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: 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.
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…
John: Karen? Where did you go? Oh well, I guess she has no answer!
- Loftus on eternal torture
- Video – The early church fathers on hell
- So long, John Piper
- Jonathan Edwards Comes to the Aid of Annihilationism
- Episode 005: It’s one Hell of an episode!