Hell, yes! That’s a two-word summary that captures the answer to the question, “Does Ed Fudge really believe in hell?” But that, my friends, is not real the reason I’m recommending his book, “The Fire That Consumes.”
For me, the real treasure in this book is not Fudge’s conclusions about (what he deems to be) the fallacy of believing in the immortality of the soul (and therefore, a version of hell that is traditionally described as eternal conscious torment). Though I personally agree with Fudge that the Bible clearly teaches that: (1) Hell is real, (2) People go to hell, and (3) People are ultimately destroyed in hell after a time, there is another part of the book that is worth the price of the whole thing. That’s the second chapter entitled “Back to the Bible: The Protestant Principle.”
This chapter is entirely devoted to hermeneutics. Before Fudge tells you what he thinks the Bible is teaching about hell (or any subject for that matter), he lays out his hermeneutical methodology, and spends a good amount of time talking about the hermeneutical baggage that many protestants carry with them when they, er, uh, “read the Bible for what it plainly says” (heh!).
For instance, quoting Allister McGrath, Fudge encourages the reader of scripture to read it as a partner with the larger Christian community, which means reading the Bible with the Christians who were reading it 2000, 1900, 1800, 1700 (etc. you get it) years ago, and listening to their conclusions and insights. McGrath wrote:
“a willingness to read Scripture, taking into account the ways in which it has been read in the past … It is a willingness to give full weight to the views of those who have gone before us in the faith, providing forceful reminders of the corporate nature of the Christian faith” (p. 9).
Why does Fudge want you to do this? Because Christians across the centuries of Church history have not always read the texts or understood them to mean the same things we understand them to mean today. But there’s more! Fudge believes (and I agree with him) that sometimes (often!) hermeneutical work being done by devotees of particular teachers or traditions devolves into loyally but uncritically repeating what those within our tradition have taught us. And why would they teach us the wrong things? More than that, why would we believe anything wrong? Who would do that? Not me! Maybe you, but not me!
Rather than investigating both the meaning of the text, and our predecessors’ conclusions about the text more objectively, the “interpreter” often finds a new way to say what someone else already said (then gets a well-deserved reputation for being a brilliant champion of the faith). The result? A theological echo chamber of regurgitated conclusions that keep getting passed on to successive generations of Christians (on threat of being called heretics if they didn’t repeat them just so!). Fudge writes:
“…proper appreciation for the thinking and conclusions of those who preceded us 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” (p. 9).
Of course, someone will say, “But what you’re suggesting might lead Christians to conclude that no one has ever really understood the Bible, and that every belief should be questioned – which would lead to theological anarchy!” I want to be careful here because I get this, and in principle I agree with it as someone who takes the Bible very seriously. However, the Reformers (just to pick out one group of Christians as an example) were willing to call long-held understandings of texts, and the traditions that arose out of those understandings into serious question – and ultimately, to reject them as false. And, as one of my professors of historical theology likes to say, “Luther was right to do this, but he cannot close the door behind him!”
It is a fallacy to believe that the reformers finished the work of reformation. Fudge believes that it’s time to ask serious questions about our hermeneutical methods and conclusions around the biblical teaching on hell. I strongly recommend you give his work a read with an open heart and fresh eyes.
While you’re waiting for your copy to come in the mail, or to download to your kindle, you can watch Dr. Fudge here as he discusses the basics of his conclusions. He’s like your grandpa from Texas who also happens to be a biblical genius!