In my previous article introducing the doctrine of eternal punishment, I acknowledged that no teaching of Scripture is more apt to be rejected than this one. The nature of the doctrine itself makes it unpalatable to many. But especially in the cultural and intellectual environment of post-Christian and post-modern North American society, the notion that God would unendingly punish the unbelieving in hell is generally regarded as unacceptable. No teaching of Scripture labors, accordingly, under a more severe burden of proof than the historic view of the Christian church that not all are saved, and that those who are lost will suffer an eternal separation from God’s favor.
Given this burden of proof, my approach to the doctrine of eternal punishment in this and a subsequent article will be to answer the objections often registered against it. Though it would be possible to argue that the burden of proof lies with those who are departing from the historic consensus of the Christian church — as indeed they are — I will deliberately assume the posture of a defender of this consensus. In so doing, I will address the primary biblical arguments against the doctrine in this article, and then take up the more theological and moral arguments in my next article
THE LANGUAGE OF “DESTRUCTION”
Perhaps the most common biblical argument against the doctrine of eternal punishment appeals to the language of destruction in connection with the final state of the wicked. The most common terms in the New Testament for “to destroy” or “destruction,” according to this argument, simply mean to cause to cease to exist, or the state of no longer existing.1 For example, when Herod plotted to kill the newborn babies in Bethlehem in order to get rid of the Lord Jesus, he is said to have sought to “destroy” him (Matt. 2:13). In His instruction of the disciples, Jesus also spoke of being afraid, not of someone who can only “destroy” the body, but of the One “who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28, emphasis mine). The straightforward meaning of this language of destruction seems to be that of an act that causes something or someone to cease to exist. As John R.W. Stott remarks, “If to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being.”2 Furthermore, in two passages where a different term for “destruction” is used (1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9), the implication seems to be that this destruction involves an annihilation or cessation of the existence of those who experience it.3
When this same term is used in the middle or intransitive form, meaning “to perish” or “to die,” a similar idea is expressed. When something or someone perishes, this is tantamount to its ceasing to be. In Luke 15:17, we read that when the prodigal son came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger.” The apostle Paul, describing the fate of those Israelites who tested the Lord, speaks of their being “destroyed by the serpents” (1 Cor. 10:9). These passages speak of a kind of physical perishing or destruction. However, several passages also speak of an eternal perishing or dying in connection with hell. The well-known verse, John 3:16, describes those who believe in the only begotten Son of God as those who “shall not perish but have everlasting life.” In his declaration of the judgment upon those who have “sinned without the law,” the apostle Paul speaks of their perishing without the law (Rom. 2:12). In 1 Corinthians 15:18, the same apostle insists that a denial of the resurrection of the body for believers means that they will have “perished.” Furthermore, the Lord who is not slow regarding His promise is said not to wish that any should perish (2 Pet. 3:9).
Though this kind of argument has a superficial air of plausibility about it, it does not stand up well under cross-examination. Certainly, as several of the references cited show, the language of destruction can be used to describe something like cessation of existence. But this is not always the case. There are other instances of the use of this language to describe something rather different than the cessation of existence.
In the well-known parables of the “lost” coin or the “lost” son in Luke 15, the term Jesus uses in each case is the same term as the one used for “to destroy” in the passages cited in the preceding. No one would conclude from this language, however, that the coin or the prodigal son ceased to exist. The destruction in these instances is quite different than the idea of annihilation. Likewise, in Matthew 9:17 the term used to describe the “bursting” or the “ruining” of the wineskins is the common term for “to destroy.” The destruction of these wineskins is not their ceasing to be, but their ceasing to be useful for their intended purpose. When the disciples of Jesus rebuked the woman who anointed Jesus with costly ointment, they are said to have declared her excess a “waste.” Here the term translated “waste” is the same term translated elsewhere as “destruction.” Again, we are not to conclude from this language that the ointment ceased to exist — only that it was inappropriately or excessively used in the anointing of Jesus as a sign of the woman’s affection.
Due to this diverse use of the language of to destroy or destruction, it is much too simplistic to argue from it for a doctrine of annihilationism. Though this language may sometimes be used for something like the cessation of existence, the real issue is whether it ever has this meaning when used regarding the final state of the unbelieving. If annihilationism is to be demonstrated, then it will have to be shown that the language of destruction, when describing the destiny of the unbelieving, must mean their ceasing to be. Moreover, for this to be demonstrated, it would also have to be shown that, in other biblical passages that speak of the final state of the unbelieving, the idea of ongoing existence and experience is not affirmed. This, as I hope to show in what follows, cannot be done.
THE LANGUAGE OF A CONSUMING “FIRE”
A second and similar argument against the doctrine of everlasting punishment also appeals to the kind of language used in the Scriptures to describe this state. Not only do we find several passages that speak of the “destruction” of the wicked, but we also find several that use the image of a “fire that consumes.”4 This language, together with other common images for the final state of the wicked, suggests that the final outcome of God’s judgment upon the unbelieving is their extinction or annihilation. As Edward Fudge, perhaps the leading critic of the traditional doctrine of everlasting punishment, puts it in his commentary on Matthew 5:29,30 (“it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell”):
Jesus makes Gehenna the place of final punishment. Here he gives no graphic description of its destruction or even its duration; only this, that those who enter it go from another place, having been discarded and expelled by God. The picture is one of total loss, and it is entirely in keeping with the Old Testament to see that loss as ultimately consummated in destruction by fire.5
Just as fire finally consumes its object, so the fire of hell utterly consumes the wicked. To speak of the continued or unending experience of hell neglects to take account of the way fire ordinarily destroys and extinguishes its object.6
There are two levels at which this kind of argument can be answered. The first level is hermeneutical: Is it permissible to take the language of fire in such a literal. non-metaphorical way, and draw the concl us ion that fire, in the nature of the case, must utterly consume its object? The second level is more directly textual: Do the texts that employ this kind of imagery lend any support to the position of the annihilationist?
At the first level, the hermeneutical, it would seem that annihilationists fail to take seriously the metaphorical language of the Scriptures in the descriptions of hell. To say that these descriptions are often metaphorical in no way requires a diminishing of the reality of hell. Hell is certainly real. But the descriptions of hell in the Scripture can hardly be pressed literally. For example, the imagery of a consuming fire — imagery which certainly bespeaks God’s holy punishment and judgment of the wicked — is frequently coupled with the imagery of the “worm that does not die” (e.g. Mark 9:48; d. Isa. 66:24). Were we to insist upon the literal fire that consumes, it would seem rather incompatible with a worm working but without being liable to death. D.A. Carson, commenting on this feature of the biblical language, notes that “if the worms do not die, what keeps them alive once they have devoured all the people? The question is ugly and silly, precisely because it is demanding a concrete and this worldly answer to the use of language describing the realities of punishment in a future world still largely inconceivable.”7
It is simply impossible to press the language regarding hell in the Scriptures in a purely literal manner. To do so creates more problems than the annihilationist is ready to acknowledge. If the literal meaning of fire is that of a force that consumes its object, then that literal meaning also includes the idea of a rapid, quick process. Many annihilationists, however, want to allow for a period of time during which the wicked undergo differing degrees of punishment prior to their eventual annihilation.8 This idea of a period of time, however, seems rather incompatible with the way literal fire works. Fire burns and consumes its object rapidly. Moreover, once a literal fire has consumed its object, it is no longer able to be sustained or fueled by that which it consumes. In the bibliical imagery and descriptions of the fire of hell, however, the fire is explicitly described as “eternal” (Matt. 18:8). Like the worm that does not die, it is a fire that is never extinguished. Indeed, in Jesus’ unforgettable description of hell in Mark 9:47–48, we read of those who are thrown into hell where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (emphasis mine). There is in this description a close correlation between the worm and the fire on the one hand, and the wicked and the unbelieving on the other. Just as the worm continues to work and the fire is unquenchable, so those upon whom they work continue to experience their effects.9
One additional example of the metaphorical nature of the imagery regarding hell is the language of “darkness” or “outer darkness” that is often used in the Scriptures. In Matthew 8:12, Jesus forewarns that the “sons of the kingdom shall be thrown into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The guest at the wedding banquet who is present without the appropriate wedding garment in Matthew 22 is likewise bound hand and foot and cast into “outer darkness” (v. 13). This theme or motif of hell as a place of darkness is commonly (see Matt. 25:30; 2 Pet. 2:17) found in the Scriptures. Darkness represents the absence of the light of God’s favor and countenance. To be cast into darkness is tc be cast away from the favor and gracious presence of the Lord. Remarkably in one passage the imagery of an “eternal fire” and of “black darkness” are used in the same context to refer to different dimensions of the reality of the eternal punishment of the wicked (Jude 7 & 13). Now, if we were to insist upon a literal reading of this imagery, the result would be confusing and incoherent. A literal fire and a literal place of darkness cannot be true of one and the same reality. This only illustrates the metaphorical nature of the biblical language; the differing images represent differing dimensions or features of hell. Hell is not only a place where the unbelieving suffer God’s holy displeasure (fire), but it is also a place where the unbelieving experience what it means to be excluded or separated from His blessed presence (darkness).
AN “ETERNITY” OF RESULT OR EXPERIENCE?
The second level at which the argument that the fire of hell is a fire that consumes is more directly textual. Do the biblical texts support the claim of the annihilationist that the wicked are ultimately destroyed or consumed? That they cease to exist, accordingly, after they experience God’s judgment? According to annihilationism, this is the only sense in which the punishment of the unbelieving is eternal or unending: it is eternal in the sense of result, but not in the sense of conscious experience of God’s displeasure in hell.10 If the wicked are destroyed or consumed, this has results that endure throughout eternity, but not in the sense of any ongoing awareness of God’s judgment.
There are several biblical texts. however, that militate against this view. These texts speak not only of hell as a place of fire and judgment but also of the undending nature of these realities. They constitute therefore, a compelling basis for the historic doctrine of eternal punishment and against the claim of annihilationism.
One of these texts, Matthew 25:46, is the well-known conclusion to Jesus’ account of the final judgment and the separation of the sheep and the goats: “And these [the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Not surprisingly, annihilationists attempt to take the language of eternal punishment in this text to mean something other than a temporally unlimited or everlasting experience of God’s judgment. This is done typically in one of two ways: either the adjective “eternal” is taken in a qualitative sense to mean a kind of punishment, or it is taken temporally to refer to the ongoing result of God’s punishment in the annihilation of the wicked. The first of these interpretations seizes upon the root of the term used for “eternal” in this text — aeon or “age.” Jesus is therefore speaking of a kind of punishment, one that corresponds to the age to come. The obvious problem with this interpretation is that it neglects the inescapable temporal aspect of the coming age, namely, that it is an age having no end or conclusion. In the Gospel of Matthew, the use of this language always has this temporal meaning, referring to an unlimited period of time.11
The second of these interpretations is well represented by Clark Pinnock.
Jesus does not define the nature of eternal life or eternal death in this text. He just says there will be two destinies and leaves it there. One is free to interpret it to mean either everlasting conscious torment or irreversible destruction. The text allows for both possibilities and only teaches explicitly the finality of the judgment itself, not its nature.12
Though Pinnock may be correct to say that his understanding of this text is possible, there is a considerable difference between a possible reading of the text and the likeliest reading of it. Three features of the text make Pinnock and the annihilationist’s reading most unlikely. First, the text is preceded in verse 41 by another description of hell that parallels the description of verse 46: “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” This description, like the one provided in verse 46, seems clearly to teach the presence of a fire or a punishment that has no end or conclusion. Second, the language of verse 46 speaks of an eternal punishment, strong language that suggests the experience or felt-awareness of God’s displeasure. And third, the parallel and contrast in this verse is between an “eternal” punishment and an “eternal” life. The simplest reading of this text would conclude that in each case there is an everlasting experience — of punishment on the one hand, of life and blessing on the other.
Another important text in answering the challenge of annihilationism is Revelation 14:10–11. In this text, those who worship the beast and his image are described as being “tormented with fire and brimstone 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 and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” This text is especially troublesome to the annihilationist position because it speaks in the most emphatic of terms (“forever and ever”) of the ongoing torment of the wicked. Those who experience this torment are said to “have no rest day and night,” language that hardly seems compatible with an experience of judgment that terminates in the extinction of those who suffer.
The most common way to explain this text on annihilationist terms is to introduce a kind of sequence into the experience of the wicked under the judgment of God. This sequence is one first of suffering, then of total annihilation, and then of the “memorializing” of that annihilation. Fudge, for example, in his consideration of this text, argues that “torment is meted out according to the mixture of God’s cup. Then, as the next image points out, it is forever memorialized in the smoke that remains.”13 However, this sequence is something that has been introduced into the text in order to avoid its clear implications. Revelation 14:10–11 does not say that the punishment of the wicked occurs in a sequence of steps, beginning with torment and leading to annihilation. It says, in terms that are as clear as they are terrible, that the wicked will experience an unending torment, a torment that will continue without end and without rest, day or night, throughout all eternity. The doctrine of annihilation is opposed to the clear teaching of this passage, a passage that says nothing about a sequence like that proposed.14 Though it may be convenient to take the various images of this and other texts — of punishment, of fire, of destruction, of exclusion — and order them chronologically, the biblical texts commonly use these images as diverse ways of referring to the same reality.
Still another important text in this connection is Revelation 20:10–15: And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
White Throne Judgment, the final judgment of all the dead and the living at the end of the age. It also describes, in terms that parallel those we have seen in other passages, the state of the wicked subsequent to this judgment, in hell or the “lake of fire.”
Like the description of Revelation 14:10–11, this description in Revelation 20:11–15 speaks unmistakably of an ongoing experience of torment in hell. The devil, together with the beast and the false prophet, suffers a torment that is said to be unending. The language could not be more emphatic: “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Furthermore, all of those whose names are not found in the book of life will also be ultimately thrown into the same lake of fire. According to the annihilationist’s view, those who are thrown into the lake of fire will eventually be consumed; they will cease to exist. The problem with this reading of the text is that it must posit a sharp difference between the experience of the devil, together with the beast and the false prophet, and all others who are thrown into the same lake of fire, presumably to experience the same kind of punishment or distress. In the case of the wicked generally, this is a fire that will consume them utterly in the sense of annihilation. But not so in the case of the devil, for example, since he is said to be tormented “day and night forever and ever.” A more straightforward and obvious reading of this text would conclude that all — the devil, the beast, the false prophet, the wicked — will experience the same judgment and destiny. Why would some who are cast into the same lake of fire be utterly consumed by it — assuming that it belong to the nature of fire that it consume — while in the case of others the fire will not have this effect?
The biblical arguments mustered against the doctrine of everlasting punishment are, as we have argued, weak and unconvincing. Though I have not provided a full biblical case for the doctrine of everlasting punishment in the foregoing, I have considered the arguments commonly used to advocate annihilationism as an alternative to the historic Christian doctrine of hell. None of these arguments contributes to a very strong case against this doctrine.
In the case of most advocates of annihilationism, the objections to the doctrine of hell are not, in the final analysis, born out of the interpretation of the biblical texts. The kinds of biblical arguments we have considered are often themselves the product of a prior conviction about the unacceptability of the doctrine of hell. The kinds of theological and moral objections that we will consider in our next article constitute the most vital and important part of the case today against this teaching. Because the doctrine of hell is regarded as repugnant for these kinds of reasons, an alternative reading of the biblical texts becomes more pressing. To these arguments I will turn in my next article.
1. The verb commonly used is apollumi, the noun apooleia.
2. David L. Edwards & John Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), p. 315.
3. The term used is olethros. Commenting on these passages, Stott, Essentials, p. 316, argues that it “would seem strange…if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed.”
4. It is no accident that this is also the title of Edward William Fudge’s book on the subject of hell, The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994). This argument is a key part of Fudge’s case against the doctrine of eternal punishment.
5. The Fire That Consumes, p. 166.
6. Cf. Stott, Essentials, p. 316: “The main function of fire is not to cause pain bl.1: to secure destruction, as all the worlds indnerators bear witness.”
7. D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), pp. 524–5.
8. Cf. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, p. 364. where he speaks of a “penal suffering culminating in total extinction.” Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 398–407, also argues that the unbelieving will experience a real penal suffering in connection with the final judgment and prior to their eventual annihilation. I will return to the question of degrees of punishment in hell in a subsequent article.
9. Carson, The Gagging of God, p. 525: “It is not ‘the worm’ but ‘their worm: which suggests that it is perpetually bound up with those who are suffering’” (emphasis is Carson’s).
10. Cf. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, pp 37–50, 194–6.
11. See Scot McKnight, “Eternal Consequences or Eternal Consciousness?” in Through No Fault of Their Own, ed. by W Crockett and I. Sigountos (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991, pp. 151–7, for a discussion of the meaning of this language in Matthew.
12. “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent” p 256.
13. The Fire That Consumes, pp. 297–8
14. Cf. Harmon, “The Case Against Conditionalism,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell by Nigel M. de S. Cameron (Grand Rapids Baker, 1992), p 213: “For Fudge God’s final sentence begins with banishment continues with a period of conscious suffering and ends with destruction. In fact, not a single New Testament passage teaches exactly this sequence. Instead, some texts speak of personal exclusion, some of punishment and others of destruction, and these images need to be understood as giving hints at the same eschatological reality. Fudge not only chronologizes these images, but he also emphasizes one to the exclusion of the other two: destruction dominates while punishment and exclusion fall into the background. Indeed, the latter is hardly discussed.”
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.