The Hell Debate: Is Punishment Eternal?

Introduction


Some say, “I could not rest comfortably if I believed the orthodox doctrine about the ruin of men.” Most true. But what right have we to rest comfortably?[1]

— Charles H. Spurgeon

What comes to mind when you think of hell? If we are all truly honest with ourselves we have developed some type of characterization of hell that was never intended from Scripture. Do you see Satan (or Lucifer, or a multitude of other names he has in Scripture), as a man all covered in red, with horns and a tail, oh and let’s not forget the pitchfork/trident? Or perhaps you are one of the people in the world that believes that there is no after life at all; when we die we are dead and gone. If you are one of those people, please listen to this conversation and see if your opinion changes.

However, this conversation is geared more towards those of us who call ourselves evangelical Christians, and the belief in hell is a doctrine that we can all agree upon; but where we differ can bring a great divide. Boyd points out, “Evangelical Christians disagree over whether this punishment is eternal in duration or in consequence. That is, when the Bible speaks of “eternal destruction,” does it mean rebels will eternally suffer a process of destruction, or does it mean that once rebels are destroyed, it is eternal (namely, permanent, irreversible)?”[2] This essay is going to focus on the two most prominent views taken on hell in evangelical circles; the eternal literal view and the annihilationist view.

The Literal View

Those who argue on behalf of this view make sure to take their argument back to the Old Testament. Did the Jews of ancient Israel have a view of hell and what would take place there? Usually when a discussion of the Old Testament turns to its view towards hell, the first thing that is mentioned is sheol. Sheol’s etymology is uncertain because in the KJV it is translated “grave” thirty-one times, “hell” thirty-one times, and “pit” three times; while the NIV’s usual translation is grave.[3] It was regarded as a place of horror (Ps 30:9; Num 16:33), weeping (Is 38:3), and punishment (Job 24:19).[4]

While there is no specific mentioning of the on goings in hell in the Old Testament; there is one specific thing that Boyd emphasizes,

In Old Testament times, the ultimate disgrace was for a person’s corpse to be left above ground, where it would be eaten by maggots or burned with fire. The prophet uses this imagery to communicate the intense disgrace in the afterlife of those who oppose the Lord. When people suffered this terrible fate in history, the maggots or fire eventually consumed their corpses. In the final judgment, however, the maggots will never die and the fire will never go out! To enter into eternity in opposition of the sovereign Creator is to enter into unending suffering.[5]

The passage that Boyd is alluding to is Isaiah 66:24, and it is generally thought to be referring to Gehenna. In actuality, the place that reference was being made of was the Hinnom Valley and it started to gain the imagery mentioned earlier during the time of the prophet Jeremiah (see Jer. 7:29-34; 19:6-9; 32:35). According to Chan the “Jews living between the Testaments picked up on this metaphor and ran with it. The word gehenna was widely used by Jews during the time of Jesus to refer to the fiery place of judgment for the wicked in the end times….”[6] Jesus himself shows the relevance of understanding hell by using the word gehenna upwards of twelve times, it would be this very word of gehenna that ties the Testaments together.

One of the strongest supporters for eternal punishment seems to be Jesus Christ himself. While there are numerous passages throughout the New Testament to attribute to the doctrine of eternal punishment, one that draws the greatest analogy has to be, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46 ESV) In regards to this parallel Lloyd-Jones has one of the most thought out points of view,

The same word ‘eternal’ is also always used in the parallels and contrasts that are drawn in the Scriptures between believers and unbelievers. They face either eternal life or eternal destruction. Perhaps the best example of this is the last verse of Matthew 25: ‘And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal’ (v. 46). The contrast between the unrighteous and the righteous is the contrast between everlasting punishment and everlasting life. And if everlasting as regards punishment means only for a while and then extinction, why should everlasting not mean the same when it describes the righteous and the life that they will inherit? There is no exception to this. Constantly in the Scripture the fates of the believer and the unbeliever are contrasted in that way and each time exactly the same word is used in both cases—eternal on the one hand and eternal on the other. So if there is no such thing as everlasting destruction, there is no such thing as everlasting life, and all that is promised to the believer will only last for a while and then come to an end.[7]

Another extremely powerful verse used to express the type of punishment to be received is Revelation 14:11, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”(ESV) Did you notice the words that drive home the type of torment that was going to be received? They were “forever and ever, and they have no rest”, in my understanding this shows no end. There has been argument made around the Greek word aion and its meaning of forever. Annihilationists contend that the Greek word aionios, derived from aion, which means “age,” has the meaning of “age long” rather than “everlasting.” However, aionios is the strongest word in the Greek language to express the idea of endlessness.[8] Mark Driscoll in his book on doctrine asserts that “the word forever (Greek aion) means unending. This word is used to describe the blessedness of God, Jesus after his resurrection, the presence of God, and God himself. As uncomfortable as some may be with it, it also describes eternal, conscious punishment.”[9]

Some of the biggest arguments against the view of eternal punishment have to do with how we perceive justice. You will often hear questions along these lines, “If God is loving how can he punish someone for eternity?” or “That’s not fair.” In response to this, Grudem makes a compelling point,

The argument that eternal punishment is unfair (because there is a disproportion between temporary sin and eternal punishment) wrongly assumes that we know the extent of the evil done when sinners rebel against God. David Kingdon observes that “sin against the Creator is heinous to a degree utterly beyond our sin-warped imaginations’ [ability] to conceive of … Who would have the temerity to suggest to God what the punishment … should be?” He also responds to this objection by suggesting that unbelievers in hell may go on sinning and receiving punishment for their sin, but never repenting, and notes that Revelation 22:11 points in this direction: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy.”[10]

These objections and several others are usually raised by supporters of the annihilationist view (also known as “conditional immortality). Driscoll believes that “despite having proponents who are otherwise fine Bible teachers (such as John Stott), annihilationism is simply not what the Bible teaches.”[11]

The Annihilationist View

Let’s understand that even for those that hold this view, they still believe in a realistic hell. Clark Pinnock, an adamant supporter of this view tells us, “For me too, hell is an unquestioned reality, plainly announced in the biblical witness, but its precise nature is problematic.”[12] We should also understand that this is not some new thing that has just sprouted up over night, apparently “…this opinion had a solitary representative in the 4th-cent. African Christian author *Arnobius, it was never held in Christendom until recent times, except in isolated cases of philosophical speculation, and it was formally condemned at the Fifth *Lateran Council in 1513.” [13]

As we take a look at a more current advocate, Pinnock begins to set the stage for his understanding of this eschatological view by turning to the Old Testament. He uses two major references Psalm 37 and Malachi 4:1-2, to support his idea of destruction, but right after referencing these two passages he says, “While it is true that the point of reference for these warnings in the Old Testament is this-worldly, the basic imagery overwhelmingly denotes destruction and perishing and sets the tone for the New Testament doctrine.”[14] The question that Pinnock brings upon himself from this quote is “Am I reading too much into Scripture?” For the annihilationist there are several words that they attempt to build their whole case upon. According to Lloyd-Jones,

…the primary argument for conditional immortality centers upon terms like ‘destruction’, ‘perish’ and ‘death’. Now, it is said, destruction means destruction, and it is inconceivable that something can go on being destroyed forever. Destruction means complete disintegration, the end of something. ‘Perish’ and ‘death’ likewise must mean the end of existence. So if you quote 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which speaks of ‘everlasting destruction’, you are told that that is impossible.[15]

One thing that is troubling while reading Pinnock’s understanding of hell was his constant reference to the second death, because that phrase is used only in the book of Revelation (Rev 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). It shows that he is willing to pick and choose what should be taken literally from Scripture and should not. Chan’s response to the second death, “While the word death itself could suggest finality, it is often used throughout the New Testament in a more metaphorical (nonliteral) sense. For instance, New Testament writers often refer to unbelievers as “dead”…So it seems best to understand the word death not in terms of total annihilation but as a description of those who will be separated from God forever in an ongoing state of punishment.”[16]

Another argument that has been raised is that the human soul is not originally immortal. Pinnock believes that we have allowed Hellenistic teaching to invade our understanding of Scripture and therefore skewed our exegesis of it. He believes that “Presumably the traditional view of the nature of hell was originally constructed in the following way: People mixed up their belief in divine judgment after death (which is scriptural) with their belief in the immortality of the soul (which is unscriptural) and concluded incorrectly that the nature of hell must be everlasting conscious torment.”[17] The question that comes to mind when I read this is, “When God originally created Adam and Eve, and said, “Let us make them in our image,” did this not have the possibility of immortality? Or How about Genesis 2:17 when the Lord tells Adam that if he eats he will surely die, we know he did not suffer physical death at that moment, could this also be an indicator or the loss of immortality?” However, Lloyd-Jones responds to this topic with a bit more savvy than I,

What argument do people have for this idea? Well, they are fond of quoting that statement which I referred to in the last lecture: God ‘who only hath immortality’ (1 Tim. 6:16). That, they say, must mean what it says—that only God is immortal. But, as we indicated, while we must accept that and agree with it, it does not of necessity preclude the fact that God has given the gift of immortality to all men and women. Immortality, it is stated, is referred to in the Scriptures as a gift—‘For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,’ says Paul in Romans 6:23.[18]

Conclusion

This has been a very heavy journey that should not be taken lightly. Throughout the process of researching this paper, ideas that were originally held to were challenged and some even changed. As of right now I must admit that I cannot see a way to adhere to the annihilationist view and still feel that I am remaining true to Scripture. At the same time there is a logical struggle with the idea of hell being full of fire and yet dark simultaneously. With that being said, hell is a place where eternal punishment will take place, but whether its literal or metaphorical is for the Lord alone to know. If we take serious the threat of hell it should light a fire under us to do our part to tell people who Jesus is and what he has done; so that they may not have to find out the hard way the truth about hell.

Bibliography

Boyd, Gregory A., and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Cabal, Ted, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et al. The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.

Chan, Francis, and Preston Sprinkle. Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011.

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Driscoll, Mark, and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

Duffield, Guy P. and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave. Foundations of Pentecostal Theology. Los Angeles, Calif.: L.I.F.E. Bible College, 1983.

Elwell, Water A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids,MI: BakerAcademic, 2001.

Gundry, Robert H. “Pastoral Pensées: The Hopelessness of the Unevangelized”. In Themelios: Volume 36, No. 1, April 2011. United Kingdom: The Gospel Coalition, 2011.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Edited by Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England et al. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. The Church and the Last Things. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998.

Packer, J. I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. A Survey of Bible Doctrine. Chicago: Moody Press, 1972.

Spurgeon, Charles H. 2,200 Qutations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon. Edited by Tom Carter. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.

Walvoord, John F., et. al. Four Views on Hell. Edited by William Crockett. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.


[1]Charles H. Spurgeon, 2,200 Qutations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon. Edited by Tom Carter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005) 99.

[2] Gregory A.Boyd, and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 281.

[3]John F. Walvoord, et. al. Four Views on Hell. Edited by William Crockett. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 14.

[4] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995).

[5] Boyd, Across,282.

[6] Francis Chan, and Preston Sprinkle. Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011) 61.

[7] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998), 73-74.

[8] Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles, Calif.: L.I.F.E. Bible College, 1983), 551.

[9]Mark Driscoll, and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) 430.

[10] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 1151.

[11] Driscoll, Doctrine, 430.

[12] Walvoord, Four, 135.

[13] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 397.

[14] Walvoord, Four, 145.

[15] Lloyd-Jones, The Church, 72.

[16] Chan, Erasing, 107.

[17] Walvoord, Four, 148-9.

[18] Lloyd-Jones, The Church, 72.

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