Growing up, church camp was a place that held an interesting convergence of water balloon fights, unusually early wakeup calls, fervor for Jesus and awkward adolescent romantic tension. I remember being in 6th grade at the camp I grew up going to. Besides wooing several ladies with my mad junior high game, I specifically remember an altar call for those who felt called into full-time missions.
In the denomination I grew up in, the call to leave behind the conveniences of American culture and go to the nations was the noblest of choices you could make in life. We had posters on the walls of our youth rooms of these heroes of the faith who had given their lives to work with the poor, preach the gospel, even die on behalf of their faith.
When I stood up for that call, I began to shake violently and weep. Now I know what you are thinking, it wasn’t really that dramatic, but let me assure you I cannot exaggerate what was happening in me at that moment. I walked to the front of the room completely broken, completely yielded, with a pure trust that God would use me to touch peoples’ lives.
In those days, one of the primary concerns I had was saving people from the eternal fires of hell. Although I would say that there was a pure desire to bring glory to God above all else, I was encouraged to weep over the inevitable end of the wicked, to realize that their only hope of escaping a horrible torment was Jesus in me, my life in His hands, His words in my mouth. I remember moments in prayer for the lost that I would wet the floor with my tears.
While I lived a relatively normal teenage life, deep in my heart I had one desire: to see people know God. My passion to see people escape the punishment of eternal torture was genuine. As I write this story of my own rethinking of the subject of hell, know this: the same fire still burns in me. I am still humbled and broken on account of God’s desire to be known in His people.
Hell is a really interesting subject in the cultural makeup of Christianity, particularly in Pentecostal and Evangelical circles. It has become a calling card for those devoted to the purity of the gospel. If you are willing to preach on hell, sin and judgment, then you are a real preacher, not too concerned about how people will perceive you. Many churches are accused of being too permissive of sin and avoiding of hard scriptures to deal with.
I actually have some empathy for these lines of thinking. I have always had a personal value of standing for truth even if my conviction was inconvenient. We often like to stand for those things which are convenient and expedient. Quite honestly, I find it interesting in light of what the Evangelical church typically believes about hell that it doesn’t take a more prominent stage, especially considering how widely held the belief is.
My guess of why is because we are suspicious of its importance to the gospel, maybe even its validity entirely. We just don’t know where to go or what to do with that suspicion.
The capstone of the revelation of God is love, namely a love that looks like Jesus, a man speaking forgiveness over humanity in his dying breaths on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” How can this God seen in Christ on the cross be forgiving yet hold an eternal grudge against people who He supposedly loves? How can God hold people infinitely accountable for sins they committed in finite time with finite understanding? How can a place in the universe exist for all of time where God has not won, where He is not completely glorified?
I want to tell you my journey with these questions and how I came to some conclusions in a long process that still leaves me believing that Jesus is the only way to the Father, that He is the only way to redemption. Maybe in my journey, you can find yourself, your own doubts, your own desire to fully and truthfully represent the goodness of God through your life.
A few years ago, I decided to do some research on the subject of hell. I was in a season where I was digging deeper into things that I believed. As one following Jesus and representing Him, and even more so as one responsible for leading a family of believers in their own journey of spiritual formation, I have always had a healthy respect, maybe even fear, for the weight of what I speak when I speak of God.
In my research, I found out about a book called The Fire that Consumes. This book represents a different view of hell than the two views we often hear about: eternal conscious torment and universal reconciliation. A guy by the name of Edward Fudge, a theologian/pastor in the Church of Christ denomination, wrote this book. From reading multiple sources citing the book, it appeared that he had written the most significant work on the conditionalist perspective of hell in modern history. Christianity Today actually called it the “final word on hell.”
I will briefly outline the conditionalist perspective on hell. Conditionalism is best articulated by Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” When we read the Genesis narrative, we see from the beginning that man’s sin results in death, and even more particularly, the loss of eternal life. In the work of Christ on the cross, eternal life becomes available to all those who follow Jesus. On the flip side, death is the final result of all those who do not follow Jesus. If you follow the biblical narrative, this seems to be a repeating theme over and over. So the conditionalist perspective is really very simple: the eternal punishment is final death, not unending torment.
When I found out about this book, The Fire that Consumes, I quickly found a video on YouTube of Dr. Fudge outlining the entire conditionalist perspective from his vantage point. He covers the Old Testament scriptures, the New Testament scriptures, and the historical development of the different perspectives of the church throughout the centuries. When I listened to Dr. Fudge’s presentation for the first time, I remember being in awe of how strong the argument for conditionalism was.
(I have attached this video at the bottom of the article.)
In order for eternal conscious torment to be possible, one of two things has to be true: 1) either man has to be eternal (it seems to be clear that eternal life is only found in Christ), or 2) God has to preserve people for all eternity with His presence (which is still eternal life).
Conditionalists generally believe that God is a righteous judge and that people apart from Christ will receive death for their sins, which seems to be the reasonably just and loving thing a righteous judge would do.
But, here is the deal; I am a critical thinker as best as I can be. I don’t like to be easily persuaded, and as mentioned earlier, I have a healthy fear of being true to who God is. So I did the only logical thing I could do: a deep dive into the subject of hell. I looked for every argument I could find refuting conditionalism, along with reading arguments in favor of eternal conscious torment.
Along the way, I actually reached out to Dr. Fudge to get to know him and pick his brain on the subject. I even asked him for the best resources to help me refute him. I was looking for the best books, position papers and talks that would assure me that there was some validity in what I had believed most of my life.
I remember talking to him on our first call. I asked him questions about hell for the better part of 2 and half hours. I was struck at how many times some theological question would bring him back to his great love for Jesus, and often in tears, he told me how much his relationship with God meant to him.
So this is the part where a theological question becomes bigger than just a question about doctrine. Over my hours of research, I became more and more convinced that this new view of hell, a fire that consumes, was indeed what I believed to be true. I remember weeping in church worship services week after week when we sang of God’s goodness because I thought, “Wow, God, you’re more good than I ever thought.”
I shared the lecture from Dr. Fudge with countless friends and mentors. Most of the people I shared it with, to my surprise, came back with some kind of response like mine, surprised and even in awe at how plain and obvious the argument for this perspective of hell seemed. In this process, people with years of history in ministry and higher education theological degrees changed their perspective. I became more and more confident of my new found realization until, I would say, about a month into the process.
If I’m honest, before going into a deep dive on conditionalism, I expected to adopt this new view. It seemed compelling and logical to me. What I did not expect from my change in perspective was to find no plausible argument for my previously held view. I expected to weigh it out carefully and give the new, more attractive/palatable view of judgment the nod, with some possibility in my mind that it could be wrong.
The deeper I dove, however, I increasingly found less and less ground for the traditional view to stand on. At one point, I was seriously looking for something more substantive written in favor of the traditional view, just to bring some ease to my heart that I hadn’t been duped all these years. From my vantage point, I did not find that substance.
This was a problem for me. I thought, “It’s fine to adopt a new view, but my previous view cannot be completely erroneous.” Through careful consideration, I found that it was entirely unsupportable, from every angle: scripturally, philosophically and morally. And staring at the realization shook me.
Hebrews 12 describes a shaking that shakes everything that can be shaken.
I began to wonder about every single thing I had ever believed at this point. The traditional view of hell was not preached to me as a possibility but as an absolutely fundamental part of the gospel. The system of certainty that I had built myself on imploded from within, and for the next 2 years, I would wrestle with my thoughts and beliefs to seemingly no end. I became gripped by knowing the truth. I became as aware of that which I don’t speak of God and don’t know, as that which I do speak of God.
I wrestled with everything you could wrestle. I studied the crucifixion, the resurrection. I studied the views on sovereignty and providence. I even studied the validity of the scriptures themselves.
I remember listening to a poet-philosopher one night talking about this idea that when God shows up, our thoughts about him would be dust and ash. He then used this metaphorical picture of a ship that sank to the bottom of the ocean. In the picture, we are the ship, and the ocean is God. We, the ship, contain the ocean, but the ocean really contains the ship.
I laid in bed that night in tears asking the question of God, “If you are so indescribable, do I even know you?” This was the darkest hour for me. I felt the weight of the universe collapsing in on me. I felt meaninglessness and death at the very next wrong step I took. I had told my associate pastor at the time that I didn’t know if I could keep pastoring in this state. So much was in flux.
When I laid down that night and asked God this question, I immediately heard His voice, not audibly, but maybe more potently than that. He said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I am the God of your grandmother and mother. Yes, you know me.”
That night, I slept in peace. I can’t tell you that I woke up the next day with clarity on everything I was supposed to do for the rest of my life or what all I believed, but God began to carefully, lovingly pull my soul out of the caverns of the process of death. He let me, may have even led me, into that dying, but he also clearly lifted me from my own experience of darkness.
It’s kind of weird…I wasn’t really taught that doubt or wrestling was good. Certitude seemed to be the highest expression of a strong faith, evidenced sometimes by the volume of someone’s voice in either a spiritual battle-prayer or debate against heresy as a crusader for truth. How could faith actually be expressed this way? Or was I just in unbelief?
As God pieced me back together, I found that with many, not all, parts of my doctrine, I held things with a more open hand, with more humility. I realized that over and over again, the scriptures tell the stories of people who wrestled with God, who refuted what they knew or were comfortable with, for better lands and better ways of life.
My oldest daughter, who is 8, has always been a doubter and wrestler of God, asking questions like, “How can I believe in a God I cannot see?” The Lord spoke to me and said,
“You cannot take her around her doubt, you will have to take her through it.”
He did that for me. He took me as a child, not around my doubt, but through it.
And through it all, the Fire that consumes remains in me…
PS: If your interest is peaked by my story and you would like to dig deeper into the subject of hell and conditionalism, I would strongly suggest starting with the video embedded. It is a lecture, but it is very accessible, insightful, and comprehensive. It will only take an hour of your time.
Follow Jordan on Twitter: @jordangsutton