Changes (III): Matters of Death and Life

Times change, seasons change, people change, fortunes change…change is something we can’t avoid.  That is not to say that all change is good.  Some change may be neutral, and some may be bad.  When it comes to matters of faith, we try to avoid the last kind, and by minimizing the neutral, we minimize the potential for conflict.  But how do we deal with changes for the better, that is, with improvement? 

Again, in matters of faith, we may come to a better understanding of what God wants for us or from us.  We may achieve a better grasp of some difficult point of doctrine.  If we accept and embrace those changes in understanding, we will have changed, but for the better. 

In part II of this series, we explored a change in the understanding of Heaven that many people from many different backgrounds are coming to accept as a better explanation of what awaits those who are faithful at the end of the present age.  Rather than expecting the complete destruction of all of the current cosmos, it appears that there may be a renewal of the very good creation that God surveyed at the end of the initial scene of Genesis.  This would be a significant change from the orthodox teaching of most Christian denominations, and will likely be met with stern disapproval by many who prefer not to upset the theological apple cart.

What is exciting about this whole discussion is that it demonstrates a renewed interest and indeed a renewed reverence for scripture in attempting to sweep away the dust of millenia of unquestioning acceptance and search for the truth, not tradition.

While some have explored the promised reward for the faithful, others have been exploring the nature of the punishment that will await those who refuse to accept the grace of God and who violate his will for his creation.

According to scholars like Edward William Fudge, there are at least three views of Hell:  the traditional view of a place of eternal conscious torment for the damned; the universalist view that says that all will be saved in the end; and the conditionalist view that says that eternal life is the gift of God for the righteous and faithful, and that the punishment reserved for the wicked is complete, eternal destruction.

As I see the arguments, the universalist position seems to be the weakest, since there is so much said about the the destruction of the wicked.  The traditional view of conscious eternal torment is missing from any Old Testament reference, and can only be tenuously linked in the New.  In the Old Testament, the wicked will be utterly destroyed.  Issues of (mis-)translation of words as “hell” (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades) plus other philosophical notions that apparently crept in over the centuries from Greek philosophers like Plato have led to a misunderstanding of the end of the wicked, according to conditionalists.

In his books, including a scholarly work titled The Fire That Consumes and the more accessible, popular offering, Hell: A Final Word, Edward Fudge—himself an attorney— considered the various possibilities from every source available to him, and reached a conclusion that the preponderance of evidence suggests that the human soul is not immortal.  It was created as everything was, and can therefore be destroyed.  If, as scripture tells us, “…the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6.23)”, then eternal life is a gift given conditionally to those who are in Christ.  There are many other passages that allude to the same idea. 

One of the strongest cases that Fudge and others make concerning the conditionalist position is the very nature and character of God.  On the one hand, God is just, as expressed over and over throughout the scriptures, and punishes wrong-doing.  On the other, God is love (I John 4.8, 16).  If that is true, then how does conscious, eternal torment, which according to many is reserved for the vast majority of all of humanity throughout all the ages, demonstrate either justice or love, especially if he is the source and example of our understanding of love and justice?

Similarly, our concept of death in the physical sense is a cessation of life.  But if there is an eternal torment for the wicked, how does this fit with the concept of the “second death,” as it is seen in Revelation 2.11, 20.6, 20.14, and 21.8?  In other words, how is “death” a cessation of the physical life, but an ongoing process with no end for the spiritual life of the wicked?  The conditionalist would suggest that death is death, a cessation of life, whether physical or spiritual.  The first death is the cessation of present physical life, and that comes to all.  According to scripture, a resurrection will occur in which a reward—eternal life—will be granted to the righteous, but the wicked will be irrevocably terminated once and for all in the second death, never to partake of eternal life, or any life ever again.  Any suffering will last only as long as the destruction takes, and once destroyed, there will be no more suffering.  Those who reject God’s grace and the free gift of eternal life through Christ will get exactly what they bargained for: eternal separation from God.  And there is no greater separation than being reduced to nothingness.

Edward Fudge does not force anyone to accept his conclusions, and in fact discourages people from making snap decisions regarding their beliefs.  The stakes are too high.  But through his work, he has shed new light on how we understand hell.  He has raised important questions, and provided a plausible, substantive alternative to the traditional view, the view that seems to be founded more on Platonist philosophy and medieval literature than on scripture.

So as we ponder the concept of changes, if we were to examine the evidence and find the conditionalist position to be logically constructed, and scripturally and historically supported, would we be willing to change our view based on this new understanding?  What if virtually everything we had ever learned about hell in Bible classes and sermons were based more on tradition than truth?  Would we be willing to change our thinking to embrace that newly illuminated truth?

For many people, the answer would simply be, “No.”  They cannot imagine going against what they have always been taught.  If they reject their traditions, they reject and condemn those who share that belief, those whom they love.  But that discounts the possibility of the application of a doctrinal grace–grace that covers a genuine misunderstanding–which some writers have had the temerity to suggest, citing the prevalence of the concept of a moral grace, but the lack of consideration for a genuine, honest variance in some disputed doctrine.

Some may be reluctant to relinquish the traditional view because it is so useful in keeping people in line through fear.  But the fear of not existing should be troubling to anyone who loves life.  Some may say that total destruction is too easy of a way out; and some people may just decide that living it up in the here and now is worth the consequence of eventual eternal obliteration.  These may be construed as human objections and rationalizations to maintain a tradition for which there is little support.       

For seekers who genuinely search for God’s will, not some particular church or denomination’s interpretation of it, anything that gives a better understanding of God should be welcome.  It should, of course, be carefully weighed against scripture, and soundly refuted if it is found wanting.  But by the rules of logic, if these new interpretations cannot be logically disproven, they must be accepted.   

My purpose here was not to convince you of either of those views regarding the fate of the wicked, but to point out an area of study that makes us think hard about what we believe and why.  That said, ultimately, one of the three views will be correct.  I personally cannot accept the universalist view—there is just too much evidence to the contrary.  Of the remaining two, whether torment or non-existence, neither one seems like a fate to be eagerly anticipated.  That leaves the alternative—eternal life as reserved for the righteous—as the clear choice…if one could choose such things for himself.

Change is never easy.  It means reaching beyond our current grasp in order to learn and grow.  But God gave us minds for a reason: he wants us to use them.  Read, study, think, ponder, but by all means, don’t just accept what someone else tells you without reason and investigation.  Don’t discard or condemn a different idea without full examination.  If our honest inquiry leads to the honest conclusion that the traditional view is correct, then that should strengthen our faith.  But if our honest inquiry leads to a rejection of the traditional understanding, then we must embrace that new knowledge, and that should strengthen our faith, as well.  Above all, we should remember what it is that saves us, independent of what we may honestly conclude about the fate of the wicked: we are saved by grace through faith.  Either way, growing in knowledge, faith, and grace is never a bad thing. 

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