Theology Thursdays: The Bible Vs. The Traditional View of Hell by Babu G. Ranganathan
As a former Hindu converted to Christianity, having known the Lord for over twenty-five years, and being a committed Reformed Baptist, I would like to speak in defense of the conditionalist view of hell. I had believed in the traditional view of hell for most of my Christian life so I am very familiar with the various views about hell that evangelical Christians hold.
The conditionalist view is that the wicked in hell will suffer a period of terrible agony and anguish in proportion to their individual guilt and sins and then be eternally destroyed or cease to exist.
Thus, although the wicked will suffer consciously for their individual sins, the ultimate penalty for sin itself will be their eternal death (i.e., their eternal destruction or loss of life). That, then, is their eternal punishment (i.e., their eternal loss to life and immortality). But, what about those passages in the Bible which say that the wicked will go into "eternal fire" and that in hell there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth forever and ever," and other similar passages that seem to teach eternal torment? We shall examine, in this essay, those and other passages from the Bible in the light of the context of Scripture.
Be assured, however, that the ultimate and eternal annihilation (destruction) of the wicked is supported abundantly by the Christian Scriptures. Is God's righteous wrath an end in itself or is God's righteous wrath a means to an end (that end being the eternal destruction of the wicked)? Will a thrice holy God allow sin the right to exist for eternity in His universe by sustaining and keeping sinners alive eternally and burning in hell? Is eternal torment the only way God can satisfy His eternal justice?
Is the ultimate penalty for sin in the Bible eternal torment or is it eternal death (of both soul and body)? These and many other important questions and issues (such as how to reconcile the immutability of Christ as God with His death on the Cross) will be biblically answered in this essay. The view that the wicked will be eternally destroyed is also supported in the writings of the first and second century Christian Fathers, as well as by some prominent groups of the Protestant Reformation such as the Anabaptists, and today the conditionalist view is supported by some very prominent evangelical Christian scholars and theologians such as John R. W. Stott and Clark H. Pinnock.
Although there have been individual Christians in various denominations, and even some famous such as the great hymn writer Isaac Watts (author of "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross"), who have come to believe in the conditionalist view, the only major Christian denomination today which officially incorporates this belief as part of church doctrine and creed is the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
What most people believe about hell is influenced very much by what they believe about the nature of the human soul. The ancient Greeks, Hindus, Egyptians, Babylonians, and others believed that the human soul is immortal and must live on forever even after the body dies and dissolves into the dust. This was because many of the ancients believed that the human soul was intrinsically divine, having the nature of deity, and so it could not die.
This philosophy of the universal immortality of the human soul was a cardinal teaching of the ancient Greeks and strongly influenced early Christian thought on the nature of the human soul. Although early Christians rejected the belief that the soul was of divine essence or deity, most eventually compromised with Greek philosophy by accepting the idea that all humans have a soul that is immortal. The very early Christian Fathers, however, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Shepherd of Hermas, Polycarp (a pupil of the Apostle John), Justin Martyr, Tatian and Irenaeus held to the belief that only those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will eventually inherit immortality and eternal life. In other words, the ultimate possession of immortality is dependent upon people satisfying God's requirement or condition of trusting in His Son Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior and, thus, that is why the term "conditional immortality" is used when talking about the subject. The earliest Christian Fathers believed that, while Christians now have absolute assurance of eternal life, the actual possession of eternal life will not be until Resurrection Day.
That is why the Apostle Paul in Scripture says that believers (Christians) "by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life" (Romans 2:7). Thus Paul equates immortality with eternal life. Eternal life or immortality is a gift from God to His people through Jesus Christ; it is not something that all men possess. Even Adam and Eve did not possess immortality upon their creation. That is why there was planted a Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden of Eden. Scripture says in 1 Timothy 6:16 that Jesus Christ "only hath immortality ..." That is, Jesus Christ is the only human being Who now possess immortality.
But, if eternal life in Scripture means the same as immortality (as the Apostle Paul clearly teaches in Romans 2:7 and elsewhere) and Christians will only have immortality in the future, on Resurrection Day, then why did the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, use the present tense when He stated that those who believe in Him have eternal life. The answer is that sometimes in Scripture future events are expressed in the present tense for the purpose of demonstrating their certainty.
The Bible says God "calleth those things which be not as though they were" (Romans 4:17). Thus, when the Lord Jesus Christ in Scripture says that anyone who believes in Him has (present tense) eternal life He does so in order to put His seal on the absolute certainty of the future fulfillment of the promise. Since eternal life in Scripture means the same as immortality and immortality means to live for eternity then it stands to reason that the opposite of eternal life is not eternal suffering, but, rather, eternal death (that is the eternal literal death of both soul and body). That is why Jesus said "...I am the resurrection, and the life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die..." (John 11:25-26). At first glance these words seem contradictory because Jesus is saying a believer may be dead and yet He is also saying that a believer will never die. Which is it? How can both be true? We have to understand that Jesus is talking about the ultimate fate of the believer. Ultimately a believer will never die (or be permanently dead) because he will be resurrected to immortality and glory on Resurrection Day. It is from this perspective that we are to understand the words of Christ in the passage here.
Understandably, then, if a human being does not possess immortality it is possible for him or her to be destroyed or cease to exist. This means that it is not necessary for the wicked to suffer eternally in hell. The Bible, in fact, over and over again says that the ungodly will be ultimately destroyed in body and soul. It is true that sometimes the word "destroyed" can be interpreted figuratively. But it is the subject of the destruction that determines whether we are to interpret the meaning as figurative or literal. For example, if one is told that a person had destroyed his life by gambling the subject of the destruction is the quality of that person's life not his biological life. But when Jesus says that God can destroy both body and soul in gehenna, or hell, (Matthew 10:28) the subject of the destruction is a man's whole being, and, thus, the destruction cannot be interpreted as merely his quality of life. Mike Naudi points out concerning the passage in Matthew 10:28 that Jesus had just finished saying to His disciples not to fear those who can destroy the body but not the soul before He said to them to fear, instead, God Who can destroy both body and soul in gehenna (hell). Naudi states that if Jesus was referring to physical destruction of the body in the first part of the passage then He must also be referring to the physical destruction of the body in the latter part of the passage. If the destruction of the body in the first instance meant the loss of life to the body then the same must be the case in the second instance. The destruction of the soul then must also mean the loss of life to the soul. This is the only biblically consistent way to interpret Matthew 10:28.
The point in Matthew 10:28 is that man can only bring earthly life to an end but the ultimate and eternal fate of a person (his soul) is solely in God's hands. God alone can ultimately and permanently destroy both body and soul in gehenna (hell fire). That is the simple teaching of Scripture. If one were to destroy, for example, a house there is no more house. There may be remnants of what was once the house, but as for the house itself it no longer exists as a house. Nor does God prescribe fire anywhere in Scripture as judicial punishment except for the purpose of total destruction.
There are those who argue that the lost who go to hell only "perish" in their spiritual usefulness to God but that their life continues. The reality is that the spiritual usefulness of the lost had perished well before they even go to hell. In a few cases in Scripture "perish" may refer just to usefulness but this is not so in most of the cases. Again, the context is the key. For example, when we say all those on a sunken ship "perished" we're certainly not just referring to mere usefulness but rather to the physical (the bios) life itself. Even those who believe in the universal immortality of the soul will not deny that the physical life of the body can actually perish. Why not, then, the life of the soul?
How then does one interpret biblical phrases such as "unquenchable fire" and other similar terms that are used in the Scriptures in referring to the destruction of the wicked? Here we must interpret Scripture with Scripture. In Isaiah 34:10, for example, God says that the nation of Edom will be destroyed with unquenchable fire and that the smoke of Edom's destruction will ascend up forever and ever. Not only will the inhabitants of Edom be destroyed with unquenchable fire, but Scripture says "Edom's streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur ... it will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever" (Isaiah 34:9-10). The Scripture says here that even the smoke of the burning streams, dust, and land will rise forever! Will anyone claim that the unquenchable fire and the smoke rising "forever" here means that Edom's streams, dust, and land will burn for eternity? If not, then why should we believe that the people (or souls) of Edom will burn for eternity because of the unquenchable fire and the smoke rising "forever". Let us be consistent!
The fact is Edom is not still burning today. We know from the passage itself, as well as from common sense, that the unquenchable fire does not mean the land of Edom will burn eternally because the verse in Isaiah 34:10 continues and says concerning Edom that "from generation to generation it (the land) shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever." The fire was unquenchable only in the sense that nothing could intervene to put out the fire before it accomplished its purpose of total destruction. Thus, the result of Edom burning in unquenchable fire is that Edom would become desolate - a wasteland. History shows that the cities and civilization of Edom were, indeed, wiped off the face of the earth. Petra, the ancient site of Edom, is today inhabited only by birds and reptiles. Bible scholars have noted in Isaiah 34 that the destruction of Edom is also used to serve as a type (or representation) of God's ultimate judgment on all nations that oppose Him. In Scripture apocalyptic and highly symbolic language (i.e. the sun turning dark and the stars from heaven falling) sometimes is used in describing major judgment and change.
Figures of speech such as "unquenchable fire" are used in the Bible to mean that the process of destruction is unstoppable or irreversible. We see the same example in other passages such as Ezekiel 20:47-48 where God says that when His judgment comes on the land even every green tree will burn in unquenchable fire. Obviously, those trees are not still burning. It is important to understand just why God uses such terms in Scripture as "unquenchable fire." In the Bible, there were some judgments of God (such as in the Old Testament) in which His wrath was quenched or stopped such as in the case when Moses interceded for the rebellious Israelites in the desert. Thus, when God says that the wicked in the end will be destroyed with unquenchable fire what He simply means is that no one and nothing will intervene to prevent Him from carrying out His wrath fully through to its completion. Over and over in the Scriptures God is described in judgment as being a consuming fire and that is true whether the judgment be of a temporal nature or an eternal nature.
Now, in the case of Edom the fire was not only unquenchanble (unstoppable) it was also eternal in its effect because the fire not only fully destroyed Edom but it also resulted in Edom never existing as a civilization again (which is signified in the symbolism of the smoke arising "forever and ever"). It is not the process of destruction that it is eternal, but, rather, the result. Similarly, in Jude 7 we read that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by eternal fire, but these cities are no longer still burning. The word "eternal" in Scripture is also used in regard to redemption and salvation. In Hebrews 9:12, for example, the Bible says that Christ obtained for His elect eternal redemption. Again, it is not the process of redemption which is eternal (no one would ever end up being redeemed or saved if the process of redemption were eternal), but, rather, it is the result of Christ's redemptive work which is eternal. Other phrases in Scripture using the word "eternal" such as eternal judgment, eternal punishment, eternal damnation, also refer to the result and not to the process. In other words, for example, in the phrase "eternal judgement" it is not the judging (the process) that is eternal but rather the judgement (the result) which is eternal, or otherwise God would never finish judging. What kind of Judge would God be if the process of judging were eternal and never completed?
What about Revelation 14:9-11 where it says: "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever; and they have no rest day nor night"? Doesn't this passage in Scripture prove eternal torment? No. We also read in Isaiah 34:10 that while Edom was burning day and night the smoke of the city would ascend up forever and ever. Does that mean that Edom would never stop burning? Of course, not! The language simply signifies that the burning of Edom will ultimately end in permanent (or irrevocable and eternal) destruction. We know that Edom doesn't exist anymore. Similarly, we are to understand the same from the passage in Revelation 14:9-11. The smoke of their torment arising "forever and ever" in the passage does not mean that the torment of the wicked will never end. The language simply signifies that the torment of the wicked will lead to their permanent (or irrevocable and eternal) destruction. During the process of their destruction the wicked will be tormented but that process will ultimately end in their eternal annihilation, which is what is signified by the use of the figure of smoke arising "forever and ever". This is the only interpretation of Revelation 14:9-11 that would be consistent with how the rest of Scripture uses such language and with what the rest of the Scriptures teach concerning the final and ultimate end of the wicked.
The example, however, that indisputably settles the issue is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 7 says that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah "are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." The word "example" in the verse comes from the original Greek New Testament word "deigma," and wherever any form of this Greek word is used in the New Testament it means an example that is visible to the eye. Now in what way were Sodom and Gomorrah an example of destruction by eternal fire? They were an example in the fact that these cities suffered total destruction (annihilation) and they also suffered irrevocable destruction because they would never exist as cities again. One may argue that the souls of Sodom and Gomorrah are burning forever in hell now, but if that were the case then Scripture cannot use the destruction of these cities as a visible example of judgment by eternal fire, since that is not something that one can observe. When one gives an example of something to another it must be by its very nature visible or observable. After all, the purpose of the example was for living humanity on earth to see what judgment by eternal fire means. Besides, the belief that the souls of the wicked will burn forever in hell is based on the unbiblical assumption that their souls are immortal or indestructible.
But, how can the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah be eternal or irrevocable when Scripture says elsewhere that the individuals who perished in Sodom and Gomorrah will be resurrected in the last day to face final judgment? It is true the Scripture teaches that the individuals who perished in Sodom and Gomorrah will be resurrected on the last day to face judgment. On the last day (judgment day) the individuals of Sodom and Gomorrah will suffer conscious punishment in proportion to their guilt and then be cast into eternal fire where they will be eternally or irrevocably destroyed as individuals just as they suffered eternal and irrevocable destruction as cities (or organized socities). It is the eternal or irrevocable destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as organized societies (cities) that serves as an example of what will happen to the wicked as individuals on judgment day. That is the point of Jude 7.
Doesn't Ezekiel 16:53 teach that Sodom would be re-built someday? No. Bible expositor Matthew Henry says concerning this verse: "some think that what is said of the return of Sodom and Samaria (v. 53, 55), and of Jerusalem with them, is a promise; it may be understood so, if by Sodom we understand (as Grotius and some of the Jewish writers do) the Moabites and Ammonites, the posterity of Lot, who once dwelt in Sodom; their captivity was returned (Jer. 48:47; 49:6), as was that of many of the ten tribes, and Judah’s with them." This interpretation must be the case since Jude 7 clearly teaches of Sodom's irrevocable destruction as a city. Sometimes in Scripture, "Sodom" as well as the names of some other ancient cities are used figuratively to describe those who rebel against God. Jerusalem, because of its rejection of Christ, is referred to as "Sodom" in Revelation 11:28 (the verse describes "Sodom" as the city where the Lord (Christ) was murdered or slain which, of course, is Jerusalem).
Even the words "forever" and "everlasting" in Scripture can have different meanings. In Scripture the word "forever" or "everlasting" does not always mean endless or eternal duration. The word "forever" or "everlasting" in Scripture means the entire length or duration of the nature of something. If the nature of something is immortal then the word "forever" must mean eternity but if the nature of a something is only temporal then the word "forever" cannot mean eternity. For example, we read in Exodus 21:6 that certain servants were to serve their masters forever. Certainly this cannot mean for eternity! Instead, it must mean the entire life spans of the servants. In some passages of Scripture the word for "everlasting" or "forever" in the original language has been translated as "long" or "old" by Bible translators. This is true not only for the King James Version but also for other versions of the Bible. Therefore, since the words "forever" and "everlasting" in Scrpture can mean either eternity or the entire temporal length, duration, or age of a thing our only way of determining which meaning applies is by studying the context of Scripture.
Another example is in Jude 6 we read the angels "which kept not their first estate are reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." As John L. Bray says, "How long does the word 'everlasting' represent here? Only 'unto' ( or until) the time of their judgment at the great day. They were to be cast ultimately into the lake of fire (Matthew 25:41) which fire is 'everlasting' ('aionios' --pertaining in this case to that age to come). The everlasting chains pertained to one age, while the everlasting fire pertained to another age." Since the wicked in hell will not be immortal and the Scripture says that they will ultimately be destroyed, then their conscious suffering cannot be eternal. Their conscious suffering (which precedes their eternal destruction) is "forever" only in the sense that they will suffer for their individual sins for the entire duration or period of this phase of judgment after which they will suffer eternal destruction (or death) which is the ultimate penalty for sin itself.
What about the phrase "forever and ever" in Scripture? The same principle applies here. The reason for why the word "ever" is used a second time in the phrase is for the purpose of emphasis. This is common in Biblical language such as when Christ, in the Gospels, frequently uses the phrase, "Verily, verily I say unto you..." The second use of the word "verily" in the phrase is strictly for emphasis. The second use of these words does not, in any way, add to the meaning or length of the first "verily" or the first "forever" in the phrases.
Even the Devil (Satan) will be eternally annihilated or destroyed. We read a description of Satan's ultimate eternal annihilation or destruction in Ezekiel 28:14-19. Although this passage is immediately addressed to the ancient King of Tyre (verse 11), it is clear from the context of the passage that God is speaking to Satan (the evil spirit behind the King of Tyre) because the descriptions given cannot fit that of any human being or human king. In fact, the passage says that the Devil will be "no more" (verse 19). Is there any stronger language for annihilation or destruction?
Regarding now the justice of God we must acknowledge that God is absolutely sovereign. God can satisfy His eternal holiness and justice in whatever way He pleases. God's holy and righteous wrath is not an end in itself, but rather God's holy and righteous wrath is a means to an end - that end being the total destruction of both sin and sinner. It is in this way that God's eternal justice is glorified. A righteous and holy God will not allow both sin and sinner to exist for eternity. According to Ephesians 1: 9- 1 1 God's ultimate purpose is a universe which is in total harmony with His moral character and nature, and when this happens God will be "all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28). But how can this be if those in gehenna (the Lake of Fire) continue for eternity in conscious sin and rebellion against God? In addition, we must ever keep in mind that although God is just He is not cruel. If eternal conscious torment of the wicked is not necessary to satisfy God's eternal justice then to inflict such conscious torment for eternity upon all the unsaved whether young or old would be a great form of cruelty and torture. Such cruelty and torture are characteristics of the pagan gods towards their enemies. The lovely and beautiful character of the true God must not be marred by unbiblical and corrupt notions of hell. Far from God's glory being diminished, the Biblical truth and doctrine of eternal annihilation of the wicked supremely glorifies God's eternal justice in the eternal destruction of both sin and sinner. The fact that God does not punish beyond what is necessary also greatly glorifies His lovely character in the administration of His eternal justice. Glory be to God! Again, I say, Glory be to God!
But, if all men are created in the image of God does it not then follow that all men must be as immortal as God? Being created in the image of God does not necessarily mean we must possess anything and everything that God possess. God is all powerful is He not? Does that then mean man must also be all powerful because man is created in God's image? The fact is it is precisely because man is created in God's divine image and because God infinitely repects His image that He will not all allow sinful man to bear that image for eternity. God will not allow those whom He created in His image to exist for eternity in sin for that would just be a mockery of His image!
We must base our views of hell and the after life on what the Bible teaches, not on tradition or mere human philosophies and opinions. We must not impose our philosophy of what God ought to be upon Holy Scripture! Not many people realize the fact that in the New Testament there are different Greek words for the word "hell." But unfortunately the English Bible translates these different words for hell as one word, and this has been a cause of much confusion for those who wish to study the subject. The New Testament Greek words for hell are "hades" and "gehenna" and they both have different meanings. Hades means the unseen world of the dead. It has nothing to do with punishment or reward. It is equivalent to the Hebrew word "sheol" in the Old Testament in its meaning. Gehenna, on the other hand, is the abode of punishment for the wicked.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 has often been used by many Christians, especially preachers, as a depiction of the punishment that the wicked will suffer in hell. But this is not the case. In the first place when Jesus refers to the Rich Man being in torment in the flame of hell the Greek word for "hell" in the passage is not "gehenna" (the place of final and eternal punishment), but rather it is the Greek word "hades" (which in Scripture is the temporary abode of the dead).
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, like the other series of parables before it, was used of the Lord to illustrate or depict the end of the rule of the pharisees and to depict the end of the Jewish Era and dispensation (as represented by the Rich Man being in torment) and it was also used of the Lord to depict or illustrate the elevation of Gentile Christendom (as represented by Lazarus). Actually, Lazarus represented the poor Jews of Jesus' time who were ignored by the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel and he also represented the gentiles who, although rejected by the Jewish leaders, would nevertheless be accepted into the bosom of Abraham through their new found faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The religious leaders of Israel had lived only for themselves and ignored the spiritual needs of the spiritually sick and starving people around them.
The concept that hades was a place divided into two compartments, one of suffering for the wicked and the other of bliss for the rigtheous, was a Jewish belief that had developed during the intertestamental period, the period of time in between when the Old and New Testaments were written. Thus, this particular view of hades was not canonical, that is it was not something that God Himself had revealed to the Jews through Scripture. There is no evidence in Scripture that hades is a place where the wicked suffer while awaiting final judgment in gehenna (the Lake of Fire). Such a concept of hades developed as a result of pagan influences on Jewish thinking about the nature of the soul.
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus was simply borrowing this popular Jewish folklore of hades to use as an illustration to make a point to the pharisees and religious leaders of His day, but He was not necessarily endorsing the folklore as being doctrinally valid or correct. There are various passages in the Old Testament, such as in Psalms, that tell us that there is no consciousness in sheol (the Hebrew equivalent of hades in the Old Testament).
Some argue that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not a parable because Jesus did not formally introduce it as a parable. But Jesus did not always formally introduce His stories as parables. For example, in Matthew 21, in the parable of the landowner, which was clearly directed to the pharisees, Jesus did not formally introduce the story as a parable. Now it is true that in His parables Jesus used things that actually existed to fill in for illustrations and figures, but in the particular case of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus the Lord used a popular Jewish myth about hades for the purposes of constructing a story.
Although eternal life in Scripture means more than just eternal existence, it must, at least, include eternal existence. Eternal life comes as a package which includes endless glory, honor, joy, and bliss. The eternal punishment of the wicked will be just the opposite, the loss, the eternal and irrevocable loss of eternal existence along with its glory, honor, bliss, and joy. Because Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins God (the Father) can be just in forgiving our sins and granting us immortality and eternal life when we genuinely repent and put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That is why the Bible says that Jesus Christ "hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). The Bible further says in John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish (be eternally destroyed), but have everlasting life (immortality with eternal glory and honor, cf. Romans 2:7)."
Again, the crux of the issue revolves around whether or not all humans will be immortal. In Genesis 2:17 God told Adam not to eat the fruit of a certain tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and God also told Adam that if he did eat of it he would die on that day. Specifically, God said to Adam, "For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." But the Biblical record shows that Adam did not physically die on the very day he disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit. Because Adam did not physically die on the very day that he disobeyed God many Christians think that God was referring to spiritual death and not physical death.
However, in the original Hebrew, in which the Old Testament was written, the grammatical tense of the word "die" in Genesis 2:17 is in the imperfect mood. The imperfect mood denotes a process. Thus, what God was actually saying to Adam is that he would start dying on the day he ate the forbidden fruit. The literal translation from the Hebrew of what God said to Adam is: "Dying you will die." God was not, therefore, referring to spiritual death but to physical death. The fact that God later prevented Adam and Eve from having access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24) so that they would not live eternally proves that God was referring to physical death and not spiritual death. The penalty for sin, then, is the death of both soul and body so that man will not live forever in sin. A holy God will not allow men who are created in His image to exist in sin for eternity! This contradicts the traditional doctrine or teaching of hell, taught in most churches, that the wicked will have an eternal body and soul which will burn forever in the flames of hell.
Evangelist John L. Bray gives an interesting commentary on this phrase: "that in the day thou doeth such and such, thou shalt surely die," is an idiom understood by the Hebrew people, and it meant "in the day you do such and such, know for certain that you will die." The day the action took place determined what would result later; it was settled (emphasis mine) on the day the action took place."
"When God said to Adam, 'For in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:17), He meant that on the very day that Adam committed that first act of disobedience, on that day his death was certain, regardless of how long it was until he actually died." Evangelist Bray points out that it is with this meaning that the phrase is used in other parts of Scripture such as when King Solomon told Shimei (his father David's old adversary) "to build a house in Jerusalem and to live there and not to go anywhere else, but to stay there. He (Solomon) said, 'For it shall be, that on the day thou goest out, and passest over the brook Kidron, thou shalt know for certain that thou shalt surely die' (1 Kings 2:37)." The biblical record shows that Shimei did disobey Solomon and that Solomon did put him to death, although Shimei's death did not happen on that very day he disobeyed Solomon.
Another passage in Scripture which is used (or I should say misused) to support the traditional teaching of hell is Daniel 12:2. GJ Griz in commenting on Daniel 12:2 (my comments and interpretations are in brackets) says, "Gabriel tells Daniel that some will awaken to shame and everlasting contempt. The Hebrew word for 'contempt' [or "disgust"] in Daniel 12:2 also appears in Isaiah 66:24 [where the word is used in the context of disgust expressed by onlookers as they view the dead bodies or corpses of those slain in battle Thus, this verse probably expresses how the faithful will look upon the corpses of the wicked in that final day of judgement]. Isaiah says abhorrence while Daniel says contempt. [In any case, it is the word "everlasting" that is at issue here]. The Hebrew word 'owlam' is translated 'everlasting' in Daniel 12:2. In many other passages it does not mean throughout eternity [but rather the entire age or period of something that is temporal and not permanent]. The wicked will be completely destroyed! Although there will always be a general memory of the wicked and their end (after all the record of Scripture will exist for eternity), what there will no longer be is anymore fearful memory and experience of the pain, oppression, and injustice of the wicked, for they will be no more.
Why does 1 Corinthians 1:18 use the present tense for the word "perish" in describing those who ultimately reject the Gospel? If their time to perish is in the future, on Judgment Day, why is the present tense used. The word "perish" is in the present tense because those who ultimately reject the Gospel are in a sense already perishing (dying) physically under the sentence of death until one day they will permanently perish (or die). Their permanent death will not occur until after they are resurrected from their earthly death to face final judgment. Of course, it is true that believers in this life are also physically dying (perishing) daily as the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:16 where concerning believers Paul says that even though the outward man is perishing the inward man is being renewed daily. In the context of believers, however, their perishing is only temporary because it will not ultimately end in permanent physical death but instead in glorious physical resurrection to immortality and eternal life.
Many Christians find it difficult to believe that the soul as well as the body can die. The soul, they say, can live on and be conscious even after the body decays into the dust. Christians generally believe that Jesus confirmed the existence of consciousness in hades because of what He said to the repentant thief who also was dying on a cross beside Him. But it must be kept in mind that in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament there were no punctuation marks such as commas. The punctuation marks found in our English Bibles, for example, were provided by the translators. So depending upon where the comma actually is in a sentence can change the entire meaning of the sentence.
The passage in Luke 23:43 of the English Bible is translated with the comma before the word "today" so that Jesus is saying to the repentant thief, "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in paradise." It gives the meaning that the thief would join Jesus in paradise on that very day. But what if the comma in the sentence is placed after the word "today." Then the sentence that Jesus said would read, "Verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with Me in paradise." It changes the entire meaning of the sentence. Then Jesus is not necessarily saying that the repentant thief would join Him in paradise on that very day. The Bible repeatedly refers to Christians who had died as being "asleep" indicating that their death is only temporary since they will one day be resurrected to immortality and eternal life.
But if there is no consciousness for the dead until Resurrection Day why did the Apostle Paul say that he desires "to depart, and to be present with Christ" (Philippians 1:23). However, in 2 Corinthians 5 Paul defines that to be absent from the body and present with the Lord means to be clothed in our resurrected bodies. Paul didn't mind death because he knew that the next conscious thing that he would experience after death would be joyful and perfect eternal fellowship with Christ at the Resurection. This is why the early Christians thought so much about the meaning of Easter and its resurrection significance. If the early Christians believed that they would be in the presence of Christ immediately after death, as most Christians believe today, then the coming of Christ again on Resurrecton Day would not have had as much meaning or value for them. But, in any case, even if the soul did survive the death of the body this would still not necessarily mean that the soul is immortal.
In regard to the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, and its contents regarding the final judgment several important points need to be kept in mind for a proper interpretation of this most difficult-to-interpret book of the Bible.
The first point to realize is that Revelation is a book filled with symbolic language, and, therefore, the book is not to be interpreted literally. The book itself tells us not to interpret it literally. In the very first verse of the very first chapter we read, "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God (the Father) gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by His angel unto His servant John" (Revelation 1:1). The word "signified" in the passage comes from a Greek word meaning "signs" or "symbols."
Much of the symbolism in Revelation can be decoded by examining how these symbols are used in other parts of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. The Old Testament book of Daniel is very valuable for this purpose because many of the prophecies in the book of Daniel overlap with those found in the book of Revelation. For example, the "beast" mentioned in the book of Daniel represents a great political power, or empire, or kingdom. This same figure of the beast is used in Revelation. From the context and language of Revelation we can surmise that the figures of the beast and the false prophet are symbolic of political power and apostate religious beguilement. The point is that the beast and false prophet are not literal individuals or persons, and, therefore, when they are eventually cast into the Lake of Fire we must not think that they are experiencing conscious torment. As we shall see later, the Lake of Fire in Revelation stands for annihilation. If that is so then why does Revelation 20:10 say that the beast and the false prophet are in the Lake of Fire when the Devil is finally cast in there after a thousand years? The word "are" is not found in the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament but, instead, the word was inserted by English translators. That is why the word "are" is in italics in the King James Version. Words in italics in the King James Version indicate that the words were supplied by the translators. So, we can just as easily translate the passage to mean that the Devil was cast into the Lake of Fire where the beast and false prophet were. In fact, the Greek word for "are" (eisi) can be translated as: are, be, were, etc. But, even if we grant the use of the word "are" the verse can still be interpreted to mean that the beast and false prophet continued to remain in a state of annihilation at the time the Devil was cast into the Lake.v
That the Lake of Fire stands for annihilation is indisputable because Revelation 20:14 states, unequivocally, that the Lake of Fire is the second death. What is the second death? Well, it is certainly not spiritual death because those cast into the Lake of Fire (i.e the wicked on judgment day) were already spiritually dead. The difference between the first death and the second death is that the first death is temporary since everyone, the righteous and the wicked, will be resurrected in the Last Day to face final judgment. The book of Daniel tells us that the righteous and the wicked will all be resurrected on the same day. The second death, on the other hand, is eternal (or permanent) with no resurrection to follow. Only the wicked will experience the second death. It is not the punishing which is eternal but rather the punishment which is the eternal and permanent cessation of being. The wicked will experience the second death after they suffer consciously for their individual guilt and sins.
As for phrases used in the Bible in regard to the end of the wicked that they will go to a place "where their worm dieth not, and where the fire is not quenched" these are two different ways of saying the same thing, that these agents of destruction, the fire and the worm, will not cease until they have done their work of complete and total destruction.
Contrary to popular belief and interpretation the phrase in Scripture "where their worm dieth not" is not a reference to the undying human soul or conscience. We have already seen statements in Scripture that God will destroy, not preserve or keep alive, the bodies and souls of the wicked in the Day of Judgment. The worm and fire were figures that people in Jesus' time could readily identify and understand because in that time the dead bodies of those who suffered dishonor in society were thrown into a valley where fire and worms devoured these bodies.
Phrases such as "gnashing of teeth" used in Scrpture to describe the end of the wicked have also been misinterpreted. Wherever Scripture uses "gnashing of teeth" such as in Acts 7 it is always in the context of the wicked being angry or jealous of the righteous. In the Day of Judgment when the wicked see the ultimate blessed and happy state of the righteous they will, indeed, weep, wail, and gnash their teeth as they realize what they have lost and as they are finally destroyed and cease to exist forever. The weeping and wailing will be similar to the bitter weeping that Esau, in the Old Testament, experienced when he realized what he lost by selling his birthright and inheritance to Jacob for a mess of porridge. So, too, the wicked in hell will weep and wail bitterly, even while they are being destroyed, when they realize what happiness and bliss of heaven they had given up because they chose to live their lives on earth for only money and themselves.v
It may surprise many to know that the Bible teaches animals as having souls. In the Old Testament, for example, the Hebrew word for "soul" ("nephesh") is used for both animal and man. For example, Genesis 1:21 says: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth ..." The words "living creature" are from the Hebrew words "nephesh chaiyah". The same Hebrew words are used in Genesis 2:7 where we read concerning the creation of man that after God had created man from the dust of the earth He then breathed into man the breath of life and man became a "living soul" ("nephesh chaiyah"). The definition of "soul" actually varies according to the context of Scripture. The basic meaning of "soul" in Scripture means the principle of life, but the word also is used in reference to the will, thoughts, emotions, affections. The New Testament Greek word for "soul" is "psuche" and it is equivalent in meaning to the Old Testament word "nephesh". The soul may very well be physical but yet distinct from the rest of the body. It is very humbling to realize that we humans were created as mortal as the animals. Only those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will ultimately have immortality of soul and body on Resurrection Day.
The question naturally arises whether the teaching of eternal annihilation would be an effective deterrent to sin as in contrast to the teaching of eternal suffering. Here, of course, we are entering into philosophy and human reasoning rather than Scripture alone.
Nevertheless, let us briefly talk philosophy. First, let it be said that God is more concerned about a person doing what is right because he or she genuinely wants to rather than just because of punishment alone. A person's reasons for repentance should include genuine sorrow over sin. In fact, in contrast to fear, the Bible teaches that the goodness of God is meant to lead people to repentance! (Romans 2:4).
Also, the teaching of eternal suffering will never be an effective deterrent to sin if people do not believe that God would really inflict such a thing. They believe that after seeing souls suffer for a long time God would change His mind and admit them into heaven after all.
On the other hand, the prospect that those who go to hell will suffer for their sins and then be eternally destroyed so that they do not exist anymore is far more believable, and, therefore, a far more effective deterrent to sin. If people are convinced that there really is an eternity of bliss and joy to lose that in itself is a powerful thought and deterrent to sin, whatever they might or might not believe about eternal suffering.
Finally, whether or not people genuinely repent at least they can respect God's justice and character if His eternal punishment does not consist of eternally tormenting those who go to hell. Such respect alone brings God great honor and glory.
What about those who are unsaved but who are suffering and are in misery in this life? If the ultimate and eternal annihilation, or destruction, of soul and body of the unsaved is true, then isn't the eternal loss of life for such people really a reward since they will no longer exist in misery?
Well, let's look at another example. There are some individuals in society who having been released from prison cannot or will not become adjusted to civilian life. Some of these persons have been known to commit crimes again so that they may go back to prison where they feel life would be better. Does this then mean that prison is no longer punishment for these people? Of course, not! So, too, it does not mean that eternal literal destruction of soul and body is not punishment simply because it is a better state than eternal life in misery.
From God's perspective (the only perspective that counts) life is a gift and meant to exist only when in harmony with His will. A thrice holy God will not allow sin to exist for eternity by keeping sinners alive for eternity. God has ordained temporary existence of sin and the life of the sinner for various purposes, but it is not in His eternal and ultimate purpose to do so.
What is punishment and not punishment is ultimately from God's perspective and view, not what we necessarily think. I may hit my toe accidentally against the leg of a table and suffer terrible pain, but having such pain does not necessarily mean I am in a state of punishment. Conversely, the lack of pain does not necessarily mean absence of punishment. For example, when a murderer receives the death penalty from society he or she no longer expereinces pain, at least not from society. Does this then mean that society did not punish the murderer since the murderer having died no longer experiences anymore pain inflicted by society? The theological lesson to learn from all this is that it is God's Word that is to be our ultimate authority on the issue of punishment and not our philosophy!
Christians throughout history, regardless of denomination, have always agreed on the essential (core), or primary, doctrines of Christianity, especially regarding the Person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Where Christians have had differences in beliefs such differences have been in matters of secondary doctrine. What has been discussed in this essay, as important as it may be, is a matter of secondary doctrine. Some cults and non-Christian religions may have some correct secondary doctrines, but their primary doctrines about God and, specifically, the Person and work of Jesus Christ are wrong and incorrect.
Finally, one very important question arises that needs to be answered. If Jesus Christ was truly God how then could He completely die (in body and soul) since the Scriptures teach that God is immutable (unchanging). In answer to this question it is important to understand that everything about God, including His immutability and His very existence itself, is dependent upon His moral nature. God's immutability is conditional upon His moral nature. In fact, it would be theologically safe to say that the only thing about God that cannot change at all is His moral nature. Thus, it is only God's moral nature which is truly unconditionally immutable. In the context of Scripture, when God says "I am the Lord. I change not" (Malachi 3:6) it is in reference to His moral being and nature. Whatever God can do or cannot do is governed by His moral constitution or nature. For example, the Scripture says in Hebrews 6:18 that it is impossible for God to lie. Thus, when Scripture tells us elsewhere that with God all things are possible it must be understood from the context of comparing Scripture with Scripture that only all things are possible with God which are not contradictory to His moral nature. In other words, God is only as immutable as His moral nature allows Him to be. What does all this mean? It means that when God the Son (Jesus Christ) took the legal guilt and liability for our sins on the Cross then His divine moral nature required that He die since the penalty for sin is death. As He had to be true to His moral nature the Son gave up His life. It is precisely because of the immutability of His moral nature that Christ (Who is God) died when He took the guilt of our sins! Because He was God Christ's death had infinite value so that it was not necessary for Him to remain dead for eternity in order for His death to satisfy the full penalty for our sins.
However, although Jesus was God, if He had truly died completely (body and soul), how could He have raised His own body from the grave as He said He would. There are two possible answers. One is that when His soul was given back its life Christ then entered His own body and raised it up from the grave. The other possible answer is in understanding what Jesus said about His authority over His own life and death. Jesus said that the Father had given to Him authority to lay down His life and to have His life raised from the dead (John 10:11-18). Shortly before Jesus died He exercised this authority by entrusting to His Father His spirit (not the Holy Spirit in this case but rather the spirit which is the principle of life, the breath of life). Remember His words on the Cross, "Father into Thy hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 23:46). By doing this He gave authority for death to overtake Him on account of our sins for which He died but He also had delegated His right and authority over His own life to the Father to raise Him up from the dead. In this way Jesus was very much responsible for both His own death and resurrection. What great love and condescension the Son of God subjected Himself to on our behalf! The reader is urged to examine in more detail the Biblical fact of Christ's Godhood and deity in the author's essay The Deity of Jesus Christ Explained and Defended.
For more comprehensive and further reading on the subject of conditional immortality the reader is urged to obtain a copy of Edward Fudge's excellent book The Fire That Consumes. The book is foreworded by the great evangelical scholar F.F.Bruce.
Babu G. Ranganathan (pronounced Ranga-nathan), was born in 1957 in Madras, India. Mr. Ranganathan is a conservative Christian and a Reformed Baptist. As a religion and science writer, Mr. Ranganathan has been recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis Who's Who In The East. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his website www.religionscience.com
Babu G. Ranganathan
Thursday, January 4, 2007
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