Mr. Fudge and the New Reformation

In the course of my researches into the eternity of hell as presented in the Scriptures and the Fathers, I have come across a wonderful book on the subject by Mr. Edward William Fudge, entitled The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality. As is apparent from the title, Mr. Fudge advances the view that the unquenchable fire of hell (see Mark 9:48) will not last forever, but is only “unquenchable” in the sense that no one can quench the fire until it concludes its work of burning up the bodies and souls of the damned so that they then cease to exist. After that, presumably, the fire goes out because there no longer remains anything for it to consume or perhaps it continues to burn without consuming anything. That strikes me (and others) as a somewhat odd interpretation of the Biblical phrase “unquenchable fire”, but it is fundamental to his case.

Mr. Fudge has laboured long and hard on this project. The work was first published in 1982 in Britain, and again in a revised version in 1994, when it ran to 226 pages. He continued to work on it, so that the 2011 third edition (now re-titled The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment) has been “Fully Updated, Revised, and Expanded” to the point that it now runs to 417 pages. It is perhaps unkind to call the project an obsession; let us call it his life’s work and a labour of love. In this it reminds one of Ilaria Ramelli’s monumental The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, which runs to 912 pages, as well as to the Eclectic Orthodoxy site, which seems now to function as a kind of expanding depot for promoting the same doctrine.

Indeed, Mr. Fudge, Ms. Ramelli and Fr. Aidan seem to me to share the same essential project: all are dissatisfied with the Church’s traditional understanding of hell and labour to deconstruct it and replace it with something more congenial. Ms. Ramelli and Fr. Aidan have chosen the door out of the traditional cosmos labelled, “Universalism”, asserting that no one will suffer eternally because everyone will eventually be saved. Mr. Fudge has chosen another door, the one labelled, “Conditionalism”, asserting that no one will suffer eternally because the lost will be eventually annihilated. But both sides are in rebellion against the age-old tradition of the Church. They have simply different doors to escape it. It should be said that Mr. Fudge is consistently both polite and fair—he labels the view to which he objects “traditionalist”, referring to his own as “conditionalist”. In this he surpasses others, some of whom refer to the objectionable view not as “traditionalist”, but “infernalist”, and those who hold it as members of a “hell-fire club”. This is not only ungracious and rude, but gives the impression that those holding the traditional view are somehow delighted that the lost will suffer eternally, and so are a little infernal themselves.

What is of particular interest here is Mr. Fudge’s commendable self-awareness. He writes as a Protestant, and so chapter one of his latest revision bears the title, “Rethinking Hell: Apostasy or New Reformation”. He is too good and honest a scholar to pretend that Christendom (including the Reformed part of it to which he belongs) has always held to his Conditionalist view of hell. He therefore advances the proposed change in chapter two, which he entitles “Back to the Bible: The Protestant Principle”.   He admits that “we read and interpret Scriptures as partners in the larger Christian community…taking into account the ways in which it has been read in the past”. But then, it larger font, comes the heading “Ecclesiastical Tradition Not Infallible”, followed by the declaration that proper appreciation for the past “does not free us simply to rest on insights of those who went before, nor does it require us to accept as final whatever the church has taught in the past”.   Rather, in the words of another heading in large font, “The Reformation Continues”. In other words, just as Reformation of the sixteenth century validly challenged the centuries-long status quo of Christendom, so now we continue this legacy and validly challenge other aspects of the status quo. Luther challenged the age-old idea that the Mass was sacrificial and saving; now we challenge the age-old idea that the sufferings of hell are unending. The idea that we have such freedom to challenge anything we like in the past is not new. Usually it is called “liberalism”. Some are better at it than others. Bishop Spong, for example, is famously adept.

In Mr. Fudge’s reconstruction of church history, both the Bible and the earliest Fathers embraced the Conditionalist view of hell. Some Fathers of course did not, but produced a new view, one which said that sinners were not consumed in hell to the point of non-existence, but continued to endure and to suffer. This view, he declares (again in larger font) “Hardens into Orthodoxy”.

Here, I submit, is the main difference between Mr. Fudge and the Orthodox Church—namely, his rejection of Tradition, a rejection that assumes that God does not ultimately guide His Church in matters of fundamentals so that it is quite possible for the Church to err regarding its proclamation of the truth. One can hardly blame Mr. Fudge too much for this—after all, he is a convinced and devout Protestant, and Protestantism rests precisely on the assumption that the historic Church did err so that it needed help in correcting its age-long errors. But discerning the basis of our disagreement with Mr. Fudge gives us the key to understand other issues as well. Evangelical Protestantism is now departing wholesale from faith in the traditional teaching regarding hell (Mr. Fudge cites such “big names” as F.F. Bruce, John Wenham, Philip E. Hughes, Clark Pinnock, and John Stott). A number of Orthodox are now also departing from the traditional teaching in the other direction. The response to both of those departing groups is the same, and consists of a firm faith in the age-old consensus of the Fathers and the mind of the Church.



  1. Father Lawrence,

    In general, I must agree. We do well to hold to what has been revealed rather than speculate as to possibilities or presume that rational philosophy has predictive capacity.

    However, I cannot help but get the sense that you conceive of the “fire” (“it”) as a created ‘thing’ when you write:

    “…Mr. Fudge advances the view that the unquenchable fire of hell (see Mark 9:48) will not last forever, but is only “unquenchable” in the sense that no one can quench the fire until it concludes its work of burning up the bodies and souls of the damned so that they then cease to exist. After that, presumably, the fire goes out because there no longer remains anything for it to consume or perhaps it continues to burn without consuming anything. That strikes me (and others) as a somewhat odd interpretation of the Biblical phrase “unquenchable fire”, but it is fundamental to his case.”

    Other similar statements you have made on this subject in the recent past also lead me to believe that you conceive of Hell as created. I could be mistaken, but your writings often reflect this idea – at least in my mind as I read them.

    I made a comment in a previous thread to which you did not respond:

    “Neither the life of the righteous nor the suffering of sinners has any existence that can in any way be considered eternal apart from God being ‘all in all’ – for both.”

    By this I intended to communicate that, according to both the Scriptures and the Fathers, ONLY God is eternal. Only He is the truly existing One. Everything else is created and partakes of a contingent existence in Him.

    Moreover, the ‘fire’ of Hell is an image – a terrible image of a terrible Reality to be sure, but an image nonetheless. Until the Edison light bulb fire and light were essentially one and the same. Another image of Hell is “outer darkness.” Fire and darkness (in the minds of those who first heard these images expressed) are contradictions. Something other than a face value reading, therefore, must to be implied in these contradictory images, presumably a burning lust and darkness in the human heart.

    I suggest to you that the Scriptures and the Fathers understand the ‘fire’ of Hell to be the divine energy of God – the uncreated, unmediated presence of the eternal God Himself flowing like a river (another image) of burning love into His creation.

    “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

    “I have come to cast fire upon the earth…”

    “For our God is a consuming fire.”

    “So the Light of Israel will be for a fire, And his Holy One for a flame; It will burn and devour…”

    “Behold, the name of the Lord comes from afar… His lips are full of indignation, And His tongue like a devouring fire.”

    “Fearfulness has seized the hypocrites: “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?”

    “I watched till thrones were put in place,
    And the Ancient of Days was seated;
    His garment was white as snow,
    And the hair of His head was like pure wool.
    His throne was a fiery flame,
    Its wheels a burning fire;
    A fiery stream issued
    And came forth from before Him.

    Saint Paul does not say that Christ will ‘actively’ (as it were) reek vengeance upon sinners when He comes (although His coming is often described with the image of vengeance). Rather, he writes that they will be destroyed “by the brightness of His coming.” He also writes similarly (if one pays close attention):

    “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”

    In a book of Ezra we likewise read:

    “And after this I beheld, and, lo, all they which were gathered together to subdue him were sore afraid, and yet durst fight. And, lo, as he saw the violence of the multitude that came, he neither lifted up his hand, nor held sword, nor any instrument of war: But only I saw that he sent out of his mouth as it had been a blast of fire, and out of his lips a flaming breath, and out of his tongue he cast out sparks and tempests. And they were all mixed together; the blast of fire, the flaming breath, and the great tempest; and fell with violence upon the multitude which was prepared to fight, and burned them up every one, so that upon a sudden of an innumerable multitude nothing was to be perceived, but only dust and smell of smoke: when I saw this I was afraid.”

    “And this my Son shall rebuke the wicked inventions of those nations, which for their wicked life are fallen into the tempest. And shall lay before them their evil thoughts, and the torments wherewith they shall all begin to be tormented, which are like unto a flame: and he shall destroy them without labour by the law which is like unto Me.”

    This very SAME unmediated presence of the love God (which is to say He HIMSELF, His divine energy and not a creation that is external to Him) that is a torment to those who hate him is the life and delight of those who love Him.

    “When they thirsted they called upon thee,
    and water was given them out of flinty rock,
    and slaking of thirst from hard stone.
    For through the very things by which their enemies were punished,
    they themselves received benefit in their need.”

    “There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.”

    “When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, were very many trees on one side and the other. Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes.”

    Is this not the very same “lake of fire” into which the devil, the demons, the false prophet, all liars, and whosoever’s name is not found written in the book of life are cast? Again, not ‘actively’ (as it were) but by virtue of God’s unmediated omnipresence – of He HIMSELF (and not some created thing) being “all in all” to all without discrimination?

    “In the present life the things we have relations with are numerous, for instance: time, air, locality, food and drink, clothing, sunlight, lamplight, and other necessities of life, none of which, many though they be, are God; that blessed state which we hope for is in need of none of these things, but the Divine Being will become all, and in the stead of all to us, distributing Himself proportionately to every need of that existence. It is plain, too, from the Holy Scriptures that God becomes to those who deserve it, locality and home and clothing and food and drink and light and riches and kingdom, and everything that can be thought of and named that goes to make our life happy” (On the Soul and the Resurrection).

    To those who love His appearing, life and fullness of life. To those who hate Him and His love, torment by refusing to ‘eat’ (as it were), to paraphrase Lewis, the only Food of the cosmos – thus burning with needs and desires that can only be fulfilled by the very One whose gift of Himself in love (in Whom they are completely immersed) they bitterly refuse.

    Forever? All we can say for certain is that it has not been clearly revealed otherwise, and thus I appreciate your strong words of caution.

    1. Brian: Sorry that I missed replying to your comment; that was inadvertent. I’m afraid my response to these things must largely be a confession of ignorance. I agree of course that only God is eternal by nature, and that all existence is His gift. I suggest that the gift of existence, once given, remains irrevocable (compare Rom. 11:29). I have no problem with accepting that the fire of Gehenna is God’s uncreated energy as you suggest, but at the end of the day prefer to remain agnostic. I am haunted by the thought that on this specific issue we none of us, myself included, know what we’re talking about.

      1. “…none of us, myself included, know what we’re talking about.”

        Agreed. I would merely say that meditating on the image of the fire of God’s love, the fire of His own life that quickens and deifies those who respond with love while consuming those who respond with hatred has been very helpful to my own faith in terms of repentance, gratitude, and prayer. It keeps me from devilish suggestions that the reality of hell implies God’s hatred of me, a sinner, or any other sinner.

        Understanding (if that is even possible for a mortal man) is another matter entirely.

  2. I just watched the “The Unchanging Gospel in an Ever-Changing Culture” event on Metropolitan Kallistos was the speaker and main event, but Father John Behr was there also.

    Interestingly, an Orthodox women in the crowd asked Metropolitan Kallistos directly about universalism and even said “it is a trend in my parish”. His Grace was actually quite “infernalist” in his answer – the universalists would not have liked it – but said his own hope is that “hell will be empty” because no one will choose it.

    Fr. John then asked Metropolitan Kallistos a question about universalism that went unanswered (because of the format) and revealed he was reading alot of Origen lately and appeared to me at least to be wrestling with the “God is All in All” Orgenistic universalistic tendency/error. Hopefully, he will see his way out of this particular line of thought.

    I appreciate the women’s forthrightness when it comes to this “trend”. I don’t think most realize the reach of Fr. Aidan’s site and it’s influence (though I don’t want to overestimate it either). I would call this “trend” what it is: “The church of Last Judgement-Less” but that is to stoop to their level, where the Gospel is dismissed as “infernalist”, “libertarian”, and the like. I wonder how much more damage this “trend” has to cause before one or more bishops decide to take action?

  3. May the views of St. Isaac of Syria, Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa and many other become the prominent view! As for Fr. Aiden…God bless his courage for speaking his convictions. Even Augustine said that “most” were universalist in his day. It seems we had to wait for Justinian who had every reason to instill fear in his subjects to come up with the “traditional” position. I can’t for the life of me figure out why he is a saint, but I won’t argue with the Church.

    If God before all time came up with the idea of creating people who he knew ultimately wouldn’t choose him and then live eternally in some kind of torment whether that be outer darkness stuck in their sin or some other such horror, he is neither good, nor a very good planner. But I hear the crowd shouting, “Free Will”, “Free Will”. I think God, who is good by nature, would have taken all of that into account before creating a world where in the view of many traditionalist, the majority will not reach the Kingdom of God, thus making God’s plan a fairly big failure. What builder or creator, makes plans knowingly that mostly end in failure of a catastrophic nature.

    If you study the scripture in the original Greek, you will find out why Origin and most in his time concluded that all will be saved “yet through the fire” (of God). And that the scripture can easily support this view if you don’t read the NIV for instance.

    Furthermore, why would every knee bow and every tongue confess Christ and then be cast away. That would be utter madness of which would turn God into some kind of Hitler like monster. Plus, common sense would tell us that no one in the kingdom of God could enjoy bliss while knowing that their loved ones, who denied God, were eternally suffering. Of course God could erase our memories, but that is a bizarre thought. “How can a mother forget her child”.

    After critically having read many many books on Christian universalism and suffered for many years worrying about people having to suffer eternally to the point of great depression, I have long concluded that those who continue to hold on to the “traditional” view because of either callousness, fear that people will just sin without consequences (a legitimate fear but not true according to Christian Universalism), or simply because they have never read a good case for it— one that is supported by scripture, saints and reason. Or perhaps they are much better Christians then me (I mean that!) who just trust that God will do good and it’s not for us to know. My sister is that way and I often envy her.

    I mean no disrespect to traditionalist and don’t call them the “hell-fire club” except for certain Calvinist that seem to glory in their position, but I have yet to hear a good scriptural case for the tradition view that made any since to me if God is indeed Love and Goodness– and may I add, a good planner. We’ll probably never know the truth of this matter on this side of eternity.

    1. Stephen: I have a problem with your conclusion that those who continue to hold on to the traditional view do so because of what you imagine you can know about their hearts. This seems to be the worst of ad hominem argument. Actually we can know very little about the hidden motivation of hearts (which is often mixed and multiple), whether the hearts of traditionalists or universalists. The question needs to be examined on its own merits. I am also concerned that worry about people having to suffer eternally may become a lens through which Scripture is approached.

  4. Fr. , you are correct. I don’t intend to judge anyone’s heart. Those are merely guesses of motivation and probably unfair. I guess my main point is that for me after reading Bishop Hillarion’s book on The Spiritual World of St. Isaac and many, many commentators and Greek scholars on biblical hermeneutics as well as the many opinions of early church fathers, and modern proponents of universalism, I have yet to read a convincing case that people will be forever separated from their creator. There seems even to be evidence that Saints such as Chrysostom preached eternal torment to influence the hardened people of his day but didn’t necessarily hold to that view strictly. (Sorry, don’t ask for my footnote)

    Also, St Isaac makes it very clear that people will suffer for their sins and an era of purgation will be anything but pleasant and that Jesus’ threats should be taken very seriously. In my estimation, as strange as it may sound, Christian Universalism is the only view that really makes sense of sin and its consequences. The eternal torment view is so out of proportion and against (at least to me) the mercy of God that it doesn’t even convince “sinners” to correct their sin. I understand, I think, that you are not promoting that view and have no interest in defending Calvin.

    I have also read Fudges book and find it compelling but no as cogent (again at least in my view) as universalism properly understood.

    Thank you for being willing to dialog and ask the hard questions. I am merely giving you my conclusions which carry no authority and my mind is fallen and corrupted and I fully accept that I may be way off! As we approach this Sunday, forgive me a sinner!

  5. ” Christian Universalism is the only view that really makes sense of sin and its consequences.”

    Interesting, I have the opposite view. Universalism (Christian or otherwise) is exactly what destroys any sense of evil, or rather any hope of ever overcoming it. By negating the Judgement universalism sets up several scenarios, none of the good for man. One is it turns these this age, these “evil days” (Eph 5:16) into an eternal “becoming” where man (as individuals and as a whole) is given util, through, and past “the age of ages” to repent, and Pascha recedes into infinity and never occurs. Another is Hart’s answer, which is essentially a moral/dialectical one – man by nature can not in the end actually reject God because we are created by a Good God. He is of course rightly abhorrent at Calvin, Augustine (possibly – certainly some of his followers) and others who come to the dialectical opposite conclusions about the Judgement – but in the end it’s just the other side of the same coin (i.e a dilectically determined outcome). In this determination, “repent” is all you can and ever will do. I have heard people describe the Judgement to be a kind of infinite series – you get all the “do-overs” you need until you choose rightly.

    Negate the Judgement, and you negate the meaning of time, and turn this our “time of our repentance” into a torture chamber that was never necessary because repentance is compelled in any case no matter what. It turns our “becoming” and repentance into an unnecessary and cruel joke, something that can not be described as “good”, only a weird and painful appendage to the inevitable and glorious end. Without the Judgement, there is no “Eternal Life” (regardless whether there are those who participate in it in “ill-being” or not) because the Judgement is that ineffable cosmological even where everything changes. Negate the Judgement, and you negate the Christian meaning of this life, history, creation, everything – including evil and sin. All you are left with is more of the same…the eternity of this age, or in Hart’s case a negation of the Person itself (thus his attack on Christian Personhood as “libertarian”). One could even have a little fun with this:

    “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand”…becomes…”The Kingdom of God is your destiny, and resistance if futile”

    I of course could do hundreds of these.

    There is no such thing as “Christian Universalism”, just Christianity and universalism. I for one, if I was going to be a universalist, I would be a neo-neo-platonist – a modern neo-platonism all gussied up for the spirit of the age (in other words one that took account of the Enlightenment and Elvis – I would make my heaven a Tardis). Why add all the Christian messiness and ambiguity to a perfectly good dialectic like neo-platonism, it’s just so unnecessary… 😉

  6. Oh, I almost forgot:

    “There seems even to be evidence that Saints such as Chrysostom preached eternal torment to influence the hardened people of his day but didn’t necessarily hold to that view strictly. (Sorry, don’t ask for my footnote)”

    If this is true, then apparently light DOES have communion with darkness. You can, according to St. John “scare” people with lies into heaven (or simply out of socially problematic worldly behavior). Even on the surface this seems so ridiculous I am not sure rather to laugh or cry. Fr. Lawrence, you know a thing or two about St. John – is there any truth to this at all?

    1. Christopher: All my reading of St. John makes me believe that he never once diluted, twisted or mitigated the truth that he believed in and was constitutionally incapable of doing so. He was prepared to go into exile rather than back down from Empress. I also think that he knew the human heart well enough to know that one cannot scare anyone into the kingdom, and I suspect that he would have regarded the attempt to do so as unworthy of a Christian. I have his icon in my icon corner, and ask his prayers every day. All that I know about him tells me that he said exactly what he believed and believed exactly what he said.

  7. I believe that the problem many or most people have with the eternality of hell is again the Anselmian/Calvinist/Protestant view of hell as being the execution of God’s legal verdict against sin and sinners. “You did the crimes and now you have to do the time” – as though such a notion of justice is both necessary and proportionate. Whereas from my small understanding, hell is an ontological state, a state of being, a door locked from the inside, as it were: it’s not that God won’t receive those who would repent after this life, but that many will never repent. Many, like the father of lies, would much rather reign and suffer in a hellish state of being, in denial of the truth, than “bear a little shame” as Fr. Stephen Freeman puts it and set out on the path of repentance. Indeed this path is difficult, and it is easier – though paradoxically more unbearable – to not repent.

    I believe that repentance based on fear of punishment is not true repentance at all; repentance is based on the love of God, the love of the good, the love of neighbor. “Do you not know that the kindness of God is meant to lead you to repentance?” asks St. Paul. And of course St. John the Apostle’s lovely words that “perfect love casts out all fear, because fear has to do with punishment”. I think the fear-mongering many well-meaning believers engage in is more spiritually damaging than is often realized or admitted; that said, I believe a fluffy universalism is also quite damaging as it diminishes the absolute necessity of repentance unto life. (The longer we would put off seeking God’s grace unto holiness and deification, the harder it becomes to take those steps – and this, I fear, is what may well and does bind men for eternity.) It’s a difficult furrow to plow between the two extremes/misuses of eschatological understanding, but vital indeed to find an appropriate balance.

    God forgive me, a sinner, especially if I have misspoken in pride or ignorance.

    1. James, I quite agree. I have had experience of some dear souls who have come to a believe in Universalism as a welcome relief and escape from a severe kind of Calvinism, as well as some who have experienced personal tragedy in losing loved ones who died in some kind of unbelief, and it looks as if both are emotionally motivated, looking for any door out of their own pain. I realize this ad hominem stance does not apply to all. But I have been struck with the number of people for whom rejection of Universalism seems to involve precisely the sort of harsh Protestant view you mentioned.

  8. Fr Lawrence, do you expect to, or know some other Orthodox source, who has attempted a more detailed engagement of Fudge’s work? My own parents, who share Fudge’s Church of Christ background, have recently been quite enamored of his work on this topic. Like you, I am a “traditionalist” on the subject of final punishment who resents the ad hominem retorts of many universalists, and as such, have found Fudge’s conditionalism a far more viable diversion, such that one should even be indulged. I say that as someone who retains a bit of private agnosticism about the true nature of damnation.

    Related, do you know any Orthodox work, or even essay, that expounds on our practice of praying for the dead while refraining from entertaining theories of purgatory and/or universalism? It’s an area where I do scratch my head.

    1. Yes, I have just written a book on the topic of the Church’s traditional teaching on hell. I hope that it will be published after my upcoming book on the episcopate by Ancient Faith Publishing.

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