as it was in reference to the valley outside of Jerusalem where sacrifices were given to Moloch and where garbage burned during the time of Jesus. The image of weeds or garbage being burned was a common one (Matt. 13:30, 42, 49-50), and it is hard to imagine how the original audience could interpret such imagery as representative of eternal suffering. Weeds burned up and were no more. Thus, this imagery seems to indicate the final destruction of the wicked by God.

Paul was less illustrious and more direct in his proclamation of hell as final destruction:

2 Thessalonians 1:9: They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (See also Gal. 6:8.)
1 Corinthians 3:17: If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (See also Phil. 1:28.)

Paul was clear that Hell was a place of ultimate termination of life. It was the finality of death, the permanency of destruction. Paul stated this clearly when he spoke of the destination of the wicked thusly: “Their destiny is destruction” (Phil 3:19). This sentiment is not unique to Jesus and Paul, but is expressed all throughout scripture. Peter even says that false teachers who have denied the Lord bring upon themselves “swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1, 3). Peter speaks of the “destruction of godly men” in 2 Peter 3:7, seemingly echoing the same Pauline sentiment that hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment, but rather of swift and everlasting termination.

Philosophical Roots for the Traditional View of Hell

It seems absurd to believe that there is no valid basis for interpreting Hell as a place of final and permanent destruction of the human person. In fact, the argument against this view typically stems, not from a scriptural standpoint, but an early Hellenized philosophical stand point. The view of the immortality of the soul is deeply rooted in early Greek philosophy. This view had a prominent influence on the early Christian understanding of the soul and has continued to survive through the ages. Naturally, this belief has provided the lens for how Hell is interpreted. If the soul is necessarily immortal, then there could be no such destruction of personhood in Hell, as the annihilationist is suggesting. As I believe any earnest study of the Bible will show, there is no such understanding of the natural immortality of the soul to be found. God’s gift of eternal life has always been a gift, and if we relegate it to necessity, we have, perhaps, denigrated this gift and have wrongly assumed that we are naturally immortal.

The Pros and Criticism of the Annihilationist/Conditional view

The pros of the annihilationist view are many. First, it is a more viable view in relationship with our common sensibilities as human beings. It makes more sense considering our notions of divine Justice and Love. Furthermore, it presents earnest seekers with a viable alternative to the either/or dichotomy between the traditional view of Hell and Universalism. The vileness of the traditional view of hell is a weapon in the hands of enemies to the Christian faith and has, in many ways, silenced sensitive Christians on the topic all together.

The traditional view would criticize the C/A view as not interpreting the imagery of Hell in a literal sense. Moreover, others argue that the conditional view of immortality inaccurately interprets the passages that interpret hell as death and destruction, pointing to passages like Hebrews 9:27-28, that illustrate judgment happening AFTER death (meaning, of course, that it cannot be assumed that death itself is judgment). The aforementioned criticism, however, may miss the point that the Annihilationist is actually making. Proponents do not refer to death of the physical body itself as judgment, but that hell itself, as second death, is not the cessation of the physical body but the absolute destruction of the human soul.

Clark Pinnock, an outspoken advocate of the C/A view, reflected on this issue of why the doctrine of Hell is continually being questioned:
In a recent book defending the traditional view of the nature of hell, Robert Morey complains that in every generation people keep questioning the orthodox belief in everlasting conscious torment, even though the basis for it has been laid out time and again in books like this. The explanation for this is simple: Given the cruelty attributed to God by the traditional doctrine, it is inevitable that sensitive Christians would always wonder if the doctrine is true.
I think Pinnock makes a valid point. And perhaps he's also right that the best alternative to the traditional notions of Hell is the C/A view, given that it accomplishes what the metaphorical view tried to do, yet still maintains a view of hell's actual existence, defending it against the scripturally untenable Universalism.