God’s Goodness and Endless Punishment

God’s Goodness and Endless Punishment July 14, 2014

Way back in the 1930s John W. Wenham, eventual author of one of the most influential Greek grammar texts and of a book called The Goodness of God (also called The Enigma of Evil), was a student of an eccentric English academic named Basil F.C. Atkinson, who it was known believed in conditional immortality (annihilationism). Wenham took the case on as a personal project and over the years became a firm advocate for the position. His evangelical credentials and personal piety are impeccable, which seem to matter to many in this discussion, but it is his biblical exegesis that matters even more. His case is sketched in Rethinking Hell (pp. 74-94).

Wenham makes clear that most critics of conditional immortality fail to address the fundamental issues raised by conditionalists. At times, sad to say, they badly misrepresent conditionalists and he points especially at none other than J.I. Packer, though he has his eye on W.G.T. Shedd, Paul Helm, and John Gerstner. Helm, he contends, spends his time critiquing points conditionalists don’t believe. On Gerstner he says this:

Gerstner pitches into Hughes, Stott, and Fudge for their revolt against hell. It [Gerstner’s study] is a wonderful example of circular argument. He assumes that the Bible teaches what he believes about hell and then proceeds to show that they believe otherwise. He just does not seriously address their arguments. Not sharing his beliefs about hell is equated with a rejection of hell itself, which it is absurd to attribute to such as Stott, Hughes, and Fudge (78-79).

Packer, he says, shows no signs of having read any of Fudge’s most important study and provides “instead answers to arguments they do not use” (79). These are strong words by a very kind man.  Packer calls conditionalists’ studies “avalanche-dodging” (79). Wenham proceeds then to a patient examination of the NT texts about eternal life and death and punishment (264 such references). His conclusion:

It is a terrible catalogue, giving most solemn warning, but in all but one of the 264 references there is not word about unending torment and very many of them in their natural sense clearly refer to destruction (82). [The avalanche shrinks, in his view, to one passage. The disinterested observer must wonder how to one person something can be an avalanche but to another one verse in a book full of metaphor and symbol.]

Wenham knocks down, in typical fashion, the fascination and assumption and baseless argument that the Bible teaches the immortality of the soul. The word “eternal” can mean either qualitatively eternal (pertaining to the Age to Come) or temporally eternal (everlasting). Context determines what one sees.

He knows Revelation 14:11 is the most difficult text of all, though I would contend that — in spite of their symbolic language — Revelation 19:3 or Revelation 20:10 must be given the same consideration. Wenham admits that “on the face of it, having no rest day or not with smoke of torment going up forever and ever, sounds like everlasting torment” (86). But he says this, too: “I am nonetheless chary about basing fundamental doctrine upon its symbolism” (86).

[I agree with Wenham that the debate narrows, ultimately, to the three texts in Revelation. What I find missing in so many of these arguments is a proof of the letter “C” in ECT — eternal conscious torment. One must prove consciousness for it to be ECT. In other words, it is more than proving “eternal” or “everlasting.” The word “eternal” can mean eternal consequences as well as eternal consciousness, the former fitting quite easily into the conditionalist scheme of thinking.]

Packer is flat-out wrong on the turn to this view only in the 20th Century; Wenham shows how deep the discussion was about this in the 19th Century among evangelicals in England and the USA. One after another he goes after Packer’s logic: that this view misses out on the awesome dignity that we have been made to exist forever, that it diminishes the punishment of the wicked, that it misses out on the glory of divine justice (he finds the God of this one “sadistic”) and Wenham thinks endless punishment is neither “loving or just” (90)… that conditionalists (a la Packer) back into their view in horror of the punishment instead of Scripture is a false accusation for many, including Wenham who came to the view honestly on the basis of exegesis (and so did/do many others).

“From the days of Tertullian [ECT] has frequently been the emphasis of fanatics. It is a doctrine that makes the Inquisition look reasonable. It all seems a flight from reality and common sense” (92).

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