Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The annihilation of hell (1)

It is easy to measure need and to be moved by compassion, or to stifle that response, by what our eyes can see. In a world marked by sickness, pain, greed, deprivation, and death, the needs of people, near and far, press themselves upon our vision.

But whether or not people need the gospel is not something that can be measured by what we can see. It is something that we have to be told. The need people have for the Saviour, because of the seriousness of their sin and its eternal consequences, is something that we must be taught by divine revelation. Our eyes cannot measure this need.

We see some of the devastating consequences of the Fall, but we do not see the full extent and true horror of sin in this life. Nor, for that matter, are we able to grasp these matters at all unaided by divine truth. Therefore, it is imperative that we take seriously every word of Jesus upon the subject of the eternal fire and the outer darkness.

One of the greatest impediments to taking the truth of eternal judgement seriously is our default position of making divine revelation in Scripture subservient to our own assessments of need. And as long as think that we can adequetly discern this by looking rather than listening we will annihilate the influence of eternity upon us.

We would do well, Bible in hand, to follow the practice of Rodin's The Thinker, sat above the gates of hell, meditating upon these weighty matters. To help us do that Monergism has a helpful page of articles and audio messages on hell. You can access them here.

In Risking the Truth I asked Covenant Seminary professor Robert A. Peterson, who has written extensively and helpfully on the subject of hell, some questions on this subject. Here is a short extract from what is a powerful, sobering, and thought provoking interview:

1Why has there been a willingness by some evangelicals in the last one hundred years or so to accept and embrace annihilationalism?

Though some annihilationists insist that the Bible alone has motivated their rejection of the historic doctrine, others admit that emotional considerations have played a part. Without judging the motives of individuals, my opinion is that the intellectual and emotional climate of our times has more to do with the move away from some historic doctrines, including that of hell, than many realize.

In an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is politically incorrect to hold that people who do not trust Christ as Lord and Savior, will suffer everlasting torment in body and soul. But that is exactly what the Bible teaches. (For a recent defense of exclusivism, the view that one must hear and believe the gospel of Christ in this life to be saved, see, C. W. Morgan and R. A. Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (InterVarsity, 2008.)

Perhaps the candid response of one employee of an Evangelical publisher, when asked what she thought of a book featuring a debate between traditionalism and annihilationism, reflects the default mode of many: “I certainly hope that annihilationism is true!” It is not our place to hope that certain things are true with reference to the things of God. It is our place to humbly receive the Word that God has given. That means restraining our curiosity where the Word is silent. And that means believing and obeying God’s truth even if we don’t like it.

Two orthodox doctrines that became immediate targets for “liberated” human reason in the Enlightenment—original sin and eternal conscious punishment for the lost—are not my favorites. But the Word of God teaches them and so I am obligated to receive them as true and to live accordingly.

I am afraid that too many people today reach conclusions as to what they believe concerning the Christian faith on the basis of their feelings and desires rather than the teaching of Scripture. As J. I. Packer remarked some years ago, “If you want to see folk damned something is wrong with you!” Of course this is true, but Packer went on to say that some of God’s truth is hard and one such truth is the Bible’s teaching concerning eternal hell.

It seems to me that the hard words of D. A. Carson are correct: “Despite the sincerity of their motives, one wonders more than a little to what extent the growing popularity of various forms of annihilationism and conditional immortality are a reflection of this age of pluralism. It is getting harder and harder to be faithful to the ‘hard lines’ of Scripture” (The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [Zondervan, 1996], 536.). But the Lord requires nothing less of us than, by his grace, to be faithful.



Reformation said...

Anyone know where John Stott was on this question?

Augustinian Successor said...

I once had the opportunity to speak to the grand old man of British evangelical Anglicanism. It was precisely over the issue of hell versus annihilation that I wanted to know Stott's actual view since what I had heard were anecdotes. Initially he was quite reticent, but when pressed on the point, he said he inclined towards the annihilationistic position. And then instead of quoting Scripture, Stott went on to cite scholars who agree with him. And that was that.

Chris Oldfield said...

Hi Martin, you wont know me, but I've found your writing on this very helpful in the past - I've appreciated your clarity & care, but I've found the trend of this post & the comments worrying.

1st, why lump inclusivism in with annihilationism? I believe they are both serious errors and you may be right to cast aspersions on emotives but they are separate and massive issues, deserving (in Carson's case a book and a chapter each) proper space for treatment.

2nd, we can and must go back to the bible, but casting views of hell as "historic/traditional" is SO difficult - arguably what "culture is moving on from" is the influence of gnostic dualism from the shepherd of hermas, to dante and milton (whence indeed Rodin) at least as much as (and probably more than, depending on historic levels of biblically literacy) the bible's teaching on hell.

Simply recognising that gnostics (and following them, the muslims) can picture eternity based purely and solely in terms of retribution, rather than in terms of relationships (of wrath/love) should warn us against thinking the only emotive editing in the church has been & will be to imagine hell away.

"Reformation": why would you ask? It doesn't sound like an honest question.

"Augustinian": why respond with anecdote in kind? It's not at all fair or clear to write off Stott's view as mere annihilationism - he explicitly believes in post mortem consciousness and eternal punishment, but questions the biblical & theological grounds for the nature of that punishment, and suggests at least the possibility of eventual annihilationism. He also examines the scriptures carefully. We may disagree with his view, but at least accord him the dignity of charity that both Carson, p.520 and Piper, Let the Nations, p.116-122 (esp. footnotes) do. Surely the grand old man deserves a better hearing than an anectodal "and that was that" over a one off meeting when he didnt want to talk about it anyway. These issues cut so deep I'm pained when they reduce to trite tit for tat arguments and fewer tears.

Martin Downes said...

Hi Chris,

Good to hear from you. I don't think that we have ever met but we have at least previously interacted over at the Coffee Bible Club Blog.

Because of the nature of the beast these issues do need more space, and ample documentation. Robert Peterson has written extensively and helpfully on this subject (hell) and on related subjects (inclusivism). And in that interview snippet he does urge us to be faithful to Scripture, and provides references for further reading. They are big, big issues.

On the historical/traditional line I suppose that what needs to be said is that the "traditional" view of hell has been just that. It has been exegetically argued for throughout 2000 years of Christian history. The alternative view, be it annihilationalism or conditional immortality, has not only been a minority view but a sectarian one at that. Of course, with all these matters, what is required is a patient, thorough demonstration from Scripture that these things are so. This task is the work of every generation that inherits from the past the riches of wisdom and knowledge on these matters.

Stott's views are a matter of public record and can be found in the book "Essentials" that he wrote with David Edwards. A number of evangelical authors interacted with his views but I am not aware of any further published response from him. Others, mainly evangelical Anglicans, have also advocated these views. Michael Green has urged eangelicals to strongly reject the traditional doctrine of hell as much as they do universalism, Philip E. Hughes rejected it, as did John Wenham.

Next week I'm going to post a very helpful lecture by Packer that examines the biblical case for hell and interacts with the case made by conditionalists.

Chris Oldfield said...

sure. Thanks Martin.

I guess my point is if you ask your average churchgoer, your average brit, your average frenchman, or a sunni muslim what "the traditional doctrine of hell is", they wouldn't say what had come from careful exegesis over 2000 years. My guess is they'd come up with something more like Dante's gnostic dualism or Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor.

=> problem: by rightly defending the "traditional view of hell" against various "softenings", you may in others' ears be leaving the "traditional view of hell" standing in their/our mind.

ps Is the Packer article called evangelical annihilationism in review? I remember finding that helpful - agree the key question (as Piper says) is whether unrepentant sin continues eternally, but I've not thought through the theological problems of hell in context of new creation yet (I guess Blocher & Green do, although I've neither read Henri nor not spoken to Michael about that for myself)

Martin Downes said...

Yes, that's a good observation. It would be easy to have a mythical view of hell and to confuse that with the "traditional," or should I say orthodox view. I seem to remember that John Blanchard made some helpful comments on this in his book "Whatever happened to hell?"

I included a link to the Monergism resources on this one. Lots of helpful material there, especially from Gomes and Keller.

The Packer lecture is audio rather than written. But I'm sure that there is something in print on this.

If you have the time read Jonathan Edwards on hell and the new creation.

Augustinian Successor said...


I understand your concern. It was precisely the fact that I didn't press him further than we veered off to other topics. For your kind information, there were NO arguments.

Having said this, thank you for your explanation. It is careful representation of Stott's views.

Anonymous said...

"... read Edwards on hell and new creation"

Do you have any references in his work that you are referring to?

Reformation said...


You suggested I asked a dishonest question.

That's very insulting, yeah rude to even suggest it. Retract your remark here. If you don't, some heavy weather shipmate. Too hasty on your side.

Now, after that rude innuendo, back to the issue. Re: Stott, I'd heard anecdotes also, but that was it.

Honest question.

Thanks Augustinian Successor for your response.

That helps.


Reformation said...

Thanks Martin for your contributions on the subject.


Reformation said...

And thanks Martin for the book recommendations and thoughtful responses.

PE Hughes was a Professor of mine and was unaware of his views on the matter.

Thanks for honest and patient answers.

Glenn said...

Is it mainly on this subject that you depend entirely on the ad hominem fallacy, or do you draw on it in other areas too?

Who cares what motivates people? heck, what if some people were motivated to teach eternal torment because they were sadists? Would that make the doctrine suspect?

You say that the issue should be decided on biblical grounds. Unfortunately, tactics like these make me think that this is not the case for you in practice. How about putting down the psychologist's notebook, ceasing this analysis of other people's supposed motives (contrary to the motives thatthey tell you they have), and engaging issues ona biblical basis. At least evangelical annihilationists are willing to do that.

Martin Downes said...


Is your comment directed at me (the blogger), Robert Peterson, or to a commenter? I couldn't tell. If you look carefully at Robert Peterson's answer below:

"Why has there been a willingness by some evangelicals in the last one hundred years or so to accept and embrace annihilationalism?

Though some annihilationists insist that the Bible alone has motivated their rejection of the historic doctrine, others admit that emotional considerations have played a part. Without judging the motives of individuals, my opinion is that the intellectual and emotional climate of our times has more to do with the move away from some historic doctrines, including that of hell, than many realize."

You can see that he says that some evangelical annihilationists admit that emotional considerations have played a part in their rejection of hell.

Besides which, if you remove all consideration of motivation in doctrinal matters you would have to airbrush out of the pastoral epistles almost everything that Paul says positively to Timothy and Titus and negatively about the false teachers. There is a whole tranche of stuff there about motives.

And on ad hominems doesn't your first question in effect question my motives? Aren't you universalizing a particular (without warrant in both cases in my opinion)?

Glenn said...

Martin, my comment is directed at the blogger, so I guess that's you. Wherever the claims caim from, you're clearly endorsing them.

I understand that you might personally think that the annihilationists fail to account for the biblical material (in your words, "airbrushing it out"), but that's an exegetical disagreement, which is fine.

What concerns me is the way that many seem to think it's alright to emoitionally deconstruct the annihilationist position when the reality is, it stands or falls on biblical interpretation.

I'm familiar with Peterson's critique of annihilationism (and he's familiar with my response to that critique). I frankly think his exegetical case is appallingly bad.

As for whether or not my first question is an ad hom like yours, no it certainly isn't. Asking you whether or not it's common for you to use this tactic seems like a sensible question, if only to draw your attention to what you're doing. Is it really helpful? Will it advance the discussion?

Unknown said...

Perhaps if people who believe in eternal torment would progress beyond THEIR emotionalism, we might actually see what the Scriptures say. The Bible NOWHERE teaches that man has an immortal soul. The OT especially is replete with the concept of DESTRUCTION and PERISHING for the wicked.

Only God has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16). Immortality must be given to man (2 Tim. 1:10) and that immortality comes IN Christ and in no other way.

Here is this entire issue in a nutshell: The opposite of having eternal life is PERISHING. Jesus said it, not me. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not PERISH but have eternal life." The concept of eternal punishment must be seen in this light and objectively and unemotionally examined. Eternal punishment is best seen as consequential and not durational. In other words, the punishment has eternal consequences. The punishment is death--forever. This makes sense when seen alongside of eternal salvation. It is not an ongoing process. God is not continually saving us--He HAS saved us, and the result is eternal.

Unfortunately, too many translations take words such a Gehenna and Hades and translate them as "hell." This is misleading. Gehenna was an actual place where things were consumed and burned up and Hades has an END--the lake of fire. The great preponderance of biblical evidence supports the conditional immortality paradigm, however, most Christians, EMOTIONALLY attached to their creeds and traditions, are not even open to really understanding the position they so freely label as heresy. Conditional immortality is biblical.

People like to read Peterson (et. al.), but they won't give a listen to Edward Fudge, etc. This closed-mindedness is fodder for error. I would submit that many, many Christians who object to conditional immortality are not even able to debunk it. NO creed is infallible. What we need today is a lot more BEREANS and a lot fewer robotic credalists. Don't get me wrong. I think creeds serve a purpose, but they should be constantly re-evaluated. Unfortunately, most leaders in the Church, whether knowingly or unknowingly, too often present them as the final word on many subjects. This is sad because it ever stifles proper biblical studies.

Good for John Stott. He has it right!

Anthony Storm said...

Sadly, John Stott did NOT have it right. He was deceived by the fallacious argument with which the late Basil Atkinson deceived, first himself, then H.E.Guillebaud (who published first), then other, younger professing evangelicals, including John Stott, John Wenham, Roger and Faith Forster, Stephen Travis, and Unknown, above, who summarises it quite well. God alone knows how damning this error may or may not be - it does not seem to diminish either the Christian character or the evangelistic zeal (The late Edward Greene told me of how John Wenham used to go and talk about the Gospel to people at bus stops), certainly relative to us, of those who hold it - but it must be countered for the sake of truth.
Wherein, then, is the fallacy? It is not in saying that immortality is unconditional - Scriptures that say or imply that it is conditional cannot be broken. It lies in assuming that what the Bible means by Immortality (whichever of the two Greek words it is that "Immortality" translates) is what the great 19th century preachers meant by it and what most people mean by it today. In the Bible, Immortality means Eternal Life, Life More Abundantly, Heaven, etc. Mere everlasting conscious existence is not what the Bible means by Immortality.
This does not mean that God has made people inherently everlasting and couldn't, Poor Thing, change it if He wanted to - Indeed, Christ said that Every One Shall Be Salted (i.e., preserved) With Fire. God torments sinners in hell for ever because the punishment we deserve can never be completed in a finite person (It was completed in an Infinite Person in finite time on the cross in the place of those He saved). We have sinned aginst an Infinite Person, and, therefore, our "smallest" sin is infinite. Eternal conscious punishment is what God's justice demands on those who have sinned.
This does seem to me to let babes who die in the womb, who the Scripture tells us have done neither good nor evil, off the hook. That does not mean they will be saved (elect foetuses will of course be saved, whoever they may or may not be), but neither does it mean that they will be raised to everlasting punishment - This may be one thing that Scripture means when it tells us that death reigned from Adam to Moses even on those who had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression. Revelation tells us that people will be judged for what they have DONE.