I have recently been forced to carefully evaluate my position on hell.
This analysis has left me with the continued belief in the thesis known as 'annihilationism' or 'conditional unorthodoxy' (that those in hell do not have an eternal conscious existence). This is not the traditional view (eternal conscious punishment), but it does appear to be a view gaining in strength within the evangelical community. I think this view is supported on several bases (both scriptural and philosophical).
1. Talk of the wicked dying [Rom. 6:23; Jn. 3:16; Rev. 20:14; . . .] or being destroyed [Mt. 7:13; Gal. 6:8; 2 Th. 1:9; . . .].
2. Talk of the righteous gaining eternal life [Jn. 3:15; Jn. 3:36; Jn. 5:24; Jn. 20:31; Rom. 6:23; . . ].
3. The justice of God: How can finite sins be justly punished with an infinite punishment?
4. 'Cosmological Dualism': God's justice is never fully satisfied on the traditional view since there is always those that are still paying their penalty -- there are always those that are rebelling against God. This doesn't seem to square with our picture of what things will be like then.

So why is the traditional view the traditional view? Some have suggested that it is due to the Hellenistic philosophical influence on the early church. With the idea that people are unconitionally immortal (Greek philosophy), the traditional view follows. Yet this is a philosophical thesis open to debate. Scripture does speak of the fires of hell being eternal, and if this is coupled with the thesis that people are immortal the traditional view follows. There is, however, good reason to doubt the thesis that people are unconditionally immortal. As such, the annihilationist thesis seems to me to be a scripturally tenable thesis. It certainly offers a less problematic outlook on hell with regard to the problem of evil. As of now anyway, this seems to me to be the best understanding of the matter.


chaz said...

Jon, I think we have good reason to believe your point about the synthesis of Greek philosophy with the Bible is spot-on. I too find little Biblical support for the doctrine of eternal punishment nor for that of the eternity of all souls. Hebrew conceptions of Sheol are little if anything like Hellenic views on the afterlife.

An interesting project for Christians is to attempt to trace the influence of Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophy on the Christian religion. A fantastic start can be made with the book, "Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom" by David Bradshaw. By an incredible coincidence, the man teaches philosophy at the University of Kentucky, at which I am currently completing Ph.D. work.

jon said...

Chaz, thanks for the source. I'll have to check it out.
To give credit where it is due, I learned of this point from Clark Pinnock 'Four Views on Hell' and Bruce Reichenbach 'Is Man the Phoenix? A Study of Immortality'.

Anonymous said...

Re the doctrine of hell
Scholars have looked at this for years and have wanted the Bible to teach annihilationism, but if you take all the evidence, you have to conclude that the bible teaches eternal, conscious punishment.
The reference to destroying the soul does not mean that it ceases to exist, etc.
We can't chalk it up to the impact of Greek Philosophy: fact is the Bible teaches the immortality of the soul; Christians got it from the bible not Plato.
Matt 25:46 shows that just as eternal life is eternal, so is the eternal punishment.
Is this unfair? To our mind it might be, but we don't make up the nature of the universe. God did not choose the attributes he has; these were his for all of eternity. It is best that we deal with the God who exists and not the God we wish he were....
Blessings and benedictions...
Mr. Anonymous

jon said...

Mr. Anonymous, thanks for the comments. I was hoping to get some discussion and hopefully a better understanding as a result.

I don't think that Mt. 25:46 speaks clearly to the issue one way or another. It is not clear what the nature of 'eternal punishment' is. To my eye, eventual destruction is an eternal punishment - it is an eternal depravation of life.
I agree that the texts that I cited can be given a reading that coincides witht the traditional view, but so can the verses cited by those who hold the traditional view. I think a straight forward reading supports the conditional immortality thesis. With regard to destruction, for instance, the Bible also speaks of the elements being destroyed (2 Pet. 3:10), though I'm not sure if it is the same word being used here or not.
There are also verses that teach that God alone is immortal: 1 Tim. 6:16. Another passage that reads as though immortality is something Christians gain is 1 Cor. 15:50-54.

Even if the scriptures are neutral on the issue, we seem to have strong philosophical reasons to adopt the conditional immortality thesis (as cited above).

It's hard for me to hear that God is something less than what we wish for (this is a long way from 'that than which none greater can be conceived'). This could be due to irrational desires that we have, but I don't see these desires as so off track. I admit that it is possible, thus I am not certain the traditional view is wrong, but there seems to be stronger reasons to adopt a different view.

chaz said...

Like Jon, I'm not so sure that Mt. 25:46 is as clear as we'd like it to be. Note that in the same chapter, Jesus talks about the Son of Man separating the sheep from the goats (v. 33). Are we to infer from this that actual sheep and goats will be separated from one another at the Second Coming? Of course not; Christians (the ones I know about, anyway) take this verse to be metaphorical. Why not read the rest of the passage similarly?

Second, it may be too dismissive to suggest that Christian views on immortality are formed solely by paying attention to the Bible. The influence of Hellenistic thought on even the writers of the New Testament is well-documented. Of course, this general observation by itself doesn't necessarily prove that Christian views on immortality are thus influenced. A better argument could be raised by comparing Christian views with Hellenistic views not reflected in the Bible. Does the comparison yield any striking similarities? To my mind, too much of Christianity seems closely akin to Non-Biblical (as well as Biblical) Hellenistic thought for the similarities to be entirely coincidental. I think it's too simplistic to suggest that all Christian doctrine originated solely from one source or the other.

Finally, Mr. Anonymous, many Christians will be troubled by your remarks that "God did not choose the attributes he has; these were his for all of eternity" and "It is best that we deal with the God who exists and not the God we wish he were." As for the latter statement, Jon alluded to the fact that if this is right, it blows away all ontological arguments for God's existence, but perhaps (and I'm inclined to part ways with Jon here) this isn't too high a price to pay. More unsettling, maybe, is the former remark. If God did not choose His attributes, then either something else chose them, or they were not chosen. Clearly Christians don't want to say that something chose God's attributes for God. If, however, God's attributes were not chosen by anyone, this implies that the factuality of God's existence is outside the domain of the power of God - goodbye omnipotence. It also divests God of freedom in a certain sense: God is not free not to be what He is (I mean this last "is" as predicative, and so the preceding statement is not merely trivially true). If God is not free to be other than what he is, Christians will have to do some fancy footwork concerning Biblical passages that seem to suggest a God who changes His mind and has different feelings toward different people at different times. Moreover, if God is not thus free, what is it that constrains God?

Your statements, Mr. Anonymous, are provocative, but they don't exactly square with orthodox theology. Of course, that's less of a concern for some than for others.

jon said...

Chaz, a couple comments. First, I don't think abandoning the ontological arguments is much of a price to pay either. My point was simply that on Mr. Anonymous' view we have moved a good deal away from that concept of what God is.

Second, I'm not sure it is as much of a problem as you think if God did not or cannot choose his nature. Omnipotence has to be defined as the power to do anything which (logically) can be done. I think that changing one's nature is a suitable candidate for something which logically cannot be done. If I am a human being, then it seems like I am a human being essentially. I think it is fine to say that one's nature constrains one -- even if one is God. The question is then whether the aspects of God's character relevant to our issue are part of his (essential) nature or not. Being morally good is often taken to follow from God's nature if not be directly a part of his nature. I think that we can distinguish an ability to choose among alternative possibilities with regard to one's nature and one's actions. However, it may not even be necessary that God can choose his actions and still be free & responsible. Timothy O'Connor (IU) puts forward such an agency theory with regard to God's freedom. I think the issue of God's freedom is an interesting one, and one I plan on getting into soon. William Rowe also recently wrote a book on this issue.
I don't think Mr. Anonymous is in danger of departing from orthodoxy.

Kenzo said...

I have to apologize to intrude into your space. However, I was intrigued by your blog on hell.
You're raising a serious question that commands our attention. I salute you when you say, "I have recently been forced to carefully evaluate my position on hell." I wish everyone would do the same on every theological question. Such was the attitude of the Berean Church in the NT.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that theology is a second order discourse that is provisional, temporal, partial, contextual, etc. As such, no theological formulation should claim the authority of the primary discourse that is, at least according to evangelicals, the canonical Scripture.
That said, it is also important to be cautious as to what and how change should occur in theology. I believe the best way would be to allow those changes that are dictated by a careful reading of Scripture and not those that are motivated by our philosophical sensibility.
To come back to the issue of hell, because it is precisely the issue on hand; I would say that it is quite acceptable to reconsider the traditional position if and only if the reading on which it is based is proven to be inaccurate or misleading. However, it would be unfortunate to reconsider the classical teaching simply because it goes against the grain of our logic or our philosophical leanings. If the latter became the criteria, one would wonder what is next?
Now, I'm not suggesting that those who are leading the charge against the traditional view are basing their arguments on philosophy alone. (The case of John Stott who was very tentative on the question is illustrative of caution that is sometimes exercised) What I'm concerned with is the starting point. It's a given that there is no interpretation without presuppositions. However, these presuppositions need to open and not foreclose reading. Indeed the presuppositions we bring to the text need to be reshaped by the reading in what Gadamer calls the fusion of horizon; or, still better, in what Paul Ricoeur calls the hermeneutical arc.
As you are engaged in this process, may I suggest that you also read the following:
1) Avery Dulles' "The Population of Hell" in First Things, no 133 My 2003, p 36-41. Although the article does not deal directly with the evangelical debate on annihilationism, it has a wealth of information on hell from a seasonned Roman Catholic theologian
2) Edward Williams and Robert A. Peterson's Two Views of Hell. This book has the advantage of having the two views debated by their best representatives.
I would be more than happy to continue this conversation if you so desire.

chaz said...


In your most recent post, you note that "I think that changing one's nature is a suitable candidate for something which logically cannot be done." One looming and relevant question seems to me to be that of divine simplicity: to what extent (if any) is God's "nature" distinct from His acts/will? The problem with Mr. Anonymous' statement, to which I alluded in my earlier post, only arises (I think) if one posits a real distinction between divine nature and action: if it's impossible for God to act contrary to His (pre-established) nature, we seem to have problems - why was/is God's nature established to be as it was/is, and why is God powerless to change it? That is, if God has a pre-established nature that is not a result of His actions but is the source thereof (and, for the record, I don't necessarily take you to be endorsing this point), then I want to know why it is illogical to suppose that God could change this His nature - it may be an odd supposition, even unorthodox, but why is it illogical?

If, by contrast, one endorses some variant of divine simplicity, God's nature is just a description (or account, summation, etc.) of God's actions. If we buy this view, my problem with Mr. Anonymous never arises, and it would indeed be illogical to suppose that God could act contrary to His nature, since His nature just is His actions. But to talk of God as having had the "attributes" he has from all eternity (as did Mr. Anonymous) makes it sound to me as if divine nature is being taken to be something distinct from divine action (a divine haecceity, so to speak), which is why I raised the point. I re-raise it here because in your comment, you also talk of God's "essential nature," and I guess I'm not sure exactly what you mean. Are God's actions constrained by His nature, or not?

jon said...

Kenzo, you are not intruding and thanks for your comments. I will check out those sources. While we're giving out sources, Jon Kvanvig (Mizzou) has a couple nice summary articles available off his website:
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also has nice article written by Kvanvig:
I have just ordered Kvanvig's book 'The problem of hell' and Richard Swinburne's 'responsibility and atonement' which both speak to the issue.

As for your comments on theology, granting your model, I still don't think that it is applicable to the issue of hell. I just don't find the proof texts cited by defenders of the traditional view convincing at all. I would add to your biconditional that a traditional view can be reconsidered also if it is based on an inconclusive scriptural passage. I believe that this is the case with the traditional doctrine of hell. I think Chaz and I have given reasons why the traditional view was formed from these inconclusive passages.

However, I don't find it unfortunate at all if we re-evaluate a doctrine based upon logic. It is hard to see what theology amounts to if it does not seriously consider logical constraints. I would argue that it is reason that brings us to the Bible and reason that allows us to properly interpret it. If we cannot appeal to logic then how can we understand passages which refer to the eyes, ears, and hands of God from those that tell us that he is spirit? We need logic to know that God cannot be both embodied and spirit alone. This then guides our interpretation of the Bible. I certainly don't see logic as a slippery slope, rather, if we don't appeal to it, then how can we understand anything?

jon said...

Chaz, good questions. This is the kind of thing that I want to research next. I think it makes good sense to say that God has his nature independent of his actions. We don't want to distinguish actions from nature and say that God's nature depends on his actions (I'm not sure if this is what you were saying) since then God would undergo something like character-development which seems wrong. Why does God have the nature he does? In part this becomes a philosophy of language question. What are we referring to with 'God'? Is it the being we believe to have such and such properties or is it any such being which necessarily has such properties (is 'God' a rigid designator?). It seems logically true that God could not fail to be God (given he exists). Then if we see such attributes as belonging essentially to God, God could not fail to have those attributes. Why then does he have these properties? Why is he God? Why does he exist? All these questions seem to be quite related. If God does not possess necessary existence (which seems right) then why does he exist? This is tough. Perhaps it is just a brute fact of the world. Does that diminish anything? I don't know.

However, given this reading there are still ways of understanding God as free and responsible though he could not do/be otherwise. According to O'Connor, we don't even have to embrace compatibilism here (a definite bonus).

These thoughts are inchoate, but hopefully they help.

chaz said...

Jon, as you know, I think not having to embrace compatibilism is indeed a bonus! Kudos to O'Connor's position, I guess.

To clarify earlier points, I wouldn't say that divine simplicity dictates that God's nature depends on His actions; the point seems to be that there is just no difference between the two. It is an intriguing question whether this entails divine "character development," a consequence most Christians would not wish to admit. I think that whether this is the case depends entirely on your philosophy of God's relation to time. If God were eternal, then character development would not be a consequence of the unity of nature and action. If, however, God were everlasting (by that I mean He endures), your point is well taken. I don't know how you feel about such things.

Finally, I dislike ending at brute facts when good philosophical questions remain unanswered, though perhaps that's just life. Of course, nowhere is it incumbent upon Christians to understand God, but as long as one makes the attempt relative to some questions about God, it's got to be unsatisfying to refuse to speculate on others. At this point I'll close, having gone far afield of the original post's topic.

jon said...

Chaz, I agree. If God was eternal that problem wouldn't exist. The question of whether God is eternal (outside time) or everlasting (inside time) boggles my mind. I've heard quite convincing arguments in both directions. William Lane Craig also has a unique theory that God was outside of time until creation and he is now inside time. This might be the best bet.

I'm not thrilled about appealing to brute facts either, but I don't see what else to do the job here besides God's existence being necessary, and I don't think that is very plausible.

Anonymous said...

Re the comments I made re God not choosing the attributes he has: Of course God's attributes were never chosen; neither by himself or others. If he had chosen his attributes there would be development and change in God, but he changes not. If indeed he existed from all eternity, he simply is who he is (we can't get our mind around this but from eternity past he is God).
That said, it seems to me that his actions grow out of his nature, he is truth, so he does what is true, etc.
Does this mean he was not free, since he has to follow the dictates of his nature? The answer most probably is yes, he is not free in the sense that he could have done otherwise (this point is debatable, but I believe his nature determined the course he would follow,namely to bring the most glory to himself; Leibniz had a point about God choosing the best of all possible plans). However, we can be sure that he did whatever he wanted to do, "Our God is in the heavens he has done whatever he has pleased."
Remember, that it is possible to do whatever we want to do and still not be free; that is, we might not be able to do otherwise. Freedom means I can do A or B; but maybe I can't do B, but that's Ok I don't want to, because I want to do A anyway. (John Locke distinguished a free action from a volunatary one...very important).
This relates to hell: if God willed that there be a hell, it is an outgrowth of both his nature and the purposes he intended to accomplish. So, that's what I meant by saying that we have to deal with God as he is and not how we would like him to be.
I commend the well thought out responses that occur in this blog.
Mr. Anonymous

kenzo said...

Thank you for your kindness with me. I have no desire to drag this unnecessarily longer, but I thought I should clarify certain points.
1) I certainly didn't mean to say that one should not use logic in theology. The contrary is the case. My reference to theology as a second order discourse is precisely intended to make room for this interpretation at the second level whereby we seek integrate revelation with other conerns like those of philo. The slipery slope (I don't think I used the expression, but we'll make due) is not in reference to the use of logic, but to the traditional teaching about hell. I simply wondered that if at we say that the traditional reading is not logically sustainable, what other traditional will face the same judgment tomorrow?
2) If the use of logic is imperative in theology, we also need to recognize that logic has its limitations as well. I'm pleased to see that you quote Augustine, who is precisely the father a tradition that sought to use logic as a servant and not a master. Querens fides intellectum, that is, faith seeking understanding, implies (as your quote says) that faith comes first. Theology (faith) has its own language game that is not always that of Aristotelian logic.
3) Now about the question of hell, I grant you everything you say when you affirm, "I would add to your biconditional that a traditional view can be reconsidered also if it is based on an inconclusive scriptural passage." Now the only big problem with have in theology (and in epistemology in general) is this: "In whose eyes are passages inconclusive?" One's prooftexts are another's unrefutable evidence. Paul Ricoeur would call this "the conflict of interpretations." And as he says, when faced with the conflict of interpretations, one does not seek the arbitration of logic--in an argument that would in ad infinitum spin, but in explaining more. I would submit that what we are faced with in the case of hell is a question of conflict of interpretation. I suggested resources that illustrate the fact that the traditional view of hell is not easily "dismissable" on textual grounds (I dare to say that it is not easily dismissable on exegetical grounds neither). By the way, I'm also familiar with Richard Swinburne, and it is good book.
3) That the traditional Christian account of hell includes elements of Hellenic thought (and a great deal of Dante) can hardly be disputed. After all, theology is always contextual. However, it would be claiming a bit too much to say that these are the only sources of this teaching. (And this coming from one whose background is not at all Hellenic). Maybe we simply need to learn to read Scripture in community more often.

jon said...

Thanks for the comments and clarifications.
I still think there is a problem in what you have labeled (1). If philosophy truly is useful in our understanding of theologial matters (which we seem to be in agreement on), then I don't see how the threat of other traditional doctrines being rejected should have any role in determining whether a given traditional doctrine is sustainable. I think that tradition should be given some weight in these matters, but considerably less than philosophical considerations. If logical sustainability leads to other traditional doctrines being discarded, then I think that we have only bettered our theology.
(2) I agree that faith may go beyond what we understand, my reservations are when it contradicts what we understand (particularly when it contradicts what we understand from revelation).
(3) I would agree that the traditional view is not easily dismissible and for that reason I approach this issue with great humility. What I am being more and more convinced of, however, is that the conditional immortality thesis is not easily dismissible on the same grounds. I also think that the conditional immortality thesis is less difficult on other philosophical grounds which cumulatively put me in favor of it. It think that it is a tough issue though.
The real reason the issue came up is due to a doctrinal statement which saw belief in the traditional view as 'necessary to sound doctrine' and 'requisite for Christian fellowship'. My primary concern is over this kind of ruling out of the conditional immortality thesis and certainty in the traditional view (setting aside other pragmatic factors).
(4) You have mentioned several times that theology is contextual. In continuing this discussion I would be interested in finding out what you mean by this. I am not sure I understand what you are saying.

danny boy said...

This has been quite the discussion…I realize you’re all probably on to other issues now, but I thought I’d quickly chime in…

I’m convinced the question of Hell is primarily one of exegesis. I think you have to be continually asking questions like, “what was Matthew’s intent in writing this bit?” or “why did John choose to use that word to describe Hell?” or “how would Paul’s readers have understood his words?”

If we were just working on philosophical grounds, and using some proof-texts, I think I would be an universalist - part of me still really hopes that maybe Hell has a redemptive function. It seems to me that the same goes for the conditional immortality thesis. While I don’t think it’s any easy case to dismiss either universalism or annihilationism, I don’t think that either one has the support of good exegesis. It’s a lot easier to read into the text than it is to read out of the text. I think that I can ‘make the passages fit’ for an annihilationist perspective in the context of each Hell reference in the Bible, but when I start doing honest exegesis – believing the author’s intent to reflect the inspired Word of God – it seems to me that the biblical writers really were convinced that Hell was going to be an eternal punishment. When I read phrases like “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25, I have a hard time thinking that the Matthew’s audience would have understood that to be an eventual eliminating of existence. Hence, I don’t think a straight-forward or plain reading supports the conditional immortality thesis.

I think it’s good to note that while God is that greater which none can be thought – He is also completely other, and other in the highest degree. Certainly I don’t think God does or should conform to our desires, but that any of our human desires that affirm His character and work are from Him in the first place. So while I may still hope for a redemptive Hell, I rest in the knowledge that God’s plan is by far the most superior – be it redemptive or not. Reminds me of a Job-like scenario, making me think, “who am I to render judgment on the plans of God?”

All in all, I don’t think we have strong enough exegetical grounds to trump the tradition of the church here. While I certainly agree that there’s a lot of evidence of Hellenestic, Platonic, and Gnostic influence in the writings of the church fathers – even given both indirect/direct attention in the NT itself, I don’t think we can say that the idea of an immortal soul was a concept the Church adopted from culture. This is also where I agree with the fellow who said that interpretation must take place within community. By that I would mean the Bible must be connected to the Holy Spirit and to community – the community of scholarship, the contemporary Church, and the historic Church. I think this raises a ton of questions – when does truth trump unity? will evangelicalism survive without a magisterium? was the Reformation justified? On the whole however, unless we are convinced that both good exegesis (which involves good philosophy) and the Holy Spirit Himself has led us to throw off the yoke of the authority of the Church, I think we are to submit.

jon said...

Danny boy, I think that you raise some good issues. Perhaps these topics deserve a post of their own.

I'm really not sure how much weight to give considerations as 'what did the (human) author intend here?' and 'what would the audience have understood?'. These questions are crucial for the understanding of mosts texts, but I wonder how the Bible being inspired by God makes things different. I think that God speaks truths in the Bible that were understood by neither the (human) authors nor their audience. Perhaps one such item of theology is the Trinity. Did the disciples or their audience grasp this? For reasons such as this I find it curious that the passages on Hell do not clearly spell out what has become the traditional doctrine.

Perhaps revelation in the Bible is like prophecy in the Bible. Just as there were prophecies that were fulfilled at different times in increasing degrees perhaps the revelation of various truths in the Bible can be better recieved at different times given other (background/cultural/etc.) considerations. Maybe this is why the Bible never explicitly purports what is the traditional doctrine.
This is just a story, but I'm sympathetic to it.

danny boy said...

Since we’re all about referring books and the like on here, I thought I’d recommend a little gem “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” by Gordan Fee and Douglas Stuart. It may sound a little elementary, but I think it makes a number of keen points (and it has a nifty cover). In there he argues (and I agree) that God’s Word for us today is first of all precisely what His Word was to the original hearers/readers. So we can’t know what the text means now without knowing what it meant then. Now certainly there can be layers of meaning and some texts can take on a secondary and even “more full” reading (ie. Immanuel passage), but here again comes the question of what authorities (apart from the Bible itself) determine such readings if any? With the Trinity example, I think that doctrine comes from an attempt to reconcile plain readings of Scripture (based on authorial intent), again through good exegesis. In any case, I’d be really hesitant to say that although a text never meant this, it means it now – especially when that view counteracts earliest evidence of traditional church belief. Now at the same time, I agree that truths in the Bible are better received at different times/settings (ie. slavery, and perhaps women in ministry), and while I think I can affirm the idea that theology develops, I certainly think that needs to go back to the idea of doing exegesis in community.

jon said...

Just to be clear, I"m *not* saying that I believe the story that I told to be the truth of the matter. I do think that it is a possibility. I do *not* think that the text meant something different in the past then what it means now. What I am wondering is whether the human authors of the text *had to* fully understand what they were writing (distinguish what the text meant from what it was taken to mean). In other words, could it be that they did not grasp the truths that they were inspired to right (and similarly for their audience)?
We do know from scripture that the apostles did often get it wrong, my hypothetical question regards whether this could also apply to their understanding of what they were inspired to write. I just think that this is an independently interesting question.