This past February 2011, some college classmates of mine from the 60s were having a good time arguing the physics of hell on our class email discussion listserv. Is Hell endothermic or exothermic? While some argued hell was endothermic, absorbing heat, as the only Christian in the discussion, I argued from Scripture, and what I recalled from physics, that hell was exothermic, oxidizing all that was thrown into the consuming fire, and giving off heat. Arguing that hell-fire was consuming, I was reminded of the annihilationist interpretation, and wrote about it to my classmates, who I suspect had never heard of that concept. “Annihilationism is the view that eternal life is the gift of God, and that those who do not receive this gift will not live forever.”
I began to study this — beginning with the controversial writing of John Stott. I first discovered in 1996 that there was another view besides “Traditionalism,” the doctrine that the lost suffer eternal conscious torment in hell, when I read an interview with John Stott, the saintly British Evangelical theologian/evangelist /writer, who died this year. The Christianity Today obituary calls Stott “an architect of twentieth century evangelicalism [who] shaped the faith of a generation.” Reading the interview in 1996 I was surprised to read that Stott had been sharply criticized for writing in support of “annihiliationism” as finding support in Scripture. In February, I started my study reading Stott’s controversial statements in a long out-of-print book he wrote with David Edwards, Essentials – A liberal-evangelical dialogue, published in England in 1988, and a year later in the U.S. as Evangelical Essentials – A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue. David Edwards, the liberal, had credit as the author “with” John Stott. The American version changed the title to Evangelical Essentials, even though Edwards positions were not Evangelical, and John Stott responded to the liberal view with the Evangelical view. The name change must have been made for marketing purposes because of the larger Evangelical market in the U.S. I obtained a used copy of the 1988 British version, and read the controversial section written by John Stott on “Judgement and Hell” in response to Edwards liberal universalist view that all mankind is eventually saved by God. John Stott’s argument against universalism, but in favor of Scriptural support for annihilationism is found in an excerpt from Essentials by clicking here, John Stott discusses Hell I commend this passage to the reader as a courageous and powerful Scriptural case for annihiliation as the fate of the lost over the traditional dogma of eternal torment. The significance of this argument in the face of tradition is highlighted by Stott’s words of response to Edwards on pages 314-15:
You rightly say that I have never declared publicly whether I think hell, in addition to being real, terrible and eternal, will involve the experience of everlasting suffering. I am sorry that you use in reference to God the emotive expression ‘the Eternal Torturer’, because it implies a sadistic infliction of pain, and all Christian people would emphatically reject that. But will the final destiny of the impenitent be eternal conscious torment, ‘for ever and ever’, or will it be a total annihilation of their being? The former has to be described as traditional orthodoxy, for most of the church fathers, the medieval theologians and the Reformers held it. And probably most Evangelical leaders hold it today. Do I hold it, however? Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising 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. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be -and is not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? And in order to answer this question, we need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.
He then follows up with nearly 15 pages of Biblical exegesis, i.e., the critical interpretation of the passages relevant to fate of those who do not believe, those who are not given eternal life with God in Heaven. After the excellent and consciously controversial argument, Stott confesses his discomfort with challenging orthodoxy:
I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the world-wide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to suppress, and I am grateful to you for challenging me to declare my present mind. I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.
I will briefly describe the fundamental Annihilationist view as I understand it. The Biblical support for the Annihilationist view begins in Genesis, Chapter 3.
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
Whether you understand this passage and the Genesis creation story as literal history, or as a true myth provided by God as revelation of the fallen nature of humankind, or consider the Bible to be just an ancient text, in this passage God banishes mankind from the Garden of Eden expressly so that we cannot live forever. Sin entered the world accompanied by death.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Everyone knows that Christian doctrine teaches that the lost sinner goes to hell to suffer conscious torment forever and ever. As John Stott commented, this is the traditional orthodoxy for both Catholic and Protestant. It is embedded in our Western Christian culture. Everyone is familiar with Dante’s travels through the levels of hell in his Inferno. Cartoons frequently feature devils and naked souls commenting on the eternal accommodations. So, who needs to quote scripture to support the awful doctrine?
There has been an ongoing argument for centuries about the eternal fate of the lost, the damned, the wicked. The majority view since around 200-300 A.D., the “Traditionalist” view, is that the Bible teaches that the lost spend eternity in conscious torment in a place called hell. The minority view is that the lost do not have immortality, but their fate is annihilation, a final second death, perhaps after a period of punishment after death. Those who hold this view are referred to as “Annihilationists” or sometimes, “Conditionalists,” who specify that life is conditional, that the soul is not immortal, as the Genesis quote above supports, and immortality is only promised to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ, as Jesus promises those who believe in Him.
John Locke, the great 18th Century British Enlightenment philosopher and political theorist, questioned whether the Bible teaches “endless torment, in hell-fire.” In 1695, in The Reasonableness of Christianity As Delivered in the Scriptures, on page 6, referring to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden passage of Genesis quoted above where God banishes them so that they will not live forever, Locke wrote:
Death then entered, and showed his face, which before was shut out, and not known. So St. Paul, Rom. v. 19, “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin,” i.e. a state of death and mortality : and, 1 Cor. xv. 22, “In Adam all die;” i.e. by reason of his transgression, all men are mortal, and come to die.
This is so clear in these cited places, and so much the current of the New Testament, that nobody can deny, but that the doctrine of the gospel is, that death came on all men by Adam’s sin; only they differ about the signification of the word death: for some will have it to be a state of guilt, wherein not only he, but all his posterity was so involved, that every one descended of him deserved endless torment, in hell-fire. I shall say nothing more here, how far, in the apprehensions of men, this consists with the justice and goodness of God, having mentioned it above: but it seems a strange way of understanding a law, which requires the plainest and directest words, that by death should be meant eternal life in misery. Could any one be supposed, by a law, that says, “For felony thou shalt die;” not that he should lose his life; but be kept alive in perpetual, exquisite torments? And would any one think himself fairly dealt with, that was so used?
You can spend decades as a church-going Evangelical Christian in America and never hear from the pulpit or anywhere in the church that there are Scriptures that support annihilation as the fate of the lost instead of conscious eternal torment.
Although “eternal punishment” appears in Scripture, in Matthew’s gospel which I will discuss shortly, the term “eternal torment” does not appear in Scripture. Instead, Scripture most frequently refers to the fate of the damned as “death,” “destruction,” and “perishing,” but never eternal torment or torture. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment rests on a few ambiguous Scriptures that defy the clear teaching that only those who are saved receive the promise of eternal life. The Scriptures consistently promise death and destruction to the lost, not eternal life in torment in hell. Jesus said:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
For years when I read that parable, I substituted in my mind the concept of “eternal torment” in hell as I was taught by the church and Western culture for the express term “eternal punishment.” I never considered that the punishment might be death: final and eternal capital punishment. I never considered that the opposite of “life” is “death”, that the promise of life was to the saved, and the lost were not promised life, and that you would have to receive eternal life if you were going to suffer consciously for eternity in hell. Today, I do consider these things.
I have been a Christian for 40 years this past Spring 2011. For most of that time I believed that the lost, those who did not have salvation in Christ, were eternally damned to suffer conscious torment in Hell. When I read the terms “death, “destruction,” and “perishing,” I apparently subconsciously substituted “conscious eternal torment in Hell.” But according to Jesus, God saves us from “perishing”, not from “eternal torment,” and perish has always meant “death” to me:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
I have read this promise thousands of times over the years, thought of it every time an NFL team tried an extra point or a field goal and someone in the crowd behind the goal waved a John 3:16 sign, but until February this year, 2011, I never considered the exclusiveness of the promise of eternal life, to those who believe, and the negative implication, that those who do not believe have eternal death instead.
In another familiar passage, Jesus discussed eternal destiny in a different way:
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
Over the years I must have subconsciously substituted “broad is the way that leads to eternal torment”, instead of “broad is the way that leads to destruction” because “destruction” is not synonymous with eternal life in torment and I never questioned whether what Jesus says here conflicts in anyway with the traditional view of hell.
The Apostle Paul also warns of destruction:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
In another passage, Jesus warns,
“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.
The Annihiliationist Christian believes that the lost are punished with death. After death in this life, whether there is a time of punishment thereafter or not, the final fate is death, annihiliation, and not eternal conscious life in torment in Hell separated from God. Annihilation is final, eternal, eternal destruction, eternal punishment, eternal separation from God, but not eternal life in Hell. I did a cursory investigation of the concept in 1996 when I first read about annihilation as an alternative fate for those who do not believe, but did not make a judgment about it, did not think much about it, effectively becoming agnostic about it like Stott claimed to be. I assumed there must be something hidden from human view about the magnitude of rebellion in the fallen soul, something unconscious, I supposed. I did not dwell on it, and rarely have I been able to think seriously about what it could be like to exist without hope in eternal torment, until my recent study this year of what the Scriptures have to say about the eternal destiny of the lost.
In 1982, a Evangelical seminary graduate, Edward Fudge, published an exhaustive 466 page study of the doctrine of eternal punishment, arguing against the traditional dogma of eternal conscious torment in hell, The Fire that Consumes. I read Fudge’s book after reading Stott’s argument. I was surprised to find that F.F. Bruce, a prominent mainstream Evangelical historian/scholar, wrote the Foreward, commending Fudge’s work, claiming himself to be agnostic like C.S. Lewis on the question of eternal torment versus annihilation. I had never heard of Fudge, but I had several of Bruce’s historical works, including a New Testament History and a history of the canon of Scripture.
Apparently, there was a great outcry in reaction to Stott’s public articulation of the controversial view, especially coming from such a well-respected orthodox Evangelical Christian, who wrote the bestselling foundational Basic Christianity, a Christian classic among his other standard Christian works. I found a Evangelical response to John Stott (and Fudge) by J.I. Packer, a prominent and highly respected British Evangelical Anglican theologian and scholar. In his response, Packer respectfully argued the Traditionalist view, but pointed out that the controversy should not cause Christians to break fellowship, easier said than done. Stott was branded a heretic by the most rabid dogmatist Traditionalists (try googling “John Stott” “heretic”). Edward Fudge went to law school and became a Texas class action trial lawyer. After reading Fudge’s excellent book, one must speculate that God blessed Fudge with a career change after suffering the persecution of speaking the truth as his conscience required. J. I. Packer described the violent Traditionalist reaction to the credible annihilationist challenge of Stott, Fudge and others, writing:
Annihilationist ideas have been canvassed among evangelicals for more than a century, but they never became part of the mainstream of evangelical faith, nor have they been widely discussed in the evangelical camp until recently. In 1987 Clark Pinnock authored a punchy two-page article titled “Fire, Then Nothing,” but this, though widely read, did not spark debate, any more than the 500-page exposition of the same view, The Fire That Consumes (1982) by the gifted Churches of Christ layman Edward William Fudge, had done. In 1988, however, two brief pieces of advocacy came from Anglican evangelical veterans: eight pages by John Stott in Essentials, and ten by the late Philip Edgecumbe Hughes in The True Image. These put the cat among the pigeons.
At Evangelical Essentials, a conference of 350 leaders held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, in 1989, I read a paper portentously titled “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation: New Challenges to the Gospel: Universalism and Justification by Faith.” In that paper I offered a line of thought countering the view of these two respected friends. It turned out that the conference was split down the middle over the annihilation question. 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 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.
After this, at the request of John White, then president of National Association of Evangelicals, the late John Gerstner wrote a response to Stott, Hughes and Fudge under the title Repent or Perish (1990); and in 1992 the papers read at the fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics came into print as Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell. Included were John W. Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality,” and Kendall S. Harmon, “The Case Against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge.”
Nor was this all. Semipopular books reaffirming the reality and endlessness of hell began to flow: Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions About Hell (1991); Eryl Davies, An Angry God? (1991); Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News (1992); William Crockett, John Walvoord, Zachary Hayes and Clark Pinnock, Four Views on Hell (1992);16 David Pawson, The Road to Hell (1992); John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (1993); David George Moore, The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (1995); Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (1995). All these books argue more or less elaborately against annihilationism. The debate continues.
(footnotes ommitted, emphasis added)
Interestingly, when J.I. Packer retired from his endowed professorship at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture, John Stackhouse, a prolific historian/writer/scholar, was appointed his successor. Recently, Stackhouse has expressed his concurrence with the annihilationist view. You can listen to an interview with him in this podcast from the website, RethinkingHell.com.
I was a Christian in the 1980s, but I missed the controversy, and was surprised to read this past Spring that the 350 Evangelical leaders who met to discuss this in 1989, as Packer describes, were “split down the middle over the annihilation question.” I thought this referred to a 50% split on whether the Bible teaches the Traditional or Annihilationist view. However, according to a comment to this post below, the vote was “split about was whether eternal conscious punishment should be included among the essentials of evangelical faith.” That seems likely because, to this day (when this post was first written), in 40 years I have never met an Evangelical Christian who claimed belief in annihilation over eternal torment, or who admitted to this. There are some cults, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, that deny eternal torment, but no mainstream Evangelical groups, although I have read that the Anglicans tolerate the doctrine. Both John Stott and C. S. Lewis were Anglicans. It is improper for a Traditionalist to try associate Evangelicals who embrace annihilationism with heresy unorthodoxy, Glenn Peoples has written:
. . . any traditionalist who tries to smear annihilationists by associating us with Jehovah’s Witnesses has opened the door to a barrage of similar attacks on his own position. Mormons and Muslims, for example, believe in eternal torment. Does that make it false?
I have attended large megachurches, and I would suppose that there were those who were educated on this issue who subscribed to the annihilationist view, but kept their belief to themselves to avoid being branded a heretic. For example, my wife was impressed with John Stott’s argument in Essentials and shared a copy of the excerpt linked above with her friend. Her friend was shocked, and believing my wife and I had succumbed to heresy, she ceased communications with my wife because of “the elephant in the room” as she referred to this theological issue. And she and my wife had been close friends for 15 years, or so my wife thought. Apparently, my wife’s friend bases her salvation on her prior fear of eternal torment, and delivery from that fate. I believe that a Christian should base his salvation on the truth of the gospel, and the promise of eternal life, not delivery from death, but this may be a semantic point, because foundationally, I believe that God saved me by his mercy and grace and nothing I may have thought or believed about the moment I believed has any truth or merit, other than thankfulness to God for saving me. I have not found that scaring people with fire and brimstone is an effective way to explain the love of God and his plan for salvation.
I have not read all the works written in reaction to the annihilationist arguments of Fudge, Stott and others cited by Packer. I have read Glenn Peoples work. “Who is Glenn Peoples?”, you may ask. Glenn Peoples is a bright articulate New Zealander who has a graduate degree in theology, as well as a Ph.D in philosophy. I first heard him debating on the British Evangelical Christian talk and debate program, “Unbelievable” hosted by Oxford University educated Justin Brierly. I was impressed by People’s intellect and articulate defense of his position. Peoples has published a lengthy scholarly explanation in a draft for a podcast, Why I Am an Annihilationist on his blog Right Reason, where he states plainly and simply that “Annihilationism is the view that eternal life is the gift of God, and that those who do not receive this gift will not live forever.” He has written An Open Letter to My Traditionalist Friends where he shows with many examples from the most respected Traditionalist responses to the Annihilationist view, including some of those cited by Packer above, how the Traditionalist arguments are not well-stated or convincing. He introduces his letter
Not just friends, but brothers and sisters. Some of you might think that I am feigning my treatment of you as both friends and even family. I’m not sure how to persuade you that I’m genuine, but I am. I’m writing this open letter because I don’t know you all personally (in fact I don’t know any of you personally), and I also think other people might benefit from seeing what I have to say.
Who are you? In the long and protracted debate over the biblical teaching on judgement and final punishment, you’ve gained the label “traditionalists.” You say that the Bible teaches that God will punish the lost with eternal torment. There’s a range of different terms that many of you use, but that’s a reasonable summary. Some of you use those terms, while others prefer what you take as less crude language like “eternal separation from God.” But you believe that it will last forever, it will be a conscious experience, and it will be horrific. In particular, I write this for those of you who are apologists for this belief. The people I have in mind have contributed to a veritable torrent of books, articles, public talks and sermons on the subject, assuring the church and the public that the Bible teaches eternal torment.
I don’t believe you’re correct. I am persuaded that the Bible teaches annihilationism. You don’t like that fact. Many of you are on record telling people that annihilationism is false and unbiblical, that it is clearly so, that it undermines the Gospel, that it misrepresents God, that it underestimates sin, that it is a concession to postmodernity and so on. Many of you swarm theological organisations, gatherings, websites and so on, reassuring your peers and your readers that you hold the solid, clearly biblical position, and that annihilationists quite clearly lack biblical support for their view, and many of you encourage theological organisations and colleges that would literally exclude me from working or even studying there because I am persuaded as I am.
Other readers who perhaps do not wade into theological controversy and who might not be familiar with this issue will likely find this letter rather dreary and irrelevant. They can simply ignore it, I suppose. But I am writing to you. What’s more, I have nothing personally to gain in writing this. Your colleges will continue to be unlikely to hire me because of my beliefs on this issue (and writing this will certainly not help this situation), and mainstream colleges will be uninterested in the fact that I have an interest in the subject at all. I will not increase my number of friends, but may potentially increase the number of people hostile to me. But I’m writing to you anyway.
As you know – and some of you express dismay over it – if this theological disagreement were a war, you would be losing. Christians are turning away from your point of view. In spite of the fact that you have spilled more ink than anyone else in this disagreement, evangelical Christians are, more and more, adopting different views on hell from yours. In particular, the doctrine of annihilationism now has more evangelical adherents than it has, I believe, ever had before. I’m writing this letter to tell you why I think this is happening.
Why do you need this commentary? It’s because of this: I believe that you are partly responsible for this shift. Now ultimately I think the teaching of Scripture and a changing attitude to tradition is responsible for this shift, but you have certainly contributed. I suppose if you had simply remained silent, the change would be happening anyway, but you would be mistaken to think that you are stemming the tide. You’re not. Please hear me out. I am going to say some things that you will not like. I am not setting out to offend you, but that may happen. Some Christian scholars do not react to criticism very well at all. When some of my criticisms of one of your author’s arguments was published a few years ago, he accused me of making personal attacks on him. To this day I do not know what he was referring to. When I, a couple of days ago, told one of you that his book really didn’t contain any new arguments for eternal torment that had not been addressed before, he told me, “I take exception” to being told this. I don’t know how else I could have stated the facts. I don’t think reactions like this are appropriate. If you have chosen to enter an ongoing discussion and to criticise the beliefs of others, then you need to make yourself teachable, and you need to be willing to listen to the criticisms that other people present you with. Or at least, you need to not take personal umbrage when they do it.
I’m going to explain why your published arguments have not helped your case, in the sense that they have not caused a swing back to traditionalism – and why they are unlikely to do so in future. These are not pleasant things to be saying, but they are true. I am going to tell you that your endless stream of apologetics on behalf of your doctrine of eternal torment is very poorly argued, fallacious, tiresome, ineffective and even just lazy sometimes. That will appear very blunt. Those sound like insults to some people. But if they are true, then you are not helped by not being told these things. You need to hear them. There has to be a context in which you are willing to hear people tell you these things if they believe they’re true.
There is a sense in which I am also expressing personal frustration with you. That’s not necessarily an inappropriate thing to do. However, I will attempt to be truthful and clear without letting that frustration get in the way of the fact that I do regard you as, all things being considered, being on the same “team” as me. We have a lot more in common than not as fellow believers in Christ.
With these things said, let me get to what I take to be the facts.
Peoples then goes through the flaws he finds in the arguments of Traditionalists, citing examples of poor scholarship and faulty argument. For example, he writes:
. . .
2 Your exegesis sometimes engages in special pleading
I have already said (and will say more) about specific points of exegesis in other sections, so let me be brief here. Sometimes – especially at really crucial points in your argument for traditionalism or against annihilationism – you engage in special pleading. This is where you appear to need a word or words, or a biblical motif, to work fundamentally differently from the way it normally works, in a context where your case needs it to work differently.
For example, annihilationists have pointed to verses like Matthew 10:28 where Jesus says that God will destroy the lost in Gehenna, “body and soul.” Many of you have asked us to believe that apollumi here does not carry the strong sense of killing or destruction, but rather “ruin” or “loss.” Perhaps you think that Jesus meant that God will lose a person’s body and soul in hell, but “ruin” is more likely what you have in mind. However, it is relevant to note that when the word is used as a verb form everywhere else in the Synoptic
Gospels to describe the actions of one person or agent, it does mean kill or destroy in the strong sense that annihilationists see in Matt 10:28. For example, Herod wanted to actually kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:3), a demon tried to throw a boy into water or fire to kill him (Mark 9:22), the owner of a vineyard actually killed the workers in his vineyard (Mark 12:9) and so on. Every single instance where these factors are present (used as a verb, present in the Synoptics, used to describe the actions of one person or agent against another), the meaning is the same. To ask us to make one exception for the sake of your case against annihilationism then is rather obvious special pleading.
A similar thing occurs in the book of Revelation. When you are not thinking about how to defend your doctrine of hell and attack annihilationism, you recognise a range of things that are relevant here. For example, you recognise that when death is thrown into the lake of fire, it means that death will be no more. Of course the action isn’t literal, but that’s what this action signifies. You recognise that the “beast” referred to is not a literal creature, but rather a kingdom, a corporate entity, and that this image is drawn from the book of Daniel, where we also see the beast being destroyed as a symbol of worldly kingdoms being destroyed and God’s kingdom being established. But suddenly when it comes to defending the doctrine of the eternal torments of the damned in hell, the symbolic nature of much of the language in the book of Revelation disappears. Now all of a sudden, but only when defending your doctrine of hell, you interpret the lake of fire, apparently, as a literal place where people burn (or else a symbol of something just like that, minus the burning, where people suffer in some other way). It stands out that for people who are not known for their bizarre literalism in general when it comes to the book of Revelation, you suddenly become literalists when the doctrine of hell is in question.
Surely this too is special pleading. I grant that it is not as obvious a case as the previous one, but it is special pleading nonetheless, as it involves a sudden change of rules when it suits your position.
. . .
4 Your exegesis sometimes appears to intentionally exclude important evidence from the very
texts it is meant to be explaining.
We understand that there are some texts that become “favourites” when looking at what the Bible says about specific issues. That’s normal. Some texts do speak more clearly about some issues than others. One of the favourites among those who think the Bible clearly teaches eternal torment, and clearly teaches against annihilationism, is Isaiah 66:24b. This part-verse reads: “…. for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Many of you regard this text as especially important because Jesus is recorded as quoting this verse in Mark 9:48 when referring to the fate of the lost. A number of you claim that this passage in Isaiah teaches the doctrine of eternal torment of people who are consciously enduring the anguish of hell.
Not long ago on the Stand to Reason radio show Christopher Morgan spoke with host Greg Koukl. One of Morgan’s comments was that Isaiah 66:24 “talks about where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched and the permanence of the suffering of the wicked.” The first thing to say is that this third element is simply incorrect. Yes Isaiah speaks about the worm and the fire as Morgan correctly observes, but it says nothing in addition to this about suffering. But in addition to adding in claims that the text never makes, there’s a deeper problem with Morgan’s exegesis, and he is certainly not alone. Many of you have done this, whether you are quoting from Isaiah 66 or from Mark 9, which quotes Isaiah 66 verbatim. The problem is that many of you have snipped out the last few words of Isaiah 66:24 and quoted them all by themselves, when in fact the whole verse, if it had been quoted, would have painted a different picture. The entire verse reads:
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm
shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
What a different scene from the one typically painted by traditionalists when they quote only 24b. When we step back just a little to see the whole verse, we realise that contrary to what Morgan (like many of you) says, there is no reference to people consciously suffering. These are dead bodies. And when we step back one more level and read the paragraphs that come immediately before this, any excuse that you might have had for misunderstanding this evaporates:
For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgement, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many. Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.
For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord.And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.
For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.
And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
Any hope that you might have had of saying that perhaps the last line was ambiguous is gone. When you quote verse 24b, why do you not tell your audience about 24a, which tells us that the verse speaks of dead bodies? Why do you not tell your readers that the whole passage depicts a great onslaught of God directed at his enemies, when he comes and slays them with the sword, leaving them lying dead on the ground for all to see? Why do you leave out such important information? Why do you instead tell people that this is about the sufferings of the damned in the flames of hell?
What’s interesting is that biblical scholars who write commentaries on these texts and who are not attempting to score a theological point in their favour do not miss out these facts. Douglas Hare is a normal example:
It is clear in the Isaiah passage that the apostates whose worm and fire are unending are “dead bodies.” There is no suggestion that these evil persons will suffer eternally; their carcasses will remain indefinitely as a reminder of their rebellion against God.
Glenn People’s letter to Traditionalists is obviously worth quoting at length. Although Edward Fudge’s work, The Fire that Consumes, is required reading, People’s Why I am an Annihilationist is a good start, compactly comprehensive, 43 pages in pdf. After sufficient reading, People’s open letter describes in scholarly fashion, the difficulty having civil argument with Traditionalists.
Another excellent scholarly argument for annihilationism by Clark Pinnock is here: Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper] I discuss Pinnock’s paper in Part 2 of this series of posts on Annihilationsim and conditional immortality. The link to Part 2 is at the conclusion below.
I cannot do the quality of work that these scholars can do, and I highly recommend the resources I have cited and included links to above. Researching the history reveals that the immortal soul is a concept borrowed from the Greeks when the early church fathers, like Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr began synthesizing Christian doctrine with Greek thought, quoting Plato with praise. Somehow it became incorporated into Christian doctrine such that the gift of eternal life to the saved is matched by the curse of eternal life to the damned, spent in some kind of burning hell. After 1800 years, it is difficult to stand up to the doctrine, but I have always been a Berean since I was saved reading the Bible in 1971, as described in my Spiritual Memoir tabbed above. The Bereans who lived in Berea, where else, (a small city in Greece north of Mount Olympus) heard Paul preach the Gospel on one of his missionary journeys.
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
When I look at the Scriptures I cannot find anywhere that would support God giving those who are not saved, but lost for eternity, eternal life in order to suffer conscious torment. I see the lost are destroyed, perish, or punished with death, like we humans punish our most serious crimes, with death. There is a death that is eternal, a final second death after this death. That seems to be the fate of the lost as I read Scripture.
That God would destroy for eternity those He does not save is keeping with his nature. God is not a torturer. He is a God of love. Though the lost condemn themselves, as John’s Gospel says, they forego eternal life, receiving death and destruction instead.
Nevertheless, the proponents of Traditionalism vigorously cling to the eternal torment of those who are condemned. R. C. Sproul is a gifted Christian teacher and writer. His book Chosen By God is for me the clearest and most convincing exposition of the Doctrine of Grace and Predestination, much more accessible reading today than John Calvin.
R. C. Sproul’s teacher and mentor at Pittsburgh Seminary was the late John Gerstner. Gerstner was cited by Packer above as one of the staunch defenders of the doctrine of eternal torment in Hell. Sproul told a story about Gerstner as follows:
One student asked Dr. Gerstner, “How can I be happy in heaven if I’m aware that one of my loved ones is in hell?” Dr. Gerstner responded: “Don’t you know that when you are in heaven you will be so sanctified that you could look at your own mother in hell and rejoice in the display of the justice of God.” And Sproul burst out laughing, informing Dr. Gerstner that his statement was absolutely ridiculous.
Sproul was a student then, and maybe now he doesn’t think it is so ridiculous since he is a Traditionalist today. But it hurts me to think that to be Holy and Sanctified would cause me to lose all natural affection for my mother and rejoice at her suffering in Hell. The Gerstner response assumes eternal torment, then conforms his vision of sanctification accordingly. I’m pretty sure my mother is in Heaven, but nevertheless there are others I have loved and who have died, perhaps without the Lord . . . After reading God’s Word for 40 years, that does not sound like God to me. If a 13 year old boy who likes to play violent pagan themed video games and whose parents are heathens who never took him to church dies in a car crash without knowing Christ, is it just to torment him in eternal fire for 13 million years, let alone infinity? That does not sound like something my God would do. I do not believe I can posit God changing me to rejoice in the suffering of children in torment for eternity, for example.
How can this judgment be proportional to the sinfulness, regardless of how cold-hearted the 13 year old adolescent boy whose brain was not mature, might have been? How can a God who is love torment this child for eternity? After 40 years of reading the Bible, this does not seem to me to conform to the nature of the loving God that I know. The Godly principle of proportionality in judgment and punishment is revealed in the Mosaic law:
But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Jesus himself modified this principle for mankind in his sermon on the mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Jesus implies that God will punish the evil person, so we should not take personal vengeance proportionately or at all. But He is not abrogating the proportionality principle of justice. Jesus promises death and destruction to those who are perishing. Capital punishment is reasonable and just, according to the Scripture. There is no Scriptural authority that would support eternal torture as a reasonable and just punishment for fallen humans with their short lives on earth. As the Psalmist says:
“You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.”
A keyword search of the New International Version 1984 for “immortal” brings up 7 verses. Among them are these:
In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality Proverbs 12:28
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. Romans 2:7
So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:8-10
Immorality, Eternal life, is the gift of salvation. Death is the sentence for not believing in Jesus who was sent by the Father to redeem His people. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans:
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?
And again, Jesus’s admonishment:
“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.
I cannot say that I know this to be Biblical truth, but I am persuaded that it is supported by the Scripture, and great men of God, like John Stott and C. S. Lewis have found it to be so substantially supported in Scripture that they could no longer claim that eternal torment is the fate of the lost, rather publicly claiming to be tentative or agnostic on the destiny of the lost. No matter how convincing the argument may be for annihilationism, the courage required to stand up publicly against 18 centuries of tradition is likely more than most can muster.
Here is a video of a lecture by Edward Fudge on “Three Views of Hell.” In this comprehensive lecture, Fudge explains how the Greek doctrine of the immortal soul entered the Church in the 3rd and 4th centuries, especially in the work of Augustine. I discuss the false doctrine of the immortality of soul further in Part 2 of this series on Annihilationism or conditional immortality.
This Post is also located at the Tab above “Hell?”