I have decided to post my notes in an ongoing series; as Dr. Bacchiocchi's arguments are fairly typical for annihilationism proponents (and so far as I know do not hinge on doctrinal differences between 7DA and orthodox theologians such as myself); are accessible to general readers while featuring some admirable depth; and highlight some interesting conceptual and scriptural tensions between different classes of non-universalist soteriologies. (Dr. Bacchiocchi essentially dismisses universalism out of hand near the beginning of the chapter, so his whole analysis is written in light of dialogue with what in my notes I call 'traditional damnationism'.)
Forum readers are strongly encouraged to open another browser window to his chapter, in order to read his material along in context, since my notes often presume familiarity with elements not previously mentioned in my notes. Quotes are taken directly from the site text, typically in order presented there.
(In fairness, I should add that this material is at least several years old, and Dr. Bacchiocchi may have since then made modifications and/or repairs.)
Dr. Bacchiocchi wrote: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.
While that's true, the principle remains even if it's only one person hopelessly condemned.
I mention this, not to disagree against Dr. Bacchiocchi (here anyway), but to forestall a typical traditionalist example which might be used in rebuttal: but surely we don't want Himmler, for instance, to be simply annihilated or (worse??) to have a continuing opportunity for true repentence and reconciliation, with God and the people he sinned against!
Perhaps some of us are more sensitive than others. My point is that our beliefs about the truth on this topic should not be conditioned primarily by the numbers involved, but by our understanding of the principles. If a doctrine of hopeless punishment forever is wrong, it's wrong for one person, whoever that person is, as much as for millions. Similarly, if a doctrine of finitely hopeless punishment is wrong, it's wrong for one person as much as for millions. (And, granted, if a doctrine of hopeful punishment is wrong, etc.)
Furthermore, our emotions on the topic are likely to run high, whatever position we're advocating. This can (and should) be a result of what we believe, but there is a danger that the emotions will be a ground for our beliefs, too; and we should be avoiding that.
(Note: to anticipate one of Dr. Bacchiocchi’s rejoinders to the Himmler question, he would answer that Himmler, as with any sinner who dies unrepentent, will be punished for some finite period before annihilation.)
Dr. Bacchiocchi wrote:It is not surprising that today we seldom hear sermons on hellfire even from fundamentalist preachers, who theoretically are still committed to such a belief.
I'm not sure when Dr. Bacchiocchi wrote his book (though it seems relatively recent); but I've lived among "fundamentalists" all my life, and I have never seen any significant abatement on the preaching of hopeless permanent (and maximal) torment in the past 35 years. I do hear (and have always heard) fundamentalist preachers lamenting that the doctrine isn't preached as solidly as they would wish, but an occasional lament on the topic is very far from keeping quiet on the topic! It's a rhetorical device, partly aimed at unbelievers and liberal-ish revisionists who dump the doctrine of hell altogether. I am somewhat doubtful that the majority of people in the United States who believe in a permanent hell, are receiving this belief from the popular media instead of from pulpits (for instance). I am even less doubtful that the obvious and continual stumbling block of the doctrine for believers and sceptics alike comes from popular secular culture or their study of ancient religious texts.
(And, while I'm passing near the subject, I am extremely doubtful that a finite period of hopeless torture before annihilation will be any less of a stumbling block to sceptics. It is frankly humiliating to think that it would be less of a stumbling block to believers...)
I agree with Dr. Bacchiocchi that "the awareness that the traditional view of hellfire is morally intolerable and Biblically questionable... is encouraging theologians today to revise the traditional view of hell and to propose alternative interpretations of the scriptural data." But if the traditional view follows from holding particular fundamental (but incorrect) understandings regarding such things as forgiveness, mercy, justice, punishment and salvation; and if those fundamental understandings are retained; then any modifications to the traditional doctrine will carry the same faults which falsify the traditional doctrine.
Dr. Bacchiocchi wrote:Some may question our use of "annihilation" for the destiny of the wicked, because the first law of thermodynamics says that nothing is destroyed but changed into something else. When corpses are burned, their smoke and ashes remain. This is true, but what remains is no longer human life. From a Biblical perspective, the fire that consumes the wicked annihilates them as human beings.
Now, this is an exceedingly odd thing for him to say. The first law of thermodynamics involves natural reactions, not metaphysical necessities. If God withdraws existence from something, I have no problem believing the something is gone.
Why make this sort of qualification, then? Because, as we shall see, Dr. Bacchiocchi knows quite well, that the Biblical testimony about the fire that consumes the wicked, tends to indicate (when multiple texts are accounted in the data) that the wicked are not strictly annihilated--but are transformed into something else. Something that (in the analogical Biblical imagery) rises to heaven like smoke... or (to borrow a related imagery from RevJohn) like incense.
The annihilationist, of course, will have to defer to mere speculation or opaque mystery at this point. I think other Biblical verses should be marshalled to account for the explanation of this. (But then, this is what I am expecting from the metaphysical math, as well...)
Skipping past the representative (and often paganistic) traditionalist imagery next reported (which I reject along with Dr. Bacchiocchi, though possibly for different reasons):
Dr. Bacchiocchi wrote:It is hard to comprehend how the Devil can torment evildoers in the place of his own punishment.
A good point; although I think a traditionalist would say that at least part of the torment of evildoers is to be put together with each other: evil tormenting evil. I myself have no particular problem with this, though I'm not entirely sure it happens.
(Certainly the Biblical testimony indicates the impenitent wicked are put together in some way; and although I remember no textual witness about them hurting each other, it seems a very easy inference to draw from the implications. Put another way: unless God somehow prevents it, I don't see how the weaker sinners would avoid being abused by the stronger.)
A quote from Robert A. Peterson (defending traditionalist view) is interesting:
Peterson wrote:The Judge and Ruler over hell is God himself. He is present in hell, not in blessing, but in wrath.
So at least some traditionalists still recognize that God is present in hell! That's good; although unusual nowadays.
Again from Peterson:
Peterson wrote:Hell entails... utter loss... and unspeakable sorrow and pain. [...] Although there are degrees of punishment...
This, on the other hand, is incoherent. Not that I disagree with the degrees of punishment (something most traditionalists seem to forget, though at least the Roman Catholics remember the relevant testimony from Jesus to this effect); but it's useless to claim there are degrees of punishment while also claiming unfathomable maximalities of punishment.
To be fair, an annihilationist could perhaps account for this by claiming that the damned suffer degrees of punishment before being maximally punished by annihilation.
Back to Dr. Bacchiocchi. He doesn't present a full account and response to every text used by traditionalists to ground their doctrine (though he refers the reader to Edward Fudge's The Fire That Consumes), but covers several for purposes of establishing some principle examples.
(Next time: SHEOL AND ISAIAH 66)