A large portion of my tax return this year went into bulking up my library. New books, glorious books. I’m slowly plugging through some of these (and some old ones which need finishing too). One of the books I got to right away, and chewed through quickly was Edward Fudge’s Hell: A Final Word (Abilene: Leafwood, 2012). I’ve been waiting to get into Fudge for a while now. I put off my readings on hell for a while to recoup from months of reading into this troubling and dark side of our profession. It’s amazing how much of a toll that can take on one’s psyche. So I picked up this recent publication, not Fudge’s more known monumental piece The Fire that Consumes (now in its 3rd edition through Wipf & Stock, 2011) to get at Ed Fudge, a highly important figure when it comes to the evangelical interaction with annihilitionism/conditionalism. When that tome was first published it was (and still is) a massively influential work, as it opened up a floodgate of debate and discussion. Fudge was the first evangelical to publish a thorough biblical examination of final judgment from the annihilationist perspective. His basic conclusion was this: the bible from start to finish points us to a moment in history when all people will be judged by God, and those who have rejected grace will be subject to gehenna in which they will suffer second death, that is annihilation, or permanent destruction. The fires of hell (whether literal or metaphorical), in other words, do not torture forever, but ultimately consume with permanent effect. Hell is very real. It is very awful. And Fudge argues, it is final. There is no “getting out”.
Now, having published what still stands as the quintessential work on this topic, Fudge was not trying to re-articulate the same arguments in another book. Instead, Hell: A Final Word is as much about how his earlier book came to be as it is about the doctrine itself. It articulates Fudge’s personal journey (how he came to write this highly controversial work) and how the argument developed over the course of his research. Hell: A Final Word, Fudge tells us, was selected as a fitting title because this was to be his final written summation of his work in this area, but also to reflect his overall conclusion, that hell is final. It is the end of something. So this book gives the story of Fudge’s journey, as well as summing up the basic conclusions he came to.
He identifies and deconstructs the four pillars of the traditional view of hell (eternal conscious torment [ECT]): 1. the Old Testament (OT) says nothing about hell 2. The doctrine develops between the time of the OT and New Testament (NT), and Jesus relies on the standardized Jewish view 3. The NT authors follow Jesus’ teaching in affirming ECT. 4. The immortal soul necessitates an eternal conscious existence in hell for those who are rejected by God.
These four pillars are deconstructed, one by one through careful biblical survey and historical study. Fudge outlines from the OT that there was a sense of an end to the wicked (see esp. Ps. 37), and much of the NT imagery is based on this. The wicked will be no more, they will vanish, they will be ashes and dust. Fudge demonstrates that there was no consensus in the intertestamental period, and many texts reveal that Jews in the time of Jesus believed in the annihilation of the wicked, not ECT. He points to several key apocryphal and apocalyptic Jewish texts which give us differing views. There was no consensus on gehenna in Jesus’ day. Fudge then demonstrates that the biblical language Paul and the other Apostles use and the imagery associated with final punishment point to the wicked being consumed and destroyed. The vocabulary of destruction and perishing and consumming is consistent throughout the NT, and may mean just that- destruction for those who reject God’s offer of grace. Finally, Fudge investigates Church and classical history to uncover the origins of the belief that the soul is indestructible or immortal. This he tracked from pagan Greek mythology into the Church through Christian thinkers who were Greek converts brought up in mythology and philosophy of classical Greece (e.g. Tertullian and Augustine). Biblically, argues Fudge, only God is inherently immortal, and eternal life must be gifted to man from God. Therefore, for any person to experience conscious existence forever (whether the bliss of eternal fellowship with God or ECT), God must clothe that person immortal (see 1 Cor. 15).
I have not yet tackled The Fire That Consumes and have been restricted in the readings of the annihilationist perspective to essays, articles, interviews and blog posts by other notable evangelicals who advocate this perspective (Pinnock, Stott, Stackhouse, Boyd and the folks at Rethinking Hell). But Fudge is generally credited as the one who brought this perspective to evangelical consciousness. He “opened the door” as they say. Therefore, it is worthwhile, now that a few decades have passed to go back and reflect on how things have progressed, and how we got where we are. Fudge’s arguments still basically rule the day among annihilationists (although much research has been added to build on his work and much nuance has been added), and all would give considerable credit to Fudge for bringing this perspective into the evangelical discussion. But it’s nice to get into Fudge’s mind to see how he struggled, and found courage to risk his credibility as a theologian by saying things which were not popular. This glimpse into the building of a perspective is important to keep in mind. Fudge’s courage to face 1600 years of established orthodoxy is admirable.
Hell: A Final Word is a good introduction for someone new to the discussion. It doesn’t get into every detail or overwhelm with its density. At just 173 pages it’s very manageable. In fact I cruised through it in 2 weeks of interrupted reading. It can be handled by just about anyone who has the interest in the subject matter. The chapters are short (usually less than 5 pages each) giving natural stopping places to think over the two or three pages you’ve just read.
Even though much of the detailed, meticulous research is not shown here, the basic points still demonstrate what Fudge wants to get across. He makes his point well, and when concluding he turns to his other profession for inspiration. In addition to his theological scholarship, Fudge is a lawyer, and he points out that in criminal courts prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict, but in civil cases there is a different standard of proof- the “greater weight and preponderance of evidence” and so Fudge concludes with a challenge; while he may not have proven the argument beyond a shadow of a doubt, he asks which argument carries more weight. If you’ve been tracking my posts on hell over the past year, you’ve seen that although I have never called myself an annihilationist, I have always said that I “lean” that way, feeling that the arguments for annihilationism carry more weight biblically and theologically. Although Hell: A Final Word is not the in depth study of the issue, and won’t stand out as the earth shattering and monumental work in the field, what Fudge offers here is a great piece for curious folks to begin thinking about where they stand on the issue. Because, as Fudge points out, if ECT is not accurate, to affirm this is to attribute to God the most heinous of crimes. If God will not torment the wicked eternally, to accuse him of planning to do so is a deplorable act of slander against God. If we profess faith in a loving and compassionate God, and also believe billions of human beings created in his image will be tormented forever in agony, we really have to wrestle with that tension, because such a confession is seemingly contradictory.
The Not so Good
I finished the book feeling like I didn’t get enough. That’s not a feeling a reader always wants. If you’re writing a series of novels this is a good thing for an author to leave you with. But I wanted more content here. There was much left untold. I know he’s shared more in his other work, but I feel like there just wasn’t enough meat and potatoes for myself- perhaps because I’ve done more study on this than the average reader. The essays I’ve read give more content than this book. So I’m left feeling like Fudge didn’t back up his point the way he could have. I would have loved more detail, more references, more insights from biblical passages. But, since that wasn’t Fudge’s intent, I can hardly hold it against him for not doing what he didn’t intend to do. But even in the summary arguments there was room for more, I think.
The other key issue for me was the lack of interaction with secondary sources. Many have commented on Fudge’s work since it first broke on the scene. I think this book would have benefited from more interaction with the critics. He refers to feeling scared of criticism and receiving much. But we don’t see him interact with the objections in any in depth way.
At the end of the day, Fudge does succeed in doing what he set out to do. He provides the story of his development, and the impact it had on him as a husband, father, researcher, publisher, theologian, and human being. He also provides a good introductory summation of the annihiliationist perspective, and the challenge the Scriptures present to ECT. So, while it may not satisfy the mind wanting an all-encompassing tome on all the evidence (which he already has done in The Fire that Consumes) it does give the basics to capture the imagination of the curious mind. It’s a place to start, not a place to finish. The writing style is accessible to a broader audience than most theological treatises. It can be tackled by most people, and in a short span of time.
The final assessment of Fudge’s contribution to theology is still in progress. This work won’t be the standard by which he is evaluated, I would imagine. His earlier work will be his legacy. But this little book will hopefully invite more and more people to the table to discuss what we really ought to think about final judgment. Hell: A Final Word brings the academic debate down to the level of the rest of the church. It invites lay people to think about what the academics are debating.