Last night, I had a lengthy Skype chat with Chris Date, who is in the process of interviewing some (or all) of the authors of essays in A Consuming Passion, of which Chris was an editor. My own piece was about my “long journey to annihilationism.” Chris talked with me about a couple of the stages in my journey and he seemed particularly puzzled by the fact that I had been so slow to concede the undeniable truth of Edward Fudge’s biblical case for annihilationism and its history in the church. That got me to thinking further about my journey.
The difficulty of paradigm shift
In the first essay in A Consuming Passion, John Stackhouse discusses “why [Edward Fudge’s] book didn’t succeed: the larger context,” and he begins by appealing to Thomas Kuhn’s demonstration that “people maintain their current paradigms—the intellectual models that frame and govern their thinking—until anomalies accumulate of such number and weight that the paradigm can no longer accommodate them and people then look around for a new one” (p. 9). This dynamic was very clearly at work in my own eschatological journey.
After I got off the phone with Chris, I pulled a few well worn books off my shelf. I wanted to see what I might have missed in significant books which I had read and assigned to my students to read, which should have softened me up for a change from belief in eternal conscious torment. Looking through those books, I am not surprised at the slowness of my paradigm shift. For the benefit of any who, like Chris, wonder about the gradualness of my change of mind, I’ll recap what I saw in my review of the works of four theologians for whom I have high regard and whose work I have assigned to students to read.
For quite a few years, I assigned Erickson’s Christian Theology as a text in my systematic theology courses. Eventually, I stopped, however, because his theology and mine were so much alike that I wanted to expose students to a different perspective than they got from my lectures. So, what did I observe when I took a look at Erickson’s work?
First, I found it interesting that the name of Edward Fudge does not appear at all in the index, and “annihilation” points to just 3 pages (1244-46, in the second edition, since I don’t own the third edition). It would have made an impression on me if Erickson had indicated that the case for annihilationism is strong and believed by people whom Erickson regards highly. But he certainly does not.
In the section on “the eternality of future punishment,” Erickson recounts Warfield’s description of 3 different forms of annihilationism: “pure mortalism, conditional immortality, and annihilationism proper” (B. B. Warfield, Studies in Theology, 447-50). The first form he quickly rejects because, “in contradiction to the biblical doctrine of humanity’s creation in the image of God, it makes the human little more than an animal” (1244). For “conditional immortality,” the belief that “God simply allows the unbeliever to pass out of existence,” Edward White is the only proponent cited.
Erickson considers the third form “most deserving of the title,” because “it sees the extinction of the evil person at death as a direct result of sin” (1245). But both versions of this position (annihilation as self-destruction, and annihilation as punishment for sin), as Erickson describes them, identify the soul as naturally immortal. For this view, Erickson cites a Seventh Day Adventist document. Now, I see this portrait of the most viable of annihilationist proposals on the table as very surprising, because all the conditional immortalists I hear from these days deny the Platonic doctrine that souls are naturally immortal.
In Erickson’s view, “the problem with all of the forms of annihilationism is that they contradict the teaching of the Bible” (1245). Hmm! Nothing here which might have encouraged me to pay more attention to the work of Edward Fudge. Erickson then cites biblical passages which speak of “unending or unquenchable fire” (Isa 66:23; Mk 9:43-48), and he cites
several instances where words like “everlasting,” “eternal,” and “forever” are applied to nouns designating the future state of the wicked: fire or burning (Isa 33:14; Jer 17:4; Matt 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7), contempt (Dan 12:2), destruction (2 Thess 1:9), chains (Jude 6), torment (Rev 14:11; 20:10), and punishment (Matt 25:46). . . . In the cases we have cited, nothing in the contexts justifies our understanding aionios as meaning anything other than “eternal.” The parallelism found in Matthew 25:46 is particularly noteworthy: “then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” If the one (life) is of unending duration, then the other (punishment) must be also.
For years, I told my students that I was hanging on to traditionalism with my finger nails, because the conclusion Erickson draws here from Matt 25:46 weighed very heavily in my resistance to the case for annihilationism.
Suffice it to say that, given my general appreciation for and frequent agreement with Erickson, nothing in his work would have contributed to doubt in my mind that the traditional belief in eternal conscious torment is biblical truth.
I then took a look at three books dedicated to eschatology, which I have read carefully and have assigned for reading in seminars on the subject at least once. The three books come from Protestant theologians who approach the subject from different contexts, and I will treat them in the order of their publication.
I have benefited significantly from the work of Anthony Hoekema through the years since I became a Calvinist (in 1967), knowing him as professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary for many years. His book on The Bible and the Future was copyrighted in 1979. I have owned it since shortly after it was published and it is still in print with Eerdmans, so it is book that is widely appreciated and I think that is for good reason. Given the date of its writing, we cannot be surprised that Edward Fudge’s work is not in the bibliography. In Hoekema’s chapter on “eternal punishment,” he identifies two main forms of “denial of the doctrine of eternal punishment” (265). Now I would challenge the statement that destruction is not a form of eternal punishment, but Hoekema’s distinguished opinion would naturally have had force in the maintenance of my belief in eternal conscious torment.
Hoekema does better than Erickson in distinguishing among annihilationists between (1) those who believe that God created humans immortal but that he deprives people of this if they “continue in sin” (266-73), and (2) those who affirm “conditional immortality,” so that this gift of grace is given only to believers. But in Hoekema’s brief discussion of the history of annihilationism, he cites only Arnobius from the 4th century, the Socinians from the 16th century, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I knew Socianism to be seriously in error for its denial of the Trinity, and Hoekema had included SDAs and JWs as bad examples in his book on The Four Major Cults, so nothing in his account of its representatives would have made me pay much attention to annihilationism. Hoekema goes on to sum up quite competently the traditional biblical case for eternal conscious torment, and it was obviously to take more than a small push to bring me to serious consideration of the biblical case made by orthodox annihilationists, of whose existence Hoekema gave me no indication whatsoever. It is reasonable to assume that he was himself ignorant of that case.
Hans Schwarz is a German Lutheran theologian whose primary appointment was as professor of systematic theology and director of the Institute of Protestant Theology at the University of Regensburg. I first encountered him through his fine book on Christology (1998), and when he published his work on Eschatology in 2000, it offered me a valuable perspective on the subject from a quite different perspective than Erickson and Hoekema had brought to it. Again, however, Edward Fudge’s name does not appear in the index of names, although his book had been out for more than a decade. More surprisingly, “annihilationism” does not appear in the index of subjects.
As is characteristic of Schwarz’s work, his treatment of immortality (261-80) is highly nuanced. He distinguishes between “immortality in the philosophical sense,” by which he means particularly the Platonic doctrine of indestructible souls, and immortality as “a gift of God which means that God continues his relationship with us beyond our biological death” (276-77). He notes that “contemporary Roman Catholic authors seem to be divided on the issue of immortality and cites Joseph Ratzinger (whom we know best because he later became Pope Benedict), who asserts that “since God is the God of the living, and calls his creature, man, by name, this creature cannot be annihilated” (277). But Ratzinger also asserted that, “Christ is the tree of life whence we receive the food of immortality” (Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 158), so Schwarz sees in Ratzinger’s work a tension between the indissolubility of creatures and the fact that immortality comes only as a gift through Christ. Schwarz himself asserts that, “While we agree that wherever we fall, we fall into the hands of the living God, being kept within those hands does not imply immortality. If this were so, then everything would be endowed with a kind of immortality, everything created could never fall into nothingness” (277). So the final destruction of the wicked remains a possibility within Schwarz’s theology. With regard to the first death, Scwhwarz does not “advocate that death is the dissolution of the person or that we plunge into a state of blissful void once we die” (279). But in terms of eternity, I see room for annihilationism in Schwarz’s cautious statement that “death can result in eternal death as eternal damnation, or it can result in eternal life as eternal joy” (280), though I can see how traditionalists would hear “eternal damnation” as the state of eternal conscious torment.
In a chapter on “controversial areas of eschatological hopes” (309-364), Schwarz deals with “four problem areas,” setting a date for the end, millennialism, universal homecoming, and purgatory. I note that, with reference to the final state, universalism is identified as controversial, but annihilationism is not mentioned. Whether this is because Schwarz views it as a viable alternative to eternal conscious torment, or whether he is blissfully ignorant of it as a serious theological proposal, is not at all clear.
When Schwarz gets to discussion of the “paradox between justice and love of God” (394-97), universalism gets a serious look but is rejected (394-95), but annihilationism gets short shrift.
Another attempt to solve the paradox between God’s justice and love, though only a halfhearted one, is to assert that the condemned will be annihilated and thus all (who are left) will be saved. But how can there be an annihilation if there is no escape from God, since God is everywhere, even in death and beyond death? (395-96).
At this point, Schwarz’s thought is not on eternal judgment but on the state of the physically dead, but a reader might naturally hear a principle which could apply after the resurrection and judgment too, when “the term ‘hell’ denotes exclusion from the new world”(398).
As Schwarz moves on to speak of “heaven and hell,” however, we soon read that “after the resurrection and judgment [hell] will be disclosed as the realm of eternal torment” (402). The allusions of the New Testament “describe hell in terms of pain, despair, and loneliness,” concepts taken from present negative experiences but transcended. The terms
express the reaction to the disclosure and finalization of the discrepancy between one’s eternal destiny and one’s realization of this destiny. They express the anguish of knowing what one has missed without the possibility of ever reaching it. They witness to a state of extreme despair without the hope of reversing it. It becomes clear that such anguish and despair will not just result from a spatial separation from God. It will be a dimensional separation from God and from the accepted. Yet God and the destiny of the accepted will be somehow present as a curse. (402-03)
In that eternal state, when God’s rule is complete, “the whole created order will participate in the completion of creation,” experiencing an eternal sabbath (404-05). But, in Schwarz’s vision, this is not because everyone has been redeemed (universalism), nor is it because the wicked have been destroyed (annihilationism), but because “even those powers higher than humanity will be freed from the constant battle against the destructive and antigodly forces because these forces will be permanently banished from the presence of the Lord” (405).
Clearly, Schwarz is handing on the tradition of eternal conscious torment, and he is doing so without any apparent awareness that there is a significant literature of biblical and theological argument for destruction as the final end of the wicked. He doesn’t dispute annihilationism, he simply ignores it. His work on eschatology is a profound piece of biblical and theological construction but no one reading it would be given any motivation to examine the case for annihilationism which had been well developed by the time of his writing.
When Donald Bloesch produced his book on The Last Things, in 2004, he was professor of theology emeritus at Dubuque Theological Seminary, and this completed his seven-volume systematic theology, a series titled “Christian Foundations.” I found all of his work in this series stimulating, particularly because he approached his subjects with a viewpoint that always struck me as a form of evangelical Barthianism. In J. I. Packer’s endorsement of the book, he says that “the special worth of Bloesch’s multivolume theological testament, here completed, lies in its thorough canvassing of options, its persistent engagement with Scripture, and its simultaneous quest for the truth of faith and the life of faith,” and this final volume is “right up to standard.” You might think, “Good, if we have a ‘thorough canvassing of options,’ we are bound to get a well- considered assessment of annihilationism.”
Finally, I was looking at a book with a reference to Edward Fudge and five references to “annihilationism” in the indexes. Here, at last, a reader is told that annihilationism is a significant, though controversial, eschatological position within Christian theology. Bloesch acknowledges that “it has a long history in the Christian church,” and is also known as “conditional immortality” (40).
According to this view God does not force his grace upon anyone, but he allows some of his subjects to reject the truth of the gospel and thereby fall into damnation, which consists not in everlasting punishment but in exclusion from the kingdom of God that ends in annihilation or ontological destruction. Among those of modern times who have espoused this view are Horace Bushnell, Henry Ward Beecher, Lyman Abbott, John Stott, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Michael Green, Edward Fudge, John Wenham, Ellen White, Edward White, Stephen Travis and Clark Pinnock. Both Jehovah’s witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists adhere to some form of annihilationism.
In that chapter on “controversial themes,” Bloesch identifies his own position as
divine perseverance, which holds that God in his love does not abandon any of his people to perdition but pursues them into the darkness of sheol or hell, thereby keeping open the opportunity for salvation. It is said that God’s grace penetrates the barrier of death, thus kindling the hope of conversions beyond death. Proponents of divine perseverance are divided as to whether all will eventually accept Christ’s salvation. Some speculate that God will grant willful unbelievers some kind of status within his kingdom but glaringly inferior to that of his sons and daughters, who are adopted through faith in Christ’s promises. Among those now and in the past who are identified in some sense with this general position are Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, George MacDonald, P. T. Forsyth, George Lindbeck, Stephen Davis, Gabriel Fackre and Donald Bloesch. These theologians strive to do justice to the scriptural affirmation that Christ descended into hell and led a host of captives with him into heaven (Eph 4:8; 1 Pet 3:19; 4:6) (40).
In my typology of positions regarding the salvation of the unevangelized, Bloesch exemplifies “post mortem evangelism accessibilism.” Here, as is often the case in Bloesch’s work, we find him expressing appreciation of Karl Barth’s work, while differing from him in significant ways. Bloesch identifies Barth as the “prime representative” of “evangelical agnosticism” (41).
Barth is adamant that God’s grace is more powerful than human sin, but we cannot surmise how long God will allow human sin to continue. We can hope for all because all are included in God’s outreach of mercy in Jesus Christ; yet this is not universal salvation, since we cannot assume that all will finally enter the kingdom of heaven. Barth indeed explicitly rejects the doctrine of apokatastasis—the restoration of all things. (41)
Bloesch himself proposes
a particularism within a universalism, a hell within heaven. Yet hell signifies not exclusion from God’s presence but continued opposition to God’s presence. Moreover, if God is present in hell, if the gospel can be proclaimed to the dead (1 Pet 3:19; 4:6), then we can hope for the conversion of many on the other side of death. Even those irreversibly cut off from full participation in the glory of heaven at the last judgment will still be encompassed by this glory. In the final consummation God will “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:10). In the eschatological denouement we need to remember that God is “above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6) (42).
So, “we can look to the future with hope because all people are under the sign of God’s unconditional love,” and he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:23), nor is he “willing that any should perish” (2 Pet 3:9). Bloesch sees the apostle Paul as “animated by a vision of universality: ‘God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all’ (Rom 11:32 ESV)” (42). But Paul is also very clear that “we can be assured of our salvation only on the basis of personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 3:22)” (42).
Hoekema and Erickson had been well anchored in the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment. Schwarz worked within the same general framework but came at the issue from outside the evangelical wing of the church. With Bloesch, we have an evangelical but not a traditionalist. His optimistic description of a situation in which God continues to work graciously beyond judgment day, so that the population of hell can grow smaller as people are transferred to heaven, in a process that may never end, is likely to be just as disturbing to evangelical traditionalists as is evangelical conditionalism/annihilationism, if not more so. But this likely accounts to some extent for the more objective manner in which Bloesch described the annihilationist position early in his book. What more, then, does he have to say about annihilationism. Let’s take a look at his other references to annihilation.
In a chapter on “Light Against Darkness,” Bloesch first describes Barth’s unusual understanding of devils.
There are no fallen angels, only fraudulent imitators of angelic beings. Devils are no creatures of God but disrupters of his creation. They represent the chaos in its dynamic manifestation. They were liars from the very beginning (cf. Jn 8:44). Darkness is not a lesser light but the antithesis to light. In Barth’s views devils or demons will ultimately be annihilated (60).
Contrary to Barth, Bloesch believes in the fall of some angels, a rebellion which he believes occurred prior to the creation of humanity (51). The devil and the angelic hosts under him (called demons) are real for Bloesch, and they are powerful in their “conspiracy to extend the empire of wickedness,” but their “destination is the lake of fire—God’s final judgment upon angelic rebellion” (51). Christ defeated the powers of darkness in the cross and resurrection victory but, until their final subjugation, they struggle against God and his people (56-57). Whether or not Bloesch believes that they will be ultimately annihilated, as Barth proposed, is not clear, but Bloesch offers no hope for their salvation as he does for the humans who believe in Christ after the final judgment. If the demons are ultimately annihilated, the continuing work of God’s grace among unbelieving humans would seem to offer even more hope, but Bloesch does not speak about this.
Bloesch makes it clear that humans do not experience annihihilation at death (126). Believers do not “fall into nothingness but into the hands of the living God,” because, for us, “death is not a rupture in the ascent of spirit to God but only a temporary break,” part of the “transition from this life to the life to come” (126). Even unbelievers “will be carried through death (cf. Dan 12:2; Jn 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). But they are resurrected not unto life but unto judgment” (126). In Bloesch’s reading of Scripture, there is “continuity in bodily existence in the immediate hereafter,” we are “clothed in some kind of body” (1 Cor 15:35) (127). So “the natural body undergoes corruption, not annihilation” (128).
Bloesch’s most basic objection to annihilationism appears in his chapter on “the triumph of grace.” He calls upon us to “resist all eschatological options that have their roots in the drive for logical coherence rather than in fidelity to holy Scripture” (239). He then sums up the way in which various perspectives are guilty in this way, and annihilationism is the first one he addresses. He proposes that it “meets the charge that God is eternally vindictive, but it spells the defeat of God’s purpose—that all shall be made to serve the King of kings and Lord of lords” (239).
Although I do not share his belief that opportunity for salvation continues beyond the final judgment day, I cannot deny that his hopefulness is attractive, as universalism is, and his presentation of “divine perseverance” takes better account than universalism does of the “biblical warnings of God’s wrath against sin” (239). Of these 4 books, Bloesch’s is the only one which could influence a reader in any way toward the possibility that annihilationists might be right, but to someone still convinced of the traditionalist understanding of hell, its effect would be minimal, and it did not incline me more towards the annihilationist position.
This is a long narrative to elucidate why my journey to annihilationism was a long one. I think it is a good reminder to all of us conditionalists/annihilationists, however, that although traditionalists sometimes express concern about the growing number of evangelical annihilationists, spreading the message is not easy. Just as in conversion to salvation, theological conversion requires an inner work of the Spirit as well as a hearing of God’s word.