What? Jonathan Edwards comes to the aid of annihilationism? Why would I say that? We all know Jonathan Edwards didn’t believe annihilationism, right? Yes, we do all know that, but he gave us a helping hand anyway.
Some advocates of doctrine of eternal torment make the mistaken claim that just because the Bible uses the phrase “eternal punishment,” it must be taken to teach eternal torment. The falsehood of this assertion is fairly obvious and it’s not like a lengthy argument is needed to put it in its place. But what’s interesting is that Jonathan Edwards, one of the most memorable preachers on the lurid details of eternal torment and who emphatically rejected annihilationism, came to the aid of annihilationism just at this point in the argument, in a chapter entitled, “Concerning the Endless Punishment of those who Die Impenitent,” paragraph 31.
Edwards noted that some people believed in the final annihilation of the lost, and they thought that this scheme provides relief from the spectre of eternal punishment (this is how Edwards understood their goal, avoiding eternal punishment). But Edwards thought that he could show that they had failed. Even if they were right about hell, they would still not have escaped the idea of eternal punishment, since this annihilationist scheme would itself be eternal punishment. Observe how he dismisses the view:
On this, I would observe that there is nothing got by such a scheme; no relief from the arguments taken from Scripture, for the proper eternity of future punishment.
Although Edwards himself thinks the scheme (annihilationism) is mistaken, this is not his point here. He says here that there is nothing got by the scheme itself (in other words, even within such a scheme, regardless of whether or not it is true) that brings relief from the Scriptural teaching that future punishment is eternal.
I know that in the past when speaking about the many mistakes made by traditionalists who critique annihilationism, I’ve used Robert Peterson as an example. I even had a paper published, pointing out the mistakes in his case. People are going to think I’m picking on the poor guy. I swear, I didn’t set out in this post to critique him, but in looking up quotes, I discovered an absolutely blatant error, and it’s an error that will, in the mind of the those who believe Peterson, impugn the work of another man (Edward Fudge), so what the heck, here goes.
After saying this, Peterson claims to have a “second reason” for rejecting this reading of Edwards (as though he has just presented one reason already). He rejects it because Edwards uses the word “proper.” Peterson says:
Edwards understands ‘the proper eternity of future punishment’ to consist in everlasting punishment [note: by this, Peterson really means everlasting torment – GP], which he then demonstrates. He goes to some lengths to show that annihilationism is in error, concluding with the words, “so this scheme overthrows itself.”
This is all wrong, and I am at a loss to charitably imagine how Dr Peterson can say this after actually reading the chapter in question.
Check this for yourself at THIS LINK where the work in question can be read online. Scroll through to Chapter 31, which is the one in question. Read it, and you’ll see that Edwards argues exactly as I have described, only at more length. But then after this, he moves to Chapter 32 and introduces a new scheme, after ending his comments on annihilationism. In this new scheme that Edwards examines:
the torments of the damned in hell are properly penal, and in execution of penal justice, but yet they are neither eternal, nor shall end in annihilation, but shall be continued till justice is satisfied, and they have truly suffered as much as they have deserved, whereby their punishment shall be so long as to be called everlasting, but that then they shall be delivered, and finally be the subjects of everlasting happiness… (etc)
Edwards explicitly states that in the scheme he is now considering, the lost are not annihilated. No, this is universalism, a view in which the lost are eventually delivered to enjoy eternal happiness. It is after discussing problems internal to this view, and not annhilationism, that Edwards uses the words that Peterson erroneously quoted, at the end of paragraph 32, “so this scheme overthrows itself.” Oops. Peterson claimed that this statement was the conclusion of an argument for the claim that only eternal torment is properly a punishment that is eternal as a refutation of annihilationism. But not only did Edwards not even present such an argument in chapter 31 when talking about annihilationism, this comment was not even written in reference to annihilationism but rather to a version of universalism. I can’t imagine getting a rebuttal more badly wrong.
The real irony of this obvious error is the way that Peterson sought to soften the blow against Edward Fudge, saying:
I do not accuse Fudge of impure motives here. He errs because of his zeal for annihilationism and his consequent tendency to read that doctrine into the words of historical (as well as biblical!) writers when it isn’t there (Two Views of Hell, 90).
So in other words, Fudge is allegedly reading Edwards with too much haste and too little care because he’s a little too willing to find his conclusions there? The irony is palpable, given the nature of Peterson’s error, which seems to be the result of a failure to adequately grasp Edwards’ point in the first place, and then a mistaken citation made for no other reason than too much haste and too little care.
A bit too much “zeal,” perhaps?