Well, okay, so maybe it's not the last word on hell, but this post represents the final remarks by both Chris Date and Jerry Shepherd. I want to extend my thanks to both contributors for their tireless attention to the biblical text and, most of all, their devotion to the Author of the text. I've learned much from this dialogue and have appreciated the cordial, yet direct, tone in which it was handled.
Jerry Shepherd's Concluding Remarks
First, I again want to express my appreciation to Preston for inviting me to participate in this exchange, to Chris for a very amicable interaction, and to all responders who have contributed such great comments and questions. This has been an enjoyable exercise, and one in which I have learned a great deal.
Second, without presenting any new arguments for my position, and without even rehashing any of my previous arguments, I will simply reiterate here that, as far as Scripture is concerned, the teaching to be found there, when taken as a whole, is that of ECT, and that conditionalism or annihilationism, or the confusingly misnamed “terminal punishment” is certainly not “taught as clearly as any other doctrine of Scripture.”
Third, however, when Preston contacted me to ask whether or not I believed in ECT and would be willing to engage in this debate, in my response I noted that I was indeed convinced, and even adamant, that ECT is the teaching of Scripture, but that, at the same time, I did have some caveats. And I would like to unpack those caveats now.
One of the least well-recognized phenomena of prophecy in Scripture is the provisional nature of the oracles, prophecies, and announcements of judgment. In the OT, many of Yahweh’s prophecies of promised destruction do not come true. They are not carried out. There are several reasons for this. Sometimes the people against whom the destruction was prophesied repent (Jonah 3). Other times, Yahweh relents, not because there was any repentance, but just because he has compassion, or because of concerns for his own glory, and decides not to carry out the threat (e.g., Ezek 36:22-38) . Indeed, for several of the pagan nations against whom the Lord announced judgment, the threat was not carried out to the extent that the prophecy might have suggested (e.g., Egypt, Tyre, and, most interestingly, even Babylon). Some commentators have referred to these as failed prophecies. I believe a more accurate perspective is that, for the reasons given above, or for a reason known only to him, Yahweh relented. Additionally, the hyperbolic and symbolic character of judgment speech in the OT must be taken into account.
This, perhaps, raises the possibility of the provisional and hyperbolic character of even New Testament statements, the prophetic words of judgment which come from Jesus, “the prophet who should come,” regarding Hell and eternal punishment. I do not think that this possibility is something that can be banked on, and it certainly cannot be proclaimed as a “Thus says the Lord”; but perhaps it can be hoped for and prayed for. I don’t know. But, of course, I am more than willing to leave the matter in the hands of the Judge of all the earth, who will, of course, do what is right.
In the words of an ancient king of Nineveh, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jon 3:9).
Chris Date's Concluding Remarks
Before we began our debate, I told Jerry I would like to believe in the traditional view of hell once again. As a conservative, Reformed evangelical, I would fit in much better if I agreed with the tradition. But I believe in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, which seemed clearly to teach that the risen lost would die again and forever, rather than be immortalized and live forever in torment. Jerry said he hoped to demonstrate otherwise, and thereby free me to embrace the traditional view again. Unfortunately for me, Jerry was not successful.
I offered approximately thirty biblical texts as evidence that: the risen lost will finally die forever; that immortality is a gift God will grant only to the saved; that the Lord died a vicarious, substitutionary death in our place, meaning that those who must suffer his fate themselves will likewise die; and that proof-texts historically cited in support of eternal torment prove upon closer examination to teach conditionalism. Jerry pointed to only five biblical passages as positive evidence for his view, insisting that his reading thereof is the proper lens through which to interpret the rest of the Bible’s teaching on the matter, and that they are consonant with disembodied, post-mortem consciousness in the OT, and with intertestamental literature.
Jerry is right: we must weigh lexical arguments, not merely count them. But my arguments consisted of sweeping biblical themes of which the texts I cited are representative, and I had already demonstrated in my opening that the five passages Jerry cited are better support for conditionalism, upon which I elaborated in my rebuttal. I also demonstrated that the OT view of death does not favor traditionalism, and I cited specialists who say conditionalism is well attested in the intertestamental literature. In his rebuttal, Jerry responded meaningfully to just four of the texts I cited, dismissing my arguments from all the others on the grounds they must be read in light of his personal, literalistic reading of two passages in Revelation, thereby abusing the hermeneutical principle known as the analogy of faith.
Unsurprisingly, I remain convinced of conditionalism.
Nevertheless, I have thoroughly enjoyed my exchange with Jerry, and I think it demonstrates that Christians can disagree strongly but lovingly on this topic, one that is important but certainly not cause for division or derision. I have the utmost of respect and admiration for Jerry, and am deeply grateful for the brotherly kindness and charity he has exhibited, both in this debate and elsewhere. If Christians on all sides of this debate treated one another as Jerry has treated me, instead of refusing to minister with one another and prohibiting them from studying and teaching at their schools, the Church could much more powerfully carry out its mission of evangelizing and transforming the world. Thank you so much, Jerry.
Thank you, too, Preston, for hosting our debate, for exhorting your readers and listeners to acknowledge conditionalism as a viable evangelical option, and for your friendship.