Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire
It was six pages near the end of the book that exploded like a bombshell within evangelicalism. The book was Evangelical Essentials (InterVarsity) and the year was 1988. As the book's subtitle announced, it was A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue between liberal Anglican David L. Edwards and evangelical Anglican John Stott. For 338 pages, Edwards and Stott ranged over many issues, including the gospel, biblical authority, miracles, ethics, and missions. But near the end, in those six pages, Stott tentatively defended annihilationism—the view that unbelievers are finally annihilated and thus do not experience torment that is eternal in duration (as traditionalists believe).
Traditionalists, who make up most of evangelicalism, were shocked. Some, like John H. Gerstner, went so far as to question Stott's salvation. Evangelicals have been debating the subject ever since, both sides producing books and articles defending their views and contesting the opposition.
Out of England came another book this past April, but of a different order: The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission of Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals. It is an evenhanded introduction to the historical, biblical, and theological issues that pertain to the evangelical debate over the nature and duration of hell. I have been studying these matters for seven years, have written two books on hell, and I regard this work as an outstanding resource for quickly accessing the issues. It is also a model of how evangelicals can agree to disagree.
The hell debate
With the publication of Stott's views, evangelicals were spurred to study the issue more deeply and to respond. Perhaps emboldened by Stott's example, others followed and declared their commitment to annihilationism: Philip E. Hughes resigned from Westminster Seminary and wrote The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Eerdmans, 1989), toward the end of which he took an annihilationist stance. A 1992 Baker collection of essays, Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, included a piece by John W. Wenham, "The Case for Conditional Immortality." Conditional immortality, or conditionalism for short, is the view that human beings are not naturally immortal. God, who alone is inherently immortal, grants the gift of immortality only to believers. Unbelievers, because they lack this gift, do not live forever. Although technically not identical with annihilationism, conditionalism has come to be used as a synonym for it.
Through Wenham's influence, a previous book by Edward Fudge was revised and issued in 1994 by Paternoster Press as The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality.
Plainly, the annihilationist side had taken up the debate, challenging the traditional view.
Proponents of the traditional view of hell did not take this lying down. Some came with pistols flaring, such as Gerstner's Repent or Perish (Soli Deo Gloria, 1990). Others were more reserved but no less opposed to annihilationism: Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus' Teaching on Hell (Victor, 1992) and my own Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995). And in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (the same book in which Wenham attacked traditionalism), Kendall Harmon defended the traditional view in "The Case Against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge."
Heavyweight traditionalists did not stay out of the fray. D. A. Carson devoted 22 pages of The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996) to an exegetical defense of the traditional view. J. I. Packer, a figure as revered by evangelicals as Stott, expressed his displeasure in Evangelical Affirmations (Academie, 1990) that Stott had advocated annihilationism.