Dr. James White Reviews Date vs. Whipps

After my debate with Joshua Whipps was published, I suspected that I would hear about it on the Dividing Line (DL), a webcast hosted by one of the theologians and apologists I respect and admire most, Dr. James White of Alpha & Omega Ministries (AOMin). Joshua frequents the AOMin chat channel, and he talked to Dr. White both leading up to and immediately following the debate. The thought of listening to Dr. White review the debate terrified me, but not because I feared being challenged by his arguments; rather, I have such deep respect and fondness for him and his ministry that to hear him speak negatively about me would crush me.

Tuesday’s DL came and went with no mention of the debate, and in it Dr. White said he would be speaking about Islam on Friday’s show. And so I didn’t listen to Friday’s show live, but as I prepared to leave work I visited the AOMin blog and my heart began racing as I read the words, “Started off with a quick review of a recent debate on annihilationism, then took calls. The first two were on the same subject, so we covered a lot of ground on the topic today.” I could feel my heart beating in my neck as I opened my Zune software, downloaded the episode, synced it to my Windows 7 phone and began to listen. But very quickly my terror was replaced by relief and my admiration for Dr. White swelled. I know not everybody is a fan but, I must confess, I love the man and his ministry.

Sure Dr. White mischaracterized conditionalism a few times during the review, and offered what I thought to be fairly poor arguments against it. He even alleges that when I originally reviewed Edward Fudge on my podcast I was promoting his position, rather than trying to critically examine it. I’ll get to all of that in a moment. But I think it’s very important that I first give him the credit and praise he is due for what he said that so moved me.

The Good

First and foremost, for an apologist often criticized for allegedly being unkind and uncharitable, Dr. White seemed to me to be quite respectful and did not come across as particularly mean. Sure, he strongly disagrees with conditionalism and takes issue with what he perceives to be certain elements of our position, but in comparison to the manner in which many other critics speak their concerns, Dr. White came across as downright friendly. I think many traditionalists could learn a lesson from him; if conditionalism truly is not the biblical view of final punishment, then we conditionalists are perhaps far more likely to be responsive to those who exhibit an attitude like his. And it wasn’t merely the tone and tenor of Dr. White’s review that impressed me.

At about 16:30 into the program, Dr. White was critical of one element of my closing argument, in which I defended my self-identification as Reformed on the grounds that my view of final punishment prevents me from affirming less than two percent of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF). He correctly pointed out that one who denies the supreme authority of Scripture, the nature of the atonement, the Trinity or the nature of Christ could probably say they’re able to affirm most of the LBCF as well. This is a fair point, and while I did try to demonstrate throughout the debate that my view of final punishment does not negatively impact other core Reformed doctrines, and that I am in fact better able to affirm some of them, Dr. White was nevertheless right to suggest that I should not defend my Reformed-ness on the basis of what percentage of the LBCF I’m able to affirm.

Approximately 20 minutes into the program, Dr. White took his first of two calls on the topic, and I deeply appreciated his response to the caller’s question. Essentially the caller asked whether conditionalism should be considered heterodox or outright heresy by Reformed traditionalists. Dr. White began by sympathizing with, but nevertheless criticizing, fundamentalists who insist that anything less than 100 percent agreement on everything they think the Bible teaches disqualifies one from being considered a Christian. He said that even the Reformed confessions acknowledge that some issues are laid out more clearly in Scripture than others, and admitted that monotheism is an example of a doctrine that the Bible teaches more clearly than the nature of final punishment.

Consequently, Dr. White said that traditionalists should think very carefully about how to respond to issues like those raised by the caller; he suggested that conditionalism is perhaps responded to more often than not with a “territorial,” even “xenophobic” attitude. He said he knows a lot of heretics who are annihilationists, having suggested at around nine minutes into the program that most individuals and denominations who accept our view go on to further, more serious error. But he insisted that that doesn’t mean that everybody who is orthodox when it comes to every other issue yet disagrees with traditionalists on this topic is a heretic. At about 28 minutes he repeated the sentiment, saying that while he thinks almost everybody who embraces conditionalism goes on to accept very serious error he does not think that just holding to annihilationism means one is not a Christian.

I felt particularly vindicated at about 26 minutes into the show when Dr. White said I was correct to criticize my opponent during the debate for simply referring listeners to his web site for his treatment of the various texts I cited. Periodically, Dr. White devotes an episode of the DL to what he calls “Radio Free Geneva,” the opening theme of which contains a quote from a debate where George Bryson answered a question from Dr. White by saying, “Read my book.” In my debate, I criticized Joshua for doing the same thing, repeating that quote. And while I agree that the onus was not on him to present a positive case for his position, I was nevertheless relieved to hear that Dr. White found that particular criticism of mine legitimate, at least to some extent.

At around 30 minutes into the program, the caller mentioned that I had begun to contribute to a website promoting conditionalism (this one!), and Dr. White expressed his concern about balance. He said he almost never sees someone adopt our view of final punishment and maintain theological balance, which I understood to mean that many make final punishment the primary area of their focus and ministry. I respect that concern—and the manner in which Dr. White expressed it (unlike that of another critic’s review of the debate)—and I think it’s very legitimate. That’s the biggest reason I’m excited to contribute to Rethinking Hell: it will allow me to leave this issue behind in my blog and podcast (for the most part), once again addressing a wide variety of topics, while periodically addressing this one here. I would ask that anybody reading this please pray for me, that I would maintain balance, and not get so wrapped up in discussing conditionalism that it’s all I ever think and talk about.

So when all was said and done, my fondness and respect for Dr. White and for AOMin did not wane, it swelled. Again, I think many traditionalists could learn from Dr. White. I emailed him after the program was over, thanking him for his kindness and respect, and I hope he knows how much I love him and his ministry. That being said, I do have some criticism for some of the things he said.

The Bad

At about five and a half minutes into the show, Dr. White began his treatment of the topic by recalling that some time ago he was referred to an interview I did with Edward Fudge on my Theopologetics podcast. He said it was clear to him that I was not challenging Fudge and his view, but rather promoting it. Perhaps that depends on how one defines promote, but I want to deny that I was doing such a thing. I had not yet become convinced of conditionalism, and I told Dr. White as much when he emailed me asking if I had become an annihilationist. I did challenge Fudge with many of what I perceived to be the common objections to his view, and for the most part I found his answers compelling. Consequently, I found myself on the fence between conditionalism and the traditional view of final punishment; if that came across as promoting Fudge’s view, well, then I regret that. All I intended was for my listeners to carefully consider his view, and if they found it lacking, I wanted to hear about it.

After that interview I reached out to many noteworthy critics of Edward Fudge and his view of final punishment, inviting them to let me interview them: Robert Peterson, Christopher Morgan, Douglas Moo and others. Only Larry Dixon, author of The Other Side of the Good News, accepted my invitation. I was still very open to the traditional view, and hoped my guest would be able to present a powerful response to conditionalism. I gave him an hour to promote his book and to present a positive case for the traditional view, and spent the second hour challenging him—just like I did with Fudge. If I seemed like I was challenging Dixon more than I did Fudge, perhaps that’s because by that point I was more knowledgable of the particulars of the debate. Or perhaps it’s because conditionalism has better answers. Either way, many of my listeners were as disappointed with the quality of Dixon’s response as I was.

The point I’m trying to make is that when I interviewed Edward Fudge I was not “promoting” his view in the sense it seems Dr. White claims I was. I had tried to challenge Fudge, and was impressed by his responses. I apologize if I did not challenge him as powerfully as many would have liked, but I will stress that this was an interview, not a debate. My reason for doing the interview was not to persuade my listeners of one view or the other, it was to get listeners who had perhaps not thought very deeply about this debate to examine it more closely. And I tried to get a competent follow-up guest to offer a challenge from the traditional side. I’m sure many wish that Peterson, Morgan or Moo had accepted my invitation instead of Dixon.

Moving on, at about eight minutes into the program Dr. White said that many New Testament scholars today are conditionalists, but he suggested that it’s not for exegetical reasons. Instead, he suggested that it’s hard to affirm the traditional view of final punishment and get people to like Christianity; he said at about the 10-minute mark that he could wish conditionalism were true, for it would be a lot easier to get around in the world. Perhaps that is the motivation for many conditionalist scholars; I don’t know. Speaking for myself, however, I can say that leading up to my interview with Fudge, I never hoped and wished that conditionalism is true, was never concerned with how those to whom I evangelized might respond to the traditional view of final punishment I held. I suspect I’m not alone in having been convinced of conditionalism purely on exegetical grounds.

At around 12 and a half minutes into the program, Dr. White mischaracterized conditionalism—unintentionally, I’m sure—which he repeated at about 34:30. According to him, our view is that there will be punishment, even severe punishment, commensurate with the degree of one’s sin debt, but that once that punishment has satisfied the wrath of God, the sinner is destroyed. While this may be the view of some conditionalists, it’s certainly not the view expressed by me during my debates, or by the conditionalists who have appeared on my show. While we are open to some amount of suffering as part of the process of annihilation, perhaps accounting for degrees of punishment (although we propose other explanations for degrees of punishment as well), we have consistently affirmed that the primary punishment for sin is death. That is to say, punishment is not measured primarily in the suffering experienced as part of being executed—although different methods of execution are more violent than others—but in the consequent, everlasting lifelessness. Punishment, in our view, doesn’t satisfy the wrath of God and then terminate in destruction; the punishment that satisfies the wrath of God is destruction.

Based on his misconception of conditionalism, Dr. White suggests at about 12:30, and again at around 35 minutes, that the ongoing sins of the wicked in final punishment serves as a challenge to our view. Because he thinks the idea is that the risen wicked are punished for a time commensurate with their guilt and subsequently destroyed, he thinks that we must deny that they will continue to sin because, if they did, it would require ongoing punishment (and the wrath of God would never be sufficiently satisfied). But if, as we contend, their punishment is their execution, and if the wicked will never live again, then their punishment can account for even those sins committed as part of the execution process. Besides, it seems to me that Scripture records only one judgment upon resurrection, a judgment based on sins committed in this life. Revelation 20:11-13, for example, portrays the risen being judged according to deeds recorded in books, with no indication that those books contain an infinite record of future deeds in addition to their past ones. I think it’s dangerous to go beyond what the Scripture records, speculating about punishment for sins committed after resurrection.

At approximately 13 minutes, James begins to explain what he sees as the biggest problem with our view. He claims that conditionalists like Fudge and me limit the meaning of New Testament texts to the meaning of the Old Testament texts they reference. According to him, we do not allow Christ or New Testament authors to transcend Old Testament categories and types, insisting that whatever was communicated by phraseology and images in the Old Testament must be the meaning of their citations in the New. And yet when it comes to messianic and other eschatological references to Old Testament texts, we abandon that hermeneutic and give New Testament texts freedom we don’t give them when it comes to final punishment.

This is simply false. No conditionalist I have ever spoken with—including Fudge—denies the freedom of New Testament references to Old Testament texts to expand upon and transcend their original meaning. Interestingly, it often seems to me that traditionalists limit how New Testament authors can cite Old Testament texts, insisting that in doing so they must transcend and expand upon their original meaning. Well, even if that’s the case, the question is how do they expand upon that original meaning? In Mark 9:48, for example, when Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24’s unquenchable fire and undying worm, what indication is there that He’s changing the meaning of those idioms and images, from describing irresistible reduction to lifelessness and the shame of having one’s corpse unburied, to describing fire which burns and torments living bodies for eternity? Our argument is not that the original meaning cannot be expanded upon, we just think traditionalists cannot identify any texts in which it is being expanded in such a way as would support eternal conscious torment.

I only have a few other more minor thoughts. At around 26:30 James expresses concern that in my debate it sounds like I deny the present reality of a new quality and character of life in regeneration, but that’s not the case. Quite the opposite, I affirmed the qualitative difference in the life of a believer from that of an unbeliever, affirmed the present reality of regeneration, but suggested that when it is described as coming to life, it is doing so either proleptically or figuratively. And at about 30 minutes into the program, Dr. White wonders aloud about where I can go to church now, asking what good Reformed churches teach conditionalism. I have never attended a confessionally Reformed church, and while my church’s official position on the topic is the traditional view of final punishment, I have met with my pastor privately and explained to him where I stand and why, and I have not been excluded from fellowship. If anybody would like to contact the pastoral staff of my church, feel free to email me and I will send you their details.

The Ugly?

None. I’m very happy to report that I don’t think there was any ugliness. Dr. White was, in my estimation, kind and gracious, even if he got some things wrong, misunderstanding and mischaracterizing our position in certain ways. And I’m sure any conditionalist who has listened to his review of my debate would agree that his arguments against our view were not persuasive. But they were delivered respectfully and, as I said, I think many traditionalists could learn from his delivery. Even the callers were respectful, one of them saying at about 29:20 that I’m a “great, nice guy,” which I found touching.

If you have not yet listened to Dr. White’s review of my debate, whether you’re a traditionalist or a conditionalist or hold some other view of final punishment, I encourage you to give it a listen. I’ll close with the way DL episodes are often posted at the AOMin blog: Here’s the program.

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  • Adam

    Two quick points:
    1. You could have added James’ “slipperly slope” argument that embracing annihilationism leads to … well, liberalism to the “bad” section;
    2. Ironic that a man who devoted an entire year of his life to rebuking Ergun Caner would talk about balance….

    • Chris Date

      Well I didn’t use the phrase “slippery slope” or the word “left” but when I talked about his belief that almost everybody who accepts this view goes on to embrace what he considers further error, I was including his statement about the left :)
      As for #2, to be fair that emphasis was for a limited amount of time–just as (hopefully) my emphasis on this issue will prove to have been :)

  • A Name

    I appreciate your approach to this topic. I am also a fan of James White but disagree with his view on this topic and can sympathize with how you must have felt listening to him talking about this topic. At the same time, I hope that it helped you to gain balance when you realized that he is a talented professional debater he is a fallible human being just like everyone else.

    It almost sounds like he has scared you away from teaching this topic. I find this terribly sad. James White has spent a great amount of his time dealing with important, but non-essential issues such as the Calvinism and while you should maintain balance on the importance of this issue don’t let anyone tell you want you should and shouldn’t talk about.

    The truth is that I spent a long time (years) without being able to find any debates on the issue and very little content that featured people even discussing this issue that wasn’t in print. I have spent a lot of time looking for debates on Calvinism and similar topics that are nonessential because I want to hear the issues brought up and dealt with so that I could understand God better. I have heard all of James’s debates on Calvinism that are publicly available and am grateful that they were available but this is also an important topic that I couldn’t even find one debate dealing with.

    So, when you started debating it and doing so well with it I was so happy and excited. It’s kind of like being a calvinist in a world where everyone is arminian. Traditionalists have so many of the great apologists, michael brown, michael horton, james white, william lane craig, etc. It is so good to know that there is someone out there in the reformed/orthodox conditionlist camp who can stand up and debate and do so well at it. I barely know of anyone who has even heard the term conditionalism much less anyone who is aware fo the arguments.

    Like you, I see my beliefs as very similar to people like RC Sproul but I have believed conditionalism for exegetical reasons since before I became a Christian. The old testament was enough for me to know that God would Judge the living and the dead and that some would go on to eternal life and that others wouldn’t. I don’t think that the new testament teaches anything different.

    I think that you are a good debater and would also enjoy hearing you debate other issues as well as this issue. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were able to make a career for yourself doing apologetics work. Conditionalism doesn’t have to be the focus of your apologetics ministry but that doesn’t mean that you should be afraid to investigate the issue and continue debating the topic if you want to.

    It doesn’t matter if you deal with this issue a lot or a little but I think that it would be a pity if you never debated anyone on this issue again.

    • Chris Date

      Thanks for the kind words! Rest assured that I have not been scared off from teaching this topic. I will continue to contribute regularly to this blog and podcast, and will address the topic on my show once in a while. And I’m very open to future debates as well. If I gave you the impression that I was done with this topic, I didn’t mean to :)

  • C.L. Bolt

    “…unlike that of another critic’s review of the debate…”

    Except that per the caller’s question Dr. White was actually approving of that portion of the other critic’s review of the debate. Perhaps White would not approve of the manner in which that critic stated what he did. I do not know. What I do know is that the critic in question, if I am not mistaken, merely paraphrased things that you said, and implied that they have a cultish feel to them. Praise God that you find that offensive. You should. But whether or not something is offensive is rather irrelevant to the truth of the matter.

    • But whether or not something is offensive is rather irrelevant to the truth of the matter.

      Of course, Chris neither said nor implied anything to the contrary. Clearly, the only thing Chris objected to was the manner in which said critic expressed his concern. I’m confused as to why you would praise God that Chris finds someone’s manner offensive.

      But since we’re on the subject, whether or not something feels “cultish” to a person is rather irrelevant to the truth of the matter—not that anyone stated otherwise of course :)

      • C.L. Bolt

        Ronnie,

        The praise is regarding Date’s taking offense to the implication that there is a cultish feel to the words that he wrote. The remainder of the critic’s words that are in view in Date’s post above are merely a paraphrase of what Date himself wrote. So either Date is complaining about his own words – which is a strange suggestion – or else he is complaining about the implication that his words have a cultish feel to them.

        The “matter” refers to the cultish feel of Date’s proclamations. Not annihilationism.

        • Clearly, Chris said nothing about taking offense to some implication about his words having a “cultish feel.” I’m not sure why you keep saying that. All he said is that he did not respect the manner in which a certain critic expressed concerns over a possible lack of balance (a concern which Chris says he respects). He said what he intended. Trying to make it mean something else might be personally satisfying, but it’s rarely effective, or accurate.

          I’m fully aware of what you meant by “the matter.”

          • Chris Date

            Ronnie has it correct. As I said, I appreciate the concern, but I respect how Dr. White delivered it, unlike the critic whom I have not identified. As I said, I think many could learn a lesson from Dr. White.

          • Chris Date

            Also, BTW, I actually have come to agree that I sounded a little cultish in what I wrote. I was expressing how I felt (and feel), but I do think I could have expressed it better, and I don’t blame anyone who thinks it sounded a little cultish. Though, I do think it’s disingenuous for someone to quote only part of that portion of the post, and not the part where I recognize the possibility that it is I who am blinded. In any case, that part of the critic’s review is not what I was objecting to.

  • Brody

    I am just curious Chris, why do people like yourself feel the need to refer to James as “Dr.”? I don’t mean to slander him, but earning a “Doctorate” degree from an unaccredited correspondence course is hardly any reason to call him “Dr. White”. I also question why James would even bother with such? Is it really that important to have a title? Jesus didn’t seem to like them all that much(Matthew 23). Again, this is not to slander James or anyone else who earned a degree through a paper mill, but I think it is very telling.

    I used to listen to James’ dividing line every week, and although I am not a Calvinist, I found it useful in the area of KJV only apologetics and info on Mormonism.

    • Chris Date

      Hi Brody. I believe Dr. White has addressed the claim that he received his degree from a “paper mill,” and I call him “Dr.” simply because I call anybody with a Doctorate “Dr.” That’s standard etiquette.

      • Brody

        Hi Chris. I have read James’ defense and found it to be lacking. He never disputed the fact that “Columbia Evangelical Seminary” is indeed an unaccredited school that has no course review procedures. In other words, you or I could “earn” our doctorate there on very short time for a few bucks. The way I see it is this: When a man wants to further his studies by earning a doctorate, he will do so by actually attending a legit school. One that will provide adequate education and test its students to assure academic quality. Again, let me reiterate, I don’t mean to call James out on this, but I do think that he should drop the whole “Dr” thing.

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  • RobertH

    I have not listened to the DL so I do not know exactly what Dr. White said but I think that what he means by annihilationist not giving freedom to NT texts that quote OT texts regarding punishment is that annihilationist say well it has to mean whatever we can gather from this OT quote and Jesus (or whoever) could not have meant anything additional in the NT. That the NT does not go into more detail in any regard with the OT passage.

    Again, I am not sure that is what Dr. White meant but it is at least a criticism I make of annihilationist. You can hear this problem all throughout podcasts on this topic.

    • Chris Date

      I know exactly what Dr. White means. He thinks we annihilationists refuse to allow NT authors to quote OT texts in order to communicate something other than what would have originally been understood. But that’s false; we don’t do anything of the sort. We wholeheartedly recognize the authority of the NT authors to do so, and we recognize that they do so in a number of places. We simply challenge traditionalists to show us any NT text which actually does so, changing the meaning of OT hell texts from referring to the complete consumption of dead corpses to the everlasting life of immortal bodies.

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