I had the great honor of asking John Stackhouse (Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies & Dean of Faculty Development, Crandall University) a few questions regarding hell and its nature, namely, is it eternal? My questions are in bold.
Can you describe in brief your views on hell and what is commonly referred to as conditionalism or annihilationism?
John: Hell is the consequence of human sin. It isn’t something devised by God as a chamber of torture. Hell is what each person experiences to atone for his or her sin. Atonement is the act of making right what we have made wrong, and the global intuition is that suffering is appropriate experience to make up for damaging the universe through evil. The gospel is that Jesus’ suffering can be substituted for our own if we will realign ourselves with God, accepting his great gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, and new birth. But if we refuse to let Jesus suffer for us, we must suffer. And if we have thereby refused to be linked to the only Source of life and light in the universe, God, then once we have made atonement, we will die…disappearing from the cosmos.
Eternal torment is an idea that is correct in that all evil must be atoned for, and either Jesus covers it or we do. What eternal torment gets wrong is that the suffering goes on forever. No human being, finite as we are, can merit an infinity of suffering, and no one does.
Thus I prefer the phrase “terminal punishment” to “conditionalism” or “annihilationism.” The focus in the dispute is, after all, on hell—not on “conditional immortality” (that is, salvation)—and God doesn’t have to act to annihilate anyone: we wink out of existence once we have paid our debt and God no longer has reason to sustain us.
When some Christians first hear about those holding to such a position, connotations that come to mind are “liberal,” “humanist,” “universalist,” as well as someone with a “low view of Scripture.” Why do you think this is such a common reaction, and how would you respond?
John: Some Christians believe that everything they have been taught and believe is just The Truth. They don’t understand that the Bible alone is infallible, while all human interpretations of the Bible are open to question and revision. As in other areas of our knowledge, such as science or history, some interpretations are much more likely to be wrong than others: Few of us would argue with “F = ma” or “The Declaration of Independence was a key document in the American Revolution,” but lots of other matters of science and history are being disputed by scholars…and by laypeople, too. So in theology, which is the human attempt to speak accurately about God’s revelation through Christ and the Bible: some truths (“Jesus is Lord”) really can’t be disputed without calling into question the very nature of the Christian religion, while other doctrines are less central and less solidly attested.
Hell itself is well attested in Scripture and in the traditional teaching of the church. So people who don’t believe in hell at all, or (like universalists) redefine it so that it really isn’t hell anymore, but a kind of “purgatory for everyone,” have a very big burden of proof to show that they’re not simply heretical—teaching something at odds with the Bible and the Church. But those who espouse “terminal punishment” as I do would say that we are actually interpreting the Bible better on the single question of the eternality of hell, while agreeing with the mainstream of the Church on the reality, nature, and awfulness of hell.
Certainly someone could hold to my view and be a theological liberal. But liberals typically don’t: they typically end up in some version of universalism. The only scholars I can think of who hold to my view are orthodox believers who assert that our view is actually a more accurate reading of God’s Word.
Can you describe your journey into embracing this position and any “ah ha” moments? What was the deciding factor (or factors) for you? What was the reaction from fellow Christians?
John: I read John Wenham’s book The Goodness of God as a Bible school student and his articulation of this alternative idea of hell struck me immediately as making more sense than the traditional teaching of eternal punishment—which had always struck me as disturbingly excessive. Wenham was an evangelical scholar whose book was published by an evangelical press (InterVarsity), so I took it very seriously. Then when I later encountered Edward Fudge’s painstaking book, I found it nailed down almost all the remaining questions I had about Bible verses…and the remaining theological formulation I worked out on my own.
I have had no negative feedback from anyone I’ve ever talked to about it, except some polite resistance from those who are understandably afraid that they would somehow be betraying orthodoxy by believing it. It seems to most of them “too good to be true,” and I just hope and pray that God will give them freedom eventually to embrace it.
At first glance the NT authors and Jesus himself seem to assume hell as being eternal, with passages like Matt. 25:31-46 in which Jesus pronounces judgment on some (“‘depart from me…into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’…and these will depart to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”). In light of such seemingly-clear passages, how can one assume hell as being temporary?
John: “At first glance” really means “at the first glance of someone who has already understood that Christianity traditionally has taught eternal torment,” doesn’t it? Someone truly new to the Christian tradition, without preconceptions, might notice that the fire is eternal, but since fire consumes what it encounters, why come to the conclusion that wicked people will somehow burn forever—which would be a weird kind of miracle?
I am not assuming hell is temporary, I am concluding hell is temporary, based on what I understand Scripture to say. I invite people to assume anything they like (!) but to be willing to question any assumption that biases you against what God is trying to communicate in his holy Word. That’s why I’ve gone to the trouble of writing out a Bible-based argument so that people can follow it, challenge it, check it, and, I trust, eventually agree with it.
Many have voiced concern that your position is in fact a slippery slope which will eventually lead to one’s denying of key theological truths. How would you respond? Are there merits to such concerns?
John: To change the metaphor, if I am driving off the road to the right, the intelligent thing to do is not to congratulate myself that I’m not in the left ditch, but in fact to correct a bit to the left. It would be foolish to try to avoid either ditch by wrenching the wheel hard and thus dive into the opposite ditch. Instead, we should make corrections carefully.
The question is not fundamentally about “left” or “right” but whether we are in the middle of the path of God’s revelation. “Conservative” and “liberal” are not Bible words and should not be badges of praise or blame. Our concern should be whether an idea is true, not whether it is old or new, traditional or innovative. I am not interested in whether the view of hell as terminal punishment is conservative or liberal. I am deeply concerned that it is Biblical.
Thank you for your time!
John G. Stackhouse Jr., formerly the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College (the position previously held by J.I. Packer), is a contributor to the Zondervan Four Views on Hell (see below), representing the anhilationsm/conditionalism stance. An advisory editor for Christianity Today, his commentary on religion and contemporary culture has been sought by major broadcast and print media as diverse as The New York Times, The Atlantic, ABC News, CBC Radio, Time, and Reader’s Digest. Stackhouse’s newest release is Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (see below).