In the previous series, I surveyed four views on hell. In this post, I will share what I believe to be the “best fit” with the evidence at hand.
I find the terminal punishment (conditionalist) perspective outlined by John Stackhouse to be the most coherent argument that fits best with the Scriptural evidence. Here’s why, after more than a decade of teaching eternal conscious torment, I changed my mind:
First, conditionalism makes the most sense of how the Bible uses the words “death” and “destruction.” The paradigms set in the Old Testament (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood), the imagery of the prophets and psalms (death and destruction), the warnings of Jesus (fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell), the teachings of Paul (the wages of sin is death), and the conclusion of Revelation (death is no more) fit together well under the conditionalist interpretation.
The traditional interpretation redefines “death” as “not dead, but being kept alive forever in torment” and “destruction” as “ruin” in a way that works against biblical imagery of fire that consumes what it burns. Prooftexts (see #3 below) understandably lead traditionalists to this conclusion, but I don’t think it naturally flows from the story the Bible tells or the bulk of the evidence.
Universalists present a hopeful story that they believe correlates to the metanarrative of Scripture, but this story forces them to “smooth over” too many texts which talk about the finality of the final judgment (whether eternal torment or annihilation). Furthermore, universalism requires post-mortem salvation, which has to arise out of pure conjecture. I want to believe in universalism, but I do not have the evidence to warrant that hope.
Second, conditionalism makes the most sense of God’s revealed justice. This view honors the punitive nature of God’s judgment (unlike many formulations of universalism). Hell is a punishment for those who reject God. And yet, hell is not arbitrary, but the natural result (death) for those who walk away from the Source of life. This view honors the principles of proportionate justice that God reveals in Scripture.
Augustine’s perspective (which Burk presents) that finite sin warrants eternal torment because it is against an infinite God is logical but isn’t taught in Scripture. At the end of the day, proponents of eternal torment infer it in order to make sense of the texts which they believe require them to accept that position.
To his credit, Parry’s presentation of the universalist position acknowledges that hell has a punitive component to it, but most universalists I have encountered emphasize restorative justice at the expense of punitive justice. I can’t reconcile such an image of God’s justice with the language of the Bible (especially Jesus’s language).
Third, conditionalists offer plausible interpretations for the texts which, at first glance, appear to point to eternal torment. For example, I invite you to read an article I wrote on conditional immortality in the book of Matthew. In it, I provide an annihilationist perspective on the parable of the sheep and the goats. I have more work to do on Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10, but I have read conditionalist interpretations on both passages that honor the text and the Old Testament background.
Traditionalists rely heavily on these proof texts and use them to read their position back into texts which would otherwise promote conditionalism (see Burk on Isaiah 66:24). These texts also lead to philosophical conjectures regarding the proportionality of hell. Indeed, two specific texts kept me in the traditionalist camp for the past decade. Once the traditionalist interpretations of these texts were undermined through further study, the other pieces locked into place. I do not find universalist interpretations of these texts to be convincing at all.
The points above are expanded in numerous resources, including Stackhouse’s chapter in the Four Views, the book Rethinking Hell, The Fire that Consumes by pioneering conditionalist Edward Fudge, and, if you don’t want a book, the website Rethinking Hell, which has a comprehensive description of the perspective, and an extensive list of Scripture references.
As I indicated in the title of this post, it is a “tentative conclusion.” I am not dogmatic about my position. But, I have come to a settled conclusion that it fits the evidence well. I am fully aware that I am adopting a minority position (though no less than John Stott advocated for conditional immortality) which I do not take lightly. Still, I believe that this view is the one best supported by Scripture.