In the course of my researches into the eternity of hell as presented in the Scriptures and the Fathers, I have come across a wonderful book on the subject by Mr. Edward William Fudge, entitled The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality. As is apparent from the title, Mr. Fudge advances the view that the unquenchable fire of hell (see Mark 9:48) will not last forever, but is only “unquenchable” in the sense that no one can quench the fire until it concludes its work of burning up the bodies and souls of the damned so that they then cease to exist. After that, presumably, the fire goes out because there no longer remains anything for it to consume or perhaps it continues to burn without consuming anything. That strikes me (and others) as a somewhat odd interpretation of the Biblical phrase “unquenchable fire”, but it is fundamental to his case.
Mr. Fudge has laboured long and hard on this project. The work was first published in 1982 in Britain, and again in a revised version in 1994, when it ran to 226 pages. He continued to work on it, so that the 2011 third edition (now re-titled The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment) has been “Fully Updated, Revised, and Expanded” to the point that it now runs to 417 pages. It is perhaps unkind to call the project an obsession; let us call it his life’s work and a labour of love. In this it reminds one of Ilaria Ramelli’s monumental The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, which runs to 912 pages, as well as to the Eclectic Orthodoxy site, which seems now to function as a kind of expanding depot for promoting the same doctrine.
Indeed, Mr. Fudge, Ms. Ramelli and Fr. Aidan seem to me to share the same essential project: all are dissatisfied with the Church’s traditional understanding of hell and labour to deconstruct it and replace it with something more congenial. Ms. Ramelli and Fr. Aidan have chosen the door out of the traditional cosmos labelled, “Universalism”, asserting that no one will suffer eternally because everyone will eventually be saved. Mr. Fudge has chosen another door, the one labelled, “Conditionalism”, asserting that no one will suffer eternally because the lost will be eventually annihilated. But both sides are in rebellion against the age-old tradition of the Church. They have simply different doors to escape it. It should be said that Mr. Fudge is consistently both polite and fair—he labels the view to which he objects “traditionalist”, referring to his own as “conditionalist”. In this he surpasses others, some of whom refer to the objectionable view not as “traditionalist”, but “infernalist”, and those who hold it as members of a “hell-fire club”. This is not only ungracious and rude, but gives the impression that those holding the traditional view are somehow delighted that the lost will suffer eternally, and so are a little infernal themselves.
What is of particular interest here is Mr. Fudge’s commendable self-awareness. He writes as a Protestant, and so chapter one of his latest revision bears the title, “Rethinking Hell: Apostasy or New Reformation”. He is too good and honest a scholar to pretend that Christendom (including the Reformed part of it to which he belongs) has always held to his Conditionalist view of hell. He therefore advances the proposed change in chapter two, which he entitles “Back to the Bible: The Protestant Principle”. He admits that “we read and interpret Scriptures as partners in the larger Christian community…taking into account the ways in which it has been read in the past”. But then, it larger font, comes the heading “Ecclesiastical Tradition Not Infallible”, followed by the declaration that proper appreciation for the past “does not free us simply to rest on insights of those who went before, nor does it require us to accept as final whatever the church has taught in the past”. Rather, in the words of another heading in large font, “The Reformation Continues”. In other words, just as Reformation of the sixteenth century validly challenged the centuries-long status quo of Christendom, so now we continue this legacy and validly challenge other aspects of the status quo. Luther challenged the age-old idea that the Mass was sacrificial and saving; now we challenge the age-old idea that the sufferings of hell are unending. The idea that we have such freedom to challenge anything we like in the past is not new. Usually it is called “liberalism”. Some are better at it than others. Bishop Spong, for example, is famously adept.
In Mr. Fudge’s reconstruction of church history, both the Bible and the earliest Fathers embraced the Conditionalist view of hell. Some Fathers of course did not, but produced a new view, one which said that sinners were not consumed in hell to the point of non-existence, but continued to endure and to suffer. This view, he declares (again in larger font) “Hardens into Orthodoxy”.
Here, I submit, is the main difference between Mr. Fudge and the Orthodox Church—namely, his rejection of Tradition, a rejection that assumes that God does not ultimately guide His Church in matters of fundamentals so that it is quite possible for the Church to err regarding its proclamation of the truth. One can hardly blame Mr. Fudge too much for this—after all, he is a convinced and devout Protestant, and Protestantism rests precisely on the assumption that the historic Church did err so that it needed help in correcting its age-long errors. But discerning the basis of our disagreement with Mr. Fudge gives us the key to understand other issues as well. Evangelical Protestantism is now departing wholesale from faith in the traditional teaching regarding hell (Mr. Fudge cites such “big names” as F.F. Bruce, John Wenham, Philip E. Hughes, Clark Pinnock, and John Stott). A number of Orthodox are now also departing from the traditional teaching in the other direction. The response to both of those departing groups is the same, and consists of a firm faith in the age-old consensus of the Fathers and the mind of the Church.