By Tim Barnett and Greg Koukl
Hell is not a pleasant topic. It’s an ugly, unsettling, dangerous reality—expedient to dismiss, easy to avoid serious discussion about, convenient to disregard by joking about in a way that trivializes it.
This will not do, though, because the sobering certainty about Hell is this: One day every person who has ever lived will stand in judgment for their conduct in this life. For multitudes, that will not go well because for them, when the final gavel falls, Hell will be their sentence.
The nature of that sentence is our concern here. However, regardless of how one construes what happens in Hell, one point is clear: Hell is the end of the line. It is the final state. It is the ultimate destination for the damned. Hell’s door is shut forever, and its sentence can never be undone, revoked, or reversed. Ever.
When dealing with something as real and as dreadful as Hell, then, it is important we get our facts straight. Our interests are best served by sticking with a reliable authority. In “Hell Interrupted Part 1” 1 we reasoned that if you want to know what Hell is actually like, let God tell you. More precisely, listen to what Jesus says not just about the reality of Hell, but also about the subjective nature of that dread sentence. The Son created Hell. He sustains it. He is the one who decides who ends up there.2 And He is the one who sounds the clearest, unambiguous warnings of its dangers.
Here is what we found.
In our first installment we pointed out that what happens at the final judgment is a critical piece of the Christian theological puzzle. Eternal judgment (however it’s ultimately defined) is an “elementary teaching” at the very foundation of Christian doctrine.3 We also noted that for two millennia the church universal was not divided on the doctrine of unceasing suffering for those condemned to Hell. Indeed (we noted), there was more debate about the Trinity than there was about Hell’s misery.4
There was a reason for the large consensus in the church about Hell’s anguish. Christians were convinced this was what Jesus Himself taught. Christ said that when He comes in glory, He will banish the “accursed” goats from His presence, sending them into the furnace of “the eternal fire...prepared for the devil and his angels.” There they will experience ongoing, conscious “wailing” and “weeping” and “gnashing...teeth” in the of agony of “eternal punishment.”5 This, we argued, is the plain, ordinary sense of Jesus’ teaching on Hell.
Further, we learned that Jesus’ own teaching dovetails perfectly with John’s description of the same event. At the end of the age the devil is “thrown into the lake of fire” where he “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” All those who worship the beast and his image, along with all those whose names are not found in the book of life, suffer the same fate—“tormented with fire” with “no rest day and night”—in the same place, “the lake of fire.”6 Again, this is the ordinary and natural reading of John’s description of Hell’s punishing flames.
There is more to the story, though, some say. Conditionalists—those who hold to the annihilation of the wicked at the judgment—insist that Jesus’ and John’s descriptions be interpreted in light of other passages, texts they think give an entirely different picture. Fair enough. We’ll take a look. First, though, some basic rules of order.
A Point on Procedure
Both conditionalists and traditionalists read the same biblical texts but come to different conclusions about what those passages mean. Is there a way to judge fairly between diverse interpretations offered by equally sincere people who all share a high view of Scripture? We think there is.
According to Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, a standard text on the craft of interpreting the Bible,7 “God intended the Bible to function...as a window into the worlds and meanings of the authors...,”8 and, “The writers...of the Bible intended to communicate to their readers in the same way people normally communicate [emphases added].”9 These are common-sense notions everyone in this discussion is committed to.
Our goal when interpreting any communication, then, is to determine an author’s intended meaning using the ordinary conventions of language. Here’s where the basic “rules of order”—a handful of equally common-sense interpretive principles—come into play. We suggest three.
First, “Each statement must be understood according to its natural meaning in the literary context in which it occurs.”10 Simply put, context is king. The meaning of any text is derived from the flow of thought in the immediate context of a passage without reference to any other books—or, especially, another Testament—if the contextualized meaning itself is straightforward. As some have put it, “If the plain sense makes common sense, don’t add any other sense to it.”
Second, “The correct interpretation of Scripture is the meaning required by the normal meaning of the words in the context in which they occur [emphasis added].”11 Most words are equivocal (having multiple possible meanings) rather than univocal (having only one meaning). This rule says that we let the text tell us the specific meaning from the range of meanings of any word or phrase.
Our first two rules are consistent with our common-sense approach to ordinary communication. The third is unique to the Bible: “Biblical teaching in earlier parts of the Bible...are developed and enlarged in later revelation...In some instances, God reveals His truth progressively [emphasis added].”12
Often, the first word is not the complete story. Later revelation gives us the fullest picture, the most complete characterization. Consequently, “where earlier revelation has progressively prepared the way for later formulation of God’s truth, we must give priority to the later [emphasis added].”13 Put simply, the final word is the last word.
These three well-established, standard principles of hermeneutics are not controversial and comprise basic canons of biblical interpretation. They are the rules everyone follows to get the meanings right. We are looking for 1) the common-sense meaning of a passage, in light of 2) the meanings of the words as the authors use them in context, while 3) being sensitive to the flow of progressive revelation where later writers provide more clarity to our doctrine.
With those ground rules in place, it’s time to look at a central argument of the conditionalists: the language of death and destruction.
Dead and Gone?
Let’s go directly to the heart of the conditionalists’ complaint, what might be called the “vocabulary of destruction.” Note Clark Pinnock:
The Bible repeatedly uses the language of death, destruction, ruin, and perishing when speaking of the fate of the wicked. It uses the imagery of fire consuming (not torturing) what is thrown into it. The images of fire and destruction together strongly suggest annihilation rather than unending torture...Does the burden of proof not rest with the traditionalists to explain why the strong impression of the destruction of the wicked that the Bible gives its readers should not just be believed? 14
Edward Fudge—who some consider the father of the modern conditionalist movement—writes, “The Old Testament utilizes some 50 Hebrew words and 75 figures of speech to describe the ultimate end of the wicked—and every one sounds...like total extinction.”15 The venerable John Stott weighed in with, “It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed.”16
The point sounds compelling at first glance, but note D. A. Carson’s important observation:
Stott’s conclusion...is memorable, but useless as an argument, because it is merely tautologous: of course those who suffer destruction are destroyed. But it does not follow that those who suffer destruction cease to exist. Stott has assumed his definition of “destruction” in his epigraph. [Carson’s emphasis.]17
Do not miss Carson’s meaning. Treating “destruction” words (et al.) as if they had only one meaning (the conditionalists’ meaning) is not an argument, but question-begging (Carson’s “tautology”18). His point applies equally to Fudge’s references and to Pinnock’s “strong impression of the destruction of the wicked.” So here’s our question. Do those words mean total destruction, that is, complete non-existence—annihilation—as conditionalists conclude? They do not—at least, not necessarily, and that is the key.
“Destroy,” for example, does not always mean loss of being, but often means loss of well-being, as New Testament scholar Douglas Moo demonstrates:
The key words for “destroy” and “destruction” can also refer to land that has lost its fruitfulness (olethros in Ezek. 6:14; 14:16); to ointment that is poured out wastefully and to no apparent purpose (apoleia in Matt. 26:8; Mk. 14:4); to wineskins that can no longer function because they have holes in them (apollymi in Matt. 9:17; Mk. 2:22; Lk. 5:37); to a coin that is useless because it is “lost” (apollymi in Lk. 15:9); or to the entire world that “perishes,” as an inhabited world, in the Flood (2 Pet. 3:6). In none of these cases do the objects cease to exist; they cease to be useful or to exist in their original, intended state.19
This way of understanding “death” and “destruction” comports completely with our common-sense use of those notions. In fact, most of the time we do not use them to mean “cease to exist.” If a tornado destroys a house, the debris remains but is useless for its intended purpose as a suitable shelter. If bad news “destroys” our vacation, the enjoyment is gone, but the holiday labors on. If cancer kills a patient, the body remains even though some part of that person has “passed away.” Some part has gone elsewhere, which is precisely what the biblical record teaches (e.g., Lk. 23:43).
To be destroyed or to suffer death or to be “wiped out” or to “be no more” or any of its other equivalents does not mean to vanish. In the Bible, destruction language is not synonymous with nonexistence.
Here is the problem. Conditionalists jump to passages in the Old Testament describing the destruction of the wicked, yet consistently fail to make the distinction between earthly destruction and eternal nonexistence. Pinnock writes:
Consider Psalm 37 where we read that the wicked fade like grass and wither like the herb (v. 2), that they will be cut off and be no more (v. 9-10), that they will perish and vanish like smoke (v. 20), and be altogether destroyed (v. 38).20
However, in this very Psalm (like many others), David contrasts the earthly fate of the wicked with the earthly fate of the righteous. Verse 9 simply says, “For evildoers will be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land.”
Being “cut off” does not mean finally and irreversibly annihilated. It means to be killed. In Exodus God refers to Jews being “cut off from the earth” through pestilence (9:15). Sabbath breakers were to be “cut off from among God’s people” (Ex. 31:14)—executed, that is (cf. Num. 15:32-36). Indeed, Daniel tells us “the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing” (9:26).
David continues, “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there” (Ps. 37:10). The wicked are gone from their place. That’s all. Pinnock’s passage does not teach that they cease to exist. It doesn’t address that issue. That is not David’s intention.
Examples like this are legion. “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more” (Ps. 104:35), or, “He has utterly destroyed them. He has given them over to slaughter. So their slain will be thrown out, and their corpses will give off their stench...” (Is. 34:2-3), or, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land...” Gen. 6:7.
The wicked are physically destroyed. Their bodies are blotted out and their cities vanish in the smoke of judgment. That is the plain sense of these passages. That is the intended meaning, in the context. That and no more.
Here we return to one of our core hermeneutical rules of order. Everything hinges on how “destruction” words were treated by the original authors. Check any Old Testament text cited to support annihilation and ask if the author is principally describing the physical, earthly perspective, or is he unequivocally describing the eternal fate of the wicked. 21
Contrary to the conditionalists’ view, death and destruction and nonexistence simply are not interchangeable terms in these texts. It does not matter how many Old Testament examples there are—thousands, even—if the entire lot of them is compromised in exactly the same way. Nothing can be inferred about the eternal state of the wicked from statements that focus on temporal punishment. That must be determined on other grounds.
Do any Scriptures address the eternal fate of the wicked? Yes, they do, with clarity.
Dead and Away
Scripture uses destruction language to describe eternal judgments, too. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matt. 10:28). Does Jesus mean annihilation? He doesn’t say, but Paul does.
Paul offers a clear picture of the nature of eternal destruction in 2 Thess. 1:9. He says that at the coming of Christ the wicked “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power...”
Once again we have destruction language, but notice the qualifier. The apostle uses spatial language. A nonexistent being can have no spatial relationship to God. Those who do not exist are not “away” in any sense.
Earlier in this passage (v. 6) Paul also says it is “just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” The punishment is in kind—affliction for affliction. Affliction is felt and banishment is experienced. Both require conscious existence. None of this can happen with annihilationism.
Additionally, Paul’s destruction/banishment language fits like a glove with Jesus’ and John’s own characterization of the damned who are told to “depart” who are “cast out” and “thrown out” and “go away into eternal punishment” and are “thrown into” the lake of fire.22
Because they are banished, the wicked are “destroyed,” that is, ruined for their original purpose of eternal friendship with God. Destruction isn’t eternal annihilation; it’s eternal alienation—total and everlasting separation from God.
There is complete harmony with each of these texts. Not surprisingly, these details come from the New Testament, completely in keeping with our rule regarding progressive revelation. The Old Testament gives us part of the picture; the New Testament provides the rest.
How do conditionalists respond? Since it’s difficult to take exception with the plain sense of 2 Thess. 1:9 read in context, conditionalists contest the translation. They contend the Greek should not be rendered “away from” but rather “comes from,” that God’s presence is the source of the destruction with nothing said about location. Note conditionalist Pere Grice: “The conditionalist reading is that the glorious presence and power of the Lord causes the punishment of destruction, which is everlasting because it is God’s permanent judgment.”23
This simply will not work. Virtually all modern translations render the Greek as “away from,” “separated from,” or “shut out from” for good reason. Paul quotes Is. 2:10 here. In the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Paul is probably quoting from here—the Greek is almost identical. Isaiah describes the wicked hiding “from the terror of the Lord and from the splendor of His majesty.” That’s spatial language. The translators have not erred.
There is no safe harbor for conditionalists with this move. Paul speaks clearly. The plain sense of the passage makes common sense. No need to add any other sense to it.
Life and Death
Conditionalists frequently make what they think is an obvious point: Christians live forever (i.e., have eternal life) and the dead die forever (i.e., cease to exist). They say that on the traditionalists’ view, though, the “dead” don’t die, and the wicked get eternal life.
Note how conditionalists have expressed their concerns: “Eternal life is made possible and received only through Christ”24 and, “Everlasting life is existence that continues without end, and everlasting death is destruction without end,”25 and, “The word ’death’ has in Scripture its natural meaning of the extinction of life”26 or the “end of existence,”27 and, “It would be hard to imagine a concept more confusing than that of death which means existing endlessly without the power of dying.”28
These statements are an interesting mixture of both truth and confusion. First, the truth. We would never deny that eternal life is made possible only through Christ. We also can’t deny, for example, that “death is the cessation of life” or that “everlasting life is existence that continues without end.” Of course death means dying, just like “those who suffer destruction are destroyed.” We cannot take exception here either since both phrases are, once again, mere tautologies. Those observations take us nowhere. That’s part of the confusion.
The key issue for us is the biblical meanings of “death” and “eternal life” (as opposed to everlasting life). The idea that everyone exists forever does not mean, as one put it, “Everyone has eternal life!”29 That is not the way the biblical writers use that term.
So, what is the meaning the biblical authors employ for these words?
First, the phrase “eternal life” is a term of art—it has a specialized meaning in biblical use that is different from our ordinary understanding of the words. Jesus tells us, famously, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).
For Jesus, the point of eternal life was not the duration of existence, but the quality of relationship. Eternal life, then, is the Christian’s present, precious possession of an intimate friendship with God that never ends. This is Jesus’ definition, in context. It does not follow, though, that other human beings—the damned—do not have everlasting existence. Again, that must be determined on other grounds.
It is clear that John intends us to understand Jesus’ words this way, since he uses the same grammatical structure in other passages: “This is my commandment, that you love one another” (Jn. 15:12), and, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments” (2 Jn. 6), and, “The testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:11).30
In Scripture, eternal life simply is not a synonym for “everlasting existence,” so it is a mistake to force that meaning on it. Neither, as it turns out, does “death” mean non-existence. It refers, instead, to a kind of separation. In physical death the soul is separated from the body, so the body expires, but the soul lives on. In spiritual death the person is estranged from God, but the person lives on.
In the garden, God told Adam and Eve, “In the day that you eat from [the tree] you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Clearly, though, they did not die physically on the day they disobeyed. They “died” in a different way. Their relationship with God was severed. Separation of man from relationship with God is what God Himself calls a death.
This concept of separation fits the biblical teaching of both life and death in our relationship to God. In the New Testament, those who do not know God are spiritually “dead in...transgressions and sins,” even though they may be physically alive (Eph. 2:1). Conversely, Christians are “alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5), even though they may be physically dead (like the martyrs in Rev. 6:10-11). This biblical understanding of death and life also meshes perfectly with Rom. 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And if “death” does not mean destruction in the sense of annihilation, then “everlasting death” does not mean everlasting annihilation. That meaning must also be determined on other grounds.
There are many other examples such as this, but these are adequate to answer the only question that matters regarding the conditionalists’ concern: Are the terms “death” and “eternal life” as used in the Bible synonymous with annihilation and everlasting existence, respectively? Clearly the answer is no. So, again, it is a mistake to force those meanings on them to justify conditionalism.
Put simply, the classical view fits the plain sense and the common sense, so far, of all of the passages in question. Therefore, there is no need to strain at finding any other sense (e.g., conditionalism/annihilationism). That move is an artificial one, considering the author’s meaning in those texts.
In “Hell Interrupted Part 3,” we will look closely at the book of Revelation, which presents—by the conditionalists’ own admission—the most powerful evidence for the traditional view. Consistent with the pattern of progressive revelation, the final word will be the last word. (The third and final installment on this issue will be posted online in the near future.)