In “reading Rutherford on Annihilationism” Jefferson Vann responds to a recent paper defending the traditionalist view of hell.
James Rutherford is a theological student at Pacific Life Bible College. He published a paper online today as part of a course on theological method. Rutherford represents the traditionalist perspective on hell. I appreciate his paper as a good example of his perspective, and I thought I would offer a few comments in response to it from a conditionalist perspective.
The full title of Rutherford’s paper is “The Comprehensive and Eternal Retributive View of Hell: An Integrative Theological Investigation into the Doctrine of Hell.” Rutherford unpacks each element of the title as he goes along. The investigation is purported to be comprehensive in that it takes “the totality of the Scriptures’s teaching on Hell together” (33). The traditionalist view Rutherford defends is supposed to be “comprehensive because it involves the entirety of our being: both spirit and flesh” (33, note 80). Of course, Rutherford assumes that readers accept his dualistic presupposition here. His entire study of hell presumes that it happens at death. His doctrine of hell assumes survival of human spirits and immediate entrance into an afterlife at the point of death.
This is the first point where we conditionalists cry fowl. If one is serious about telling the whole story on hell, you have to put God’s wrath where it belongs. Hell is not about what happens at death. If people are judged and condemned to hell at death, then the judgment at the end of the age is superfluous, redundant and unnecessary. The warnings of the prophets and apostles of a coming day of wrath and destruction are meaningless if all they mean is that judgment happens at death.
Rutherford actually defines hell as “the place where the Devil, his angels, and all the unrighteous throughout the history of the world will be sent after the final judgment (33).” We conditionalists agree with that definition. We disagree that it begins at death. There is no intermediate hell before the day of wrath.
The phrase “Eternal Retributive” is also problematic for us. Oh, we could use the phrase, of course, but we would have to decontaminate it from the unbiblical meanings associated with it. The Bible always uses the term “eternal” as an adjective. As such, it denotes either a permanent life (like God’s life) or a permanent destruction. Hell always involves the latter but cannot ever involve the former because only the saved have permanent life. Rutherford uses the phrase “eternal Retributive” as an adverbial phrase, describing a process of perpetually meting out retribution that never ends. He gathers a nice group of traditionalist theologians to say that this process is what the biblical term destruction refers to, but as such he is neither defending a biblical text, nor offering a biblically defendable theology.
Rutherford is not merely defending traditionalism against annihilationism, but also against universalism, and he does a good job against universalist arguments. He shows, for example, that the idea of a future restoration does not mean that the ungodly will be restored to sinlessness after suffering temporarily in a purgatorial hell. Those who bow the knee at the end are either believers, or (he quotes Erickson here) represent “the unwilling submission of a conquered foe before the supreme King of the universe” (38).
But neither Rutherford nor Erickson stop to ask what happens to conquered foes when the king takes charge. In a society where kings do battle for territory, the conquering kings do not keep their enemies alive to torment them perpetually. either you defect to the new king, or you die with the old one.
Aside from these philosophical differences, I want to recommend Rutherford’s paper as a representative apologetic for the traditionalist perspective on hell. However, there is one glaring problem that I cannot explain. The only conditionalist/annihilationist that Rutherford interacts with in the paper is Clark Pinnock. The paper ignores the monumental work of Edward Fudge. It fails to interact with the Rethinking Hell team and other annihilationists that have been producing excellent modern theological books and articles representing annihilationism for the past two decades.
Students and scholars who wish to do justice to the issues involved in the debate over hell need to address those issues responsibly. This means finding current sources and responding to the actual arguments of those sources.
Here is a bibliographic list of recent studies reflecting an annihilationist perspective.
Barry, Douglas. Conditional Immortality: Biblical Proof of Annihilation in Hell. S.l.: Createspace, 2013. Print.
Buenting, Joel. The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology. London: Routledge, 2016. Internet resource.
Burk, Denny, Jerry Walls, Robin Parry, and J. G. Stackhouse. Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2016. Internet resource.
Burke, Jonathan. Sleeping in the Dust: Historic Christian Mortalism and the Case for Conditional Immortality. Lexingnton, KY: The Author, 2011. Print.
Crofford, J G, and Edward W. Fudge. The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined. La Vergne: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013. Internet resource.
Date, Christopher M, Ron Highfield, and Stephen Travis. A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge. , 2015. Internet resource.
Date, Christopher M, Gregory G. Stump, and Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. , 2014. Internet resource.
Fudge, Edward. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Final Punishment. , 2016. Print.
Fudge, Edward. Hell: A Final Word : the Surprising Truths I Found in the Bible. Abilene, Tex: Leafwood Publishers, 2012. Internet resource.
Fudge, Edward, and Robert A. Peterson. Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2000. Print.
Gillihan, Charles. Hell No!: A Fundamentalist Preacher Rejects Eternal Torment. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011. Print.
MacLaren, William. Conditional Immortality. Brantford [Ont.: s.n., 2018. Internet resource.
Mealy, J W. The End of the Unrepentant: A Study of the Biblical Themes of Fire and Being Consumed. , 2013. Internet resource.
Peoples, G. “Fallacies in the Annihilationism Debate: a Critique of Robert Peterson and Other Traditionalist Scholarship.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 50.2 (2007): 329-348. Print.