Not having studied hardly anything at all regarding hell or the end times, I was presented with an opportunity to read and write a review for Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. Although a morbid topic, it is nevertheless important. As this book draws attention to, Jesus thought it was important enough to warn unrepentant people of their fate that awaited them. It stands to reason, then, that we would also seek to understand what hell is and why it is something that one should want to avoid.
Part one acts as an introductory to the whole conversation of hell in general and conditionalism in particular. In Peter Grice’s chapter, he gives a diagram depicting the relationship of conditionalism with two other major views of hell or the end times – universalism and traditionalism. After this short chapter, Glenn Peoples takes things a little deeper by discussing, as the sections in his chapter are arranged; Immortality, A World Without Evil, Substitutionary Atonement, and Destruction. What this section seeks to do is to draw attention to one’s theology regarding hell (in a way, summed up in the term “eschatology,” study of the end times) and how much of one’s understanding might not actually be influenced from the text of Scripture.
Part two dives much more deeply into conditionalism mostly in relation to traditionalism since there are many more evangelicals who believe traditionalism without having weighed other ways of understanding. This section carries several of the key figures in conditionalism (Edward W. Fudge, John R. W. Stott, etc.) and focuses on particular aspects of conditionalism. With a greater number of writers in this section, I’ll only draw out a couple examples.
Drawing attention to where many eschatological terms in the NT find their origin in the OT (or Hebrew Bible), Fudge then unpacks their meaning and where he believes traditionalism gets it wrong. If traditionalism is the belief that hell is a place for those suffering eternal conscious torment, then how is sense made of Rev. 14:11 with the “smoke [that] rises for ever and ever”? Fudge highlights that “The visible smoke is a certification of accomplished destruction,” (37, emphasis mine). How are we to believe that the torment of the condemned continues on if the signals one receives indicate they’ve been finished?
Stephen H. Travis states how one can make sense of the “eternal punishment” language and imagery; “‘Eternal’ may signify the permanence of the result of judgment rather than the continuation of the act of punishment itself,” (46). John W. Wenham says something which I find is my own biggest peeve with traditionalism; “My problem is not that God punishes, but that the punishment traditionally ascribed to God seems neither to square with Scripture nor to be just,” (90). One’s eschatology says a lot about one’s God. If God punishes finite humans with infinite, conscious torment, then, echoing Wenham’s words, how is this God just?
Part three focuses on biblical support for conditionalism. Drawing a comparison Rev. 14:11 with Rev. 6:12-17 as the backdrop, Ralph G. Bowles says, “The clause ‘they have no rest day or night’ is a description of the moment or process of divine judgment, one among the many found in the Revelation to John; it is not a description of the eternal state of the judged,” (148). Citing Matt. 10:28, Harold E. Guillebaud says, “[T]he life of any living thing is necessarily ended by fire, unless God supernaturally provides otherwise: therefore, where fire is in question, the verb ‘destroy’ is not ambiguous at all, but definitely implies the ending of life,” (163). If one once assumed that conditionalism had no basis within the text of Scripture, this section debunks that assumption entirely. There is an abundance of support.
Part four moves into the philosophical support for conditionalism. As I hinted at above, one of the main questions in this section is how could God punish infinitely that which is finite? Embedded within questions like this are other questions regarding the immortality of the soul, God’s justice, punishment of the wicked, etc. If one is to believe the condemned suffer eternally, then how is this balanced with Rev. 21:4, which reads “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,” (emphasis mine)? It can’t, says Philip E. Hughes; “The conception of the endlessness of the suffering of torment and of the endurance of ‘living’ death in hell stands in contradiction to this teaching… It means that suffering and death will never be totally abolished from the scene.”
Part five considers historical support for conditionalism. In Kim G. Papaioannou’s chapter, he looks at how “Gehenna” is used in various other texts, arguing that “Gehenna” was not a real wasteland for Jerusalem’s garbage “because there is no documentary evidence earlier than the thirteenth century testifying to [its] existence…” (256). He concludes with the gospels, saying, “Gehenna is nowhere in the Synoptics presented as a place of torment. Rather it is a place of destruction,” (258). LeRoy E. Froom evaluates conditionalism’s tenets within the early church and how it’s not a new concept. Suffice it to say that conditionalism has a legitimate foundation (biblically, historically, philosophically, etc.) as a way of understanding hell.
Finally, part six brings in traditionalists who, although not convinced by conditionalism, engage it on its merits. Ben Witherington III, in the final chapter of the book, brings an element within the finite sinners/infinite suffering dilemma that I hadn’t considered before. He asks, “Is that actually fair and just? The OT law of lex talionis, which says only a hand for a hand, only a foot for a foot, only a life for a life, suggests a principle of justice that involves proportional and appropriate response depending on the sin committed,” (298). We often remind ourselves that Jesus was above “eye for an eye,” but have we brought that in comparison with our own eschatologies? Again, Witherington doesn’t hold to conditionalism, but he, alongside other traditionalists, takes it seriously.
I don’t spend too much time considering hell and who goes there and what it’ll be like, but I enjoyed the well-reasoned, well-researched, and not-so-new perspective offered within this book and from all the contributors. I would recommend this book to anyone who closed-fistedly holds to eternal conscious torment as the “correct” view of hell. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in what the tenets of conditionalism are and where they come from. With a great balance between the texts of Scripture, the contexts from which they arose, and an understanding of who God is and what God’s characteristics are, Rethinking Hell has caused me to do just that: rethink what I’ve assumed, what’s actually in the text, and what I believe God would actually do with impenitent people. If you’re like me, this book seems to be a great way to begin that journey of rethinking.
For those interested in purchasing the book or attending their conference in July, here is their website. Should anyone read it, I would love feedback on what I’ve drawn out here as well as a discussion of what you found to be strong and/or weak points of the book.