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Hell 2 – how scripture changed my view of hell

Hell - Conditional Immortality

Hell 2 — how scripture changed my view of hell.

I used to believe that the Bible teaches that hell required belief in the eternal conscious torment of those condemned to hell. No more. Over the last few years Scripture has persuaded me that the view commonly called Annihilationism, or Conditional Immortality, matches far better with the data in Scripture.

This blog series is exploring this change of view.

In the first post I set out some historical background and understandings to underpin the subsequent posts.

In this post I summarise the journey I went on and tease the posts that will follow that will go in detail into the exegesis of key texts and words.

First, some affirmations:

I already believed the first five of these statements about hell — and I still do.

  • Hell will be real, and it does not yet exist.
  • Hell will be God’s punishment for impenitent and unbelieving people.
  • Hell will be an unavoidable and inescapable punishment for the wicked.
  • Hell will be a separation from God’s love.
  • Hell will be a proportionate exposure to God’s righteous wrath.
  • Hell will be an experience of God’s wrath which is eternal in consequence, not eternal in experience.
  • Hell will not last forever, hell itself will be destroyed.

How did I start to become convinced that Annihilationism is a more Biblical view of hell?

It was during 2020-2021, in the course of my rhythm of reading through the whole Bible, that I was struck by what Scripture said on the subject of the destiny of the wicked.

During that period I took note of any passage that spoke about personal eschatology in the Scripture and, as a consequence, I have adopted the position variously known as evangelical conditionalism, conditional immortality, terminal punishment, and annihilationism. I no longer subscribe to the traditional belief in the eternal conscious torment of those condemned to hell. However, I respect those who still hold to the traditional position, and I see no reason to divide over this matter which I consider to be a second order doctrine.

I affirm this to be a secondary area of doctrine because none of the three main positions on personal eschatology are affirmed or excluded by the ancient creeds — the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds. Furthermore, the Basis of Faith of the UK Evangelical Alliance is also agnostic on this matter. And I am aware that numerous Christians leaders and Bible scholars in the UK, across a wide spectrum of Christian heritages, hold Annihilationism to be the best explanation of the personal eschatology texts of Scripture.

My previous commitment to the eternal conscious punishment view of hell.

I have studied the question of the nature of hell twice before in depth; first, in 1987, and again, in 2010-2011. I started a fresh examination of the Biblical data in 2020.

My previous studies had persuaded me to hold firmly to the traditional doctrine that hell is an experience of eternal conscious torment. I was so committed to this view that in 2003 I wrote this view explicitly into the statement of beliefs of the church where I was the Senior Pastor at that time. Article 12 of that statement reads:

We believe in the personal and visible return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth and the establishment of his kingdom in a new heaven and new earth. The whole creation will then be fully liberated from everything that attacks God’s glory and distorts our humanity, such as sin, Satan, other evil spirits, suffering and disease. We believe in the resurrection of the body, the final judgement, the endless suffering of the wicked in hell and the eternal happiness of the righteous in heaven.

I also held that we Christians should rejoice that God punishes the wicked with eternal conscious torment. I taught this because I think we should see the beauty in all God’s ways, and commend his ways to one another in such a way that promotes our joy and his glory. Furthermore, I was regularly involved training young people and church leaders about eschatology on various courses run by the network of churches where I am in fellowship, and I have consistently and wholeheartedly taught the traditional view that hell means eternal conscious torment.

On the second occasion that I researched what Scripture says about hell in 2010-2011, it was clear that the belief that those sent to hell will experience eternal conscious torment rests largely on two passages in Revelation 14 and 20. Revelation is a book written mostly in the apocalyptic genre. Both these passages are agreed to be in the apocalyptic sections of Revelation.

My review concerned the question of the final destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving wicked.

In early 2020 in my regular Bible reading, I noticed afresh how often the NT (and OT) writers describe that destiny by using the words death and destruction. This is ubiquitous in Scripture. I had not planned to study this again. But these Scriptures stood out to me, and this set me on a fresh path of research.

Why would God fail to warn us that sin leads to eternal conscious torment until the very last book of the Bible?

Why would Scripture, that speaks so plainly on important matters, use the euphemism ‘death’ when what really awaits is eternal existence experiencing conscious punishment.

And why would all the warnings about this destiny be left until the very last book of the Bible? That is not a credible hermeneutical position.

Typology and hell and Annihilationism.

At about the same time, I read the first chapter of Peter Leithart’s book, A House For My Name, which explores the place of typology in hermeneutics. I began to think about the Old Testament accounts of episodes of God’s judgement which are then used typologically in both the Old and New Testaments. That meant considering how the episodes of Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah function as types.

By constant rehearsal, these two events become archetypal models of God’s final judgment referred to repeatedly by both Old and New Testament writers. One is a destruction with water, the other a destruction with fire. New Testament passages that reference these two archetypal events depend, for their meaning, on the Old Testament passages they reference. In this light the interpretation of those NT passages is not nearly so clear-cut as the traditional position asserts. Arguably, I began to theorise, both these archetypes point to the final destruction of the wicked. This will be discussed at length in a later post.

Hermeneutical practice and hell and Annihilationism.

Now back to the issue of placing greater weight on the two apocalyptic passages in Revelation, rather than on the dozens of plain texts. To place such weight on these two passages now looks to me to be mishandling Scripture when compared to the norms of Biblical hermeneutics. We should build understanding by starting with what the Bible says plainly, especially with what it states in literal passages. We should then interpret the metaphorical parts of the Bible, and the apocalyptic parts, in light of the plain statements.

So the first proper step I took in my journey was to decide that basing my beliefs on two passages in Revelation was not sound hermeneutically. The book of Revelation is in the apocalyptic genre, full of metaphor and imagery, and requiring the reader to carefully assess whether it is speaking of the past, the present or the future. Above all, to understand visions expressed in metaphor, we need to see whether the passage itself offers the meaning, or whether we must compare passage with passage to determine how that metaphor functions across Scripture.

Evangelical Christians have a general principle that we build doctrines based on the plain and literal texts in Scripture, and then see how those are modified and nuanced by other passages. So, as I say, my first step was to decide to build my understanding of what the Bible says about the experience of hell starting from the plain, literal texts.

Immortality and hell and Annihilationism.

This led on to the second step which was to properly merit the texts that speak about immortality.

Previously my commitment to the view that everyone remains alive forever, either in the new heavens and earth, or in hell, entailed that I believe in the immortality of all. Having set aside that prior commitment, I could read the passages about immortality for what they really said. That allowed me to conclude both (1) that immortality is NOT intrinsic to being made in God’s image, and (2) that Scripture does not teach that God will preserve the impenitent, unbelieving wicked alive forever in order to torment them forever.

Human beings are NOT intrinsically eternal. Eternal life is conditional on faith in Christ and the consequent obedience of faith to the law of love. I find the texts about immortality being conditional on faith in Jesus very persuasive.

Concurrent steps towards Annihilationism.

After this the steps began to blur. Progress was made concurrently rather than sequentially, although there was one area that held me back from changing my position and that was the last step I processed. That last step was to do with the meaning of the word death as it is used in Scripture.

The meaning of ‘eternal’ in Matthew 25:46.

Another important step in my developing understanding was to realise that in Matthew 25:46 ‘eternal punishment’ can and even should mean eternal in effect, rather than eternal in enactment. This is established by looking at the pattern of how this adjective ‘eternal’ is used in other verses.

Reading what Annihilationists actually taught.

In this process I also determined to go read for myself how Evangelical Conditionalists explain and defend their position. I had read some of their views ten years before – but I had largely relied on what its opponents said about the arguments for conditionalism (which is never good practice). To that end I found the website www.rethinkinghell.com helpful both in terms of its content and the books referenced. I set about reading more widely and the bibliography will show what I read.

One aspect of this was to listen to podcast debates between people who held to the two views: conditional immortality and eternal conscious torment. In most cases I found that the person who held to the traditional position was only able to assert their position and never truly answered the exegetical challenges raised by the Conditionalist position.

That is not to say that every proponent of conditional immortality was effective. I came across several very unconvincing presentations for conditional immortality – but even these helped me along because, as I listened, I found myself thinking of Scriptures that supported conditional immortality that were better than the reasons being given by the speaker.

Now back to my own journey.

The atonement and hell and Annihilationism.

I also noted that in the Old Testament sacrificial system, atonement was not made by inflicting pain or torment on the animals used in animal sacrifice. Rather, they were slaughtered.

It says in Hebrews 9:22, ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.’ The OT sacrifices adumbrated the ultimate sacrificial lamb of God, Jesus Christ himself.

Throughout the New Testament Christ’s suffering or torment on the cross is not the major focus. Yes, some church traditions do make much of the excruciating physical pain of crucifixion, and that is not denied in Scripture, but the theological focus is almost entirely on the fact that Christ bore the wrath of God in our place by dying, by having his blood shed.

Scripture tells us that when Christ died as our substitute, taking the penalty for our sin, it was his death, not his suffering that was the propitiatory act. Taking both the OT and NT record of how atoning sacrifice works, reinforces what is taught elsewhere in Scripture, that the crucial element in the penalty for sin is death, not torment. Again, this pointed me to the Conditionalist position.

Furthermore, we can say that Christ experienced God’s wrath as he died. We can even say that God’s wrath killed him. But that also means that after he died he was no longer experiencing God’s wrath. Exposure to God’s wrath results in a painful death. Those who do not accept by faith that Christ paid the penalty for their sin through his substitutionary and propitiatory sacrifice, must pay that penalty themselves. Should we not suppose that their experience will mirror Christ’s — exposure to God’s wrath against evil leading to death?

Annihilationism
Bullfight by Pablo Picasso

The final victory of God over evil and hell and Annihilationism.

As I proceeded along this path, I saw how it resolved another long-standing issue for me — the interpretation of the many passages about the final victory of God.

I began a thought experiment in which I posited that the wicked would be destroyed , rather than persist throughout eternity, and I found this allowed me to hear the extravagant claims of Philippians 2:9-11 and other passages at face value — which I found produces much rejoicing because it elevates the final victory of God to be decisive and complete, just as it is described to be. These passages had previously looked as if they would only make sense if Universalism was true.

The doctrine of death and hell and Annihilationism.

This brings me to the most deep-seated conviction that prevented me from abandoning the eternal conscious torment view. That was my doctrine of death that I had adopted because of my prior commitment to eternal conscious torment.

This is the step that took the longest to process. It has to do with how one defines what the word death signifies. What is its range of semantic meaning?

The natural meaning of the word death is the end of life, the privation of life, the cessation of conscious self-awareness and the extinguishing of continued existence as a distinct being. Clearly many passages of Scripture use the word death to speak of physical death. However, I realised that my commitment to take the passages in Rev 14 and 20 to be teaching the eternal, conscious torment of the wicked, entailed that I take many of the plain passages of Scripture about death and destruction in a metaphorical way.

For many decades, I had believed that the word death in Scripture had two main meanings depending on the context: (1) death could mean ‘physical’ death which I understood to mean the separation of the spirit from the body, and (2) death could mean ‘spiritual’ death which I understood to mean separation from God. Wherever I went I taught that death does NOT mean cessation, it means separation.

I now realise that to hold to the view that the wicked live forever experiencing conscious torment requires that the reader limits the semantic range of the word death. To hold to the traditional view it is essential to believe that when the Bible uses the word death it must always mean separation, and can never mean cessation. If Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) is truly what Scripture teaches, then the word death can never mean the cessation of existence; death can never mean the end of the consciousness and personhood of a sentient being.

Up to this point, because of my commitment to eternal conscious torment, I have believed that nobody, once born, ever really and truly dies — i.e., ceases to exist. I have preached that everyone lives for ever and the only question is where you will live for ever: heaven or hell. This is because for decades I have taken death to mean not cessation, but separation — so, depending on the context, death means either the separation of the spirit from the body (physical death), or the separation of the person from God (spiritual death). For me, therefore, the word death in Scripture never signified its primary meaning of being killed and ceasing to exist. I am now persuaded that death-meaning-separation is almost certainly not what the Bible teaches.

By studying this afresh I found evidence that persuaded me to change my mind. I am no longer happy to say that death means separation, which the ECT position entails. When I believed that death always and only means separation, that required me to subtract from the semantic range of the word ‘death’ its most natural meaning. I now believe that subtraction cannot be justified.

For example, the Bible declares “there will be no more death’ in Revelation 21:4. But if death means separation from God (as required by belief in eternal conscious punishment) then death will continue to exist so long as hell exists because all those in hell are separated forever from the love of God (although not from his wrath). What’s more, since to be thrown into hell (the lake of fire) is described as ‘the second death’, and death itself is to be thrown into the lake of fire, then my previous view entailed me saying that ‘the death of death’ means the separation of separation — which is meaningless. Furthermore, when death is understood this way, the Biblical concept of ‘second death’ signifies the same thing as how (I used to think) the word death is used in the Genesis account, that is separation from God. In other words ‘second death’ has the same meaning as ‘death’. That is tautology, and it is not satisfactory, so this notion that death means separation looked less and less convincing to me. Moreover, when Paul, writing about Christ’s final victory over all God’s enemies, states that ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26 NIV), this claim is stripped of its power because I must affirm that death persists forever in hell – because those in hell are separated from God for ever which is a meaning of the word death entailed by my belief in eternal conscious torment.

So I decided to engage in a thought experiment. Starting some time in 2020, in my regular reading through Scripture, I would take the word group ‘die’, ‘death’, etc. to mean cessation, not separation – and I found that it worked almost perfectly in opening up the Scripture. For example, in my thought experiment Matthew 10:28 could now be understood plainly:

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

I am now persuaded that the killing or death of the body is the first death; the killing or death of the resurrected person at the final judgment is the second death. The second death is what will take place in the lake of fire.

The Bible definitely teaches that sin creates a barrier between human beings and God — a separation, if you will. The word death is used in some passages to describe this separation, in a metaphorical sense. Our separation from God is analogous to being dead in that it involves being insensible to God.

In many passages however, the link between sin and death is predictive or proleptic rather than metaphorical. In those passages which speak of death as present now, it is saying that if we have sinned then death is so certain an outcome, it being God’s declared punishment for sin, that the sinner can be said to be dead already, even though they are not actually dead yet. That fits perfectly with the definition of proleptic speech.

I fully accept that in some passages the word ‘death’ is used to speak of the separation from God caused by sin. In those instances, however, I argue that those are metaphorical uses of the word death. And that metaphorical use depends fully on the literal meaning of the word death. My new understanding makes those metaphorical uses of the word death even more powerful.

The offer of life and Annihilationism.

There was another impact of my changed understanding of the word death — my changed understanding of the word life. That’s because my previous understanding of the Bible’s use of the word life was also changed because of my prior commitment to ECT.

I had concluded that since even the wicked will live forever consciously in hell, the life that Christian believers are promised must be defined more in terms of a quality of life. I certainly still agree that Scripture tells us that eternal life will have a quality to it far in excess of the current experience of life. However, in my new view, the wonder of the promise of eternal life is greatly increased because of the contrast with the alternative: final and irreversible death.

So in my thought experiment, as I read the Bible, whenever I read the word death in its literal use, I would take it to mean cessation, not separation. And so far, I have found it works perfectly to do this. So this is now how I intend to take Scripture. And, therefore, I now believe that the wicked, Satan and any other beings cast in hell will be destroyed by the fires of hell because the penalty for sin is death.

My new definition of death is that death means the final, permanent cessation of existence as a conscious, self-aware person. By contrast eternal life means a continuation of self-aware, embodied, conscious existence. For the Christian that means conscious participation in the new heavens and new earth everlastingly sustained by the presence of the living God in his perfected cosmos.

When exegeting passages about death in both Old and New Testaments the interpreter needs to notice the context to correctly understand what is being referred to. Often the reference is merely to the physical death of a person. In some instances, however, there is an eschatological context that suggests the word death in those passages is being used to speak about what will later be called the ‘second death’. In other passages still, the word death is used in either a proleptic or a metaphorical way, to indicate the extreme danger of sin and the inevitable outcome of unrepented sin which is to be shut out from the experience of union with God, in whose presence alone can we secure joy and eternal pleasures (Psalm 16:11).

Scripture offers us life or death.

I also noted that throughout Scripture it urges us to choose life rather than death.

In my own preaching I had been accustomed to offering heaven versus hell — but this is nowhere found in Scripture.

Again and again in both the Old and New Testaments, we have passages contrasting life and death — not heaven and hell. Why would this be unless that was indeed exactly the choice that lies before every human being?

The Intermediate State and hell and Annihilationism.

Old Testament passages that refer to the abode of the dead as Sheol can also make us think that an ongoing existence after physical death is eternal. All that these passages affirm is what theologians call the Intermediate State. They cannot be pressed to affirm or deny the everlasting existence of the wicked in hell.

The Old Testament speaks plainly about Annihilationism.

I had been in the habit of pointing out that it was Jesus who spoke most about hell — not the Old Testament. And that’s true. However, the contrasting destiny of life or death is evident throughout the Scriptures.

While thinking through how the Old Testament described these destinies, another move I made was to realise that the Old Testament does, despite my previous denials, speak plainly about the eternal destiny of the wicked.

Previously, on account of my prior commitment to a belief in eternal conscious torment, I denied that the Old Testament had anything much to say about the eternal fate of the wicked because I found no texts that described eternal conscious torment. Now I was taking seriously and plainly the New Testament texts describing the eternal state of the wicked as death, the Old Testament opened up and I could see that there are numerous OT passages that speak of the eternal destiny of the wicked as death and destruction.

Summary conclusions about death.

To repeat my conclusions: the first death is physical death after which the body is gone, but the spirit continues, sustained either in consciousness or unconsciousness by God through the intermediate state until the universal resurrection which will be immediately followed by the final judgment. The second death is God’s judgment on the embodied spirit (or enspirited bodies) of the impenitent, unbelieving wicked which follows final judgment. The second death results in destruction of body and soul as predicted by Jesus in Matthew 10:28.

Have there been any adverse entailments of adopting the Annihilationism view of hell?

I have not found that my adoption of Evangelical Conditionalism (also known as Annihilationism, Terminal Punishment) has adjusted any other doctrinal positions.

There do not seem to be any other necessary changes of doctrine entailed by this changed understanding of hell. Yes, I have changed my view about the duration of the punishment of the wicked. But has this change had any implications for other theological positions I hold? No. I find that among those who advocate Conditional Immortality there are five-point Calvinists; there are Arminians; there are A-Millennialists and Pre-Millennialists; there are complementarians and egalitarians; and so forth.

My change of view has not necessitated any change in my view of the Trinity, the Atonement, Scripture, the gospel, other aspects of eschatology, ecclesiology, missiology, or any other area of theology, primary or secondary. I still believe that sin separates us or alienates us from God – but I do not think the Bible usually uses the word death to describe this separation, and where it does do so (for example, Ephesians 2:1, 5), it is using the word death in a metaphorical sense, meaning being dead to God (i.e. insensible of him), but just as likely it means that we are put under the sentence of death on account of sin (i.e. proleptic speech).

Scripture trumps traditional views of hell.

All through this process I was also deeply aware of going against the traditional position because I do not take such a step lightly.

To make such a change of interpretation calls for persuasive exegesis, to my mind. I place the authority of Scripture as God’s self-revelation above other sources of authority – but I do also respect the authority of the church, by which I mean the community of Bible interpreters throughout time and space. In saying this I self-consciously identify with that approach that I understand was first described by the church fathers such as Irenaeus and Origen — the value of ‘the rule of faith’, of a living commitment to a body of apostolic doctrine sustained by a tradition of teaching in the church that we might call Nicene Christianity. I wholeheartedly agree with Edward Fudge, a noted proponent of Conditionalism, who said, ‘If it is new, it’s probably not true. And if it’s true, it’s probably not new.’

For this reason, I am wary of arriving alone at such a different position, so I was also helped in my move by finding out that evangelical conditionalism has been believed and taught right through church history, both among the church fathers and up to our present day.

The following posts in this blog series will develop the points made in this overview. I will set out the Scriptural evidence for adopting Annihilationism, also known as Conditional Immortality, as a valid view of hell — evidence which I now consider to be compelling.

Annihilationism is the view that immortality is conditional on faith. It’s often called:

Conditional Immortality.

The next post explores whether the widespread belief in the immortality of the soul is taught in the Bible. Further posts will follow setting out detailed exegesis of the subjects teased in this post.

Books

Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE), The Nature of Hell, (2000), ACUTE, Paternoster, Carlisle

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David BENTLEY HART, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, (2019), Yale University Press

John BLANCHARD, Whatever Happened to Hell, (1993), Evangelical Press, Darlington

Ralph G. BOWLES, Does Revelation 14:11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell, (2001), article pp.21-36 in Evangelical Quarterly 73.1,

Colin BROWN, Ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume 1, (1986), The Paternoster Press, Exeter

Colin BROWN, Ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume 2, (1976), The Paternoster Press, Exeter

Colin BROWN, Ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume 3, (1978), The Paternoster Press, Exeter

Denny BURK in Stanley GRUNDY and Preston SPRINKLE (Eds), Four Views on Hell 2nd Edition, (2016), Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

D A CARSON, Exegetical Fallacies 2nd Edition, (1996), Baker Book House, Paternoster, Grand Rapids, Carlisle

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Christopher M DATE, A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge, (2016), Pickwick (Wipf & Stock)

Christopher M DATE, The Hermeneutics of Conditionalism: A Defense of the Interpretive Method of Edward Fudge, (2018), in Evangelical Quarterly 89.1, pp.71-90

Christopher M DATE, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, (2014), Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock)

David L. EDWARDS & John R.W. STOTT, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, (1988), Hodder and Stoughton, London

John CALVIN, Genesis, (1965), Banner of Truth Trust, London

Millard ERICKSON, Christian Theology 2nd Edition, (1998), Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Gordon D. FEE, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, (1984, 1988), New International Biblical Commentary Series, Paternoster Press, Carlisle

Gordon D. FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (1987) Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan

Gordon D. FEE, Philippians, (1999), The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, IVP, Leicester

Sinclair B. FERGUSON & David F. WRIGHT, New Dictionary of Theology, IVP, Leicester

Edward William FUDGE, The Fire That Consumes 3rd Edition, (2011), Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon

Edward William FUDGE & Robert A. PETERSON, Two Views of Hell, (2000), IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois

Graeme GOLDSWORTHY, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, (2000), IVP, Nottingham

Tony GRAY, Destroyed For Ever: An Examination of the Debates Concerning Annihilation and Conditional Immortality, pp.14-18 in Themelios 21:2 January 1996 (accessed 15 December 2011 at http://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/destroyed-forever.php)

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Wayne GRUDEM, Systematic Theology, (1994), IVP, Leicester

Stanley GRUNDY and Preston SPRINKLE (Eds), Four Views on Hell 2nd Edition, (2016), Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

HOMER, The Odyssey, translated by E V RIEU, (1946), Penguin Books

John HOSIER, The Lamb, the Beast and the Devil, (2002), Monarch Books, London

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Alex MOTYER, The Prophecy of Isaiah, (1993) IVP, Leicester

John OWEN, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, (1959) Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh

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James PATRICK, comment at the Newfrontiers Theology Forum (February 2012)

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JK ROWLING, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (2007), Bloomsbury, London

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