The Reality of Eternal Punishment (Part 2)

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untitledThis post will be the second post examining what has become a very controversial topic among many Christians, and that is the duration of time those in Hell will spend. Will time in hell of the unrighteous be eternal or limited? The increasingly popular view called Conditionalism is the belief that humans are not kept alive forever in unending torment, but that there is an end to the existence of the unrighteous. Traditionalism is, you guessed it, more traditional, and is the view that the majority of Christians have held throughout history, that souls live forever, the righteous to everlasting life and the unrighteous to everlasting torture in Hell. In this post I want to consider the “destruction” language used both in the Old and New Testaments that conditionalists claim bolster their position of final annihilation.

Destruction Language in the Old Testament

Conditionalists contend that one should understand the Bible literally when it speaks of the damned as “perishing,” or when they suffer “destruction.”[1] The conditionalist believes the account of the Flood (Gen. 6-9) and the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19) both serve as New Testament prototypes of the same type of final judgment (2 Peter 3; Jude 7).[2]

Stories detailing the judgment on Nineveh and Assyria are symbolic pictures of God’s future annihilation of the wicked. Other pictures of nations being “dashed to pieces like pottery (Psalm 2:9) and “blown away like chaff” sound more like extinction than perpetual torment. The conditionalist will also point out that not even a hint of eternal torment is mentioned in these Old Testament texts, which seems to bolster the argument for conditionalism.[3]

Destruction Language in the New Testament

The same conclusion is proposed by condionalists in the New Testament:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

A conditionalist will understand verses like John 3:16 above to be taken for their “clear and literal” meaning. Some others are:

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death …

Philippians 3:19 whose end is “destruction” …

2 Thessalonians 1:9 who shall be punished with everlasting destruction …

The conditionalist position understands two destinies as either salvation or destruction and eternal life or eternal death.

originalArguments against Conditionalism

I would like to offer several arguments from Scripture that renders conditionalism to be an avoided and untenable biblical position. To begin with, the conditionalist position carries a simplistic and unbiblical view of life and death. In order to believe this view, life equals existence and death equals non-existence. It’s understandable in a secularist, materialist culture like ours to make that mistake. But if one just allows the Bible speak for itself in its surrounding context, we will undoubtedly find life and death to mean something different than mere existence/non-existence.

For instance, consider Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God promised Adam and Eve that they would die upon eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. However, when they did not cease to exist immediately upon eating the fruit, it is then clear that death has to mean something other than mere non-existence. Otherwise you would have to admit that God was not telling the truth when He said, “in the day that you eat of it you will surely die,” and that Satan was speaking the truth when he said, “You will not surely die!”

Several Bible dictionaries/lexicons have in their entries on death: the consequence (of sin) as spiritual alienation or separation from God. The second death (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8) is the final separation of the wicked from God’s glorious presence for all eternity.

Other passages in the New Testament clearly show that “life” means more than mere existence. In Merril’s article on the word for death (moot) in NIDOTTE, “death in the OT…does not suggest cessation of being or even loss of consciousness. Now it is a radical change in existence, but not necessarily the loss of existence.[4]

125591-Bible quotes about life bibleOf “life,” John 1:4 says of Jesus, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” And in John 10:10 when Jesus said about His sheep, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” He spoke of at least some sheep who were already in existence (e.g., His disciples). And consider the statement that Jesus made in John 17:3–“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Life clearly means something more than mere existence.

There are many passages that speak to the conscious suffering of the damned. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42; 22:13). Jesus said that it would be preferable to have a millstone hung around one’s neck and to be cast into the sea, to pluck out an eye, to cut off a hand or foot, rather than to share in the ultimate judgment of sinners. Even Paul describes the judgment of sinners producing “anguish and distress” (Rom. 2:8-9). A person must be conscious in order to suffer anguish and distress.

To answer the Old Testament point about Sodom and Gomorrah, one can reconcile almost all of those passages as describing temporal judgments of individuals or nations within the present world, not eschatological details of the final judgment. Most of the “destruction” passages in the Old Testament refer to God visiting the wicked with premature death.

Certain expressions (such as “cut off”) seem to be referring to the wicked person’s having no more influence on the earth (not cessation of existence).  We read in Psalm 34:16-

The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

So does an expression like “be no more” indicate extinction, or a person having no more impact on this world?  In Job 24:20-

The womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.”

We read in Ezekiel 26:20-21 about the city of Tyre:

I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place in the land of the living. (21) I will bring you to a horrible end and you will be no more.”

It seems highly likely that Old Testament destruction language refers to the fact that the wicked no longer have any impact on this life — it is as if they no longer exist in this world, because they literally don’t at the time of their physical death!

John 11 25Conclusion

Hell truly is too awful for words. Only Christ can enable His people to endure the thought of unsaved persons suffering forever. We, as followers of Christ, must act as witnesses to its reality because He clearly taught the truth of hell.  And if any reading this fear separation from God for eternity, know that the only sufficient sacrifice and way of forgiveness for the sins that separate us from God the Father is to be found in Christ, the Savior, the perfect Son of Man, the Redeemer and the Judge.

[1] Edward Fudge in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue, 28-31.

[2] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 1150.

[3] Proverbs 2:21-22; 10:25; 12:7; 24:15-20; Psalm 34:16, 21; 37:1-40.

[4]   Merrill, . “jAM” In the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. 5 vols. Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren, 2:862-863. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1997.

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About Brett Smith

Brett Smith is a graduate of Bob Jones University and is currently pursuing his M.Div. at The Master’s Seminary. A native of Chicago, Brett serves on the Events staff at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA.