Updated: May 20
This is a look at the common arguments (not in any specific order) given against conditionalism on a day to day basis rather than at a scholarly level (though scholars often utilise these arguments as well). My responses aren't exhaustive so for more detailed responses, explore this website and go to the youtube channel. This is to highlight the lack of engagement with scripture from the average person who actively argues against conditionalists. Most do not go beyond surface level readings of difficult texts, many resort to ad hominem, and others regurgitate arguments that have long been dealt with. For a more eloquent letter dealing with similar issues, Glenn People's letter to traditionalist friends is excellent.
1. Jesus taught more about hell (generally meaning eternal torment) than he did about heaven
This is just lazy and so easily disproved but has been regurgitated by many people who should know better. Yes, Jesus talks about judgement but the kingdom of God/Heaven is far more present in the gospels than that of 'hell'. Go to bible.com and search hell and let me know how many times it turns up (probably best to avoid KJV on this topic - see this playlist to see why).
2. You just want to soften hell!
Many arguments against conditonalism are just ad hominem - insult or labelling rather than engagement with arguments. This sort of argument actually helped me become a conditionalist especially when it was the basis of almost every chapter in 'Hell Under Fire' where each scholar butchered a quote from John Stott to try and make him sound like he argued from emotion. If you want to see what Stott actually said, go here: CLICK ME.
I didn't find the traditional idea of eternal conscious torment (ECT) horrible until I realised I couldn't find it in scripture, after-all won't the judge of the earth do right? I found ECT was more like a mild tooth ache that was extracted when I found scripture, atonement and the victory over death makes better sense from a conditionalist perspective. I love Jesus all the more because his justice now actually makes sense both scripturally and logically.
The idea that annihilation is a soft punishment shows a lack of understanding of the sanctity of life and the amazing hope that Christians have in the resurrection to eternal life. New Creation without sin and death is a glorious hope and it means that there won't be a realm where sinners remain in perpetual sin as some horrific monument. To miss out on the New Creation will be a terrible thing, and to lose out on life is something we all innately try to avoid. If you think torments and pain must be felt to be 'punishment' then you haven't been paying attention to the Old Testament. Torturing people is unethical in this life just as it is wrong in the next.
3. What about evangelism?!
The insinuation is that a) conditionalists don't believe in hell (which is false FYI) and b) you have to have a horrible punishment so people know what they are saved from. If you think that hell being unending torment must be used to evangelise people into the kingdom then you haven't understood the gospel or read the book of Acts recently. Jesus and John uses the warning of judgement for pharisees and sadducees and the people who are religious. The apostles utilise language of destruction but never of ongoing torment. If the NT writers didn't bother to emphasise unending torment, why do traditionalists? CI actually prioritises the most famous evangelistic verses:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in Him shall not PERISH but have eternal life.
The gospel is life with Jesus or death without him. We don't need to clarify or qualify death, destruction, ash, burnt up or make any other word mean something that it doesn't. The only thing that does need explaining is we will all be resurrected, some to life and some to judgement (John 5).
4. To be consumed in fire isn’t the same thing as to cease to exist.
This is a very common response to annihilation. This or 'death doesn't mean cease to exist'. Basically, if you become a corpse or ash like the bible says will happen to the rebel (Isaiah 66:24, 2 Peter 2:4-6 as two examples) then you...your self and your experience... cease to exist. Matthew 10:28 suggests that being killed in this life by man is nothing like the destruction of the body AND soul in Gehenna - if being killed ceases life, God destroying the body and soul in Gehenna will cease everything for that person, something humans cannot do. If you want to argue that ash or chaff experience anything, please don't be surprised if you get facepalm or eye-roll emojis back at you though I do aim to be more gracious than that here.
5. Are you an SDA?
While annihilationism/conditionalism is a teaching of the Seventh Day Adventists, it is not exclusive to them. Looking to label someone to avoid the scriptural grounding and argument shows arrogance and a lack of understanding of how to engage in scriptural discussion. As a side note, SDAs may have differing views over how the church should be structured as well as doctrine but as far as I can tell, they agree with the Nicene Creed and the foundational basics of the faith. Those who call them a cult need to do more homework.
6. ‘Where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ -Mark 9:48
Dropping verses at a conditionalist's feet like the traditional meaning is plain as day shows the cultural lenses and lack of study that a large proportion of traditionalists give to these texts. Mark 9:48 is Jesus quoting Isaiah 66:24 almost verbatim. The verse states clearly that the righteous will be looking on corpses that are being destroyed by worms and fire. Even if the worms are literal and the fire never ends, the people are dead! These aren't zombies or worms (yes some people make this mean that people become worms) and they aren't experiencing some form of dead-life.
7. Unquenchable means never going out
Nope. It means it is not able to be 'put' out or 'quenched'. This means the fires in Australia in early 2020 were unquenchable but they weren't everlasting. What does an unquenchable fire do? It consumes everything in its path, sounds kind of like Hebrews 12:29. Even if it does mean everlasting, see point 8.
8. Eternal fire means never going out
Even if it did mean this, it says nothing of those who end up in it (see point 7). Eternal fire points to a fire from God that consumes/destroys and reduces to ash. For examples of this see Matthew 3:12 and 18 (which explain Matthew 25:41-46), Jude 7 and Genesis 19. For a more detailed look into this click here (gentlegod.org).
9. Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 say you are wrong!
These two verses are often dropped as a conversation stopper. As Revelation is symbolic, it is a mistake to expect the surface level reading to be the right one, especially when it is torn from context! It is also highly questionable to read everything Jesus says about judgement through these two verses. A subset of this argument is that the conditionalists are trying to twist 'torment forever and ever' to say something else. Whilst these two passages are the most difficult to parse from a conditionalist perspective, the difficulty is mostly because of the baggage of culture. What many don't seem to realise is that the vast majority of conditionalists have come to the view through studying the very scriptures traditionalists use as proof-texts. Revelation 14 and 20 must be held in context alongside Revelation 18 and 19 (Babylon is no more - chapter 18 - and yet the smoke from her goes up forever and ever - 19:3) and the connections made to Isaiah 34:
"Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever."
Once context and allusions are realised, a word study on day and night alongside its use earlier in Revelation, as well as an understanding of 'rest' from elsewhere in the Bible, you can start to see that the traditional view isn't as obvious as traditionalists think. Even more so when you realise that many commentators think Revelation 14:11 is in Hades rather than after the resurrection to judgement. Just for clarity, I am not suggesting traditionalists and conditionalists stop digging into these passages, but highlighting that they aren't the 'mic drop' moment traditionalists think they are.
10. Why are you arguing for such a new idea?
Many are wary of conditionalism/annihilationism because they think it is new. Though there is a recent-ish resurgence of the view through the work of Edward Fudge's The Fire that Consumes (first published in the early 1980s), it is actually built on a long history going back to early church fathers if not, as I believe, Jesus himself. Ignatius, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Tyndale, RT France, Wenham and Stott are just 7 names of a long list of conditionalists through history.
In summary, if you are going to engage in debate against conditionalism, please engage with the stronger arguments and don't assume we are becoming liberal and progressive and throwing out the authority of scripture. If we are wrong, we want to know it, but the current level of argumentation from those who hold to ECT is on average, quite poor. The only thing going for the traditional argumentation is it helps push more people into the conditionalist view.