How to escape the Bible with your theology intact

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There is a way of using the Bible to support your theology that really just amounts to doing everything in your power to avoid what the Bible has to say so that you can escape from the ravages of Scripture with your precious doctrine still intact.

Without naming names, over the last year I have had several conversations about the doctrine of hell with people who advocate the doctrine of eternal torment, where they argued in a manner very much like John in the following conversations (right down to the same phraseology, eg “equally likely as an interpretation” and “use Scripture to interpret Scripture”):

Karen: Hi John. Have you read passage A? It seems to pretty clearly deny the doctrine of eternal torment. It says that one day the lost will be destroyed. They will die and be gone. Don’t you agree?

John: No, I don’t think so. I think eternal torment is equally likely as an interpretation.

Karen: But look at the clear language of death and destruction. I can prove that this author always uses that terminology to literally refer to actual death and destruction. Why would you make an exception in this case?

John: Well in isolation it might be interpreted that way. And yes the language might always be used elsewhere by the author to mean destruction. But I have a different method of comparison. I reached my conclusion by comparing this passage to passages B, C, D, and E, which talk about hell. Those passages talk about hell, and I interpret them as teaching eternal torment. So I just use Scripture to interpret Scripture, and I interpret passage A non-literally to fit with that wider biblical view.

Karen: *long pause* That’s… seriously not how the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture works. And even if it did, I don’t think those other passages teach eternal torment either!

John: Well I do, so that’s how I interpret passage A.

Karen: Regardless of the actual data within passage A?

John: I’m just saying that you can legitimately interpret the data to teach eternal torment. Taking the verse by itself it might not look that way. But again, if you appeal to passage B, C, D, and E, then it becomes a fair interpretation.

Karen: OK… I think that’s a really poor method, but let’s look at passage B. Passage B also teaches the final destruction of the lost! Just look at the clear language of destruction.

John: Oh sure, taken by itself it’s possible to take that passage to teach that. But eternal torment as at least as likely as an interpretation.

Karen: That doesn’t sound right. I mean, the language doesn’t talk about eternal torment, it just talks about destruction.

John: But you’re just taking the passage in isolation. You have to use Scripture to interpret Scripture. And there are these other passages: passages A, C, D, and E, which I think teach eternal torment. So when you take all of that information together, it’s legitimate to interpret passage B as teaching eternal torment. Just don’t take it literally.

Karen: But wait a second, you used passage B as a reason to not interpret passage A literally. You can’t now count passage A among the evidence for not taking passage B literally.

John: Oh, passage A is just part of the evidence! There’s also passage C, D, and E.

Karen: You can’t be serious.

John: Why not?

Karen:

John:

Karen: OK. OK… how do I explain this? Let’s just go to passage C. Passage C is obvious, isn’t it? It clearly uses the language of destruction and being burned up and being no more. How could you possibly get around that?

John: Not so fast. Eternal torment is equally likely as an interpretation.

Karen: How?!

John: Because although taken in isolation it appears to teach annihilationism, you have to use the principle of…

Karen: Let me guess. Interpreting Scripture with Scripture?

John: Now you’re getting it!

Karen: And let me guess, you think that passages A, B, D, and E teach eternal torment, so it’s legitimate to take passage C non-literally and interpret it as teaching eternal torment as well, right?

John: Say, you’re getting the hang of this! Yes, it’s absolutely legitimate.

Karen: I’m afraid to ask about passages D and E. You know they use language that literally states the lost will finally die and be destroyed, right?

John: Sure, and if you take each one literally and in isolation, it looks that way, but…

*door slams*

John: Karen? Where did you go? Oh well, I guess she has no answer!

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12 thoughts on “How to escape the Bible with your theology intact

  1. I think John might answer “there’s also X” ie Revelation 20:10, the solitary verse that uses language of eternal torment.

    1. Gary, I know that there are in fact some biblical passages that some people try to use, on their own merits, to prop up a doctrine of eternal torment, such as the pone you’ve quoted (using King James English) from Isaiah 66:24. It’s a passage describing the destruction of corpses, as you may know, so requires very little explanation.

      My point in this article wasn’t to address each of those arguments. Instead, what I’ve done here is to recall a particularly frustrating method of biblical interpretation which actually exists. If you search this site for articles and podcast episodes on hell, following up the subjects and tags attached to those articles, you’ll see that I’ve covered the familiar proof texts in favour of eternal torment elsewhere.

      I’m also involved in a collaborative project called Rethinking Hell, where this subject matter is given a pretty thorough treatment.

    2. Yeah the problem with the Revelation 20:10 is the fact that it does not include any mention of death. In fact, death is only connected to the lake of fire right after Death and Hades were thrown in. These things cannot be tormented, and in 21:4, it states that there is no more death (which is corroborated by two other places in the Bible where death is said to be abolished (2 Timothy 1:10, 1 Corinthians 15:26, and 1 Corinthians 15:54). In this case, the lake of fire appears to be an image, and death is an interpretation (common form for prophetic literature). It also doesn’t help the fact that death is defined in Genesis as man RETURNING to dust (key word being return). This definition is cited at least 4 other times explicitly and is also reversed in terms of the key resurrection passages (where man comes out of the dust in Daniel 12 and Isaiah 25-26).

      Another interesting piece of trivia: In City of God Book 4 (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120121.htm), Augustine (the guy who made Eternal Conscious Torment mainstream) when starting off his argument for eternal conscious torment states in Chapter 3 “For death will not be abolished” which flatly contradicts scripture. If any evangelical did something like this today, he/she would be figuratively pilloried. I don’t know why people let Augustine get away with stuff like that.

  2. Interesting. Do you believe that souls burn in Hell (or just that they experience psychological pain of some sort, as many moderate Christians are now espousing)? Scientists tell us that human beings have existed for approximately 100,000 years. So if Hell exists, some people have been there for 100,000 years.

    Even if their punishment will not be forever, as you believe, isn’t 100,000 years of punishment a little excessive for the thought crime of rejecting Jesus as one’s Savior? The punishment doesn’t seem commensurate with the crime. What do you think, Glenn? If Jesus is our creator, he certainly has the right to do with us as he pleases, but can one appropriately use the words “just” and “good” to describe him?

    1. Gary, when you say “burn in hell,” can you tell me what you mean? Where is this place that you’re talking about?

      Thanks. (I’ll have quite a few more follow up questions after that one.)

  3. Gary are you under the impression that Glenn believes in eternal torment (Hell).
    The opposite is true. Glenn argues that the “wicked” will be destroyed no part of them will exist (mind included)

    1. I can’t answer for Glenn but the answer to your question would vary among Christians. One answer would be that when all of us die we cease to exist. At the judgement day God would bring everyone back to life, after judgement the “wicked” would be destroyed forever. At both times during death people are not aware of anything (much the way materialists think about death)

  4. Hey Gary, I’ve indicated that there’s a lot of material at this site, both in the blog and podcast, to sate anyone’s appetite when it comes to that subject. I might write about it again some time, but there’s an over-abundance of answers to probably any questions you have.

    This should get you started.

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