The Ultimate “Heated” Debate



There’s Ebola and hooded terrorists sheathing swords and the imminent World Series, but when you want to get down to real issues of life and death, you can’t beat the Rethinking Hell Conference, held in Houston this past July.

OK, technically not so much “life and death” issues of death, death, and death. Specifically, what happens to the overwhelming majority of the populace who are unrepentant sinners, after they shed this mortal coil. Afterlife scholars and otherwise interested souls gathered to debate whether these “dead” beats suffer eternal damnation, otherwise known as the “traditionalist” view, or merely burnt in an underground furnace for a limited (albeit long and unpleasant) time, which is called “conditionalism” and/or “annihilationism.” And yes, I’m ahead of you: a weekend of listening to evangelicals argue about this sounds like my idea of Hell, too.

And “Hell?” in Houston? In July? It’s not so much a conference as a preview!

But according to the conferees, this is not your grandfather’s Hades! Hell has gotten an extreme makeover. You won’t believe what they’ve done with the place!

Perhaps I exaggerate. You’re still going up in flames for your perfidy, you bet’cha, but just for an eon or two, if these folks are correct.

I think we can all agree that this is the real “Burning Man” festival. Ba-Da-BOMP!

Whether hell is eternal or not is obviously a vitally important subject for these religious scholars, but it’s difficult to grasp the significance for the average reprobate. It’s hard to imagine some guy weighing the pros and cons of having an affair with his wife’s sister saying, “Wait. You’re telling me that if I cheat with Agnes I’ll only burn at a billion degrees for a thousand years? I am IN!”

This “Hell Lite” view is not entirely new, but has enjoyed a revival since 1982, when Edward Fudge published The Fire that Consumes, which promulgated the idea that Heaven is forever, but Hellfire is for a finite duration, after which your soul is just snuffed out. (Hence the term “annihilationism.”)

Even the New York Times took note of the conference and the rethinking hell website took note of the Time’ taking note: “Not too shabby!” the site bragged.

Yes, the secular, liberal New York Times bestowed immortality on a website concerned about the immortal soul. And the website was thrilled.

The “rethinking” website also contains a slog of blogs on the topic, including these actual titles:

*“Punishment” and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns

*Worms and Fire: the Rabbis or Isaiah?

*Follow us on Twitter!

To which my response was: I’ll follow you so far, and then I’m bailing! And

* Everlasting Torment or Eternal Punishment?

Pick one!

As you can probably tell from the blog titles, these guys aren’t exactly laff riots. The site also contains podcasts and debates on the nature of the netherworld and if you want to experience “hell on Earth” try making it through one of the three hour debates, like I did. There was a lot of dissecting of scripture and painstaking deconstruction of various biblical verses, but I didn’t hear what I expected, which was, if Hell more resembles a prison sentence than eternal damnation, shouldn’t the time vary based on the severity of the sin? You’d think, say, Hitler would draw a longer term than some poor shlub who, say, spilled his seed or worked on the Sabbath, but if the topic was raised, I missed it.

Plus, you have to wonder about “ministers” who spend a preponderance of their time vociferously debating whether sinners are going to burn for time immemorial, or only a millennium or two.

Especially since it’s readily apparent that this fire-and-brimstone set are all smug because they’re sure they’re going to “the other place” when they die. Which is tragic, because after making Hell their life’s work, they’ll never get to know first-hand whether or not their theories were right. That doesn’t seem fair, and I think it’s only just that when their time comes, they get to experience it first-hand for themselves.

But, you know, just for a millennium or two.


About Stan Sinberg

Stan is an award-winning newspaper columnist, radio commentator, and features writer whose humor has appeared in everything from the NY Times to WSJ and MAD Magazine. Stan is a native New Yorker living on the west coast. His website is and you can email him at or follow him on Twitter @ssinberg1
Posted in: Society
  • Adam Gadomski

    Is this supposed to be funny or accurate? Because it’s neither.

  • Daniel G. Sinclair

    Stan, what animates us Conditionalists is not an obsession with the minutiae of hell, but a concern for those who reject faith because of the monstrous doctrine of eternal conscious torment.

    Desiring to stay true to scripture’s description of final justice, we have returned to it to see if what we’ve been told is actually what consistent, reasoned interpretation reveals, and we’ve come away with a different view. A view which is arguably more accurate, and a view which your tongue in cheek writing didn’t quite capture.

    We do NOT specify a lesser amount of time in punishment, but rather, that the pain of death, the ceasing to exist, and the failure to receive eternal life in the beatific world to come are the punishment. (within this framework you can explain how God might dispense degrees of punishment, but that’s something you can read up on :D)

    Not only does this satisfy the scriptures, it satisfies the common understanding of proportional justice and God making all things right for every victim and perpetrator. And if correcting this doctrine within Christendom opens the door to the many who rightly reject the disproportionate and monstrous God of Eternal Conscious Punishment (ECP), and clears the ‘reputation’ of the Christian view of God, we would be delighted.

    Yes, the topic can become quite esoteric to the non-theologian, but we are attempting to reach the Christian thought leaders as well as the rank and file Christians, who have a much higher tolerance for doctrine that those who do not believe in Jesus.