About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class in systematic theology.
In learning about hell, Two Views of Hell: a biblical and theological dialogue, co-authored by Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, is quite helpful, because it examines the biblical corpus to determine how we should understand hell. The two evangelical positions presented in the book wrestle with the key biblical texts that deal with hell, therefore giving the reader a solid biblical foundation for understanding hell in addition to good summaries of the two evangelical positions. This book summarizes two views of hell in debate form. The first view, presented by Fudge, is the conditional or annihilation view, which maintains that God will cause all those who are not saved to cease to exist, which I disagree with. Peterson argued for the second view, the traditional view that I affirm, which asserts that God will eternally torture the unsaved. Two Views of Hell posits that there is an evangelical controversy on the understanding of hell, so that, although the authors argued for the superiority of their own positions, it demonstrates that the evidence for this controversy is mixed. While conditionalists have logical reasoning and traditionalists have sound lexical and grammatical analysis as their strengths, the reader has to make a decision based on which side has the most conclusive evidence, since neither side is completely indisputable. Let us now turn to the two positions and examine them and determine which one was not only more convincing but also which one is the best argument.
Two Views of Hell
The Conditional View
The conditional view has a lot going for it. It is logical, sensible, and reasonable. It makes sense that God, since he is a loving God, would not necessarily desire for the people he created but are not saved to endure eternal torture. Therefore, it is only logical that God would annihilate them for love’s sake. It is sensible because it gives just results. God is a just God. Therefore, he cannot torment someone for all eternity, since that someone only missed the mark for a short time. Sure, he can torture them to a just degree, but then he will bring them to utter destruction, both out of love and justice. It is reasonable that God would annihilate those who are not saved, because it is based on Scripture, especially those passages that talk of death and destruction awaiting those who are not saved. Although the conditional view has good logic and reasoning, it suffers from poor hermeneutics and unsound arguments.
The conditional view suffers due to two major flaws—eisogesis and unsound reasoning. These eisogetical interpretations and unsound arguments can be seen in several areas of Fudge’s presentation, including, but not limited to, his treatment of the lake of fire in Revelation 20:13-15, “quench the fire” in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31, the similes in Psalm 1, “eternal contempt” in Daniel 12:1-2, Judith and Isaiah, the end of weeping, “eternal”, the cross, Hebrews 6:7-8, and Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4. Errors like these prevent me from affirming his position. We will now examine the following flaws: “quench the fire” in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31; Judith, Isaiah, and Tartarus; and “eternal.”
Fudge made a mistake in saying that the unquenchable fire mentioned in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31 is indicative of total destruction. He notes that passages like Isaiah 34:10-22, Ezekiel 20:47-48, Amos 5:6 and Matthew 3:12 use unquenchable fire to signify an un-extinguishable fire that “consumes until nothing is left.” Although that may be true in other passages, it is not necessarily the case here in Isaiah 1:27-28, 30-31. In fact, there is no linguistic evidence present in this passage to indicate what Fudge argues for. Indeed, he is importing foreign information into this passage. He is not performing exegesis, but rather, eisogesis, which means that he is making the text fit his understanding rather than make his understanding fit the text. Furthermore, the words of Isaiah indicate precisely the opposite of what Fudge argues—a non-stop, un-extinguishable or eternal burning.
Another mistake Fudge makes is his inconsistent remarks on how Greek philosophy has influenced our perception on hell. Fudge rightly notes that much of the language and thought of immortality comes from Greek philosophy. He specifically notes its involvement in Judith 16:17, a Jewish apocryphal book, which resembles Isaiah 66:24. He says that Isaiah’s mention of unburied corpses was tied to shameful destruction and has no understanding of everlasting pain. He argues further that Judith added the Greek philosophical understanding in natural immortality and imported it into the text of Isaiah 66:24 and combined them to form a new whole. Fudge negatively critiques the Judith text—as well as several of the greatest leaders in the history of the church—for being culturally influenced and maintaining eternal torment. However, he fails to note the cultural influence that is involved in 2 Peter 2:4. Tartarus is mentioned as a place reserved for the judgment of the rebellious angels in this passage. Fudge rightly notes that Tartarus is a place mentioned in the Odyssey, and it was “the place where the Titans were chained for endless punishment.” Fudge essentially entirely dismisses the importance of Tartarus, saying that it is mentioned in reference to angels and not to humans and therefore has no bearing on the discussion. But it is of utmost importance.
The use of Tartarus by Peter demonstrates cultural influence or syncretism. Either way, something that was not biblical became biblical, whether because Peter decided to make it as such (syncretism—taking a part from another religion and making it part of one’s own) or he was convinced that it was a true place (cultural influence—being influenced in such a way that cultural values, myths, etc. become truth to a person). Fudge does not recognize these options here. As a result, he does not take cultural influence or syncretism seriously, which he should if he is going to be consistent. On the one hand, he criticizes Judith for being culturally influenced; on the other hand, he has nothing to say about Peter being culturally influenced, even if only as a possibility. Fudge has undoubtedly presented an unsound argument. His view is unsound because it is inconsistent; one cannot have a sound argument if it is inconsistent.
A mistake that Fudge also makes is his use of linguistics. For example, when speaking of present choices having eternal consequences, Fudge examines the use of “eternal” in the New Testament. Of all the times it is used, he only focuses on a handful of them. Of that handful, Fudge looks at how it is used in one instance—Mark 3:29—to describe sin. He takes the words “eternal sin” to demonstrate that “eternal” is indicative of the outcome or result, not the duration of the sin. Then, Fudge takes this understanding of “eternal” and forces it upon every instance of the word in the New Testament, generally speaking. His linguistic reasoning is unsound. A word may be used in one particular way at a given moment, but it does not necessarily have to be used in that same way everywhere else that it may occur. This problem is one of the major features to Peterson’s rebuttal. Fudge’s evidence here suffers from unsound reasoning.
A final mistake made by Fudge, which is rightly highlighted by Peterson in his rebuttal, is in his treatment of Revelation 20:10-15. Peterson points out that Fudge argues that this passage identifies annihilation for all who are not saved. Peterson demonstrates the problems with Fudge’s treatment. First, “Fudge fails to mention the devil, who, along with the beast and the false prophet, is cast into the lake of fire.” In commenting on this failure, Peterson shows that Fudge is being inconsistent. Fudge claims that the beast and the false prophet are not real people, so their punishment is not the same as that of humans. However, as Peterson points out, the devil is included in the lake of fire for eternal punishment as the beast and the false prophet. Fudge has to consider the devil as a real individual if he is an Evangelical Christian. Revelation 20:13-15 identifies that the devil is going to be thrown into the lake of fire; then, a few verses later, the unsaved are thrown into the same place. Since we know that the lake of fire will be a place of eternal torment for the devil, why would it not be the same for the unsaved? Again, Fudge’s argument is unsound.
I do not affirm the conditional view, because, while it is appealing and logical, it suffers from an unsound argument based upon an eisogetical foundation. It is not so with the traditional view, however, to which we now examine.
The Traditional View
The traditional view does not have a lot going against it. It suffers from a few unnecessary or unhelpful points in the argument, but overall it is quite good. One of its problems is an unnecessary appeal to historic church leaders. Peterson’s use of Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and others are of little importance. In effect, he is merely namedropping, an unnecessary feature. It is expected that many historical church leaders would champion the traditional view. To spend an entire chapter on demonstrating the traditional view of these leaders is overkill. Peterson had good reason to include it, however. Fudge had previously attacked church leaders from history who maintained the traditional view for being culturally influenced by Greek philosophy. Therefore, Peterson was attempting to demonstrate that Greek philosophy did not influence the historical church leaders, but rather Scripture did. This attempt was unnecessary and unhelpful for a couple of reasons. First, no one can escape cultural influence. Given the time of many of the church leaders from history, it ought to be expected that they would be influenced by Greek philosophy. Second, mentioning the church leaders from history has no conclusive effect. It is nothing more than namedropping, and it does not help to further the argument.
Another problem that faces the traditional view, which is not unrelated to the first problem, is the question of cultural influences that Fudge brings to the table. Truthfully, Peterson did not directly address the problem. Fudge says that many Christians based their position on Greek philosophy through cultural influence. Peterson does well to show that the various leaders supported their argument through Scripture, but he fails to show whether or not they were culturally influenced in their exegesis and understanding. Therefore, his treatment of the church leaders from history was unhelpful.
A final problem for the traditional view is its attempt to use the cross to further its argument. Peterson identifies that the cross event is a substitutionary atonement. Christ was our substitute and he took our punishment for us. However, Christ did not suffer an eternal torment; rather, he suffered the equivalent to it. Peterson wrote, “[H]is temporal anguish was equal to the eternal condemnation due sinful human beings.” Since Jesus is God, he is infinite, so he suffered an equivalent punishment by dying on behalf of the world to satisfy justice. It was because Jesus was God that he “was capable of suffering in six hours on the cross what we can suffer only over an infinite period of time.” However, we have no reason to believe that his temporal punishment was the equivalent to an everlasting one. Fudge does well, in his rebuttal to the traditional view, to point out that Jesus did in fact die and was not tortured forever. Peterson’s treatment of the cross is overly complicated, and it is therefore unhelpful. Although his position contains some slight setbacks, Peterson’s exegetical skills clearly make up for his imperfections.
I affirm the traditional view, because it performs strong exegesis, especially lexical and grammatical analyses of ten key texts—Isaiah 66:22-24, Daniel 12:1-2, Matthew 18:6-9, Matthew 23:31-46, Mark 9:42-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Jude 7, Jude 13, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:20, 14-15. All of these exegetical studies perform exceptional hermeneutics. We will now examine the following highlighted areas: Matthew 18:6-9; Matthew 23:31-46; and Revelation 20:10-15.
Peterson examines Matthew 18:6-9, in which Jesus mentions two key phrases, “eternal fire” and “fire of hell.” Peterson says that these phrases, combined with the rest of the passage, focuses on eternal destiny for the wicked. He notes that the passage is said in response to a question from the disciples, who asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds with an unlikely answer. He said that whoever would make himself low like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, Peterson claims, is saying that true disciples are those with childlike humility. Then, Jesus employs a graphic image to describe the punishment of sinners. He describes the drowning of a person. Jesus identifies that his hearers should do whatever it takes to keep them from sinning so that they do not face such harsh punishment. Peterson demonstrates that Jesus is making a contrast between heaven and hell in this passage. There are two options. First, there is life. Second, there is eternal fire, which is the fire of hell.
Peterson compares his summary with the conditional view’s treatment of the same passage, Matthew 18:6-9. He rightly notes that Fudge starts with this passage and then switches to other passages without directly dealing with the text at hand. Fudge does not deal with the text in its context as Peterson does, but rather, he appeals to other passages and imports their content into the present text. Peterson accomplishes two things. One, he reveals the lack of credibility to Fudge’s treatment of Matthew 18:6-9. And two, he shows that he has done a better job of interpreting the text. He concludes that the reference to eternal fire indicates that there will be an eternal punishment for the wicked, and even though the text here does not specify precisely what kind, it does not need to. I affirm as Peterson does that the text leaves the reader with the knowledge that the wicked will be tormented for an eternal length of time.
Peterson’s linguistic skills are clearly seen in his treatment on Matthew 25:31-46. Although he continues his exceptional exegetical skills that he employed all throughout his treatment of biblical passages, which we have seen in his section on Matthew 18:6-9, his section here on Matthew 25:31-46 really shines bright. Especially in regard to the last sentence of the passage, Peterson rightfully appeals to the symmetry of terms. On the one hand, we have eternal life, and on the other, eternal punishment—all in the same sentence. In referencing a notable and highly distinguished Greek lexicon, Peterson appeals to linguistic authority, something that Fudge does not do, to define “punishment.” He notes that it could mean “long-continued torture,” “divine retribution” or “eternal damnation.” If we combine this lexical data with the fact that Jesus teaches that the wicked will be thrown into eternal fire, the interpretation of eternal tormenting comes across very strong.
In comparing his interpretation to that of Fudge, Peterson demonstrates superiority in his presentation. He shows that Fudge’s use of “punishment” in Matthew 25:31-46 is wrongfully rendered, being purposefully adapted to fit the needs of the conditional view, and I agree with his assessment. Fudge argues that eternal punishment does not indicate eternal suffering in hell, but he has not appealed to any linguistic authority to support his argument. Peterson rightly identifies that “eternal” modifies both “punishment” and “life” within the same sentence. Therefore, while Fudge renders “eternal” one way for “life” and another for “punishment,” Peterson correctly renders it the same for both nouns. He does well to identify that Fudge errs by saying “eternal life” is never-ending bliss while “eternal punishment” is irreversible annihilation. Peterson clearly gives the best treatment of this passage, utilizing not only sound exegesis, but also excellent linguistic analysis.
Peterson also works through Revelation 20:10-15 in addition to the texts from Matthew that we have already looked at. Peterson’s exegesis here is exemplary. He does well to include the whole context, which is crucial to understanding the last clause of the passage, to demonstrate that the text says that the wicked will suffer eternal torment in the lake of fire. Indeed, the devil is included with the beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire where they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. All those who are not saved will be thrown into the lake of fire—where there is eternal tormenting—along with the devil, beast and prophet.
In comparing his treatment to that of Fudge, Peterson points out Fudge’s poor assumptions that persuaded his understanding of the text. He notes that Fudge assumes that the beast and the prophet are institutions, not persons, and are incapable of eternal suffering. I disagree with Fudge on this point, because he fails to recognize the whole context, while Peterson does take it into consideration. The context includes the devil in the lake of fire, and since the devil is an individual capable of punishment and suffering, Fudge has come to a wrongful conclusion. Peterson’s exegesis of the passage is superior, and I affirm with him that the lake of fire will hold eternal torment for all those who are not saved, the devil, the beast and the false prophet.
In this debate on hell, Fudge presented an understandable case, using logic and reason to attempt to establish his view. However, Peterson noted the poor quality of Fudge’s case, and gave it some devastating comments in his rebuttal. Peterson’s case was very good too, using exemplary hermeneutical tools to establish his view. Fudge was not quite able to tear down Peterson’s presentation in his rebuttal, although he did have a few good things to say in response to him. Overall, Peterson won the debate. He had the best case with the most conclusive evidence. Yet, the book still demonstrates that the evidence is mixed in this debate, and it requires that a decision should be made based on the most conclusive evidence. In the end, the traditional side had the most conclusive evidence with its sound exegesis. I affirm that the traditional view as it contains the most conclusive evidence. Although I realize that the evidence is mixed, as the two views stand in juxtaposition, I have to choose the traditional view, because it is much more sound as it is constructed on excellent exegetical methods while the conditional view is not. I affirm that Scripture teaches that hell is non-fellowship with God, as both views do, but that it also proclaims eternal torment for the unsaved in hell, as does Peterson.
Fudge, Edward and Peterson, Robert. Two Views of Hell: a biblical & theological dialogue.
Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.