Books Eschatology

How will God finally punish unrepentant sinners? Part 2: A very helpful resource

Rethinking HellIn part 1 of this 2 part series, I told the story of my theological journey in pursuit of an answer to this important question. I now want to commend to you a book which I believe will make an invaluable contribution to the evangelical conversation about hell. This is not a critical review of Rethinking Hell, it is a recommendation. But as I walk you through the book’s contents, I will  comment occasionally.

Why I recommend this book

A great many of the evangelicals I know are at stage 1 of the journey I described in the first part of this series of posts. These Christians are unaware that there are any evangelical annihilationists or, if they know of them, they doubt the evangelical credentials of those people. They have never studied Scripture carefully on this issue because they already know that it teaches eternal conscious torment, and they have never read or heard a carefully reasoned biblical case for an annihilationist reading of Scripture. To address this ignorance, a wonderful collection of “readings in evangelical conditionalism” has been assembled by Christopher Date, Gregory Stump and Joshua Anderson. This is a good place to start for anyone who is unfamiliar with the evangelical case for annihilationism. Additionally, I suggest that anyone who wants a handy reference work, with a valuable index to ancient documents, biblical and historical (pp. 319-37), will want this book on their shelf, and evangelical church libraries should make it available to their members.

I have no illusion that even a very careful reading of this collection will immediately convince a well formed traditionalist. My own journey to annihilationism with a formal agnosticism has taken decades. What I very much hope, however, is that enough people will read the book to increase the proportion of evangelicals who are aware of this position and its honorable tradition, and that its legitimacy as a thoroughly orthodox alternative will be granted by many more traditionalists, particularly those in positions of leadership and influence.

An excursus on nomenclature

“Conditionalism” or “annihilationism”?

At this point, let me comment briefly on the preference of the leaders at Rethinking Hell for the term “conditionalism” to identify the position for which they are arguing. This term emphasizes the fact that the New Testament always speaks of “immortality,” as it does of “eternal life,” as a gift that God gives only to those who are saved by Christ. Since immortality and eternal life are only the experience of those with God in heaven, they propose, we can not legitimately speak of the wicked as living endlessly, that is, as having immortality. Immortality is conditional on faith, hence unbelievers will experience not incorruption, immortality and endless life, but death of body and soul. Annihilation, as a term for the same understanding of the end of the wicked, puts its emphasis on that end. I do not think that the term “conditionalism” is the best name for the perspective being put forward in this book. Many traditionalists believe in conditional immortality, as opposed to the Platonic view of the indestructibility of the soul. They state that souls, like bodies, only exist (or live) if God sustains their existence. God could destroy both sinners’ souls and bodies (Mt 10:28). But, as traditionalists, they  believe that God has chosen to keep sinners alive endlessly, in body and soul. So they explain that the existence of the condemned is so radically different from that of the saved that the New Testament does not speak of the unsaved as “immortal” or describe their life in hell as “eternal life.” Given this fact, I think that “annihilationism” best communicates the distinctiveness of this perspective, and I will use that term consistently in my summary below.

In this book, Clark Pinnock makes the point that I am stating here.

Nevertheless, I do not call my position conditional immortality. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of my view. Conditional immortality has to be true for a negative reason—to make the destruction of the wicked conceivable, but it does not positively establish annihilation simply because it would still be possible that God might give the wicked everlasting life and condemn them to spend it in everlasting torment.” (RH 67)


While we’re considering terminology, it is worth pointing out that “hell” is generally used in English translations of the New Testament to translate “gehenna.” That is a word that is primarily used by Jesus, so we find it in the Gospels but very rarely in the rest of the New Testament. As Anthony Thiselton points out, Paul “never speaks of ‘hell,’ but regularly of death (Greek, thanatos)” (175). In Christian theology generally, we have come to use the term “hell” to refer to the final punishment of the wicked, and that usage is continued in the title of the book I’m recommending. I don’t think that this is a problem, so long as we realize that it is not precisely the way which English translations of the New Testament speaking. Furthermore, Gospel readers will notice that Jesus describes gehenna/hell in the language of perishing, destruction, burning, ruin, and death that predominates in most of the biblical references to the end of the wicked.

The contents of the book

A good place to begin your reconsideration of this subject is with some contemplation of the very helpful graphic that the folks at Rethinking Hell have produced. It can be seen on their web site, and it is printed (but in black and white), on p. 7 of the book.


John StackhouseIn the preface to the book, John Stackhouse (who is now an annihilationist himself) writes a foreword (ix-xiv), inviting readers into the journey of rethinking hell, and Greg Stump then describes the origin and purpose of this book (xv-xviii).

Part One: Rethinking Hell

Peter GricePart One includes two chapters by people who have been active in the Rethinking Hell project. Peter Grice, one of the project’s founders, recounts his own conversion to annihilationism (3-9) and comments on the “Hell Triangle.” Glenn Peoples introduces “evangelical conditionalism,” summing up the case for this understanding under four arguments: immortality, the biblical vision of eternity as a world without evil, the substitutionary death of Christ for sinners as paradigmatic of the Glenn Peoplesfate of those who reject God’s grace, and the “overwhelming preponderance” of Scripture’s reference to the destiny of the enemies of God as “death and destruction” (10-24).

Part Two: Influential Defenses of Conditionalism

Edward FudgeThe natural place to start an account of important defenses of conditionalism is the work of Edward Fudge, so this section opens with his article (29-43) on “The Final End of the Wicked” (in The Journal of the Evangelical Society), which I mentioned for its contribution to my own transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2 in my journey. It is an excellent, concise summary of the conclusions Fudge reached through years of exhaustive examination of the biblical teaching about the end of the wicked. A brief Stephen Travisexcerpt from Stephen Travis’s book, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus, speaks of “The Nature of Final Destiny” (44-47). Then, in an excerpt John Stottfrom Evangelical Essentials:A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, we have the bombshell that John Stott dropped on evangelicalism (48-55). The significance of this short piece, within the history of the discussion of hell among evangelicals, is hard to overstate.

Clark PinnockClark Pinnock’s initial case for annihilationism was laid out in his article on The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent, in 1990, in the Criswell Theological Review, and it is printed here as chapter 6 (56-63). As a Canadian Baptist scholar and a noted progressive or post-conservative evangelical (who later became well known for his advocacy of  Open Theism), Pinnock represents a different segment of evangelicalism than Stott, Travis, or Fudge, and their inclusion here, in contiguous chapters, indicates how widely annihilationist sentiments were coming to light within evangelicalism, around John Wenhamthe same time. As a Calvinist, I see the providence of God at work here. In 1991, English New Testament scholar and evangelical leader, John Wenham made his “case for conditional immortality” at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference in Christian Dogmatics, and his paper was published the next year as a chapter in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell.  He challenges evangelical theologians of his time to better understand the tenets of annihilationism and to respond to its arguments on the basis of biblical interpretation (74-93).

Part Three: Biblical Support for Conditionalism

Traditionalists often object to annihilationism with the charge that it is simply or primarily motivated by an emotional antipathy to the thought of God making sinners suffer endlessly. Because that caricature is inaccurate, and because one of evangelicalism’s most important distinctives is its strong commitment to the authority of the Bible, I consider Part Three particularly important. Here, readers will find essays summing up the “Biblical Support for Conditionalism.” Chapter 8 starts this survey with an essay by Basil Atkinson (99-115), “well known as an evangelical bulwark at [the University of] Cambridge,” and “perhaps the most influential conditionalist of his generation” (99), because he mentored so many Cambridge students who went on to leadership roles. His final work, Life and Immortality: An Examination of the Nature and Meaning of Life and Death As They Are Revealed in the Scriptures, is no longer in print, so we can be particularly grateful for this substantive excerpt from that book.

E. Earle EllisIn chapter 9 (“New Testament Teaching on Hell,” pp. 116-37), E. Earle Ellis “highlights the diversity of thought on hell amongst patristic and intertestamental writings, then argues for conditional immortality and the annihilation of the wicked using both the Old and New Testament,” but primarily the latter. From that study, he concludes that “resurrection unto immortality is a gift that will be given only to the saved.” Because traditionalists frequently speak as though the post-apostolic church was unified in a belief in eternal conscious torment, Ellis’s survey of the patristic writers is particularly helpful. Ellis posits that Ignatius (c. AD 35-110), Justin Martyr (c. AD 100-165), Arnobius (d. 303-330), and Athanasius (c. AD 296-373), were “prominent examples” of writers who taught that immortality is “given only to those in Christ,” and that a corollary of this fact is that punishment “is everlasting in its effect, i.e., an extinction of being” (117-18). In his examples of annihilationist statements by early fathers, Ellis also includes citations from Irenaeus and Theophilus of Antioch (pp. 120-21). Clearly, the biblical case now being made by annihilationists has roots in the early church; it is not a 20thC innovation.  Ellis’s index of passages including “New Testament terms used for the fate of unbelievers” (134-37) will also be very useful to students of this topic.

ARalph Bowlesmong the few texts which explicitly speak of the punishing of the wicked in terms that give the impression that it is endless, Rev 14:11 ranks highly in the case for traditionalism. (“And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name” [RSV].) This was a text which was important in the final years of my tenuous adherence to the traditional view. I found the essay by Ralph G. Bowles, “Does Revelation 14:11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell,” very plausible, and it contributed significantly to the loosening of my hold on the traditional view. Its inclusion in this collection (chapter 10, pp. 138-54) is a wise move, and the essay demonstrates how critical it is that Old Testament citations in the New Testament texts be considered in their original context, as well as in the context of their New Testament user.

Harold GuillebaudHarold Guillebaud (1888-1941) was an Anglican missionary and translator of the New Testament who heard Basil Atkinson preach at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, during the three year interim that Guillebaud served as curate of St. Paul’s in that city. Atkinson’s sermon stirred in Guillebaud a desire to write a book exploring conditionalism, and The Righteous Judge was the result, though it was only published after his death. An excerpt from the book forms Chapter 11 (pp. 155-73), which is Guillebaud’s careful examination of the four texts (Mt 18:34, 35; Mk 9:43-48; Rev 14:10-11 and 20:10) which initially appear to point to eternal conscious suffering in hell. I found his analysis very astute. At least, he should succeed in demonstrating to sincere readers that very plausible interpretations of these texts can be offered which indicate that they are not as helpful to the traditionalist case as might initially be assumed. Given the massive preponderance of biblical texts which speak of God’s punishing of the wicked in terms of destruction, I’ll be surprised if many traditionalists who read plausible alternative readings of these texts can come away without finding that their previous confidence in traditionalism has been shaken in some measure.

Anthony ThiseltonAmong annihilationists, there is an ongoing discussion about whether God destroys the wicked immediately upon the announcement of their judgment, or whether a period of conscious punishment precedes, and brings about, the destruction. In the latter case, the length and/or intensity of that period varies appropriately to the gravity of the person’s life in sin. The final piece in this section is a short reading from Anthony Thiselton’s book Life After Death (RH, 174-77). Based on his exegesis of the New Testament, he rejects both everlasting torment and immediate extinction. I am certain that Thiselton is right on this latter point. The period of conscious suffering is when justice discriminates between those who are condemned, and it seems likely to me that the most hardened sinners will resist God’s chastisement for the longest time. I am inclined to incorporate here the “reconciliationist” perspective that I had appropriated as a traditionalist, about which I wrote in two previous blog posts (here and here). It therefore seems likely to me that sinners will not be destroyed until they have reached the point of acknowledging that Jesus is Lord, even though that recognition will not include a repentant spirit.

Part Four: Philosophical Support for Conditionalism

Hughes - The True ImageThe fourth part of this collection presents “philosophical support for conditionalism,” and it begins with the section from Philip E. Hughes’s book True Image: Christ as the Origin and Destiny of Man (pp. 185-97) about which I wrote in “stage 4” of my journey. In this short piece, Hughes argues biblically and philosophically for both the natural mortality of the human soul and final annihilation of the wicked. Though the selection is short, Hughes is concise and his contribution packs a punch. Along the way, he identifies the philosophical perspectives that informed the views that he deems erroneous.

Next we have the first piece in this collection from the 19th century, an excerpt (“Divine Justice,” pp. 198-206) from Henry Constable’s The Duration and Nature of Future Punishment. Constable’s work is among the best remembered from a period when there was a strong revival of annihilationism across a wide spectrum of denominational lines. Constable was an Anglican priest, ordained by Richard Whately, the archbishop of Dublin, who was himself an influential advocate of annihilationism. Constable addresses the “common traditionalist response to objections based on the seeming injustice of eternal torment, namely that God’s justice is inscrutable” (198), and he assesses the impact of that issue on the traditional view of hell.

Christopher D. MarshallExpanding the diverse makeup of authors in this collection, Christopher Marshall writes about “Divine and Human Punishment in the New Testament,” pp. 207-27), in an essay taken from his book, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment. Writing from the Anabaptist tradition, Marshall brings a strong interest in peacemaking and justice to his examination of God’s just judgment of sinners.

For Marshall, God’s justice is in no way constituted by retribution or vengeance upon sinners, but is rather a “restorative and reconstructive justice, a saving action by God that recreates shalom and makes things right.” In light of this he suggests the notion of restorative punishment, which is “the pain of taking responsibility” for one’s personal actions and their consequences. When applied to the final end of the wicked, their punishment is the lack of connection with God, and connection with him, Marshall reminds us, is necessary for existence; this “punishment” is self-inflicted and merely allowed by God out of respect for free will rather than retributively dealt out by him. (207)

I do not take Marshall’s route to annihilationism, (1) because I consider God’s just punishing of sinners to be primarily an act of retributive justice, and (2) because I find in Scripture a strong emphasis on the end of the wicked as their experience of God’s active punishing, rather than on its being self-chosen as the suffering that is the consequence of personal decisions. But people who have appreciated C. S. Lewis’s work in a similar direction to Marshall’s will find this essay particularly helpful. Those who share my disagreement with key premises in Marshall’s argument will nevertheless profit from the stimulus he offers to our own construction of an alternative account of hell as divine punishment. I do agree with Marshall that the extinction of the wicked is the inevitable result of God’s withdrawal, not only of his patient grace, but of his metaphysical sustaining. When the sin of the wicked has been justly punished, and when they have been brought to a teeth gnashing acknowledgment that Jesus is Lord, God will cease to support their existence as embodied souls. In short, this is a very stimulating essay, which will likely push many readers into unfamiliar territory, but that is often an occasion for growth.

Nigel WrightNigel Wright, now retired from his long term as principal of Spurgeon College in London, asks about “A Kinder, Gentler Damnation?” (pp. 228-33), in an excerpt from his book, The Radical Evangelical: Seeking a Place to Stand. Wright seeks a middle ground between fundamentalism and liberalism, and often ends up left of center on many evangelical issues. But the editors of this collection valued this excerpt because it “demonstrates how varied are the instances of conditional immortality, which hail from all corners of evangelicalism” (228). Wright proposes that “it is God’s love—not his wrath, nor his justice—that is to be taken as primary when considering the doctrine of hell,” when we view it through Christ’s imaging of God. This might have been seen favorably by theological liberals except that Wright insists that hell, even though it is annihilation rather than eternal torment, is “no softer option, no kinder, gentler damnation.” God lovingly created free persons, and he enables free response, but this “cannot exclude the possibility of final loss” (230). Note a similarity here to the direction taken by C. D. Marshall. Hell is “an ultimate, final encounter with God,” in which the infinite loss of God himself is “self-selected.” Thus the horror of hell “consists: not in fire, sulfur, and burning, even throughout eternity, but in refusing and therefore losing the God who has love for us as his very being” (233). This is a destiny we should “avoid, for God’s sake and for our own” (233). In reading Wright’s proposal, I was reminded of Luther’s suggestion that God’s wrath is not in conflict with his love but is the way in which wicked and rebellious people experience the love of God.

Richard SwinburneThe final selection in this section of the book (“The Future of the Totally Corrupt,” pp. 234-40) is from the noted English philosopher, Richard G. Swinburne, whose work in Christian apologetics has been particularly impressive.  It comes from Responsibility and Atonement. Editors of the collection highlight Swinburne’s strong commitment to the substance dualist view of human persons, which makes his defense of annihilationism an important indication that this is not a position which necessarily entails a physicalist view of persons or the denial of a conscious intermediate state. I greatly enjoyed a seminar directed by Swinburne, when on sabbatical in Oxford, so I was delighted to see his inclusion here, though he would not self-identify as an evangelical and he became Eastern Orthodox after my studies with him. I differ from Swinburne at numerous points (like his Open Theism), but I share his understandings of both human nature and the condition of the dead, so I appreciate Swinburne’s inclusion in this collection. He believes that annihilatonism “flows naturally from the understanding that God has created human beings as rational souls, capable of making free will decisions and thereby forming their characters over time” (235). Swinburne suggests that a belief in the natural immortality of the soul was a significant factor in the affirmation of eternal sensory punishment by the Fathers and scholastics. But he says that “today we think that conservation in existence rather than elimination is what requires special divine action, and so there is in our view an obvious alternative to eternal punishment to which God could consign the wicked—he could eliminate them” (240).

Part Five: Historical Considerations

It is not difficult to find statements by traditionalists asserting that the church has always believed in eternal conscious torment as the end of the wicked. But this idea is no longer defensible, and better informed traditionalists now acknowledge that the post-apostolic church was not all agreed concerning the nature of final punishment and that alternatives to eternal conscious torment were put forward by well respected, orthodox Christian scholars, prior to the late 20th century. That diversity is the focus of Part Five, which includes two essays treating “historical considerations.”

Kim PapaioannouKim G. Papaioannou wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Places of Punishment in the Synoptic Gospels,” under the direction of Prof. Loren T. Stuckenbruck, an established scholar of early Jewish and Christian literature. Papaioannou expanded on his study of the development of traditions about the afterlife and final punishment, in The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus, and the selection in this collection deals with “The Development of Gehenna between the Old and New Testaments” (245-59).  His work is careful and illuminating and demonstrates very helpfully that “the detailed descriptions of torment so common in other Jewish and Christian, contemporary and later, descriptions of the final judgment” are strikingly absent from the Gospels. “Indeed, Gehenna is nowhere in the Synoptics presented as a place of torment. Rather, it is a place of destruction” (258). This is consistent with the Gehinnom prophecies of Jermeiah (7:29-34 and 19:1-13) and of Isaiah (66:24) “that have influenced the Gehenna language of the Gospels,” and which “depict the destruction rather than the torment of the wicked” (258). Likewise, the Synoptic language used to describe Gehenna portrays “a place of fire, but not the fire usually associated with hell that torments, but does not consume. Rather it is the Isaianic fire that burns and consumes as easily and thoroughly as fire consumes chaff, or dead trees (Mt 3:10, 12; Lk 3:9, cf. Isa 1:31; 43:17). . . . In light of this emphasis on destruction rather than torment it is no surprise to find the worms of Isa 66:24 in action (Mark 9:43-48). Those are not worms that torment as grotesquely presented in later Christian works, but rather the maggots that feed on corpses and the other impurities” (258-59). This chapter by Papioannou presents a perspective that increasingly impressed me as my hold on traditionalism waned. Annihilationism does so much better justice to the Old Testament background of the key texts which form the foundation stones of the traditionalist structure than does traditionalism. I came to see that texts which had appeared to strongly support the concept of eternal torment are better understood as teaching  destruction in their New Testament use, as in their Old Testament derivatives.

Leroy Edwin FroomThe second essay in the historical category, “Conditionalism in the Early Church” (260-75) comes from the pen of Leroy E. Froom, excerpted from his 2 volume work on The Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers. When these books were published in the mid 1860s, Froom’s identity as professor of historical theology at Andrews University, and as a Seventh Day Adventist minister and historian, might have made its inclusion in a collection of evangelical readings appear questionable. But, though not yet fully inside the evangelical tent, Seventh Day Adventism has gained much better reception, and their theological association has been meeting jointly with the Evangelical Theological Society at their annual meeting, for quite a few years now. When it comes to historical work, of course, we must assess its credibility in terms of the work itself, and not dismiss historical judgments because they come from the pen of someone whose theology is suspicious in some particulars. Here Froom deals with the Apostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers.

In regard to the Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, the writer of The Didache and of the Epistle of Barnabas, Hermas of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Papias), Froom builds on the work of Henry Constable who has been introduced to us earlier in this collection. From Froom’s own reading of the Fathers, he agrees with Constable’s judgment that none of the apostolic Fathers said anything about “that immortality of the soul which is so prominent in the writings of the later fathers. Immortality is by them asserted to be peculiar to the redeemed.” They emphatically declared that the punishment of the wicked was everlasting but, wrote Constable, “The fire of hell is with them, as with us, an unquenchable one, but its issue is with them as with Scripture, ‘destruction,’ ‘death,’ ‘loss of life’” (The Duration and Nature of Future Punishment,167, cited in RH, 268). To Froom (and to me) it is significant that “no one during [Constable’s] lifetime, when discussion over the question was rife, ever undertook to disprove his contention” (268).

Froom cites Irenaeus as the “most conspicuous and learned conditionalist of the third century,” having been a “pupil of Polycarp of Smyrna, who, it will be remembered, was an avowed conditionalist” (259). Irenaeus insistently denied the immortality of the unsaved, and Froom sums up Irenaeus’s argument thus: “To be deprived of the benefits of existence is the greatest punishment, and to be deprived of them forever is to suffer ‘eternal punishment’” (269). Approximately a century after Irenaeus was martyred, Arnobius took up the annihilationist torch and he wrote:

This is man’s real death, this which leaves nothing behind. For that which is seen by the eyes is only a separation of soul from body, not the last end—annihilation: this, I say, is man’s real death, when souls which know not God shall be consumed in long-protracted torment with raging fire” (Against the Heathen, ANF 6: 440; cited, 273).

In Athanasius, however, Froom finds conflicting statements and a bridge to what later became the church’s traditional understanding, the immortality of the soul and eternal torment. Athanasius described the redemptive work of the God-man, in terms consistent with the annihilationism that had preceded him: “As it was by the Word that man was called from non-existence into being, so by the one fault that forfeited that life he incurred corruption [De inc.4-5, NPNF 4:38]. Having thus incurred ruin, man of himself must sink back into destruction [De inc. 6, NPNF 4:39]. Only the original Bestower of life, Athanasius held, could now rescue him and restore life.” But in the writings of Athanasius, Froom finds only a “semi-conditionalism,” because “on the actual nature and destiny of man Athanasius was at times self contradictory,” (274, as illustrated in n72). So conditional immortality and annihilationism were “erelong drowned out in the swirling tide of Platonism, which in time swept over Christendom. But his was a retarding voice that was heard, and was respected in his day” (275).

Part Six: Conditionalism and Evangelicalism

The editors of this collection are well aware of the fervor with which traditionalists often attack  annihilationism, depicting it as outside the bounds of evangelical doctrine. Having expressed strongly his own sense of alarm at the rise of annihilationism within evangelical circles, J. I. Packer was surprised to discover that attendees at the conference were split over the question (“Evangelical Annihilationism in Review,” Reformation and Revival 6.2 (1997): 38; cited, p. 279. Christianity Today later reported that “the conference was almost evenly divided as to how to deal with the issue in the affirmations statement, and no renunciation of the position was included in the draft document” (June 16, 1989, 63). Perhaps because this situation was unexpected, it created alarm. But, in spite of continued efforts to stem the increased attraction towards annihilationism, by earnest traditionalists who consider the position dangerous, other traditionalists have come to accept annihilationism as a legitimate alternative within evangelical orthodoxy. That acceptance is demonstrated in the essays included in the final section of the book, dealing with “Conditionalism and Evangelicalism.”

In the UK, the Evangelical Alliance represents 2 million evangelical Christians  scattered among 79 denominations and 3500 churches. In 2000, the Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE) tackled “The Nature of Hell,” and concluded that “conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view,” and that “’evangelical conditionalists’ have strong evangelical credentials, and have in particular demonstrated a genuine regard for the authority of Scripture,” but they encouraged evangelicals “to pursue agreement on the matter of hell, rather than merely acquiescing in their disagreement” (282). The ACUTE report is the first item in Part Six (282-88). I commend British evangelicals for their work on this issue and for the spirit in which it was done.

Roger OlsonRoger Olson, though a traditionalist himself, opined in The Mosaic of Christian Belief  that annihilationists belong in the evangelical fold (“Diverse Christian Beliefs about Life Beyond Death,” 289-91). In the final chapter of the book (“Equally Orthodox Christians,” 292-303), prolific New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington, likewise argues for the inclusion of annihilationists within orthodox evangelicalism, in a piece taken from his blog, “The Bible and Culture.” There, Witherington concluded that “a good case, solidly based in Scripture, can be made for either annihilationism or everlasting punishment.” He deemed either conclusion “possible, and equally orthodox.” He posits that “both cases rely on highly metaphorical language to make their case,” and then he writes:

Ben WitheringtonBased on all my work on the theology and ethics of the NT (see The Indelible Image Vols. 1 and 2), if I were a betting man (which I’m not), I would bet that probably the annihilationist view is closer to the truth, based on the revealed character of God in Christ as both just and loving. But I don’t know that I can be sure about this when the evidence is so imagaic and so metaphorical. (302, emphasis supplied)

That is a fitting note on which to end my description and recommendation of this book. It accords with my own position now, annihilationism with formal agnosticism, though I emphasize the explicit teaching of Scripture rather than inference from the nature of God. I would love to see the spirit that is exemplified in the three essays in this concluding section become characteristic of evangelicalism. That would create an environment in which evangelical scholars would feel free to pursue their study of Scripture without fear that it might lead them to conclusions which would endanger their position within evangelical institutions.

A helpful video resource

While I’m in a mood for recommending resources, I should mention that videos of the sessions at Rethinking Hell’s first conference, held recently in Houston, are among the videos available on the Rethinking Hell site. A second conference is already being planned for next year.



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

5 replies on “How will God finally punish unrepentant sinners? Part 2: A very helpful resource”

This is an amazingly detailed exploration of the book–thank you so much, both for your endorsement on the back cover (which was such a blessing, given the esteem I have for your scholarship) and now in this post. I will definitely make this the primary link for anyone I know who wants to find out more detail about the book and it’s various excerpts.

The one slight, possible correction is that we took Roger Olson’s section from his book The Mosaic of Christian Belief, though he may have recycled material from the CT article you cited. It’s funny, Roger wrote to us asking, “When did I contribute this chapter to your book?” and we had to explain how we’d purchased the permission from IVP–I had assumed they let the authors know, but I no longer take that to be the case!

Thank you again & blessings,

Thank you, Greg. I had misconstrued the second paragraph of the introduction to Roger’s section. I have corrected my post accordingly, and I indicated the pages from which that piece was taken to atone for my error, since I had his book on my shelf. Roger likely got a few cents for the permission, but his statement won’t identify where it came from. Thanks for your fine work on the collection.

Thank you for both posts, Terry. This comprehensive survey is indeed helpful. I have not thought through the positions carefully, but admit readily that annhilationism makes sense to me from a variety of perspectives. C.S Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” prepared the way for me many year ago, I suppose. Whatever position we hold must contribute to God’s glory, and the position you describe does that well.

Your detailed testimony (including the recent update) is very helpful. I had a somewhat similar journey. Very briefly:

1. I first started considering annihilationism after reading a footnote in a chapter devoted to defending eternal conscious punishment in John Piper’s excellent book Let the Nations Be Glad (the book is excellent in spite of, not because of, Piper’s view on hell). In the footnote, Piper allowed Stott to very briefly defend his own view of annihilationism. That was sometime around 1995.

2. I can’t remember how it happened, but within a few years I believed annihilationism was more likely true than eternal torment, but I was focused on my calling to work with an unreached people group and did not have time to research it. I did not feel certain enough to teach the view widely to others at that time and I was cautious because I knew it was a minority view.

3. When I was getting ready to return to the US I applied to serve as a pastor at conservative, evangelical churches in several denominations. A few had eternal conscious punishment explicitly written into their statement of faith, and this pushed me to study the topic in depth. At that time (2009 to 2013) I also worked on finishing my M.Div. In one class my professor had actually written a book defending eternal torment and had a whole chapter against annihilationism. By the end of this process I was certain enough of the truth of annihilationism to teach it to others.

4. Yet, it was only in the last month that I felt it was the right time to “come out” and preach on this topic on a Sunday morning. (Last year, I taught on it in a small group Bible study). I knew it was risky. So far, so good, by God’s grace. If you’re interested you can see links to the two part sermon I preached and a few thoughts about why this topic is important on my blog here:

God Bless You,
Mark (with Hope and Joy!)
p.s. My wife’s name is Hope and our 17 year old, ready to graduate HS daughter is named Joy, and so I often sign my name this way with an intended double meaning.

Thank you, Mark. I sense a growing awareness among evangelicals that the biblical case for annihilationism is strong. But the doctrine of eternal conscious torment has been so widely accepted, for so long, that it is embedded in many statements of faith, and many people have never even met the suggestion, from someone whom they respect, that the traditional view might not be easily supported from Scripture. It seems likely to me that change will come slowly, but I’m hopeful that a “tipping point” will eventually be reached and that many more people will have experiences like you and me.

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