In “reading Tucker on Hell” Jefferson Vann reacts to Bobby Tucker’s paper entitled “Which Hell and Why” in which Tucker defends the traditionalist doctrine of a hell of eternal conscious torment.
reading Tucker on Hell
Today’s paper, passed on to me by my good friends at academia.edu, is by Bobby Tucker. Tucker’s paper is entitled “Which Hell and Why” in which he defends the traditionalist doctrine of a hell of eternal conscious torment against its two rival views of restorationist universalism and annihilationist conditionalism.
As with any paper like this — an honest attempt to address an issue where people hold various views — Tucker makes some statements that I feel like cheering, and others that make me roll my eyes and say boo. You can see the paper yourself by following this link:
For today’s article, I am simply sharing my reactions to the paper, and I choose to react as I read, so I will react section by section.
page 1 (introduction)
Tucker’s introduction makes the case that society is generally reluctant to talk about hell at all, and he is probably right. But then he blames our society’s reluctance for the resurgence of universalism and conditionalism. My guess is that he has failed to appreciate the fact that our society today has access to more information today than ever before, and that it is this very access to argumentation over preconceived notions that has caused most people to avoid the traditionalist hard line.
Tucker describes hell as the “downside of eternity.” His very use of that term reveals that he has already swallowed the notion of innate human immortality, and as such he has already presupposed either universalism or eternal conscious torment as the only options.
So, my reaction to Tucker’s introduction is that he has 1) missed the real reason why people are reluctant to talk about hell, and 2) already predisposed himself to reject any biblical evidence of human mortality. I could wad up the paper and throw it in the trash, but I will not. Eleven pages to go.
pages 2-5 (universalism)
Tucker defines and addresses the universal reconciliation doctrine well. I especially appreciate his quote of Steve Greg:
“The outstanding distinctive of the restorationist doctrine is that God may continue to draw sinners to Himself, not only in this lifetime, but also after they have died and are in hell.” [Steve Greg, All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Evil (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 239].
Tucker’s traditionalism has the immortal souls of the wicked going to hell immediately at death, and so does universalism. Universalism then says that everyone will eventually get out of that hell.
Tucker’s primary arguments against universalism are 1) that they ignore the atonement of Christ and substitute a purgatorial judgment in its place, and 2) that restoration is unjust because “where is the justice when the saint and the sinner ultimately enjoy the same reward?”
As a conditionalist, I think that Tucker is on track with both arguments but he has brought neither to its logical conclusion. I think restorationism is wrong when it says that anyone can pay for their sins by suffering in hell. That is not what hell is for. Jesus is the only one who has ever paid for anyone’s sins, and he did not do it by suffering in hell. He did it by dying on the cross. Hell is not for paying for our sins, it is for being punished as much as we deserve and then being destroyed — soul and body (Matthew 10:28).
So, in these pages, Tucker rightly picks up on a major issue in the hell debate — the purpose of hell — and he shows that the restorationist view fails to connect with that purpose.
pages 6-9 (conditionalism)
I very much like Tucker’s summary of the conditionalist view on page 6. It also is a quote from Greg:
“Conditional Immortality – or “conditionalism,” “annihilationism,” “extinctionism,” or “terminalism” – “is the term for the view that all who fail to obtain the gift of eternal life will eventually cease to exist.”” [Greg, All You Want to Know About Hell, 195].
Tucker acknowledges that scripture contains the “vocabulary of destruction” but insists that a few texts require that we go beyond that language and read a conscious suffering for eternity instead.
Specifically, Matthew 25:41, 46, where the fire of hell, the punishment of hell and the life of the righteous who avoid hell are all said to be eternal.
Here is why I, as a conditionalist, am not persuaded by that argument: The word eternal in those verses is the Greek aionios, and I have shown in numerous articles that the clear meaning of aionios in the New Testament is always permanent, and never perpetual. It is an adjective describing the destruction of hell as permanent, and the lives of those who avoid hell as permanent.
So, strike one.
Tucker’s second passage he claims refutes conditionalism is Revelation 20:10, which has John seeing a vision where the devil, his angels, and the beast and false prophet are thrown into a lake of fire in which they will “be tormented there day and night forever and ever” (NET).
The assumption is that this is a description of hell, and even if it is, we would have to explain two things. First, in the vision that John saw, the human beings who accompanied the devil and his angels in hell are already said to have been destroyed by a fire which “came down from heaven and devoured them completely” (Revelation 20:9 NET). So, Tucker’s argument is that humans have to suffer forever in hell, and he bases his argument on a text which says that humans are destroyed by the fire of hell.
Secondly, even if we forget the fact that the passage does not describe humans suffering forever in hell, even the assumption that Satan and his angels are immortal cannot be proven from this passage. Because in John’s vision, what he had seen take place (the punishment of Satan and the demons) is no longer taking place by Revelation 21:1 because it all “existed no more” having been replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. So, John’s vision (if it is about hell) proves that hell will be a temporary phenomenon, even if it lasts “ages and ages.” Hell will not be perpetual. Its destruction will be permanent.
So, strike two.
Tucker’s third scripture he claims refutes conditionalism is Matthew 13:40-42, where Jesus says that the angels will gather the unrighteous and burn them in a fiery furnace:
“As the weeds are collected and burned with fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom everything that causes sin as well as all lawbreakers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (NET).
My first response to this is that if Tucker is trying to prove his idea of hell, he has missed something as he read Jesus’ statement. Tucker believes that hell begins when the wicked person dies. This passage is not about what happens when you die. Jesus taught plainly that the harvest the angels will reap will happen at “the end of the age” (Matthew 13:39). Conditionalism is the only view that takes this statement seriously. In Tucker’s traditionalism, judgment takes place before judgment day. In universalism, there is even the possibility that many of the wicked can be restored to heaven before judgment day, and brought back into a body and re-enter heaven, and never face judgment on judgment day.
Secondly, Tucker cites the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” of verse 42 as “unmistakably indicating suffering and not destruction” (page 8). His logic seems to be that if there is any suffering involved at all, it must be perpetual. Conditionalists do not deny that hell will involve suffering. We simply take these passages as literal descriptions of natural human responses to impending destruction. If I knew I were going to die today, I would probably weep for a while, and I would probably get angry enough to gnash my teeth in anger. Those are natural human responses to impending death. But if that were to happen to me today, neither my weeping nor my anger would make me immortal!
Strike three, you’re out.
Tucker rightly said “the traditional view of hell is not derived from the belief in the immortality of the soul, but the other way around” (page 9). But when we examine the argument for the traditionalist view of hell (as we have above) we find that argument lacking of any substance. So, if the Bible does not really teach eternal conscious punishment, there is no need for the wicked to have immortal souls to go there.
concluding shots (pages 10-12)
In the last part of the paper, Tucker accuses both conditionalists and universalists of not taking God seriously. He insists that “every objection to the traditional doctrine of hell is usually “me” centered” (page 10). I have never listened to a sustained argument for either a conditionalist or a restorationist that was not packed with scripture and thoroughly interested in God and his truth.
But if you are interested in some theoretical discussion mostly based on the human perspective, look at the final pages of Tucker’s paper. He argues that hell has to be perpetual because that is the only way God can treat us fairly. He quotes Strobel on hell:
“Hell will forever be a monument to human dignity and the value of human choice. It is a quarantine where God says two important things: I respect freedom of choice enough to where I won’t coerce people, and I value my image-bearers so much that I will not annihilate them” [Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 192.].
If any argument about the nature of hell is based on “me” instead of God then that is one. God values us so much that he keeps us around in a quarantine of torment forever because he cannot imagine the universe without us.
The fact is, friend, that God values his own righteousness so much that he must eventually rid this universe of anything and anyone that does not conform to it. That is what God’s nature really tells us about hell.
For more reviews, see: