Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
In an effort to clear out some of my to-read backlog, I dove into Hell: A Final Word – a semi-autobiographical synopsis of Edward Fudge’s much longer and groundbreaking case for annihilationism as the biblical vision of the fate of the wicked.
Fudge, who died late last year, is little known outside of a very small group of people interested in challenging the traditional Christian notion of hell as the home of eternal conscious torment. In the 1970s, he was commissioned to spend a year researching the subject and to his surprise found that he felt the Bible taught that the souls of those condemned to hell eventually perished in the flames, thus the labels “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality.” That book was The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment; Hell: A Final Word was written to coincide with the release of a biopic about Fudge’s theological journey.
(While you might think a film about a preacher engaging in a yearlong quest of biblical scholarship about hell would be horribly boring, it’s surprisingly good! It’s called Hell and Mr. Fudge, and it’s worth your time if you’re at all interested in the subject. I ended up seeing a premier screening at Abilene Christian University’s annual Summit lectureship in 2012, where I also bought the book. Fudge was a lifelong member of Churches of Christ, thus the ACU connection.)
All of that to say, if you’re dissatisfied (or not!) with eternal conscious torment – either because of your own research or because of your discomfort with the nature of the God it requires you to worship – this is a good popular-level primer for how Fudge came to articulate the most comprehensive case for one of the two major alternatives.
But. As someone who holds to the second of those two alternatives – universal reconciliation, or plain ol’ universalism, which says that while hell exists, its existence is temporary, and that it will end once all people condemned there have “served their time,” so to speak, and are restored to God – I did not find enough evidence here to shake me of that belief.
Because Fudge, understandably, is pushing back against the more entrenched traditional view of hell, he has little to say about universalism; as a result, while the two views are allied in several respects – both rejecting the permanence of hell and the torments experienced there – universalists would argue that Fudge does not reckon deeply enough with several points, including the chronically mistranslated Greek word our translations render “eternal;” the decidedly this-worldly nature of the valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, cited by Jesus and typically translated as “hell;” and the writings of Paul and others that envision the eventual reconciliation of all things to God.
Several times, in fact, it seems Fudge cannot quite break as far away from traditionalist assumptions as he believes he has. His efforts to apply Old Testament and several New Testament passages about the destruction of nations and enemies of Israel to the eschatological fate of individuals reflects his background in conservative/fundamentalist faith traditions that overlook the socio-political assumptions written into the texts; he also does not address the fact that those passages often envision a more expansive welcome into God’s kingdom than the audience seems to assume. Thus the case for the annihilation, as opposed to the restoration, of the wicked is much weaker than Fudge presumes.
That said, his case for the impermanence of hell is quite strong. He does a great service to many Christians who find themselves troubled by God as the eternal torturer-in-chief by showing how this notion has its roots in Greek philosophical assumptions about the immortality of the soul, not the biblical texts. Because this is designed to sketch an overview of his own life and the journey that led him to his conclusions detailed elsewhere, Hell, A Final Word does not delve as deeply as perhaps many would like, but that’s what the other book is for. This is just an appetizer, and as such, it performs that job as well as a reader can expect.