About one decade ago I wrote the paper linked below for a Bible College professor as an independent study because I had raised hermeneutical questions about the normal scriptures used to “prove” that hell is an eternal conscious torment for unrepentently wicked human beings. The professor did not agree with my conclusions, but told me that this was “the most persuasive piece” he had seen arguing the annihilationist (complete destruction, never to exist again in either body or soul) perspective. I received an A for the paper. The name of the college and the professor have been withheld because I doubt they would wish to be associated with the view presented below.
Note: I must confess that I am not entirely happy with how I handled the issue of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31 in this paper. This is the section that the professor (quite rightly) had the most criticism about. Had I stuck with my methodology of seeing whether each passage spoke to torment, consciousness and eternity, I would have noted at the time that eternity is not mentioned in the passage. It is simply another instance of the interpreter reading more into the passage than exists there.
Important further note: The methodology in this paper was greatly inspired by what I read in Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes. I probably did not give him anywhere near enough credit throughout the paper for my approach. On the other hand, I tried to approach each passage with a fresh eye, using methods suggested by his book, but from my own perspective. To the degree that I succeeded, my results probably look similar to his. It is hard to look at the Scriptures in historical and literary context and come up with an analysis significantly different than his.
My emphasis was more on what is said and what is not said in each passage, while his is on the meaning of the language used in the passage. At the time, I felt that handling the Old Testament imagery as “language of destruction” was less useful to me than a simple blow-by-blow description of what was said and whether or not it said what traditionalists purported. While there is a great deal of overlap, we essentially came to similar conclusions from different angles.
Having said that, Mr. Fudge’s research is far more thorough, and his results infinitely more far-reaching than my own. Get his book. It will be worth far more than its cover price.
Final Disposition of the Wicked – Part 1 Part 1 describes the systematic (or historical) theology that led to the current understanding of hell as an eternal conscious torment. It also looks at the writings of earliest Church Fathers for clues to their understanding of what the Scriptures say about hell. Finally, it examines the four main current views of hell and establishes the baseline of scriptures used to support the traditional view.
Final Disposition of the Wicked – Part 2 Part 2 examines the scriptures established as the main proofs of the traditional view for historical and literary contexts. It also asks what each passage says and does not say about hell as torment, consciousness, and duration.
Final Disposition of the Wicked – Part 3 Part 3 examines the effect of preconceptions on the reading of the passages purported to prove the traditional view of hell. It also considers the question of whether removing the fear of eternal torment from final punishment would lead to fewer conversions and more sin.
A couple of good research pages have appeared in 2010. One page, by Joel Watts, deals with what it means to be “seasoned with salt” with reference to gehenna.
In addition, Randy Olds at From Damascus to Emmaus is currently (as of autumn of 2010) doing research on hell in the Old and New Testaments. Both provide good exegetical background to the possible worldviews behind hell at the time of the Biblical writers.