Don’t Be Afraid to Rethink Hell: Why Other Beliefs Needn’t Get In Your Way

Are you hesitant to really reconsider your view of hell because you think it means you’ll have to adopt other beliefs, beliefs you may not think are biblical? Concerned that rethinking hell will require you to abandon other key doctrines that you believe are biblical? Well, if this describes you, then know that you have nothing to worry about.

Evangelical conditionalist theologians run the gamut of beliefs on other issues within the realm of Christian theology. But how can this be? Shouldn’t we all think the same about everything since we share a belief about this one issue?

Obviously, that is a silly question. You wouldn’t assume that all your premillennialist friends share the same view regarding baptism. The two views aren’t logically connected.1 You wouldn’t assume that all Calvinists hold the same view of how to interpret Genesis 1 for that same reason. Yet for some reason, this comes up with annihilationism. But there is no logical reason for it. There is no reason why one’s belief about hell would affect their view of baptism, for example. Why would it? Likewise, you can reconsider your view on hell and still keep all kinds of views on other topics.2

Believe what is biblical: if our view on hell is biblical, and your view on another topic is biblical, then there is no reason why you can’t hold to both.

In Practice, Conditionalists Have All Sorts of Different Beliefs about Other Doctrines

Let’s start just here at Rethinking Hell. Among our contributors, we have:

  • Calvinists, Molinists, and Arminians.
  • Paedo-baptists and credo-baptists (those who believe in infant baptism and those who believe that it is only for believers, respectively).
  • Those who hold to biblical inerrancy and those who do not (although, as our statement of faith indicates, all have a very high view of scripture and do not argue for conditionalism based on an assumption that the Bible is wrong about something).
  • Young earth creationists, old earth creationists, and even some who hold to theologically conservative forms of other alternative views.
  • We even have some who prefer Coca-Cola and some who prefer Pepsi!

I want to again emphasize that sharing this view of hell does not mean that we are all lock-step on other views. This list above isn’t even exhaustive, but is simply there to give you an idea of what I mean.

So then, what about other doctrines?

The Soul

This may be the first issue that comes to mind. What must you believe about the soul if you accept conditional immortality/annihilationism? Can you even still believe in a soul? Do you have to believe that you are nothing but a corpse at death, and that if not for the future resurrection, you would effectively cease to exist?

To accept our view of hell, all that you truly must believe is that people do not have souls that are immortal to the extent that even God could not destroy them. I don’t know even of any traditionalists who think that the soul is that immortal. Other than that, there is a lot of flexibility.

Contrary to popular belief, adhering to conditional immortality does not mean that you have to deny the existence of an immaterial soul or a conscious intermediate state where people are disembodied as souls. You need not believe that between death and the resurrection there is no conscious existence or continuation of life. Granted, in practice, many conditionalists are physicalists (or adherents of soul-sleep, which can mean the same thing or something slightly different). In practice, many who change their view from traditionalism to conditionalism also come to believe in physicalism as well. However, this is neither universal nor logically required of those who believe that only the saved will spend forever somewhere. Surely God could destroy a conscious, immaterial soul that he created as easily as he could anything else!

One notable conditionalist from way back in the early church was Irenaeus of Lyons (see Against Heresies Book 2, Chapter 34; his views were also discussed in a previous article). In the very same chapter that he expresses his conditionalist beliefs, he also points to the story of the rich man and Lazarus as being demonstrative of the soul’s survival of the first death. In a nutshell, his belief was that the soul has conscious existence past the first death, and will live/consciously exist on as long as God wills it to. For the wicked, that will not be for ever and ever, as it will be for the redeemed.

Additionally, a number of guests on our podcast who hold to conditionalism in regards to humans only (still believing in the eternal torment of the devil) also believe in a conscious intermediate state for humans. This list includes the following:

  • Roger Harper, author of The Lie of Hell (interviewed in Episode 15).
  • Robert Taylor, author of Rescue From Death: John 3:16 Salvation (interviewed in Episodes 13 and 14).
  • David Reagan, author of Eternity: Heaven or Hell (interviewed in Episode 19).

For what it’s worth, you could even hold to a trichotomous view (the view that humans are body, plus a immaterial souls and a separate, immaterial spirit). Why would that change anything?

Evangelical conditionalism speaks to what happens at judgment, not anything before or anything that doesn’t effect that ultimate outcome. Immaterial soul or not, the end is the same either way.

Denominations

If you believe in annihilationism, do you have to become a Jehovah’s Witness (or best case-scenario, a Seventh-Day- Adventist)? Or if not, is there one specific denomination you must join?

Not at all. Admittedly, some denominations do have eternal torment in their statements of faith, e.g. Reformed denominations that hold to the complete accuracy of confessions that teach eternal torment, the Evangelical Free Church of America, and Calvary Chapel34 Nevertheless, annihilationists come from and are part of any number of different denominations. For starters, a number of well-known adherents to conditionalism have been Anglican (e.g. John Stott, John Wenham, Michael Green). Edward Fudge, arguably the most influential conditionalist of our generation, is part of the Churches of Christ, as was Homer Hailey before him.56  E. Earle Ellis was a professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Southern Baptist Convention) until he fell asleep. Similarly, Dale Moody taught at Southern Baptist Seminary (also SBC). I bet you never thought conservative Southern Baptists would hold this view! Claude Mariottini, Old Testament professor at Northern Baptist Seminary (American Baptist Convention), is also an annihilationist.7 Dr. Gordon Isaac of Gordon-Conwell Seminary is an Adventist Christian (not the same as Seventh-Day Adventists). And of course, there are plenty of conservative, non-denominational Christians out in the world (especially here in the United States where I live), so if that’s your bag, what do you have to worry about?

Of course, you may be part of a denomination that explicitly holds to the traditional doctrine, and this may be problematic if you accept this view of hell. However, what’s more important to you, your denomination, or the word of God and the truth that it teaches?

Baptism

As can be seen from the different views both within Rethinking Hell and within the different denominations of which major conditionalist theologians have been part, being a conditionalist does not define what you think the Bible teaches about baptism.

Dispensationalists vs. Non-Dispensationalists

Nothing that is part and parcel to dispensationalism excludes evangelical conditionalism. What will come of Israel, God’s dealing with them vs. the Church, anything to do with the rapture or millennium or great tribulation, all of those things are compatible with either view of hell.

I will admit, given Revelation 20:10 and the penchant for literal interpretation in dispensationalist circles, there are not yet a lot of dispensationlists who are what I personally consider “full conditionalists,” i.e. those who believe that even the devil and his angels will be destroyed. I do think there are reasons why interpreting Revelation 20:10 as referring to the real life fate of anyone is incorrect and leaves us with many problems and inconsistencies (including in regards to how literally this passage is interpreted compared to others in Revelation),8 but that goes beyond the scope of this article. Despite that, you will find dispensationalists like Robert Taylor (mentioned earlier) who hold to conditionalism in regards to humans at least (I refer to this as “partial conditionalism,” but not everyone makes that distinction). And more importantly, being (inconsistently) literal about Revelation 20:10 not withstanding, there is no reason why dispensationalism need keep you from accepting evangelical conditionalism.

Election

As noted before, even in this group we have Calvinists, Molinists, and Arminians. Although this is not an endorsement for the position, even Open Theists such as Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd have held our view. Whatever your view on election, there is no need to reconsider it because you have decided to rethink hell.

Millennium

Whatever you believe about the millennium, you can be a conditionalist.

  • Amillennial: Myself, co-contributor Chris Date.
  • Postmillennial: Not particularly common, but then again, it’s arguably not that common of a view among Christians in general. Nonetheless, there are conditionalist adherents.9
  • Premillennial: Irenaeus of Lyons, Robert Taylor,10 David Reagan.11
  • Undecided/undisclosed: A lot of Christians are undecided, and annihilationists are no different, as an informal poll I took of those on the Rethinking Hell team shows.

I want to reiterate; there is no reason why one’s view on the millennium would affect their view on hell or vice versa. You can rethink hell and still hold whatever millennial belief that you hold.

Missions

Think you can’t be a missionary if you hold to annihilationism? Gregory Crofford, missionary in South Africa and author of The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-examined would beg to differ. Harold Eberle, international evangelist, founder of Worldcast Ministries, and author of Hell: God’s Justice, God’s Mercy, would do likewise. Tell me annihilationists aren’t on the front lines of the great commission! Doors may be closed (some missionary organizations explicitly hold to the traditional doctrine), but God certainly keeps doors open for those whom he wants to send where he wants to send them.

Gender Roles

Just so you know that I’m really serious about my claims that any number of theological beliefs are consistent with conditionalism, I am even going here. On the Rethinking Hell team alone, we have differing views, from staunch egalitarians to traditional complementarians and lots of views in between.

Conclusion

It makes perfect sense that you’ll find conditionalists in all these different camps on all different issues because there is no logical reason why these views are affected by one’s view of hell. Traditionalists don’t all think the same about these and any number of other issues, so why would we?

  1. This isn’t to deny that in practice, some collections of doctrines tend to be held together. But my point is not to deny that there is ever a connection between doctrines, but just to point out such connections are not logically necessary. And there are always exceptions to these tendencies as well. Dispensationalists, for example, tend to lean Arminian and charismatic, but John MacArthur is an outspoken Calvinist and cessasionist. []
  2. Of course, as you study the scripture more on this topic, you may reconsider other things because you have a better grasp of scripture than you did before. But that said, if you change your mind because you realize your former view on a different topic was unbiblical, how would that be anything but a positive change? []
  3. Technically, one might quibble about the way their statement of faith is worded when it comes to hell, but I think it is pretty clear what they mean by “literal hell” and “spend eternity separated from the Lord.” I would not bother trying to get a job as a Calvary Chapel pastor or Bible professor as an annihilationist. []
  4. The Calvary Chapel movement is not always considered an official “denomination.” Nevertheless, the group has their own statement of faith with rather specific beliefs (such as the belief in a pre-tribulation rapture and credo-baptism), and those who are part of it consider themselves one group within the larger body of Christ, so, it fits the definition of a denomination for our purposes here. []
  5. Within the Churches of Christ movement, there are some fringes that hold to rather extreme beliefs, which Fudge has distanced himself from on many occasions. He even gave a two-part interview discussing the topic on the Theopologetics Podcast (see parts 1 and 2). []
  6. I am not as familiar with Homer Hailey’s work, but Edward Fudge has spoken highly of him, so I am guessing he was in a similar position to Fudge. []
  7. Dr. Mariottini was even gracious enough to contribute a piece on some Hebrew translation issues, available here. []
  8. see Joseph Dear. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism (n.d.), Section XIII, found at 3-Ring Binder, n.d., http://3-ringbinder.weebly.com/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism.pdf (accessed on December 1, 2013). []
  9. Some ambiguity exists in how one historically defines “postmillennialism,” but whatever the case, if you consider yourself a postmillennialist, you won’t have to turn in your postmillennialist card if you come to believe that evangelical conditionalism is biblical. []
  10. Dr. Taylor is what I refer to as a “partial conditionalist,” but the millennium does not play into his view of the fate of the devil, or vice versa. []
  11. Same as above. []
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  • Josiah Woods

    Hey Joseph, I am considering ‘rethinking hell’ in taking the conditional view, and I don’t think it would make me any less a nondenominational Christian than I already am. However, could you explain to me how Revelation 20:10 doesn’t prove the traditional view to be true, or at least give a link to an article that that says as much? And also if possible how the traditional view has been taught to a majority of churches since medieval times without the conditional view being considered? For me that would pretty much be checkmate against the traditional view. Thanks.

    • Joseph Dear

      Hello Josiah,

      Thank you very much for your comment.

      Regarding your first question, about Revelation 20:10, I admit that this is by far the most difficult passage for conditionalists. it also is the most neglected of all the major traditionalist prooftexts, which makes finding a good explanation difficult. That isn’t to say that it is an insurmountable problem; in fact, when fully hashed out, the fact that the most difficult text makes good sense in the annihilationist perspective speaks volumes about conditionalism.

      This passage cannot be properly hashed out in the space we have, but I have a few good resources to suggest:
      - Episode 7 of our podcast (towards the end I think).
      http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/episode-7-traditional-objections-answered-with-chris-date

      - “Why I am an Annihilationist” by Glenn Peoples (towards the end).
      http://www.rightreason.org/article/theology/annihilationist.pdf

      - To really get down and dirty, I deal with it at excrutiating length in my free ebook, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism (Section XIII, see Table of Contents)
      http://3-ringbinder.weebly.com/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism.pdf

      For your second question, it’s a bit simpler. You describe yourself as a non-denominational Christian. Well, other than belief in the Trinity and “Jesus loves me, yes I know, because the Bible tells me so,” does your faith resemble much at all that of the Christians in medieval times? Of course not. The reformation taught us that the church as a whole can nonetheless go really astray on doctrine much more important than final punishment. That isn’t to hold the cultic view that no one was saved for hundreds of years – I think God is more forgiving of bad theology than many give Him credit for – but changes much more drastic than denying eternal torment occurred. We don’t acknowledge a pope or similar authority that is equal (in theory) with the Bible. We don’t believe that if one sins after baptism they cannot be saved, or that Mary was perpetually a virgin (which was affirmed explicitly in the “ecumenical” second council of Constantinople in 553). We believe in salvation by faith alone. Do you baptize infants? Typically non-denominational Christianity goes hand in hand with believers-only baptism. Well, where was that doctrine for 1000+ years between the early church and the reformation? It actually serves a useful parallel to the history of conditionalism, at least for convincing baptists like myself (with a lower case b). I think you get point :)

      • Josiah Woods

        Oh okay I see. Thank you very much for the info! I think it’s safe to say then that Conditionalism is true after all when you get deep into it and how the traditional view can’t work. I only wish this view had been a bit more famous and looked into from the start but then again the way Jesus first came on this earth was humble in the same sense. Lastly though, do you happen to have an idea of when the list of scriptures proving Conditionalism will be shown on the Explore page of the website?(which I just looked at after posting my question)

        • Joseph Dear

          Hello again,

          Sorry about the delayed response; after all this time we still haven’t worked the kinks out of the notification system for responses…

          Anyway, I’ll need to ask around about the explore page. I think a lot of us probably have forgotten it’s still listed as “coming soon”!

          As for the fame of the view early on, you might be surprised about some of the early church fathers. Many of the earliest church fathers simply used biblical language about perishing and destruction, and a few big names go beyond and make clear that only the saved will live forever in any sense.

          Dr. Glenn Peoples, one of the plenary speakers at our inaugural conference last month, contributed a worthwhile piece to Afterlife a while back: http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2013/theology/history-of-hell/

          • Josiah Woods

            Thanks for the info, it’s pretty cool! In case it may be awhile for all the Conditionalist proof-texts to show in the explore page, can you give me here a list of all the main verses that prove Conditionalism so I know pretty much where to go in the bible right away when I tell someone why I believe the conditional view?

          • Joseph Dear

            Hello Josiah,

            It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what the proof-texts are, since unlike the traditional view, conditionalism isn’t based on a handful
            of individual, separate texts that supposedly teach eternal torment.

            For example, one key theme is the contrast between
            “life” and “death.” Traditionalists argue that those terms
            don’t mean what we normally think of, and that you can be consciously existent in hell while “dead.” Of course, that has been addressed here in a number of places. That contrast occurs in numerous places, not just in a single text (like how a single text says “eternal punishment” – also addressed here).

            Elsewhere, multiple passages illustrate the fate of the lost
            in terms of things being destroyed (like weeds being burned up or Sodom and Gomorrah).

            Multiple passages in English speak of “destruction” and the unsaved being “destroyed” using several words in Greek that all carry various connotations of destruction (which traditionalists are forced to say are essentially “spiritual” metaphors, like “spiritual” decay).

            Even traditionalist prooftexts can serve as evidence for our view, especially when they are prooftexts that quote or allude to the Old
            Testament. Consider Mark 9:48 and it’s clear reference to Isaiah 66:24 – a passage about burning corpses of people who had just been killed. Or Jude 7, which uses the term “eternal fire” to describe what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah – so much for that phrase meaning a fire that burns people forever…

            Speaking of the Old Testament, save for Daniel 12:2 (and
            sometimes Isaiah 66:24 and once in a blue moon Isaiah 33:14), the Old Testament isn’t really cited as talking about “hell.” Eternal torment just is not there. But it sure talks about death and destruction a lot. If any of those references go beyond just physical death on earth, then there you go.

            There is also the fact that Gehenna refers to the Valley of
            Hinnom. I am not denying that it is meant as an eschatological metaphor when Jesus (and James once) uses the term. But in the Old Testament, the Valley of Hinnom was a place of mass slaughter and corpses after God’s earthly judgments (e.g. Jeremiah 7:32)! THAT is the backdrop of Jesus’ reference to hell being “Gehenna.”

            There is also the argument that the Bible teaches that everyone who is alive in eternity is worshipping God and shalom will be
            restored to the universe. This is impossible in any traditionalist framework, even the historically novel “reconciliationist” view where the unsaved praise God for his justice while suffering and stop sinning but stay in the bad place.

            My point is, it’s hard to really gather prooftexts, as it’s really more a collection of consistent themes than a handful of specific texts.

            BUT, since you asked, I will list below some of the most common texts, texts which can be good representatives of themes involved.

            Matthew 10:28 – says God can destroy body and soul in hell
            (in contrast to men who cannot kill the soul but only the body).

            Romans 6:23 – Sin deserves death, not living forever in
            torment.

            James 5:20 – According to most translations, the soul dies
            unless saved (in Greek it is the word for “soul”). So much for an
            immortal soul.

            Romans 2:7 – the righteous seek after immortality same as
            they seek after honor etc. If everyone is immortal, why would this mean anything?

            Malachi 4:1-3 – Speaks of the unsaved being burned up and
            being ashes under the feet of the saved in what, in context, can only be a reference to the judgment end of the world.

            Ephesians 1:10 – If everything in heaven and on earth is “in Christ,” how can anyone oppose Him or not be, ya know, “in Christ”?

            1 Corinthians 15:28 – God will be “all-in-all.” I have never heard a satisfactory explanation for how this could be and yet people be in a place cut off from God in some way; it’s basically just been “Revelation 20:10, now shut up!”

            2 Peter 2:6 – read it and you’ll see why (especially in the
            NIV or ESV which rely on a variation in the manuscripts).

            Matthew 13 (the parable of the weeds and the explanation, especially Verse 40): Jesus talks about weeds burning up, and then says that that is describing the end, where the weeds are the wicked and “So just as the tares are gathered up and burned [lit. burned up] with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age.”

            Those can provide a useful overview

          • Josiah Woods

            Hey Joesph, thanks for the list of proof verses of Conditionalism. Though I’ve encountered somebody who thinks that the terms used to describe death might not mean what we think they mean and that it could be totally different from how we see destruction and death. What would u say or how would u think that God is really talking about annihilation of the wicked, cuz God could really mean something different cuz we can’t really fathom who He is?

  • K.D.

    What does death look like to God.
    Are we sure it is what humanity says it is.
    Maybe God see’s death in a whole different way
    then we do.

    • Joseph Dear

      Hello K.D.,
      Sorry it has taken me 21 days. The notification system is still a bit wonky and we only get notifications about comments some of the time.

      Now, to answer your question, we have to think about what scripture is. The Bible isn’t God’s secret diary where He writes down His own personal thoughts in His own language, a secret diary that we just stumbled upon. The point of the scriptures is to communicate something to the reader. The reason God tells us things in the Bible is so we will read them and understand what has been said to us. That doesn’t mean it is always easy to understand everything, since there is so much content in the scriptures and especially given how language changes over time. But the reason God had scriptures written with words in human language was so that it could be understood by humans. If the fate of the unsaved was nothing like death as we know it, then it would make little sense for God to refer to it as death. If God didn’t want to convey the truth to humans as humans would understand, then He could have saved Himself the time and just not given us the scripture at all.

      Now, this isn’t to say that the Bible does not contain metaphor, hyperbole, poetic imagery etc. It is possible that certain words and phrases and descriptions could be used in those kinds of ways (instead of being completely literal). Such uses are part of human language and the Bible does convey things in that way sometimes. So, it is possible that “death” could have some sort of metaphorical use or something like that, a metaphorical use that some of the original readers at least would have understood. But there would need to be some good reason to think that. Usually with things like metaphors or other non-literal uses of language, there is something in the context to indicate that is what is meant. For example, if someone is playing a board game and has three great turns and says “I’m on fire,” the context indicates that they are speaking figuratively (since they are not on fire and to be “on fire” can refer to being successful at something). I don’t think, when we get right down to it, that there is much in the passages about the unsaved suffering “death” to make us think it is meant in any bizarre metaphor where things die but totally are, for all intents and purposes, alive.

      • Josiah Woods

        Thanks for answering both of our questions at once, because it was K.D who I’ve encountered that was wondering about this. However, it seems he has more questions about what God thinks death really is.

      • Josiah Woods

        Oh, also if u could, please further explain(with some verses too if possible) how Mathew 10:28 shows that God will annihilate the unsaved even though it just says that He has the ability to? That’d be nice as well.

  • K.D.

    Hello sir,
    I understand, machines can be faulty from time to time and slow us down.

    My theory on death is a little different. My idea is that when you die your soul is separated from your body which forces it into a state of sleep we humans call death and Jesus referred to as sleep.
    In Genesis 4:10 God tells Cain he hears the voice of Abel’s blood crying to him from the ground. Because of who God is and his nature we could easily assume that God was being serious when he said he heard Abel’s blood crying out to him. Of course we also know that God clearly watched Cain kill Abel so why Even bring up the whole blood crying out to me thing.

    So in death if our bodies can do all that crying out to God, what then is the state of being dead in the physical sense and more importantly in the spiritual sense. It sounds to me like death is simply separation of soul and body. And my theory is that spiritual death is simply separation from God and man. In the beginning that was our death in the garden along with death killing all humans before they can live to be a day old.
    But ultimately we are not completely cut off from God. The second death seems to be a complete cutting off from God who Is life and without him we are dead. So are we dead asleep or dead in some other way God has not yet revealed to us.

  • Shellie Moore

    I attend a Calvary Chapel and was surprised to see your characterization of their doctrine of hell as Eternal Conscious Torment
    . Here it is from their site: “We believe in the resurrection of the dead. Some will be raised to life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (hell).”am I wishfully misreading with my new CI eyes? I can understand this to mean something other than ECT.

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