There is a conception of hell that holds that God punishes some people in a way that brings about endless suffering and unhappiness. An objection to this view holds that such punishment could not be just since it punishes finite sins with infinite suffering. In answer to this objection, it is shown that endless suffering, even intense suffering, is consistent with the suffering being finite. Another objection holds that such punishment is contrary to God's love. A possible response to this objection is developed.
C.S. Lewis states clearly what is probably true for most modern Christians. Hell may well be unique amongst Christian doctrines, if not for the lack of attention that it has received in the past decades, then for the unwillingness with which many orthodox Christians believe in it. Fundamentalists may preach vividly about the fires of hell, and liberals have long heralded the downfall of eternal damnation, but what can we say about a doctrine which leaves many people highly embarrassed? More recently, the doctrine has received the renewed interest of a specific debate amongst evangelicals concerning whether hell is eternal conscious torment or whether the wicked are annihilated after judgment.
Conditional immortality is the name given to the doctrine that states that human beings are not inherently immortal, but rather have immortality conferred upon them as part of the experience of salvation. In the debates, immortality is usually taken to mean the inability of the person to perish. Therefore, all the redeemed will be immortal, and life in heaven will be everlasting and consist of a perfect and glorious existence. It is often said that this heaven will be eternal both quantitatively and qualitatively, the former referring to duration, the latter referring to the type of eternal existence. Annihilationism, which is usually associated with conditional immortality, states that the wicked will not suffer conscious torment for ever, but that after death and judgment they will be destroyed, ceasing to exist. Annihilationism is thus virtually a corollary of conditional immortality, for if immortality were inherent, then it follows that annihilation would not be a satisfactory explanation of hell.
More recently, conditionalism and annihilationism have been given a wider public airing as a result of two important works. The first was by John Wenham, in The Goodness Of God,5 where, in a chapter dealing with the moral difficulties of believing in hell, he presented conditionalism as a possible option. Then, fourteen years later, John Stott advocated a well-argued, yet tentative, case for the annihilationist position, when questioned by David Edwards in Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue.6 The fact that one of the most respected leaders of modern evangelicalism supported the doctrine made people listen, and hence brought the debate to the attention of a wider Christian public.7 Since then, a range of books on both sides of the Atlantic has been published, most of them attacking the conditionalist position. In the States the attack has been focused on Clark Pinnock, who over recent years has taught conditional immortality, along with other perhaps less traditional doctrines with which some evangelicals do not agree.8 However, others (such as Stott) develop conditionalism without going this extra step, and so conditionalism must never be seen as part of a package of beliefs. It seems that many of its advocates can quite rightly be labelled as pillars of conservative orthodoxy.
The debate between conditionalists and those believing in the traditional model of hell has largely taken place on two levels. The first concerns the biblical texts, and how these should be interpreted. The second concerns more theological arguments, but necessarily feeds off (and informs) the first. Without a doubt, one of the key issues thrown up by the whole debate is that of hermeneutics. Caution must be exercised when using the biblical texts, as in all debates. Only when we have considered context, setting and other variables can we make a fully informed decision. There is not room here to provide this whole structure, only to indicate the form of the debate. Suffice it to say that any weighing of the cases must be done carefully and with prayer!
We have described the position of conditionalism, which attacks one of the premises of the traditional understanding of hell on the grounds that the wicked will not be given immortality and hence shall not suffer in torment for ever. The accusation is that most theologians interpret hell in the traditional manner for two reasons: (a) because their tradition has always done so, and their tradition precedes their interpretation of Scripture; (b) because the force behind that tradition has been the false assumption that men and women are created immortal, and so those who reject Christ endure for ever, suffering the consequences of their rejection. Travis summarizes the conditionalist argument thus:
Perhaps the strongest argument used by traditionalists is the idea that those in hell are continually impenitent. Thus the wicked consistently refuse God, repeatedly sin, and therefore deserve eternal punishment.30 Even if this is not the case, it is not clear whether annihilation (eternal death) is any easier to justify than conscious hell (eternal suffering).
5 J. Wenham, The Goodness of God (Leicester: IVP, 1974); the work also provides helpful warnings concerning decisions on the issue, and a brief history of how Wenham learnt of the doctrine; the chapter dealing with hell has been revised and stated less cautiously in The Enigma of Evil (Guildford: Eagle, 1993).
6 J. Stott and D. Edwards, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988); Eryl Davies, An Angry God? (Bridgend: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1991), p. 14, notes that at least ten years earlier Stott expressed his agnosticism concerning the precise nature of hell.
Satan has power over a kingdom and rules over exalted beings called principalities, powers, world rulers, and spiritual hosts of wickedness (Eph. 2:2; 6:11-12). He is called "a great red dragon" (Rev. 12:3) to symbolize his terrible character as well as his awesome power.
Remedy (1). First, Keep at the greatest distance from sin, and from playing with the golden bait which Satan holds forth to catch you; for this you have (Romans 12:9), "Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good." When we meet with anything extremely evil and contrary to us, nature abhors it, and retires as far as it can from it. The Greek word that is there rendered "abhor," is very significant; it signifies to hate it as hell itself, to hate it with horror.
Remedy (3). To look on sin with that eye with which within a short time, we shall see it. Ah, souls! when you shall lie upon a dying bed, and stand before a judgment-seat, sin shall be unmasked, and its dress and robes shall then be taken off, and then it shall appear more vile, filthy, and terrible than hell itself; then, that which formerly appeared most sweet will appear most bitter, and that which appeared most beautiful will appear most ugly, and that which appeared most delightful will then appear most dreadful to the soul. Ah, the shame, the pain, the gall, the bitterness, the horror, the hell that the sight of sin, when its dress is taken off, will raise in poor souls! Sin will surely prove evil and bitter to the soul when its robes are taken off. A man may have the stone who feels no fit of it. Conscience will work at last, though for the present one may feel no fit of accusation. Laban showed himself at parting. Sin will be bitterness in the latter end, when it shall appear to the soul in its own filthy nature.
The devil deals with men as the panther does with beasts; he hides his deformed head until his sweet scent has drawn them into his danger. Until we have sinned, Satan is a parasite; when we have sinned, he is a tyrant. O souls! the day is at hand when the devil will pull off the paint and garnish that he has put upon sin, and present that monster, sin, in such a monstrous shape to your souls, that will cause your thoughts to be troubled, your countenance to be changed, the joints of your loins to be loosed, and your knees to be dashed one against another, and your hearts to be so terrified, that you will be ready, with Ahithophel and Judas, to strangle and hang your bodies on earth, and your souls in hell, if the Lord has not more mercy on you than he had on them. Oh! therefore, look upon sin now as you must look upon it to all eternity, and as God, conscience, and Satan will present it to you another day!
Remedy (1). The first remedy is, seriously to consider, That it is the greatest judgment in the world to be left to sin, upon any pretense whatever. O unhappy man! when God leaves you to yourself, and does not resist you in your sins. Woe, woe to him at whose sins God does wink. When God lets the way to hell be a smooth and pleasant way, that is hell on this side hell, and a dreadful sign of God's indignation against a man; a token of his rejection, and that God does not intend good unto him. That is a sad word, 'Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone' (Hosea 4:17); he will be unteachable and incorrigible; he has made a match with mischief, he shall have his bellyful of it; he falls with open eyes; let him fall at his own peril. And that is a terrible saying, 'So I gave them up unto their own hearts' lusts, and they walked in their own counsels' (Psalm 81:12). A soul given up to sin is a soul ripe for hell, a soul hastening to destruction!
Remedy (2). The second remedy against this device of Satan is, solemnly to consider, That God is as JUST, as he is merciful. As the Scriptures speak Him out to be a very merciful God, so they speak Him out to be a very just God. Witness His casting the angels out of heaven and His binding them in chains of darkness until the judgment of the great day.* Witness His turning Adam out of Paradise. Witness His drowning of the old world. Witness His raining hell out of heaven upon Sodom. Witness all the troubles, losses, sicknesses, and diseases, which are in the world. Witness Tophet, which "has long been prepared; it has been made ready for the king. Its fire pit has been made deep and wide, with an abundance of fire and wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of burning sulfur, sets it ablaze." (Isaiah 30:33) Witness His treasuring up of wrath against the day of wrath. But above all, witness the pouring forth of all His wrath upon His bosom Son, when Jesus bore the sins of His people, and cried out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" 2b1af7f3a8