Having held to this minority Christian view on the doctrine of hell for some time now, I find that it has taught me a lot about things that go far beyond final punishment. I also find that I am not alone in these things. Therefore, I have decided to write some of them down. This is the first installment in what we hope to be an ongoing series here at RethinkingHell. After all, there is always more to learn.
The point of this article is not so much to give further evidence for the evangelical conditionalist view as much as it is to share lessons that can benefit believers of whatever view on hell. It is, of course, inevitable that some examples and statements will promote the conditionalist view; that’s just the nature of the beast. Nevertheless, as you shall see, these lessons are applicable to all kinds of spiritual matters, not just hell.
It’s easy to miss bad arguments when you agree with the person making them.
This one is kind of broad, as there are all sorts of bad arguments a person can make (and you will see plenty of them the more you study this topic). But whatever kind of bad argument a person makes, you will find that they just don’t sound that bad when they are made by someone trying to argue for your position.
Consider arguments of guilt by association, where a position is maligned not on it’s merits but because it is held by undesireable people or groups. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people pooh-pooh the conditionalist view because versions of it are held by Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other unsavory groups. In terms of logical soundness, well, it has none.
If there were any logical bearing on the validity of a belief just because of who holds it, we would have to reject the traditional view because Mormons and Muslims also believe in eternal torment.
After all, there is no logical bearing on the validity of a belief just because of who holds it. If that were the case, I guess we would have to reject the traditional view because Mormons and Muslims also believe in eternal torment. And yet before becoming a conditionalist I found myself falling for this line of reasoning. I once heard a sermon against the view that is commonly held by Church of Christ (although not universally), that you cannot be saved if you are not baptized. The speaker called attention to the similarities between the (more radical branches of) Church of Christ and Mormon theology. He pointed out that both believe that the gospel and the true church were lost for over a millenium. They both believe that their founder claims to have discovered it anew in the 1800s, and that now they are the true church following the true gospel. And I was eating this up! “Yeah, obviously they are wrong about baptism,” I thought to myself. “They are a cult like the Mormons!”
But looking back I realize that it was no different than how the arguments for conditionalism are dismissed because of the Jehovah’s Witnesses bogeyman. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to reject the teachings of the more “conservative” Church of Christ groups,1 but the fact that they happen to share some similarities with Mormons, similarities which were a bit overplayed to boot, doesn’t mean that they are wrong on the separate issue of baptism. They are wrong about it, but the Mormon connection isn’t why. Yet because I wasn’t really used to being so unfairly lumped in with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I just didn’t bother to think, “Hey, this is not sound logic.”
Any number of other bad arguments could apply here as well. Whenever someone points to a passage like Matthew 5:29-30, a passage which just mentions hell but doesn’t tell us anything about its nature or duration, and claims that it proves annihilationism false because it says there is a hell, they are using circular reasoning. They are basically saying that hell means eternal torment, the Bible speaks of hell, and so therefore hell is a place of eternal torment. It’s absurd. It’s logically untenable. And yet people eat it up because it already agrees with what they believe, so they just don’t think that critically about it. It’s really easy to fall into this trap, so beware.
Details don’t always matter, but sometimes they really matter. (And it’s no different in scripture.)
I bet you were expecting just the cliché of “details matter.” But sometimes in life they don’t. Outside of discussions about hell, we see this all the time. If a digital scale is improperly set and someone purchasing ground beef at a grocery store only gets two pounds and 14 ounces when what they paid for was three pounds, no one would really care. (Unless it was a regular occurence at that store, but that’s another story.) But let’s say that instead of ground beef we were dealing with someone buying gold. That two-ounce difference amounts to thousands of dollars!
With regard to the Bible, sometimes those who are looking at this issue miss important details. Sometimes it is because of sloppiness, sometimes a misunderstanding of what terms mean, sometimes due to translation. And translation issues come into play on several occasions in the hell debate. For example, consider Mark 9:43 (all emphases added):
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire” (NASB).
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (NIV).
To many there is no significant difference between the two, as an alarming number of scholars with PhDs don’t seem to know what the word quench (and therefore unquenchable) means.2 However, the difference between those two translations is actually quite significant.
To quench a fire means to actively put it out. Webster defines it as “put out; extinguish.”34 A fire that is allowed to rage and burn everything up and go out on its own has not been quenched. If you let a fire burn out, like at a beach bonfire, it has not been quenched. But it certainly is not burning for eternity!
More importantly, as mentioned before, the Old Testament on numerous occasions points to fires that cannot be quenched (e.g., Jeremiah 17:27, Ezekiel 20:47). These fires do not burn for ever and ever; in fact, the fires spoken of have long since died out. They were not quenched because they could not be extinguished. They will rage and burn everything. No fire brigade can quench God’s fire. A fire that is not quenched is absolutely not synonymous with a fire that never goes out. Granted, a fire that goes out would be also unquenchable, but an unquenchable fire does not necessarily (or even normally) mean a fire that never goes out.
With that in mind, you might see why the difference is so important. If you look at other translations (ESV, KJV, ASV, NRSV, YLT) they all mimic the NASB in regards to Mark 9:43. In Greek, the fire is “from 1 [alpha] (as a neg. prefix) and 4570 [sbestos];” and is defined as “unquenched, unquenchable.”5 Literally it is not quenched. If you look at those translations this verse doesn’t tell you anything about whether hell is eternal torment or annihilation. But if you look at the dynamic equivalence translation of the NIV, where the translators attempt to convey the meaning and not just the words, suddenly this passage says that the fire never goes out. Presumably, given the context, it burns for ever and ever—according to the traditionalist translators. Thus they express it that way. Although in theory one could have a fire that burns forever without people being in it forever, it sure puts the annihilationist in an awkward position. Thus, Robert Yarbrough weighs in on this verse: “It requires a studied effort not to see eternal conscious punishment implied in the words ‘where the fire never goes out’”6. Of course, had he been reading from any other, more literal translation, he wouldn’t have been able to make this argument, an argument not based on the inspired text but what is essentially an interpretation of the inspired text. The Bible doesn’t actually say the “fire that never goes out,” but because people think that is what the Bible says (since they think a fire that is not quenched is a fire that never goes out), they argue as if it does.
Similarly, even when looking at other translations (or other verses that speak of the fires not being quenched), because people wrongly think that single word quench means simply to stop burning, every passage that speaks of the fires of hell not being quenched are seen as evidence for eternal torment, when they actually are at best (for the traditionalist doctrine) ambiguous.7 All they say is that the fire will not be extinguished, not that it burns forever.8
It’s easy to see what you are looking for and miss what you are not.
If you don’t believe this statement, take this awareness test. Assuming the link is still up at the point in time you read this, you’ll see what I mean.
The Bible is no different. When I first became a believer I assumed that eternal torment was true right off the bat because, well, that’s what Christians believe, darn it! And so as I read the Bible and read about eternal and unquenchable fire and eternal punishment I saw eternal torment in it, clear as a bell. But I didn’t notice that Jesus himself said that God would destroy body and soul in hell, or that the soul, which I was always told was immortal, is liable to death (James 5:20). I didn’t give a second thought to the fact that by reducing them to ashes God made Sodom and Gomorrah an example of the ungodly. I didn’t notice that the wicked would be burnt up and would be ashes under our feet (Malachi 4:1-5). I definitely didn’t catch that Revelation 14:11 was alluding to (almost quoting) Isaiah 34:9-10, or that Mark 9:48 was quoting Isaiah 66:24 about a bunch of corpses. To be fair to traditionalists who don’t see the last few connections, since we aren’t bombarded with the Old Testament from early childhood like the Jews of Jesus’s day, how could one today be expected to notice that if they aren’t looking for it? That’s my point.
It’s no surprise that so many assume eternal torment in so many passages. The doctrine of hell is usually one of the fundamentals that we are taught before we get into the Bible. Here in the Christianized (though not very Christian) west, even non-Christians know that Christians believe in eternal torment. That doctrine is what we are all taught, and so that is what our minds will be predisposed to see. Things that seem so obvious to me now, like that some of our favorite evangelistic texts (John 3:16, Romans 6:23) compare eternal life not to eternal suffering, but to death and perishing, are easy to overlook. Why? Because I wasn’t looking for references to annihilationism in the Bible. And I was even exposed to the idea of annihilationism before I even became a believer (though I didn’t accept it until well after). How much more should we expect those who grew up in church, who since childhood believed in eternal torment, to see it it the Bible whenever hell comes up? How much more should we expect them to latch onto things that look a little bit like eternal torment and overlook things that look very much like annihilation, death, destruction?
That is why it is so important for us, as calmly and nicely as possible, as brothers, to say, “Ya know, have you ever noticed what this passage says? Think about that for a second.” It’s not natural to go against what you have always believed, and it’s not natural to see what we aren’t looking for. I mean, it is all the more important for us to have our eyes and ears open, so that things we would otherwise miss don’t elude us forever.
With those things in mind, stay tuned for the next installment of this series. After all, there is always more to learn.
- For those wondering, Edward Fudge is not part of the “conservative” movement within Church of Christ, and he is in fact quite vocal in his opposition to some of their more unsavory elements. [↩]
- This is not a reference to specific, linguistic arguments about the original language, as have come up in recent posts by Dr. Glenn Peoples and esteemed guest contributor, Dr. Claude Mariotinni. The argument that they successfully rebut is basically that the Hebrew in a similar verse, Isaiah 66:24, is mistranslated when it says “their fire is not quenched.” Rather than speaking of a fire that is not quenched, the Hebrew literally says that the fire does not extinguish itself, that it never goes out. Rather, virtually all traditionalists I have read, even those who know the biblical languages, simply see a fire not being quenched or being unquenchable, in English, and say, “See? It is not quenched. That means it burns for eternity!” It will soon become clear why the distinction matters [↩]
- “Quench,” Merriam-Webster.com, Retrieved 1 May 2011. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/quench [↩]
- Technically, the final possible definition, when used intransitively, is to “become calm,” which in theory could be consistent with the idea that a fire that dies out is quenched. That said, that is not the definition or even the primary definition. It would at most be a secondary, user-driven definition, based on the idea that something that becomes calm has been quenched by some unidentified force. And even then the traditionalist argument still falls apart. At best, for the traditionalist who argues from the language of fire not being quenched, the passages are ambiguous; “quench” could mean what they have to assume it means, but it could reasonably mean (and usually does mean) something else. You never want to have a position that only holds when you assume a secondary, less common meaning of a word in a context that doesn’t at all indicate such a thing. [↩]
- The Lockman Foundation. New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, ed. Robert L. Thomas (Holman Bible, 1981), 1636 [↩]
- Robert Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell,” in Hell under Fire. Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan, 2004), 74 [↩]
- The fact that so many times unquenchable fires in judgment refer to devouring fires that leave nothing but ashes behind is really more of a help to the annihilationist doctrine than anything else. [↩]
- There are some reasonable arguments that even if the fire burns forever those in it do not. That however goes beyond the point of this discussion. [↩]