Tag Archives: conditionalism

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 in 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.

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 Eternal Conscious Torment of the Wicked?

*Updated December 5, 2012 for clarity and style.

The everlasting conscious torment of the wicked has long been viewed as a staple of Christian orthodoxy. However, a view called annihilationism or conditional immortality (that everlasting life is granted by Jesus to the saved alone) has support in the early church and in respected evangelical scholars. From Justin Martyr to John Stott, Roger Forster, F.F. Bruce, N.T. Wright, and Edward Fudge, thoughtful Christians have understood or at least given weight to the idea that the Bible teaches the final destruction of the wicked. Of course, this means nothing if the position can’t be supported by Scripture, the gospel message, and plain reason.

Plain reason might tell us that evil that never dies is inconsistent with a good God who controls the universe. It may also suggest that a merciful, loving God cannot keep the damned in eternal, conscious tormnet. However, God is just and whatever He does is by necessity just, regardless of our ability to understand it. If that means eternal fire, then may it be so. Thus, the most important criteria for Christians on this issue is: What does the Bible say?

What Is “Eternal?”

It doesn’t take you too much time in a reading of the New Testament to come across striking Scriptures like these: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46, ESV)

If eternal can be used of both God’s punishment for sin and for the life we have in Christ, and we know that eternal life truly is eternal, how can conditionalists distinguish between these uses of “eternal” in such a way that one means living forever and the other means being destroyed?

Jude provides us with a possible answer: “Sodom and Gomorrah… serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7, ESV). Here, Jude uses “eternal fire” to refer to what the people of Sodom and Gommorah suffered. It is clear that Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning, so Jude must mean something else by “eternal” than literally burning forever. It is exegetically acceptable, and also contextually quite warranted, to understand the consequences of the fire as “eternal.” Peter also uses Sodom and Gomorrah as an example for what happens in hell, but with quite different language:
“by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6, ESV).

It becomes clearer now to see how Jude means that those who will end up in hell will suffer “eternal” fire–-the effects are eternal, irrevocable, unchangeable. As Peter says, they are “condemned… to extinction.”

This use of “eternal” can be seen elsewhere in Scripture, for instance in Hebrews 9:12, where it is stated that Jesus “once for all… [secured] an eternal redemption” for us (ESV). It is not that this redemption achieved “once for all” will actually be achieved over and over again into the future (which would be a contradiction in terms), but that it was obtained once and with lasting consequences (see also Isaiah 45:16 and Mark 3:29).


The Fire That Cannot Be Quenched

Isaiah 66:24 gives us additional language that is often used to support the traditional view of eternal conscious torment:
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (ESV).

Putting aside the language in this passage which implies destruction, such as “dead bodies,” it’s worth noting that Isaiah also described the fire which destroyed Edom as unquenchable:
“Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever” (Isaiah 34:10, ESV).

It is obvious that Edom’s fire has not burnt forever, and that Isaiah only means that the punishment is permanent. He explains this simple fact using exaggerated, apocalyptic language. Why then, are we so quick to say that Isaiah means something entirely different when he’s understood to be referring to hell? Especially when Isaiah 66:24 refers to the bodies of the damned as “corpses,” “dead bodies,” or “carcasses?”

Ezekiel 20:47-48 offers us another parallel, this time referring to Negev:
“Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”

Ezekiel’s meaning is clear–the fire cannot be stopped by anyone. It cannot be quenched. However, this fire will also utterly consume everything it touches. When it is said that a fire cannot be quenched, the claim being made isn’t that it lasts forever, but that it can’t be put out by human means–it will burn until it’s finished (see also Jeremiah 17:27).

What Does the Bible Tell Us About the Lake of Fire?

Revelation 20:14 tells us that, after the evil one and sinners, “death and hades [are] cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” If the purpose of the lake of fire is to torture forever, what is the point of saying metaphorically that death is thrown into it– why torment death forever? But if the purpose of the lake of fire is truly to destroy, then death is destroyed once evil has been also. This means that there is no death for those in Christ after the lake of fire burns up, though those outside of Christ have been destroyed.

Peter tells us more about the lake of fire’s destructive nature:
“But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men… The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. [Seeing] then [that] all these things shall be dissolved, what manner [of persons] ought ye to be in [all] holy conversation and godliness” (2 Peter 3:7, 9-11).

This fire that Peter speaks of is the same fire that punishes sinners. In verse 9 he tells us that those who suffer it “perish,” and after that he tells us that the universe will melt away along with its evil works and will be BURNED UP and DISSOLVED. This is the purpose of the lake of fire.

“Behold, the LORD will empty the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left” (Isaiah 24:1, 5-6).


Eternal Destruction

It seems to me that the best way to understand eternal death compared to eternal life is to look at John 3:16, in which Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV). The word perish here is the Greek “apollumi.” The immediate meaning of the word is “to destroy fully.”

Similarly, we read in Matthew 10:28:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” If God will not destroy the soul, why would Jesus make this threat? It seems clear that Jesus is telling you to fear the one who can do this because He in fact will destroy those who are thrown into hell, both body and soul.

For further reading, I recommend Edward Fudge’s exhaustive study The Fire That Consumes. If you’re pressed on time, his book with hell traditionalist Robert Peterson, Two Views of Hell is much shorter and offers a dialogue between conditionalism and traditionalism.

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.