[This is the manuscript of my article published in the April 2019 issue of Word&Way, the publication “informing & inspiring Midwest Baptists since 1896.” It would best be read as attractively presented in the magazine, but I am making it available here for those who do not have access to Word&Way.]
Hell has been a hot topic for a long time—and it still is, especially among traditional and conservative Christians. That is evident from the theological tensions that surfaced at Southwest Baptist University in December.
Rodney Reeves, dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry, was accused of theological errors, including the charge that he affirmed annihilationism. In response, Reeves wrote a post on his blog, “A Genuine Faith,” on Dec. 21 on “Why I’m not an annihilationist.” But maybe he should be one, in spite of the conservative/traditional Christian opposition to that viewpoint.
Annihilationism, basically, is the theological position that understands death to be the end of existence for those who have not received the gift of eternal life. That is, in contradistinction to the traditional view, it holds that there is no conscious eternal punishment for non-believers.
This position is also known as conditional immortality, the belief that humans are not by nature immortal. The idea of “immortal souls” was a common idea among the ancient Greek philosophers, a position that later increasingly became a part of Christian theology and popular religiosity, but it does not seem to be a clear teaching of the Bible. According to the New Testament, God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16), but God bestows eternal life, or immortality, upon all those who receive that gracious gift. In other words, since all humans are mortal, death is the end of personal existence. Those who receive the gift of eternal life, however, will be with God after death by being resurrected. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15, that great chapter explaining resurrection, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (v. 54, NRSV).
This belief in annihilationism/conditional immortality is not just the idea of some progressive Christians. There have also been conservative evangelicals in recent decades who have jettisoned the traditional doctrine of hell as a place of conscious eternal punishment of individual unbelievers. One such person was Church of Christ pastor Edward Fudge. Another such opponent of the “orthodox” view of hell is Assembly of God pastor Charles Gillihan. A third and more recent example is that of Chris Kratzer, an ordained Lutheran who was for many years an evangelical pastor.
Fudge, who died in 2017, was one of the most vocal evangelicals to affirm annihilationism. His 420-page book, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, was first published in 1982 and the third, definitive edition was issued in 2011. In addition, “Hell and Mr. Fudge” (2012) is a worth-watching movie about him and his movement to an affirmation of annihilationism.
Gillihan is the author of Hell No! A Fundamentalist Preacher Rejects Eternal Torment (2011). Despite what he had been taught and what was asserted in his denomination’s doctrinal statement, he ended up concluding that annihilation “is clearly what the Bible teaches.”
Last year, Kratzer published a hard-hitting book titled Leatherbound Terrorism. No longer the avid conservative evangelical pastor he once was, he emphatically rejects the idea that hell is a place of never-ending torture (calling chapter 10 “To Hell With Your Hell”).
A lucid delineation of the annihilationist position has been written by Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock, who grew up in a liberal Baptist church. He authored “The Conditional View,” the fourth part of Four Views on Hell (1992). In that 30-page exposition, Pinnock contends that “God does not grant immortality to the wicked to inflict endless pain upon them but will allow them finally to perish.”
Pinnock bases his position partly on his understanding of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. Accordingly, he writes, “There is a powerful moral revulsion against the traditional doctrine of the nature of hell. Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die.” Strong words!
In this connection, Pinnock cites the noted English scholar Antony Flew, author of God and Philosophy, first published in 1966. Pinnock contends that “Flew was right to object that if Christians really believe that God created people with the full intention of torturing some of them in hell forever, they might as well give up the effort to defend Christianity.” Flew was an adamant atheist for most of his life but drastically changed his position in 2004 and became the author of the book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (2007).
Evangelicals have long thought, it seems, that emphasis on the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell is necessary for the sake of evangelism—and “hell and brimstone” preaching has been legendary in evangelical circles. On the other hand, there are many who reject Christianity partly, or largely, because of the traditional teaching on hell. Although he doesn’t mention it in his 2007 book, Flew, the “notorious atheist,” seemingly changed his mind about God partly because of the changing emphasis on hell in the Anglican Church in his native England. In 1996, a Church of England commission, as an Associated Press report at the time put it, “rejected the idea of hell as a place of fire, pitchforks and screams of unending agony, describing it instead as annihilation for all who reject the love of God.”
In his advocacy for annihilationism, Pinnock stresses that “the traditional view of the nature of hell has been a stumbling block for believers and an effective weapon in the hands of skeptics for use against the faith.” In the Preface of his book, Gillihan goes so far as to say that “the orthodox view of everlasting burning torture in hell . . . is the primary reason people give for rejecting the gospel.”
Long before reading any of the authors mentioned above, I first heard about, and largely accepted, the idea of annihilationism/conditional immortality from Dale Moody, my professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When I was still a graduate student there, Moody published his book The Hope of Glory (1964). He explained: “Conditional immortality contends that [human beings are] by nature mortal and that those who do not . . . receive immortality as God’s gift are extinguished either at death or at some point beyond the final judgment” (pp. 105-6).
Annihilation is not some vengeful action on the part of God. It is simply God allowing people to perish. But the good news is, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Why can’t we accept the common meaning for “perish,” a word that usually means to die or to cease to exist? And why, why do some Christian pastors, teachers, and church leaders get so upset with the idea that there may be no everlasting conscious punishment.
So once again, perhaps Reeves should be an annihilationist, in spite of the objection of his conservative accusers.