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.
Problem 1: Your interpretation of the relevant biblical texts is really bad
I understand that you do not like to be told this. Nobody who has expertise in theology would like it. I am not simply trying to make you feel insulted, but I realise that this might be the result for some people. I did try to think of other, perhaps nicer ways of saying it, but this is the truth and it’s what I want you to realise. Your exegesis of the texts of Scripture that contribute to this debate is not simply a bit off or in need of minor tweaking. It represents what is likely to be the worst exegesis you have ever engaged in or will ever engage in throughout your entire academic or pastoral career. In any other context you would immediately reject exegesis of this standard, and you would probably be incredulous that a critical reader of the Bible could ever engage in such pseudo-scholarship. I’m sorry to have to put it so bluntly but that is exactly what I want to tell you.
Please listen to this: I am not saying that you are not intelligent, or that in general you don’t have the ability to engage in careful biblical interpretation. You are, and you do. But I would be patronising you if I said that the arguments that you have sought to use from Scripture against annihilationist arguments are in general fairly good, albeit mistaken. They’re not. They are hasty, careless, they engage in special pleading, they make use of reasoning that people among your own number have called fallacious in other contexts, sometimes they appear to intentionally exclude important pieces of evidence from the very texts that they are supposed to be explaining, they make unwarranted leaps in logic, they gloss over important facts and they are overwhelmingly dismissive. In short, they strongly suggest that your position is not the product of careful exegesis, but the reverse is true: Your exegesis has been cobbled together simply to defend your position.
These are not mere rhetorical overstatements. These observations are easy to demonstrate. I am not going to reproduce every one of your arguments here, but I will offer an example of each of the kinds of unfortunate arguments that I allude to above.
1 Your exegesis is sometimes hasty and/or careless
Sometimes you appear to be in such a hurry, and to be so certain of what the text in front of you says, that you simply rush your exegesis, and when this is pointed out to you you are still as impatient as you were in the first place, so you do not even see what is being pointed out to you. You want the objection to just go away so your conclusion can be reached without annoying distractions.
For example, Robert Peterson argues that 2 Thessalonions 1:9 shows that annihilationism is false. This passage reads (in the New International Version): “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power.” Peterson says: “[D]oes it make sense for the apostle to describe unbelievers’ extinction as their being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”? Does not their being shut out from his presence imply their existence?” [“A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism,” JETS 37:4 (1994), 555.] The words that are doing the work here are “shut out.” Peterson’s point is that the text doesn’t just say that people will be destroyed, it also says that they will be “shut out.” But you can’t be “shut out” unless you exist, can you? So the lost will continue to exist in hell, reasons Peterson.
This is shockingly careless. As many of you will know (and as any of you can find out by checking), the words “shut out” are not in most translations, because they do not answer to any combination of Greek terms in this verse. They literally aren’t there. Literally translated, this passage actually says that people “will be punished with everlasting destruction from the face of the Lord…” etc. There is no way to say that this text says that they will be destroyed and also “shut out,” as though the writer is indicating that they will continue to live on by adding the words “and shut out.” Paul simply didn’t add those words at all. A little more care and patience would have prevented this argument from ever arising.
That carelessness is the culprit here is only confirmed by the following. A few years ago I had a paper published which, among other things, pointed out the error in Peterson’s argument here. The words “and shut out” are not really part of this text, so it is not legitimate to build an argument for something Paul must have meant by appealing to those words. They’re not Paul’s words. Peterson’s reply only heightened the frustration. He starts out by quoting from several translations and then issuing a challenge:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence
of the Lord and from the glory of his might (ESV; italics supplied). [The margin
gives as an alternative “destruction that comes from.”]
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the
presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power (NIV; italics supplied).
These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the
Lord and from the glory of His power (NASB; italics supplied).
Did the translation committees of each of these versions of the Bible fail to see that the italicized words were not in the original Greek? Are all three translations therefore unreliable at this point?
You will see immediately that in all the versions quoted, Peterson has italicised the wrong words. Yes, these translations all refer to the presence of the Lord, but that was never the issue. He has simply rushed in again without pausing to review the argument put to him. Only one of these translations included his crucial phrase, “and shut out,” which was the phrase that he originally stressed, not all three. He has mishandled the argument.
Peterson is not alone. I am only using this example so that I can actually put some flesh on the bones, as it were. My friends, how many of you do this sort of thing? Do you caution each other when you see one another doing it? Would you let a colleague get away with this if you saw them doing it? Would you say “wait a moment there brother, while I agree with your conclusion, that’s not quite what the verse says,” or “look, I think you’re correct overall, but that’s not the argument he’s using”? Patience is a great virtue, but it looks to me at times that those defending the traditionalist cause simply lack this virtue when making their case. They know what the conclusion ought to be, and they are in a great hurry to get there, so at times the relevant pieces of exegetical data just become details that must be rushed through.
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.
3 Your exegesis employs reasoning that evangelicals in your camp have called fallacious in other contexts
Many of you are well known scholars in your field. Your readers, whether they agree with you or not, realise this. With this fact comes a degree of responsibility. Sometimes when a scholar in your position says something like “this word group has a range of meanings in Greek…” your readers will grant what you say because they lack knowledge of Greek, and also because they share your conclusions already. I know full well how reassuring it can be to hear an expert in a subject who knows much more than I do reassuring me with technical facts that the position I hold really is the right one. But in a context like this, you’ve got to be pretty ruthless with yourself. As Peter Parker’s uncle told him in the movie Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. People are listening to you, and they’re going to believe you. You ought not let yourself get away with persuading people with techniques that you wouldn’t let one of your students get away with in another subject area.
But some of you do precisely this.
Rob Bowman recently reminded me of his 2007 book in which he says he refuted the biblical case for annihilationism. One of the arguments he believes he has refuted is the argument from the language of destruction. Annihilationists have pointed out how emphatically the New Testament – and Jesus in particular – uses the language of destruction to refer to the fate of the lost. Matthew 10:28 is a good example (as already mentioned), where Christ warns of God’s ability to “destroy the body and soul in gehenna.”
Bowman responds to this objection by stating, quite correctly, “Several New Testament passages using a form of apollymi do so in reference to ruin, waste, loss, or perishing.” He lists the examples he has in mind thus:
Wineskins can be “ruined” (Matt. 9:17; mark 2:22; Luke 5:37).
A sheep (Luke 15:2, 4; cf. Ps. 119:176), a coin (Luke 15:8-9), and even a son (Luke 15:24, 32) can be “lost.”
Israel can be described as “lost” sheep (Matt. 10:6; 15:24).
A person can either “lose” his soul, or he can find or keep his soul (Matt. 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24-25; 17:33; John 12:25).
A reward can be “lost” (Matt. 10:42; Mark 9:41).
Food can “perish” (John 6:27).
Perfume can be “wasted” (Matt. 26:8; Mark 14:4).
A flower’s beauty can be “lost” (James 1:11 NET).
Gold pieces can “perish” in fire (1 Pet. 1:7)
Luxuries can be “lost” (Rev. 18:14).
A judicious interpretation of biblical passages that speak of hell using forms of apollumi must consider the range of meanings that the word has while allowing context to be the dominant factor in deciding what nuance applies in those passages.
Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007)
Bowman’s point is simple: Sure, the biblical passages that annihilationists use do speak about people being destroyed, but that same Greek word has a range of meaning, as illustrated in other passages, and those meanings are not “destroyed” in the strong sense that annihilationists imply.
Christopher Morgan makes the same argument. Speaking of these same Greek terms, Morgan says:
In the New Testament, these terms were used to refer to such ideas as a ‘lost’ coin and son (Luke 15), a ‘ruined’ wineskin (Matt. 9:17), the son of ‘perdition’ (John 17:12), lost money (Acts 8:20), judgment (2 Pet 2:3), attempted murder (20:16), and lost hairs (Luke 21:18). None of these suggest annihilation.
Christopher Morgan, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Fearn: mentor, 2004), 131.
Some of this is puzzling. The “attempted murder” example lacks the name of a book, giving “20:16” as the reference, but it appears that Luke 20:16 was intended, which does use the word apollumi. But here the word refers to a man killing his employees, which fits perfectly with the annihilationist understanding. This may show that Morgan has a strained understanding of what annihilationists themselves actually believe (I have heard it said that any sort of existence, even as a pile of ashes, would be a problem for the annihilationist view, which is palpable nonsense). But the shape of Morgan’s argument is that it is illegitimate to think that texts that speak of God destroying the lost favour annihilationism, since the words related to destruction are used in a range of other contexts where “none of [those cases] suggest annihilation.”
One more example. The same argument was made by Don Carson. “The apoleia word-group,” he said, “has a range of meanings, depending on the context.” Yes, sometimes it refers to straight forward destruction as the annihilationists contend, it need not always have this meaning in some contexts. Carson demonstrates this with examples: The “lost” son and lost coin of Luke 15, the “ruined” wineskins of Matthew 9:17 and similar examples. None of these things is simply “destroyed,” so we might legitimately read the apoleia terms as referring to ruin or loss, and not complete destruction. [Don Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Leicester: Apollos, 1996), 522.] The argument is the same as that of Bowman.
However, Carson also – when not writing on the subject of hell – warned people about what he calls an Exegetical Fallacy. The fallacy involves the “unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field.” This fallacy “lies in the assumption that the meaning of a word in a specific context is much broader than the context itself allows and may bring with it the word’s entire semantic range. This step is sometimes called illegitimate totality transfer.” [Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 62.]
The point is this: It is never legitimate to deny that a word means destroy in the strong sense in one case because we know that the word actually has a range of different meanings across a range of different contexts as Carson and Bowman note that it does. That the word apollumi has a range of meanings has never come into dispute. Edward Fudge, who Carson and Bowman are both familiar with, freely admitted this. But the fact that a word has a range of meaning, as Carson pointed out in the above book, does not give us licence to select from the whole gamut of possible meanings. Our task in any given instance is not to ask what a word is capable of meaning, but rather what that word is likely to mean in any given context. Both Carson and Bowman know this – I have no doubt of this – and yet they are both arguing against an annihilationist interpretation on the grounds that there’s a range of meanings that exist for apollumi. This is simply not legitimate.
As both authors do admit, context is supposed to be the determining factor in which emphasis a word has on any given instance. Take Matthew 10:28, which uses a verb form of apollumi to warn of God’s ability to destroy body and soul in Gehenna. It is contextually relevant to note, as I did earlier, that every time this word is used in the Synoptic Gospels as a verb describing the actions of one person against another it carries the very meaning that annihilationists draw from Matthew 10:28.
Similarly in Carson’s work he has just referred to 2 Peter 3:7 – “But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.” If context, rather than simply the full range of meaning, is to guide us when interpreting “destruction,” then he must surely realise that in this very same context – the previous verse in fact – Peter has already used the same word once: “the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.” If context is to be determinative, then surely the same base word meaning “perished” in the very strong sense of killing people off completely only one verse earlier should inform how we interpret Peter then immediately re-using that word to describe the fate of the lost.
So there’s the third issue with your exegesis. The problem isn’t that you don’t know the rules or that you don’t look into the Greek terms. Many of you do. The problem is that, knowing your own rules and knowing the Greek, you do things in defence of your own point of view that you realise are wrong when they are done in defence of other points of views. Your lay audience is likely to be unfamiliar with the Greek terms and unfamiliar with the existence of these fallacies. They will not see what you’re doing. But many of your readers – especially those who you are seeking to criticise – see it. We see some of you willing to use techniques that you must surely realise are problematic. If you do not realise it, you certainly should, based on what you have said elsewhere.
My traditionalist friends, this tactic hurts you. Among those who already share your point of view, perhaps some of them will notice, while many will not. Those who notice will be bothered, hopefully. But certainly none of these people will be more endeared to your work because of it. They will either already hold your view and they won’t notice, or they will already hold your view and they will be troubled by the way you defend it. However, among those of us who do not share your point of view, we see it and we are led to believe that this is an area where principles are taking a back seat. We’re not happy because of this.
We’re not rejoicing at the way some of you are weakening your case, because it’s not just a matter of being right. It’s a matter of being absolutely willing to follow the rules even when they hurt your case. We’re not pleased, we’re disappointed. This shouldn’t be happening. This leads us to despair that exegetical arguments with you are really worthwhile at all, since the principles of exegetical reasoning seem to matter to you less than we’d like them to. The tail is wagging the dog. But that aside, this is another feature of your exegesis that leads us to reject your biblical case for your view and against ours.
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.
Douglas R. A. Hare, Mark, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 117-118.
The fact that you find details like this irrelevant troubles me, and I cannot be the only one. When we see you making theological claims like yours on the basis of texts where it’s quite clear that you’re ignoring materially important information, we get turned off discussion with you. That’s perhaps unfortunate. Maybe some good would be gained if we were more willing to keep talking to you about your arguments and your endless flow of books. But I think many people, seeing examples like this, will readily appreciate why we are increasingly starting to think that there’s little point. That sounds pretty depressing I know. We’re family and we should talk about our issues. But this sort of thing just makes you look one-eyed, filtering out any facts that stand in your way. It seriously undermines your claim that you represent the biblical perspective on this issue.
5 Your exegesis sometimes makes unwarranted leaps in logic
There’s an obvious difference between identifying a biblical passage that you believe supports your point of view on the one hand, and seriously investing the time to show that it supports your point of view and how it does so on the other. You realise this of course. We all do. But many of you speak and write as though you didn’t realise this. Sometimes people who think that they’re giving a biblical argument for the traditional doctrine of eternal torment are really just leaping from text to conclusion with nothing in between. No explanation, no argument, just a great big leap.
Inside your head there may be all sorts of justifications for the leap. At very least, I hope there are some. But you do have to share those justifications, otherwise the tremendous confidence that you have in the argument you believe you’ve just made looks quite unjustified to the rest of us.
Here are a couple of examples. I won’t need to name names here, because these arguments are so common that I hope you’ll realise that you’ve seen these arguments used many times without me having to name authors.
“Matthew 25 says that some people will get eternal life, but other people will get eternal punishment. Therefore if you believe that some people will get eternal life because of this passage, you should also believe that some people will get eternal conscious misery/torment/suffering/something else.”
I have seen this argument more times than I care to recall. “Life and punishment are set in parallel. They are both eternal.” Fine. That has never been an issue. That fact is not in dispute. What is in dispute is what the punishment actually consists of. So many of you are so quick to make this leap: The punishment is eternal, so the punishment is conscious suffering. But this is a leap. It’s definitely not true as a matter of definition, and you can hardly claim that Matthew 25 actually states this. You might think that being destroyed isn’t really a punishment. That’s your position and you are welcome to argue for it. But you can’t get all the way over to that claim just by noting that the punishment is eternal. If destruction really is a punishment, then of course annihilationism presents eternal punishment as well. Don’t expect us to leap with you. We’re still standing here waiting for you to give an explanation of why you maintain that destruction isn’t a punishment. You certainly wont find that in Matthew 25.
This leads some of you to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, a verse that I’ve already mentioned. This verse speaks about the future return of Christ, and it states that some people will be “punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” Annihilationists have identified this text as one of the many that speaks of the destruction of the lost, because it explicitly refers to their destruction. However, some of you have cited this text as one that counts against annihilationism. Robert Peterson gives what seems to me to be the standard version of this claim (I do call it claim rather than an argument, for reasons that I hope will soon be clear): “Paul says of the disobedient, ‘They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power.’ Annihilationism is an unlikely meaning for the words ‘everlasting destruction’.” [“A Traditionalist Response to John Stott,” 555.]
That’s the end of the argument. Peterson then moves onto another argument related to this text (the one I addressed at the outset of the section on poor exegesis). But where’s the argument? Annihilationism is an unlikely meaning? Why? What are the reasons? How do we get to that conclusion? What’s the thought process? It’s no more than a leap. Somehow Peterson has moved rapidly from the phrase “everlasting destruction” to the conclusion that annihilationism is unlikely, but how is this move made? We just aren’t told. It’s clear enough that if annihilationism is true, then the fate of the lost will indeed be destruction, and it will certainly be everlasting, so somewhere in Peterson’s argument he has made a major leap in logic that he has not explained.
Other tradititonalists only seem to make this worse when they try to strengthen this argument. Douglas Moo, for example, agrees that even if the “destruction” was taken in this verse in the strong sense that annihilationists take it, “one must still ask how a destruction whose consequences last forever can be squared with annihilationism. For eternal consequences appear to demand an eternal existence in some form.” [Douglas Moo, “Paul on Hell” in Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (eds), Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 106]. What? Wait, we really need to see the reasoning there. It seems clear to most people, I would think, that if the act of destruction kills a person and literally annihilates them, then in order for the consequence to be eternal, they would have to not exist forever. How on earth does Moo get from “the consequences of their annihilation last forever” to “they must exist forever”? We are treated with stony silence. Literally no explanation is offered for this seemingly bizarre leap. And yet it is this leap that carries the weight of Moo’s argument against the annihilationist use of the verse! Can you really blame us for finding this kind of logical leap frustrating?
When you do this kind of thing, my friends, we’re not always sure what to make of it. Are you assuming that we wouldn’t understand the logic if you explained it to us? Is this just a symptom of a poorly thought out argument? Is it a case of automatic association, where the verse on the pages, since it mentions punishment, is immediately connected to the doctrine in your mind that you already hold, which involves eternal torment? We can’t tell. That’s the problem with leaps like this. We just don’t know how you got there. It’s frustrating to see arguments like this repeated time and time again, along with the apparent belief that we’re not addressing your case. What case? What is there to these arguments? How are they supposed to work? Throw us a bone! The overall impact that examples like this have is that they make us think, “You know, these traditionalists don’t even need an argument to reach their conclusion. Just mention punishment, and boom, they’re already there. Are they even thinking about how they get there?” It just ends up looking like you’re not really arguing for your position, but you’re preaching to the converted, to people who already share your view. They don’t need an argument because they’re already there, so you don’t have to give them one.
6 Your exegesis sometimes glosses over important facts
Some of the other worries that I have expressed over your exegesis overlap with this one. When you seem to exclude certain parts of the passage you’re using (as in Isaiah 66) or when you’re hasty and you don’t take the time to check the correct wording of the verses you’re using (as in 2 Thessalonians 1:9), you’re glossing over important facts. But there are other times when you’re not doing either of these two things, but you’re still glossing over important facts in other ways.
For example, a large number of you repeat the phrase “eternal fire” as it appears in Matthew 25. You tell readers that this demonstrates that the doctrine of eternal torment is true. There is a sense in which there is a logical leap here, since a fire that lasts forever (assuming this is what you think we have in this instance) does not in itself imply eternal torment, but let’s set that aside. It’s true, Matthew 25 does refer to the “everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” Robert Peterson once commented on this verse:
Included in Jesus’ teaching concerning the sheep and the goats are his terrible words to the wicked,
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). Traditionalists since Augustine have interpreted Scripture by Scripture and gone to Rev 20:10 for help in understanding this “eternal fire prepared for the devil.”
Peterson, “The Hermeneutics of Annihilationalism: The Theological Method of Edward Fudge,” in Michael Bauman and David Hall, Evangelical Hermeneutics: Selected Essays from the 1994 Evangelical Theological Society Convention (Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1995), 198.
The suggestion here is that if we want to understand what “eternal fire” is, we should go to the book of Revelation – as though all parties are already agreed that Revelation 20 offers a description of the eternal fire. Yet this same article passes over in total silence the fact that the phrase “eternal fire” itself appears elsewhere in the New Testament, not in the book of Revelation but in Jude 7. If we are going to arrive at an understanding of this phrase by “interpreting Scripture by Scripture,” surely we should look to see how Scripture itself uses that phrase elsewhere. When we turn to Jude 7 we realise how significant this omission truly is. There were read: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” An example is something we can all see, and sure enough the account is right there in Genesis. It is no secret what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. They were completely destroyed with fire – we could even say that they were annihilated. Why was this not mentioned? Why was the only other biblical usage of the phrase “eternal fire” not even brought up. Peterson is not alone, I’ve seen many of you do this. You tell your reader or your audience that the phrase “eternal fire” confirms the doctrine of eternal torment, yet you do not tell them how this phrase is used elsewhere. Do you not think that this is materially relevant? Yes, I am aware that some of you do mention Jude 7. I think your exegesis in those cases is poor. Robert Bowman for examples claims:
Jude 7 does not exactly say that Sodom was destroyed by “eternal fire.” What it says is that Sodom and the other wicked cites around them serve as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. The point Jude is making is that the fire that fell on those cities typifies the punishment that will come on the false teachers who are trying to mislead Jude’s readers. He calls the fire that fell on those cities “eternal fire” because it foreshadows a future “fire” that really will be eternal.
Bowman, Sense and Nonsense
This is awkward to say the very least. First, even though the text directly states that Sodom did actually serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, Bowman inexplicably says that Jude does not “actually” say this. But if this is not how one actually says it, how on earth could one say it? Bowman then says that actually the fire that fell on those cities was eternal fire (apparently rejecting his earlier claim), but only because it typifies a future fire that “really will be” eternal – apparently unlike the fire in Sodom. So was the fire eternal or not? Jude says yes, Bowman says no, then yes, then no! As arguments go, this is far less than cogent. I do not think this has any plausibility at all, but he a least makes an attempt at dealing with the very difficult problem his position is faced with. But many of you do not. You mention eternal fire in Matthew 25 but you do not tell people that the phrase is used elsewhere too, in a way that does not suit your theological position. Is it because doing so would result in this kind of text wrangling? Is it because you’re not aware that the phrase is used elsewhere? Whatever your reasons, it looks very bad when you simply ignore it. It looks as though you’re excluding important pieces of evidence. You’re avoiding difficult arguments against your position, but what do you think will happen if your readers discover them?
7 Your exegetical rebuttals are sometimes much too dismissive
I understand that you have confidence in your position. I certainly do not think the biblical evidence warrants your confidence, but I understand that you have it. Confidence can get you into trouble. It can mean that you reject arguments for other peoples’ beliefs much more quickly than you ought to.
Every theological stance that is grounded in exegesis of biblical passages is going to have some passages that present more complex issues and require more explanation than others. Of all people, you should know this. This is all the more likely going to be true when – quite apart from the doctrinal issue in discussion – the texts in question are ones that are notorious for being difficult to understand and fraught with controversy as to their meaning.
In particular I have in mind two passages in the book of Revelation, chapters 14 and chapter 20. Anyone who assumes that their position on the meaning of such texts is the only and obvious possible position for any reasonable interpreter to take is simply out of touch with reality, as I hope you will appreciate. Unfortunately however, some of you leap onto passages that are full of what is clearly vivid imagery with a secondary meaning, and you claim them as obvious proof of your position without appearing to even try to honestly grapple with the interpretative difficulties related to those passages.
I know as well as many of you do that well-known scholars have written on your behalf in regard to these passages. Greg Beale, for example, has defended the claim that these passages teach eternal torment and that they are incompatible with annihilationism [“The Revelation on Hell” in Morgan and Peterson (eds), Hell Under Fire, 111-134]. I think his exegesis is seriously flawed, but I acknowledge that he at least sees the need to engage those passages carefully and to argue that they teach his view. I don’t think he adequately allows the Old Testament imagery to speak, I think he treats the passages as a literal depiction of hell when they were never intended that way, I think he emphasises the wrong aspects of the literature in front of him (he lays great stress on interpreting an angel’s proclamation of what is about to happen in Revelation 14:9-11 which uses language of torment, but gives very little emphasis to the actual depiction of those events unfolding in Revelation 14:14-20 which uses the language of slaughter – in fact he ignores the latter altogether), I think he fumbles the implications of the corporate nature of the imagery involved (in particular the corporate nature of the beasts and the implications that this has for their fate) and I think he engages in a rather obvious informal logical fallacy when writing about the “beast” (technically known as the fallacy of division).
While I think Beale’s case is weak, I do acknowledge that he at least treats these passages as complex and as though they are in need of careful interpretation. Beale does this, but many of you do not. Many of you present these texts, note that they mention fire, judgement and suffering, and immediately leap to the conclusion that they must teach your familiar doctrine of the eternal torment of the damned in the flames of hell. When we try to point out to you the difficulty of interpreting apocalyptic imagery, when we have said that the things in these visions actually represent other things and shouldn’t be read at face value, some of you have scoffed at us “not taking God’s word seriously,” and as trying to get off the hook by saying that it’s “all symbolic.” We admit that these texts are complex – not just for us, but for anybody. You appear to dismiss this fact and write off what we say as mere rationalisation. This is disheartening. You need to understand that we can’t interact with that. That’s a kind of arrogance that is unteachable, and it suggests that you’re not willing to consider complex issues of biblical interpretation if they get in the way of doctrinal positions to which you have become attached.
These seven observations and the examples used are illustrative. I haven’t tried to cover every flawed use of exegesis that you have made in your case for eternal torment. The reality is that yours is a position that has become tiresome to address, partly because of the fundamental flaws in the biblical arguments you have repeatedly tried to make, and also because we have seen these arguments many times before, which leads to the next reason that your position is not winning and will not win the battle on the issue of final punishment.
Problem 2: You are often unresponsive to the fact that the arguments you are now using – yet again – have already been addressed in the literature
There are some arguments that are really tiresome, not simply because they’re poor arguments, but because they keep reappearing again and again, no matter how many times they are soundly addressed. You may already be familiar with some of these arguments. I have lost count, for example, of the times that I have seen or heard a zealous atheist claim that the “first cause” argument for the existence of God is flawed, because if everything needs a cause then God too needs a cause. For the last time, that’s not the first cause argument! I see similar things happen in regard to divine command ethics. That view of ethics has had very able exposition and the objections have been addressed numerous times, and yet each year there seem to be a fresh batch of exactly the same objections recycled again, without any serious interaction with the literature where those objections have already been addressed. Many of you know what this is like, and you realise how frustrating this phenomenon can be. You may have said to yourselves, “What’s the point of interacting with people of they’re just going to wait for the dust to settle and then present the same arguments, unmodified, all over again in some sort of communist re-trial?”
Unfortunately the same thing keeps happening in the debate over annihilationism. You saw earlier how a number of you have responded to the annihilationist argument using the language of destruction. You’ve replied by pointing out that those terms in fact have a range of meaning, so you have the legitimate option of appealing to one of those meanings instead of the strong sense of destruction that the annihilationists suggest. Now, there was a flaw in the argument that you’ve used, but I’ve already covered that. What I want to point out now is that this rebuttal of yours has already been addressed numerous times in the literature, and yet you never seem to acknowledge or address this fact. I will assume that you agree with Don Carson in saying that the context should, ultimately, be the deciding factor in determining which nuance of meaning we should find in any given usage of a word like “destroy” (apollumi). But for many decades, annihilationist work has been in print carefully explaining that their case from the language of destruction has strength not just because of the presence of the word “destroy,” “perish” or “destruction.” They have been at pains to explain that language, along with the context in which it appears, plainly favours the idea of straight forward death and destruction rather than only ruin or loss (unless we mean loss of life itself). They simply have not presented the simplistic argument that you suggest.
Henry Constable explained this argument in his 1871 work, The Nature and Duration of Future Punishment. First he notes that of all the terms that can be used for “destroy,” “perish” or “destruction,” when considering the specific terms that the New Testament does use, no other terms would be more suitable to refer to “the utter loss of life” than these. He then notes that according to ordinary Greek lexicons (not theological ones, which he complains may be coloured by doctrinal bias), these terms do primarily refer to death and destruction in the strong literal sense, whatever else they may signify – a point he illustrates from a range of instances in the New Testament. Referring to this strong sense of the words, he goes on to say that he will show that “it is thus used in Scripture.” That is, he does not merely intend to show that this group of words is used, but rather that it is “thus” used – used in the way that he has just explained. He uses examples where the context shows that the intended sense is not some lesser sense of these terms like “lose” or “ruin [but not destruction].” For example:
We would direct attention to the passage in 2 Pet. ii. 12, as affording indubitable proof that it is thus used in Scripture. Speaking of the ungodly, Peter says, ‘these, as natural brute beasts made to be taken and destroyed, shall utterly perish in their own corruption.’ Here the same Greek word is used of the end of beasts and of the end of the ungodly. We know what is the end of beasts taken and destroyed: even such Peter declares will be the end of the ungodly in the future life: they shall perish there as beasts perish here.
Constable, The Nature and Duration of Future Punishment (New Haven: Chas. C. Chatfield and Co., 1871), chapter 4 (electronic copy without page numbering)
You’ll notice here that Constable doesn’t merely stop at the observation that the language of destruction is present, as your response seems to suggest. Instead, he notes that it is present, that its most straightforward meaning is literal death and destruction, and, as you seem not to have noticed, that the context where this terminology is used itself very strongly favours this interpretation. Constable’s case does not depend on there being only one possible meaning for the Greek words for “destroy” or “destruction.” It would therefore be irrelevant to reply to him that way. In other words, Constable is already following your advice in regard to the language of destruction. What good could it possibly do, therefore, to reply to him by telling him that these terms have a range of meaning depending on context? He has already replied to this rejoinder, and yet many of you are content to simply repeat it without modification time and time again.
Edward White explained the same argument in his rather wordily titled work, Life in Christ: A Study on the nature of Man, the Object of the Divine Incarnation, and the Conditions of Human Immortality, published in 1878. Interestingly, one of the very first things that White did in his chapter on future punishment was to address the way that some people seek to crack open words into their fullest possible range of meanings, literal, metaphorical, spiritual and anything else, and imagine that every time that word is used they are free to go fishing for all of these meanings.
Too much stress cannot be laid on the rule that since the Sacred Writings were for the most part the work of men who were commissioned by God in different ways to address the understanding of human beings, – the law shall be observed, in interpreting them, of adhering to tlte natural and proper meaning of the words which they usually employ. If we once abandon ourselves to the fancies of dreamers who see everything through an intellectual prism, for whom no word retains its natural signification, but every vocable is surrounded with an aureola or many-tinted halo of mysteries and ‘inner senses,’ we might as well abandon at the same time the hope of comprehending Christianity.
White, Life in Christ, 348.
When examining the terminology itself, White notes, correctly:
[I]n ninety-nine instances out of every hundred in which the issue of God’s judgment is referred to, its effect is declared to be to bring the subjects of it to an end which is described as death, destruction, perishing, utterly perishing, corruption; and, negatively, as exclusion from life, or life eternal. Such phrases as endless woe, endless misery, are unknown to the Bible. The ordinary language of the pulpit on this subject is systematically unscriptural.
White, Life in Christ, 356
To say that this has no significance is to stack the odds impossibly against annihilationism. This fact clearly does have significance in itself. More than this, however, White provides reasons for maintaining that rather than some secondary sense, the Gospel writers are best understood as having the primary sense of real death and destruction in mind. His argument occupies considerable space and I cannot reproduce it here – but being familiar with the literature you will surely have read it (right?). He trudges through the philosophical literature that permeated the Hellenistic world familiar to most of the first readers of the New Testament – specifically Plato – and shows with multiple examples that the very same terminology of destruction and death that Plato says will not befall the soul, the New Testament writers affirm will happen to the soul (and to the person in more general terms). Plato of course did believe in ongoing misery for people in the afterlife, but he denied the annihilationist thesis that anyone would ultimately be destroyed. How can you not find this significant at all?
On page 367, White explicitly grants your observation that the word apollumi does have a secondary sense of “lose” rather than destroy. But he invests considerable energy then establishing what out first expectation should be when that word is used, explaining why the mere existence of other shades of meaning should not be used to overthrow his argument. None of you seem to be aware of this, or to respond to it.
Edward Fudge explored this issue as well – as all of you must surely know, since you constantly name him as the architect of poor exegesis to bolster annihilationism. His comments on apollumi in the writing of Paul actually start out with the very same observations that you make: That this language is used of ruined wineskins or spoiled food in the Gospels. Obviously this sense is weaker than the strong sense of kill or destroy that the annihilationists urge, says Fudge, and so traditionalist writers point out this range of usage, with the consequence that “casual readers may assume that the word’s primary meaning must be very mild indeed” [Fudge, The Fire that Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994, 2nd ed. ), 164]. His response is similar to White’s, wading through the many examples of this terminology in Paul’s writing and showing that in fact our primary expectation should be a meaning of literal death or destruction. He does not deny, of course, that you might be able to locate other examples where this is not the intended meaning, but you cannot deny that he makes an impressive case based on the way this language is actually used. While traditionalists are fond of making much of the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal punishment,” which involves something of a logical leap, Fudge makes a powerful parallel of his own, showing that he is well aware of the need to interpret language in a way suggested by context. He comments on Matthew 10:28, where men can kill the body but God can destroy (apollumi) body and soul in hell: “In Matthew’s account Jesus uses ‘kill’ and ‘destroy’ in parallel fashion, apparently making them interchangeable” [The Fire that Consumes, 108]. So he certainly does make the effort to show that in context, kill or destroy is the likely meaning of terms such as apollumi. Your published responses seem not to be informed by this fact.
I won’t labour the point further. The fact is, a number of proponents of annihilationism have explained this already. They are all well aware of the fact that the words referring to destruction admit a range of meaning in different contexts. This is not news to them, and it is no rebuttal to simply point this out. What they have argued is that straightforward death and destruction is the most natural sense of these terms, in the contexts where it clearly does refer to final punishment there is no reason to suppose that an alternative meaning was intended, and there are at times quite clear indications that the strong sense of “destroy” or “destruction” really is intended. You don’t address this reply. None of you do, as far as I have seen. All you do is re-present the same argument that these and other authors have quite handily dealt with.
Just like cases where people persistently (and poorly) critique the first cause argument or those who keep serving up the same old arguments against divine command ethics, the impression that this gives is not good. We do not know what your intentions are or what is going on in your mind, but it looks very bad. It appears that you are simply avoiding the argument altogether, and simply handing out the same lines once more in the apparent supposition that your words will not reach a critical or well informed audience. If someone has never read the literature then they might not realise that you aren’t advancing the discussion, but are merely repeating already debunked lines of argument. We hope that this is not what is happening, but if not this, then it is not clear what. As people who hold themselves out as competent to criticise the annihilationist stance, of course we assume that you are already familiar with the literature. The issue therefore cannot be that you just don’t realise that annihilationist writers have addressed the question of what words (which might have a range of meaning) mean in the specific contexts where final punishment is in view. But the fact that you say nothing about the way they address this argument is symptomatic of someone who doesn’t know how they respond to it. I do not know how to interpret these facts in a way that does not reflect very poorly indeed on the quality of your case. It looks to us as though you’re just not listening. I’m sorry, but that is the truth.
Problem 3: Some of you visibly mischaracterise the case against your position
If you’ve read the major works written in defence of annihilationism (such as that of Constable, White or Fudge), you will have seen that by far the majority of their case is made up of slow, meticulous, even boring exegesis of one passage of Scripture after another that speaks to the issue of final punishment. It’s not riveting, but that’s the nature of the task. Their central claim has been relatively straightforward: The Bible does not teach the doctrine of eternal torment, it teaches the doctrine of annihilationism instead.
For some reason however, a number of your writers have sought to persuade readers that this is not the central argument that these annihilationist writers use after all. Christopher Morgan, for example, asks his readers to believe that in the case of annihilationist arguments, “the annihilationists’ misunderstandings of certain aspects of their doctrines of God and sin have shaped most of their arguments” [Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell, 139]. Really? So even though Fudge’s work mostly consists of chapters on the meaning and nature of sheol and hades, surveys of intertestamental literature, and most importantly, lengthy chapters on passages of New Testament exegesis, all the while “most of his arguments” are really founded on misunderstandings of the doctrines of God and sin? But how does an exegesis of, say Matthew 8:11 involve the doctrines of God and sin? When Fudge invests time discussing the Old Testament background of the imagery in the book of Revelation, how is he getting the doctrines of God and sin wrong? This characterisation is absurd. Morgan is just ignoring page after page, chapter after chapter of patient exegesis, and trying to sweep it all under the rug of a theological misunderstanding. In effect, it is he who is not doing exegesis, but rather making an appeal to systematic theology to short cut the argument. In the same book, unfortunately, Morgan effectively begs his readers to “look the other way” when annihilationists spend most of their time building an exegetical case, claiming instead that our real arguments are all about God’s love, justice and victory (p. 140). It would certainly be convenient for traditionalists if this were actually true, but it is simply not the case.
At other times you have put claims into the mouths of annihilationists that they have simply never made in an attempt (so it appears to us) to make them look like they have a loose grip on the facts when this is simply not true. For example, as Edward Fudge has pointed out, Jonathan Edwards, although he believed that annihilationism was false, did agree with us that the mere phrase “eternal punishment” does not rule out annihilationism. Those who are worried about the notion of “eternal punishment,” he explained, will get no relief by resorting to annihilationism, since this to is properly eternal punishment of some sort. But when Fudge pointed this out, Robert Peterson replied by going to great pains to show that Edwards himself was not an annihilationist, concluding that “Plainly Edwards opposes annihilationism” as though this shows that Fudge was mistaken. But obviously it shows no such thing. What’s even worse is that in that same exchange Peterson then took Edwards’ concluding remarks about universalism and quoting them, mistakenly thinking that Edwards was talking abut annihilationism, suggesting that it is he, rather than Fudge, who had a loose grip on the relevant facts (I discuss this in my blog post, “Jonathan Edwards Comes to the Aid of Annihilationism [http://rightreason.org/2008/jonathan-edwards-comes-to-the-aid-of-annihilationism/] ”).
In light of the dry, meticulous exegesis that has been carried out over the last couple of centuries on behalf of annihilationism, written from a plainly conservative evangelical perspective, it becomes simply incredible that Carson should include his volley against annihilationism in his work about how “Christianity confronts pluralism.” In a work devoted to the opposition of postmodernism, sentimentality, relativism and the push for inclusivism, the biblical case for annihilationism is dragged in as an example of precisely this. So when the conservative evangelical (some would probably go as far as to say “fundamentalist,” but I would not) Edward Fudge’s densely written exegesis was published as a lengthy Bible study, he was really just caving into the pressures of pluralism and postmodernity? What about White and Constable in the 19th century? We they seduced by postmodern pressures too? What about the Church Father Arnobius? Was he?
Published examples aside, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard traditionalists – in sermons, public talks and everyday conversation – informed people who should know better, repeatedly characterising annihilationists as people who get teary eyed at the thought of hell and who long to come up with a nicer, more loving portrait of God’s judgement. This is to say nothing of the ridiculous games of “guilt by association” that some of you seem intent on playing. In Rob Bowman’s book on heaven and hell, I lost count of the number of times when he refers to the annihilationist position and the first example he can think of when referring to those who hold this view is the Jehovah’s witnesses. Who gives arguments for annihilationism? The Jehovah’s Witnesses, that’s who. Who believes in soul sleep? The Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just imagine how contrived our arguments would look if we continually used the example of Mormons as people who believe in eternal torment! Guilt by association may at times be a guilty pleasure in order to arouse prejudice against us, but it is hardly a respectable technique.
When we see you misrepresent our emphasis, when we see you fundamentally misrepresent the straightforward claims we make about who said what, and when we see you employ the fallacious and unfortunate tactic of suggesting guilt by association, we find ourselves at a loss as to what to say next. You’re either not listening, or something more sinister is afoot and you’re intentionally trying to get people to not hear what we say, or you are poisoning the well by telling tall tales about our motives.
Problem 4: You have very badly underestimated the strength of the biblical case against your position, and are rather obviously relying on the belief that your position is the established and popular one
You’ve invested a lot of time now, in colleges that have statements of faith including the doctrine of eternal torment, teaching students who are there partly because they already believe those statements, that annihilationism is false. You will never advance your cause this way. It is akin to teaching Catholic students that Mary was a virgin her whole life. You will not find genuine, sustained opposition to your arguments in that context. It is my experience that some of you are actually a little shocked when you do come into contact with genuine, well informed and confident disagreement from evangelicals.
From behind the barricades, you have become convinced that the biblical case against your view is insubstantial and can be blown down like a house of straw. I have met, either in person or online, countless people who initially told me that they had “looked at both sides of the issue,” by which they meant that they had read one or more of your works in which you – so they believed – laid out the merits of the biblical case for annihilationism and then destroyed it. When presented with just a few responses to these rebuttals as well as a few further considerations, it is as though their world has been turned upside down. They had no idea how compelling the arguments for annihilationism were, and as a result of our encounters many of them are now either undecided or they have embraced annihilationism. Of course, I have read your accounts of people being convinced the other way around too. For example, one of you wrote that his students in a conservative Presbyterian seminary – students who already embraced the Westminster confession of faith (which teaches eternal torment) – got angry at Edward Fudge after you explained why you think his arguments fail. But whipping up angst towards a person that students already disagree with is nothing compared to seeing a person’s shock when they realise that they have been lead to believe one thing when another is the case.
Evangelicals are finding this out. For years they have been reassured that the annihilationist position is one for those who don’t care for biblical authority, who doubt the seriousness of sin, who don’t have proper regard for God’s holiness, and who piece together a tenuous case based on the strained interpretation of a few texts of Scripture. Now, of course I haven’t presented in this letter the biblical case for annihilationism (I do make a modest attempt at doing this elsewhere). But Evangelicals are most certainly finding out that it is not what many of you have made it out to be, and as they have been finding out, many of them have been given the opportunity to think about the matter for themselves and they are changing their minds.
These reasons paint an overall picture of why we are so unimpressed with your arguments. They give a clue as to why the borders of your “territory” are shrinking rather than expanding. This is why your case isn’t working. You can call it something else like unwillingness to face the hard unpleasant truth, call it postmodern pressure, but these are the reasons.
You might be tempted to pick out one of the many concerns raised here (perhaps one of the cases where I think your exegesis has been very poor and argue that it doesn’t justify the sort of reaction I have presented). OK, you might grant, maybe this appeal to Scripture is not perfect, but don’t write off our approach because of that! That’s a fair concern, but firstly, the exegesis I am concerned about is not just imperfect, it is really really bad. And secondly, my despair at your stance on this issue is grounded in a cumulative case. It’s not just that that argument is bad. If that were the only concern, I wouldn’t regard your endeavours this way. The problem is that there are so many and such fundamental flaws in your exegesis, your immunity from evidence, your unfairness and your overconfidence that even if one of the examples I have noted is not as bad as I think, this does almost nothing to improve things. You might be able to point to an example of a traditionalist writer who does address one of the arguments I say you ignore. That would surprise me, but OK. What about the rest of you? The phenomena that I have identified are endemic among you. They should be rare, but unfortunately they are normal.
So friends, what am I saying – that you should just give up and stop defending your position? In a sense I suppose I am, because I don’t think you should approach Scripture the way you are, piecing together verses to defend your established position. But of course, I realise that over time you will settle on one view on the basis of what you think are good reasons, and you will henceforth defend that view. I do the same, naturally. At the very least I am saying that if you keep doing what you are doing, these are some of the reasons why you will continue to be unsuccessful. You might ask “So how can we be more successful?” I don’t know. I don’t want you to succeed, for obvious reasons, but I don’t know how you could make your case more persuasive or successful. Removing the problematic arguments altogether would, in my view, reduce you repertoire of arguments dramatically, and correcting them would, in my view, result in the defence of a different position on final punishment.
I am also saying, and here we get into the less pleasant stuff again, that you need to clean your act up. There are two sides to this. The first duty is more of a moral duty than the other. You really ought to be more careful. Don’t misrepresent people’s claims. Don’t misrepresent their arguments. Don’t impute motives to people who have never expressed those motives. Don’t tell us where they are “really” coming from. They are quite capable of telling us these things. The second duty, and this may well offend you more than the first, is a scholarly and intellectual one. You’ve seriously got to think harder about some of these arguments. I can picture the outrage some of you might feel on reading a comment like that. I’m sorry on one hand, but not sorry on the other. Let me deliberately overstate it this way: I don’t care what your theology is, if I were your teacher and you handed in an essay where you treated the word apollumi like Carson and Bowman did, you’d lose marks for it. That is appalling exegesis. If you just stated claims, one after the other, involving a clear logical leap from one to the other, I would write on it with a red pen: “you need to unpack this please.” If you just stated that a verse is incompatible with someone’s view without further comment, I would write “why?” And if you engaged in only half of what I have described in this letter, you would fail – as you should. It must be hard to appreciate the negative light in which the above tactics cast your work, but honestly, your arguments are to annihilationism what Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is to Christianity. Among Christians it is virtually a laughing stock – as I assume you know. And that is how annihilationists regard your arguments. I am sure you will find that no less gracious than you find the fact that I (and perhaps you) think Dawkins’ book is nonsense.
I’ll draw the letter to a close. If nothing else, I’ve given you a window on how annihilationists see what you have done. I have tried to be honest, which carries with it certain risks. I couldn’t tell you these things without running those risks, so I won’t apologise any more than I already have. This, my friends, is why we are not impressed, why we don’t seem to be reacting with any urgency to rectify our views, why the church is not moving in your direction, and why I do not think the case for annihilationism has anything to worry about.
- Jonathan Edwards Comes to the Aid of Annihilationism
- Hanegraaf on Annihilationism
- Episode 005: It’s one Hell of an episode!
- How to escape the Bible with your theology intact
- Strategic mistakes that work in my favour
106 thoughts on “An open letter to my traditionalist friends”
I would add to this list of complaints that traditionalists grossly overstate the case for eternal torment being the commonplace or unanimous view among Jews at the time of Christ. This is one of their favorite arguments, and they can often get away without expounding upon it too much, because laypeople are generally unfamiliar with intertestamental literature.
My fear is that, if traditionalists aren’t willing to sit through your excellent 3-part podcast on annihilationism, or drudge through “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism” (my exhaustive 400+ page treatment of it which is available for free on the internet at http://3-ringbinder.weebly.com/), they might not read through all this carefully.
Therefore, traditionalist readers, you should prove me wrong 😉
Thanks, Glenn. Sincere thanks. I had to read that four times before I understood most of it.
Perhaps the problem is personal revelation ?
If I ‘know’ that I’m right then your argument must be wrong somehow sort of thing ?
Great post Glenn! I read Joey’s 400 page writing on it too. It was very balanced and fair and made me consider even more things I had not though of in this debate. Edward Fudge also just finally released his new and updated book ‘The Fire that Consumes’ at http://www.amazon.com/Fire-That-Consumes-Historical-ebook/dp/B0054M8UBK/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1308516195&sr=1-1 if anyone is interested.
I will never be 100% sure that eternal torment is not true, BUT, with the mountain of scriptural evidence for conditional immortality, I am fairly convinced eternal torment is most likely a false doctrine.
Can you clarify for me what the annihilationist position is on John 5:28-29, and the nature of the resurrection in general? It seems that resurrecting someone to be condemned only to have them cease to exist is redundant, especially so if there is no intermediate state. That’s redundancy upon redundancy. Or, does the condemnation serve to vindicate God in the sight of all creation? Judgment, on this view, serves not necessarily as punitive retribution, but as God’s declaration of his justice only?
One argument I can’t get past that is against the position of annihilation comes from Tim Keller: he argues that annihilation devalues human persons, and makes them a mere means to an end: the only reason the wicked exist is to aid history’s fruition for the sake of God’s elect (he speaks as a Calvinist).
I also think of the concept of justice. Now, on both views, justice is on-going, and yet the on-going”ness” of it has a vast difference. It just seems that for justice to meet its full thrust, there must be both a subject and an object, and that if the object ceases to exist, the aspect of justice meted out against the object is delimited.
So, if you could comment on 1)nature of the resurrected body 2) the “means to an end” & the interminable value of human persons and 3) the concept of justice, I would be most thankful.
Thanks again for your hard work of scholarship!
ps–I like the idea of annihilation, but these are some issues I think of.
So let’s see Glenn, you say you believe in the idea of “soul sleep” for both believers and non believers. You also believe that ultimately the lost nonbelievers instead of experiencing live eternal torment in hell will just be annihilated and be in a state of nonexistence.
So therefore, I have a feeling that you either believe but are currently afraid to admit or you plan to admit later sometime in the future that you ALSO believe in annihilationism FOR CHRISTIANS TOO! Again, you appear to be a love slave for atheist secular neuroscience. Am I right or am I right?
I mean come on, admit already that you don’t believe in ANY form of afterlife, eternal life or any form of consciousness for people after this life is over. Admit that Christianity to you, is nothing more but a sweet story (a sweet lie that is) to make people feel good and to help people live happy and friendly and friendly to each other (as Darwin says to help preserve the overall survival of the species). Just basically admit you believe in Thomas Jefferson style Christianity (all the morals, people and events but no miracles and no supernatural, oh and God may not even exist either!).
Though I am not Glenn, I might be able to give some answers.
First of all, I will preface it all with the argument that scripture, as divine revelation from God Himself, overrides human philosophy. That is the paradigm I write from, and I think all Christians should (as I’d imagine you ultimately do).
1. RESURRECTION: I do believe that, even if we can’t think of a good reason why God would resurrect the lost just to destroy them, if the Bible says that that is the case, then that is what matters.
That said, I believe God’s vindication is a big part of it. A time when all creation is alive and present to witness God’s judgment is necessary for God to be fully vindicated. The righteous need to be there to witness the judgment and give Him His well-earned praise for His justice. Also, since the wicked did terrible things to them, their being there also serves to vindicate His servants. Even if the lost were tormented for eternity as disembodied souls, there would be no such vindication. That’s one very good reason to have a resurrection no matter what the intermediate or eternal states are like. I discuss this more in my paper, “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism,” free to read and download on my website: http://3-ringbinder.weebly.com/ (it’s in Section XLVII).
As far as the nature of the resurrected body goes, the Bible never speaks directly to the nature of the resurrected body of the lost (1 Corinthians 15 only speaks of the saved, as discussed in Section VIII). Therefore, the nature of the resurrected body can only be deduced from what the Bible says about the eternal fate of the lost elsewhere.
2. VALUE AND DIGNITY OF MAN: That is something to consider, but ultimately it is a philosophical argument, not a biblical argument. The Bible never says “men are too dignified and worthy to ever be annihilated.” If the Bible says the lost are destroyed, than that’s what matters.
That said, there is more that can be said. Man is a created being. Man’s worth comes solely from his creator. We must not forget that. Man matters because God says that he matters. It is up to the creator to say whether or not man is so worthy that even if he sins, he should be kept around. Surely man being made in God’s image doesn’t mean he somehow has worth and dignity that even God cannot take it away.
The human dignity ultimately backfires on the traditionalist. Annihilationists are said to be soft on sin, but unlike the traditionalist, the annihilationist can say that sin against God is so bad that those who die in sin forfeit even the eternal existence God made them for. The human dignity argument assumes that man has the glory – the annihilationist argument says that God alone has the glory, and if He tells us in His word that men are not worthy to keep existing if their sins are not forgiven, then that is sufficient to speak of the future of the lost.
3. METING OUT JUSTICE: The idea isn’t that God inflicts justice on the no longer existent person. Rather, the one-time infliction of punishment upon the lost person is eternal in that results are eternal. The result of God “punishing” the lost person is the “punishment”; the result is eternal, therefore, the “punishment” is eternal. The person is existent when justice is meted out. It’s like how capital punishment is considered more severe than years of imprisonment, and is considered the “ultimate punishment” even though it doesn’t last nearly as long. I talk about this more in Section XV, the section on Matthew 25:41 and 46.
Why not look those things over and see what you think?
Perhaps it’s time to admit that you are reacting this way because the more you see, the more you are moving towards the realisation that God is real and that he’s calling you to be reconciled to him.
(Projection’s fun aint it?)
Oh, the non-Calvinists want a piece of that pie as well. J P Moreland has argued that annihilationism makes the lost a means to an end because the universe is made perfect again at the expense of their existence.
I doubt either of these people think this way in normal life. As a Calvinist, for example, Keller really has no platform here. Many a Calvinist has argued that God is glorified – and the saints pleased forever – in the ongoing tortures of the damned. How does this not make the lost into a means to an end? They only go on existing for the benefit of others! How can he get away from saying that the reprobate wicked only exist now in order that history’s fruition in their endless misery as enemies of God – the perfect outcome, he would have to say.
Now if Keller objects to this on the grounds that they also deserve this punishment, then he has let annihilationism off the hook, for we can make exactly the same claim.
Yes, God is vindicated in the judgement. Plus, Christianity is a revealed religion. If Scripture declares that God will raise them to judgement and condemnation, then he will, regardless of whether we currently think it fits our sense of what is best.
When it comes to justice, it’s not clear what the point is, actually. Do you mean that thee is still some further justice that needs doing, but which is never done, given annihilationism? If so, what? Justice is surely about putting things to right. Once evil is gone, once life has been taken from all who rebel against God and all of creation is in submission to Him, what further right needs to be done?
My thoughts on those questions. 🙂
It seems that resurrecting someone to be condemned only to have them cease to exist is redundant, especially so if there is no intermediate state. That’s redundancy upon redundancy.
I don’t see how traditionalism doesn’t face the exact same problem, if it even is a problem. On the traditional view, the souls of the unsaved undergo conscious punishment after they die. They are resurrected only to be judged and put right back into a state of conscious punishment. That sounds equally redundant.
The conditionalist view of the resurrection is perfectly cogent: Dead people can’t be punished. The unsaved will be raised, judged according to their deeds, and punished accordingly. It’s not like everyone will just painlessly wink out of existence. As Henry Constable pointed out over 150 years ago, just as executions in this life are preceded by varying levels of suffering depending on the severity of crime, so can we expect the suffering of the damned to vary according to their guilt.
And what, exactly, is Keller’s argument? How does ending the life of a person (as opposed to keeping that person alive forever in order to torment him) make that person a mere means to an end? Is he saying that God has an obligation to sustain the life of everyone forever?
For those rather queasy at the thought that God could not possibly allow someone to simply commit the nastiest of sins all their natural lives, die and then after resurrection be extinguished, Luke 12:47-49 suggests a period of appropriate conscious punishment before being vaporised –
47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
To be honest, James, I have never made as much of the end of that story as some in regard to hell. If the story is about hell then those details are an insufficient foundation for the idea of grades of punishment. However, I actually think it refers tot he historical judgement on Israel in the first century. They had God’s revelation and did not obey it or receive Christ, so their historical judgement was very severe.
That gives me an idea for my next blog post! 🙂
Regarding the lost being “a means to an end” (comments #5,8,10), Romans 9 has something to say about this. An interesting exercise also is to contrast God carrying out destruction with ‘speed and finality’ with the traditionalist view of everlasting torment…
No Glenn, I’m afraid that if I WAS someone on the fence or in between accepting or rejecting God I would (and I bet many who used to view your material) would just go ahead and REJECT God because they would assume that “apologists” like you admit that the evidence is extremely weak for God’s existence and you offer them a modified form of naturalism dressed up to look like Jesus, they would most likely go ahead and accept atheism. Again, just admit that you are an atheist in disguise wanting to gently and gradually wean Christians off of Christianity and slowly but thoroughly over time convert them to atheism.
Wait, Ronald Dean means it? Man, Poe’s Law strikes again.
Regarding Ronald Dean’s comments: I fail to see how the annihilationist vs traditionalist debate has any bearing whatever on whether or not God exists, other than to say that the debate is a moot point of God doesn’t exist. Exactly how does embracing an annihilationist point of view put one on a slippery slope toward atheism? I don’t get it. Maybe someone can enlighten me. At no point has Glenn ever suggested that spiritual beings like God, Angels, etc. do not exist–he only has stated his belief that HUMAN BEINGS are physical. Since God is the cause of- and stands outside of the physical universe, it is not hard to see how he could create rational, PHYSCIAL beings within the physical universe, while not himself necessarily being physical. It seems that Ronald’s comments are a huge non-sequitur.
“Again, just admit that you are an atheist in disguise wanting to gently and gradually wean Christians off of Christianity and slowly but thoroughly over time convert them to atheism.”
Ronald, you have not offered a single argument that this is the case with Glenn. What are you basing this on? There is plenty of evidence that Glenn is in fact a Christian theist and NOT an atheist and NO evidence that he is any kind of atheist.
Ronald, your reply just confirms what I thought. You’re really resisting God, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so, so you’re pretending that others are moving in your direction and that’s why you find yourself moving closer to their stance. Not so. Just give in, dude!
Apparently, in his infinite wisdom, Ronald forgot that bare assertions and begging the question do not a valid argument make.
I think you are all taking Ronald far too seriously.
“I think you are all taking Ronald far too seriously.”
some say the same of Christianity. 🙂
Why would some say of Christianity that it takes Ronald far too seriously? *shrug*
Are you trolling, Paul? Please don’t do that. Have a look at the blog policy, which you have agreed to by posting here. Check the statement below the comment box when you leave a comment.
lol, Poe’s law…XD
Dang it…I put the wrong website in my name…
Thank you for this letter/article, Glenn. I’m always encouraged when truth is most important. Sad when pride and convenience are too big an obstacle.
I personally do not believe that the Bible teaches unconditional immortality of the soul. True or not, I remind myself that God absolutely will be glorified and the Judge of all the earth will do right.
I’m quite interested in the subject of “what does death really mean?”
The more I study it the more I discover that Biblically, most scholars agree that death is the opposite to life. This is especially evident when talking about the kind of life a faithful person has, opposed to the faithless.
The Apostle Paul, John and James are all quite clear, the opposite of life, God given (eternal) life, is “no life”. This “no life” begins with a purposeless life on earth, and spirals downhill until ultimately it ends.
The opposite of eternal life with God is not eternal life without God. The opposite is no life. That seems to me to suggest that “eternal life in hell” is just.. well.. bogus.
Fine, you’ve convinced me. But if I say any of this stuff in an assignment, I’ll fail – no matter how good my reasons are.
I guess this is my colleges way of making sure the next generation thinks (or doesn’t think) just like the last one. Just don’t let us graduate if we say that we’re persuaded by the Bible to believe something else.
So what are we supposed to do?
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.
Unfortunately, Glenn, it seems to me that if evangelicals are switching to annihilationism en masse, then they are probably doing a good thing for a bad reason.
Since 99% of evangelical believers know (or care) pathetically little about things like proper biblical interpretation, the upswing in annihilationism is unlikely to arise from solid biblical exegesis. I think it’s far more likely due to the fact that annihilationism feels more comforting; more compassionate; more “fair”.
Note that I am not saying this is why *you* subscribe to annihilationsim, Glenn, but it’s certainly why a good portion of believers have embraced it. Which, as I say, may be (if annihilationism is true) a good thing done for a bad reason.
Well, truth be told, Samson, if people embrace annihilationism because they think it better reflects God’s fairness then I don’t think that’s bad.
That being said, I have become persuaded that the group of evangelicals adopting annihilationism will have a higher proportion of people are are more critical about their theology (and that of others) than the evangelical masses in general.
I think if it takes this long to break apart one piece of scripture you’re beginning to split hairs. Why can’t people just focus on the general overall meaning rather than how the words fit together. Besides, I’ve heard him break apart being shut out but don’t recall (in the boring article) any instance where he addresses the eternal destruction part of the verse. Eternal destruction would have to be eternal now wouldn’t it?
Brendan, I assume that for you to be consistent with that argument, you believe then that the judgement will be eternal too (Hebrews 6:1)? Can you please explain how the act of judging will last an eternity? If that is the case, there must be an infinite amount of people who will be judged, so that judgement never ends. Is that what you believe?
Commenting mostly just so that I will be notified of followup comments 🙂
As Mike said, in some cases (like Hebrews 6:1), the eternal noun of action (in that case, “judgment”) reflects that the consequences of the action (in that case, to judge) is what lasts forever. In the case of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the annihilationist argues that the lost are at one time destroyed, and the “destruction”, the result, is what lasts for eternity.
Actually, many, if not most traditionalists agree with that much, since it would be quite odd to say that God is continually destroying them throughout eternity without them ever actually being destroyed. The traditionalist argument there is not that they are continually being destroyed, but when they are “destroyed,” they are not literally destroyed. Rather, they are destroyed in the sense that a sports team might “destroy” another team by beating them badly. It is figurative. They are destroyed in the sense that they are ruined, deprived of joy and purpose, etc. Thus, the “destruction” isn’t them no longer existing, but it is them being in a state of ruin or misery something like that.
It is because of that that the part about being excluded is so important. The argument is that since they are excluded (“and shut out”), they must still exist even after being “destroyed,” and thus we are not to take their “destruction” as literal destruction. Of course, the annihilationist would simply say that, since they are destroyed apart from God (which is what more literal mainstream translations say), they are literally destroyed and made to not exist BECAUSE they are separated from the grace of God*, their creator and giver of life (life in every sense of the word).
(For more on this, why not check out my treatment of the topic titled “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism,” available for free on my website – see Section XVII).
*I say “separated from the grace of God” because God is literally everywhere (Psalm 139:7-8), and even traditionalists who latch onto the separation element don’t think anyone is literally separated from God Himself, but rather, His loving fellowship.
Like Rick, I am “Commenting mostly just so that I will be notified of followup comments” 😀
you could always subscribe to the comments feed in your RSS:
http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/?feed=comments-rss2(I recommend http://www.google.com/reader but you can use outlook or anything else that will get a feed)
In my first comment here, I’m going to risk saying something that might come across as being shallow (not that I wouldn’t run that risk anyway, knowing almost nothing about this dispute other than what I’ve already read here).
I’m a little surprised that probably the favorite evangelical verse of all is not cited: John 3:16. “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.” Without touching on the actual mechanism of salvation (faith? works? both?), it seems obvious here that the reward of being a Christian is “everlasting life”–which strongly implies, at least, that non-Christians, not sharing in this reward, will perish. Unless traditionalists want to argue that eternal existence in conscious torment doesn’t constitute “life,” it would seem that John 3:16, while not proving annihilationism, is at least perfectly consistent with it, and pretty baffling otherwise.
If the entire purpose of the Incarnation was to bring eternal existence to those who remain faithful to God, when everyone is already fated to have eternal existence…then, huh?
Steve, the thought occurs to me that a traditionalist might in fact say that eternal existence in conscious torment doesn’t constitute “life,” because it’s a sort of “spiritual death” wherein one is cut off from God’s grace. The most obvious parallel is in the Garden, where Adam was told if he ate of the tree, on that day he would surely die. And, of course, he lived for several hundred years afterwards. The line of argument goes, Adam’s body did not die, but he was cut off from his prior relationship with God (the two used to go on walks and chat every once in a while) and fell from his erstwhile sinless state, into the fallen human nature we know so well. This, we can call a “spiritual death” since it is separation from God the source of life, and also if he didn’t have SOME sort of death God would have lied. Those who are faithful will be brought back to a paradisical state of being and renewed to spiritual life, whereas those who aren’t will spend eternity in a related, but worse and more permanent, sort of spiritual death to that which Adam underwent.
That’s the strongest defense I can think of off the top of my head. To the point where if I ever get in a discussion on the subject and the “spiritual death” of Adam is brought up, I’m not sure how to respond. Can’t remember if Glenn addressed it on his hellish podcast, either.
I’m glad you brought that up, because it’s a common argument. However, I think it is a bad traditionalist argument, one that sounds good in a quick soundbite (as most do), but fails under closer scrutiny. I address it in Section X of my treatment of the topic, “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism,” free to read and download from my website.
Two things can be said:
– First of all, even if they “died” by being separated from God, that separation, that “spiritual death,” led directly to their physical death. They had access to the tree of life, which would have kept them alive forever (Genesis 3:22). Because they were banished, they lost access to it, and for that reason, they died. Their dying that very day by being separated from God isn’t separate from their later physical death; it caused their physical death!
– If that is the model for spiritual death, as the traditionalist argument goes, then it fits annihilationism perfectly. If the second death is like Adam being cut off from God, then one would simply argue that just as Adam’s body later died as a direct result of being cut off from God (dying that day”), so the lost person will die as result of being cut off from God (“second death”), except they won’t have or a resurrection to come.
– Something similar can be said from the all-to-common claim that the first death is the separation of body and spirit. That is actually what physical death is, but that helps the annihilationist. Now, why would I say that? After all, a person is still conscious when they die, in the form of the spirit (in the traditionalist scheme). However, the spirit isn’t what dies at physical death! The body is what is dead (James 2:26). When men kill you, they only kill the body (Matthew 10:28). Unless somehow physical death inflicted by accident somehow kills the soul, unlike death by murder, the point is, physical death just kills the body, not the soul. It does not follow that since people are conscious after death, death is therefore not a lack of consciousness or life in the normal sense of the word. The person (if dualism is true) is conscious as a spirit. But the spirit isn’t what is dead. The body is dead. Think about how absurd it would be to say that both separated parties are “dead” when a death occurs. Apply that reasoning to the “second death.” The second death, it is argued, is the whole person being cut off from God. Is God dead in that case?! So then, the whole person dies just as the body dies without the spirit. And what is a body like after it dies?
I believe the first point is sufficient. However, it is also important for me to point out that, in all likelihood, God was not talking about some “spiritual death” in the first place. I believe when He said Adam and Eve would die, He was talking about physical death.
This is because:
– Adam and Eve’s “spiritual death” looked a lot like the “spiritual life” we believers currently have. They didn’t have their perfect fellowship after the fall, but they still could pray, they still knew that their blessings were from God, and their children at least could talk directly to Him, and directly hear His voice (in Genesis 4). Not many of us as believers can do that today! They had a relationship with God; it was just incomplete and imperfect. If that’s what “spiritual death” is like, then it’s hardly like any sort of “Hell.”
– Genesis, when talking of their death, focuses almost entirely on their mortality, not their relationship with God. They weren’t just cut off from God (to an extent); they were cut off from the tree of life. God specifically did that so that they could not live forever (Genesis 3:21-22). God, who had warned them that they would die if they sinned, never mentions separation from Him as part of their punishment when pronouncing the curses against them. He did, however, bring up that they would return to the dust, which the Bible elsewhere describes as what happens when you die (Ecclesiastes 12:7)… Think about it. He says they will die if they sin. When they do, He pronounces that they will physically die for what they did, yet does not mention “spiritual death.” Is there any real question what God meant?
– It is true that they did not drop dead that day, future-oriented language pops up elsewhere in the Bible. Romans 8:10 has Paul telling the Romans that their bodies are dead. Later, he says that God will raise their bodies as He did for Jesus (verse ?). Obviously, their bodies weren’t dead when Paul wrote that! His point was, their bodies were mortal, were in the process of dying, and would eventually die. They were destined to die, so Paul referred to them as “dead.”
– Remember, had Adam and Eve always had access to the tree of life, they would have lived forever (Genesis 3:21). Because they sinned, God prevented them from accessing it, and thus, they were condemned to return to the dust. They “died” in the sense that they became mortal. They, who were meant to live forever, lost their immortality (or access to it). If our bodies are dead because they are dying, would it not make sense to say that when one becomes mortal and starts to die, that they are “died” that day? God wouldn’t have lied any more than Paul did in Romans 8:10.
– Likewise, the Bible says that we are alive, and that the unsaved our dead. However, what we have with God is nothing like what is to come. More importantly, when it says that the lost are “dead,” and that believers before they found God were “dead,” it’s surely looking to the future, unless there are degrees of death. Does the Bible ever speak of degrees of death? What they have now is not what they will face in eternity. They are dead in that they are headed for death, whatever death means.
It is hasty, at the very least, to make the argument that Adam and Even “died” because on that day they were banished from God’s presence. Genesis 3 is so focused on their physical mortality, and not at all focused on the misery of fractured (not destroyed) fellowship with God. We know Adam and Eve died physically because they sinned. To say that that could not be what God meant because He said “on that day” may make one a better “evangelical” because it is so literal (I consider myself evangelical, BTW), but it ignores how the Bible elsewhere uses that kind of language (plus, it’s not exactly literal to say that they died by staying alive). Ultimately, for the reasons I mentioned above, it doesn’t matter. However, it’s worth noting.
A Southern Baptist pastor with a mail-order “doctorate” has just attacked you online and accused you of being a dilettante. Apparently, “Glenn Peoples wins this weeks Dilly Award.”
Don’t try posting a reply on his blog — he’s a notorious censor.
He’s calling you a dilettante here too:
Guest: What’s particularly tragic is that at that guy’s blog he suggests that my real motivation is that I don’t “like” the traditional view.
What an ironic way to comment on a post that complains about, among other things, the way traditionalists attack our motives. 🙂 I’ve posted a reply to that effect, and it’s in moderation. We’ll see if it’s permitted.
Setting aside the claims of the notorious fibber Ken Perrot and his blog fan (who make clearly false claims to the contrary), I have a record of never removing (or refusing to approve) content that I don’t agree with it. Jim’s welcome to come here and make his case!
Australia is better than New Zealand!
(If you see this post after a few hours, then Glenn’s claims about not refusing to approve certain content is valid) XD
To be fair to Jim West, his Th.M is from an accredited Seminary (Southeastern Baptist). Now, Southeastern Baptist does have a Ph.D program, which raises the question as to why he didn’t just stay there an extra year but instead decided to get his doctorate from Andersonville…
But anyway, my point is, like so many theologians who for some reason shut off their thinking caps when it comes to eternal punishment, his C.V. is still pretty solid.
This is the first I have heard of any concern over Jim’s PhD, and I certainly don’t encourage that sort of tactic for no reason. if he ever decides to produce a rebuttal of the claims I have made in this post, then his degrees, whatever they may be and wherever they might come from, are irrelevant. In fact they are irrelevant even if he does not.
It would be relevant, perhaps, in a dispute over people’s degrees, but it’s not important here.
After all, Edward Fudge never got a Ph.D, and Robert Peterson got one from a fully-accredited seminary…
Edward does indeed have a PhD, in Jurisprudence. It’s also mildly amusing that his graduate studies in theology and philosophy (selected papers, I assume, as no specific qualification is mentioned) were at Covenant Seminary, Peterson’s College.
Indeed Edward Fudge does have a doctorate, but I don’t believe a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree (aka Juris Doctor) is the same as a Ph.D, at least not in the states.
The Juris Doctor, if I’m not mistaken, is a professional degree, not a research degree (like a Ph.D in law). It’s like the difference between a Th.D or Ph.D in theology and a D.Min. Both give you the prefix, but what you do with one tends to be quite different than what you do with the other.
More importantly, Edward Fudge’s doctorate has nothing to do with theology, yet obviously we would both agree that he is right about eternal punishment. Meanwhile, Robert Peterson, as well as a whole bunch of other people with theology-related doctorates, get it wrong.
An aside, it is kind of funny that Edward Fudge went to Covenant. I hadn’t noticed that before, and I wonder how that came about. I know that currently, Covenant only allows those who accept the Westminster Confession to pursue degrees, though they do allow some who do not affirm it to take individual courses. Perhaps that is why lifetime Church of Christ member Edward Fudge lists graduate level studies in his CV without actually obtaining a degree.
Oh? I wasn’t aware a doctorate could be a non-PhD. Ah well…
Sometimes I think – maybe incorrectly, maybe not – that a lot of people who invest their whole academia in theology within a context that filters out people from other perspectives (i.e. colleges that bar students and faculty who dissent from a long statement of faith) are setting themselves up to be bad at what they do: No experience of reasoning in any other context, only in a context of fortifying their existing point of view. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s so good to have done study in other fields: philosophy, law, politics, history, science, heck, even music!
Don’t worry, the whole Ph.D/professional Doctorate thing is an easy mistake to make. I’m just extra familiar because I just finished my undergraduate education, so I’ve had to look into a lot of things.
As far as the problem with seminaries and universities that insulate their students and faculty from outside ideas (especially ideas that do not contradict the basic fundamentals of the gospel), you make perfect sense. Though theology is what I spend the bulk of my free time studying, I’m kind of glad I got my bachelor’s in other fields (Spanish and anthropology). It helps me to think outside of the box, and, especially because of studying anthropology, I am able to better understand how people of other beliefs are conditioned to think. As I’m sure you understand, being big in apologetics and all, me being able to understand what others believe not only helps me reach them, but it strengthens my own faith, because I have to turn to God to find the answers to address their concerns.
That said, I found this to be interesting. Our favorite author, Robert Peterson, got his Ph.D from Drew University’s seminary in New Jersey. In my search of American seminaries where I could get a Ph.D while being an annihilationist (of which there are not many), I once looked up Drew University. It’s actually a pretty theologically open-minded Wesleyan Seminary, which surprised me. Though not actually liberal (it holds to the basic tenets of Christianity, unlike Harvard Divinity School or Union Theological Seminary), it’s pretty far from Presbyterianism on the theological spectrum. I guess that’s the thing about American Seminaries: to get a Ph.D or Th.D, you pretty much have to go Catholic, Southern Baptist, “liberal,” or actually liberal. Too bad I’m not any of the above…
“To be fair to Jim West, his Th.M is from an accredited Seminary (Southeastern Baptist). Now, Southeastern Baptist does have a Ph.D program, which raises the question as to why he didn’t just stay there an extra year but instead decided to get his doctorate from Andersonville…”
Andersonville Theological Seminary doesn’t even have a campus, it’s “distance learning” only (it’s also “King James Bible Only”). More to the point, its degrees are not publicly accredited. They’re privately accredited, by Transworld Accrediting Commission, Riverside,CA, USA. In other words, a degree mill vouched for by an accreditation mill.
This is ONLY relevant because of his scathing dismissal of Glenn as a “dilettante” i.e. a superficial, unschooled, amateur dabbler.
Oh ok (I had never heard the word dilettante before). I guess there is some irony to that, especially since Glenn has not only a Th.M but also a legit Ph.D. Looks like someone just got humbled by some truth! Oh snap lol.
Dear Dr Peoples,
Thank you for your letter. I don’t believe I have ever recieved a piece of mail with so many pictures of the author. I’d say it is time you part with your love of your own mug, as it serves only to solidify one’s observance of the arrogance presented in your writing.
All joking aside, since you have actively propogated the doctrine of physicalism I humbly request that you address the follow article:
Why? Because your wrong about physicalism, among other things.
Under the paradigm of annihilationism, what are we to make of statements such as those made by Jesus in Matthew 11:21-24?
It seems at least there, Jesus leaves open the possibility of, or directly confirms the existence of, degrees of punishment.
Jason, yes that’s a familiar passage that many people now – largely through habit – associate with the idea of degrees of punishment.
The question that, almost surprisingly, those people never seem to address is: why? There’s quite plainly no actual reference to degrees of punishment, or even to punishment at all. There’s no comment on worse suffering for some, longer punishment, more or less pain. Nothing at all.
I think what is usually going on is that the interpreter is thinking to himself: “This passage says that the day of judgement will be more tolerable for some than others, and the only way that I can think of the day of judgement itself being better or worse for some than others is for the punishment following the judgement to be more severe for some than others. Therefore that’s what this passage is really teaching – that the punishment after judgement will be more severe for some than others.”
But this needs to be unpacked. For my own part I don’t see this as obvious at all. I think that the fact that some people were presented directly with the advent of Christ and still rejected him all by itself would make the day of judgement worse for those people than for those who had never heard. They had every opportunity to receive their Messiah, but did not do so. How much more agonising for them to be told: “No, you miss out. That guy you rejected? Yeah, he was the one.”
But how does that equate to the day of judgement being more “tolerable”? You get scolded by God and that’s it? It is true that it mentions nothing of the lake of fire here unless judgement includes the lake of fire.
It seems like the lake of fire destroys, but we don’t know what destruction is. Destruction doesn’t have to be an instant thing for it be called destruction. People drowned in the flood and were told to of been destroyed. But the drowning was painful and fearful, I’m sure, even though it did lead to their destruction.
“It is true that it mentions nothing of the lake of fire here unless judgement includes the lake of fire.”
Very true. Nothing at all is mentioned here about the nature, pain, duration, severity etc of the punishment.
In my mind, all ethics disappear if there is no hell. Honestly, if all a pagan has to fear is death and then….nothing….what? If I were a pagan and were told to fear God or be annihilated….who cares about annihilation? Where is the motivation in that? While your argument appeals to me, this is where I went today in my mental rebuttal. Indeed, what do I need to fear as a Christian if I apostatise? Non-existence? I might be tempted to cast off Christ if all I have to fear is that. Just being honest.
Maybe you should explore why you follow Christ in the first place. Is it because you fear Him? That’s what it sounds like when you say, “I might be tempted to cast off Christ if all I have to fear is that.”. It sounds like fear is the only reason why you follow Him? That should never be the reason we follow Christ. It should always be out of love. What father wants their child to obey through fear? Heaven is not going to be full of people who fear God, but those that love Him.
Please do not misunderstand me and know I am well-versed in the true reason for fearing God (Jesus does say, Fear him who can destroy you… He doesn’t say “love” ). My point was to take the logic to the end of the tether. Again, were I a pagan and I understood the Bible to teach that when I die I cease to exist, I’d think, “Uh, so why love God and enjoy him forever? I am perfectly happy living as a non-believer, so who cares what happens when I die.” You can give me all your platitudes about which is “really” “better,” but if there is no fear in death for a pagan if when he dies, that’s it.
Ouch.. platitudes? I did not mean them as platitudes, but as truth. I can smack my kid around and they will definitely obey me until the point that they are old enough to rebel and are not under my control any more. They would most definitely fear me, I could guarantee that. Or through love and nurturing they will grow to see why I do the things the way that I do, why I live my life the way I do and hopefully they will see that it is the better way and see the love that I have for them and say.. “I want to be around him, he is a good man. I want to be like him”.
I would say that it is very much like the “Allegory of the Cave”. If this life is what you are satisfied with and you can’t and don’t want to know that there is so so so much more and that life has depth beyond anything that you currently have imagined, then sure.. you could then try fear. Let me throw this out there for you though… would living in fear really be heaven? or would that be hell?
That is the question.. why love God and enjoy Him forever? That’s where the gospel can come in, and it’s just awesome being able to explain the gospel to someone. Many people have nothing in their life that even gives them a tiny glimpse of what being loved is like. It’s almost too much to comprehend. I would say most of us can barely grasp a love like God’s. I would say that we can’t grasp it, we can only catch tiny glimpses of what it is to be loved like He loves us.
Im sorry that you view my explanation as a platitude. We really are resounding gongs if we don’t understand what I wrote above. I have no intention of scaring anyone into heaven. I am way too stubborn and hard headed to be bullied to worship the bully. I am coming at it from the heart since that is what we are discussing here, fear, love, etc and Glenn does an amazing job of outlining why the doctrine of being tortured forever does not have a strong leg to stand on and nothing that I can think of needs to be added to his walk through the Bible on the scholarly side.
And yet many ‘pagans’ do behave ethically. And many ‘Christians’ don’t behave ethically. So it’s obviously not necessarily a fear of eternal reward or punishment that motivates humans.
“In my mind, all ethics disappear if there is no hell”
Travis, in that case what you really need first of all is not to study the doctrine of hell. What you need first is to think more about ethics.
By platitudes, I only meant “sayings that try to convey” certain truths. I agree with all of what you said and with much that Glenn says, I am simply thinking out loud and welcome your retorts and corrections.
Yes, but it’s all about pragmatism (as my point to Glenn will say). Why does a pagan behave ethically? Or a Xn unethically? The answer is pragmatism: what is it he really wants? So, yes, in a way it is what motivates the heart? It might not be an issue of fear for the pagan–he simply might not care what drives his ethics.
First, I value your show immensely and look forward to more of your casts. (BTW, did you respond to my post on Plantinga?) My view on ethics, Glenn, is pragmatism. Every action is done for a reason and with an end in mind. The Gospel is not only (even firstly?) “God loves you.” It is “repent or die” or “I have set b4 you life and death…choose life.” Simply think of the preteristic proclamation of John: the axe is at the root–judgement is coming. There was no declaration of divine benevolence but judgement. I don’t think “fear” is the wrong way around the barn. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, right; one might need to hear of love and another death. Thanks.
I do think the Christological argument is another difficulty. Do you ever address that anywhere? Thanks.
I know I’m not Glenn, but I do address the Christological questions in my essay “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism,” which is on my website. It’s a bit long to reproduce here, but I will mention a few points.
First of all, all Christological issues that I am aware of come up when dealing with physicalism, but annihilationism is not dependent on physicalism. If we say that people do have immaterial “souls,” but that God will destroy them, then it is not an issue. Although annihilationists tend to be physicalists, it is not always the case. The early church father Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, spends the bulk of Chapter 34 of Book 2 of Against Heresies affirming that the soul is separate from the body and does not die with it. He was debating against Greeks who insisted that created beings could not live forever. Irenaeus’ rebuttal was simple: God, the creator, could keep them alive for eternity if he wanted to. But here’s the kicker; he explicitly says that God will NOT keep the soul of the unsaved person alive forever.
Secondly, Christological issues cut both ways. Much of this arises because we insist that Jesus’ divine nature and human nature cannot be separated. If they could be separated, it would not be a problem, since the divine second person of the Trinity would not be as dead as a doornail while Christ’s body was. However, even if dualism is true, the following arises if we insist that Jesus’ natures must be unified: Jesus died, therefore, God died. How does an immortal God die? Not only that, but He could have been dead forever had God not raised Jesus from the dead. That’s a bit of a problem as well. What then would happen to the Trinity?
It gets worse: The assumption is that if humans have immaterial souls, then Christology is not a problem, for Jesus’ soul/spirit went to Heaven and could rule from there. Sure, God would be “dead,” but so what? However, how can Jesus’ Spirit be God’s Spirit and at the same time a special God-man spirit that is both God and man? After all, His nature has to be completely unified, yet while He was dead, He had to be away from His body. Thus, His spirit has to be one that is both God and man spirit. The problem is, the Bible treats the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, and the Holy Spirit interchangeably. Does God the Father have the Spirit that is the Spirit of a man? Of course not. However, Christ’s Spirit is the same Spirit. Saying that humans have a separate spirit and a separate soul does not help either. If His spirit is God and His soul is man soul, then He is not entirely human; humans have human spirits and souls; His spirit would be entirely God and not human. Plus, they’d be seperable; His human soul and God Spirit would be seperable…
Christology is the trickiest aspect of theology. The Bible doesn’t say all that much about it beyond the basics. The details and specifics of it all often come more from human philosophy than from God, and we know how that can go…
You said, “God died. How does an immortal God die?”
That depends on what one means by death. If one means cessstion, then no, God cannot cease to exist and so the Word did not die in that sense. But if, as traditionalists hold, the body dies while the soul does not (and cannot unless God destroys it) then, yes, “tis mystery all–the ‘mmortal dies!!” Is there an annihilationist “hypostatic” explanation somewhere?
There is more than the Christological problems…See here
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Michael, please follow the blog policy that you agreed to [see the statement below the comment box]. You are welcome – and encouraged – to share your thoughts here, but I do not allow people to simply use their comment here as a way of directing traffic to their site, discussion thread, blog or the like.
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Is there a “hypostatic” explanation for annihilationism somewhere?
Well, as I said before, annihilationism is not dependent on physicalism, and some annihilationists (like Irenaeus of Lyons) didn’t believe that physical death meant cessation. That’s one possible explanation: if one holds dualism and annihilationism to both be true, then one’s christological beliefs are the same as the traditionalist (except maybe for some traditionalists who believe in physicalism, or at least soul-sleep, which tend to be the same thing).
Secondly, I still believe, as I wrote above (and describe in more detail in my paper) that even the normal dualistic view of human nature also has problems when it comes to Jesus, if we insist that there can be no division between His humanity and divinity. I don’t think that any position about the composition of man can avoid running into trouble if we insist that Jesus as God can in no way be distinguished from Jesus as man in death.
If we are willing to say that maybe the uninspired Council of Chalcedon got it wrong, or even just that the common interpretation of its ruling was wrong, then none of this becomes an issue. Physicalism could be true because we wouldn’t have to insist that Jesus was limited to His physical body as would be a normal human under that scenario. If His divinity and His humanity could be at least distinguishable, then we could say that He as God still lived though his body (and therefore, humanity), was dead and subject to decay (though we know He didn’t actually end up decaying – Acts 2:31). I would be willing to deny Chalcedon (or at least the common interpretation of it), if I were to be fully convinced that the Bible teaches physicalism, because I do not think the actual Bible says nearly enough about christology to allow us to be as dogmatic as some people get.
Ok Glenn, since someone other than myself is apparently bothered by the inevitable Christological implications brought about by physicalism, I would also like to introduce several more extremely severe problems with your position that if not dealt with place both physicalism and its adherents outside of biblical Christianity. Given the seriousness of each of these issues, I’ll issue them one at a time. Here goes:
The objection from Trinitarian monotheism:
The doctrine of the Trinity acknowledges the possession of the one divine being by three co-equal, co-eternal persons; namely, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Each of these divine, eternal persons is fully God and therefore exhausts the divine being of what it means to be God (Mark 12:29, 1Cor 8:6, John 1:1-2, Heb 1:10-12, Acts 5:3-4, 2Cor 3:17). Although the respective persons exhaust the divine being, they share by nature the absolute indivisible unity of that one infinite being. Should one of the divine persons be said to have operated in such a way that is essentially different to properties of the divine being, monotheism has then been discarded for something else. The physicalist contends that the Theanthropic person of the Son ceased to possess consciousness in every sense (or ceased to have being). Therefore, the physicalist has created a separation in the indivisible God because consciousness is an essential property of the being that is God (Ex 3:14LXX “I Am the Being,” see also John 8:24/58). The belief that the Son, the second person of the Trinity, ceased to have conscious being in every sense during His three postmortem/pre-resurrection days is called “transitory monotheism” and it is neither Trinitarianism or truly monotheistic.
Just answer them already Glenn. My responses to the christological concerns seem to be getting ignored…
Thanks, Joey. Say, is there an audio version of your 400 tome? I drive a truck and have losta time to listen to podcasts…
Michael, I don’t even understand why you’re talking about physicalism, to be honest.
What it really looks like, I am sorry to say, is that you’d rather not attempt to address the multiple and serious flaws in common traditionalist arguments for the doctrine of eternal torment, so you’ve made up your mind to distract from this blog post by talking about something completely different. I think that’s kinda rude, to be honest.
Instead of me deciding – the heck with it, forget about the subject of this blog, I’ll pretend that you decided on the topic and I’ll allow this to be hijacked – I’d much rather see you grapple with the flaws in the common traditionalist presentations. Do you defend the tactics that this blog post highlights? If so, why? Or do you agree with me that defenders of the traditional doctrine of eternal torment have really made a mess of their case?
For those who are interested in the – very different – question of physicalism, I discuss that issue in some depth in my five part podcast series called “In Search of the Soul” at this site – or through the iTunes store, which is the easiest way to locate them probably.
You’ll notice, hopefully, that when I do ask what the Bible teaches on the issue I approach it first and foremost as an exegete, and not be first erecting my rather idiosyncratic systematic theology and then later rejecting any biblical data that doesn’t fit within that system.
Also, I’ll be discussing the more specific question of what the biblical writers had to say about the death of Christ some time int he near future on Chris Date’s Theopologetics podcast.
But as is fairly clear, that’s not at all related to the common flaws in traditional defences of the doctrine of eternal torment, which is what this particular blog post is about.
Glenn, someone questions the your fidelity to the most foundational doctrine of the faith and that is how you respond? Ever think about running for office? If where I pose these objections is such a problem, I’ll move them to your physicalism posts.
Michael, please don’t get self righteous about this.
* You hold to the traditionalist view of hell.
* You came into the comments section of a blog criticising the arguments for that view. That’s just what this blog entry is about.
* Instead of commenting on this blog post, you have completely ignored it, and you have tried to change the subject into how I’m wrong about physicalism.
I could just as easily have accused you of being someone who might run for office – changing the subject when the existing one is uncomfortable. No offence, but don’t complain on the grounds that you think your idea is really important. You are free to blog about your own ideas as and when you like, and you are welcome to comment on my blog, or you can contact me and ask me to write on something that interests you here if what you find isn’t interesting enough, and I may do if time permits and I’m interested. But to just barge in with your own agenda and presume to set the topic is not really welcome. Sorry if that grieves you. It’s not about me being slippery like some politician as you unkindly imply. It’s just about me not bending over backwards to people who want to set other peoples’ agenda. It’s not like I don’t have things to do, work to prepare, etc. I really see no merit in your rather confidently worded objections. If and when that topic comes up, I’ll go into some depth on it.
On a stylistic note (and this may be rather unwelcome, I know), while I understand the rather pretentious sounding terms you scattered through that comment that you really wish we were talking about, I would have simply used the equivalent everyday terms. It doesn’t help your case if you alienate normal readers. This is why theologians, when trying to explain their arguments to the public and show that they understand what they’re talking about, use clear terms.
I don’t currently have any sort of podcast of my paper. Do you think I should? Doing the full essay might take a while, but I could at least get one started pretty quickly – I’m currently an unemployed recent college grad so I have the time…For right now, if you haven’t listened to Glenn’s podcasts on annihilationism, you definitely should. Why don’t I start with the parts on things that Glenn doesn’t cover in depth in the podcast (e.g. the section on Christology, near-death experiences, degrees of punishment). That way, you and whoever would listen won’t miss out on things like Revelation 20:10 and the discussion of immortality (which Glenn covers) while I work on them.
For anyone interested, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Chris Date on the Theopologetics podcast on the topic of the death of Christ (that topic that Michael wanted me to talk about instead of him answering the challenges laid out in this blog post). That discussion is here.
Paul the Apostle seemed like a smart guy. If the lost were going to suffer eternal conscious torment, and he knew this, he would have written an entire epistle pleading with Christians to get the word out to the lost, Hey, you are going to be granted eternal life like the saved, only in conscious torment, tortured forever, regardless of how long you lived and the degree of your sin. He did not do this. If anyone was concerned for the lost, it would seem that Paul was. Jesus would also seem motivated to clarify what he meant about God’s ability to destroy body and soul in hell, if he only meant that as God being able to do so, but was not going to do it because he was going to give immortality such that destruction was like Zeno’s paradox, the closer you get to destruction, there is still half of your eternal body to consciously suffer and so on to infinity.
Seems like this is so serious, the destiny of the lost, that Jesus or Paul would have been questioned on eternal torment for the lost and clarified it, rather than allowing for argument on this theological point.
Am I giving Paul and the Son of God too much credit? They need the traditionalists to hammer home the unstated point?
I think it’s a bit misleading to say that Keller is a Calvinist. True, he is a Presbyterian, and their theology is closely married to that of the Calvinist Church, but there are subtle differences, especially in the United States.
I have a bit of an issue with the notion of annihilationism. I fully confess to being nothing more than an interested layperson, and thus not a trained or professional exegete. That being said, however, it does seem to me that the doctrine of annihilationism seems to give the unbeliever of whatever stripe exactly what he or she wants. For example, most atheists are naturalists. They don’t believe in anything like the immortality of the soul, and thus expect that their consciousness will dissipate and be extinguished forever after the moment of their death. If I understand the annihilationist position correctly, then this is exactly what will happen. Anything they do, all their sin, all their goodness, will not matter – in regards to the afterworld, that is. In short, for an atheist, an annihilationistic universe is more or less – at least in terms of a potential afterlife – indistinguishable from an atheistic one.
However, I’m not one of those people who says that if your doctrine differs from mine by one iota on any subject, you are a heretic. I’m all for further discussion and civil interchange. 🙂 If I’m misrepresenting your view, please disabuse me of those mistaken notions which I have. If I’ve gotten them right, I’d be interested to hear your response.
These are understandable concerns, SteveH, and so, I will try to answer them. The justification for the view can be broken down into a few main points.
I. WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TEACH?
First, and most importantly (by far), any philosophical problems we may have with a doctrine are ultimately irrelevant if the Bible teaches that doctrine. If the Bible teaches annihilationism, then the Bible teaches annihilationism.
I was once a traditionalist, and frankly I abhorred the doctrine, but I believed it was biblical. I had to accept that my understandings and morality fell far short of the infinite and perfect God. I now believe that in fact God does reveal the truth of annihilationism in the Bible, but this principle is true for every person in regards to anything.
This point is so important that I could safely leave it at that, but I won’t…
II. THE PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES
First of all, the sin and goodness of the lost certainly will matter. If not for their sin, they wouldn’t be condemned, and instead of being annihilated, they would have eternal life with God. That’s an enormous difference! The atheistic worldview says that there is no difference between righteous and the wicked, and that the end is the same for all. Unless you are to say that being destroyed and having eternal life are the same thing, there is absolutely no way one can say that the atheistic and Christian annihilationist worldviews are the same.
Most annihilationists (except of course for Jehovah’s witnesses) acknowledge the resurrection of the lost as well as the saved (which the Bible clearly teaches). They will each stand before God and be condemned for their sin which was not forgiven. That alone means that no serial killer who laughs at the victims families as he shoots himself will not pass away peacefully. Imagine being a sinner seeing the face of God? What is for us the thing we long for the most will, for His enemies, be more horrifying than anything anyone could ever imagine!
Furthermore, with the resurrection and judgment in mind, there is debate among annihilationists about whether there will be any sort of differentiation between the punishment of the lost. Some, including myself, believe that there will be. Now, annihilationism doesn’t allow for nearly as big of a difference as eternal torment does (since their final punishment is the same), but it does allow for some. If God does consciously torment them for a time (as Edward Fudge believes) before condemning them to their final and eternal punishment of being destroyed, then that allows for all kinds of distinction between different sinners. Similarly, if it is as I believe, what distinguishes the worst sinners from the less evil could just be the terror and guilt and distress of the judgment day. The greater their guilt, and the greater their chances to accept salvation, the greater their distress from seeing the face of God in his fiery (an totally justified) wrath.
Again, that doesn’t allow for as much of a distinction between sinners as the traditional doctrine might, but even if the Bible does teach that there is some distinction (I think it does), it doesn’t say how much of one there is. If the hearts of men are universally full of evil and deceit, who is to say there is going to be much of one?
Does annihilationism give the unbeliever what they want? Who would want to be destroyed over having perfect joy and unimagineable happiness for ever and ever? For whatever reason, unbelievers don’t believe in Jesus (and therefore Christianity) in the first place.
I suppose one could say that they wouldn’t wanna be with God, and therefore they get there wish by being annihilated, but the same could be said if eternal torment is true. In fact, many Christian apologists make that very argument: God sends the wicked to Hell because, as miserable as it is, they would choose it over being in His presence! What sinners want, and what they would want if they saw Heaven and God, is neither clear nor agreed upon. Whatever the case, what sinners may want is irrelevant. The Bible tells us what will happen to them, and that is what we know for sure.
I am at lunch posting this from my phone. If the beast and false prophet are not tangible things, whether a group or singular, then how are they captured alive and thrown into the lake of fire (place of separation) where the devil will be and tormented day and night forever?
I freely confess I am a newbie and will read this tonight when I get home. I honestly don’t understand annihilationism outside of focusing on destruction and ruin or sprang and gomorrrah imagery. Anyway, looking forward to your view responding to the above.
Roberth, the fact that the Beast and false prophet are not specific, individual things but corporate entities (which I think is pretty clear) should help to inform us of what the image of the lake of fire means. When death (a non personal entity) is thrown into the lake of fire, we understand that it means death is no more (the curse of death is gone). When the beast (a non-personal entity representing a world kingdom) is thrown into the lake of fire, we understand it to mean that it will be no more. So on the whole we can see the lake of fire functioning as something that’s definitely not literal, but is a figure that refers to overthrow and final destruction. The “decorations” that go with it – sulphur, smoke, torment, these are all part of the image, but the image itself and its details are not the reality. This is kind of like a cartoon of symbols that represents something else in reality.
In other words, the “beast” and “false prophet” are tangible beings that can be thrown into a fire. One is a bear-lion-leopard monster with 7 heads and 10 horns. The other is like a dragon, has two horns, and spits out frog-shaped demons. They are tangible and can be thrown into fire. But the point is, they represent things, just as the fire does.
It’s not as though we are saying that an intangible corporate entity is thrown in to a lake of fire. Rather, the two horned monsters, two tangible things, are thrown into a lake of fire, and that is a symbolic representation of what happens to the intangible things they represent.
Consider in chapter 12, how the dragon knocks 1/3 of the stars from the sky. We don’t ask how the devil, represented by a dragon, knocks physical stars out of the sky with a physical tail despite being a spiritual being. Rather, we see that the whole thing is a symbolic picture of something (generally believed to be the Devil convincing some of the angels in heaven to sin, their “fall” illustrated as stars being knocked out of the sky by a dragon).
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The argument that ‘Adam (and all of us) are ‘dead’ but alive’ to support the immortality (and thus indestructibility) of the soul, is necessary for the traditionalist to have some sort of leg to stand on, and to be able to call ‘death’ separation of the soul from the body. It makes no sense to say that though man is’ physically alive he is spiritually dead’, but at our physical death, he is ‘physically dead but spiritually alive’ as traditionalist thought has the ‘soul’ living without the body. Such absurdity is important for the traditionalist to make ‘death’=’life’ in some form even though they take ‘life’ and ‘death’ literally when describing the body. Theoretically, the spirit upon the entrance of sin has to be said to be ‘dead but alive’ for the concept of the immortality of the soul to work.
When we understand that the wicked do not have immortality but that this is a gift for the righteous, all other supposed ‘problem’ texts, including the use of ‘aionios’ can be explained either temporally or eternal based on who it is talking about. The wicked do not have life or immortal souls, therefore they cannot be tormented for eternity. The righteous are given eternal life realized at the resurrection of the just and thus can live eternally. Somehow this clear logic is abandoned by the tradtionalist for Platonian-colored glasses that skews the rest of the biblical interpretation where somehow ‘death=life’, ‘consumed into smoke=continually burning’, ‘destruction=conscious existence’ and ‘destroyed=kept alive in soul form’. What complete and utter ‘destruction’ of the biblical meaning!!
Thanks in part to you and others at Rethinking Hell, I have come to reject the doctrine of eternal torment in favor of annihilationism. I want to thank you for your contribution to helping others to reach this conclusion – one simultaneously more Biblically faithful and more befitting of God’s (non-morally) good character than the traditional view. I’m still researching, though, partly because if I’m going to disagree as strongly as I do with most of the theologians and pastors I respect on this issue, I want to be sure it’s correct.
As part of this study, I’ve been investigating your claim about the synoptic use of apollumi in its various forms. In the majority of cases, I find it vindicated. Herod wants to kill baby Jesus, the scribes and pharisees conspire to kill him, the king sends armies to destroy the murderers, etc. I have a question about Mark 1:26.
The passage taken in isolation presents no challenge to your claim. The demons (or perhaps the man) identify Jesus as God’s holy one and ask whether he’s come to apolesai them. Nothing in the context suggests that the demon or demoniac has anything other than annihilation in mind. In fact, most English translations render the word as “to destroy” here, which suggests to me that these translators think the word is being used to convey the straightforward, strong sense annihilationists think it carries elsewhere when referring to final punishment.
My reservation comes when considering similar questions demons pose Jesus. In Matthew 8:29, a demon asks Jesus whether he’s come to “torment us before the appointed time.” In Mark 5:7, Legion adjures Jesus, by God, not to torment him.
Now I can well imagine my traditionalist friends posing something like the following challenge: “You acknowledge the final fate of demons will be the same as that of lost humans, which you say is destruction. But look, the demons Jesus encounters beg not to be tormented, as well as not to be “destroyed.” Doesn’t this suggest that in the minds of the demons, or the Gospel writers that record their sayings, that the punishment they await is torment, a fate they feel is accurately referred to by this word connoting destruction, loss or ruin? That’s how we traditionalists think the NT uses that word, and the demons seem to agree with us. So it’s quite plausible that we have here a counterexample to the claim that apollumi, when used to refer to what one person does to another in the synoptics, means destruction.”
What would you say in response to such a challenge?
Hi Nathaniel. Off the top of my head, here’s a possibility for the Matthew 8 passage: The speaker would have known that the time for their destruction hadn’t arrived, so he wouldn’t be going to destroy them. So, hypothetically, would could he have done before that time had come? He might have intended to torment them instead, they may have supposed.
In Mark 5, the same thing perhaps.
As for why one passage says destroy and another uses torment – even in the same discourse – I would just point out that the Gospels differ in their quotations of people, to the point where the sentences mean something different in each Gospel.
So we cannot legitimately infer that this shows that the two words express precisely the same thought. It’s a pretty insignificant argument with plausible responses, compared to the landslide of evidence against the traditional view.
I think I see your point. So the problem arises when I read “do not torment us before the appointed time,” as meaning “before the appointed time of torment,” which is unwarranted.
If the demon is speaking, he could know that his end is destruction but that the time hadn’t arrived yet, and so figure Jesus is going to do something else to him.
That leaves me wondering about the other demons (these seem to me different events), who ask not to be destroyed. Do these not know their fate as the others do?
It’s possible. Demons are finite creatures. We have no reason to suppose them omniscient. Perhaps it’s even wrongheaded to suppose they have any specific knowledge of their fate. Maybe they know that there is an appointed time at which they’ll face judgment. The nature of which is or was, to them, a matter of conjecture.
I’m thinking aloud here, so to speak. =P
I agree, the arguments for annihilationism are sufficiently strong to overwhelm whatever force this objection may have. Still, the details matter.
“If the demon is speaking, he could know that his end is destruction but that the time hadn’t arrived yet, and so figure Jesus is going to do something else to him.”
If I’m right about what Scripture teaches about the end of evil, and if the demon knew that end, then my explanation works. But you raise the question: How would the demon know what was going to happen? Well as you say, these are finite beings. But of course, if we’re going to start being sceptical about what the demon might know, then we can turn that around on the traditionalist: How would the demon know that, when the time came, he would be tormented forever? Maybe this was just demonic babble with no foundation in reality? I think it’s more likely that the Gospel writer recorded it in such a way as to align with what he knew to be true.
I think you’re right about how demonic utterances function in the gospels. They seem to be generally some of the best informed speakers in the story. When no one else gets who Jesus is, for example, the demons do. So I’m prepared to drop the skepticism you describe and adopt your approach to understanding the texts I mentioned.
Maybe I wasn’t clear, though, about this worry: Granted we’re right about the Bible’s teaching on the end of the wicked, and that the demons in the gospels know this end, doesn’t your solution present us with something like the following:
Demon A knows that at some time T, Jesus will destroy him. He also knows that T hasn’t arrived yet, so he infers that Jesus isn’t here to destroy him but to do something else, maybe torment him, and asks that Jesus not do so.
Demon B likewise knows that at some time T, Jesus will destroy him. On seeing Jesus, he asks instead that Jesus not destroy him. This suggests B doesn’t know T hasn’t arrived yet like A does. Isn’t this awkward, given that demons are “in the know,” the way we’ve said, the way your proposed solution implies?
Nathaniel, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that I’m right. I didn’t say anything about how demonic utterances function in the Gospel. I actually agreed with your observation that they are finite beings. There’s no need to assume that they know a great deal more than humans do. The point really is not what the demon might have known or said, but ultimately how the passage as written. There are multiple possibilities within very easy reach, so there’s nothing to worry about.
Whoops. I guess I misunderstood when you said, “the Gospel writer recorded it in such a way as to align with what he knew to be true.”
I thank God, for such a clear statement of the issues. Such clarity is rare to say the least. Your conclusions are true and sure, the common evangelical doctrine of eternal conscious torment is doomed to the pit of hell from which it came. The adherents of such, have followed a strong delusion, permitted in the eternal councils of God, for a reason and purpose that will soon be clear. From one point of view, which is a part of the whole, it is a testimony to the reality and truth of the revelation that is Christ Jesus. The fact that many millions have come to Christ and followed Him to the end and yet have believed in ECT, reveals incidentally the truth and power of said revelation, for at least when one considers the nature of the proposed traditionalist doctrine of eternal conscious suffering, it is evident that tender souls, and such because of their being born again, have not recoiled from Christ on the basis of their ‘perceived’ coldness of the One they have fallen in love with, on the basis of the doctrine of ECT. And thus, the true believer ignores this (false) aspect of the One who they see and hear as ‘most merciful and kind’. That God has permitted such (ECT), to proliferate and take hold in the ‘body’ and yet still thousands flock to the name of Christ, is sure testimony of his divine power and authority. It appears that it is time for this fallacy of ECT to be wiped into oblivion by the same power that permitted its emergence. From Gods revealed will, which is scripture, those who have propagated and dare I say ‘delighted in’ the doctrine of ECT, it is evident that as their doctrine is that of demons, which they have followed, they are responsible and accountable for their error before God. It is most clear from your letter Glenn peoples that the methods that the advocates are using in their arguments have their origin in sin and corruption which obviously weighs more against their theory than they can imagine. A sinking ship will try anything to stop the hole. But God will sink this ship, and therefore there is nothing that man or beast can do to stop it. It will go down with many other errors, not least of which will be ‘open theism’. That which Christ will raise up in this last day will, in purity of thought and action, be far beyond anything we could have imagined. If my understanding of Romans 11 and that of many other great and Godly men is true, then the last day’s body will, above all things, be signified by unity in truth, in Christ and His word, if that last day is a vindication of the glory, purpose and character of God, which we believe it is. Considering the diversity in professing christendom, it is clear that only a Sovereign God could achieve a true unity based on His Word. I do not believe that such a unity will be achieved on the basis of one doctrine but in all truth. Indeed it is the promise of our Saviour that when He, The Holy Spirit comes, He will lead us into all truth. Many no doubt have experienced this on an individual level and some corporately within some small bodies, but it is evident that many of the greatest men have held some terrible error which we see in the doctrine of ECT for example. I believe ultimately, the promise that Jesus made, has respect to the church in the last day. This body will above all others vindicate and glorify the name of Christ, as it will literally be led into all truth, as revealed in scripture. God bless you.
I would like to reply to this comment:
“It seems that resurrecting someone to be condemned only to have them cease to exist is redundant, especially so if there is no intermediate state. That’s redundancy upon redundancy. Or, does the condemnation serve to vindicate God in the sight of all creation?”
The reason that a person is resurrected to be condemned is so they can be formally judged. It seems a little unjust to punish criminals without a fair trial.
“…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.”
How does this fit with these passages?
“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?'”
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’”
In each case, the verb translated “kill” or “destroy,” as applied to the agent, stops short of annihilation. I don’t think Jesus means that the man with a shrivelled hand will die if he’s not healed. Rather, he’ll be left in suffering or physical ruin.
Dear Glenn, Thank you so much for all the research nd work you have done to help strengthen the annihilation position. I am a perspective Christian author and I do want to share what I’ve learned with readers. In my faith walk it was a quotation from Malachi 4:1 that set in motion my slow transition from the eternal torment view to the annihilation view. Nearly everyone in my local church plus Chick Publications (have you heard of them?) advocated the traditional view. What I find curious is that few people ever site Malachi 4:1 as proof of annihilation. Why is that? “…shall burn them up” means just that. The words “root” and “branch” are metephors for “life”. See for yourself. No life that is no “bios” or “zoe” means no existence after the judgment. Time in the lake of fire will vary by duration and intensity. A murderer might spend more time in the flames than someone who never heard the true gospel. In the end all the unsaved will be burned up. May God richly bless you. (Isaiah 41:10) Patrick
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