Over the course of the past year I’ve had an ongoing series introducing readers to what I call the “biblical alternative to hell,” which is a position called conditionalism. Scot McKnight has also been discussing hell from a very similar angle over the same period. Recently he’s had Jeff Cook on his blog discussing arguments from his new book, Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell, and Jeff has raised some really excellent arguments that I wanted to dissect a bit in a few posts here.
In brief for newcomers, those who hold to the position of conditionalism or annihilationism believe the Bible teaches that those who ultimately refuse to be reconciled to God through Christ are “totally destroyed” or “blotted out of the Book of Life,” as in, they ultimately cease to exist (aka, the “second death”). Thus, the word annihilation. (See 25 verses that support that position, here.)
Within our camp there are two general positions on what happens to the unjust after death: some believe they enter into “soul sleep” until the resurrection, at which point they pass through the fires of God’s love and are either reconciled to God, or find that there’s nothing left of themselves (annihilated). Alternatively, there’s the position that the unjust are conscious after death and waiting in some type of holding area until the resurrection (such as what might be described in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus), after which they face the judgement and are either annihilated or reconciled. Regardless of which camp a conditionalist sides in, there is the common belief– and this is what makes us different from those who hold to the traditional view of hell– in that we believe that if there is a hell, it could only be temporary.
While I think the testimony of scripture is overwhelming in the case of annihilationism, and even taking the visual of fire literally we know that fire consumes what is put in it, Cook brings a different way of arguing that if there is a hell, it could only be temporary. He brings some philosophical arguments to the table which are very compelling and a good partner alongside the scriptural evidence for “hell” to be temporary in whatever form it exists.
Rob Bell famously asked, “Does God get what God wants?” which is a good question to help us ponder possibilities of postmortem repentance. Cook seems to be asking a slightly different question– but equally important: “Is God victorious over evil in the end?”
And this is precisely where the traditional view of hell (eternal conscious torment) seems to answer, “no, he’s not victorious over evil in the end.” As Cook states in a recent post:
“We might say it this way: If God is supremely good and powerful, then God would have the ability and motivation to eventually end evil, but the traditional view has God intentionally allowing the reign of sin to persist.
This seems a significant problem. If hell is eternal conscious torment, evil itself will never cease affecting God’s creation. That is, if the traditional view of hell is true, God’s creation will be tainted by the fruit and work of sin forever. But given who God is, this possibility does not stand.
New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham rightly reflects that “the victory the Messiah has won is the eschatological event, but it cannot have reached its goal until evil is abolished.” If hell is eternal conscious torment than clearly “some” of God’s creation is still infected by the reign of sin and rebellion, and this gives us good reason to think the traditional view of hell fails as a worthy view of judgment and the future.”
I think the entire argument could be distilled as follows: Christ came as a result of the fall and introduction of evil into creation. The chief purpose of his life, death, and resurrection was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). In order for Christ to truly be victorious over evil, from an eschatological standpoint, everything that is evil- at some point- must cease to exist. However, if the traditional view of hell is correct, evil doesn’t cease to exist at all but continues on and on for all of eternity. In the traditional view of hell, Christ is not the victor– he simply contains evil, allowing it to continue in some corner of God’s new creation.
Cook is right- on these grounds alone the traditional view of hell is worthy of judgement, because it strips God of his ultimate victory- victory over evil.
In order to hold to a view that God is victorious in the end– that he successfully and totally eradicates evil from his permanent/perfected creation, one could only hold to one of two positions: the position of universal reconciliation (Christ eventually reconciles everyone who has ever lived, thus eliminating evil) or the position of annihilation (those who refuse to be reconciled cease to exist, thus eliminating evil).
But the traditional view of hell? That view paints a picture of God where He loses in the end.