Hell? No! Exposing the Myth of Eternal Conscious Torment
Hell. Just the mention of the word conjures up images of pitchfork-wielding demons delighting in the torture of condemned souls who writhe in the licking flames of some fire-lit volcanic cavern. But is that picture accurate? Is that really what the Bible teaches? According to the traditional doctrine long-held by conservative Christians, the souls of unsaved people will be consigned to an otherworldly realm called Hell, where they will endure indescribable pain and suffering, essentially being burned alive for endless eternity, shut out from the presence of God and all that is good. Scholars refer to this belief as the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. That’s a terrifying phrase when you think about it—Eternal. Conscious. Torment. Every once in a while, however, someone of note questions or denies the classic Christian belief of a literal Hell with eternal, conscious suffering. Then a debate rages. Most recently, the debate was spurred by Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, in which Rob espouses a type of universalism. Universalism is the belief that in the end everybody gets saved, everybody goes to heaven, and everybody gets eternal life regardless of whether or not they believe in God or obey the gospel or put their faith in Jesus. Bell’s book lit a fire under many evangelical Christians. Some pastors wrote articles in response. Others blogged or Twitted their criticisms. Even secular media caught wind of the book. A hard-hitting interview with Bell on MSNBC went viral (Faust) and Fox News reported about a pastor who expressed support for Love Wins on Facebook and was promptly fired for it (Corben). Tempers flared and arguments broke out all across Christianity. Why would Bible-believing Christians embrace a doctrine as decidedly unbiblical as universalism? Rob Bell answers that question with his own questions:
“Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things that they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves. ” (Bell 2) 2
It seems that Bell and others like him have gravitated toward universalism because they simply cannot reconcile the traditional doctrine of Hell with their concept of a good, compassionate, just and infinitely loving God. As a result, there has been something of a pendulum effect where people have swung to the opposite extreme. Rather than believing that God would sentence billions of people to eternal conscious torment within the leaping flames of Hell, some have chosen to believe God will simply save everyone. According to a 2000 cover article appearing in U.S. News & World Report, most Americans still believe in the existence of Hell—64% to be precise (56-57). However, another more recent poll conducted by Fox News reveals that of the 69,125 respondents 11.13% “believe God’s love and forgiveness extends to everyone” (universalism), 38.57% “do not believe in hell” and 17.19% indicated they were “afraid my soul could be condemned there for eternity”—this last group is surprisingly large considering one of the other possible responses was “I’m certain I will be in heaven when I die” (Fox News). Regardless, these recent statistics indicate reluctance by many to accept the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment in Hell. And popular authors, like Rob Bell, are quick to give people a fairy-tale alternative. Predictably, this teaching has also caused many to question or even reject God’s very existence. Charles Templeton, a one time friend and pulpit partner of Bill Graham, eventually left the faith because, among other reasons, he could not reconcile the idea of eternal conscious torment with a fair and loving God. In an interview with Lee Strobel, Templeton said, “I couldn’t hold someone’s hand to a fire for a moment. Not an instant! How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey him and do what he wants, torture you forever—not allowing you to die, but to continue in that pain for eternity?” (Strobel 240). Clark Pinnock, professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College, weighs-in as well: “The traditional understanding of hell is unspeakably horrible. How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave his Son to die for sinners because of his great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject him to everlasting pain?” (Pinnock 40). Are the emotionally charged concerns of Rob Bell, Charles Templeton, Clark Pinnock and others legitimate? Have Christians unwittingly assaulted and maligned the character of God? 3
What if our collective mental picture of Hell painted by Jonathan Edwards and others isn’t an accurate picture at all? What if the traditional doctrine that Christians have believed and taught for centuries isn’t even biblical? Is universalism the answer or is there some other option? Is it possible that both extremes are wrong, and that the truth is really somewhere in between? It certainly isn’t unheard-of in Christian history for a long-held belief to later be rejected by mainstream Christians as unbiblical. Consider that for nearly 1500 years the Roman Catholic Church and all the aberrant doctrines they endorsed—infant baptism, indulgences, the papacy, purgatory, etc.—set the standard in Christian history. It wasn’t until Martin Luther came along and started the Protestant Reformation that people began to realize that many of their timehonored beliefs were really just man-made traditions masquerading as truth. After 24 years of embracing the classic Christian view of Hell, I now believe that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is one of those man-made traditions. A significant minority of Christians have diverged from the accepted view of Hell in favor of a position often referred to as Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality (conditionalism at times). Hank Hanegraaff comments, “Just as universalism is the rage in liberal Christianity, so too annihilation has been gaining momentum in conservative Christian circles. The question of course is—is annihilationism biblical?” (The Bible Answer Book 216). That’s the question this student seeks to answer. In recent years, pastors and authors such as Clark Pinnock, Edward Fudge, Homer Hailey, Jimmy Allen and F. LaGard Smith have all penned works arguing in favor of annihilationism. In 1990, the highly respected British scholar, John R. W. Stott, stirred more than a little controversy by including a chapter on the subject in his book, Evangelical Essentials, in which he too argues for annihilation. Moreover, an entire Christian denomination—the Seventh Day Adventists—indentifies annihilation as one of their official doctrines. In 1989, a conference of 350 leaders was held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois to confer over the annihilation question. As it turned out, attendants of the conference were split down the middle. The Christianity Today report said:
Strong disagreements did surface over the position of annihilationism, a view that holds that unsaved souls will cease to exist after death . . . the conference was almost 4
evenly divided as to how to deal with the issue in the affirmations statement, and no renunciation of the position was included in the draft document. (60)
Since proponents of this view are not entirely uniform in their teaching, it is prudent to clearly and concisely establish exactly what it is that this student is affirming. I’m convinced the Scriptures teach that eternal life (i.e. immortality) is not an intrinsic quality of humanity; rather, eternal life is conditional upon faith in Jesus and is a gift given by God alone. Upon natural death, the souls of both believers and unbelievers do indeed survive the death of their bodies and travel immediately to the spirit realm—which the Bible refers to as Hades or Sheol—to await the resurrection. When Christ comes again, the dead will be resurrected (both the righteous and the wicked) to face final judgment. Believers will then be given new heavenly, immortal bodies and will live forever in the presence of God in the new Heaven and Earth. Unbelievers, however, on that same day will experience the Second Death— instant and utter destruction of both body and soul. Thus, they will be no more—gone forever. The traditional view of Hell, in my opinion, does great violence to the nature of God and his goodness. Universalism, on the other hand, fails to acknowledge God’s holiness and justice. Annihilationism, however, allows God to punish—in fact, completely eradicate—sin without being cruel, calloused or criminal. Regardless of how we feel or what we’ve been taught our whole church-going lives, the final authority on this issue is Scripture. Following Jesus sometimes requires us to sacrifice our time-honored traditions upon the altar of biblical truth. Perhaps John Stott said it best:
Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal Hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it… my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? (Stott 316)
The goal of this thesis is to determine just that: what does God’s Word say? What follows is an analysis of the doctrine of annihilation in light of essential Christian doctrine, Scriptural 5
synergy, and proper exegesis. The proposition of this thesis is that the Scriptures teach the total and complete destruction (i.e. annihilation) of unbelievers rather than the traditionally accepted doctrine of eternal conscious torment.
Part One: Rightly Dividing the Words
In order to have a biblical perspective on Hell and final judgment it is essential to have a basic understanding of the Greek and Hebrew words variously translated as Hell in the English Bible. Much of our confusion and misunderstanding about the after-life and final judgment is due to the seemingly-haphazard translation of four Greek and Hebrew words. These words are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. These are the only four words sometimes rendered as Hell in English translations and I believe that if each of them had simply been transliterated or left intact, Christians would have a much better understanding of the after-life and final judgment.
The first of these words, and the only one to appear in the Old Testament, is Sheol. It is the Hebrew word “referring to the place of the departed human spirit after physical death,” according to the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Renn 460). This word is sometimes translated as “the grave,” but it never refers to a literal hole in the ground; rather, it refers to the “waiting place” where disembodied spirits go to await the resurrection of the body. Twenty-nine times, the NIV translates this word as “the realm of the dead,” and accurately so. By far the most consistent translation, however, is the Holman Christian Standard which simply leaves the word unaltered; transliterating it as Sheol each of the 65 times it occurs. Now, if only all translations were equally consistent there wouldn’t be any confusion about the meaning. Unfortunately, most translations aren’t consistent. The King James Version in particular has been the source of much misunderstanding. In the KJV we see Sheol translated as Hell 31 times with no apparent rhyme or reason, which has lead to a lot of false impressions about the afterlife. For instance, in the King James Version, the psalmist writes, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Psalm 16:10). In Acts 2, Peter tells us that this passage is a messianic prophecy about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The problem? Jesus never went to Hell! Unfortunately, many people—having read the KJV—make the inaccurate assumption that Jesus did, in fact, go to Hell for three days after dying on the cross. The NIV 7
offers a much more accurate translation, which reads: “you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Psalm 16:10 NIV). Keep in mind also that the “realm of the dead” is a place for both believers and nonbelievers, both righteous and wicked. Not only did Jesus make a personal visit there, but Jacob also expected to go there when he thought that his son Joseph had been killed: “All his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ And his father wept for him” (Genesis 37:35 HCSB). There is a distinct difference, then, between Sheol and what we normally think of as Hell. In fact, there is no mention of Hell or any other place of eternal torment anywhere in the Old Testament, only vague references to Sheol, the realm of the dead.
The Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Sheol is Hades. When the Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew, was translated into Greek during the third and second centuries before Christ, the Greek word Hades was used to translate the Hebrew word Sheol. The reason for this is that in Greek mythology the realm of Hades was believed to be “the misty and gloomy abode of the dead (also called Erebus), where all mortals go” after death. Thus, Hades made for an understandable equivalent to Sheol—both words referring to the same place. Hades also occurs 11 times in the New Testament. Most modern translations simply leave the word unaltered, rendering it Hades the majority of the time. Once again, however, the King James and other older translations have caused more confusion. In the KJV the word Hades is actually translated Hell 10 of the 11 times it appears. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the KJV says, “And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23 KVJ). Not only is this sloppy translation, but it mistakenly indicates that Abraham and Lazarus are also in Hell. A more accurate understanding of the verse can be found in the Holman Christian Standard Bible: “And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side” (Luke 16:23 HCSB). Or as the New Century Version renders it: “In the place of the dead,
he was in much pain.” Both Lazarus and the rich man are portrayed in Hades, but their experiences while there are very different. On a related note, Jesus told the thief on the cross, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 HCSB). Peter, however, indicates that Jesus went to Hades after his death on the cross, when he says, “[David] spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: He was not left in Hades, and His flesh did not experience decay” (Acts 2:31 HCSB). Therefore, it’s clear that Hades, the same as Sheol, is the realm of the dead where disembodied spirits await the resurrection—a prison to some, but paradise to others.
The word Tartarus is only used one time in the Bible and is also translated Hell in most versions of the Bible. It appears only in 2 Peter 2:4, which says, “God didn't spare the angels who sinned, but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment” (HCSB). A footnote from the Holman Christian Standard Bible explains: “Tartarus is a Geek name for a subterranean place of divine punishment lower than Hades.” Although not very much can be determined from a single verse, it is clear that Peter spoke of Tartarus as a special prison where rebellious angels are held while awaiting final judgment. In Greek culture, “The great pit of Tartarus, originally the exclusive prison of the old Titan gods, later came to mean the dungeon home of damned souls” (Wikipedia). The Titans were mythological giants who rebelled against the Olympian gods and where supposedly imprisoned in Tartarus, described as “a deep, gloomy place, a pit, or an abyss used as a dungeon” (Wikipedia). It’s no wonder, then, that Peter borrowed this word from Greek mythology to describe the spiritual “detention center” of angels. In a related passage, Jesus encountered a man who was possessed by many demons calling themselves Legion. When Jesus threatened to cast them out, the Bible says, “they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss” (Mark 8:31 NIV). This Abyss is described in more detail in Revelation and seems to be the same place Peter calls Tartarus—a special prison where demons (i.e. rebellious angels) are held to await the final judgment.
However, like Sheol and Hades, Tartarus is not Hell; rather it is a temporary prison “where they are being held until the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:4 NLT).
Finally, there is just one last word translated Hell in the Bible—the Greek word Gehenna. It appears 12 times in the New Testament and is translated Hell in every instance. Interestingly, however, almost every instance of the word occurs in the synoptic Gospels. The word appears nowhere in the book of Acts, the writings of Paul, or the epistles of Peter. It is conspicuously absent from Hebrews, the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. In fact, with only one exception—a passing reference in James 3:6—every utterance of the word comes from the lips of Jesus. Even more interesting is that Jesus only spoke of Hell (Gehenna) when he was in or around Jerusalem and only when speaking to a Jewish audience. Why might this be? The reason is that the word Gehenna literally means The Valley of Hinnom. This valley was a real, physical ravine located on the south side of Jerusalem. In Four Veiws of Hell, part of the Counterpoints Series published by Zondervan, William Crocket provides readers with some important background information about Gehenna:
Southwest of the city [of Jerusalem] was the Valley of Hinnom, an area that had a long history of desecration. The steep gorge was once used to burn children in sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Jeremiah denounced such practices by saying that Hinnom Valley would become the valley of God's judgment, a place of slaughter (Jer. 7:32; 19:5-7). As the years passed, a sense of foreboding hung over the valley. People began to burn their garbage and offal there, using sulfur, the flammable substance we now use in matches and gunpowder. Eventually, the Hebrew name ge-hinnom (canyon of Hinnom) evolved into geenna (gehenna), the familiar Greek word for hell (Matt. 5:22, 29; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:43, 45; Luke 12:5). Thus when the Jews talked about punishment in the next life, what better image could they use than the smoldering valley they called gehenna? (Crocket 58) 10
Mark Driscoll adds, “Gehenna was a place so despised and cursed by God’s people that they turned it into the city dump where feces, refuse, and the dead bodies of criminals were stacked” (Driscoll). Maggots infested the dump, continually feeding off the feces and refuse, while fires were kept burning 24/7 in order to consume the garbage as well as prevent the stench from reaching the city streets. Therefore, it was this image and this actual valley that Jesus referenced and described when he made statements such as he does in Mark’s Gospel: “And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell [gehenna], ‘where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out’” (Mark 9:47-48 NLT). By Jesus’ day, Gehenna had already become a commonly used metaphor for final judgment in other Jewish literature. So Jesus was simply continuing a tradition that had already been established. When Jesus used the vivid imagery of “maggots that never die and fire the never goes out,” he was simply describing the nature of the valley—where the flames burned continuously and the maggots never went away. To my knowledge, every biblical scholar recognizes that Jesus, like other Jewish rabbis before him, wasn’t saying that people would go to the actual Valley of Gehenna in order to endure their final punishment; rather, he was drawing a colorful word picture of the final fate of unbelievers—an analogy. Jesus used Gehenna as a metaphor to illustrate for people what final judgment would be like. The key, therefore, to understanding what final judgment is like is to understand what Gehenna was like. For example, if I were to tell my son his room is a “pigpen,” that metaphor would mean nothing to him unless he knew what a pigpen is like. Many who hold to the traditional view of Hell leap to unjustified conclusions because they detach their interpretation of Hell from the historical Gehenna. David Pharr, for one, says, “The metaphor assumes that once the flesh had been completely eaten by the maggots, the maggots would die. In that they do not die, it must be that consummation is never complete. Likewise, this fire never goes out because it never completes its burning” (Pharr 6). This line of reasoning indicates a failure to understand the historical context and completely misses to point of the metaphor.
Gehenna was a place of disgust, disgrace, death, and destruction. It was never at any time, however, a place of torment or torture. When thieves or other criminals died and were deemed unworthy of a proper burial, their dead bodies were tossed into the fire to be consumed by the flames. There are no records, however, of anyone ever being throwing into Gehenna to be burned alive. If Gehenna was Jesus’ primary metaphor for final judgment then, what are we to conclude about final judgment? That it involves eternal conscious torment? Or that that it involves disgrace, death, and destruction? Jesus makes the meaning of his metaphor clear when he says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]” (Matthew 10:28 NIV).
What do we learn from these four different Greek and Hebrew words whimsically translated as Hell? We learn that none of them describe or refer to a place of eternal conscious torment. Three of them refer to a spiritual realm where disembodied spirits or angels go to await the resurrection and the final judgment—a prison to some, paradise to others. The other one refers to a physical, contemptible valley of disgust, death and destruction analogous to final judgment. None of them, however, refer to a place of eternal conscious suffering. So then, why did translators render all these words as Hell, rather than transliterating them or leaving them unaltered? Because the doctrine of eternal conscious torment was already a widely accepted belief by the time the Bible was translated into English, I’m convinced that translators sought to maintain the status quo by intentionally introducing a word with a connotative meaning that hid the original intended meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words. According to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, “The modern English word Hell is derived from Old English hel, helle (about 725 AD to refer to a nether world of the dead) reaching into the Anglo-Saxon pagan period, and ultimately from Proto-Germanic halja, meaning ‘one who covers up or hides something’” (Barnhart 348). Indeed, something has been hidden and covered up—the truth. And the truth is—there is no Hell!
Part Two: Scriptural Evidence for Conditional Immortality
It is the opinion of this student that belief in eternal conscious torment contradicts essential Christian doctrine. One of the essential doctrines of the historic Christian faith is that eternal life is a gift given by God to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. For centuries, however, Christendom has contradicted this essential belief—many times without even realizing it. Just recently this student was engaged in an online forum discussion about the nature of Hell where one person posted: “We’re all going to live forever, some in Heaven, some in Hell.” Really? Is that what the Bible teaches? Regardless of whether or not it is biblical, belief in the traditional view of Hell presupposes the intrinsic immortality of the human soul—or unconditional immortality. After all, one can be alive without being conscious, but one cannot be conscious without being alive. This presupposition is in stark contrast to essential teachings of Scripture. Never, at anytime in the Bible does God, Jesus, the apostles or prophets attribute eternal life or immortality to unbelievers. In fact, just the opposite is true. It seems most fitting to begin the Scriptural exploration of annihilation in one of the most familiar verse of Scripture—John 3:16. As Max Lucado points out, this verse is “brief enough to write on a napkin or memorize in a moment, yet solid enough to weather two thousand years of storms and questions” (Lucado 8). Although it is one of the most well-known passages of Scripture, it seems that many have missed an essential element of the verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV). Jesus depicts two possible fates here—eternal life or perishing, not eternal life in heaven or eternal life in hell, but eternal life or perishing. When one hears the word perish in this context, without any preconceived ideas or presumptions, isn’t the meaning clear? Juxtaposed against eternal life, the obvious intended meaning of perish would be death or non-life. Jesus continually drew a contrast between those who believe and those who don’t—the former will live and the later will perish. Just a brief sampling of passages should be enough to clarify Jesus’ position. 13
For example, Jesus would shortly tell the woman at the well, “but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14 NIV). In other words, Jesus is saying that only those who receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will possess the gift of eternal life. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV). Once again, there are only two possible roads—one that leads to life and one that leads to destruction, not to a life of endless suffering and torment, but utter destruction. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24 NIV). Once again, the hope of “life” and “eternal life” belongs to believers. Conversely, those who do not believe will be condemned and will not cross over from death to life. Later in the same chapter Jesus says, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29 NIV). Here, Jesus teaches plainly that both believers and unbelievers will be resurrected on the final Day of Judgment. Those who believed or “have done good,” he says, will live from that day forward. Those who disbelieved or “have done evil” will be condemned. Now, there is no further explanation or detail given here about what their condemnation entails, but evidently it will not involve living. Another important passage comes not from Jesus, but from the pen of Paul. In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that God “will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness” (Romans 2:6-8 NLT). Here again, eternal life is clearly portrayed as a gift given by God to those who seek him and who seek the immortality that he offers. Obviously, Paul believed that immortality was 14
something that people must seek from God, not something that they inherently posses. Paul further expounds this point when he writes, “Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever… For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42 NIV emp. added). In no uncertain terms Paul explains that humans have mortal bodies and, in order to continue to exist for all eternity, they must experience a transformation and glorification of their mortal bodies. Nowhere does Paul indicate that unbelievers will undergo a similar transformation. Nowhere does he imply that unbelievers will become imperishable or immortal. Moritz is correct in his assessment: “Contrary, to popular opinion, the Bible never says that all people are born with an immortal soul. It says instead that only God has immortality, and He blesses whom He chooses with the gift of eternal life. The concept of the immortal soul is nowhere found in the Bible” (Moritz). Edward Fudge agrees. In his ground breaking work, The Fire That Consumes, Fudge argues convincingly that belief in the immortal soul can be traced to Greek influences during the intertestamental period. Fudge explains, “The immortality of the soul was a principle doctrine of the Greek philosopher Plato, who was born about the time the last Old Testament book was being written” (Fudge, The Fire That Consumes 65). Fudge then argues that this Hellenistic influence permeated the church as Christianity spread throughout the Greek and Roman world. “Many Christian writers of the second and third centuries,” Fudge reveals, “…freely borrowed the Platonic conception of the soul” (Fudge, The Fire That Consumes 66-67). Whatever the source of this unbiblical belief, the clear implication of the above passages (not to mention countless others not cited here) is that human beings are not immortal by nature and if not given immortality/eternal life through faith in Jesus, they will eventually die—both physically and eternally. Chapter 18 from the book of Ezekiel highlights this point. The entire chapter focuses on God’s fairness and justice. Ezekiel states that God will not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents, nor will he hold parents responsible for the sins of their children. Rather, he says that each person will be held accountable for his or her own choices: “When good people stop doing good and do wrong, they will die because of it. They will die, because they did wrong. 15
When the wicked stop being wicked and do what is fair and right, they will save their lives” (Ezekiel 18:26-27 NCV). It is evident that the life and death in view here is not physical life and death for at least two reasons. First of all, everyone dies. Righteous or unrighteous, everyone dies. Secondly, both the good and wicked people in this passage had opportunity to change, thus the wicked are not killed immediately; rather, they are permitted to continue through life in their wickedness. The life and death in view here must therefore be eternal life and eternal death. God makes this clear when he states, “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4 ESV). He repeats that last phrase again, as if for emphasis: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (vs. 20 NIV). It is the soul that will die. Not the person, not the one, but the soul who sins will die. The penalty for sin is death, just as God told Adam and Eve in the Garden—not the death of body; rather the death of the soul. Keep Ezekiel 18 in mind, then consider what Paul says in Romans: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NIV). Here, Paul points out not only that eternal life is a gift of God available only through Jesus, but also that the penalty for sin is death. Nowhere does the Bible say, “the wages of sin is a never-ending torture chamber of fire and brimstone.” There are only two possible fates for all humanity— eternal life in Jesus Christ or the total, final death of both body and soul. The apostle John even refers to this death as the “second death.” He writes, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8 NIV emp. added). Jesus said that those who come to him in faith will inherit “everlasting life” (John 3:36; 5:24; 6:47, 54) “shall live forever” (John 6:51, 58), “shall never see death” (John 8:51), “shall never taste of death” (John 8:52), and “shall never die” (John 11:26). What do these promises imply if not that unbelievers will not inherit everlasting life, will not live forever, will see death, will taste death, and will die!? In light of the above evidence, many traditionalists have gone so far as to redefine death in order to avoid the obvious conclusions. Wayne Jackson, for example, argues that “the underlying sense of ‘death’ is that of ‘separation’—not ‘annihilation.’” He goes on to cite James 16
2:26 as evidence that “the death of the body is biblically defined by the departure of the spirit,” and concludes that “the second death is an ultimate and eternal separation from God” (Jackson). Redefining death in this way, however, leads to all sorts of confusion. Wendell Winkler, for instance, writes, “Hell is a real place where men always die, yet never die; never live, yet always live!” (Winkler 46). This is the sort of nonsensical rhetoric that arises from the traditional view of Hell. Are they dead or alive? They cannot be both. So, which is it? Again, as Moritz points out, “It takes a good bit of theological gymnastics to continually reinterpret these divinely inspired Words of God to mean the exact opposite of their natural meanings” (Moritz). While it’s certainly true that the soul does separate from the body upon physical death, the soul itself is still alive. The soul is never described as dead because it is separate from the body, so why would anyone conclude that “the second death” means separation from God? Separation is not the definition of death. When a doctor proclaims a patient dead on the operating table, it is not because the doctor witnesses the soul depart the body; rather, it is because all vital signs have ceased. The heart has stopped beating. The lungs have stopped breathing. All signs of life have terminated. Animals live and die, yet would Winkler or Jackson argue when an animal dies it is because the soul has separated from its body or that animals will experience the second death by being eternally separated from God? For that matter, even plants are living biological life forms, but certainly none believe that when a plant dies, its death signifies the separation of its spirit from its body—that sounds more like pantheism than Christianity. One cannot confuse the definition of death in order to fit it into a preconceived theological paradigm. Death means the cessation or termination of life—it is that simple. The separation of the soul from the body may be a result of death or even the cause of death (as James 2:26 seems to indicate) but not the definition of death. Therefore, when the Bible speaks of the “wages of sin” and “the second death” it is not referring to a quarantine of souls somewhere far away from God’s presence, but rather the ending of life—both of the body and the soul. F. LaGard Smith, Scholar-in-Residence for Christian Studies at Lipscomb University, offers this poignant summary in his invaluable volume, Afterlife:
What, after all, is the opposite of life, if not death; and the opposite of eternal life, if not eternal death? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that 17
whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal lifeâ€? (John 3:16). To insist that the contrast is between eternal life and eternal torment misses the point altogether. Eternal life finds its greatest significance in the very fact that there is life where otherwise there would be no life! Our eternal destiny is not a matter of better or worse. Itâ€™s nothing less than a matter of life and death! (Smith 189)
Part Three: Scriptural Evidence for Annihilation
The belief in eternal conscious torment, in the judgment of this student, violates the principle of Scriptural synergy. Hank Hanegraaff elaborates:
Simply stated, this means that the whole of Scripture is greater than the sum of its individual passages. You cannot comprehend the Bible as a whole without comprehending its individual parts, and you cannot comprehend its individual parts without comprehending the Bible as a whole. Individual passages of Scripture are synergistic rather than deflective with respect to the whole of Scripture. Scriptural synergy demands that individual Bible passages may never be interpreted in such a way as to conflict with the whole of Scripture. (Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code 9)
While there are two and only two passages of Scripture that speak of “torment” in the afterlife, there are literally dozens upon dozens of passages that unambiguously communicate the total and final extinction of unbelievers. Traditionalists mistakenly interpret the whole of Scripture in light of a few isolated passages rather than interpreting the few in light of the overwhelming testimony of Scripture, which clearly and continuously communicates the total destruction of unbelievers.
Annihilation in the Old Testament
The Old Testament uses in excess of fifty different Hebrew verbs and around seventy figures of speech to describe the fate the ungodly. “Without exception they portray destruction, extinction or extermination. Not one of the verbs or word-pictures remotely suggests the traditional doctrine” (Fudge, The Final End of the Wicked 326). Psalm 39 is a prime example. Penned by King David, Psalm 39 vividly portrays the destruction of the wicked. David begins by saying, “Don’t worry about the wicked… For like 19
grass, they soon fade away. Like spring flowers, they soon wither” (vs. 1-2 NLT). He goes on to say, “The wicked will be destroyed, but those who trust in the Lord will possess the land. Soon the wicked will disappear. Though you look for them, they will be gone. The lowly will possess the land and will live in peace and prosperity” (Psalm 39:9-11 NLT emp. added). David doesn’t imagine a time when unbelievers are imprisoned in a dark corner of the universe writhing in pain, but when they are altogether gone! He makes this abundantly clear when he writes, “But the wicked will perish: The Lord's enemies will be like the beauty of the fields, they will vanish—vanish like smoke” (Psalm 39:28 NIV emp. added). Many traditionalists correctly point out that David likely had a temporal, physical destruction in mind here as evidenced by verses 35-36: “I have seen wicked and ruthless people flourishing like a tree in its native soil. But when I looked again, they were gone! Though I searched for them, I could not find them!” (NLT). David may very well have had in mind that evildoers who seem to be successful for a time will eventually meet an early demise; however, it is difficult to miss the eschatological overtones of David’s words. The ultimate fulfillment of this inspired promise that “the wicked will be destroyed,” lies not in time, but in eternity. One can know this simply by the sad fact that many unregenerate people do live long and prosperous lives here on Earth. Who could forget the words of the classic hymn, Farther Along: “Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder why it should be thus all the daylong; While there are others living about us, never molested, though in the wrong.” Moreover, Jesus verifies that David’s psalm looked forward to a time when the wicked would be utterly destroyed by quoting it in the beatitudes. David writes, “But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace” (vs. 11). Jesus then echoes his words, saying, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5 NIV). Was Jesus thinking of a time when the enemies of Israel would meet their physical doom and Jews would repossess the Promised Land? Certainly, not! Rather, both Jesus and David looked forward to the culmination of human history when God’s children would live together with him in a redeemed Earth. And what did David believe would happen to the unrighteous on that great and glorious day? “But all sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off” (vs. 38 NIV emp. added). Not just the sinners who pestered and persecuted David in his time, but all sinners of every epoch of time will be destroyed. 20
We find a similar example in Psalm 73, a psalm of Asaph. Throughout this psalm Asaph laments the prosperity of the wicked. From his perspective it seems as though wicked people have it all. Although they have no respect for God, they seem to live long, healthy lives; they amass great wealth and do whatever they want. He concludes:
When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies. (Psalm 73:16-18 NIV)
After coming into the presence of God Asaph’s eyes were opened. Notice, he speaks here of the “final destiny” of unbelievers, not an earthly or temporary destiny. And how does he describe that destiny? He says they will be “suddenly…destroyed” and “completely swept away.” He says that they will be forgotten “like a dream when one awakes.” This terminology has nothing in common with the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment; rather, it paints a vivid picture of the totality and finality of God’s judgment—namely, annihilation. Of course, the favorite metaphor for final judgment (as well as physical judgment) used by the Old Testament prophets and even Jesus himself was that of a consuming fire. For example, the Bible says, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24 NIV). Additionally, the psalmist writes of God, “Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side” (Psalm 97:3 NIV). Isaiah prophesied, “Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame” (Isaiah 47:14 ESV). God told Ezekiel, “So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 22:31 NIV). Nahum railed against Nineveh, saying, “They will be entangled among thorns and drunk from their wine; they will be consumed like dry stubble” (Nahum 1:10 NIV). Clearly, the image of a consuming fire permeates the pages of Scripture, especially the Old Testament. In what way do these myriad images of a consuming fire teach eternal conscious torment? Evidently, they don’t. In fact, traditionalists deny that sinners will ever be consumed by 21
the fires of Hell, and therefore deny the plain sense and truth of these and countless other passages. One must keep in mind, however, that many of these references were apocalyptic judgment metaphors often carried out by foreign enemies, natural disasters or pestilence (such as a locust invasion) and few, if any, actually involved literal fire of any kind. These threats of flaming judgment were metaphors for God’s wrath. As such, many traditionalists simply dismiss them as irrelevant to the discussion of final judgment. What these traditionalists fail to realize is that many Old Testament (and even some New Testament) prophecies carried a dual meaning—a near-future as well as a far-future fulfillment. For instance, when Isaiah said, “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 NIV), Isaiah may not have even been aware of his prophecy’s Messianic meaning because the near-future fulfillment of his prophecy takes place in the very next chapter. Hank Hanegraaff explains: “As Isaiah makes clear, this prophecy was fulfilled when Isaiah ‘went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son’ named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (8:3).” He goes on to explain that the Hebrew word translated virgin (almah) “was simply a term used to refer to the prophetess prior to her union with Isaiah, not to indicate that she would give birth to a child as a virgin.” Additionally, he notes, “it was not until after the miraculous virginal conception and birth of Jesus more than six hundred years later that it became entirely clear that the near-future fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy was a type, the archetype of which is Jesus the Messiah” (Hanegraaff, The Bible Answer Book 84-85). Just as Isaiah’s prophecy about a virgin-born King found its ultimate fulfillment in the first coming of Christ, many of the passages prophesying fiery destruction will find their ultimate fulfillment in the Second Coming of Christ. Certainly, Zephaniah had a dual meaning in mind when he prophesied during the reign of Josiah. Zephaniah repeatedly warned Judah of God’s divine judgment at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, yet his prophecies clearly look beyond temporal judgments to the final judgment on the day of Christ’s return. Consider Zephaniah’s opening words:
“I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. “I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish 22
of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. (1:2-3 NIV)
A few verses later, Zephaniah proclaims, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth” (1:18 NIV). Could anything be clearer? Zephaniah predicts a day when God will consume the world in fire—a fire so totally consuming that it will bring a sudden end to every unbeliever. This vision of the future leaves absolutely no room for eternal conscious torment, not even prolonged torture; rather, those who encounter God’s wrath will experience a swift and sudden end. The last chapter of Isaiah expresses a similar sentiment: “See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his swift chariots roar like a whirlwind. He will bring punishment with the fury of his anger and the flaming fire of his hot rebuke. The LORD will punish the world by fire and by his sword. He will judge the earth, and many will be killed by him” (Isaiah 66:15-16 NLT). Here, Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment against “the world” and “the earth.” The New International Version says, “all men.” It seems Isaiah had more in mind than just God’s temporal judgment against Babylon. And what would become of those who encounter “the fury of his anger”? They will be killed—not tortured or tormented, but killed. As if for emphasis, Isaiah says in the next verse that the wicked “will come to a terrible end” (vs. 17 NLT). In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi provides students of the Torah with the quintessential image of final judgment: “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed— roots, branches, and all” (Malachi 4:1 NLT). Regarding this verse, John MacArthur explains, “Malachi spoke of God’s judgment as a destructive fire that swiftly and totally consumes with excessive heat… The destruction of the roots, normally protected by their subsurface location, provides a vivid, proverbial picture of its totality” (McArthur 1367). What could Malachi 4:1 possibly teach other than total annihilation? It certainly doesn’t even begin to hint at eternal conscious torment. As F. LaGard Smith comments, “If this is meant as a picture of hell, the furnace can roar for as long as one might wish, but it will take no time at all before someone’s got a job carrying 23
out the ashes!” (Smith 170). In light of the overwhelming testimony of the Old Testament, Edward Fudge writes:
The wicked will become like a vessel broken to pieces (Ps 2:9), ashes trodden underfoot (Mai 4:3), smoke that vanishes (Ps 37:20), chaff carried away by the wind (1:4), a slug that melts (58:8), straw that is burned (Isa 1:31), thorns and stubble in the fire (33:12), wax that melts (Ps 68:2) or a dream that vanishes (73:20). The traditionalist view has to deny that the wicked will ever become like any of those things and affirm that they will indeed be what none of those pictures portrays: an everlasting spectacle of indestructible material in an unending fire. (Fudge, The Final End of the Wicked 326)
Indeed, many traditionalists claim that the Old Testament is generally silent concerning final judgment. “It appears silent to the traditionalist,” says Fudge, “only because it says nothing he expected to find. It is silent…about unending conscious torture. But it speaks volumes concerning that penalty first threatened in the Garden of Eden: Those who sin will ‘surely die’ (Gen 3:3; Ezek 18:4)” (Fudge, The Final End of the Wicked 327).
Annihilation in the New Testament
Of course, it’s not just Old Testament prophecy that speaks of final judgment in fiery terms. In the New Testament, John the Baptist continues Malachi’s depiction of God’s wrath as a burning furnace when prophesying about the coming Messiah: “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12 NKJV). Not surprisingly, many traditionalists zero in on the word “unquenchable,” claiming that it indicates eternality. John obviously had no such thing in mind however, as he says clearly that the chaff (the thin, flaky seed coverings) tossed into the fire “will burn up.” That is what happens when chaff is tossed into a roaring furnace. There is nothing left of it. More likely, John had in mind a fire that could not be put out—that could never be stopped—not because it was fueled by the bodies and souls of condemned people, but by the infinite wrath and justice of an eternal God. 24
There are two occasions in the Old Testament where the phrase “unquenchable” or “will not be quenched” is used to describe fire symbolic for God’s judgment (Jeremiah 17:27, Ezekiel 20:47-48). In Jeremiah God threatens to kindle a fire that will “devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” if the people continue to break God’s law concerning the Sabbath. In Ezekiel, God threatens to set fire to the southern forest, saying, “the blazing flame will not be quenched… it will consume all your trees.” In each case the fire is a metaphor for God’s judgments and is said to be unquenchable; however, in each case, the fire consumes and destroys everything in its path. The fact that God describes it as unquenchable in no way suggests that what is put into the fire will prove indestructible; rather just the opposite is true—because the fire is unquenchable it will devour everything in its path. Smith correctly assesses the conundrum of unquenchable fire, saying, “What, then, does ‘unquenchable fire’ do? It makes desolate, it consumes, and it burns up whatever is put into it. If perhaps you still believe that the ‘fire’ literally burns forever, even so, don’t get hung up on how long the fire burns. Concentrate on what it does” (Smith 172). Jesus himself picks up right where John left off, saying, “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6 NIV). What does one expect will happen to a dried and withered branch when it is tossed into a fire? It will burn up, of course; and, if the fire is hot enough, nothing will be left of it. That was Jesus’ implication. He makes the same implication at the end of his parable about the wheat and the weeds, saying, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matthew 13:30 NIV emp. added). In these passages, and many others like them, lost sinners are compared to chaff, withered branches, and dried weeds—all things that burn quickly and thoroughly. We’ve all seen bonfires or other similar sites before. Recently my wife and I moved to the country where it is common to burn trash in 55 gallon drums. We purchased one ourselves and the first time I used it I placed several paper and cardboard products into it along with several twigs and withered branches we picked up in the yard. We added a little lighter fluid to get it started and then I kept an eye on it as it burned. The bright orange flames rose to about a foot or so above the barrel. As I stood there I noticed some chaff (specifically, some Box Elder Tree seeds, commonly known as 25
helicopter seeds) laying the grass by my foot. Out of curiosity I bent down and scooped a few of them up and then tossed into the fire. There was a quick pop as the seeds burst, and then they were gone—incinerated in an instant. When the fire had finished its work, having burned for no more than half an hour, there was nothing left in the barrel but a layer of white ash. This is the image John, Jesus, and others conveyed when they spoke of chaff, withered branches, and dried weeds being tossed into the fire and burned up. If the traditional view of Hell is correct, then none of these images or metaphors make any sense. Just three chapters prior, Jesus would make the quintessential statement concerning final judgment: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NIV). One can hardly sense any ambiguity in this statement. Rather, Jesus states clearly and emphatically that God can do what man cannot—namely, destroy so as to kill both body and soul! Perhaps this is a good time to respond to the argument made by many traditionalists, who claim that the Greek and Hebrew words translated destroy or perish in various passages have a broad range of meanings. As Robert Reymond points out, Luke 15:8-9 uses the word to describe the lost coin. In Luke 15:4 and 6 it describes the lost sheep. The prodigal son is also described by this term in Luke 15:17, 24 (Raymond 53). Murray Harris cites other passages, such as John 11:50, Acts 5:37, 1 Corinthians 10:9-10, and Jude 11, where the concept of destruction (apoleia) or perishing (apolusthai) need not imply annihilation (Harris 184). While it is absolutely true that these words can have various meanings, the primary meaning is that of utter destruction and it is the context that should determine which meaning is applied. For example, the English word run has many meanings. A person can run a mile, run an errand, run a bath, or run a printing press. The meaning is determined by the context. For instance, Matthew 2:13, 12:14, and 27:4 all refer to Herod’s plot to destroy (apoleia) the infant Jesus. In those contexts the word clearly means to destroy so as to kill (and is sometimes translated as such), which is precisely the meaning here in Matthew 10:28. Moreover, StudyLight’s New Testament Greek Lexicon, which provides three possible definitions for the word apoleia, indicates that the primary definition is “destroying, utter destruction” (The New Testament Lexicon). Likewise, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament lists the primary meaning as “to destroy, i.e. to put out of the way entirely, 26
abolish, put an end to” (Thayer 64). Smith responds well to this challenge in a footnote from Afterlife:
When you compare Matthew 10:28 with Matthew 7:13-14 any argument that the word destruction means only “lost” (as in the lost coin), or “wasted” (as in the perfume Mary poured over Jesus) or perhaps simply “useless,” is shown for the fraud that it is. Unlike the highly figurative apocalyptic passages in which we find words like “torment” and “torture,” use of the word destruction in straightforward passages like these argues for the natural, most obvious meaning of the word… How can one possibly miss the plain meaning of Matthew 10:28 which derives from the contrast between the power of man and the power of God? Jesus is saying that man cannot kill the soul, but God can! Therefore, what God can do to the soul is the logical equivalent of what man can do to the body, which is to kill it… Rendering “destroy” as anything less than its plain meaning in this passage is to play linguistic games while ignoring the obvious context. (Smith 186)
Carrying on, the author of Hebrews continues the use of fiery judgment language, speaking of those who have fallen into apostasy:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace… land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. (Hebrews 6:4-8 NIV)
Farmers who wished to replant a particular field would often burn the field down, destroying any plants that might be lingering on and taking up valuable soil. In so doing, they could make room for new crops to be planted. The obvious implication is that those who have “fallen away” are “worthless” and “will be burned” and destroyed just like a fruitless field. In 27
case his implication wasn’t clear, the Hebrew author later describes in no uncertain terms the fate of unrepentant apostates: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:26-27 NIV). What will the “raging fire” of God’s judgment do to God’s enemies? Will it torture, torment or prolong their existence? No. Rather, it will consume them. God’s wrath is clearly and consistently, throughout all of Scripture, portrayed as a consuming or devouring fire—one that completely destroys whatever is thrown into it.
Peter’s Apocalyptic Vision
Perhaps the most detailed and vivid picture of the final fate of the ungodly is the one provided by the apostle Peter. In 2 Peter 2, the apostle addresses the problem of false teachers. He says, “They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (vs. 2 NIV emp. added). He follows this up by declaring, “Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (vs. 3 NIV). Then, as a sort of reassurance that God is not negligent, Peter offers two Old Testament examples of divine justice:
God did not spare the ancient world—except for Noah and the seven others in his family. Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment. So God protected Noah when he destroyed the world of ungodly people with a vast flood. Later, God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned them into heaps of ashes. He made them an example of what will happen to ungodly people. (vs. 5-6 NLT)
If the Genesis flood and the destruction of Sodom are “examples of what will happen to the ungodly,” what do their examples teach? The example of Sodom and Gomorrah will be explored in more detail in the next section. In the meantime, the example of the Noahic flood certainly does not support the idea of eternal conscious torment. God didn’t torture or torment Noah’s generation; rather, he “destroyed the world of ungodly people with a vast flood.” In 28
Genesis, God told Noah, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them… I am going to put an end to all people” (Genesis 6:7-13 NIV). The mass execution of almost all mankind in the days of Noah was a precursor and type, the anti-type of which will be the final execution of all unbelievers on the Day of Judgment. As Peter continues, had adds, “But these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish” (vs. 12 NIV emphasis added). What is Peter’s purpose in comparing the fate of false teachers to that of wild animals? Certainly, Christians are not to believe that God will endlessly torture unreasoning animals within the leaping flames of Hell. Moreover, there is no sense in claiming that Peter is only speaking of physical destruction or perishing here. If that were the case Peter would just be flat wrong. All blasphemers do not experience an untimely, violent death. From an annihilationist perspective, though, Peter’s words make perfect sense. Both brute beasts and blasphemers will experience the same fate, just as they did in Noah’s day—they will perish in the plainest sense of the word. The New King James Version even asserts that they will “utterly perish” (vs. 12). Then, in the following chapter, Peter directly connects the fate of the ungodly to the destruction of the present heavens and earth: “The present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the Day of Judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed” (2 Peter 3:7 NLT emp. added). Then Peter describes the indescribable: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (3:10 NIV). When Peter uses the same words to describe the fate of both the elements (referring not the Periodic Table, but to the base things of this world) and the ungodly taking place on the very same day—the Day of Judgment—how could one miss the obvious conclusion? According to Peter, brute beasts will be destroyed, the heavens will be destroyed, the elements will be destroyed and the ungodly will be destroyed—all on the same day and in the same way! Are Christians supposed to interpret Peter as saying that animals will be killed, the elements will be annihilated, but unbelievers will be tortured for endless eons? Of course, not! That makes no sense. Peter is clear and direct. Unbelievers will not experience the fire of God’s 29
judgment any longer than the earth itself will; rather, they will be destroyed by fire, utterly perish, and be wiped from the face of the earth!
The Quintessential Example: Sodom and Gomorrah
Now, returning to Peter’s reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he said, “Later, God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned them into heaps of ashes. He made them an example of what will happen to ungodly people” (2 Peter 2:6 NLT). What happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? God turned them into heaps of ashes. So, what will happen to all ungodly people? God will turn them into heaps of ashes! What other conclusion could we possibly come to!? Peter is not alone in this observation either. Both Jesus and his half-brother Jude also cite Sodom and Gomorrah as foreshadowing final judgment. Before examining the comments of Jude and Jesus, though, perhaps it would be wise to return to the proverbial scene of the crime. The event takes place in Genesis after two angels spend a horrific evening in Lot’s house. After the evacuation of Lot and his family, the Bible says:
Lot reached the village just as the sun was rising over the horizon. Then the Lord rained down fire and burning sulfur from the sky on Sodom and Gomorrah. He utterly destroyed them, along with the other cities and villages of the plain, wiping out all the people and every bit of vegetation. But Lot’s wife looked back as she was following behind him, and she turned into a pillar of salt. Abraham got up early that morning and hurried out to the place where he had stood in the Lord’s presence. He looked out across the plain toward Sodom and Gomorrah and watched as columns of smoke rose from the cities like smoke from a furnace. (Genesis 19:23-28 NLT)
The Bible uses no vague or tenuous terms. God “utterly destroyed” Sodom and Gomorrah, “wiping out all the people and every bit of vegetation.” When it was all over, “columns of smoke rose from the cities like smoke from a furnace.” They were, in a word, annihilated. God’s judgment of the twin cities became the proverbial picture of God’s wrath and 30
justice in the minds of Jews and early Christians alike. It is quite probable that every biblical reference to “fire and burning sulfur” harkens back to this very moment in Jewish history. Centuries later, Jesus would point back to Sodom and Gomorrah as representative of final judgment. “It was the same in the days of Lot,” Jesus said, “People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28-30 NIV).1 Jesus’ words here indicate two things. First, the Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, while men and women are going about daily routines. Second, that it will bring swift and total destruction. Although the spirits of the inhabitants of Sodom continue to live in the Hadean realm awaiting the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead, their physical annihilation is the type, the archetype of which will be the total annihilation of all who refuse to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Jude, Jesus’ younger brother, also mentions Sodom as an example of final judgment. He writes, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7 NIV). Commenting on this verse, Smith aptly asks:
Eternal fire? You mean fire that keeps on burning its victims forever? Not if Sodom and Gomorrah are anything to go by. The fate of those two abominable cities stands as the quintessential illustration of a consuming fire. In the wake of that catastrophic fire—however long it burned—nothing was left of the two cities, not even a trace! (Smith 173)
Edward Fudge notes, “The actual burning of Sodom was notably quick—in that regard even merciful… The fire fell from heaven and burned the wicked to ashes, resulting in a total desolation that would never be reversed!” (Fudge, The Fire That Consumes 55-56). 1
It should be noted that this passage is first and foremost a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem which took place in AD70 at the hands of the Roman Empire. However, Jerusalem’s earthly judgment and destruction, itself, prefigures the final judgment at Christ’s Second Coming. While the near-future fulfillment of this prophecy is grounded in history, the far-future fulfill is yet to come.
So, in the words of Homer Hailey, “If they serve as an example, what do they teach except that those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire are to exist no more?” (Hailey 142). In light of the overwhelming testimony of the Old Testament, New Testament, Peter’s portrayal of future judgment, and the example of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is evident that the whole of Scripture and the principle of Scriptural synergy do not support the traditional view of Hell. Rather, the Scriptures reveal conclusively that when Christ comes again unbelievers will perish, be destroyed, consumed, brought to a sudden end—in a word, annihilated.
Part Four: Responding to Objections
In Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, in which he debates annihilationist Edward Fudge, Robert A. Peterson argues very capably that the traditional view of Hell fits best with the biblical evidence (Peterson and Fudge). In an article summarizing his position which appeared in the Christian Research Journal, Peterson identifies five passages of Scripture that he believes prove eternal conscious torment beyond a shadow of a doubt (Peterson). Since these are essentially the same proof texts cited by almost every traditionalist, I’ll examine each one in detail to see whether they do indeed support the traditional view.
Matthew 25:41, 46 In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, the King says to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41 NIV). In regards to this verse, Peterson argues, “The conclusion of ‘Depart from me… into the eternal fire’ in Matthew 25:41, then, is incontestable: unsaved human beings, along with the Devil and his angels, will endure endless punishment” (Peterson). Most traditionalists concur; however, it has already been demonstrated via Sodom and Gomorrah’s example that the phrase, eternal fire, does not necessarily denote a fire that burns forever. Other parallel phrases, such as the unquenchable fire mentioned by John, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, also demonstrate this. Isaiah also weighs in on the issues when he asks the rhetorical questions, “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” (Isaiah 33:14). The obvious answer is—no one! None can survive “everlasting burning.” Isaiah makes this conclusion abundantly clear when he says just two verses earlier, “Your people will be burned up completely, like thornbushes cut down and tossed in a fire” (Isaiah 33:12 NLT emp. added). The phrase everlasting burning undoubtedly parallels eternal fire, yet Isaiah linked this phrase together with the consuming fire and clearly communicates that none can survive it. It is thus apparent that the phrase eternal fire does not denote eternal conscious torment; rather, it is a judgment metaphor for utter destruction. As John Stott has correctly noted, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proved 33
indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever” (Stott 316). Later in the same chapter, Jesus says, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NIV). Here Jesus contrasts the fate of the righteous and the wicked, as many traditionalists point out, with the same adjective—eternal. Peterson cites Augustine for an explanation of the argument:
The phrases “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” are parallel and it would be absurd to use them in one and the same sentence to mean: “Eternal life will be infinite, while eternal punishment will have an end.” Hence, because the eternal life of the saints will be endless, the eternal punishment also, for those condemned to it, will assuredly have no end. (Peterson)
There is, of course, no argument from annihilationists that the matching expressions would have two different meanings when used in the same sentence. Obviously, in this context, aionios means eternal, unending, lasting forever and ever. The argument here is not over the word eternal, but over the word punishment. If, as traditionalists claim, the punishment is torture within the flames of Hell, then they would be correct in believing that said torture would last forever. If, however, as has already been overwhelmingly established, the punishment entails complete destruction, then the force of the statement is—destruction that lasts forever wherein unbelievers are punished for all eternity by being destroyed for all eternity. Rarely, traditionalist will try to work around this. Alan Gomes, for instance, claims, “the mere fact that the wicked are said to experience ‘punishment’ (Greek: kolasin) proves two inescapable facts by the nature of the case: the existence of the one punished, and the conscious experience of the punishment” (Gomes). This argument is completely without merit however. If the punishment is death (specifically, the Second Death), it is senseless to argue that they must be conscious during death. For example, when a criminal is sentenced with the death penalty, the punishment itself is death. For that matter, when lethal injection is used to carry out a death sentence, the one being executed often passes out (i.e. loses consciousness) before the actual death takes place. Whether the person is conscious or not, however, the sentence is still carried 34
out. A person can be punished without being conscious; however, a person cannot be conscious without being alive. The traditionalist is then stuck between a rock and a hard place. Moreover, the fact that the punishment of the wicked is juxtaposed against the life of the righteous strongly indicates that the punishment will, in fact, be the opposite of life! This passage clearly shows that the saved will live for all eternity, while the unsaved will not live for all eternity.
2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 As Paul concludes his comments on the final fate of the ungodly, he says, “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels, He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7–9 NIV). Although the phrase “everlasting destruction” is clearly consistent with an annihilationist perspective, traditionalists highlight the phrase “and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” Peterson and others argue that those who refuse to obey the gospel will be punished by being “shut out” from God’s presence, indicating some sort of conscious separation from God for all eternity. On the surface this is a convincing argument. Various English translations render this phrase slightly differently: “separated from the Lord” (TLB), “kept away from the Lord” (NCV), “away from the presence of the Lord” (NASB). The problem is—the supposed Greek word translated as away, kept away, shut out, or separated is found nowhere in the original text. These phrases have been inserted by translators in order to “improve” the flow of the text in English. The New King James version provides a more literal translation: “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (vs. 9 NKJV). The English Standard Version, known for its accuracy, provides an important alternate translation in a footnote: “destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord” (vs. 9 ESV footnote). When translated accurately, this text says nothing about being shut out, kept out, or separated from the presence of God. The idea is not that their punishment will include being shut out from the presence of the Lord; rather, that their punishment will come from and take place in the presence of the Lord. 35
Rather than proving the case for the traditional view of Hell, when properly translated, this passage only bolsters the annhilationist’s case. After all, what is everlasting destruction, if not destruction that lasts forever?
Revelation 14:10-11 In the apocalyptic pages of Revelation, we discover this frightening passage:
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11 ESV)
First, one must be very careful when approaching any passage in Revelation because it is such a symbolic book. While there are myriad interpretations of the book of Revelation and some take its imagery more literally than others, even the most ardent literalist recognizes its apocalyptic nature. For example, no serious student of the Bible believes that Satan is literally a dragon, that apostate Israel is actually a prostitute, or that the beast is a literal giant sea monster. That’s not to say that nothing in Revelation can be taken literally; rather, caution should be used when interpreting these passages. And, as pointed out before, they should be interpreted in light of the whole teaching of Scripture. Furthermore, as Hank Hanegraaff points out, “the book of Revelation contains more than four hundred verses. More than two-thirds of these verses contain symbols that have a referent in Old Testament history” (Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code 10). In other words, John’s Revelation draws heavily upon symbols, metaphors and language that are deeply rooted in Old Testament history. Therefore, as Hanegraaff explains, “we mistake their meaning when we fail to hear the background music of the Old Testament” (116). Hanegraaff goes on to supply several examples: 36
The tree of life referred to in Jesus’ letter to the church in Ephesus first appears in Genesis; the ten days of testing in Smyrna find their referent in Daniel; the heavenly manna promised to the church of Pergamum first fell from heaven in Exodus; the Jezebel who promoted sexual immorality in Thyatira is the mirror image of the idolatrous Jezebel in Kings; the seven spirits of the letter to the church in Sardis hark back to the Spirit as described by Zechariah; the key of David referenced in the letter to Philadelphia echoes the words of Isaiah… (116)
The list, of course, goes on. Likewise, John’s vision of fire and sulfur with smoke that rises forever finds its referent in the Old Testament—specifically, in Isaiah’s pronouncement against Edom: “Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever” (Isaiah 34:9-10). Did Edom’s streams literally turn into lakes of fire? Did its land literally burn with sulfur? Did its smoke literally rise forever and ever? The answer to all these is—no. Rather, this prophecy was a powerful judgment metaphor, never intended to be taken in a wooden literalistic sense. What happened to Edom, then? During the fifth century (400-499) B.C. the Edomites were conquered by other Arab groups. In turn, these groups were conquered by the Nabataeans. Finally, around 106 A.D. the Romans conquered Edom’s capital city, Petra. From that time it slid into disuse, to the point that Edom was almost uninhabited from the 7th to the 12th century A.D. (Millard 60-63). Thus, the apocalyptic imagery of burning sulfur not being quenched night or day and smoke rising forever was actually a metaphor for the conquest and eventual downfall of Edom as a nation. The land and inhabitants were not actually set on fire. Therefore, when John uses the same imagery to describe the fate of the Beast, and those who worship the Beast that Isaiah used in predicting the demise of Edom, their meaning must be the same. This prophecy of burning sulfur and torment is not a reference to final judgment; rather, it is a reference to earthly judgment—namely the famine, plagues, and eventual ruination of “Babylon” (most likely the Roman Empire). Why mention fire and sulfur then, if the falls of both Edom and Rome have little or nothing to do with fire? Well, because God used literal fire
and sulfur to destroy the nations of Sodom and Gomorrah, fire and sulfur became the quintessential image of divine judgment, especially when it comes to evil empires. This interpretation is further evidenced by reading the next several chapters. Multiple times we read that the torment of Babylon (the city where “Beast worship” takes place), will be witnessed by other nations on the earth. For example: “And the kings of the world who committed adultery with her and enjoyed her great luxury will mourn for her as they see the smoke rising from her charred remains. They will stand at a distance, terrified by her great torment. They will cry out, ‘How terrible, how terrible for you, O Babylon, you great city! In a single moment God’s judgment came on you’” (Revelation 18:9-10 NLT). Notice that it is “the kings of the world,” not angels or demons who witness the fall of Babylon, the Beast, and those who worshipped the beast. Clearly this judgment took place on earth, not in Hell. Furthermore, you’ll notice that although John said, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever,” we now see that the smoke is actually rising from “charred remains” and that God’s judgment came in “a single moment.” Despite popular opinion, this passage does not speak of eternal conscious torment and, in fact, doesn’t even speak of the final Day of Judgment, but rather an earthly judgment that fell upon the city of Rome some two thousand years ago.
Revelation 20:11 Finally, we come to the one and only passage of the Bible that mentions torment following the final judgment—Revelation 20:7-10:
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God's people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (NIV)
Just as with the passage in Revelation 14, interpreters should always use caution when handling apocalyptic passages such as this. Much of the imagery used was never meant to be read in a wooden literalistic fashion. So, will those tossed into the Lake of Fire literally be tormented day and night forever and ever? Or is this more apocalyptic hyperbole? I think we find the answer is we simply keep reading. Just three verses later, John says, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (20:14 NIV). First off, notice that John again calls the Lake of Fire “the second death”—indicating what happens in the lake. Furthermore, not only would people experience a “second death” in the Lake of Fire, but so would death and Hades. Death is not a person; it’s an experience or an event, and death itself certainly can’t experience unending conscious torment. The same goes for Hades. Hades is not a living thing; it is the spiritual realm where departed souls await the judgment. Obviously then, being thrown into the Lake of Fire must be symbolic for something. John explains exactly what that something is in the next chapter, where he reveals, “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (21:4 NLT emp. added). Therefore, if throwing death into the Lake of Fire represents the fact that death will be no more and gone forever (which it clearly does), then logically everything else thrown into the Lake of Fire will experience the same fate. Hades will be gone forever because there will be no need for a purely spiritual realm apart from the New Heaven and Earth. Likewise, Satan will be gone forever, the Beast will be gone forever, and anyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life will be no more—gone forever.
In my opinion, the case for annihilationism and conditional immortality has been thoroughly made. While the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is not completely beyond the realm of possibility, it is highly unlikely, improbable, and far less consistent with the teachings of Scripture that annihilationism. In the end, one might wonder what difference it makes. After all, whichever view one espouses both agree that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31 NIV). Ultimately, this is an issue that Christian can debate without dividing over. On the other hand, annihilationism provides believers with something that traditionalism cannot—the hope of a cosmos free from evil! God is still good, loving and just. Evil is still punished. But the Christian’s hope is not a world where evil has been quarantined to some remote sector of the universe, but where hedonism, hatred and hardheartedness have been completely abolished. Believers look forward to a reality where sin and suffering does not continue for endless eternity within the licking flames of Hell, but where sin and suffering are no more—gone forever. Followers of Jesus don’t look forward to a future where there are more people experiencing continuous conscious torment and torture than there are experiencing God’s glorious presence; rather, they anticipate a day when all of creation, every square inch, is flooded with the love, peace and joy of Jesus Christ! Only then will God—will good—be truly triumphant. The coming of Christ will herald the final day of darkness and the total abolition of evil—the beginning of the very best!
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