As an evangelist, I deal with apologetics issues all the time. For those of you unfamiliar with this topic, it simply means giving a rational defense of the faith to those who ask you. In reading a book entitled "Letters from a Skeptic – A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity" Dr. Gregory A. Boyd answers his fathers numerous objections to the Christian faith. These objections were in the form of written letters that were sent back and forth over a long period of time. The father had asked many, many excellent questions that his son, Dr. Greg Boyd, took great pains to answer them very well. Then finally the issue of "hell" came up. Look what his father states in his letters:
Your last letter put my mind a bit more at ease about who is going to hell, but it didn't address the problem of hell itself. This is really the more fundamental question.... Now tell me, what the hell (excuse the pun) would be the purpose of torturing someone eternally? What's the point? Obviously there's no "lesson" to be learned.... So it just doesn't make sense to me, Greg. And I'm just not at the point where I can pretend to "suspend" judgment about this. The character of God is on trial (emphasis mine) in my life, and this very relevant evidence which needs to be considered.
Did you notice that? Dr. Boyd's father considers this issue a stumbling block to his acceptance of God and the gospel. He says the "character of God is on trial" and this is a correct observation. This is no light matter with unbelievers. Dr. Boyd then responds very lovingly with several options. One of those options is "Conditional Immortality" (although he does not call it that.)
You said it about as forcefully as it can be said. Hell is a real theological problem, I must admit it! To be perfectly honest, Dad, I've never been able to make much sense of it myself. But I have enough grounds for believing in Jesus and in the Bible to accept what they say on this matter, even though it doesn't make perfect sense to me.... (after several points, Dr. Boyd then goes on....) A fourth and final point, Dad, is this: you wondered why God would not, after a time, finally put the rebellious out of their misery. Why doesn't He just perform a divine act of euthanasia and exterminate the damned? You should know that a number of very reputable evangelical theologians maintain that this is exactly what the Bible teaches. (emphasis mine)
They maintain, on the basis of an analysis of the scriptural text, that the Bible itself teaches that God will ultimately annihilate all who are not "in Christ." The punishment is "eternal" because it has eternal effects, not because it is endured eternally. Such theologians point out that only such a view of hell squares with all the biblical talk about the reprobate "perishing," "being destroyed," "burned up like chaff," eternal torture. … In this view, then, God's judgment and mercy converge on the same act. God judges the rebellious even as He mercifully puts them out of existence...
It is very important to see how Dr. Boyd's father responds to this information which he had never heard before (since he had never heard this point of view before.)
I've recently been reviewing our letters back and forth over the last two years, Greg, and I must say we have really come a long way!.... Your response about hell really helped. I especially liked that "annihilationist" view you mentioned. That was a major obstacle for me..... It seems to be the only loving and just alternative. Letting someone go on... strikes me as sadistic. (Then he continues with a follow up letter to his son after becoming a believer….)
Well, as I told you over the phone, I finally "took the leap." Hallelujah! Looking back on it, it seems that things really began to change for me when you convinced me of the Bible's inspiration and helped me make sense out of hell. I'm not sure why, but I think it was at that point that I really started to "see the light." (Letters from a Skeptic, Dr. Gregory A. Boyd, Chariot Victor Publishing, Colorado Springs, CO. 1994., pages 160, 164, 166 &189 respectively)
I think the point is a very powerful one for me. It is all about the character of God. Dr. Boyd's father picked it up and yet many believers don't see it. The God we tell unbelievers about, to them, is unjust because we don't explain things fully to them. God can (and will) take away their life. However, they will first suffer, in proportion for their sins. How many have turned away from the faith because they wrongly believed tradition and not the scriptures? Thankfully, Dr. Boyd shared this "option" with his father and his father is now going to have immortality because of it. -- Update: Dr. Greg Boyd now holds to the doctrine of Conditional Immortality himself and has come out publicly in favor of it.
Most people don't realize the many problems that arise from presenting the so called "traditional" position.
Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi makes similar comments in his book "Immortality or Resurrection":
Few teachings have troubled the human conscience over the centuries more than the traditional view of hell as the place where the lost suffer conscious punishment in body and soul for all eternity. The prospect that one day a vast number of people will be consigned to the everlasting torment of hell is most disturbing and distressing to sensitive Christians. After all, almost everyone has friends or family members who have died without making a commitment to Christ. The prospect of one day seeing them agonizing in hell for all eternity can easily lead thinking Christians to say to God: "No thank you God. I am not interested in your kind of paradise!"
It is not surprising that the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment has been a stumbling block for believers and an effective weapon used by skeptics to challenge the credibility of the Christian message. (Immortality or Resurrection? A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, MI 1997, p.193)
(note – chapters of this excellent book may be read by clicking here.)
As an evangelist myself, I want to preach a message that is accurate. The character of God is at stake. Yes, God is holy! Yes, God will judge sin! (If you are not a believer — I urge you to come to Jesus (Yeshua)). However, this topic is very important and the wrong answer can put up unnecessary stumbling blocks to the unsaved and even to believers. Look at this comment left on another web site that also teaches conditional immortality:
I accepted Christ a few months ago. What an awesome experience the first few weeks were! Then came visions of the majority of mankind being thrown alive into a pit of fire, where they would scream and whither for eternity. I saw faces of people I loved, people I knew—burning, withering, and screaming in pain! I was in terrific fear, fighting back "God, why?" So, I prayed, "Let me understand, Lord, for I do not want to question Your righteous judgment!" But peace did not come. I was so shaken that I had to get therapy and prescription medication. I then noticed all the times the Bible used the word "perish," "destroy," "everlasting destruction," "death," and plus something in me telling me that a God who is love would never do this - Your website has brought me peace. I prayed for discernment, and I have it now. Thanks.
I think this is sufficient evidence to show that this is a very important topic. How many believers are suffering under the weight of the false teaching of eternal torment—for their unsaved loved ones already gone? How many children are taught the wrong view of a God who will torture them for eternity in hell if they don't accept Jesus and they are tormented by it themselves here! The truth of God's Word helps us see the ultimate fate of unbelievers and helps us motivate them to come to salvation today, to life, to everlasting life.