Hell is an incendiary topic of discussion, not only between non-believers and Christians, but also within the evangelical community. Edward Fudge, one of the foremost scholars on hell, spoke to The Christian Post last week before flying to California for the Christian Scholars’ Conference at Pepperdine University, where he led a panel discussion based on the newly released third edition of his book, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment.
In the interview, Fudge answered questions like: What are the three different views of hell? Why does it matter about knowing the specifics of hell, as long as you believe it exists? And are demons given the gift of immortality?
The following are excerpts from the interview.
CP: When did you first become interested in studying about hell?
Fudge: Probably 35 years ago. It had happen in this sequence. I had graduated from graduate school at Abilene Christian University in 1968 and sometime after that I was passing through St. Louis, Missouri. Then one or two years later I had written to a former professor, just a casual letter, saying I was interested in doing some more ongoing research in the nearby libraries of seminaries for pleasure, can you tell me some topics that may need some further thought.
And one of the subjects he mentioned he said it like this: “I find it interesting that the word Gehenna, translated hell, is only used in the Gospel for the end of the wicked. It would be interesting to see how the rest of the New Testament writers talk about the subject.”
Sometime shortly after that I was invited to give a talk at a small forum at a nearby Christian college on the subject of hell. The way it works is they would have two speakers present two different views and it was all very brotherly.
My paper was not controversial, I didn’t think, I just talked about the background of Gehenna in the Old Testament and New Testament. I noted that there are 12 New Testament passages which contrast the fate of the saved and the lost. Like “whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” So my paper basically presents those contrasts and said this is something to think about. Because I’m kind of a frugal person, I like to recycle, so I sent that paper to Christianity Today. The editor printed it in 1976 under the title, “Putting Hell in its Place.”
An Australian theological publisher who saw that article and wanted to study the subject himself, hired me to do a year’s worth of research to tell him what the Bible said on the subject. Doing that research led me to change my own mind from the traditional view, which I had always held all my life, to the view that I now hold. At which point, I asked him if he minded if I wrote my own book. He said he did not, so I did and that was the first edition of The Fire That Consumes.
CP: When did this debate on hell first come up?
Fudge: Here is what happened on that as I see it. The subject of hell came to be more of a publicly discussed subject really after my book came out in 1982, but there was another book just a few years earlier published by Intervarsity Press called The Goodness of God, I think in 1975 by John Wenham at Oxford England.
Wenham had one chapter on hell in his book, in which he presented briefly the view that I am now saying. He urged Christians to consider that view seriously but to be slow to abandon the other view and base it on careful Bible study not on some impulse. He proposed this view and said people should give it careful thought. As it happened, as I wrote my book in the late 1970s, his book just came out and was a great encouragement for me to persevere in what I was doing.
So to answer your question, the subject of hell as it relates to immortality, became a topic beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the subject of immortality of the soul and the understanding that that was not a biblical teaching, except that God gives immortality to the saved, that became popularized by Oscar Cullman’s book I believe in the 1950s.
CP: Can you tell us more about the word Gehenna?
Fudge: It’s the Greek word for hell and it is not found anywhere in the Bible except in the Gospels where it appears 11 times. One time outside the Gospel is in the book of James, when it says the tongue is set on fire by hell, but that is not talking about the end of the wicked. So the only time it is used about the end of the wicked is in the Gospels. It is always only used by Jesus and it is only used speaking to Jews who live around Jerusalem.
The reason for that probably is the word Gehenna, the Greek word, comes from another term, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and that phrase is found in the Old Testament and that is a literal place outside of Jerusalem, which in the Old Testament is a place of idol worship, it is a place where pagans had burned their babies and sacrifice to pagan gods, and it is a place in the Old Testament where the prophets say will be cursed and be a horrible place in the future where there will be dead bodies and so forth.
During the time between the testaments, based on that literal place of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, there came into use this Greek word Gehenna, which came to be used of the place of final punishment for the wicked.
CP: Can you briefly explain the difference between the traditionalist and conditionalist views of hell?
Fudge: Yes, if I may toss in the universalist view as well. In three sentences: the traditional view sees hell as the fire that torments forever. The universalist view of hell sees hell as the fire that purifies and refines. And the conditionalist view, my view, sees hell as the fire that consumes.
CP: What is the strongest argument you can give for the conditionalist view?
Fudge: The strongest argument is there are dozens of passages throughout the whole Bible which if taken at face value seem to say what I am saying. Such passages as John 3:16, perish but have life. Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. And Revelation 22: 7-8, which speaks about those who are written in the book of life and those who are not written in the book of life have their part in the lake of fire, which is a second death. So the choices are ultimately throughout the Bible, if we take it at face value.
CP: Are you a firm conditionalist advocate, or more of a provocateur with the aim of stirring debate?
Fudge: Certainly the first. The book The Fire that Consumes, the first edition came out in 1982, 29 years ago and is now considered by friend and foe alike as the standard book on this position. Christianity Today referred to it recently as the standard reference for annihilationism. So I am certain and a very serious scholar about this thing. But at the same time, I do want to provoke thought and all of that because that is the way people change.
CP: How is the third edition of your book different than the previous versions?
Fudge: The new thing about the updated book is that I interact with 17 traditionalist authors, who have written 12 books in response to The Fire That Consumes since it first came out in 1982. So if a person gets this book, they not only get what I’m saying, but the arguments of the other side mixed in all the way plus my responses to those people.
Just to give you an example about what updating after 29 years mean, when I wrote the first edition, it was published in 1982, there were only eight Dead Sea Scrolls available in English to the general public. Today, when I wrote this new edition, there are over 800 and they are available in classic edition, two volumes with Hebrew on one side and English on the other, 1350 pages. I read through all of the English in all of those two volumes and it turns out it did not change what I said 29 years ago based on eight Dead Sea Scrolls. But that is how much information has advanced.
CP: Is it important for the average Christian to know what happens in hell, or is this more for theologians?
Fudge: It matters for the following reason. I’ll give you two, maybe three reasons. First of all, it matters because when we say we are teaching the word of God, it is important for us to say what the word of God says. So just like any other subject that we teach on, if we purport to speak for God, we need to be careful and be accurate in what we are representing God as saying.
And the second place, this is particularly important for everybody because this has to do very much with the character of God, and the way people view God’s character. The big question here is that we have to ask ourselves are we supposed to think that the God who loves the world so much that he gave his only son so believers would not perish but have eternal life is going to then turn around and throw billions of them into something resembling a lake of volcanic lava and make it so they cannot die, so they will have to endure this forever. That doesn’t sound like the God that I know and see in Jesus Christ.
So I believe the traditional view is a horrible scandal against the character of God himself.
CP: You say in your book that immortality alone is for God to grant and only those in Christ can be given immortality.
Fudge: Yes, as I heard you that is correct. I Timothy 6, I believe, says only God has immortality, that means of himself inherently. Every time the word immortal or immortality are used in the New Testament about people, it is always talking about the saved. I Corinthians 15 is a big chapter on that. It is never used on the lost.
So human beings exist only as God gives them life. If the wicked are raised not immortal, which appears to be the case, then there is no basis on which they can continue to exist forever. And in fact, the reason why the traditional doctrine of eternal torment came into being is because in the second century, converted Greek philosophers, Tertullian being one of the leaders, brought into the church from their pagan background the doctrine of Plato and Socrates of the immortality of the soul.
When they brought that doctrine into the church, Tertullian reasons like this in some of his writings, he quotes Jesus who says, “fear God who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Tertullian says, wait a minute, we know that souls are immortal and cannot be destroy. Jesus therefore doesn’t mean that God will destroy the soul, but he means that it will suffer torment forever. But that is not what Jesus is saying and nobody would have thought of that if it had not been for the Greek doctrine from pagan background of the immortality of the soul.
CP: How do you explain about demons or Satan being given immortality, since they are not in Christ.
Fudge: They are not immortal. I believe that they will be destroyed as well. They exist now, but there will come a time when they do not. And certainly they will not be tempting believers once Jesus returns and the new heaven and new earth come into being.
In fact, it is important along that line I think to remember that 2 Peter 3 and Revelation picture a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells and in which there are no sin or evil. So it is really unthinkable that in the new heaven and new earth there will be this place of torment where wicked people are cursing God and evil things going on forever. That would spoil the whole picture.
CP: Is this argument about what happens in hell mostly among evangelical Christians?
Fudge: The fundamental idea, truth, or principle or statement in this whole discussion really comes down to most of all and first of all this: the idea that every human being has an immortal soul. That used to be held by just about all professing Christians and in fact in the 1800s and 1900s, the mainline people and the liberals were the one who mostly advocated that. And in the mid-20th century, a book was published by a Swiss scholar, Oscar Cullmann, who said that the Bible does not teach immortality of the soul, that it teaches the resurrection of the dead.
And that book by Cullman was very influential in all kinds of theological circles so nowadays, mainliners and evangelicals alike understand that. So for example, when I spoke a few years ago at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston and again had a debate recently at Biola University in California and presented my view, the other side does not argue that everybody has an immortal soul and therefore the wicked will be punished forever. That’s what that side used to say, but since about the 1950 they don’t argue that.
CP: In your opinion, why hasn’t this debate about what happens in hell been more popular? Like I said in the beginning, most of the time we only argue about whether hell exists or not.
Fudge: I think it is because most people are not serious enough thinkers most of the time to delve into subjects or ask questions about subjects that require much thought. They like quick and easy answers and they also like things that are very controversial and that is what gets their attention. And those in the media, especially on the part of those who are not Christian, there is a tendency to simply pay attention to the things that are most controversial.
So when someone like Rob Bell comes along, who is a very well-known figure to begin with, and has his book which some critics believe teach universalism, it’s a quick and easy target. Everybody knows his name. Whereas with a book like mine, which is serious study and requires a lot of thought and effort – not something that is so quick to read, and nobody knows me to begin with.
CP: Did you read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived?
Fudge: I have not had the chance to read it yet. I have read what I consider very serious analyses and critiques of it by sober-minded people who are not just jumping on a bandwagon; responsible reviewers. And I have an opinion about his book. I really don’t have any special reason to read it because everybody who I have heard from who has read it says he doesn’t really make a case for any particular view, that he mostly is trying to get people to think about the subject.
CP: Do you think Rob Bell’s book had a net positive or negative effect on Christianity and subject of hell?
Fudge: I think both of the above. The positive effect of Rob Bell’s book is that it probably did cause a certain number of people to consider this subject who did not give it much thought before. The negative effect of Rob Bell’s book is that it is somewhat of a sensationalist type book and it doesn’t really present a biblical case. Whereas a book like mine that has 440 pages of small print and about a thousand footnotes takes more effort and people are not as interested in studying in that way as in the other way.
CP: I feel like there is an agreement between you and Rob Bell for one thing, because he also says that a loving God cannot send someone to hell to be burned and tortured forever.
Fudge: You are correct about that. That is why I said a while ago that my view is the view in the middle. Rob Bell and I had agreed on that point. We both agree that the traditional view is wrong. We both agree that the Bible does not teach it. We both agree that it is a scandal against the character of God. The way we resolve that problem is different.
I’m not saying he says this, he seems to want people to think about this at least. And I want people to think about all the possibilities as well. He seems to lean towards what is called universalism or universal restoration as the solution, which says it is the fire that refines. I believe the Bible teaches clearly throughout the Bible that it is the fire that consumes and that God has warned from the very beginning that sin brings death and that only eternal life is possible with the gift of God through Jesus Christ. And in the end those who are saved are granted immortality and eternal life, and those who are lost will suffer the second death.
The three most common words in the New Testament for the end of the wicked are the words die, perish, and destroyed. And I believe we should take them all literally.
This view, by the way, is held by a great number of well-known scholars, among evangelicals as well as others. Richard Bauckham, who wrote the foreword to my new third edition, is regarded up there along with N.T. Wright as the evangelical New Testament scholar. N.T. Wright also rejects the traditional view. F.F. Bruce, who was probably the best known commentator among evangelicals in the 1900s, rejected the traditional view. John Scott tentatively adopted the view I’m saying. And I could give you many other such names.
CP: This discussion that we’re having makes me question if the church has been teaching believers the wrong thing for 2,000 years. Is the traditional view held since the early church or did the message change along the way?
Fudge: I would say first of all, the Protestant Reformation was based on the principle that the church was wrong about the most central doctrine of Christianity, the atonement and justification for a thousand years. So unfortunately, the church can go astray.
To answer your question specifically, if I am correct, and I believe that I am in saying this is the view of the Bible, then the other two views started after this view and they started very early. In the 2nd century, Tertullian especially and other converted Greek philosophers called apologists, they began to teach the traditional view.
Sometime later, within the next century, Origen of Alexandria, Egypt suggested the idea of universal restoration. He reasoned like this, everything that God does is for a purpose. If hell is there, it must serve a useful purpose. He believed the purpose might be to refine people and reform them and cause them to abandon their evil thoughts and ways and God would save them even out of hell. So that was the beginning of that doctrine.
If you come down to the 4th century, St. Augustine endorsed Tertullian’s view which when he did that, basically made that the orthodox view of the Western church for the next thousand years.
In the Reformation, [Martin] Luther was questioning the idea that every soul is immortal. But [John] Calvin was very much against the Anabaptists, who were teaching what I’m saying – that human beings are naturally mortal and immortality is only God’s gift to the saved. Because the Anabaptists were teaching that, Calvin, who hated them worse than anyone on the face of the earth, wrote his first theological book against the Anabaptists, defending the teaching that Tertullian had put out – the soul is immortal and people are tormented forever.
When Calvin did that, Luther kind of backed off and didn’t want to divide the Reformation over what he considered a minor point. And when Luther got quiet, that left the Anabaptists on one side and the Catholics and Calvins on the other side. And you can guess who won. Calvin’s teaching was written into Protestant confessions of faith. The first one was called the Second Helvetic Confession, which means Swiss. That became a model for later English confessions of faith, like the Westminster confession, and so the teaching on eternal torment slid into Protestantism and became a central doctrine in fundamentalism and a modernist controversy in America until this day.
CP: Is there something you want to add?
Fudge: I would just say this is a very important subject, most of all because it has to do with the very character of God himself. I’d like to say in closing, if someone doesn’t remember anything else they read on any side of this subject, except the following: just remember two verses of scriptures, which they already have memorized. One is Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life. And the other is John 3:16, whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. And take those verses at face value and that is all they need to remember.