Mortalism 6: 20th century views

Rejection of the doctrine of hell became significant in the twentieth century,[1] and ‘soul death’[2] was widely accepted.[3] An Anglican Church report rejected the immortal soul;[4] later statements rejected hell.[5] [6]

In the 1970s soul death entered mainstream evangelical Christianity[7] [8] as a result of major theologians making their views public,[9] a trend which continued.[10] [11] [12] [13]

The number of scholars supporting soul death continues to rise.[14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] A major evangelical study[20] upheld the doctrine of hell, but expressed it in cautious terms;[21] this was described as ‘an attempt at damage control’.[22]


[1]For the past century there has been a battle for the traditional doctrine of Hell.’, Spencer, ‘The Destruction of Hell: Annihilationism Examined’, Christian Apologetics Journal (1.1.1), 1992.

[2] The belief that people do not exist at all after death, commonly referred to somewhat misleadingly as ‘annihilationism’.

[3] ‘In the twentieth century, Church Missionary Society missionary Harold Guillebaud defended annihilationism in The Righteous Judge in 1941, which was privately printed in 1961. Basil F.C. Atkinson, a prominent evangelical apologist and leader in Cambridge University’s Inter-Collegiate Christian Union and Inter-Varsity Fellowship, taught annihilationism to his students and later had his book Life and Immortality privately printed (1962). His leadership influenced several up-and-coming evangelical annihilationists (e.g., John Wenham, Robert Brow, and possibly others).’, Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’, pp. 197-198 (2004).

[4] ‘The Report (1945) of the Commission appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York “Towards the Conversion of England” stated: “The central theme of the New Testament is eternal life, not for anybody and everybody, but for believers in Christ as risen from the dead. The idea of the inherent indestructibility of the human soul (or consciousness) owes its origin to Greek not to Bible sources”.’, Eyre, ‘The Protestors 2 – The Source Of The Ideal’, The Christadelphian (110.1304.63), 1973.

[5]No place for hell is found in the revised prayer book psalter which a commission under the Archbishop of York, Dr. Coggan, has produced for consideration by the Convocations of Canterbury and York and which is published today. Instead of the wicked being turned into hell, the commission would substitute: “the wicked shall be given over unto the grave”.’, The Times, April 5, 1963, quoted by Sargent, ‘”Hell” In the Church Psalter’, The Christadelphian (100.1187.230), 1963.

[6] ‘The doctrinal report The Mystery of Salvation by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England is no exception in this respect: after the brief observation that in the churches in the Western world there is “a growing sense that the picture of a God who consigns millions to eternal torment is far removed from the revelation of God’s love in Christ,” it goes on to affirm the doctrine of annihilationism instead.’, van Holten, ‘Can the traditional view of hell be defended? An evaluation of some arguments for eternal punishment’, Anglican Theological Review (2003).

[7]But the year 1974 serves as a benchmark in the debate over annihilationism in evangelical history. That year evangelical publisher InterVarsity Press published John Wenham‘s The Goodness of God (later titled The Enigma of Evil), in which Wenham questioned the historic view of endless punishment and proposed annihilationism.‘, Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’, pp. 198-199 (2004).

[8] ‘Annihilationist ideas have been canvassed among evangelicals for more than a century, 2  but they never became part of the mainstream of evangelical faith, 3  nor have they been widely discussed in the evangelical camp until recently.’, Packer, ‘Evangelical Annihilationism In Review’, Reformation and Revival (6.2.37-38), 1997.

[9] ‘Also in 1974, InterVarsity Press published Stephen Travis‘s The Jesus Hope, in which he questioned whether annihilationism might be the better alternative. Two years later Christianity Today included an article by Edward Fudge defending annihilationism called “Putting Hell in Its Place.” Fudge’s thorough book on the subject came out in 1982, and was an alternative selection of the Evangelical Book Club. In 1987, Christianity Today allowed Clark Pinnock to declare his belief in annihilationism in a short article entitled “Fire, Then Nothing.”’, ibid., pp. 198-199.

[10] ‘The overall concept of annihilation has recently received renewed interest, exposition, and defense from somewhat surprising sources. In the past decade a number of rather prominent evangelical theologians and leaders have affirmed they are annihilationists. Among these are Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Clark Pinnock, John R. W. Stott, Stephen Travis, and John Wenham.’, Erickson, ‘Is Hell Forever?’, Bibliotheca Sacra (152.606.260), 1996.

[11] ‘The plethora of literature produced in the last two decades on the basic nature of hell indicates a growing debate in evangelicalism that has not been experienced since the latter half of the nineteenth century.’, Mayhue, ‘Hell: Never, Forever, Or Just For Awhile?’, Master’s Seminary Journal (9.2.128), 1998.

[12] ‘Then in 1988, the issue received heightened awareness as John Stott acknowledged his openness to and tentative acceptance of annihilationism.’, Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’, p. 199 (2004).

[13]Other distinguished evangelicals continued this trend. In 1989 Philip Hughes resigned from Westminster Theological Seminary and espoused similar views in The True Image. In 1990 Michael Green adamantly opposed the historic view of hell in his Evangelism through the Local Church. Robert Brow followed suit in 1994, Nigel Wright in 1996, and Earle Ellis in 1997.’, ibid, p. 199.

[14] ‘Responding to criticisms of the doctrine of hell made during the modern period, a number of evangelical scholars have developed the doctrine of conditional immortality.’’, McGrath, ‘Christian Theology: an introduction’, p. 478 (2006).

[15] ‘Most notable is the blooming of conditionalism among some leading British Christians.’, Shogren, ‘Review: William Crockett, ed. Four Views on Hell.’, Ashland Theological Journal (30.143), 1998.

[16] ‘In its place, a growing number of scholars, evangelical and non-evangelical alike, have embraced a view of the destiny of the unbeliever called annihilationism or conditional immortality.’, Spencer, ‘The Destruction of Hell: Annihilationism Examined’, Christian Apologetics Journal (1.1.1), 1992.

[17] ‘Of the books that espouse annihilationism, the four best have been written during this century. Anglican missionary-translator Harold E. Guillebaud completed The Righteous Judge: A Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment shortly before his death in 1941. In the late 1960s Basil Atkinson, under-librarian in the Cambridge University library, penned Life and Immortality: An Examination of the Nature and Meaning of Life and Death as They Are Revealed in the Scriptures. Seventh-Day Adventist historical theologian LeRoy Edwin Froom’s massive two-volume work, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, was published in 1965–66. Edward Fudge, an attorney and Churches of Christ layman, produced The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment in 1982.’, Peterson, ‘A Traditionalist Response To John Stott’s Arguments For Annihilationism’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (37.4.551), 1994.

[18]Recently two works have stood out in offering a rationale for conditionalism. The first is David Powys’s massive monograh ‘Hell’: A Hard Look at a Hard Question. Tony Gray commended it as “the strongest and most articulate defense of the conditionalist position written thus far.”’, Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’, pp. 199-200 (2004).

[19]Powys’s goal is to focus on the biblical teaching because he recognizes that “the great majority of modern positions on the fate of the unrighteous may be classified and largely explicated in terms of presuppositionally-determined reactions against ‘traditional orthodoxy.'” Powys’s primary contribution lies in his breadth of coverage and attempt at serious biblical exegesis.’, ibid, p. 200.

[20] ‘Surpassing Powys’s considerable book in precision and clarity is The Nature of Hell, published in 2000. This work is a report resulting from a two-year study on hell by a working group of ACUTE, the Evangelical Alliance Comission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals.’, ibid., p. 200.

[21] ‘6. Hell is more than mere annihilation at the point of death. Rather, death will lead on to resurrection and final judgment to either heaven or hell (1 Cor. 15:1-58; John 5:25-9; Rev. 20:11-14). 7. As well as separation from God, hell involves severe punishment. Scripture depicts this punishment in various ways, using both psychological and physical terminology. Although this terminology is often metaphorical and although we should be wary of inferring more detail about hell than Scripture itself affords, hell is a conscious experience of rejection and torment (Matt. 8:12, 13:42, 24:51; Luke. 13:28, 16:23). 8. There are degrees of punishment and suffering in hell related to the severity of sins committed on earth. We should, however, be wary of speculating on how exactly the correlation between sins committed and penalties imposed will operate (Luke. 10:12, 12:47f.).’, Hillborn (ed.), ‘The Nature of Hell. A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE).’, 2000.

[22] ‘Robert Peterson aptly summarized the work as “an attempt at damage control.”’, Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’, p. 200 (2004).

  1. Bob Sennett
    May 27, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    It seems that this series has jumped from the 18th century to the 20th century, skipping the important developments of the 19th century (Adventists, Christadelphians, etc.).

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