Regardless of where one is with his or her doctrine of hell, The library of any serious theologian and student of the Bible should contain Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Third Edition). Originally published in 1982 after being commissioned to study and publish what the Bible says about hell and final punishment, The Fire That Consumes presents Fudge’s findings and convictions about annihilationism and conditional immortality (conditionalism) over and against the prevailing “traditional” view of unending conscious torment and the increasingly popular view of universalism. The second edition was an edited and abridged version published in the UK in 1994, but this “fully updated, revised, and expanded edition” was published in 2011 after decades of conversation and debate.
Fully addressing Scripture, the Apocrypha, many extant historical texts, and notable philosophers and theologians throughout history, Fudge evaluates and refutes the traditional view of hell, noting its origins lie not in Scripture but in an accepted assumption of Plato’s view of the inherently immortal soul. Promulgated by Tertullian, Augustine, and Calvin, each presuming the arguments of the former (again, going back to Plato), hell as a place of unending conscious torment has been squarely and unquestionably set in both Catholic and Protestant traditions. Fudge rightly considers Scripture first, noting no mention of an inherent immortal soul therein. To the contrary, “death” and “destruction” await the enemies of God and “eternal life” (immortality) is a “gift” to those with God. While fully articulating the argument that the Bible presents hell as a place of all-consuming fire (total destruction or annihilation) rather than a place of a purgation or never-ending conscious torment, Fudge finds it unnecessary to dwell on specific durations, levels, and severities of punishment beyond what is made known in Scripture, seeing that those paths necessarily revel in speculation.
Fudge writes with a pastoral and humble heart not often found in this kind of literature. While disagreeing and arguing against theologians both past and present, he will often recognize one’s heart for God and positive contributions when pointing out foundational, logical, and theological flaws. After the arduous journey that has brought him to this point (more about this in Hell: A Final Word and the movie “Hell and Mr. Fudge”), it is encouraging to see the continued grace and mercy Fudge extends to attackers who place him and his position, as well as those in agreement therewith, in the heretical sandbox, as if on par with denying the resurrection or divinity of Jesus. God bless Fudge and his persistence.
Not too many years ago I found myself questioning my tradition when I found no mention in Scripture of the kind of hell passed on to me; rather, I found over and over the utter destruction of God’s enemies. I felt as though I had experienced a complete paradigm shift in reality. Over thirty years of learning, preaching, and teaching that hell is a place of unimaginable pain and suffering that never ever ends doesn’t easily lend itself to an overnight shift in belief; but there I was, confronted with Scripture countering my previously held beliefs about hell and the character of God in both, his love and justice. So, I found myself with a soft conclusion of hell being the eventual total destruction of God’s enemies while remaining open to a reasonable argument for everlasting torment, should there be one. It wasn’t until I reviewed a copy of Hell: A Final Word that I discovered Fudge, already established terms for my newfound position, and that this position isn’t new at all. Further study of Scripture convinced me of annihilationism and conditionalism, but The Fire That Consumes has certainly solidified it for me. Perhaps it will for you, too.
I understand the controversial nature of this material for many, and I pray it and those who discuss such things are approached with grace, a heart for God and his truth, and love for one’s neighbor. For those who wish to comment or respond to this post in any manner with something akin to “but what about what Bible passage X and theologian Y?” I encourage you to get the book and check for yourself. I imagine your questions will be answered well. This is a book review, not a fully articulated argument for the case of annihilationism and conditionalism—that’s what the book is for.