The Bad Place by J. Webb Mealy (Review)

In The Bad Place, J. Webb Mealy argues that hell is not a place of unending conscious torment, as has been popularly understood, but rather the unrepentant will ultimately be destroyed and no longer exist. To put some terminology on it, against the traditional view, which we could name “eternal conscious torment” or “infernalism”, Mealy advocates for “annihilation”, also known as “conditionalism.”

Mealy’s argument is comprehensive and sound. He begins by confronting four key verses used to argue for infernalism and shows how they do not actually teach it. With this out of the way, he goes through the entirety of the scripture story demonstrating, passage by passage, that the fate of the unrepentant wicked is death – cessation of existence – rather than unending torture. 

I cannot think of a better book to read that argues in favor of annihilation and refutes infernalism. Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes is a classic, but it is much longer and more detailed. For readers who might just be beginning to question the infernalist view, or people who don’t read long works of theology for fun, Mealy’s book would be ideal. I would unequivocally give this book a five-star rating for what he argues in favor of.

The problem comes in what he leaves out. He does not even engage with the third major Christian position on hell – that of universal reconciliation, also known as “apokatastasis”. This is especially sad because it is obvious that universal reconciliation has much more in its favor than infernalism does. The big debate among Christians on this subject is going to be annihilation vs. eternal conscious torment but annihilation vs. universal reconciliation.

Just a few examples:

“And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” – John 12:32

“and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. – Acts 3:20-21

“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” – Romans 5:18

For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. – Romans 11:32

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” – 1 Corinthians 15:22

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” – Ephesians 1:7-10

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.“ – Philippians 2:9-11

There are others. Add to this that God desires all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3 and 1 Peter 4:6). Finally, even at the very end of scripture, after all the kings of the earth are destroyed, the gates of the new Jerusalem are open and we are told the kings of the earth, who were just annihilated, bring their treasures into it (Revelation 21:24-26).

How are those who are completely destroyed alive again to enter the new Jerusalem?

Mealy does not even address this. I looked through the index and searched the kindle version of the book for the passages above and he did not even address them. Above I said that I would give five stars for what he addresses. I want to give one star for what he leaves out.

I adhered to the annihilation position for many years because, as Mealy shows, there is a ton of scriptural support. But these other passages kept nagging at me. They did not seem to fit into an annihilation paradigm. This is addressed by advocates of universalism reconciliation – how do we make sense of all these scriptures? What order to do we put them in? 

If annihilation is final, then these passages about the salvation of all are just left hanging.

It makes more sense for annihilation to come at the end of the age followed by a restoration of all at the end of all ages. This is the paradigm we see in Jesus – resurrection follows death. So for a Christian universalist, Mealy’s argument can mostly be affirmed. At the end, the unrepentant wicked are destroyed. The second death is truly a death. Yet following death comes new life. 

I had not read much about this book prior to starting it so I was surprised when I finished it. I thought Mealy was going to go here. Instead, he tells a story that essentially ends on death. He leaves off the final chapter, the truly good news.

As strong as Mealy’s arguments are, ignoring the universal reconciliation argument is a huge flaw and why his book is not on the level of Brad Jersak’s Her Gates Shall Never Be Shut or David Bentley Hart’s That all Shall Be Saved, among others. In the end, for Mealy, God is a failure. God may be more just and kinder than the vicious infernalist deity, for Mealy’s God does not leave people in unending pain and suffering. Yet God still fails in saving all people, probably even most people (Mealy is not clear on who precisely he thinks will be saved). Those who are in the end with God may take some solace are loved ones are not being tortured, yet they are still gone forever.

How can we enjoy eternal bliss apart from so many of our fellow image-bearing humans? Here we could bring in a number of Hart’s, and other’s, arguments about what it means to be human. Who I am is wrapped up in so many other people. If these people are annihilated, what is left of me? Who is the “me” who is saved? Does God erase my memory, thus creating some fundamentally different person? Do I somehow learn to live with the God who was unable to heal my broken friends and loved ones, celebrating destruction over restoration? 

It makes for a pretty inept God. A God who can restore all things is greater than a God who, in the end, must employ violence and destroy God’s enemies. In the end then, I give 5 stars for what he says and 1 star for leaving so much out which averages out to 3 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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