With all the discussion of hell on this blog over the last few months I thought I would bounce a few questions off someone who has been studying the subject a lot longer than myself. So I asked Edward Fudge if he would field some questions. He is best known for his book “The Fire that Consumes” and has a movie coming out soon that chronicles his study of what has become a giant topic in Christianity. The movie is called “Hell and Mr. Fudge.” Thanks to Mr. Fudge for his willingness to sit down and answer these questions so thoroughly.
What sparked your initial study of the annihilation perspective on hell?
It would be more exciting if I had a dramatic story to relate about that, but I really do not. My detailed study of the doctrine of final punishment came about in a quiet way that I now am convinced was thoroughly providential.
In August 1976, Christianity Today published an article of mine called “Putting Hell in Its Place.” It was not particularly controversial, but it was somewhat provocative to think. I began with a brief overview of the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom in the OT and in the literature from between the Testaments. I observed that gehenna (the Greek word for “hell” as place of final punishment) appears only twelve times in the NT, all but one of those in the Gospels, and always with Jesus speaking to Jews living in and around Jerusalem. In the rest of the article, I examined a dozen statements by NT writers contrasting the final state of the redeemed and of the lost. Interestingly, those comparisons usually are worded in simple terms that clearly suggest either life or death.
An Australian theologian and publisher named Robert Brinsmead saw the article in CT, was impressed by it, and invited me to do a one-year research project on final punishment in the Bible, and to trace the doctrine of hell through church history. I took on the task. Life has never been the same since.
What has been the most humbling finding in your studies on hell and annihilation?
It is extraordinarily humbling to realize, as I soon did, that we all have overlooked most of the Bible’s teaching about the end of the wicked, all the while feeling so sure that we had a complete understanding of that subject.
What has been the most surprising reaction you have gotten from people in regard to your teaching and writing on the subject?
Two reactions compete for that title, and both are as unreasonable as they are surprising. The first is the anger some people exhibit, seemingly from a deep sense of insecurity, and an almost fiendish desire for others to suffer everlasting torment. It is as if their own happiness in eternity depended on the misery of others.
The second surprising reaction has been the stubborn refusal by so many Christian leaders–pastors, scholars, teachers and the like—to seriously consider what the Bible actually says on the subject. Instead they focus on “what the church has always taught,” what some human creed or confession says on the subject, or how a given explanation fits into their own End-Time (eschatological) system. This malady seems especially to afflict Reformed folk and Dispensational folk.
What has been the biggest “aha” moment for you in your study on this topic?
A giant “Aha!” occurred when I finally discovered the actual linkage in logic between the doctrine of unending conscious torment and the pagan Greek belief that every human has an immortal soul. During the second century of the Christian era, certain converted Greek philosophers brought the idea of the immortal soul into the Church, and it quickly became the basis for teaching unending conscious torment. This is crystal clear in the writings of Tertullian, for example, who was a chief culprit in the process. Tertullian’s longest work is on the Soul (de Anima) and he is explicit in grounding unending torment in the Platonic belief that every human has an immortal or deathless soul. Of course, the Bible says that only God is inherently immortal. Every time the Scripture speaks of human immortality, it is always talking about the saved, never about the lost; always about an embodied being, never about a disembodied soul or spirit; always in the resurrection, never now.
Why do you believe it is important that we understand the duration of hell?
Let me say first that hell will be a place of eternal punishment that is everlasting in duration. This “eternal” punishment is capital punishment, “everlasting destruction,” as Paul puts it in 2 Thessalonians 1. This punishment will endure as long as does eternal life.
I see three main reasons why it is important for us to understand the biblical teaching on this topic. If we claim that we are telling people what God has said — on any subject — we have a fearful duty to do our best to get the message straight. Throughout Scripture, God has shown himself quite unhappy whenever someone announces a message not from him and calls it the word of God. It is important that we diligently try to understand this teaching correctly in order to be faithful spokespersons.
Second, the traditional doctrine of hell has often been a hindrance to evangelism and a stumbling block to faith. Through the centuries, the teaching of everlasting torment has driven away many would-be believers and has actually turned many people into atheists. Famous atheists from Bertrand Russell to Antony Flew have specifically stated that they cannot believe in a god who would make people stay alive forever to torment them for deeds done in a few years lifetime. If the Bible really taught the doctrine, we should just have to live with it. But since it does not teach unending torment in hell, that doctrine is an unnecessary impediment to the spread of the gospel, and for that reason needs to be abandoned and forgotten.
Third, the traditional notion that God will intentionally and actively keep millions of people alive forever just to torment them endlessly is inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture, contradictory to the character of Jesus, and, even worse, is a horrible slander against the heavenly Father. Think how two good parents would feel to learn that their babysitter has told their little children that if they disobey, their parents have said they will cut the children’s fingers off with scissors, stab them in the neck with a butcher knife, and poke them into the microwave oven until they pop. That is nothing compared to the slander of saying that God will torment people alive in fire forever and ever without end—if indeed God has said nothing of the sort.
What practical implications does that have in the lives of Christians today?
These three reasons involve our vision of the character of God, the way we relate to him ourselves, and how we represent him to others. What could possibly be more practical than that?
What has been the most difficult verse you have wrestled with or been the closest to sway you away from annihilationism?
The only verse in the Bible that actually speaks of any creature being tormented forever is Revelation 20:10. In this symbolic vision, John saw the devil, the beast, and the false prophet thrown into the lake of fire, where they “were tormented day and night forever.” Note that there are no humans in that picture. Further, every time the book of Revelation pictures people in the lake of fire, it always explains that the lake of fire represents the “second death.” Even in Revelation, the final options for humans are either to have their names in the Book of LIFE (the registry of living citizens in the heavenly city), or to be thrown into the lake of fire and suffer the second DEATH.
In addition to your book, “The Fire that Consumes,” are there any other resources out there you would recommend for people to read who are interested in this topic?
The book titled Two Views of Hell, from InterVarsity Press, is an excellent introduction to this debate. In it, I set out the case succinctly for annihilationism, and Dr. Robert Peterson from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis presents the traditional viewpoint of everlasting conscious torment. After laying our opposite views before the reader, each of us then critiques the viewpoint of the other. This gives you and each reader of this book both the pro’s and the con’s of each position.
Those who have read an earlier edition of my book The Fire That Consumes will do well to read the new, revised, third edition of the book, released in May 2011 by Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock. A valuable addition to this new edition is my interaction throughout the book with seventeen traditionalist authors of twelve traditionalist books that have come out since my first edition of The Fire That Consumes in 1982.
Go to Youtube.com and search for “Edward Fudge,” to get many video teachings, including a whole series on the topic “The Fire That Consumes.” Visit my web site at http://www.edwardfudge.com/written/fire.html for a wide assortment of helps. Try a fun multiple-choice test at www.EdwardFudge.com/hellquiz.html/ (available in English, Spanish and Danish). And be sure to read about a professional feature movie in the works titled “Hell and Mr. Fudge” (at www.hellandmrfudge.com/ ).