Eternal Torment?


The bulk of this material comes from the latter half of The Final End of the Wicked, an article originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in September of 1984 (pages 325-334).

Edward Fudge is a layperson, a lawyer, who has examined the evidence for hell as an eternal conscious torment and found it wanting. In about 1970 he published the book, The Fire That Consumes, a 500 page book that concludes that the case for the traditional understanding of hell is nowhere near as airtight as is normally supposed. Since its publication I have yet to see a convincing rebuttal of his hermeneutical approach to the texts normally supposed to support an ever-tormenting hell fire (whether literal or figurative). What I have seen is a lot of histrionics and proof-texting that ignores the literary and historical context of the scriptures in question.

In the article mentioned first he summarizes some of the most important points he makes in the book about the hermeneutics of the language used to describe final punishment. In particular, seven of the most popular expressions are described in the literary context of their biblical precedents. We will note the most salient points of the article below. The following is abridged for the sake of clarity. For the full impact, refer to the article itself at the link above.

1. “Unquenchable fire. This expression appears in many places (Isa 1:31; 34:10 11; Jer 4:4; 7:20; 17:27; 21:12; Ezek 20:47 48; Amos 5:5 6). Jesus warns of it in Mark 9:43, 48. This is a picture of burning up the trash to destroy it.

2. Undying worms. What of “the worm that does not die” (Mark 9:48)? This comes from Isa 66:24, “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” These are dead bodies, not living people or human spirits. This is post-mortem dishonour by refusal to properly bury the bodies.

3. Gnashing of teeth. ‘The phrase “grinding of teeth” appears many times in the OT (see Job 16:9; Ps 35:16; 37:12; Lam 2:16), and it always pictures someone so angry at another that he grinds his teeth in rage, like a mad animal straining at the leash. We see the same usage in the NT, where Stephen’s enemies “gnashed their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54).’

4. Smoke that ascends. This picture comes from Gen 19:24. ‘It is much the same as our image of the mushroom-shaped cloud after an atomic blast. The visible smoke is a certification of accomplished destruction.’ In Isa 34:10 uses the expression to describe complete desolation. ‘The verses following describe a land empty of people, the haunt of desert creatures. Conscious pain has ended there, but “its smoke will rise forever”—the extinction is perpetual.’

5. No rest day or night. In Rev 14:1-5 the third angel cries with a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will… be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb . . . There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image” (14:9-11). ‘Here the destruction occurs without respite or relief for its victims until it is finished. Their suffering is not exclusively a “daytime” activity, nor it it exclusively a “nighttime” activity.’ [John’s note: Compare Rev. 9:3-18 and 16:8-10 with 14:9-11 for evidence of intense, but limited-duration torments in the same book.]

6. The cup of God’s wrath. ‘This symbol, in the scene at Rev 14:9-11, is a common figure for God’s punishment in both OT and NT (see Job 21:20; Ps 60:3; 75:8; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:27-28; Obad 16; Matt 26:39). The prophets use language like this: “They will drink and drink and be as if they had never been” (Obad 16); they “drink, get drunk and vomit, and fall to rise no more” (Jer 25:27). The figures combine in this passage for the strongest possible picture of punishment. Not all commentators understand this passage to refer to the final end of sinners, of course, and we will not argue that point either way. Whatever the case, the symbols are clear in the light of previous Biblical usage. None of them refers to unending conscious torment in regular usage, and there is no reason to think any refers to it here.’

7. The lake of fire. ‘The lake of fire is the Bible’s last description of final punishment, and it is mentioned four times (Rev 19:20; 20:10,15; 21:8). It is the fiery lake of burning sulfur, the lake of fire and brimstone. The exact expression “lake of fire (and brimstone/burning sulfur)” does not appear anywhere else in Scripture.

‘If one’s prophetic schema sees [the Beast and the False Prophet] as actual persons yet to come, we only note that the text says nothing about human beings “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” This is the single most problematic text in the whole Bible for the extinction of all evil, even though it does not specify human beings. [John’s note: it seems unlikely that the Beast and False Prophet are human beings in light of Rev. 16:13. These seem to be demonic beings who have perhaps possessed human beings.] … As the vision continues, however, “death and Hades” are “thrown into the lake of fire” (v 14). … This is the consummation of God’s victory over his final foe. Death and Hades are certainly abstractions, not persons, and the lake of fire here means their annihilation. Death will be no more—forever.

‘Only now do we find sinners included in this dreadful fate. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (v 15). The “book of life” is a symbol based on the ancient city’s register of living citizens. Whoever is not listed among the living is instead “in the lake of fire.” John makes the identification clear: “The lake of fire is the second death” (v 14). The next chapter repeats the fact with elaboration. Overcomers will inherit the new heavens and new earth, but all classes of sinners “will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur,” which again, John adds, “is the second death” (21:8). There is no good reason for not taking John’s explanation exactly as it stands, or for importing foreign Platonic definitions of “death” as “separation” into the discussion here. The natural sense is to be preferred, and here it could hardly be made plainer than it is. The final options are “life” or “death.” Everything else we have found throughout Scripture accords with this as well.’

8. Paul’s favorite phrases. ‘Paul’s most common phrases on the subject all picture the total extinction of sinners at the end. … The wicked, he warns, will die (Rom 6:21, 23), perish (2:12), be destroyed (Gal 6:8; 1 Cor 3:17; 2 Thess 1:9; Phil 1:28; 3:19; see also Jude 10). Nor will they ever come back, for this destruction is to be “everlasting” (2 Thess 1:9).

Edward Fudge concludes, “This case rests finally on Scripture. Only Scripture can prove it wrong.”

Amen.

I strongly recommend reading the entire article linked above and his book. So far, I have seen nothing Scriptural presented against his views that casts any doubt on his major conclusions. What I have mostly seen is quibblings about the meaning of the word “eternal” and the supposed parallel that requires the punishment to equal in duration the reward of the saved. Fudge has an answer that that: death and life are opposites. Eternal death and eternal life strike me as having equal duration, making them parallel enough for me.

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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
This entry was posted in Faith, gospel, Religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Eternal Torment?

  1. Rick Lannoye says:

    Well, if you haven’t seen a convincing rebuttal (besides reading the actual words of Jesus and not taking them out of their contexts), please do read my book–Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at http://www.thereisnohell.com). But if I may, allow me to share just one of the many points I make in it to explain why Jesus did not believe in Hell.

    For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    • John Valade says:

      Rick, I have now been to your website and have an additional comment to make. You seem to believe that other people have tampered with the Biblical account to insert Jesus’ remarks about hell. Edward Fudge never takes that easy way out, but rather deals effectively with the words as recorded by Scripture. A great difficulty with your argument is the perception that you get to cherry-pick the scriptures you want do deal with. An even greater difficulty is that you cast doubt about the veracity and historicity of the Bible itself, cutting the main support for faith in Jesus off at the knees. Casting doubt on the Bible is not something I can support, personally. That is not a problem with Mr. Fudge’s work.

  2. John Valade says:

    Thanks, Rick. It is good to see other people writing about this important issue.

    Just to clarify, I meant that I have not seen a convincing rebuttal of Mr. Fudge’s book, which is against hell (commonly understood as an eternal, conscious torment). It is easy to argue that God is too good and kind to make people to suffer for eternity. What is difficult is, as you say, to read Jesus’ actual words in their actual proper context. Mr. Fudge’s contribution to this debate is that he does exactly that in a very thorough and meticulous way. He shows how the scriptures have been twisted beyond recognition to try to prove hell as it is commonly understood in churches and shows what they are actually saying in their context.

  3. Randy Olds says:

    John,

    Thanks for the great synopsis of Fudge’s conclusions. I will definitely have to add these works, as well as Rick’s to my rapidly growing “wish-list’ of books to read.

    I am pretty well convinced of the case for annihilationism, but I have yet do do an in depth study of the topic. I have done enough study to be firmly convinced that the traditional Christian conception of Hell is, at least for the most part, an invention of the Catholic Church which the Protestants did little to refute.

    I have read that many of the Early Church Fathers tended to lean toward annihilationism as did quite a few of the prominent theologians over the last two thousand years. Unfortunately, many of those theologians who privately held to annihilationism still believed it best to “preach Hell” in order to control the masses who they believed would never submit to Christianity unless they had a strong deterrent, i.e. an eternal punishment in Hell.

    On a side note, I just noticed this morning that I forgot to add you to my blogroll after I changed my blog template last week. That has been corrected! I thoroughly enjoy your blog and quite often gain a lot of new understanding from your posts.

    Grace and Peace,

    Randy

    • John Valade says:

      Thanks, Randy. I appreciate your kind words of encouragement. I thoroughly enjoy your blog, and the understanding you bring me from both Arminian and Calvinist perspectives. Your personal stories help me with my own journey, too.

      When I was studying at Canadian Bible College, a friend of mine (formerly from WCG, but now Evangelical) was almost expelled from a teaching position from his Evangelical Free Church because he could not sign a doctrinal statement declaring hell as an eternal conscious torment. This incensed me so much that I went to talk with one of my professors about why churches get so hidebound about this particular “doctrine.” He began to suggest all of the usual proof texts about it, but I found objections to all of them as he brought them up.

      After a while he mused that each of my objections was hermeneutically-based. I averred that I had been thinking hermeneutically about this issue for a long time. He suggested that I turn this into a directed study, for credit. We worked out a bibliography and terms for the paper. My conclusion, based on a study of the Old Testament imagery in New Testament uses of hell (sheol/hades/gehenna), and a study of the Ante-Nicene fathers, was that the proponents of hell as an eternal conscious torment cannot prove their case convincingly enough to warrant the status the doctrine has achieved. I can try to find the paper and post it if there is any interest in seeing this college-level paper.

      • Randy Olds says:

        John,

        If you can find the paper, please post it. Sounds like an interesting read. Sometime in the future, I plan on doing a series of posts about Christian conceptions of Hell and where different denominational teachings on it were derived from. I’m sure that I can glean some additional perspectives from your paper.

  4. John Valade says:

    Thanks, Randy. I have found it and posted it on a page called “Eternal Torment?” along the top menu bar. As it was a 67 page paper when compiled, I created it in three parts. I also included the bibliography for this paper separately for those who want to do their own research.

    • James Pate says:

      Thanks for posting that, John. I’ll take a look at it some time, since this is an important topic to me. I read the part of your paper on the church fathers, and I found it interesting, because I wasn’t aware that there were annihilationist voices among them. I knew about the eternal torment doctrine among them, and the universalist one, but not annihilationism.

  5. Pingback: What is Repentance? « Mymoss’s Weblog

  6. Thanks for your good comments and work on this subject.I appreciate your work on the topic and the kind manner with which you present the fruit of your labor. Cordially, Edward

  7. Barry Ellis says:

    John, I don’t believe you ever mentioned that Edward Fudge paid a visit to your web site. It appears he referred specifically to your paper on the subject, and it must be very gratifying that he approved of your approach to this issue as well as the actual content. It is fairly obvious from his comment that he places great value on civility and kindness when discussing an issue such as this. This fact was i.n abundant evidence to me as I read “The Fire that Consumes” and also the documentation of his debate with Robert Peterson in “Two Views of Hell.” In the debate, Fudge comes across as both a scholar and a gentleman, whereas Peterson reveals he is not above misrepresenting his opponent’s views or even assigning false motives. For me the most revealing part was the fact that Peterson failed to address the scriptural evidence Fudge used in support of annihilation.

  8. John Valade says:

    Thanks, Barry. I think we had not seen each other for a while after Mr. Fudge left his gentle mark of approval on this page, and I forgot to mention it. Sorry about that.

    I certainly was warmed by his remarks and approval. I wish I could say that my own style had always been that polished and gentlemanly. I’m afraid that my professor was quite shocked at the tone of my first draft of the paper. I had let Peterson’s debating style get to me and responded in kind. Fortunately, the professor straightened me out and subsequent drafts were much more kind.

    I also had the privilege of meeting him in person a couple of years ago when he visited Regina and he gave a very interesting presentation about predestination in the Church of Christ. He is every bit as much a scholar and a gentleman in person as he is in print.

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