Tag Archives: conditional immortality

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.

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?

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.

The Image of God in Us Depends Upon Being in Relationship to God

Introduction

Many theologians have pointed out that the image of God that humans bear may be a reflection of God’s spirituality, rationality, morality and creativity. While this seems to be a reasonable deduction, all of these elements of the image of God can only be reflected in us insofar as we have a connection—a relationship— with Him.When we remove God from our moral life, our moral compass becomes dim. When we remove God from our spiritual life, we worship created things rather than the Creator. When we remove God from our intellectual life, we find that our ideas of truth and goodness become corrupted. When we remove God from our creative life, we create implements for wickedness that perverts the image of God in mankind.
 
Why is a relationship with God so important in sustaining His image? Because relationship is one of the keys to our very personhood. Dennis Kinlaw, in his book Let’s Start with Jesus, writes, “a person finds completeness only in being related to others in trusting love.” As evidence, Kinlaw looks into the very being of God. The Scriptures tells us that God is love, which is not to say that he is loving, as if it’s something He occasionally does, but that He in His essence IS love— which is to say that God is self-giving communion. Kinlaw reminds us that, “God is the original of all things, a communion of three distinct persons whose existence consists in the giving and receiving of themselves to and from each other. Self-giving constitutes their being.” If God’s personhood is communion, or relationship, and we are in His image, we are also relational. If we complete each other as human beings because of this image in us, how much more will the image of God in us become corrupt when we are not in relationship with God—the source of this image?
 
There are (for the purposes of this entry) four ways that God sustains His image in humanity, and they are all acts of revelation wherein we are not the iniators. God first sustained His image with Adam and Eve by walking with them in the Garden, secondly He sustains His image in all sinners by showing Himself to them, thirdly He sustains His image in those who are saved by entering into communion with them, and finally He will glorify us when He comes again and fully restores the image we have corrupted.
 
 
  1. God Revealed Himself in Eden
In the Garden, the image of God in humanity was sustained by God fellowshipping with Adam and Eve. Genesis teaches us that Adam and Eve walked with God and ate from the Tree of Life which God gave them. This sustained their life and their reflection of God’s image. When they sinned against God, He took away access to Himself as well as the Tree, telling them that as a consequence of sinning against Him He would remove life from them. Mankind’s disobedience and sin has snow-balled since that moment, as we remove ourselves further and further from communion with God, and His image continues to dim in us as we move toward corruption. This is an act on our part against communion with God in favor of a selfish inward-turning, that results in the perversion of God’s image and eventually our complete undoing. Whether or not the Fall in the Garden is a historical event (as is claimed by liberals and increasingly, moderates and some conservatives), its basic message that our eternal life is dependent upon God and that we remove ourselves from God (and thus life) by turning inward into selfishness is still absolutely valid.
 
The fourth century theologian Athanasius, in his work On the Incarnation, wrote:
For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, [our first ancestors] were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were [turned], they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. For man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out of what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt.”
 
Eastern Orthodox theologian John D. Zizioulas points out that even if God weren’t judging humanity in giving them over to their sin, the consequences of humans turning away from relationship with Him and inward into themselves would be the same:
Man was not created immortal, but by having his personhood he was made capable of communion with the immortal God. Death came to him not as a punishment in a juridical sense but as an existential consequence of the break of this communion; it came at the moment that man became introverted, and limited the ekstatic movement of his personhood to the created world.” Zizioulas then explains that by man’s personhood, he is referring to the image of God. In other words, when man is separated from God, and thus God’s image is dimmed in him, man is not a full person, but an empty shell that can only be filled by being in a right relationship with God. Because we are separated from God, we have no goodness in us that makes us want to seek God. But God in His love and mercy continues to reach out to us by revealing Himself in relationship.
 
 
  1. God Reveals Himself to the Unsaved
To the unsaved, God sustains His image by revealing Himself in prevenient common grace. Unfortunately, for the unsaved this is a one-way relationship—God reaches out to them, but they continue to turn away from Him. Romans 1:19 tells us that sinners are all without excuse because “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (NASB). God continues to reveal Himself to sinners who have no desire for Him. Not only does He reveal Himself to them, He reveals Himself in a way that enables them to turn to Him. In John 12:32, Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to Myself” (NASB). Finally, Paul tells us that in Jesus, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (NASB). Sadly, many of us continue in rebellion against God despite this revelation, further sullying His image in us. Paul tells us in Romans 1:21-24, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools… Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (NASB).
 
While this type of revelation of God can often bring sinners to Him, many do no respond. But this doesn’t mean that the image of God has completely died in them. Because God works His way into the consciences of those who are against Him, they still reflect His goodness and His image. It is also important to note that without God’s reaching out, none of us would turn to Him. We are completely dependent upon His grace, and none of us deserve His favor.
 
  1. God Reveals Himself in Salvation
Some do turn to God because of this revelation of Himself, and the image of God in them becomes much brighter because they know Him. John 1:11-12 tells us that, “[Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”
 
One of the most important things for Christians to remember is that we are saved because God revealed Himself to us, and sought to bring us into relationship with Him. It is not our goodness that saves us, but God’s. Because we are now part of God’s family, we ought to be reflecting His image beautifully.
 
Paul tells us in Colossians 3:9-13: 
“You laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him–a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (NASB).
 
Not only is the image of God being renewed in how we relate to God, but our relationships with each other ought to reflect the image of God more fully as well, as we reflect Him in communion.Because God is complete in the communion of the Trinity, we are complete persons *only* in communion with God and with other believers.In Christ, the man-made distinctions that we create don’t matter. We are in communion with one another because we’re in communion with God. The relationship that you or I have with God is one we all share. We live every day to love God and love one another, and to forgive each other as God forgave us, as the image of God becomes brighter and brighter in each of us.
 
 
  1. God Reveals Himself When He Comes Again
What we await is for the image of God in us to be fully restored. 1 John 3:2 tells us that, “now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (NIV). Paul tells us in Romans 8:9 that, “the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (NIV). When Christ returns, sin and death will be destroyed, and the children of God will be revealed as the holy bride of Christ. The image of God will be fully restored in us, and we’ll know God face to face.
 
Conclusion
 
The image of God in us is based on being in relationship with God. And this is based on God’s revealing Himself to us. If God would not reveal Himself to us once we had fallen out of relationship with Him and into self-centeredness, we would be lost and His image in us would become corrupt and eventually destroyed. As Athanasius says:
God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption; but men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves, received the condemnation of death with which they had been threatened; and from thenceforth no longer remained as they were made, but were being corrupted according to their devices; and death had the mastery over them as king. For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time.”


If the image of God in us is to be preserved, God must bring us back into relationship with Him– we cannot do this ourselves. This is the meaning of grace. God gives us grace—His unmerited favor— by revealing Himself to us, desiring that we would turn to Him. God seeks a relationship with us, and has done everything needed to bridge the gap between us and Him. The question is, will we turn to Him in love and worship? Will we respond to His call and be received into a loving relationship with the Triune God who is love? We have been rightfully ejected from relationship with God and deserve the destruction that results from turning against Him and corrupting His image in us. But His love is so phenomenal that He took the penalty of our sin upon Himself to bring us back to Him. As the Christian band Half-Handed Cloud sang, “when we found out that you’re seeking, we didn’t have to hide anymore.” If anyone is hiding from God now, know that He’s seeking you, in order to bring you back to Him. We may have created a chasm between God and us, but God has made a bridge—the cross of Jesus Christ which has taken our sins away—so that we can know and enjoy God again in communion with Him.I hope that you will seek Him now, and that you will be blessed by a saving relationship with the God who is love.