Category Archives: Final Punishment

Cantus Firmus at the Movies Ep. 7 – Crimes and Misdemeanors (w/ Bridget Nelson)

cfatm - crimes and misdemeanors with bridget nelson mst3k rifftrax
My special guest was Bridget Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax fame. The film we discussed was Woody Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film that asks difficult questions about morality and integrity in a godless universe.

Bridget can be found at www.rifftrax.com, on Twitter at @bridgetjnelson, and her podcast Instead of Tweeting can be found on iTunes.

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20171104-CFATM-Ep7-CrimesandMisdemeanors(wBridgetNelson).mp3

Music:
“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus At the Movies Ep. 3 – What Dreams May Come (w/ Chris Date)

what dreams may come

In this episode we talked about the 1998 film What Dreams May Come, which sparked some great discussion about heaven, hell, love, the physicality of human nature, mental illness, and how Christians should approach art. Audio can be downloaded below or found on iTunes if you search “Cantus Firmus.”

Chris Date was my special guest and can be found at http://www.theopologetics.com and http://rethinkinghell.com

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170427-CFATM-Ep3-WhatDreamsMayCome(wChrisDate).mp3

Music:
“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

Psalm 82 – The Annihilation of Men and Angels

Psalm 82. Let’s set the scene:
God stands amidst what might be called His divine council in heaven. God is of course supreme, but his angels are also there. Using language which is elsewhere in scripture, the Psalmist describes these angels as “elohim” (gods) and “sons of the most high.”

This divine council language is also used elsewhere in scripture. Psalm 89:5-7 speaks of a council of “holy ones” in heaven–sons of God. Job likewise speaks of the sons of God (including Satan) presenting themselves before God in heaven.

In Psalm 82, these angelic beings (seemingly fallen demons) are being chastised by God for their evil influence upon the nations. This chastisement carries a warning of apocalyptic judgment:
“‘You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High. Nevertheless you will die like men And fall like any one of the princes.’ Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is You who possesses all the nations” (Ps. 82:6-8, NASB).

Unlike with humans, death is not a natural part of the angelic life. Yet in this warning, God claims that these fallen angels will die just like men do. In the human experience, and in the Hebrew belief system, death is a cessation of life and personality. In Psalm 82, we learn that this death is the ultimate fate of those angels who mismanaged their responsibilities and rebelled against God. Since the unredeemed will share in the place of consuming fire “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mat. 25:41), it will likewise be the fate of every human being who is not found to be in Christ.

Thus, final punishment for both men and angels consists of this–cessation of existence.

Holding Firm to the End: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Eternal Security

It is popular within evangelicalism today to think of salvation in terms of a “once saved, always saved” framework. Though a Calvinist variant of this belief posits that God keeps His elect by causing them to persevere to the end, its free will counterpart argues for a faith that, once initiated, does not require perseverance in order to secure final salvation. It is this latter view that is beyond the pale of acceptable Christian doctrine and which the author of Hebrews refutes thoroughly and repeatedly.

There are several lines of argument which the author uses to substantiate the need to persevere, but the strongest and most prominent is the comparison between the Israelites in the wilderness and those in the New Covenant. Whereas Moses was a servant in “God’s house,” Christ is over God’s house (Hebrews 3:1-5). But even though Christ is much greater than Moses, He cannot guarantee our perseverance any more than Moses could guarantee the perseverance of the Israelites in the wilderness:
But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6, ESV).

The author of Hebrews goes on to parallel our faith as Christians with the faith of those Israelites, citing God’s words in Psalm 95 as a present exhortation for us:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Heb. 3:7-11, ESV).

By way of context, it ought to be stated that prior to their rebellion, “the people believed” (Exodus 4:31, ESV. See also Exodus 14:30-31). This is the key component to the parallel that the author is making—their faith begun did not guarantee that they would finish in it, and it is finishing in faith that allows one to take hold of God’s promises. Our author does not go on to say, “but there are better promises for you,” but, “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God… For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (emphasis mine. Heb. 3:12, 14, ESV).

If there were any doubt remaining that the author was concerned with the salvation of genuine Christians, such doubts ought to be dispelled by the fate he described for those who had, “been enlightened . . . tasted the heavenly gift . . . shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4-5, ESV) but had “fallen away” (v. 6): they are like a worthless crop bearing thorns and thistles, set aside “to be burned” (Heb. 6:8, ESV).

If even this is not explicit enough to change the mind of someone holding to a doctrine of eternal security, the author of Hebrews circles back around to it again in chapter 10:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27 ESV).

Notice the parallel rhythms of 6:4-8 and 10:26-31: a person was enlightened (6:4), receiving the knowledge of the truth (10:26); they then fell away (6:6), went on sinning deliberately (10:26); in their present state it is impossible to restore them to repentance (6:6) since there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins (10:26); and the judgment which awaits them is to be burned (6:8), a fury of fire (10:27).1

After describing the fate of the apostate in 10:26-27, the author appeals to Habakkuk chapter 2, wherein God declares, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:37-38, ESV). This citation not only puts an exclamation point on the fate of the unrepentant apostate spoken of earlier, but also brings up the issue of what living by faith really means.

Thankfully, our writer does not leave the answer to this question up to our imaginations but provides concrete examples of what saving faith looks like throughout the next chapter. He begins by explaining that faith is confidence about things we do not yet see. Though we do not yet see Christ reigning over the world and creation restored, we trust that this will be the case and live our lives according to this trust in what God has said He will do.

Next, he goes on to look at individual examples of faith from the Old Testament scriptures and from Israel’s history. For instance, Noah’s trust in God led him to follow God’s command to build the ark even though he could not yet see with his eyes the need for it. Similarly, Abraham trusted in God’s promise to give his descendants the land of Canaan even though he died not having seen such a promise fulfilled. Such an attitude our author commends, saying, “if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:15-16, ESV). Since God has put eternity into the hearts of men and women (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we feel drawn to God even as we feel pulled back into the false security of faithless living. Noah and Abraham resisted that temptation and were therefore commended for their faith, as was Moses, of whom we are told:
“[He chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:25-26, ESV).

If faith in God is made difficult by our limited vision, how much more so when there is an obstruction before our eyes? Though God delivered from oppression and violence many of the pre-Christ saints, this was not the case for all:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:35-38, ESV).

And yet despite this obstruction to their ability to see the telos of God’s purposes, they trusted in Him nonetheless. If this is true of them, why should it not be true of us who have obtained the fulfillment of promises they longed to see?:
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).

Indeed, Christ was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. And though many of these promises have not been realized in their fullness, we have more evidence upon which to base our faith than they had. Such a benefit ought to stir up an even greater faith—and a desire to live by it—in what God is going to accomplish for us. And if they could persevere until the end, what excuse can we give for not doing so? For not only do we have resources they did not (the down payment on God’s promises in Christ’s first advent, more of God’s plan revealed to us than was revealed to those who came before, additional power from the Holy Spirit, etc.), we also have their example to follow. The author concludes:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV).

The cloud of witnesses—those saints who came before us and persevered to the end—testify to us that we can and should persevere. Furthermore, we have not only an example but a great advocate in our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He suffered, he endured because of “the joy that was set before Him.” Faith is not therefore a commitment to suffer because suffering is inherently praiseworthy or noble, but a commitment to follow Christ regardless of the consequences because the reward of such a commitment is participation in Christ’s resurrection and coming kingdom. Our faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as “believ[ing] that [God] exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6, ESV) with the result that we draw near to Him, gives us the strength to endure—for without confidence that God exists and that our present struggles are worth enduring, we would give up the race. Finally, anything which holds us back from finishing the race (what our author refers to as weights) should be cast aside. It is not good for us.

To conclude, the belief that one cannot forfeit salvation even though she abandon Christ is simply not biblical. Not only do we not have any such promises, but such a mindset contradicts the goal of the gospel—our union with Christ and the restoration of all things. If we fail to be interested in these goals, we have no place in the coming kingdom of God. Salvation is not about going to a nice place when you die, but about participation in Christ. Our entry and continued place in Christ’s body is on the basis of faith, and this faith lives (runs the race) on the basis of its confidence in the reward of reaching the finish line.

1 To see these parallels laid out more explicitly, see Nathan E. Brown’s Hebrews – An Exegetical Analysis, p. 103. (Link)

Dr. James White on Annihilationism

When reformed apologist James White took a call on the topic of annihilationism on on his June 25th, 2015 webcast, he showed a surprising degree of sympathy for those who hold to an annihilationist or conditional immortality position, though he still gave reasons as to why he wouldn’t hold such a view himself.

For those who are unfamiliar, annihilationists believe that the unredeemed will not suffer eternal conscious torment but will finally be destroyed. While there is much that could be discussed in White’s comments on annihilationism, he emphasized one point in particular and has done so many times in the past when discussing this issue. As such, it seemed worthwhile to discuss this one point.

Dr. White seemed to think that the central issue in the debate is this:
“Is the punishment of the ungodly limited in its time span so that the punishment is a finite punishment, which assumes a cessation of sin? …From my perspective the only way anyone can stop sinning is through an extension of grace and divine power and a changing of their nature.” (quoted from the webcast)

In other words, how can sinners ever stop being punished for sin if they never stop sinning? So long as someone has not been redeemed by grace, they remain in a state of rebellion and are thus still deserving of the wrath of God.

There are, I think, some misapprehensions of the annihilationist position on Dr. White’s part that support his criticism. To begin with, he seems to assume that the punishment for sin is conscious torment, and is thus unintentionally begging the question. The annihilationist does not believe that punishment for sin is conscious torment, but utter destruction. As such, once this punishment has been applied, there is no sinner left to engage in rebellion against God, and thus no continuation of sin.

When Jesus died as our substitute, He died as our substitute. It was His death that was efficacious. According to Paul, this is part of the key proclamation of the gospel message:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 5:3, ESV)

If the punishment that Jesus took for us is the punishment that we would have been forced to bear ourselves, then this punishment is death and not eternal conscious torment.

White also seems to assume that the difference between the traditional view and the annihilationist view is that the latter supports a belief in finite punishment. Not at all. The annihilationist believes that the damned will be utterly destroyed, never to return to life. This punishment is therefore of infinite duration, even if it isn’t experienced by the damned consciously for all eternity.

Dr. White would probably point to other reasons why he couldn’t hold to this perspective, but his central objection simply fails to address the annihilationist position.

A Response to Brett Kunkle’s Philosophical Argument Against Annihilationism

Stand To Reason’s Brett Kunkle posted a video today with a philosophical argument against annihilationism. In short, he argued that since man is made in the image of God and is therefore intrinsically valuable, God would not destroy any human being completely.  I appreciate Kunkle’s and STR’s willingness to engage the annihilationist position, and I am therefore returning the favor.

Kunkle parallels his philosophical argument against hell with a common argument against abortion, which is that it is wrong to destroy an unborn child, made in the image of God, simply out of concern that they might have a low quality of life.

There are a number of problems with this parallel. To begin with, in the case of the unborn child we have a person who is innocent (one’s view of original sin aside). A better parallel would be to a prisoner convicted of crimes meriting execution. Though I’m not sure if Kunkle supports the death penalty in the present day, he no doubt would acknowledge that God has executed the death penalty (both directly and indirectly through the Israelite government) in the past and was just for doing so. Therefore it is inconsistent for him to argue that it is always wrong to destroy human life since, indeed, sometimes it is just. The appeal to pro-life arguments on abortion are therefore not relevant to this discussion.

Kunkle also uses lofty phrases in order to achieve a positive emotional response from his viewers toward his contention, such as the claim that God “dignified us with human freedom” and “respects our choices.” God is therefore obligated by justice to not destroy rebellious sinners but must instead torment them eternally, consciously, and without any opportunity for saving repentance. Say what you want about the justice of eternal conscious torment, but the last thing it could be called is dignified or respectful. Kunkle seems to know this on a subconscious level, and thus argues that, in contradiction to the claims of annihilationism, “unfortunately hell is eternal conscious torment” (emphasis mine).

But why should this be unfortunate? If it’s just and provides rebel sinners with dignity, why should we not celebrate eternal conscious torment? The unstated answer is that being tortured forever sucks. So, now that we’ve stripped the argument of its fluffy, emotional language and alleged parallels to pro-life convictions, what do we have?

In short, we have the argument that if human beings are made in the image of God, this makes them inherently valuable. If they are inherently valuable, God would not destroy them. But are we then left with eternal conscious torment as our best alternative? Absolutely not, for on this account it is also not desirable to torment inherently valuable, thinking, feeling persons for all eternity. If Kunkle’s argument follows, it does not lead us to the traditional view, but something akin to universalism or apocatastasis.

My proposed counter-argument to Kunkle is to acknowledge that neither annihilation or eternal conscious torment of persons made in the image of God is desirable, but in light of the scriptural witness to final punishment, and the fact of sinful rebellion, something must be done with those who refuse to repent. In the coming eschaton, wherein we will see firsthand God’s perfect reordering of the universe, is it preferable to imagine the unending torture of men and women who refuse to repent, or to imagine God as all in all?

Interview with Dr. Bill Ury – Social Trinitarianism

New podcast is up.

Click here to listen.

This podcast features an interview with Dr. Bill Ury. Dr. Ury received his doctorate from Drew Univeristy and is an adjunct professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. The topic of discussion was Social Trinitarianism– the view that God ought to be thought of primarily in His relational threeness as opposed to a more static oneness. One insight of this view is that personhood as modeled upon the Trinity is necessarily relational– that if we are made in the image of God, then, like God, we cannot be persons without being in relationship to other persons. He also pointed out how this perspective shapes our view of God, the church, sovereignty, and ethics, particularly in contrast with other perspectives on the Trinity.

 

The Inconsistency of Arguments for Eternal Conscious Punishment

I recently listened to a debate between rethinkinghell.com contributor Chris Date and apologist Phil Fernandes (philfernandes.org). Date was arguing that the ultimate fate of the wicked was annihilation (God would destroy them) and Fernandes took the traditional view of the eternal conscious torment of the wicked. The debate was incredibly interesting and I recommend that others listen to it.

Click here to listen to/download the debate.

As I listened to this debate, I noticed a number of inconsistencies from Fernandes in defending his view that I wanted to discuss. Now, I am not picking on Fernandes specifically– I have listened to and benefited from much of his recorded material. I am simply discussing his arguments because they are typical of the way most traditionalists argue against annihilationism. If he, or anyone else for that matter, finds my critiques to be uncharitable or inaccurate, please let me know and I will seek to fix that. In any case, here were some of the issues I noticed.

Degrees of punishment

Fernandes claimed that because Scripture tells us that there are degrees of punishment in hell, annihilationism must be false, because all who are judged in this scheme get the exact same punishment– death. This really is no problem for the annihilationist who believes that God will raise the unsaved up to judge them. This annihilationism only states that death is the final punishment of the wicked. The quality of that death, or the events preceding or causing it, can easily admit to degrees of punishment fitting for the sins committed. It is, however, an enormous problem for Fernandes and other traditionalists. Why? Because his main philosophical argument (which is representative of many if not most traditionalists) for eternal conscious torment is that a sin against an infinitely holy God requires an infinite punishment. But does infinity admit of degrees? If the sinner is already bearing the fullest punishment he is capable of bearing for his infinite sin, how can the punishment be increased? It is not the annihilationist that is inconsistent with Scripture on this point, but the traditional view.

Church tradition

Fernandes, a protestant, begins and ends his opening statement against annihilationism by pointing out that the general consensus of the church for centuries has been that God punishes the wicked with eternal conscious torment. He further demonstrates this preference for tradition (apparently over the straight forward interpretation of human language) by pointing out how many Christian theologians have understood eternal death not to be death at all but eternal existence of a poor quality. While he does allow for the possibility of tradition being corrected, he is subtly undercutting his own position as a protestant by emphasizing the role of tradition to the extent that he does. Yes, tradition is important. Yes, we should be sure that we have good reasons before challenging it. However, if protestantism is correct, it is not only possible but likely that tradition has led us astray on numerous issues.

Fernandes beats this drum in other ways. For instance, a key argument that resurfaces again and again is how “weird” or “strange” it would be if annihilationism is correct, because that would mean “cultic” groups like Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses which also accept a form of annihilationism have been correct while the broader church throughout the centuries had been wrong. One could easily imagine a Roman Catholic debater saying the exact same thing to a protestant. “If this doctrine of imputation is true, why is it that only a small group of theological rebels endorsed it when the church over the centuries has taken a different view?” Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument, and any protestant who believes in traditional hell should consider this argument to be a failed one.

Jesus as an alternative to torture

Fernandes also partly bases his defense of eternal conscious torment on how effective it is as a tool for evangelism. He admits that had he not believed in eternal conscious torment, he would probably not be a Christian. Apart from this view being problematic for its potential to convert people who do not love God or desire to know Him, but merely fear torture, it presents myriad other issues. Chris Date, Fernandes’ annihilationist opponent, rightly points out that eternal conscious torment has also made people pull back from the faith in revulsion at what appears to them to be a barbaric doctrine unworthy of a loving God. But regardless of which view is most effective, this mode of thinking betrays a pragmatic view that if something is convenient, this somehow counts as a point for its truth value. This is ironic, because Fernandes in this same debate accuses annihilationists of trading in the truth of God for a gospel that is more suited to today’s cultural climate. Fernandes here argues out of both sides of his mouth, and he is once again following the line of most traditionalists in doing so.

When Rob Bell pits biblical exegesis against a fuzzy, post-modern, peanut butter love, Love Wins

Rob Bell’s book wins on pathos and good intentions, but not on solid argumentation or exegesis. He has a heart for the lost and the suffering, which is admirable, but he has to turn the Bible into theological silly putty to make his case.

Bell’s first major error in Love Wins is giving precedence to certain biblical themes both to the exclusion of others and over clear and specific biblical teaching. For instance, Bell makes much of scriptural themes like restoration, but ignores themes of final punishment. By claiming as the central themes only the ones he likes, he can read them into texts where they don’t belong, such as the passage which recounts Jesus’ claim that Sodom and Gomorrah will fare better on the day of judgement than cities which rejected the direct revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Instead of reading this passage in its obvious sense– that there are degrees of punishment on the final day and those who reject direct revelation of Jesus will suffer most– he understands Jesus to be saying that there is a great deal of hope for Sodom and Gomorrah’s salvation– that their punishment was corrective instead of destructive. Even though he doesn’t get anywhere close to proving his case, he seems to fall back on the emotionally-motivated claim that God saving everyone is a “better story” than damning some and saving others.

Speaking of stories, his overuse of this word  is one example where Bell is obnoxiously post-modern and emergent. He uses the word story/stories in his short book 138 times. For a book of around 200 pages, large font, and constantly skipped lines/single words on their own line, that’s an impressive display of post-modernism.

Another major error is that he paints the alternative to his view as a belief in a strong exclusivism (the view that only those who consciously respond affirmatively to the gospel message can be saved) along with eternal conscious punishment, which has the effect that when he attacks one, he is in effect attacking the other, making his job easier. Of course, one might hold  to eternal torment without exclusivism or even annihilationism, both views he doesn’t engage with.

Bell explains that God will eventually win everyone over, but doesn’t explain how it is that everyone will be saved of their own free will (if free will is truly free, it seems that at least some would reject eternally if they lived that long) . For emotional effect, Bell criticizes the eternal conscious hell camp with having a God that would turn his back on people in hell who are repenting and turning to God. Of course, this assumes that sinners turn to God completely on their own instead of by His grace. Bell here appears to be a Pelagian, or else doesn’t know enough about soteriology to make such distinctions (a terrifying prospect for a pastor). In any case, this is another example where he is misrepresenting eternal conscious hell proponents, which makes his book far harder to take seriously.

One strange and interesting point that Rob Bell makes comes from making the afterlife analogous to the parable of the prodigal son. He claims that hell is not being cast out of “the party,” (despite Jesus’ far more relevant parable about the marriage supper being like a party that people are cast out of) but being at the party but not enjoying it. “Hell is being at the party,” Bell claims. The message to take from that is never to go to one of Rob Bell’s parties.