I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Date from Rethinking Hell on the Help Me Believe Podcast.
Chris is a Reformed (Calvinist) theologian that holds to a conditionalist view of hell. This view, also known as annihilationism, holds that unbelievers will not spend eternity in eternal torment, but will cease to exist after the final judgment.
I am always initially skeptical of views that I deem “new,” although Chris informed me that this view can be traced back, in terms of Church History, all the way back to Ignatius. To be sure, I haven’t actually looked into that claim, but Chris seems like the kind of guy that does his homework.
However, I have been skeptical of the traditional view of hell, eternal torment, for quite awhile. As I told Chris, I focus on apologetics and philosophy, and don’t often have the time to dive in to theological and biblical issues, at least in a robust way. Therefore, I have not given this subject its proper due.
Before going any further, I want to be clear that I am not committed to any view at this time, except that I am not a universalist. I believe the Scriptures are clear that salvation is for believers alone and that God will punish the unjust and unbelieving. The question here is, what is their punishment?
Here are my initial musings on the subject, with respect to the role of the atonement in this conversation.
Death is the Punishment for Sin
The Scriptures are clear that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). This has always been the case and can be found all the way back in Genesis where God told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die (Genesis 2:17).
Because they disobeyed God, God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden for the expressed purpose of preventing them from accessing the tree of life which would enable them to live forever.
However you might interpret the specifics, the New Testament is clear that all of humanity will experience death and decay because of sin (Romans 5, 1 Cor 15, etc.).
One thing to point out: the punishment for sin is said to be death, not eternal torment. Before you unsubscribe, let me just say, I have not made up my mind on eternal torment.
However, I am finding less and less biblical support for it. A strong and obvious case can be made that the punishment for sin is death. I mean, that’s what the whole testimony of Scripture explicitly says. Only by inserting odd hermeneutics have I ever seen someone pull “eternal torment” out of places like Genesis 3.
I’ve heard preachers say, “Well, Adam and Eve didn’t immediately die, so when God say “You will surely die,” he must have been speaking of a spiritual death.” Umm, no. There’s absolutely no reason to think God was talking about a spiritual death, whatever that means. If it means “separation from God,” then Genesis 4 is a direct rebuttal to the idea, since God was still with Adam and Eve and their offspring, hence they were not “separated from God” after all.
A spiritual death is anything but obvious when reading Scripture. A literal death is abundantly clear and becomes even more explicitly clear when we consider the atonement.
Jesus’ Death Was Substitutionary
Whatever else Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished, He died in our place. Upon Him, was the wrath for our sin. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin. While we were still sinners, He died for us. His death was substitutionary, that is, He died on our behalf.
The punishment for sin is death. Jesus substituted for our sins. So, Jesus literally dying on our behalf makes perfect sense. The punishment is death, so he died.
Now, if the punishment for sin were eternal torment in hell, in what way did Jesus die in our place?
After all, He did not spend eternity in hell. This would seem to imply that our penalty has not been paid.
Are there any viable solutions to this problem for the traditionalist?
The Traditional Solution
The traditional solution to this problem is to say something like, “An infinite being can pay in a finite time, what a finite being would have to spend eternity to pay.”
What is meant by this is: Since Jesus is God, he is of infinite value. Therefore, he can pay an infinite price in a finite amount of time. For a finite being to pay an infinite price, an infinite amount of time of punishment would need be allotted.
The Traditional Problem
I have seen this explanation put forward by many theologians including William Lane Craig. Here’s the problem I see:
A finite being spending eternity in hell will never actually reach an infinite punishment. If the argument is that Jesus is of infinite value, therefore he can pay an infinite punishment in a finite amount of time, then the analogy becomes dis-analogous.
It is impossible that a finite being spend an infinite amount of time anywhere. As William Lane Craig himself has often argued, an actually infinite amount of time is impossible. Time must have a beginning, and at any particular moment in time, it is only finite, with the potential to go on ad infinitum. This is why we speak of time as potentially infinite and not actually infinite.
In this way, the person suffering in hell will never actually reach their punishment. God’s just wrath will never actually be satisfied, only potentially, at best.
Not to mention, the whole premise of the explanation is a categorical mistake. When someone says that “Christ is of infinite value,” they surely are speaking in terms of quality. But when they speak of finite beings spending eternity in hell, they are speaking in terms of quantity. So the statement, “An infinite being can suffer an infinite punishment in a finite amount of time,” seems false to me. If the punishment itself just is “an infinite amount of time of suffering,” then not even a qualitatively infinite being can suffer an infinite amount of time of suffering in a finite duration. That would be a logical contradiction.
The only escape would be to say that the punishment for sin is not an “infinite amount of time of suffering in hell,” but is an “infinite quality of suffering.” But can a qualitatively finite being suffer a qualitatively infinite punishment? No, of course not. This is no less contradictory.
This is the problem I see with eternal torment with respect to the atonement of Jesus. Not to mention, I see strong biblical support against this view. As of now, I am uncommitted either way, but look forward to continuing to study more of God’s word as I approach this subject.
Also, if Jesus paid our debt, why is it that believers still die? I’ll tackle this soon, but let me know what you think.
For more on Chris Date and Rethinking Hell, check out rethinkinghell.com.
18 thoughts on “The Atonement and Rethinking Hell”
annihilationism is an interesting topic, one that I haven’t invested in much either. It’s worth talking about and hopefully even if someone has concluded that traditional Hell is real they won’t just unfollow.
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Wow. Great post! I enjoyed your arguments and honesty from a philosophical position. I think it would be beneficial to also delve into scriptural passages that seem to support eternal hell.
For instance, in Daniel 12:2, Scripture says some to everlasting life and others to everlasting shame and contempt. Jesus makes a parallel statement in Matthew 25:46 about eternal life vs eternal punishment.
If these are opposing positions speaking on eternity, wouldn’t both have to be eternal? In other words, if Jesus is contrasting life eternal with him, why would he not mean eternal punishment in the latter statement? Then one could say eternal life is not really “eternal” either.
Have you read Hell under Fire? It’s a great scholarship work on the conditional anihilationist position vs eternal punishment. Strengths and weaknesses from both sides. Blessings.
Thanks for the comment. Good point about the argument against eternity working both ways. Another topic I want to right about that is related to this one, is the fact that the gift of salvation is eternal life. But if non-believers go to hell after death, then they too receive eternal life, only they will spend eternity in hell, but that is still eternal life. You are certainly right that proper exegesis of scripture should drive our theology, not just philosophy. I myself have not exegeted those passages, but my friend Chris Date has done extensive work on this. I interviewed him here:https://youtu.be/SqKWNd_KKfs
I haven’t read that book, but will add it to my list. God bless!
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I feel that the Mt 25:46 passage is the one that most directly supports the traditional eternal punishment view. But even there, there is room for alternate interpretation. As I see it, “eternal”, in both English and Greek, has more than one meaning. One meaning is, roughly, “permanent.” Destruction (the biblical term for annihilation) is permanent and, in that sense, eternal.
Shame and contempt are compatible with annihilation, in the sense of being forever a figure of shame and an object of contempt, in the memory of the world.
I often point out to my (philosophy) students what you also point out, namely that traditional theology promises eternal life to all, different only in where it is spent. From a purely philosophical-theological point of view a place of eternal torment would be a permanent blemish on Creation, hard to reconcile with a “new Heaven and new Earth.”
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Toddy, I think you make some good points. And my thoughts exactly on Mt 25:46. Being annihilated, or ceasing to exist, would qualify as being “eternally punished.” Thanks for your thoughts.
Thought-provoking, to say the least. I will have to dig deeper.
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Great work here!
I also sort of share your view about infinite punishment. Why would a loving God intentionally make His subjects continue to suffer for eternity? That sounds like intentional cruelty to me.
However, one thing that still baffles me is the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
Agreed that it was a fictional story, why would Jesus still use the idea of punishment in fire (which sounds infinite to me) if it were not true?
I hope to hear your view on this.
Dynamo, thanks for the comment. I plan on doing exegesis on all of these passages of Scripture. May take me sometime, but I’ll get there!
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I would think that exegesis would have been the necessary first step before trying to tackle such a doctrine. It would appear that the way you present your case (I’m not familiar with Chris Date) that you have more in common with Jehovah’s Witnesses or many other aberrations of the Christian faith. Such groups deny the doctrine of eternal torment along similar lines of thought, preferring complete and utter destruction over and above eternal torment. However the fact is that weeping and wailing and gnashing ones teeth will continue in that eternal age to come (Matt 25.30). To those not in Christ, evidenced by having no works for Him, they will be told to: “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!” (Matt 25.41).
Don’t get me wrong I can understand why people would have an aversion to that teaching, but not liking something is not a recipe for determining truth. If the righteous in Christ will experience untold blessing and faithfulness in the age of eternal life, then it is logical to conclude that the unrighteous will continue in their faithlessness and hatred towards their Maker.
I never said anything about “not liking eternal torment.” It doesn’t bother me at all, if that’s how God wants to punish unbelievers, I’m simply not convinced by the texts often cited like Matthew 25. I’ll write on that later.
First, I want to say that I don’t appreciate the accusation that I just don’t *want* to believe in eternal torment, or I just don’t *like* it. This is assuming motive and is beneath civil dialogue.
Secondly, comparing me with Jehovah’s Witnesses is nothing more than below-the-belt rhetoric. It’s playing the boogie man card.
Similarly, “aberrations of the Christian faith” is just childish name-calling.
The annihilationist, or conditionalist, perspective can be found in the church fathers like Ignatius. This isn’t something new that “aberrations of the Christian faith” made up to avoid a doctrine that they repel emotionally at. That is a straw-man.
In my article, I presented philosophical reasons as to why I am *initially* skeptical of eternal conscious torment, especially with respect to the atonement.
“I would think that exegesis would have been the necessary first step” is itself a philosophical conclusion, so I don’t know what the big deal of me making a philosophical argument is, but okay. I agree that proper exegesis of the Biblical text is primary in determining theology. The point of the article was that I have long been skeptical of eternal torment because of my understanding of the atonement.
Hopefully, you can be more cordial in your responses to me, like you have been in the past. Nonetheless, I appreciate the response.
I appreciate the prompt feedback and I think you have me wrong on several points. Before I state my case and try to clarify my comments, I would like you to know that I was dealing with substance not striving to personal epithets. In short, my response to your post was not meant to be read in an ad hominem style.
First off, you wrote: “I never said anything about ‘not liking eternal torment.”
Response: Technically, I never said you did either. All I said was “Don’t get me wrong I can understand why people would have an aversion to that teaching, but not liking something is not a recipe for determining truth.” My comments are that I can personally understand why someone wouldn’t like eternal torment as a just punishment for sinning against a holy God. I can think of a few things that I don’t like in the Bible, but my personal considerations aside I realize my “liking” them is not what is required, but humble submission. We are to live off God’s Word, not man’s even if we might find something psychologically disturbing about what God has said.
That being said, are you saying that you do like the idea that God will send sinners to an eternal hell with no hope of parole, mercy or grace? Not will you believe it, but do you like it. I can say that I don’t like it, but I do believe it. What makes my heart rejoice in it is that God will be glorified in delivering justice to those who deserve it.
Secondly, you wrote: “…comparing me with Jehovah’s Witnesses is nothing more than below-the-belt-rhetoric. It’s playing the boogie man card.”
Response: This is a bit more understandable. I did say that the teaching which you seem to lean towards—in that you have been skeptical with the orthodox teaching for a while now—has more in common with J.W.’s or other…”groups [that] deny the doctrine of eternal torment.”
Pastor C. T. Russel was skeptical of it and members of his group have strong aversion to it, though the language that they couch it in in somewhat different than your own. We could also speak of Joseph Smith, or any other Christian-cult that has formed in this nation over the last couple hundred years. In fact, Christian history is replete this type of behavior on the fringes of orthodoxy.
While I identified and hinted at such groups, and the similarities that appear to be shared, my intention was not to call you them. The issue was not Haden Clark, but the possible teachings presented. I realize that some have difficulty separating the two, but as one who professes to be a philosopher and apologist, surely you do not.
Thirdly you wrote: “’aberrations of the Christian faith’ is just a childish name.”
Response: Did you just give me a question begging epithet right there by saying my classification of Christian cults as “aberrations [deviations] of the Christ faith” is childish? Like a little toddler calling his big sister names because he doesn’t like what she said or did? LOL. Haden, my friend, I thought “civil dialogue” was above “below-the-belt-rhetoric?” Unless you did this based on the assumption that I did that to you, but then… that would have you stooping to my childishness! No harm, my friend, no harm.
Fourthly you wrote: “The annihilationist, or conditionalist, perspective can be found in the church fathers like Ignatius.”
Response: So…what? We do not derive our doctrines of the faith from “church fathers” or “denominations” or “creeds” or any other person held in high esteem. Nor would it matter if an angel came from heaven right now telling us different (cf. Gal 1.8), for it is the Bible that is “God-breathed” and it alone speaks authoritatively on matters of sound doctrine.
Moreover, many of the Church fathers believed that the Scriptures were to be interpreted allegorically, and in light of such beliefs came to conclude all sorts of foolish things. It matters not whether a doctrine is new or old, whether it has been believed in the past or not, for there was a time when much of the Church chased after the teachings of Arius, Pelagius, Sabellius, who were skeptical Jesus was God in the Flesh, that God’s gracious will was necessary for man to do good, or that God was Triune in nature rather than putting on a different face for the occasion.
To combat those aberrations of the faith, Christians of the past turned to the Holy Scriptures for guidance and answers to these issues. Hardly a “straw man” as you put it.
Finally, you quoted me regarding exegesis as a necessary first step and the wrote: “…is itself a philosophical conclusion, so I don’t know what the big deal of me making a philosophical argument is, but okay. I agree that proper exegesis of the Biblical [sic] text is primary in determining theology.”
Response: I’m not sure I follow. So, because my statement regarding exegesis is a philosophical statement that somehow what…prohibits me from critiquing your position by stating that the necessary first step should be as a believer is to go to the Bible, see what God says on the issue at hand, and then philosophize after that? You see, it is not just theology that the biblical text is primary in determining, but all areas of thought; including, philosophy. God as Creator is the fountain head of all knowledge and wisdom, and this is treasured in Christ Jesus alone. Philosophy—i.e., love of wisdom—is not wrong, but it is wrongheaded when it is pursued as if it is distinct from God.
Therefore, if you want to argue doctrines realize where the starting point lies. That’s why I said exegesis should have been a necessary first step, for one who seeks to teach others in the faith.
Please understand me, I’m not personally attacking you. I always attempt to be cordial in my responses. Obviously, I hit a nerve in my last go at it. Perhaps, if I took more time, I could have worded it a bit differently. If I lived in Texas or you lived in Ohio, we could discuss these things over coffee or a burger, but we are not. I’d say the same things over a friendly drink or lunch, and you’d notice that the guy sitting across from you is not as mean as you’ve made him out to be.
Have a good evening sir. Until we cross iron again.
I’m not aroused and no nerves have been struck, I get much worse comments on here and especially YouTube than yours.
However, your response was certainly ad-hominem. For one thing, you did not respond to the argumentation I laid out in the original article. You painted conditionalism as an “aberration of the faith” and compared my beliefs to Jehovah’s Witnesses. I stand by my assessment that you were not interested in the actual argument at hand and were simply employing the tactics I outlined in my previous comment.
When someone does not respond to the argument at hand, and instead employs the tactics previously mentioned, I’m going to call that out as childish. I stand by that. I’m not playing the same game as you, I’m calling you out for playing the game since you are playing it in my comment section.
You quoted a couple of JW’s to back up your claim that conditionalists are comparable. The reason this is ridiculous is obvious. You believe in God, I take it. So do Muslims. Should I compare you to a Muslim and quote Muslim scholars to back my claim up? There are many orthodox evangelicals, even Reformed-Calvinists, even Catholics, that hold to conditionalism. This is why I brought up Ignatius and second-century church fathers. Not to say, “Therefore it is true.” But to say that your likening conditionalism to JW theology, or an aberration, is absurd given that a number of prominent orthodox believers have held to this view–including heroic church fathers.
Lastly, your comments on philosophy and exegesis here are just as self-defeating as previously stated. I’m saying you cannot “see what God has to say” without first doing philosophy. Before you ever approach the text of Scripture, you are assuming the law of non-contradiction and a whole host of other philosophical notions. You cannot read Scripture without prior philosophical commitments. This isn’t a weakness, and I do not pit philosophy against exegesis. In fact, my whole point is that we shouldn’t for the obvious fact that we cannot, it is impossible. This is why I think statements like “if you want to argue doctrines realize where the starting point lies,” are just pointless. We all have the same starting point. The person who “starts with God’s word,” in fact does not, again, because they have numerous philosophical assumptions before ever even attempting exegesis.
For example, you yourself chastised church fathers who partook in allegorical hermeneutics. I agree, this is a completely arbitrary way to interpret a text. The historical-grammatical method is the best, in my estimation. But this is a philosophical starting point before I ever even read the text. For this reason, I don’t pit philosophy and exegesis against one another. They go hand-in-hand and if a certain interpretation of Scripture seems dubious in light of philosophical contemplation, I assume that something is amiss either in the exegesis, or the philosophizing. In the case at hand, at least presently, I’m convinced something must be amiss in the exegesis because the philosophical reasoning appears sound to me.
Again, I’m uncommitted at this point, and plan on looking at these supposed proof-texts more in depth.
I will ask one question in closing, if you are willing to engage further. Why is this a question of “orthodoxy”? Does orthodoxy mean “of primary importance”? Or do you just mean “eternal torment is the traditional view”? I agree with the latter, not with the former.
Pride is a nasty thing that reveals its head when we least expect it. I would like to avoid that at all costs. We have, unfortunately gone far afield.
When I first responded to you, it was that a doctrine like the doctrine of hell, you would think would require a bit of exegesis first on your part before attempting to speak on it. You have an established position of authority. You may or may not see this blog or your podcast or the books you write in this light, but you are. You are attempting to teach others what you have come to believe is true. Which means that there will be times when various critiques are offered regarding the position that you say you hold.
Therefore, you are right when you say that this is not a game. It isn’t. Your words will carry weight with people to varying degrees.
You asked me about what I mean by “orthodoxy,” and though you failed to answer my question of whether or not you “like” the idea that God would send someone (groups of someone’s) into eternal torment without parole, mercy or kindness shown to them, only judgment, I will answer your question. Orthodoxy mean “right opinion.” In Christian circles it conveys the idea that there are certain teachings revealed in Scripture that are right and applicable for the universal Church of Jesus Christ.
Eternal hell or the Lake of Fire speaks of the abode of the spiritually dead—they have no life of Christ within them. They died as devils and they will be imprisoned with Satan and his angels throughout eternity. This has been considered throughout Christian history as the “traditional” or orthodox view. There have been deviations as you pointed out from this generally accepted doctrine (i.e., aberrations).
There are a few things that need to be restated, because I want to be clear on my position:
In regards to philosophy and exegesis. I do not pit one against the other, but neither do I hold them in equal tiers. The doctrine of hell is a biblical doctrine. Which means you cannot know anything about it, unless you first go to the Scriptures. Knowledge and Wisdom (including the love of it) are first received by those that fear God. Thus, my point is that a necessary first step for you, before you speak on the subject (either for or against) would be to see what God has to say on it. His Word is the primary work from which we might gain understanding on the issue, every other word is secondary in nature. And so, philosophy, as well as theology, ethics, even our reasoning abilities is to be subservient to the Word of God. Image bearers reflect light, and it is in His light that we see light (i.e., truth).
In regards to the charge of attacking the man rather than his argument (ad hominem). I can see why you would think that this is the nature of the case. That in the very least I am giving a circumstantial attack rather than dealing with substance. And this because of my statement of “aberrations of the Christian faith” like J.W.’s and the like. I was not calling YOU a J. W. Nor was I saying “this is what the J.W.’s said, so you better not listen to Haden Clark.” How do I know that wasn’t what I was really saying? Because no one know the person or his intent, but the spirit of the man in question. My point was in consideration of what I said prior to that statement—i.e., that exegesis would be a necessary first step. Why? So as to avoid walking the same path as others have foolishly tread. My comment was more of a warning alarm than a personal or circumstantial “I got this idiot!” My intention is that I see some error in that thinking that could be avoided if you first did the hard work of fleshing out the texts, before you philosophically conclude they are suspect.
In regards to Ignatius, not as a writer of Christian doctrine, but as a possible authority from the past that we might lean upon. I have not read all of his writings, and according to you own testimony you have not even “looked into that claim,” of whether or not he and possibly other Church fathers believed in conditionalism and/or annihilationism. However, in his letter to the Ephesians in the 16th chapter he stated in regards to false teachers:
“And if those that corrupt mere human families are condemned to death, how much more shall those suffer everlasting punishment who endeavor to corrupt the Church of Christ, for which the Lord Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, endured the cross, and submitted to death!
Whosoever, ‘being waxen fat,’ and ‘become gross,’ sets at nought His doctrine, shall go into hell.’” (The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection, Kindle loc 3118).
Earlier in that same chapter he says such ones that “[corrupt]…doctrine the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified…[they] shall go away into everlasting fire…” (Kindle loc 3114).
Much of his writing that I can tell is peppered with various biblical texts from what we now identify as the New Testament canon, as well as the Old. Meaning that his position on such issues were derived from Scripture first and then elaborated on. No doubt, he erred like we all do at times, but I fail to see how this buttresses the position you hold unless there is a latter statement made by him that says “I was wrong here, but now I’ve got it right.”
In regards to the comparison of J.W. teaching with Muslim teachings, I must admit I find your comments there a bit amusing. First off, I never said you were a J.W. or a Christian-cult leader. Second, choosing Islam as a way to rebut me interesting, as their doctrine is an aberration of the Christian faith, which around six centuries after Christ and His apostles. I don’t think Haden believes in “conditionalism” and is therefore a J.W.—i.e., guilt by association. I do think that when we look at the false teachings of other groups we need to make sure they are guilty of aping the Christian faith derived from Scripture and not the other way around.
Finally, I want to point out an inconsistency that I keep noticing in your writing on this subject. You keep saying you are not committed to any position regarding the doctrine of hell. But you aren’t neutral to it. You lean one way or the other. Neutrality isn’t possible, we all have our biases.
You said “In the case at hand, at least presently, I’m convinced something must be amiss in the exegesis because the philosophical reasoning appears sound to me. Again, I’m uncommitted at this point, and plan on looking at these supposed proof-texts more in depth.”
Which is it, are you “uncommitted” or are you “convinced?” Have you not done the exegetical work or is the “exegesis…amiss?” You can’t have it both ways. Either you are uncommitted or you are convinced. Either you’ve done the exegesis on these passages and have found them “amiss” or you haven’t. Which is it?
I’ll be very interested in seeing your exegetical work on the subject. I look forward learning what it is that you actually do believe. May you have a blessed weekend.
Hi. As Robert Lewis Dabney wrote long ago, he could understand people not wanting the teaching of eternal punishment to be real. The problem is, he said (like it or not) it is real. As Dynamo notes, Jesus himself tells a story that implies a parallel in extent between Lazarus’ good afterlife and Dives bad one. Matt 25 indicates that the eternal life is eternal just as the punishment is eternal for those who join the devil and his angels. Jesus repeatedly warned that in the outer darkness there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth, not annihilation. He warned that the place of punishment was eternal (the worm dies not and the fire is not quenched) which at least suggests that the punishment is too. The atonement of Jesus deals with the sins of his people. They are promised eternal life freed from their sin by the life, death and rising of Christ on their behalf. Those who go on in their rebellion have no atonement and will go on in their sin. The eternity of the punishment parallels the unending nature of the rebellion of sinners.
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Matthew 25:46 confirms, for me, that the punishment will be eternal.
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