Are fundamentalists denying hell?

Those familiar with my blog know I am no big fan of Biblical inerrancy and don’t think that the Biblical authors necessarily agree with each other on every topic (Kevin Miller I interviewed holds similar views).

Still,as far as the nature of hell is concerned, I think that the overwhelming image of ultimate punishment is “death”,  naturally meaning the cessation of existence.

I interviewed Chris Date in that respect.

I find it amusing (albeit consternating) to see how fundamentalists unwittingly mistake their own tradition-conditioned interpretation (or should I say “distortion) of a Biblical concept for the real thing.

For the large majority of Conservative Christians, hell signifies eternally existing in an incredibly painful state.

Recently, Tim Challies, a creationist book reviewer took to task the growing number of Evangelicals who are  switching to conditional immortality (according to which immortality is a gift received by only the saved) and universalism (according to which after a shorter or longer period of torment in hell, everyone is going to be saved).

Here is his post I replied to.

A hellbound man screams forever.
Being in hell forever: many people believe it is the consistent Biblical description of the lost.

What I Would Have To Deny To Deny Hell

It was just a few years ago that everyone was talking about hell. One disaffected Evangelical had decided to use his platform and popularity to question the very notion of hell, and, not surprisingly, he caused quite a stir. The crisis came and went, of course, and it had at least one happy outcome: Many Christians had to examine what they believe about hell and come to stronger and better conclusions.

I believe in hell. I do not believe in some version of hell that owes more to Dante and The Far Side than sacred writ, but the hell I see revealed in the Bible—a hell of eternal, conscious torment. I wish there was no such thing as hell, but I have deteremined to live by the Bible and I simply cannot deny what the Bible makes plain.

But what if I did? What would I have to deny in order to deny hell? If I am ever to come to the point of denying the existence of hell, what will be the doctrinal cost of getting there? Though I am sure there is much more that could be said, I can think of at least four major denials.

I Will Deny What Jesus Taught

Jesus believed in the literal existence of a literal hell. It is very difficult to read Luke 16 (the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus) and arrive at any other conclusion except that Jesus believed in hell and that he believed in a hell of conscious torment of body and mind.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Jesus also believed in the permanence of hell: “[B]esides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of hell as the furnace of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He calls it a place of everlasting fire. This would be strange language for a man to use if he believed that hell did not exist and that it was not a place of unspeakable torment.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will need to outright deny what Jesus teaches and declare that he is wrong, or I will need to obscure what is so plain. I will need to make all of Jesus’ language symbolic and all of the meaning something other than what seems so clear. I will need to deny what Jesus says.

I Will Deny the Plain Sense of Scripture

Time would fail me here to provide an extensive look at the concept of hell in the Bible; time would fail me to look at each of the words associated with hell. But one does not need to be an expert on the Bible or on its original languages to see that it teaches clearly that there is life after death and that this life after death will involve either joy or torment, it will involve enjoying the loving presence of God or facing his wrathful presence. This is stated explicitly in Scripture and it is stated implicitly, it is present in the Old Testament and comes to full form in the New Testament. Those who wrote Scripture believed that hell existed and made it plain in what they wrote.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will have to do a great deal of redefining, a great deal of reinterpreting. As with the teaching of Jesus, I will need to change what is plain to what is symbolic, I will need to take what is clear and make it obscure. There is no getting around the fact that a plain, honest reading of the Bible teaches the existence of hell.

I Will Deny the Testimony of the Church

If I am to deny the existence of hell, I will be denying what has been the near-unanimous testimony of the Christian church through the ages. From the church’s earliest days until today, hell has been understood as a place of conscious, eternal torment. The Westminster Larger Catechism offers an apt summary of what Christians have long believed: “The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever.” Though this was formed in the days of Reformation, it depends upon the testimony of Christians who came before. And it informed generations that followed.

If I am to deny that hell is a real place, if I am to deny that hell is that kind of place, I will be turning my back on two thousand years of Christian history—on two thousand years of brothers and sisters in Christ who had great knowledge of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. I’ll grant that there are times this is necessary; there are times that many Christians are wrong about many things. But such a decision must be made with great fear and trembling and only on the basis of overwhelming Scriptural evidence.

I Will Deny the Gospel

I cannot deny hell without utterly changing the gospel message. The message of Christ dying for the lost in order to save their souls will be meaningless. If there is no hell, there is really nothing to lose. And so heaven and hell must be brought to earth, they must be seen as present realities rather than future ones. The Baptist preacher J.L. Dagg said it well: “To appreciate justly and fully the gospel of eternal salvation we must believe the doctrine of eternal damnation.” If I am going to deny eternal damnation, I must radically rewrite the gospel. Gone is the gospel of sinners who have committed treason against God and who call upon themselves God’s just wrath. There are many gospels I can put in its place. But what is clear is that this gospel, this gospel of a substitutionary atonement must be a casualty. This gospel stands and falls upon the existence of both heaven and hell. Take away either one and you gut the gospel; it becomes meaningless and nonsensical.

If I am going to give up hell, I am going to give up the gospel and replace it with a new one.

Let me close with some words from the great theologian Robert Dabney. What he says here I believe as well. “Sure I am, that if hell can be disproved in any way that is solid and true, and consistent with God’s honor and man’s good, there is not a trembling sinner in this land that would hail the demonstration with more joy than I would.” It’s not that I want hell to be true, but that the Scripture makes it clear that it is true. It is not for me to dismantle the doctrine or to deny it; I am simply to believe it and to live and act as if it is true.

***

Distorting the Biblical texts

Here was  my response:

“He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day,  just
as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the
same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange
flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of
eternal fire.”
Jude 1:7

” and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by
reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would
live ungodly lives thereafter;”

2 Peter 2:6

So, Sodom and Gomorrah are an example of what will happen to the ungodly.

Have these cities been eternally tortured ever since their destruction?

Was their conscious pain exhibited as an example during the first century A.C?

Does this very thought seem a bit laughable?

The wasted valleyes of Sodom and Gomorrah
Sodom and Gomorrah many centuries later. Is it an image of the painful eternal separation from God the lost has to endure?
Or is it a clear image of irreversible destruction?

As for Jesus, what about

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

According to your view, one should read this verse as:

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the
soul: but rather fear him which is able to torment both soul and body in
hell.”

With all due respect, I cannot help but think that interpreting these texts as conscious torment is a ridiculous force-fit.

Concerning the rich man in Hades, I can only quote my interview with Chris Date
********
“the problems are twofold. First and most importantly, the parable isn’t even set in hell. It’s set in Hades, the underworld, the place of the dead. The rich man’s brothers are still alive, and he, dead in Hades, pleads that someone would go and tell his still-living brothers to repent. None of this would be possible in the eschaton. Besides, the text explicitly states he’s in Hades. And we know that one day mankind will be raised up out of Hades, given once again living bodies, at which point they will be finally judged. So there’s simply no good argument to be made for the traditional view from this parable. Secondly, there’s little reason to believe Jesus intends for the parable to be taken as a
realistic description of the afterlife in the first place. Scholars of ancient Jewish literature have found several very similar stories that are sort of life fairy tales, or folk tales, not intended to be taken literally, but communicating a moral point. And Jesus appears to take these and turn them on their head, sort of telling his hearers that they’ve got things all wrong when it comes to the rich and the poor.
Imagine, if you will, if Jesus were to come to us today and tell a story very similar to Humpty Dumpty, but whereas the king’s men in the original could not put Humpty back together again, in Jesus’ version the king himself puts Humpty back together again, as an illustration that God will one day raise his people from the dead. No one would think that Jesus was saying the afterlife would literally be like what happens in Humpty Dumpty. We’d all recognize that he was co-opting a common fairy tale of our day in order to communicate spiritual realities, like he does in all his parables. So I don’t see any reason to take the parable literally. But let me reiterate that that’s only secondary. Even if one is inclined to take Jesus’ parable as a generally realistic account of
the afterlife, the most it could lead one to do is embrace dualism and a conscious intermediate state awaiting resurrection. Again: The parable takes place in Hades, not hell.”
*****

What’s more, in the passage of Revelation you quoted, it is said that “Hades” will be thrown into the lake of fire.

What does that show us? Two things:

1) Hades cannot be a permanent state of miserable existence, it’s going to have an end
2) being in the lake of fire cannot mean being tormented, for “Hades” is an impersonal concept incapable of feeling anything.

Therefore, it is quite natural to conclude that landing in this lake of fire involves being destroyed irremediably.

The damned scream out loud in the fiery lanscapes of the lake of fire.
Will Hades “the Death” be eternally tormented in the lake of fire?
Or will it be no more?

Argument of silence against eternal conscious torment

I think that an excellent argument from silence can also be made against ECT.

You believe that eternal conscious torment is a doctrine of crucial importance.

It is the worst thing which can happen to someone therefore we should preach it everywhere.

If so, why did not God act accordingly?

Consider the overwhelming majority of the Old Testament (at the very least between the time of Abraham and that of the prophet Jeremiah) how often do you find someone ambiguously evoking an everlasting state of painful existence as a punishment for sin?

Never. The retribution of misdeeds is always associated with DEATH and it is incredibly far-fetched to imagine that the ancient Hebrew writers meant “spiritual death” while existing miserably.

Likewise, in the Acts of the Apostles, while judgment is mentioned at some places we can never find any mention of unending suffering.

If ETC were true , we would expect the writers to clearly and unambiguously announce and preach it.
But this is absolutely not what one finds.
I think that in this specific case, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence: these are failed predictions which are so significant that they largely suffice for showing that these Biblical writers did not view hell as never-ending torment.

If the Bible inerrantly taught the doctrine of conscious eternal torment, our Biblical texts would look very different from what they are.

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John Loftus and the instrumental mindset

Militant atheists often present themselves as dispassionate and incredibly “bright” seekers of truth whose conclusions are always impartial and well grounded.

I think that nothing can be farther from the truth and I want to illustrate this trough the behavior of a very active American anti-theist.

 

John Loftus is a former fundamentalist who became an anti-theist and views it as his greatest purpose in life to “debunk Christianity“.

sometimes agree with his criticism of fundamentalism and conservative Evangelicalism, but find that he most often utterly fails to address the position of his strongest opponent.

He has also made it perfectly clear that his goal is not to rationally examine religious topics but to use everything he can to reach “the end of Christianity”, like a perfect ideologist.

 

Consequently, he usually picks and chooses the worst passages of the Bible while picking and choosing their worst interpretations and concludes from that the whole Bible and Christianity in general is wicked.

(Click here to see another anti-theist using pretty much the same strategy).

 

So I was very surprised as I found  a blog post from him where he states the Bible teaches that hell means annihilation (the irreversible loss of one’s existence).

 

“Since I was able to question my Christian faith for the first time once I believed in Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism as the best Biblical description of hell, see here, I thought I’d offer a few brief notes on that view, from a Biblical perspective. I know there is a debate about this going on among Christian circles, but here are some of the things that those who dispute it must deal with:

We should not confuse the reality of hell with its images. The images of hell are of: 1) “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46); 2) “eternal destruction” (Matt. 10:28); and 3) banishment into the “darkness” (Matt. 22:13; 25:30). How we interpret these images depends on other Bible verses. In the O.T. the wicked will cease to exist (Psalm 37, Mal.4: 1-2). Jesus in the N.T. shows us that the purpose of fire in punishment is to destroy or burn up the wicked (Matt.3:10-12; 13:30,42,49-50). According to John R.W. Stott: “The main function of fire is not to cause pain, but to secure destruction.” [Evangelical Essentials, (p. 316)]. Paul likewise emphasized destruction (2 Thess 1: 9; I Cor. 3:17; Phil. 1:28; 3:19). Peter likewise stressed the sinners’ fate as that of destruction (2 Pet. 2:1,3, 6; 3:6-7). Even in John’s book of Revelation, the lake of fire will consume the wicked (Rev. 20:14-15). G.B. Caird: “John believed that, if at the end there should be any who remained impervious to the grace and love of God, they should be thrown, with Death and Hades, into the lake of fire which is the second death, i.e., extinction and total oblivion.” [Commentary on Revelation, (p. 186)].

“The Bible uses language of death and destruction, of ruin and perishing, when it speaks of the fate of the impenitent wicked. It uses the imagery of fire that consumes whatever is thrown into it.” But “linking together images of fire and destruction suggests annihilation. One receives the impression that ‘eternal punishment’ refers to a divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed rather than to the experience of endless torment (i.e. eternal punishing).” [Pinnock, Four Views of Hell, p. 144].

L.E. Froom claims that conditional immortality was generally accepted in the early church until its thinkers tried to wed Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul to the teaching of the Bible.” [The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Herald Pub., 1966]. Biblically speaking, human beings are not immortal. God alone has immortality (I Tim. 6:16); well doers seek immortality (Rom. 2:7); immortality is brought to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10); those in Christ will put on immortality (I Cor. 15:54), so that they now partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).

If human beings don’t have immortality until they die in Christ when God grants it to them, then according to the Bible we cease to exist after we die. We are annhihilated, and that’s our punishment. And since according to the Bible God is judging us all along the way, there’s no need to believe that the figurative pictures of a great white throne judgement are literal events one can expect to experience, either.”

 

A far better defense of the concept this is the Biblical view of hell can be found in my interview with Chris Date.

 

Still, I was really stunned to have found that on the website of John. Annihilationism is a doctrine which is far more reconcilable with our moral intuitions than eternal torment, so it would have made more sense for John to defend the view the Bible really teaches that everyone of us will be literally tortured (as another member of DebunkingChristianity actually did).

So, does that mean that John wrote this out of intellectual honesty even if this makes Christianity taste more palatable? This is what I first thought before I saw one of his comments on the website of Dr. Glenn People:

 

My experience was that once I gave up an eternal hell it was a relief to me. Claim differently all you want to. But it allowed me to consider that I might be wrong without the threat of an eternal punishment.

And so the question remains whether annihilation will hurt or save the church. Without such a threat there is, well, no threat. It’s not quite the same as universalism but close. If all will be saved or if no one will suffer an eternal punishment then there is less motivation for missionary work or evangelism, and less of a need to preach correct doctrines rather than pop psychology which helps grow a church.

Without an eternal hell then another problem surfaces with the atonement? Typically the substitutionary doctrine says Jesus paid our punishment on the cross, but if there is less or no punishment then why did he need to do this at all? Why die to save human beings from extinction? To cease to exist is no punishment at all and therefore nothing to save anyone from.

I know you’ll answer these questions to your satisfaction, but these answers don’t satisfy me.”

 

So on average (according to Loftus) the doctrine of conditional immortality is a good thing because this would lead Christians to get less evangelistic and more willing to rationally question their faith.

I’ve grown convinced that John Loftus views everything as means to the end (of Christianity). As Randal Rauser wrote:

” Having just leafed quickly through it I was struck yet again by how much Loftus brought his Christian fundamentalism with him when he became an atheist. I see, for example, that his critique of Genesis 1-2 includes fundamentalist assumptions about reading ancient literature as a scientific account. Moreover, the book even ends with a “Commitment Page” (p. 467) in which Loftus asks the reader to sign their name that they are now an atheist committed to propagating atheism in the world. Once an evangelist, always an evangelist, I guess.

I hope to have a review of Loftus’ book sometime in August (I have two time sensitive reviews that I need to get out first).”

 

I think we can know beyond any reasonable doubt that John Loftus has remained a missionary fundamentalist.

More generally, searching a reasonable conversation with an American anti-theist is akin to seeking a rational discussion with a far-left or far-right politician who is doing everything possible to bring about his or her reforms.

It is an utter waste of time and I advise all my fellow Christians (both Conservative and Progressive) to avoid wasting your time on such websites where mockery, bullying and ridicule are commonplace. If you feel outraged by something they wrote, write your response on your personal blog but don’t challenge them in their own lands.

 

I’m really glad that in France and Germany, one can find PLENTY of non-militant and tolerant intellectual atheists who are willing to engage in friendly and rational challenges with no ax to grind.

In a truly open society (as defined by Karl Popper) it should certainly be possible to discuss about worldview differences without getting disagreeable.

 

 

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On hell and a psychopatic mindset

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randaul Rauser wrote a new amazing post about the problem of hell (understood as a never-ending torture).

BildI agree with anti-theist Richard Dawkins that terrorizing small kids with this is a form of child abuse and that this damnable doctrine ought to be jettisoned.

Bild

Randal wrote

 

In my recent interview with Robin Parry on universalism, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared, “You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”

Psychopath?! Them’s fightin’ words!

That might seem like a daring statement, but as Parry notes, even conservative Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, J.I. Packer makes a similar point when he observes: ”If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).

So we are left with a situation in which proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as we are to believe it isn’t.

Next, Robin addresses the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and Christian “moral character formation”. He explains:

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that. And I think, when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”

As Parry points out here, eternal conscious torment presents a serious problem, for the Christian determined to move beyond the pained contortions of cognitive dissonance and to a real embrace of the doctrine is required to adopt attitudes toward some of God’s creatures that are, as Parry says, “actually vicious”. To be sure, the individual may not know who the reprobate are, but they do know that a subset of God’s creatures will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a restored creation. Consequently, they should seek to inculcate in themselves attitudes that are in conformity with God’s, including a satisfaction in the horrifying future of the reprobate. It does indeed seem that the only alternatives at this point are extreme cognitive dissonance or vicious attitudes that are indeed inimical to the cultivation of true Christian character.

Parry is not suggesting that advocates of eternal conscious torment are vicious. But he is claiming that consistently embracing eternal conscious torment as the fate for the reprobate requires the cultivation of attitudes that are vicious. Think, by analogy, of the meat eater overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, he resolves to harden his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. Likewise, the Christian overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned either lives in cognitive dissonance or seeks to inculcate vicious attitudes whilst cauterizing his compassion and embracing the divine plan of never-ending torment for the reprobate.

Is there a way to proceed in the interpretation of scripture and theological reflection which can help us avoid this impossible choice between cognitive dissonance and moral disassembly? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation?

Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview here and my print blog interview here). Seibert’s proposal has a decent lineage: St. Augustine. He begins by quoting the great Church Father:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:

“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).

The position offers at least the beginning of a resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it. Consequently, the extent to which one believes eternal conscious torment leaves one in the hinterland between cognitive dissonance and the inculcation of vicious attitudes, to that extent one has reasonable grounds to reject the doctrine.

 

Here was my response.

 

Hello Randal, thanks for this new amazing post of yours.

I find it amazing that even hardcore Calvinists such as Paul Helm grant the point that nobody should WANT eternal conscious torment to be true.
This logically entails that they are themselves morally superior to the god they profess to worship.

 

That said, I think that Robin Parry confronts us with a false dichotomy .

Either we believe that people are going to be tortured forever for sins they could not have avoided (having been cursed with a sinful nature).
Or we believe that all of them will inherit eternal bliss.

But there is another alternative, namely that:

1) God did NOT curse us with a sinful nature (the authors of Genesis agree with me on that one).

2) God will grant eternal life to everyone truly desiring Him and there will be lots of conversions beyond the grave (inclusivism).

3) Those not desiring God won’t suffer forever but they will be no more.

Given that, I don’t even feel a need to hope that universalism is true.
I don’t feel a need to hope that Hitler, Fred Phelps or Bin Laden won’t return to dust.

Interestingly enough, many secular European folks told me that if there were a good God, they would not be shocked at all if He were to act in the way I have just outlined.

 

Hell, callous indifference and embarassment

Jonny Scaramanga has written a fantastic post describing a discussion between a fundamentalist Christian and a secularist about hell.

Liz Weston hell

I must say that I really admire Jonny. He went through horrific experiences as a fundamentalist child which led him to reject Christianity altogether.

Yet, unlike the New Atheists (also called antitheists) who engage in vicious attacks against all believers, Jonny is an extremely loving and respectful person, even towards fundies.

I think that all people cherishing an open society (where freedom and tolerance are fostered) should join their forces against those threatening its very foundation.

This is what Jonny wrote:

Fundamentalists: you have not been trying very hard to save me. Either you do not really believe I am going to hell, or you do not care. Which is it?

I wasn’t going to post this until next week, but I needed to get it online while the relevant Big Questions episode is still on BBC iPlayer so you can see what I’m talking about.

Liz Weston is a member of Christ Church Southampton. She was on The Big Questions this week to defend fundamental Christianity against the charge that it is harmful to children.

Let me say this first: I like her. She got a lot of bile from Twitter atheists when the episode aired, but I chatted to her after the show and she was genuinely nice. I got the feeling that we could have spoken for a long time and found many areas of common ground. Liz was shocked by my experiences of fundamentalism and expressed genuine regret. She was also far more tolerant than I was in my fundamentalist days. I got the feeling that where we disagreed, we could have done so without it being a source of animosity.

So yes, I think Liz Weston is a good person, and that’s important to remember in light of what I’m about to say.

 

The crucial exchange came about 44 minutes into the programme.

“Nicky Campbell: So who’s going there [hell]?

Liz Weston: Anybody who hasn’t put their faith in Jesus and trusted in Him as their saviour, his death on the cross to pay for their sins… But you can go to heaven, and it’s your choice if you decide to reject Jesus.

Amanda Robinson: But I have, so I’m going to hell.

Liz: That’s fine! You’ve chosen to reject Jesus. That unfortunately is your choice and I’d love to convince you otherwise but, yeah…

Then she shrugged, and laughed.

She looked a person full in the face, told her she was going to hell…

And she laughed.

Let’s imagine an alternative scenario: instead of Liz Weston, God-botherer, and Amanda Robinson, criminologist, this was a confrontation between a qualified therapist and a person with a life-threatening addiction.

Let’s say Liz is the therapist, and Amanda Robinson is a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or has a chronic eating disorder. Liz has the only solution, and it will definitely solve Amanda’s problem. Without it, Amanda is inevitably going to destroy herself in the slowest, most agonising way. How would we expect Liz to act?

Liz would be distraught. She would implore Amanda, through tears and agonising pain, to accept her help before it’s too late. She would be doing everything in her power to get through to her. Nothing else would matter. Every other point of discussion would be put on hold. Amanda cannot see her own need for help, but Liz can save her. The frustration of the situation would put Liz on bended knee, begging Amanda to let her in. If this failed, Liz would be broken, defeated, shattered by her own impotence and inability to help.

She probably wouldn’t laugh.

The situation Liz claims to believe is much worse. In our hypothetical scenario, there would at least be an end to it: Amanda would eventually die, and the suffering would end. In the case of hell, Liz believes the suffering is eternal, without a moment’s respite. Yet Liz was able to look at Amanda and laugh when she told her about it.

Either Liz does not really believe this, or she does not care.

This is repugnant. It shows how the fundamentalist doctrine of hell can corrupt the moral compass of an otherwise good person.

If Liz does not care, then the Christian claim to moral superiority is in tatters. The claim that only Christians are capable of expressing true love, because of the Spirit of God within them becomes absurd. Her religion is evil, and her claim to morality is bankrupt.

If Liz does not really believe it, she shouldn’t say it.

So which is it?”

Afterword: For the record, I believe that the most charitable interpretation of these events is also the correct one. I think Liz laughed because she was embarrassed. She knew how awful it was to tell Amanda she was going to hell. Now I’m sure this is the source of considerable cognitive dissonance for Liz. I am not saying she is lying when she says she believes in hell, but I think this demonstrates she doesn’t actually believe it as wholeheartedly as she says.

Also, I don’t mean this to be a witch-hunt against Liz Weston specifically. As I said, I liked her. This is a specific example of a wider phenomenon I’ve observed – evangelical Christians acting like they don’t care (much) as they tell someone they are bound for hell. It’s just that this one, usefully, happened to be televised.

 

Interestingly enough, I pointed out similar things in my post entitled “On Hell and Cognitive Dissonance“.

Conservative Evangelicals are unable to live consistently with their belief that every person dying as a non-Christian will be eternally tormented owing to sins she could NOT have avoided, due to God having cursed her with a sinful nature she never asked for.

Deep inside, most of them realize that this doctrine (combined with the claim that God is perfectly loving and just) is an affront against reason and morality.

While I believe that the Bible often has contradictory voices about quite a few topics, I fail to see any verse teaching eternal torment.

When properly interpreted, I think that the authors believed in conditional immortality, meaning that those rejecting God won’t inherit eternal life and perish.

But what does “rejecting God” means?

I think that progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser gave us a nice example illustrating what it does NOT mean.

To quote myself :

I am an inclusivist but not an universalist because I consider it very likely that at least some people will reject God beyond the grave.

Conservative Evangelicals typically defend Exclusivism (only those dying as Christians will inherit eternal life) using the following reasoning:

1) The Bible is the full and unique revelation of God (which is the central pillar of Evangelicalism)
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore only Christians will get to heaven

Yet as Randal Rauser pointed out, this is an extraordinarily offensive assertion.

“They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’”

Now against this backdrop turn to the encounter between a cacique (or tribal leader) and his Franciscan captors. In this encounter Hatuey, the cacique, has been told he will be executed (for no greater crime, it would seem, than not being Spanish), but that he can still save his soul before his body is slain:

“When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was told by a Franciscan friar who was present, an artless rascal, something about the God of the Christians and of the articles of Faith. And he was told what he could do in the brief time that remained to him, in order to be saved and go to heaven. The cacique, who had never heard any of this before, and was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did not adopt the Christian Faith, he would suffer eternal torment, asked the Franciscan friar if Christians all went to Heaven. When told that they did he said he would prefer to go to Hell.”

It is extremely blasphemous to state that Hatuey won’t have any chance to reach heaven.

So I think that the above reasoning can be turned on its head:

1) As perfectly loving God must give a post-mortem chance to many of those who have died without Christ
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore the Bible cannot be the full and unique revelation of God
4) Therefore Evangelicalism is wrong

(Of course many people would contest 2), thereby invalidating the conclusion).

Finally Greg pointed out that the parable of the foolish and wise virgins has to be taken at face value, thereby showing that people not having chosen Christ during this life won’t be given a second chance.

A huge problem is that as a conservative Protestant, there are quite a few things in the Bible that Greg cannot interpret literally.

The parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates that very well.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.

More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.”

So I am confident that many people having died as atheists will inherit eternal life because the god they rejected was nothing more than a hideous idol they were taught to worship.

It is worth noting that Jesus never threatened prostitutes, tax collectors and homosexuals with a destroying fire but only self-righteous bigots.

I consider it very likely that while many loving atheists will joyfully accept God/Christ/forgiveness on the other side of the grave, Fred Phelps (the God hates fags pastor) will be judged and lose his life forever.

I fail to see why this is immoral, and many secular Continental Europeans I know agree that (if there is a God) such a fate would be a just reward for the life he spent spreading hatred, thereby developing a heinous personality making him unworthy of everlasting bliss.

 

Eternal hell and conditional immortality: an interview with Chris Date

 

 

Hell (understood as eternal torment) has been widely soon as Christianity’s most damnable doctrine by many atheists and skeptics. Very few people, however, ask themselves if that teaching can truly be found within the page of the Bible.

In what follows I interviewed Chris Date, a prominent proponent of the view of conditional immortality about this hot (if not burning) topic.

https://i2.wp.com/grapplerschurch.tv/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ChrisDate.jpg

Lotharson: Hello Chris, thank you very much for having accepted my invitation.
Could you, for the benefit of my readers, sum up your personal and religious background?

Chris Date: Sure. I was raised without any influence to believe in God (that I recall), although I found out later in life that my parents both believe in Jesus Christ. While very young, I expressed fleeting interest in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, because family members and friends were among those groups. I also had some brief interest in Wicca as a teenager. Otherwise, however, I was an atheist into adulthood, and mocked Christians and Christianity. My now wife and I got married as atheists when I was 20, which was 14 years ago, and around 2 years later I became a believer in Jesus and quickly became interested in theology and apologetics. My wife was born again a few years later. I’ve been a software engineer at a prestigious Northwest software company for the past 12 years or so, though one day I hope to move into full-time ministry, or to become a University professor of Bible and theology.
I should say I also have four sons, ages 12, 8, 4, and 5 mos.

I really wish you will reach that goal 🙂

Eternal conscious  torment and annihilationisn

Let us focus now on the topic of that interview.
What are (in a nutshell) the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment and annihilationism/conditional immortality?

 

The traditional doctrine of hell, or final judgment, or personal eschatology–however you want to put it–holds that the day is coming when all the dead will rise bodily from the graves, and those who have saving trust in Jesus Christ will spend eternity in the blissful presence of the Lord with the saints. Those who deny Jesus Christ, however, will be judged and punished according to their sins, which will entail an eternity of spiritual, psychological, and/or physical torment separated from God and his people. It’s important to emphasize that this is not a disembodied eternal state. The formerly dead bodies of the lost will have arisen, blood once again pumping, lungs once again expanding and collapsing, muscles once again flexing, etc. And it is in this immortalized body, incapable of dying, in which the lost will suffer for eternity somewhere in the physical universe. Annihilationism, on the other hand, more historically known as conditional immortality, is the view that immortality and everlasting life are not intrinsic to our nature, and that it is instead a gift which God gives only to those who have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, we believe the lost will rise from the dead with the saved, but those who have not united themselves with the source of life will not live forever, but will instead die a second, permanent death–annihilation. Traditional “dualist” Christian annihilationists or conditionalists, who believe humans are comprised of an immaterial soul united with a physical body, would say that in the first death only the body dies, but that in the second death both body and soul will die (Matt. 10:28). Many other conditionalists are “monists” or “physicalists” who believe man is a physical creature who does not live in any sense while dead, and that their hope in an afterlife is found only in the resurrection. Either view–dualism or physicalism–is compatible with the biblical teaching that eternal life is a gift given only to the saved and that the risen lost will die a second death.

Thanks for your summary!

 

Mortal souls of the Old Testament

1) I think that a sound interpretation of the Bible should first seek to understand the oldest texts in order to interpret the most recent ones.
Critical scholars believe that many writers of the OT did not believe in an afterlife.
The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor do any that go down into silence. But we will bless Yahweh from this time on and forevermore. Praise Yahweh!
Psalm 115:17-18:

Turn, O Yahweh, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your covenant faithfulness.
For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”
Psalm 6:4-5

What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Psalm 30:9

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
Ecc. 9:10

“The grave cannot praise you, death cannot celebrate you: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for your truth.”
Isaiah (38:18)
I personally find these passages extremely compelling.
How are those texts interpreted by Evangelical traditionalists and conditionalists?

Traditionalists would say that either those passages reflect a yet underdeveloped understanding on the part of the biblical authors, and that via progressive revelation the Lord revealed more about the afterlife in the New Testament, or they would say that they are talking mostly about goings on in this world, of which the dead will not have a part, without excluding conscious activity in another realm. Some conditionalists would say the same thing, particularly the dualist conditionalists I mentioned in answering your previous question. Other conditionalists, however, the physicalists or monists I mentioned, would say that these texts indicate that man is not conscious in death, that death is like a “sleep” in which one is unconscious. However, there are hints of an afterlife to be found in the Old Testament, hints pointing toward resurrection and eternal life. Definitely, though, whatever understanding and expectation they had of a future life was underdeveloped, and the New Testament provided more detail.

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Divine threats in the old covenant

 

2) If eternal torment is far worse than a violent death, then why did not God clearly warn the Isrealites during the overwhelming majority of the OT time? Would it not be loveless and irresponsible to give them the impression that the wage of sin is “only” destruction?

Boy, I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of a traditionalist, and it’s tough. I’m not sure how one might answer that question. I suppose a traditionalist might say that the ancient readers of the OT understood “death” and “destruction” differently than we do, that they viewed it as some form of conscious separation, from one’s body or from one’s God, and so therefore they wouldn’t have necessarily ruled out the traditional view of hell. Traditionalists might further say that there are hints of the traditional view of hell to be found in the OT, such as in Daniel 12:2 and Isaiah 66:24 (neither of which supports their view, as perhaps we’ll see in a bit). And so in the interest of charity, I’m not prepared to concede that God would have been unloving and irresponsible in not fully revealing the traditional view of hell (if it’s true) in the OT; he may have done so more clearly than we moderns think. That said, it does seem clear to me that throughout the OT, the punishment for sin was seen as death, being cut off from one’s people and from life on earth. And eschatological punishment was seen in the same way, such as in the aforementioned passage in Isaiah in which God’s people are vindicated in the valley of Gehinnom when God slays his enemies and leaves their corpses to rot and smolder in fire. I would not say that the absence of the traditional view in the OT would make God unloving and irresponsible if it’s true, but I would say the fact that there is such an utter dearth of evidence for it in the OT, and an overabundance of evidence for conditionalism in it, that therefore my view is heavily favored.

Yeah precisely.

Unquenchable fires and dying worms

3) Quite a few passages in the Old Testament speak of an unquenchable fire consuming the wicked and of worms eating them.
““…rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed. …you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them” (Isa. 1:28, 30–31)
“But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.'”
Jeremiah 17:27
” 47 … Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. 48 All flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”
Ezekiel 20:47-48
“1 For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze … so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name … 3 You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing”
Malachi 4:1-3
“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Isaiah 66:24
Likewise we find several references to the “gnashing of teeth” within the OT.
“The sinner shall see and be angry, he shall gnash his teeth and consume away” (LXX-Psalm 111:10″
“”All thine enemies have opened their mouth against thee. They hiss and gnash the teeth; they say, We have swallowed her up; certainly this is the day that we looked for; we have found, we have seen it (Lamentations 2:16).”
Many centuries later, Jesus used a similar language for describing the fate of the wicked.
“The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42).”
“Luke 3:17
His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The traditionalist claim is twofold:
a) Jesus saying can only be interpreted as meaning that the damned will be literally eternally tormented. Conservative Jews of His time only interpreted these passages in this way.
b) the OT itself refers to the destruction of the bodies of the wicked, but it is actually also a metaphor for their everlasting pain
Did I correctly characterize their position?
If so, does it hold water?

Chris Date: Well many traditionalists simply aren’t familiar with several of those OT references you mentioned. Their claim is that Isaiah 66:24’s unquenchable fire means a fire which will never die out, burning forever and ever, never consuming its fuel, and that its undying worm is a maggot which will forever have food to eat, never consuming its host. That host, in the minds of most lay traditionalists, is the living bodies of the lost in eternal torment in hell. Traditionalists more familiar with the debate recognize that that passage explicitly identifies the maggot’s host and the fire’s fuel as corpses, but as you suggest, they would say nevertheless that the unquenchable fire and undying worm can only be understood as promising everlasting torment in risen bodies in hell, by means of metaphor or analogy (since what Isaiah refers to are corpses, not living bodies). However, as you have noted, there are many passages in the OT in which unquenchable fire is used, and in the vast majority of them–certainly all the ones which are relevant to this question, since they involve the fiery wrath of God–unquenchable fire is not a fire which will burn forever, never dying out. Rather, it’s a fire which is irresistible, inextinguishable. It is unstoppable. What would happen if you arrived home from work to find fire fighters trying desperately to put out a fire, and one of the fire fighters told you they are not going to be able to quench the fire? Well, obviously, it would burn up the house. That’s what this idiom of unquenchable fire means throughout Old and New Testaments. The same is true of the undying worm. It’s an unstoppable scavenger, much like two other places which I can’t recall off the top of my head, in which Israel is told that her corpses will be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth and that no one will frighten them away. The fact that the scavengers can’t be frighted away does not mean that they will forever have food to eat, but that they won’t be stopped from fully devouring their food–the corpses. Likewise, the undying worm is a maggot which won’t be prevented by death from fully consuming its food–corpses. As for the other passages you mentioned, many traditionalists seem to have this strange idea that I quite frankly can’t relate to, that the mere presence of texts which speak of some sort of conscious experience in judgment rules out any possibility of annihilation. And yet, violent death is immediately preceded by sorrow and anger, and its infliction entails pain and agony. Nowhere does the Bible indicate that these experiences will last forever. Finally, yes, traditionalists tend to think that Jews of Jesus’ time all believed in eternal torment, and interpreted OT passages as saying so. Yet, this belief is based on old, outdated research based on limited access to ancient Jewish literature. Modern research, with its access to numerous Dead Sea Scrolls, has revealed that ancient Jews of the afterlife were mixed, that many of them believed in annihilation, and that none of Jesus’ language would have been universally understood by his audience as referring to eternal torment.

Okay, that makes a lot of sense.

Lazarus and the rich man meet sheep and goats

4) A current argument for endless torment looks as follows.
a) The parable of Lazarus shows that hell involves pain
” The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 ”
Luke 16:22 -23
b) this pain will last eternally in the same way the bliss of the chosen ones will be forever.
“46These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Matthew 25.46
What problems do you see with this?

Well the problems are twofold. First and most importantly, the parable isn’t even set in hell. It’s set in Hades, the underworld, the place of the dead. The rich man’s brothers are still alive, and he, dead in Hades, pleads that someone would go and tell his still-living brothers to repent. None of this would be possible in the eschaton. Besides, the text explicitly states he’s in Hades. And we know that one day mankind will be raised up out of Hades, given once again living bodies, at which point they will be finally judged. So there’s simply no good argument to be made for the traditional view from this parable. Secondly, there’s little reason to believe Jesus intends for the parable to be taken as a realistic description of the afterlife in the first place. Scholars of ancient Jewish literature have found several very similar stories that are sort of life fairy tales, or folk tales, not intended to be taken literally, but communicating a moral point. And Jesus appears to take these and turn them on their head, sort of telling his hearers that they’ve got things all wrong when it comes to the rich and the poor. Imagine, if you will, if Jesus were to come to us today and tell a story very similar to Humpty Dumpty, but whereas the king’s men in the original could not put Humpty back together again, in Jesus’ version the king himself puts Humpty back together again, as an illustration that God will one day raise his people from the dead. No one would think that Jesus was saying the afterlife would literally be like what happens in Humpty Dumpty. We’d all recognize that he was co-opting a common fairy tale of our day in order to communicate spiritual realities, like he does in all his parables. So I don’t see any reason to take the parable literally. But let me reiterate that that’s only secondary. Even if one is inclined to take Jesus’ parable as a generally realistic account of the afterlife, the most it could lead one to do is embrace dualism and a conscious intermediate state awaiting resurrection. Again: The parable takes place in Hades, not hell.

And what about the paralell between eternal bliss and damnation?

Chris Date: Oh, sorry. Yeah, Matthew 25:46 says only that the punishment will be eternal. It doesn’t say what the nature of that punishment will be. Conditionalists affirm that the punishment of the damned will be as eternal in duration as the bliss of the saved. Where we disagree with traditioanlists is when it comes to the *nature* of that eternal punishment. Traditionalists see it as an eternity of conscious suffering of some sort; conditionalists, on the other hand, recognizing that the Bible says the wages of sin is death, believe that the punishment awaiting sinners is death, and that when they die the second death at the final judgment, they will be dead forever. It is, therefore, an eternal punishment. Now, traditionalists will tend to push back and say that “eternal punishment” necessarily entail some sort of everlasting process of punishing (even though the text provides no such indication). At this point, I point them to places in the book of Hebrews in which the author speaks of the “eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” purchased for us by Jesus Christ. Jesus is not and will not be forever undergoing the process of saving and redeeming; he accomplished that once and for all by his life, death, and resurrection. Rather, “salvation” and “redemption” in these passages are nouns that refer to the outcome of the verbs “save” and “redeem,” respectively. “Eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” thus speak of the eternity in duration of the results of a saving and redeeming process. Likewise, “eternal punishment” speaks of the eternity in duration of the results of a punitive process. The process is execution; the outcome is death.

 

The killer of body and soul

https://i2.wp.com/static.someecards.com/someecards/usercards/MjAxMy0zZDZhZTg2YmI1NzM1NjZi.png

 

 

5) A famous prooftext for annihilationism is
“28 And fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28”
There are two traditionalist strategies for dealing with it.
a) “Kill” is actually a mistranslation of the greek word which could also means “ruined” or “lost”.
According to your own experience, do most traditionalist argue that one should not fear those who can “ruin the body”?
Or do they accept that it means “kill” in this part of the sentence while meaning the ruin or desolation of “body and soul” in the second part?

Well actually, it’s not “kill” in the first clause that traditionalists question. It’s “destroy” in the second. Oh wait, that’s what you said 🙂 Yes, you’re right. They think that the Greek word translated “destroy,” which is apollymi, means something like “ruin” or “desolate,” and they’ll point to some places where food spoils (apollymi), or oil is wasted (apollymi), or a sheep is lost (apollymi). However, as Dr. Glenn Peoples explains in an article at Rethinking Hell (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels ), the word is used in a particular way by Jesus in Matthew 10:28, and in every other relevant occurrence in the synoptic gospels when the word is used in this way, it means something like slay or kill. And of course, context determines which meaning in a word’s semantic domain is the intended one, and in Matthew 10:28 Jesus is contrasting those who can’t do something–kill the soul–with those who can. So we have every reason to understand “destroy” in the second clause as meaning something like “slay” or “kill,” and the traditionalist “ruin” explanation just doesn’t hold muster.

b) the second strategy consists of recognizing that “destroying” is the right meaning, but that it is a threat that God is never going to actually carry out, it just describes His ability to do so.
What’s your take on this view?

Chris Date: I think it’s silly. I’ll say the same thing Glenn Peoples said when he addressed this response in episode 4 of our podcast (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/09/episode-4-the-case-for-annihilationism-with-glenn-peoples): Jesus might as well have said, “fear the one who can turn you into a chicken.” Of course, the threat doesn’t carry any weight if it’s not something he might, in fact, do. What’s more, the disciples whom Jesus was warning faced the real danger that people might kill their bodies. So I think we have good reason to believe that there are those who face the real danger of being destroyed in body and soul. And of course, this conditionalist understanding of Matthew 10:28 is consistent with myriad and varied passages elsewhere in Scripture which promise the same fate for the lost.

 

The smoke of their torments will rise forever

 

6) the apocalyptic imagery of John speaks of eternal torment in a very vivid manner.
“And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
Revelation 14:11
Is that not a clear proof that at least the exiled apostle thought of hell as endless pain?

Chris Date: Quite the opposite. Revelation is, as you say, a genre of apocalyptic imagery. Its interpretation requires careful exegesis. The picture of smoke rising forever comes straight out fo the Old Testament. In Isaiah 34:10 smoke rises forever from the remains of Edom, which in the prophetic picture is destroyed; Abraham saw smoke rising from the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah, which had been destroyed. This picture, of smoke rising forever, is kind of like today’s mushroom cloud. When one sees smoke rising forever in a mushroom cloud, one doesn’t think of everlasting flames, but of utter destruction. That is what this image communicated in John’s vision. You can see this where it’s employed elsewhere in John’s vision. The harlot, Mystery Babylon, is said to be tormented in flames in the vision (Rev 18), and the great multitude in heaven cries, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Rev 19:3). Yet, when interpreting this vivid, perplexing imagery, the angel takes a great millstone and throws it into the sea, explaining that all of this imagery communicates that the city represented by the harlot will be destroyed, and will not be found any longer (Rev 18:21ff). What’s more, the imagery of drinking God’s wrath is imagery communicating slaughter (Job 21:20-21; Jer 25:15-33). And the imagery of sulfur and fire comes from those passages I already mentioned–Gen 19:24-28; Isa 34:9-10–in which cities are destroyed. ALL of the imagery in this passage would have communicated to its first century readers the idea of utter death and destruction.

 

Eternal torment and the redemptive death of Christ

7) If the traditional view is true, Christ was just ready to suffer a violent and painful death (limited in time) in order to save people from eternal torment.
Yet the apostle Paul would have been ready to eternally suffer for the sake of the salvation of his fellow Jews.
“For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ,
for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
(Romans 9:3)”
Since traditionalists argue that eternal torment is far worse than a violent execution, should we conclude (given the truth of their assumptions) that the Apostle Paul was infinitely more noble and heroic than the Son of God Himself?

Chris Date: To be fair to traditionalists, no, I don’t think we should. Jesus, by virtue of being the Godman, divine and human, was of infinitely greater value than Paul, and a traditionalist could say that Jesus’ death was of infinite value and therefore he didn’t need to suffer eternally, and nor was his sacrifice any less profound than the one Paul was willing to make. However, it’s important to recognize that over and over again the Scriptures indicate that as our substitute (whether one thinks of him as a penal substitute like I do, or as some other form of substitute as many critics of penal substitution do; either way, the atonement was substitutionary) what Jesus did in our place, in our stead, was die. He died, in our place, so that we won’t have to. And he didn’t die in some vague, esoteric, metaphorical sense; no! He physically died, was rendered a corpse. How different from the traditional view of hell in which the risen lost are punished by suffering pain in immortalized bodies that live forever! In conditionalism, on the other hand, Jesus suffered the death penalty in our place so that we can be given life that lasts forever, and those for whom he didn’t die (in a Calvinist view like mine), or those to whom the merits of his sacrificial death are not given (in a non-Calvinist view), must therefore suffer death.

One last thought on this point. I think the danger of traditionalism is not that it risks making Paul more sacrificial than Jesus. Rather, I think it risks coming dangerously close to heresy when it comes to the atonement. You see, when traditioanlists are asked why Jesus didn’t suffer forever on the cross, they’ll typically say that the few hours of suffering he experienced is equivalent in some way to the eternity of suffering awaiting the risen lost. But consider what that does! If the eternity of punishing awaiting the lost was entirely paid for in the finite duration of Jesus’ suffering, why did he go on to die? His death would have been arbitrary and unnecessary, when it’s what the Scripture emphasizes as the central aspect of Jesus’ atoning work. That’s the problem with traditionalism.

 

The apostles and fiery brimstone

8) Why did the apostles almost never mention hell, let alone eternal torments, if it were of such importance?

Chris Date: Good question! Paul speaks of “everlasting destruction” in 2 Thess 1:9, and more generically of wrath and so forth in places. But you’re right, they don’t speak much about final punishment. So I don’t know a traditionalist would answer your question. I would answer the question by saying that the most serious aspect to final punishment is in what is missed out on: eternal life. And so by talking so much about the gift of life, the apostles were implicitly warning of final punishment which entails the everlasting deprivation of life.

https://i0.wp.com/revivalhut.com/wp-content/uploads/worship11.jpg

 

Reconciled with God but agonizing

9) New traditionalists (such as Phil Fernandez or French theologian Henri Blocher) argue that only the saved ones will inherit eternal life. The damned will EXIST (but not live) and suffer eternally, but be utterly reconciled with God who is obliged to torment them endlessly for justice’s sake. Does this picture of “victory” hold water?

Chris Date: Well regarding the first of those two issues, as I explain in an article at Rethinking Hell (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/10/obfuscating-traditionalism-no-eternal-life-in-hell), the Bible explicitly says that resurrection entails bringing a formerly dead back to life, and so by biblical definition, the traditional view of hell entails the lost inheriting eternal life. There’s simply no escaping that. It may not be the same “eternal life” spoken of in the NT, but it is a form of eternal life, and I think honest traditionalists need to own up to that without trying to dodge it. The risen lost, in their view, will NOT merely exist forever, they will live forever in bodies which never die again. As for the lost being reconciled with God, that’s something a few modern “reconciliationists” believe, and I’m frankly not familiar enough with the nuances of their view to say much about it other than that their reconciliation with God does not entail their being united with him and his people forever. In other words, they remain lost, and eternally. Of course, this view fails for the same reason all other variations of the traditional view fail: the Bible says everlasting life will be given only to the saved, and that the risen lost will instead die, perish, be destroyed. As for the biblical picture of God’s victory, and which view of hell is most compatible with it, I’d encourage your readers to listen to episode 4, to which I already linked above. In it, Glenn Peoples explains why the biblical picture of eternity is most compatible with conditionalism. He also lays out the case briefly in our upcoming publication, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, which we expect to be published by Wipf & Stock this Spring.

Degrees of punishment

10) Can conditional immortality account for degrees of punishment?

Chris Date: Yes, and in a variety of ways. One way is by allowing for an infinite number of combinations of type, intensity, and duration of suffering involved in the destructive process. The ultimate punishment they pay is death, but its infliction involves degrees of suffering, accounting for degrees of punishment. Another way is by allowing for degrees of shame. Some may be remembered forever in far greater contempt than others. Either way, degrees of punishment are completely compatible with conditionalism–in fact, more so, I think, than with traditionalism. After all, any difference in degree of torment fades into nothing after a trillion trillion years of it.

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Aggressive rhetoric and emotional bullying

11) I deal quite a lot with the New Atheists (anti-theists) on my blog. Their arguments are generally extremely shallow, but they often sound quite convincing due to their use of a very aggressive rhetoric involving a huge amount of emotional bullying.
It looks like that many (though not all) traditionalists uphold the strength of their position by resorting to a similar strategy.
This seems quite clear to me after I watched a “discussion” between Michael Brown and Edward Fudge and many callers which rang like a true inquisition.
Do you think it is a fair assessment of the situation?

Chris Date: In some cases, maybe even many, yes. I’ve experienced it; many other conditionalists have as well. But I think this is something we all, as human beings, tend to do. We’re fallen sons and daughters of Adam; we’re prideful and we want to be right. And so we tend to bully others into thinking like us. Traditionalists aren’t the only ones guilty of it; we all have to repent of it in certain areas of our lives, including myself. Our primary goal at Rethinking Hell, and the thing I’m passionate about that drives me to invest time and effort into this topic, is to nurture Christian unity and charity. Too often Christians treat the issue of hell as a topic worth dividing over–and not just dividing over, but worth treating one another with contempt and with disrespect. We want to do what little we can to remedy that, but encouraging frank and honest disagreement, as well as intellectual rigor, but done with brotherly love, respect, and charity. If traditionalists, conditionalists, and even universalists can present a united front to the world, including those New Atheists you mentioned, treating each other with respect and charity when we have our in-house debates over hell and other secondary issues, I think we’ll be far more effective agents for change in the world.

That’s entirely true and I also need to constantly keep myself in check for avoiding intellectual pride and self-righteousness.

Annihilationism and emotional reasoning

12) How often do you hear the complain that conditionalists are liberals who reject the “clear teaching of Scripture” on purely emotional grounds?

Chris Date: Ha! I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that. But it’s simply untrue. In my case and some other conditionalists, emotions never played a role. We were convinced solely by exegesis of the text. In fact, my emotions tugged me in the direction of the traditional view I had already held. I desperately wanted to avoid adopting a position that would close ministry doors to me and would cause apologists and theologians I respect and admire to think poorly of me. But my commitment to Scripture forced me, kicking and screaming, to become a conditionalist. Many conditionalists, it is true, first began questioning the traditional view for emotional or philosophical reasons, but they didn’t simply embrace conditionalism on those grounds. They returned to Scripture to see if perhaps they and most other Christians had gotten it wrong. And having done so, they discovered the utter dearth of biblical support for the traditional view, and the overwhelming reams and reams of evidence in support of annihilation.

13) Is there a hope that annihilationism will soon be considered as a respectable Evangelical position in the near future?

Chris Date: Yes, I think it’s inevitable. It’s already becoming one. Christian scholars like Basil Atkinson, E. Earle Ellis, Dale Moody, John Stott, John Wenham, Richard Bauckham, David Instone-Brewer, Gordon Isaac, Douglas Jacoby, I. Howard Marshall, Preston Sprinkle, and John Stackhouse (to name just a few) have embraced the view, and as more and more of them continue to do so, traditionalists will be less and less able to treat annihilationism as if it’s a fringe movement held only by liberals, sentimentalists, and cultists.

14) How many percent of conservative Evangelicals hold to conditonalism?

Chris Date: Oh I have no idea. We’re a minority in America, but a growing one. Actually, we may not be a minority in conservative Christian academia; John Stackhouse and Edward Fudge have said that many Christian academics have told them that they are persuaded by our view, but can’t say it for fear of losing their jobs. In Britain I think we’re an even larger minority, if not a majority. But again, in terms of numbers, I can’t begin to guess.

15) I want to talk a bit about Calvinism. I am strongly opposed to this doctrine but realize that many of my arguments could lose much of their strength if hell means the cessation of existence.
Yet I have not (until now) dealt with reformed condtionalists because I consider their number to be extremely small.
Am I justified in that assumption?

Chris Date: Yes, I think so.
And…Let me just say that while I am Reformed…Many of the Rethinking Hell “staff” are not. Rethinking Hell does not official endorse any view of soteriology over another.But yes, you’re right, there aren’t many of us Reformed conditionalists.

16) To conclude, I want to say that while I reject the teaching of Biblical inerrancy, I really find that your exegesis and that of Dr. Glenn People is very serious, scholarly and intelligent. You represent the very best of Conservative Evangelicalism to my mind.
Could you please sum up the most useful ressources my readers interested in the topic could take a look at?

https://www.logos.com/product/20263/the-fire-that-consumes-a-biblical-and-historical-study-of-the-doctrine-of-final-punishment-3rd-ed.jpg

Thanks! I appreciate that. I recommend your readers purchase either Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, in its 3rd edition now with Wipf & Stock, or his Hell: A Final Word. The former is more scholarly; the latter more popular-level. They would also benefit from purchasing his two views book with Robert Peterson, Two Views on Hell. It’s available on Kindle for cheap, I think, and your readers will get both sides of the debate. I also highly recommend your readers keep an eye out for our upcoming Wipf & Stock publication, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. They can learn more about it here: http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/12/rethinking-hell-book-announcement. It’s in the final stages of editing and we expect it to be published this Spring. It’s not yet available for preorder by itself, but if you have any readers that are anywhere near Houston, they can preorder a copy of our book as part of their registration for our inaugural Rethinking Hell Conference this July, which they can learn more about and register for here: http://www.rethinkinghellconference.com/2014/. And, of course, we have a bunch of resources available at http://www.rethinkinghell.com. There are a ton of articles on a variety of related issues, and for your readers not yet familiar with our view, they should probably start by listening to episode 4 of our podcast (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/09/episode-4-the-case-for-annihilationism-with-glenn-peoples) in which Glenn Peoples gives a positive case for our view, and then episode 7 (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/episode-7-traditional-objections-answered-with-chris-date) in which I answer common objections from traditionalists.

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Alright Chris! Thank you for all the time you gave me, and I truly hope this was not too exhausting for you 🙂

You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it.

The dark side of destiny

I recently listen to an interesting conversation between Chris Date (from RethinkingHell) and Greg Crofford about a new book of Greg entitled: The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined.

Chris Date is a Conservative Evangelical (and a Calvinist!) holding to the teaching of conditional immortality and hell meaning utter destruction.

He is a very brilliant, bright and insightful man and he represents the most defensible and respectable form of reformed theology I am aware of. His blog  http://www.theopologetics.com/ is worth checking out.

Greg pointed out that the doctrine of eternal torment gives us a very dark picture of God which emotionally hinders many people to seek a deeper communion with Him.

He laid out a pretty interesting argument against endless torture:

1) If God eternally tormented many of His creatures He would be a sadist
2) Jesus is the human face of God
3) Jesus was not a sadist
4) Therefore God won’t torment beings forever

He explained why the authors of the New Testament (if interpreted in their historical context) most likely saw immortality as God’s gift the wicked ones will not inherit.

I started out disagreeing with him as he began criticizing universalism, which he seems to equate with inclusivism, the view that non-Christians will be given a chance to respond to the Gospel after their deaths.
Both notions are, however, far from being identical.

I am an inclusivist but not an universalist because I consider it very likely that at least some people will reject God beyond the grave.

Conservative Evangelicals typically defend Exclusivism (only those dying as Christians will inherit eternal life) using the following reasoning:

1) The Bible is the full and unique revelation of God (which is the central pillar of Evangelicalism)
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore only Christians will get to heaven

Yet as Randal Rauser pointed out, this is an extraordinarily offensive assertion.

“They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’”

Now against this backdrop turn to the encounter between a cacique (or tribal leader) and his Franciscan captors. In this encounter Hatuey, the cacique, has been told he will be executed (for no greater crime, it would seem, than not being Spanish), but that he can still save his soul before his body is slain:

“When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was told by a Franciscan friar who was present, an artless rascal, something about the God of the Christians and of the articles of Faith. And he was told what he could do in the brief time that remained to him, in order to be saved and go to heaven. The cacique, who had never heard any of this before, and was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did not adopt the Christian Faith, he would suffer eternal torment, asked the Franciscan friar if Christians all went to Heaven. When told that they did he said he would prefer to go to Hell.”

It is extremely blasphemous to state that Hatuey won’t have any chance to reach heaven.

So I think that the above reasoning can be turned on its head:

1) As perfectly loving God must give a post-mortem chance to many of those who have died without Christ
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore the Bible cannot be the full and unique revelation of God
4) Therefore Evangelicalism is wrong

(Of course many people would contest 2), thereby invalidating the conclusion).

Finally Greg pointed out that the parable of the foolish and wise virgins has to be taken at face value, thereby showing that people not having chosen Christ during this life won’t be given a second chance.

A huge problem is that as a conservative Protestant, there are quite a few things in the Bible that Greg cannot interpret literally.

The parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates that very well.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.

More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.

That aspect aside,Greg Crofford seems to be a good and sensible practical theologian and I advise my readers to take a look at his works.

The tentative apologist and the friendly atheist discuss about heaven

Randal Rauser (the tentative apologist) is arguably the best apologist within the Evangelical camp.

During one episode of the British show Unbelievable he debated about the existence of heaven with (the friendly atheist) concerning a book Randal recently published that Randal wrote for dispelling wrong conceptions many Christians have about heaven.

hemant_mehta

At the beginning of the conversation, Randal mentioned the fact that many Evangelicals neglect the protection of the environment because they expect God to put pretty soon an end to this evil creation, delivering them from it.

I can remember very vividly a Conservative Evangelical telling me that he did not worry about global warming because God allegedly promised there would  no longer be any worldwide catastrophe after the Genesis flood.

This is a logical consequence of the doctrine that God cursed the whole creation and humans with a sinful nature we have to escape from, a gnostic doctrine which was introduced into the Church largely by Augustine.

Randal challenges Mehta’s assumption that the fact that heaven fulfill our wishes is an indication of its falsity. Ever since the days of Feuerbach, many atheists (not least Dawkins) have kept making the same claim.
But it is obviously wrong, the fact that a vanilla ice satisfy most desires of my gut does not mean there is no such thing.

Randal went on pointing out that evidence for heaven are going to heavily depend on our background beliefs. If we think that God exists, we have strong grounds for thinking there is an afterlife, especially if he raised Jesus from the dead.

Mehta rightly emphasized the problem of eternal conscious suffering and the atrocious injustice it would be if all people dying as non-Christians would end up in such a state.

Randal replied he is an inclusivist believing that a Jewish girl dying in a Nazi camp after having rejected Christ would most likely be in heaven.

It is worth noting, at this point, that most Conservative Evangelicals hold to the view that everyone deceasing without faith in Jesus earns an everlasting stay in God’s torture chamber, thereby believing that most victims of genocides will be tormented days and nights after having perished under an atrocious pain.

This seems to be a logical consequence of their belief that the Bible is the full revelation of God  from which the reality of post-mortem conversations cannot be easily deduced.

I think it would have been great if Randal had pointed out that the Bible points towards immortality being a gift of God, those not receiving it being going to eventually cease to exist instead of being endlessly tormented.

While being an incluvist myself, I do not, however, feel the need to be a hopeful universalist wishing the salvation of everyone.

If Hitler, Mussolini, Staline or Fred Phelps (the God hates fags pastor) will repent, that’s fine. But I would not feel too depressed if they won’t and will be utterly destroyed, blotted out from existence.

Justin Briley (the moderator) asked Mehta if he would wish to be in heaven if there were one. He answered this was a “silly question”.

Randal replied this was pretty condescending and that which beliefs we see as being dumb will hinge on our own plausibility structure.

Mehta responded by quoting the widespread atheistic meme “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence” illustrating the principle by using the Skeptic’s favorite pet, the unicorn.

https://i0.wp.com/static.giantbomb.com/uploads/original/1/17172/1419618-unicorn2.jpg

A huge problem is that atheists have actually strong grounds for believing in the existence of such beings.

The reason is that atheists are better off believing in an infinite multiverse for avoiding the troubling problem if the extreme fine tuning of the physical constants allowing our very existence.

But in an infinite multiverse, every possible event (including the arrival of intelligent unicorns with very strange features) is necessarily going to happen somewhere.

We believe there is no unicorn species living on the surface of the earth because we would clearly expect evidence to be there if it were the case.

Therefore unlike an agnostic, an atheist has a burden of proof and must provide us with arguments against the existence of God and of the afterlife.

Once this mistake (and other similar ones) are debunked, the case for atheism appears to be much weaker than village atheists usually take for granted.

Rauser pointed out that another crucial difference between the afterlife and unicorns consists of the existence of many peer-reviewed publications arguing for the authenticity of some Near Death Experiences.

This is a fair point but I doubt that NDEs are really evidence of a life after death while being open to a small number of them being due to paranormal phenomena.

Mehta said that if everyone in heaven would have to submit themselves to God and Christ, this is a pretty bad new for all non-Christians.

I think that there is a fallacy going on here, which is interestingly enough also committed by Conservative Evangelicals such as William Lane Craig: the fact that someone dies as a non-believer does not mean he doesn’t wish Christianity to be true, as the case of French philosopher Andre Comte Sponville arguing for atheism nicely illustrates.

“Given that — and this is the key point — God’s mercy has no limits, if you go to him with a sincere and repentant heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience” Pope Francis wrote.

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“Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience” he added.

Finally, Justin mentioned the anguish of his seven years old son after having heard that the universe would end up becoming inhospitable for life. Justin answered this is what is going to happen according to science but that God would step in to keep this from occurring. He then asked Metha what hope he would give to his own child in such a situation.

He did not answer this question and just said that he would encourage his kid to think by himself on this issue, while recognizing it wasn’t morally wrong for Justin to have transmitted such a hopeful vision of the future to his boy.

This is how I view faith: hoping in the truth of something extremely desirable if the evidence is not sufficient.
Given such a definition, faith does not have to be irrational since it does not pretend to be a form of knowledge.

Actually I don’t know how anyone manages to love the pleasures of his life while being fully aware that everything he is now will usher into nothingness.

If atheism is true, a Buddhist-like resignation and detachment seems to be a much more coherent and viable choice than Western hedonism.

To conclude, I want to strongly advise everyone to buy some of Randal’s books for he is truly a far better apologist than William Lane Craig in numerous respects.

Next episode on hell: the dark side of destiny.