Eternal Hell and “Immortal” Soul: How Are They Related?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, July 15, 2011 at 10:23am
QUESTION: Do you know Edward Fudge’s book, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, now in its third edition (Cascade Books, 2011, 420 pp.; first ed., 1982)? What do you think of it?
ANSWER: Yes, but I confess that I read this book only in its first edition (1982). Like another Restoration Movement author, Russell Boatman, in his book Beyond Death: What the Bible Says about the Hereafter (author, 1980), Fudge denies that hell involves eternal punishment for the wicked. He defends a form of annihilationism, saying that the wicked are extinguished after they have spent a just period of time in retributive suffering. How long this will last depends on the seriousness of one’s sins. Once this equitable punishment is over, the individual is annihilated.
Like many others Fudge calls this view conditionalism, meaning that immortality (eternal existence) is conditional and that some will not meet those conditions. Fudge defines the view thus: “The term ‘conditionalist’ is used for the view that the wicked will suffer conscious punishment precisely measured by divine justice but that they finally will perish in hell so as to become totally extinct forever” (The Fire That Consumes, xvi, 1982). He grants that some texts imply “degrees of punishment in proportion to light spurned and opportunity neglected” (ibid., 190). This “period of conscious pain” does not last forever, though, for sinners “will eventually be destroyed forever, both body and soul” (ibid., 202).
I believe this is serious false doctrine, and that the Bible teaches that the suffering of those who are lost will be eternal, though not necessarily in the same degree for all. In this brief note I cannot address all that is involved in this issue, but I will discuss one of the major false premises upon which most annihilationist views are based. This is the assertion that the whole idea of an eternal hell is based on the pagan idea that the human soul is inherently immortal. Once we show from Scripture, they say, that the concept of an immortal (eternally existing and indestructible) soul is false, there is no longer any reason to believe in eternal hell.
My response to this argument is to grant that the Bible indeed does not teach that the human soul (spirit, inner man) has any kind of inherent immortality, but then to show that there is no necessary connection between the soul’s inherent mortality and the issue of whether hell is temporary or eternal. I.e., the Bible does teach that hell is eternal, but this teaching in no way depends on any inherent immortality of the soul. [The following analysis contains material from my book, The Faith Once for All, 582-583.]
As I have explained here, a basic assumption of most annihilationists is that the concept of eternal suffering is dependent upon the inherent immortality of the human soul, which (I grant) is a seriously false pagan idea. But how do annihilationists apply this to the question of the eternality of hell? Specifically, they say that the one view necessarily leads to the other by the following reasoning: the belief that the soul by nature cannot not exist (i.e., is inherently immortal) requires that it spend eternity somewhere. Since it would not be appropriate for the wicked to spend eternity in heaven, God is forced to create an eternal abode suitable for them, i.e., hell.
But, say the annihilationists, the concept of an inherently immortal soul is anti-biblical, being derived from pagan philosophy. Therefore the idea of the eternal suffering of the wicked is false. In fact, they say, if this pagan idea had not been accepted by post-biblical Christian thinkers, the idea of hell as eternal suffering would never have arisen. For example, Boatman refers to “the doctrine of the innate and irrevocable immortality of the human soul, and corollary postulate: the doctrine that the unredeemed shall be endlessly tormented in hell” (101; see 51-52). Clark Pinnock, also an annihilationist, likewise cites the unbiblical Hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul as “the real basis of the traditional view of the nature of hell” (“The Conditional View,” in Four Views of Hell, ed. W. Crockett, Zondervan 1992, p. 147).
It is true that the concept of the inherent immortality and hence indestructibility of the soul is an unbiblical, pagan idea. The soul is a created entity and is susceptible to annihilation in the same way as any other created being is. Also, it may be true that some Christian thinkers have tied this false idea of the soul to the idea of hell as eternal conscious suffering. But to conclude from this that the latter idea is therefore false is a non sequitur of the greatest magnitude. The bottom line is this: the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious suffering is in no way dependent on the false notion of an immortal soul. The souls of the wicked, along with their replacement bodies, exist forever because God wills it, period. Disproving the inherent immortality of the soul in no way disproves the eternal conscious suffering of the wicked. The argument is at best irrelevant and at worst misleading.
What can we, as Christians, do to avoid giving ground to this annihilationist view? We must stop teaching the false concept that somehow the human soul possesses an inherent immortality and therefore must indeed, by its very nature, exist somewhere for eternity. We must stop ascribing divinity to the human soul, which is, like the body, a created entity and just as subject to annihilation as is the body. I.e., the soul has been created ex nihilo and thus is held in existence by God’s will and power, and capable of being annihilated if God had so willed it in the beginning. The fact that the individual soul (spirit) DOES NOT go out of existence is simply because it is God’s creation-purpose that it will consciously exist forever. This is indeed a kind of immortality; but it is acquired by God’s will and gift, and is not inherent.
In other words, by virtue of creation, human beings are “immortal” only into the future, in that God wills us to exist for eternity future without pause or intermission. Such immortality, though, is an imparted gift and is not inherent. True immortality, by its very nature, cannot be imparted, in the same way that a created being cannot become uncreated or a finite being cannot become infinite. In fact, the body itself is included in this imparted immortality, and will exist into eternity future with an intermission between the death of this present body corrupted by sin and its replacement from the day of resurrection forward into eternity. And in fact, this applies even to the wicked, except their version of the eternally-future body will be unredeemed and unglorified.
The bottom line is that God alone possesses immortality as part of his very nature (1 Tim. 6:16); thus the only inherently immortal essence is God himself. If part of man’s very nature is inherently immortal–cannot not exist–then part of man’s nature is actually divine, a “little part of God.” This would put human beings on the same metaphysical level as God. This would in essence erase the distinction between God and man, which is one of Satan’s most basic temptations.
How does this line of thinking apply to the original question of Fudge’s view that hell is the total annihilation of the lost? It grants that Fudge and others are correct up to this point, i.e., that there is no part of human nature that MUST NECESSARILY (by its very nature) continue to exist forever and is not capable of being annihilated. Thus one cannot use the alleged “immortal” nature of the soul as an argument for the eternality of hell. The flaw in the annihilationist argument, though, is thinking that the possibility that the soul CAN be annihilated is some kind of proof or argument that it WILL be annihilated for the wicked.
Also, focusing the argument on the nature of the soul overlooks the fact that the wicked will also have a resurrected (though not glorified) BODY, to which no one would attribute inherent immortality; and the just punishment for the wicked involves their bodies just as surely as it involves their souls. As far as the nature of hell is concerned, it is just as irrelevant whether the soul is mortal or “immortal” as it is whether the body is mortal or immortal. In neither case does the lack of inherent immortality determine or affect whether hell is eternal or temporary. The latter is simply a matter of God’s will, which we can discern via study of Scripture.