I want to preface this post by saying I am by no means an expert on the topic of hell. I’ve only read two books on the subject and listened to several lectures. I approach this as one who is still learning and seeking understanding. I hold to what would be called in this debate the “traditional” view of hell as opposed to a literalist view of hell. That is, I believe hell is a place (spiritual? physical?) that is eternal; but I am unconvinced that the fire references made in the Bible are to be taken literally (i.e. how are they literal flames and yet the place is in darkness? – seems to me to be metaphorical language).
I was very interested in listening to this debate between the traditional view, as espoused by prominent conservative theologian Al Mohler and the conditional view (that of annihilationism–those who are unsaved are annihilated at the judgment [typically–please correct me if I have misportrayed this) as put forward by Chris Date. Here, I’ll offer a brief summary of major statements in the debate, followed by my own analysis. Note that these are my summaries of what was said, not necessarily direct quotes. I welcome critique and comments. Let me know if you listened to the debate, and feel free to offer your own thoughts! The debate may be found here.
Justin Brierly asked Mohler to speak on what he thought about the biblical basis for conditionalism.
Mohler- Anyone who speaks on a doctrinal question sees their side as more biblical, and I find the evidence for conditionalism wanting. We must also present the picture of hell which is that which should be presented to others–we have to see what the biblical picture of hell is. The biblical “meta-narrative” points to dual everlasting destinies–eternal life in a New Heaven and New Earth–and also for eternal punishment. The unified consensus reading of Scripture for the history of Christianity has been the traditional position.
Date– Regarding Matthew 25, the question is not the duration of the punishment but the actual nature of the punishment. The context suggests that the wages of sin is death, physical death and not living any more. At judgment, the conditionalist holds that the second death will be just that–death. Moreover, the alleged consensus opinion on hell has not been completely on the side of traditionalism, and in the last few centuries conditionalism has gained support. [Outlines the biblical evidence for conditionalism while citing a huge number of texts.] The preponderance of Scripture points to conditionalism. The concept of eternal punishment is correct; the question is what the nature of this punishment is.
Mohler– The normal Christian reading of Matthew 25 has been eternal conscious torment, not destruction. The infinite wrath and infinite grace of God are each being experienced. To say that eternal punishment is not an eternal state but just something that endures until it is taken away does not seem to be what the text itself implies. Humans have a life beyond this life–not an inherent right to immortality of the soul but because of the image of God in humanity–we are made for eternal life.
Date– Saying that Christ purchased eternal salvation for us in Hebrews does not imply a continued state of Christ forever redeeming; it was an act in time with eternal consequences. Eternal life is something only experienced by the saved–the punishment is death and its effect lasts forever.
Mohler– It is difficult to square this view with the actual texts. Rather than appealing to a different passage in Hebrews, Date must explain the parallelism in Matthew 25 regarding the phrase eternal–does it mean two things in the same context?
Date– Eternal means forever in both cases–eternal life and death which lasts forever.
Mohler– Substituting death does not explain away the parallelism in the text. The Christian church has long understood that this passage means eternal torment.
Date– That’s why it’s called the traditional view!
Mohler– The traditional view does not rest on isolated texts of Scripture but on the church’s understanding of the weight of the texts as a whole. There is no indication in various depictions of hell in which there is an end to the torment as spoken.
Date– Mohler’s interpretation is incorrect; the Greek can be taken in different senses in the places he cites.
Mohler– These interpretations are based on arguing that when we look at a text, we have to say it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means.
Date– Many Christians held to a conditionalist view in historic Christianity. Moreover, we should not forget that we come to the text with presuppositions, and such giants of the church as Augustine who held to the traditional view had a Platonic view of the soul which influenced their interpretation of the Bible.
Mohler– There was development of the doctrine of hell. Regarding Augustine, if we argue that Augustine’s view was due to Platonism, we have to see that his entire picture of reality was Hellenized and so his view of other important doctrines like the deity of Christ is undermined.
Date– Nobody is claiming that everything found in the Platonic view or the Hellenistic view is wrong. Scripture is the authority, however, not the culture. The Platonic view specifically imported mistakes into the view of the soul and its indestructible nature according to that view.
Mohler– Jesus held to what we call the traditional view. However, Jewish thought at the same time didn’t have much developed thought regarding hell, which is largely a distinctively Christian view.
Date– Jesus’ language speaks of destruction and seemingly endorsed the view of annihilationism through his use of language of destruction and burning up.
Mohler– Gehenna does not point to Jesus endorsing an annihilationist view because the use of that term was a reference to continued endless fire, despite being a distinct historic view. …Jesus spoke more about eternal punishment and hell than about heaven. Our understanding of the Gospel is impacted by a different view of hell. The urgency of the Christian message is undermined by the conditionalist position because it effectively removes any urgency for conversion because the materialist already believes they will just cease existing.
Date– Atheists often reject Christianity because they see the traditional view as unjust, which means that a conditionalist view has greater apologetic value. Moreover, the Gospel can continue to be presented as either the gift of life or the punishment of death. Conditionalism does not undermine urgency of spreading the Good News.
It was edifying to listen to both presenters on this program and get a better idea about the differing views related to hell within Christianity. The speakers were each respectful and gracious–something that should be the case!
Chris Date cogently argued for and defended his position against major objections. I think one of the most pressing issues for the conditionalist/annihilationist remains the notion that, on their view, there really is no major difference between the end of the unsaved and that which the materialist believes will happen. However, it should be noted this is less a biblical challenge than it is a philosophical/theological one. Date’s defense of the biblical capacity for conditionalism was challenging to my paradigm as I think he presented some passages which do possibly read more easily on his view than on the traditional view.
I do think, however, some of Date’s claims were a bit of a stretch. For example, his assertion that Jesus endorsed conditionalist teachers perhaps goes beyond the evidence we have. Moreover, his style of argument in some sections was problematic because he simply through a number of texts out (without quoting the text, simply citing the locations) without giving any sort of context. Of course, this latter issue is more due to the format than a defect of his position.
One of the biggest problems with Al Mohler’s defense of the traditional view is how much he appealed to, well, tradition. It seems to me like the traditional view has a solid scriptural basis, and to appeal to the notion that the church as a whole has largely leaned towards the traditional view is inadequate as a defense. Thus, it was his method which I think was greatly problematic. However, towards the end he got deeper into the issues and I think made some solid points, particularly in regards to whether Gehenna necessarily entails the conditional view and on the seeming parity of the unsaved on the conditional view vs. their own position. That said, I think a stronger focus on exegesis would have been more compelling rather than a continued appeal to traditional church teaching.
Overall, I came out of this debate feeling challenged to consider my own position. I also think the conditionalist view is not, as some assert, clearly unbiblical. If one wants to continue asserting that, I think they must deal very closely with the texts Date and others cite for their position. One can’t just cite a single proof text and say that other texts must be reinterpreted in light of a single text.
What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.
Should Christians Rethink Hell?– The link for the audio of the debate along with some related links from Premier Christian Radio.
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