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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The end is at hand: New Testament prophecies and the future of the world

Most Conservative Evangelicals I know are deeply convinced that the prophecies contained within the Book of Revelation relate to future events which have yet to come.

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In what follows, I interviewed Chris Date who is himself a Conservative Evangelical for presenting an alternative view called preterism. I often don’t agree with his theology but find he’s a great and kind man as well as a careful exegete of the Bible.

I previously interviewed him about the topic of hell.
Lothar’s Son: So Chris thank you very much for having accepted this new interview 🙂 Today we’re about to talk about the end time and what the Bible has to say about this.
Chris Date: It’s my pleasure.
Lothar’s Son: So, could you please summarize the current Evangelical views on this important theme?
Chris Date: Most evangelicals in America today are what are called futurists: they believe that the bulk of eschatological events foretold in the Bible are yet to be fulfilled in our future, such as the beast/antichrist, the great tribulation, and the millennium of Revelation. Regarding the millennium, most evangelicals in America today are premillennialists, meaning that they think Jesus will return at the beginning of the millennium at some point in our future, and reign over an earthly kingdom for precisely a thousand years, after which will occur the final judgment, general resurrection, and eternal state.
Chris Date: Dispensationalists furthermore believe in a rapture and tribulation period at the beginning of that millennium, and they comprise a large percentage of those premillennial futurists I just described. I might say a majority of them, but I’m not confident about that.
Lothar’s Son: Okay. And are there futurists who are not premillennialist?
Chris Date: Yes, it’s possible to be an amillennialist or postmillennialist and be a futurist. Amillennialists and postmillennialists believe the thousand years talked about in the book of Revelation refer to the present Church age, and a futurist who falls into this camp would probably say that the vision recorded in Revelation is not linear in terms of time, and so although the beast, for example, features earlier in the vision, nevertheless he will appear in our future toward the end of the millennium. That’s my understanding of amillennial/postmillennial futurism, anyway. I could be wrong, as I’m not one of them 🙂


Lothar’s Son: Ok 🙂 What is your own position?
Chris Date: Well I am an amillennialist, but I’m what’s called a preterist. Whereas futurists believe the bulk of biblical, eschatological prophecy awaits fulfillment in our future, we preterists beleive the bulk of it (not all of it) was fulfilled in our past. This includes the beast, the great tribulation, and more.
Chris Date: What we preterists do believe awaits fulfillment in our future is the return of Christ, the resurrection from the dead, final judgment, consummation of all things, and eternal state.
Lothar’s Son: Could you please describe key proof texts for each side?
Chris Date: Well I can point you to some key texts for preterism. In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus foretells some eschatological events in Matthew 24, ones futurists believe await fulfillment in our future, but then he says inv erse 34 that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” John says in the prologue of Revelation that the things he was shown “must soon take place” (v. 1) and that “the time is near” (v. 3). Daniel is told to seal up the mystery of his vision “until the time of the end” because, apparently, the time of its fulfillment is in the distant future (Dan. 12:4), but John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (Rev. 22:10). This sampling of what we preterists call the “time texts” demonstrates that much of the things many Christians have been told awaits fulfillment in our future must, in fact, have been fulfilled in our past.
Chris Date: As for futurism, it’s more difficult to offer you key texts because, frankly, I don’t think they have any. I think all futurists can argue is that the texts I just listed cannot mean what they appear to mean because if they did, then we could not read much of the prophecies in Scripture literally. But of course, that’s part of the question being begged. We preterists don’t think the authors of Scripture ever intended for their eschatological, apocalyptic prophecy to be interpreted literally. The genre is one of highly symbolic dreams and visions, and so one shouldn’t be afraid of letting the texts I listed earlier speak for themselves and being forced to interpret prophecies as symbolic; that’s how they’re supposed to be itnerpreted.


Lothar’s Son: Many people Skeptical of Christianity would say that Jesus and the writers of the NT really awaited the end to be at hand but were wrong. They’d say that preterism is an attempt to escape the obvious meaning of these texts. What would be your response to that?
Chris Date: My response would be that in fact what I’ve argued is the obvious meaning of those texts. Take, for example, the beast of Revelation. It’s described as having seven heads and ten horns, but an angel interprets it for John saying that the heads represent hills or mountains on which a city sits. So the text itself tells us that the vision is intended to be interpreted as symbols; we preterists aren’t dodging anything at all. The angel also tells John, incidentally, that the king represented by the fifth head is alive and reigning at the time John was given his vision, some 2,000 years ago. Again, we preterists aren’t dodging the obvious meanings of texts; we’re letting the text speak for itself. I can’t help that when one correctly interprets Scripture, it defeats skepticism 🙂
Lothar’s Son: Okay 🙂 But when Jesus foretold that this generation would not pass without having seen the return of the Son of Man, what did He mean according to preterism? How do futurists interpret this statement?
Chris Date: Before I answer that question, may I ask you where Jesus said they would see “the return of the Son of Man”? I see that nowhere.
Chris Date: I think what you’re referring to is Matt 24:30, but “return” is nowhere in that text.
Lothar’s Son: “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” You’ll see the son of man on a cloud
Chris Date: Right, what Jesus says is that “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Note no “return”. We preterists recall that in the Old Testament, the Lord, YHVH, comes on clouds in judgment when he destroys cities. The language isn’t intended to be taken literally, as if the God of Israel saddles up a cloud and floats down from the sky on it, throwing handfulls of brimstone upon the cities he’s judging. No, it’s apocalyptic symbolism communicating God’s destructive judgment upon cities. And indeed, what happened within the generation of those to whom Jesus is here speaking? Jerusalem is judged, the temple destroyed.
Lothar’s Son: Thanks for the explanation. When I read things such as “9“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
it’s really hard for me to believe this refers to future events because this clearly happens ALL THE TIME.
How can futurists make sense of this fact? Can they really do that? 🙂
Chris Date: Hmm, well, I suppose they might respond in one or both of two ways:
Chris Date: First, some futurists will acknowledge that some of this passage talks about events that were coming within the generation of those to whom Jesus was speaking, and that they might include the events you just referred to. But, they would say, the more cataclysmic events must be awaiting fulfillment in our future. Second, some futurists might argue that just because things have happened since Jesus delivered this prophecy that bear some resemblance to what he prophecied, it doesn’t mean they fulfilled it. If, for example, I predicted shortly before the year 1,800 that America would go to war, a dozen years later the war of 1,812 might be thought to be the fulfillment of my prediction, but if what I was prohpecying was, in fact, the much bloodier civil war that was coming a half a century later, well then the war of 1,812 would not have fulfilled my prophecy. Make sense? So futurists might argue regarding Matthew 24; many events may have tranpired, and my transpire all the time, which bear some resemblance to what he predicted, but it doesn’t mean they fulfilled it.
Lothar’s Son: Okay. What are to your mind fatal objections to futurism? Is post-millenarism in that respect superior to pre-millenarism?
Chris Date: Well I’m not a postmillennialist; I’m an amillennialist. But both views, recognizing that the thousand years of Revelation symbolizes an indefinitely long period of time that began in our past, are certainly superior to premillennialism. And I’ve already offered what I think are the fatal objections to futurism. It’s simply not possible, in my opinion, to take those texts seriously as a futurist. The answers I’ve seen them give are woefully inadequate. But I will offer one more.
Chris Date: In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that when the resurrection of believers happens–which premillennialists, amillennialists, and postmillennialists agree happens concurrent with the return of Christ–it will bring the defeat of death (vv. 50-55). But look what he says: he says death is the last enemy to be destroyed (v. 26). If premillennialists are right, then believers are resurrected a thousand years before death and others of God’s enemies (like Satan) are destroyed. In amillennialism and postmillennialism, on the other hand, the resurrection and return of Christ happen after “he has put all enmies under his feet,” and so, indeed, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” It all fits, but doesn’t in premillennialism.


Lothar’s Son: Ok thanks! Do you think that these views can have huge consequences for the way one’s Christian life is lead? Or for Evangelism?
Chris Date: Huge consequences? I don’t know about that. Perhaps. Postmillennialists seem committed, for example, to improving the world in ways some premillennialists are not, since postmillennialists think the world will be nearly 100% Christianized by the time Christ returns, whereas premillennialists think he could return at any moment. More dangerous, I think, is the unbiblical literalism with which many premillennialists read prophetic texts. Take the mark of the beast, for example; many premillennialists, reading this literally and as awaiting fulfillment in our future, think the day is coming when we’ll be forced to accept a tattoo on our hands, or an electronic implant, and they think that Christians will refuse it. Imagine if such a technology became popular that would allow shoppers to more quickly and easily check out at the grocery store, by just swiping our hand over a scanner. We amillennialists and postmillennialists wouldn’t be afraid to take advantage of such a helpful technology, but a premillennialist very likely might, and may even judge us other Christians for what they think constitutes accepting the mark of the beast.
Chris Date: Perhaps there are other “huge” consequences but none come to my mind at the moment. I’m always leary of suggesting that when Christians disagree on the non-essentials, there are “huge” consequences. Often I don’t think there are.
Lothar’s Son: Okay, I think I mostly agree as far as moderate people in each camp are concerned 🙂 . But can some of these literal interpretations make Christianity look much more foolish that it needs to be? I’m thinking about popular movies or books from premilleniarists I can only view as utterly ridiculous, despite my best attempts to be charitable.
Chris Date: Yes I think there may be some truth to that, but being a Calvinist–the topic of another interview I suppose–I think apart from the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit people are going to easily find excuses to reject the gospel. If presented less laughably than in Left Behind, unbelievers still hostile to God will just find some other reason to reject it.
Lothar’s Son: Okay! While you don’t know how this is going to happen, how do you imagine the return of Christ as a preterist? I’m not asking for a prophecy 🙂 just about some mental pictures you might have.
Chris Date: Well, I do share some things in common with Dispensationalists, particularly with regards to the nation of Israel. Based on my interpretation of the symbolism in Revelation 20 and Romans 9-11, I think that toward the end of this period of time, the Gentile world will become decreasingly Christian and Jews, particularly in Israel, will increasingly and corporately accept her Messiah. I think with the world increasingly hating Israel, it will one day attack her, at which point Christ will return and protect her, and that will usher in the resurrection, final judgment, etc.
Chris Date: But “how” will that happen? I don’t know.
Lothar’s Son: Okay. So are you in that particular respect “partially futurist”? Would that be a correct phrase?
Chris Date: No, it wouldn’t. All orthodox Christians believe some things await fulfillment in our future. What differentiates a futurist from a preterist is what things one thinks awaits fulfillment in one’s future, or has already been fulfilled. The beast; the great tribulation; the mark of the beast; the onset of the millennium; etc.
Lothar’s Son: Is there a connection between belief in preterism and belief in conditional immortality?
Chris Date: It depends on what you mean by that. Are most preterists conditionalists? I don’t think so. I think most preterists are traditionalists, since traditionalism is still, well, traditional 🙂 But I do think they’re being inconsistent, as I explain in this article at Rethinking Hell .
Chris Date: I’ll let your readers check that out.
Lothar’s Son: Thanks! Do you believe that we’ll usher into a brand new universe or realm? Or will simply the universe and earth in which we live be renewed?
Chris Date: I think it will be renewed or restored, not obliterated and replaced.
Lothar’s Son: Thanks for everything! To conclude, could you perhaps give relevant links towards your blog or elsewhere?
Chris Date: Your readers can find my personal blog and podcast at http://www.theopologetics.com. I’ve done a few shows on preterism that they may find interesting. I also blog and podcast at http://www.rethinkinghell.com, if your readers want to learn more about conditionalism. I’m less actively lately at both sites, however, as I’m currently going to school. I can be reached at chris@theopologetics.com or chrisdate@rethinkinghell.com if anyone would like to hear from me.
Lothar’s Son: Okay! What are you up to for the coming months?
Chris Date: Sadly I was laid off last week so #1 will be finding a new job 🙂 But aside from that, I’m also taking a class in Greek, another in Philosophy, and I’m raising 4 kids with my wife. So I’ll be up to a lot for the coming months!
Lothar’s Son: Oh yeah I truly wish you good lucks for finding a new position and all your other endeavors. Thank you very much for the time you granted me!
Chris Date: You’re very welcome. God bless, and take care.

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