The ministry of “Rethinking Hell” has collected a selection of writings on conditional immortality by several prominent theologians and put them together into a book. The book is divided into six sections which all approach the topic of conditional immortality from a slightly different angle. Each section has multiple authors all of which contribute to a different aspect of rethinking our understanding of the immortal soul and as a result the final punishment of the unrepentant. Because there are so many authors I will not review all of them but instead give some highlights of what each section contributes to the book and some of the most important points that are made.
Part One: Rethinking Hell
The first article by Dr Glen Peoples traces some of the history of the doctrine of the immortal soul. Dr Peoples examines the testimony of the early church, the establishment of the doctrine in the Roman Catholic tradition and the challenge of the teaching in the Reformation. This introduction helps lay the groundwork which shows that immortality is brought through the gospel and is not inherent to the nature of mankind. (1 Tim 1:9-10). Here we see right from the start that; immortality is a gift only some will receive, Hell cannot exist forever if death and evil are to be truly conquered, atonement requires the full death of Jesus our model for humanity, and the language of complete destruction of the second death. Dr. Peoples does an excellent job starting the book on the right note and showing how scripture supports humanities mortality and dependence upon God for life.
Part Two: Influential Defenses of Conditionalism
The second selection of writings includes one of the most influential men to approach the topic in the modern era, Dr. Edward Fudge. Dr. Fudge reveals the strength of the Old Testament witness of the final destruction of the wicked. He draws attention to the two prototypes of the Old Testament which are the destruction of the wicked in the stories of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s here that we also see the importance of Isaiah 66 on the gospel writers and their choice of language concerning worms and fire. Dr. Fudge draws attention to the use of the word eternal in the New Testament and how it “speaks of results or outcome of an action and not the action itself.”
In John Stott’s article, the point is made that immortality is “by grace not by nature.” This is a key argument because it draws attention to the distinction between the Creator and the created. Clark Pinnock’s article traces how the idea of the soul being immortal has relied more on philosophy than Biblical exegesis. Most of all, he appeals to our sense of morality and reveals how God’s character is stained by the idea of a God who tortures his creation for all eternity. The final article is provided by John Wenham who states that the doctrine of the immortal soul “is nowhere explicitly taught, but that it is everywhere assumed.” This section of the book emphasizes influential thinkers that have made major contributions to the topic. What the reader might easily forget is that these men often took risks in being bold enough to push back against their current tradition and culture.
Part Three: Biblical Support of Conditionalism
The next section of the book highlights a series of writings on the Biblical support for conditional immortality. The first article by Atkinson provides the argument that to be destroyed from the presence of an omniscient God necessitates annihilation. The second reading in this section of the book is by Ellis who helps the reader see how our understanding of anthropology will shape our view of eschatology. His article closes with an extensive word study on the verbs that are used for the fate of unbelievers. Bowles continues the scriptural support by taking on the challenge of Revelation 14:11 showing how its chiasmus structure reveal the authors intent is not eternal conscious torment. He goes on to show that the strongest “proof texts” for the immortality of the soul seem to be two scriptures in the book of Revelation a highly metaphorical book, and one parable found in Luke. He contends that such lack of support should not be allowed to outweigh the overwhelming support for conditional immortality found elsewhere in the Bible.
Thiselton closes this section by reviewing the Biblical support found in the book of John who focuses on life and death, Paul who constantly appeals to death and destruction, and both Hebrews and Peter that also refer to death and destruction. He closes by stating “immortality does not depend on innate human capacity, but is conditional upon God’s gift of immortality or resurrection.” This section of the book is robust with textual evidence that supports the mortality of man. It takes on several of the proof texts and metaphors used to provide an argument for the continual torture of the unrepentant. While more has been said in Dr. Fudge’s book “The Fire that Consumes”. This section alone provides great support for the readers understanding that the view of conditional immortality is founded in scripture.
Part Four: Philosophical Support for Conditionalism
As it turns out, there is plenty of philosophical support for the conditional immortality and the final destruction of the unrepentant as well. This section of writings focuses on these ideas. First, there is the general appeal to justice. The proportionality objection states that the punishment must fit the crime and eternal torment for a temporal life of sin would be unjust. Next, the summary that God will be victorious over evil seems untenable if there is always a place where evil exists. Another objection is that eternal punishment seems to be pointless and only proves that God is more vengeful than he is merciful.
Hughes shows in his article that the doctrine of the immortal soul essentially seeks to redefine the language of death, destruction and perish to mean the opposite of their commonly held definitions. Marshall adds that God’s punishment is ultimately to seek restoration and reconstruction and it does not simple exist for retribution. He says that “the doctrine of final damnation could be taken to mean that the God we are to imitate is finally vindictive” and this is problematic to our understanding to Gods character. Marshall also explores the evangelical ramifications of being motivated by hate and revenge in seeking eternal punishment of one’s enemies versus an evangelical motivation of love that seeks reconciliation and life over death.
Part Five: Historical Considerations
This section focuses on the historical considerations of the immortal soul and how they play a factor in our understanding of immortality. Papaioannou explores the development of the second temple understanding of Gehenna. He also explores some of the influential writers such as Plato and Josephus. Froom then explores the writings of the early church fathers. Two of the most adamant proponents of the concept of the immortal soul are Tertullian and Augustine who both appeal to Plato rather than scripture for their source of truth on the topic. His conclusion is that there is no suggestion of the immortal soul in the earliest church fathers until these two develop the idea of the immortal soul as popular thought.
Part Six: Conditionalism and Evangelicalism
The final and shorter section is a general appeal to all readers to take the Biblical text as authoritative over tradition. The authors make a request for unity regardless of one’s final decision on the topic. Witherington says “the final state of affairs for believers does not involve disembodied life in heaven”, rather it is resurrected embodied life on earth and only those who have a relationship with God will receive this gift of eternal life.
Overall this is a great book of selected writings that shows the abundance of scriptural support for the mortality of man and our dependence upon God for eternal life. The ministry of Rethinking Hell continues to put out resources for evangelicals to provoke thought concerning the doctrine of the immortal soul and the final punishment of the unrepentant.