There are the Jehovah’s Witness claims that the entire Christian church has always been wrong about, well, almost everything. Except for those few ECFs they could massage into some sort of superficial agreement, of course. Mormonism likewise asserts that all churches ceased to be true churches rather quickly following Christ’s ascension. Islam, with it’s idea of scriptural supercessionism and their revisionist version of what the Scriptures actually are, or taught, have a similar view of Christianity as a whole. It’s much the same with any other warmed-over historical error – be they large, as the wholesale replacement religions seen above – or be they smaller, specific, targeted errors like conditionalism/annihilationism, with their aberrant views within anthropology and eschatology.
In both cases, the assertion is made that despite the fact that we are told the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, in Matthew 16:18 – they did in fact, prevail in some specific sense – be that in a wholesale fashion, or in a specific area. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is some attempt to try to support their claims from the ECFs (failing miserably upon any detailed examination), but in the case of Mormonism, there is usually the flat assertion that the church was essentially defeated entirely for 1700 years or more. Islam’s claims are far more modest, despite the more militant nature of the religion as a whole. In the specific case we’re addressing, the assertion is made that the church, in a practically universal fashion, has lost entirely what is supposed to be meant by “Hell” – and we must “rethink” Hell to somehow recover the original beliefs as taught in the Scriptures, but were “hijacked” by one or more foreign belief systems. Your mileage may vary. Sure, there are books like “The Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers” – but like any other book of this kind, the assertions therein are quite similar to those made by the Arians, the Pelagians, the Romanists, the Socinians, or the Landmarkers; “There have always been people who believed what we believed!” Athanasius addressed such claims, as did Augustine, and their respective counterparts throughout church history, defending the Christian faith. Whether we are dealing with the trail of blood, the trail of Racovian models of theology, the trail of Papal authority, the recurrence of Pelagianism, or even of Arianism, there is always recourse made to either “brave dissenters” throughout history, when it is clear that their position was not that of the universal church, or in the case of positions like that of Romanism, that it was always the majority view – even at times when their church did not exist as the current entity – such as during its period as a multiple-elder ruled body – which can be quite an interesting subject of study, incidentally.
Similarly, volumes such as “The Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers” try to recruit early church fathers, or famous figures to their cause, and then proceed to ransack the annals of church history for any and every viewpoint that could possibly accord with their position in some fashion. What is also tiptoed around, at least in some evangelical circles, is that Froom himself is a Seventh-Day Adventist. Although considered by many in the general evangelical community to be “orthodox” – is considered to be “unorthodox” by many in the conservative side of that community, and to be a cult by a significant minority. This cannot be de-emphasized when the appeal is so often made to the “Protestant” heritage of the SDAs. Even Fudge’s book does a bit of “recruiting” in the ECFs, and it’s essentially a topical overview of the subject, if not from an SDA perspective, but a (generally) Church of Christ background. What isn’t clearly depicted, however, is that they are pulling a few dozen or so names from a cast of hundreds of thousands of historical writers, and that those who share their position are typically the only ones who think many of these ECFs were saying anything of the sort. What is even more often neglected is that many, if not most of their supporting cast they appeal to beyond the ECFs were themselves members of a great variety of historical heresies – where there were bigger fish to fry when dealing with their various problematic theological positions. For instance – do you address the Socinian adherence to an Arian view of Christ first, or their aberrant view of Hell? Quite obviously, the answer is the former. When dealing with heresies, you must do triage. When you address Millerites – what do you deal with first? It’s not quite as simple as “this has never been addressed before” – it’s also not quite as simple as “conditionalism hasn’t had a thorough response,” either. Conditionalism as distinct from other heretical views is a fairly recent phenomenon. How does this matter?
As has long been recognized by theologians, positions are refined and obtain precision through apologetic engagement. Christology was refined by Arianism’s challenges, and the challenges of Docetism and Nestorianism at Nicaea, First Ephesus and Chalcedon. Trinitarianism has always been refined by challenges from Unitarianism, the nature of man’s slavery to sin refined by the challenges from Pelagianism and it’s natural heirs, and, of course, Justification was given elegant refinement by the Reformation’s disputes with Romanism. Apologetic encounters with the challengers to orthodoxy is nothing new, nor is it original with the modern church. In fact, it is something that has always served as tempering for our doctrinal steel. What must be remembered is that Conditionalism and the oft-resulting Annihilationist credo is nothing new to the annals of the church’s apologetic encounters, either. What makes it an interesting study is the frequent pairing it seems to have with other heretical views. Compared to the denial of the deity of Christ the Socinians made, their ideas concerning conditionalism seem rather trivial in comparison. Unitarian denials of eternal damnation seem rather mild in comparison to their denials of the Trinity, similarly.
It should be noted, however, that the idea of an otherwise “orthodox” conditionalist or annihilationist is a rather modern conception. Why is this the case? Even granting Pinnock’s claim, for the sake of argument, that the belief in eternal damnation was fixed in the 6th century, that leaves how much of church history with practically every adherent to Christianity with no earthly idea what the Bible teaches about Hell? Such an argument proves entirely too much for even the “general evangelical” to stomach when seen in those terms. The resort to “traditionalism” as the favored explanation for this practically universal ignorance smacks entirely too much of the revisionist histories of the LDS and the Watchtower. Church history does not allow us such ghastly, lasting rents in the fabric of historic orthodoxy. Even in the Roman communion there was always the Pauline/Augustinian emphasis on Sola Scriptura in at least some fashion – as well as the persistent, recurrent witnesses to justification by faith, and the persistent, nagging memory of days in the history of the church where one bishop could not set himself up above the rest. The Roman version of church history simply does not accurately portray what actually transpired – and neither does the conditionalist version of events in church history.
One reason that there has been fairly little in response to the conditionalist case in church history is that there is no distinctive conditionalism in church history, even as we see it in chiefly centered in today’s modern Anglicanism, General Baptists, and the doctrinal descendants of certain strains of Millerism. Anglicanism and the Particular Baptists churches had a serious bout of trouble with Unitarianism/Socinianism that they have never fully recovered from. The Presbyterians and Particular Baptists contemporary with the English Unitarians (often called Socinians) went to great lengths to address this movement, as we should expect from the doctrinal heirs of the Reformation; but Anglicanism and the General Baptists did not fare nearly as well. Anglicanism fared far better than the General Baptists – who were all but destroyed by the inroads of Unitarian influence, and are effectively scattered wholesale into other groups – but the influences are still seen to the present day, despite their attempts to curb that influence. In the Americas, the Millerite movement, born of disaffected members of a number of denominations, spawned a great number of sects which show a distinct influence of the conditionalist influences – which I submit to you is due to the leavening of General Baptist and Methodist Anglican thought in the Millerite movement, the descendants of which have elements scattered throughout more mainstream channels of evangelicalism. Members of the Millerite movement with conditionalist stances also influenced Russell, the founder of the Bible Student movement, which became the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The fracturing of the Millerite movement is complicated and laborious to track – but there are common themes to be seen throughout, if you take the time to do so.
In summary, you will notice that there has not been a distinctly “otherwise orthodox” conditionalist movement until very recent times. When a particular subject is made the center of controversy, that is when the apologetic response is most fully brought to bear. Since it is a thoroughly Biblical picture, let’s use some military references to illustrate what we mean. When a front is not central to, but peripheral to the the main theatre of warfare, the troops assigned to that front are sufficient to “hold the line” in skirmishes. The more pressure that is brought to bear on that front, the more troops are assigned to it, and the more attention is given to the defense of that area. Far from demonstrating that we need to “rethink Hell” – the lack of a thoroughgoing apologetic response in church history demonstrates most clearly that there has not been much of an assault made on this position. When not coupled with other heretical views more in need of a response, there has been vanishingly little historical “push” on the topic of Hell. My prediction, hope and prayer is that the desire of modern annihilationists to make this subject a central focus will have the effect it has always had in the history of the church – to cause the opposite of their intent in bringing that sequence of events about. There will not be a “rethinking” of Hell – but a “refinement” of the historic doctrine which more clearly and more precisely outlines the Scriptural teaching on the subject, and again vindicates the Scriptural promise that the church will not be left rudderless, or the Spirit without a witness to the truth, and the Scriptures without right division. A lack of precision on a subject has never been a sign of a lack of orthodox agreement – it has been a sign of a quiet front, on the whole. Such is the history of apologetic disputation, and as such we can be confident that this historical sequence will transpire yet again. It is whenever orthodoxy gets pushed that there is a cohesive, controlled, and coordinated response to that push. I hope that the annihilationists do push the way they say they will. That’s what engenders the responses that improve precision and detail.