As Christians and seekers of Truth, we have a duty to study the Word of God. Paul tells us to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and warns that many will reject sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Peter also says we must always be ready to give a defense for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). This requires consistent prayer and reading. God will show us the truth if we ask:
"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." Matthew 7:7-8
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. James 1:5
Nowhere in the Bible does it say we need a Ph.D. in Theology to read the Word. John tells us that we have the anointing of understanding and do not need anyone to teach us (1 John 2:27). While writers can point out Scriptures and express opinions, believers have an obligation to verify references and then make their own informed, Spirit lead decisions. Books written by people are only aids to studying the Bible, not substitutes.
Prayer and Work Required
The Bible is massive. We can find a verse to say or defend just about anything. Writers can point us to rare verses that appear to prove a false doctrine. Suppose, for example, that we only look at these verses:
Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Psalm 139:21-22
"If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My Disciple." Luke 14:26
These verses imply that we should hate everyone. We might actually believe this if we do not know the Word of God. While this example may seem extreme, it shows we can manipulate the Bible to support false doctrine. We search the Scriptures to find only what we are looking for, then ignore or misinterpret everything else.
Scholars can show many different beliefs in the Bible by placing undue emphasis on few verses. Not every view can be accepted, especially those that have very few or no texts for support. Several denominations and cults appear to support all their beliefs with Scripture. Many people only study the manmade doctrines of their own church and accept it without serious examination of the Biblical references.
The same problem occurs when we study the fate of nonbelievers. Traditionalists, universalists, and conditionalists can each show Scripture that seems to support their beliefs. If we have heard of or examined the views of only one doctrine, we will certainly tend to agree with that belief.
Since only one of these doctrines can be correct, it is our responsibility to determine which belief is the best interpretation of the entire Bible. Now let us consider the important factors for finding the Truth.
Interpreting the Bible
If we take everything in the Bible literally, there are contradictions. Since all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), the Bible cannot contradict itself. Therefore, some Scriptures must be figurative or symbolic (John 16:25). The challenge is to determine what is literal and what is symbolic.
We must let the Bible interpret the Bible. While Scripture is symbolic in some places, there is usually an explanation found in the surrounding text. Cross-referencing words and phrases with similar uses in the Bible may also help us understand meanings.
Preconceived ideas are beliefs that we have acquired without solid evidence. They are assumptions without a basis in fact. Everyone has unfounded assumptions. They can be created by childhood beliefs brought into adulthood, misinformation taken as fact, or even half-truths espoused by an expert. Assumptions hinder our search for truth.
The soul is the most crucial factor to our study. In order to believe in everlasting torment, we must first assume the soul is eternal or immortal. This is neither stated nor implied in Scripture. In fact, there is a convincing case against this doctrine everywhere in the Bible.
Traditionalists, nevertheless, make their interpretations of Scripture conform to the preconceived idea that the soul is eternal. We must accept what the Word of God says, even if this goes against our prior biased opinions. Changing long-held beliefs is very difficult and many will never change their views despite overwhelming evidence.
History shows that several reformers supported conditionalism. Martin Luther, for example, said the immortality of the soul was another false doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. When Calvin and others fiercely attacked him, he decided that salvation issues were more important than belief in the immortality of the soul.
The Protestant Movement shows us we need to test our beliefs. Many Christians, however, accept the belief that the soul is eternal without examining it. Why does this premise escape the scrutiny that other beliefs go through?
The Weight of Scripture
Most mainstream Christians believe a lot of Scripture supports everlasting torment. This is not the case. Passages that appear to support everlasting torment only seem common and preponderant because they get overemphasized.
Several authors have written books supporting everlasting torment. Interestingly enough, these books quote only a few Scriptures. In many cases, authors will write pages and pages of commentary on very few verses in an attempt to support their thesis. Since so many authors have written in support of everlasting torment, they continually cite and reference each other more than the Bible!
Conditionalists, on the other hand, can cite over 200 passages of Scriptures to support their view. Many of these passages are clear and require little need for further explanation. Extensive commentary can be simply an attempt to read things into the Scriptures that are not there. Extensive commentary also contradicts 1 John 2:27, which says we do not need anyone to teach us except God's anointing.
Responding to Opposing Views
There has been fierce debate about hell. Instead, there should be fellowship and patient Bible study. The first step is to understand other views. Until we understand other beliefs, we cannot refute them. We must clearly state the opposing arguments, and then explain why we disagree.
This is evident in the writings of many conditionalists, who candidly respond to the strongest arguments of opponents. The authors of these books pose powerful arguments for conditionalism and honestly examine the best Scriptures used to support other views. They wish to continue this discussion, though few traditionalists seem willing.
Instead of openly responding to conditionalism, opponents attempt to keep people from studying it. One tactic is guilt by association. For example, if Jehovah's Witnesses believe in soul sleep, and are a cult, traditionalists say then only cults believe in soul sleep.
Guilt by association can cut both ways. For instance, if pagan religions believe in the immortality of all souls, and traditionalists believe in every soul's immortality, then only pagans believe in the immortality of all souls.
A growing number of well-respected Protestants now believe in conditionalism. This should help the cause by encouraging more people to compare the evidence. Instead, traditionalists discredit these Protestants. It is easier to label conditionalists as heretics than to respond to their arguments.
For example, Oscar Cullman's book, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? was bitterly attacked on emotional, psychological, and sentimental grounds. Few books have provoked such hostility. Little was said, however, about his Scriptural arguments. If there are legitimate responses, with supporting Bible passages, someone should come forward.
Samuele Bacchiocchi uses a similar title in his book, Immortality or Resurrection? This rigorous analysis deserves serious consideration. However, Bacchiocchi is a Seventh-day Adventist, which is good ammunition for traditionalists. When opponents try to refute his book, they will say a lot about Adventism and avoid the Scriptural evidence.
So far, commentaries defending everlasting torment ignore most opposing arguments. Other responses are woefully inadequate. Many scholars, for example, make the sweeping generalization that all Scriptures supporting conditionalism only refer to the physical body.
Such an argument falls short. Jesus says the soul is more important than the whole world (Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36-37). This makes the body without the soul insignificant. Verses and verses of Scriptures support conditionalism, so the Bible is "majoring in minors" if these passages only talk about the body.
Scripture Above Human Reasoning
Some conditionalists defend their position by putting human reasoning above the Bible. Their appeal against everlasting torment is emotional, rather than Scriptural. While feelings cannot be ignored, we must put the Word of God above everything. Although a few conditionalists have put feelings above the Bible to reach their conclusions, this cannot change the fact that Scripture supports conditionalism.
When traditionalists claim reliance on human emotions and disrespect for the Bible leads people away from their view, they could not be further from the truth. Respect for the Bible, instead of orthodox tradition, is the main reason conditionalism is gaining acceptance. Several former proponents of everlasting torment now realize it has little support in Scripture and see a more convincing case for conditionalism.
While we should not accept conditionalism over traditionalism simply because it makes more sense to our human minds, the repulsive nature of everlasting torment should make traditionalists at least consider other views. This has not happened. Several Bible scholars who claim to refute conditionalism totally misrepresent the case.
One possibility is that all conditionalists are such incompetent authors they cannot write clearly. A more likely possibility is that most traditionalists have never taken the time to honestly examine conditionalism. Then again, opponents might be deliberately distorting this position. Most Christians only hear about conditionalism from traditionalists. As long as this continues, Christians will never understand conditionalism.
Although the strategy of avoidance has worked well in the past, it is less successful today. As more Christians see the powerful case for conditionalism, cultic associations, misinformation, and preconceived ideas lose their effect. Conditionalism is growing today because of the Scriptural evidence.
Evangelicals are finally seeing the evidence and are taking a serious look at this view. Edward Fudge is one of the most famous conditionalists because of his editions of The Fire that Consumes, first published in 1982. His book is a model of diplomacy, scholarship and objectivity.
Soon after Fudge's first printing, Robert Morey published his well-known book, Death and the Afterlife (1984). Morey sorely lacks both diplomacy and objectivity. Rather than respond to the best arguments for conditionalism, he evades them through masterful misinformation. By continually claiming ignorance as the reason people disagree with him, Morey reinforces mindless following of traditionalist thought. Fudge wrote an excellent review of Morey's dogma: The Plain Meaning - A Review Essay.
Amazingly, Morey has effectively reinforced the traditional view because most Christians do not understand conditionalism. And after reading his book, they still do not understand! Time, however, is against him.
Since many traditionalists consider Morey's book the best defense of everlasting torment, we will address his book more than other books in our study. Conditionalism is based on the entire Bible, so a refutation of this belief must also examine the entire Bible. This has not yet happened.
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