Why Are Evangelicals Casting The Doctrine of Eternal, Conscious Torment Into The Lake of Fire?

I do not have any statistics. What I am saying is a bit experiential and anecdotal, but it seems that more evangelical Christians are becoming amenable to the doctrine of annihilationism. It does not seem to have the negative stigma around young people that it does to the older generation. This might be a testimony against annihilationism – those silly, emotional millennials are willing to compromise anything. But in the book Two Views of Hell: A Biblical And Theological Dialogue, Edward Fudge presented an alternative point of view, representing the annihilationist position against his traditional opponent, Robert Peterson. Why are evangelicals casting the doctrine of eternal, conscious torment into the lake of fire? Fudge thinks that the answer is simply that they have taken a fresh look at the biblical data without being constrained by their traditions.

Of course, typically when people think about annihilationism and contemplate why others would be amenable to it, an obvious emotional reason emerges. Annihilationism is the doctrine that after the final resurrection, God will annihilate those who did not put their trust in the Son. They will cease to exist. This seems easier to handle than Jonathan Edward’s Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God; the idea that God keeps sinners alive and torments them for eternity seems unthinkable. Yet we do not want to be guilty of the Arminian fallacy, standing in judgment over God, so this issue will have to be resolved by Scripture. I appreciated that Fudge did not issue any contemptible arguments accusing God of injustice. Instead, he offered a few good reasons to think that the final judgment will be an annihilation of the wicked.

Sound The Alarms!

Alarms are sounded in the event of an emergency. There is an imminent threat to those in the vicinity. The alarms will alert the people of inclement weather, a fire, or an attack. In this case, the alarms are more proverbial. Often within evangelicalism, when a tradition is challenged, the defender of that tradition will start to sound the proverbial alarms. Everything is at stake. If you give an inch, you give a mile. Of Fudge’s view of annihilationism, Peterson concludes, “Nothing less than orthodox Christology is at stake.” That seems like a heavy warning to let the audience know to stay away – do not let this man lead you astray.

Peterson is not the only author to mount this sort of argument. Evangelical scholars who have rightly earned the respect of the masses for their legitimate scholarship and contributions to the body of Christ have sounded the alarm bells to prevent people from thinking about these issues. We cannot even give annihilationism a hearing. If we do, it will interfere with central Christian doctrines, such as orthodox Christology. While Robert Peterson has earned the respect of the Reformed Community and I appreciate his contribution to the body of Christ, I do not think we should let him near the alarm bells. We can reflect upon this issue without those blares distorting our thoughts.

The Wage of Sin Is Death

There is a sense in which the doctrine of annihilation is obvious, argues Fudge. For throughout the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New, we see the fate of the wicked. They will perish, be destroyed, devoted to destruction, and so on. Even what is probably the most quoted text in the Bible, John 3:16, says that the wicked will “perish,” while those who are saved will have “eternal life.” Fudge made the point that we should not apply “strange meanings” to these words. Take them as they literally are, and you will get annihilationism. The wicked perish, period.

Yet while the Bible does say that the wicked will be consumed, that cities were devoted to destruction, that the generation of Noah was destroyed, Peterson pointed out that these passages are perfectly consistent with eternal, conscious torment. Annihilationism is not obvious. There are just two levels of punishment. The earthly punishment comes first (namely, death), and the final punishment comes later. To say that “devotion to destruction” entails annihilationism is to read annihilationism into the text.

I can understand how Peterson’s point would apply to some of the pertinent texts. But I do not know that it can make sense of the ones that speak of the destiny of the wicked. Throughout the Bible, the wicked perish and the righteous live. Yet everybody perishes. Paul tells us that “the wage of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). John tells us that the wicked will perish. I do not know that we should read anything other than the normal definitions of these words into the text. But doing that will entail annihilationism.

Death Will Be Defeated

World religions have always tried to solve the problem of death. Even those that say that it is an illusion will have to confront it. People see death all around them, pursuing their friends and family, and they know that their days are numbered. Many turn to religion just to find a resolution to this problem. Some turn to philosophies that seem to offer some solace. They might say that the hard reality is that death is coming and there is nothing that we can do to stop it. In Christianity, death is penal. It is what we deserve for our sin.

The gospel message is that Christ defeated death on the cross. Death came for Christ and Christ won. But his resurrection was the firstfruit of what is to come (1st Corinthians 15:20). All will be raised from the dead. Death is the final enemy that will be ultimately defeated (1st Corinthians 15:26). But when Revelation 21:8 says that the wicked will be cast into the lake of fire, it specifically refers to this as the second death. Since we are not applying strange meanings to the word death, we know that even the second death will be defeated.

How The Heck Can Hell Be Cast Into Hell?

In the KJV, Psalm 9:17 reads, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” On page 189 of Richard Longenecker’s Cosmology, he pointed out that in around 200 BC, the Hebrew word Sheol was substituted for the Greek word Hades, which would be more consistent with the traditional understanding that defines what most Christians believe Hell to be. Yet it does seem like an error to render Sheol as simply Hell because that is not how it is used throughout the Bible.

In Genesis 37:35, Jacob lamented the death of his son, saying that he wishes he could follow him into Sheol. Sheol comes for the good and the evil indiscriminately. Therefore it does not seem like a correct rendering to refer to Sheol as Hell. In fact, when the New Testament refers to Hades, it is almost certainly referring back to the grave rather than to the classical conception of Hell (the underworld).

In Revelation 1:8, Jesus tells his listeners that they should not fear because he has the keys to “death and Hades.” If you understand that as Hell, it might not make as much sense. But if you understand it as “death and the grave,” it will make sense. We see in his resurrection that he has the key to death and the grave. Further, in Revelation 20:14, John writes that death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire.

Surely Hell is not being cast into itself. It is more likely that the grave is being cast into the lake of fire. Therefore, when both the New and Old Testament refer to Hades (often rendered Hell), it is plausible to interpret it as “the grave.” I think that this simple fact will change how we view the afterlife. It disarms some of our basic assumptions (like that the classical conception of Hell is a constant point of reference in Scripture).

God Is A Consuming Fire

Fire is a common image throughout the Bible, and it is used equally against believers and unbelievers. For believers, it is a purifying fire. For unbelievers, it is a consuming and destructive fire. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah is burned with a hot coal and is purified. In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist says that Jesus will baptize you with fire. Of course, he is not referring to unbelievers only. Grammatically, he must be referring to the very same people that he is baptizing in water. That baptism of fire will be a threat to the unbelievers and purification to the believers (1st Corinthians 3:13-15).

The fire that is referred to throughout the Bible is therefore symbolic. The ‘eternal fire’ to which unbelievers are condemned is God himself, for God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). But what does this image depict? To answer that question, one will have to think of the function of a fire. A fire destroys. It does not sustain. If the eternal fire – God – consumes somebody, that person will be utterly destroyed.

Devoted To Destruction

I can understand how there would be room for hyperbole when the Israelites record their army’s victory. They could say that they devoted a city to destruction, not leaving a single person alive to suggest their utter triumph over the other force. It would be like saying, “The Yankees slaughtered the Red Sox!” (We can hope.) But there is no room for that kind of hyperbole when God devotes somebody to destruction because we are talking about the fate of an individual, and the wage of their sin is death.

The Bible refers to an everlasting destruction, which would be a destruction that one cannot come back from. Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, but it was rebuilt. The wicked will die and then rise again in the last day only to be destroyed once and for all. But if the wicked are kept alive, then it does not make sense to say that they have been destroyed. It would be a partial destruction that is never brought to completion.

The most that one could say is that it is a progressive destruction that extends into eternity. But even that will not suffice. Since the destruction must progress into eternity, then no matter how much time that passes, the person suffering in Hell will be no more close to completion than when they first began. Eternal, conscious torment is therefore not an eternal destruction. It is not a destruction at all.

Did Jesus Suffer The Pains of Hell?

The death of Christ was a substitutionary death. It was the punishment for the sins of his people (Romans 3:21-25). If Christ died for his people, then one might argue that we should expect that there is a glimpse of Hell on the cross. Before assessing this argument, I want to point out that [1] it overthinks the issue a little too much and [2] it can cut both ways.

From the annihilationist perspective, the substitutionary death of the Christ seems to support annihilationism, because Christ did not suffer for all of eternity on the cross. From the traditionalist perspective, Christ experienced more than just death. He suffered a tortuous death. Therefore, those who die outside of Christ will also suffer tortuous deaths. Well, again, I think this overthinks the issue a little too much. But the main problem with this argument is that annihilationism allows for pain. There could be pain in the intermediate state (between the first death and the final resurrection), and there could be pain upon annihilation. Either way, it would seem that comparing the pain of cross with the pain of Hell would better support annihilationism.

The Silver Bullet: Matthew 25:41-46

Throughout the Two Views of Hell, there was a repeated theme. Peterson kept harking back to one verse. When he wanted to fight off an interpretation of another verse or just wanted to bring a point home, he would remind the reader of Matthew 25:41-46. He would frequently say, “But that flies in the face of Matthew 25:46…” and “That interpretation is inconsistent with Matthew 25:46.” At one point, he even said that if Matthew 25:46 was the only verse about Hell, it would be enough to warrant belief in eternal, conscious torment. It is quite appropriate to refer to it as the silver bullet.

The text reads, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The word eternal is used twice in the sentence, both times in exactly the same way, so it is essential that we assign the same definition to both usages. If a punishment is eternal, then that means that the day after the judgment, the punishment will still be in effect. The punishment itself literally lasts forever. This would seem to be consistent with the view that the wicked will go to eternal, conscious torment. Yet it is also consistent with the annihilationist view. If it is literally a punishment that they cannot return from, then the punishment will remain in effect. It is an eternal punishment.

The Smoke of Their Torment Will Rise Forever And Ever – Revelation 14:11

I can understand how a reader, uninformed about the background of this verse, might think of eternal, conscious torment. There are several books of the Bible that might be more difficult for us to understand than they were for the original audience. The original audience will have been educated in the Law and the Prophets. They understand when idioms are used and phrases are borrowed from these old books. But in the era of the New Testament, we see these terms almost in a vacuum.

But in the book of Revelation, there are very few images that are not borrowed from the Old Testament. We need to look to the Old Testament to see how the author used a particular phrase because that will likely inform the author of Revelation. When John wrote 14:11, he was using an idiom that referred to destruction.

It is also used in Isaiah 34, as Isaiah spoke of God’s wrath against the nations. Isaiah writes, “It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.” After a nation is destroyed, the smoke rises forever – likely meaning that there is no coming back from the destruction. Isaiah 34 also uses images commonly included in depictions of Hell. Verse 9 speaks of sulfur and fire. It is pretty safe to say that like Isaiah, John was speaking symbolically. He was illustrating the destruction of the wicked in horrifying terms.

Lazarus And The Rich Man

In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Lazarus is at Abraham’s Side (this is how the Jews thought of Heaven), while the Rich Man was actually in the Grecian underworld, Hades, pleading with Abraham. There are a few obvious reasons that this does not inform our view of the fate of the lost. First and most obviously, the Rich Man is actually communicating with Abraham. He looked up from the underworld and he could literally see Abraham and Lazarus. Second, he was actually engulfed in flames, which as we have seen, is not to be taken literally. Third, if someone is engulfed in flames, water from Lazarus’s finger is not going to help. This story is a parable.

But even if it is not a parable and we grant that we should absolutely take it literally, it still does not establish eternal, conscious torment. It would establish that they go to the underworld during the intermediate state, between death and the final resurrection. At the final resurrection, then they would be annihilated. Whether you insist on a literal reading or you intelligently accept that this is a parable, this passage does not seem to challenge annihilationism.

Weeping, Gnashing Teeth, And Eternal Worms

Worms have been given the gift of eternal life. In Isaiah 66:24, the author writes, “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Look at the scattered bodies. The worm that eats these bodies will not die. The fire will not be quenched. They will be loathsome. None of this entails that they are still alive. In fact, if worms are eating your corpse, that entails that you are dead. When Jesus refers to the worm that never dies, it is probable that he had this text in mind.

Similarly, in reference to Hell, Jesus also referred to weeping and gnashing of the teeth. He is again making use of biblical imagery. On page 39 of Two Views of Hell, Fudge argues that weeping is a symbol of fear and misery. He argues that gnashing of the teeth is a symbol of rage. This is what the wicked will experience at the final judgment.

Satan Is Tormented Forever And Ever – Revelation 20:10

Revelation 20:10 is the only verse in all of Scripture that even mentions eternal conscious torment. There literally are no others. But it does make a pretty strong argument. Peterson put it something like this. Satan is tormented in the fires of Hell forever and ever. The wicked are destined for the same punishment as the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Therefore, the wicked will go to eternal, conscious punishment. This is probably the strongest argument from Scripture.

The problem is that Peterson is reading the text too literally. In the book of Revelation, John is using apocalyptic symbolism – much of what is drawn from the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near Eastern culture. There is a host of symbols in this very passage that make it plausible to read verse 10 as a symbol. In verse 13, the text says that “the sea gave up the dead that were in it.” Verse 14 says that “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.”

But death cannot be thrown anywhere. This is clearly meant to illustrate that death has been destroyed. That is what the lake of fire does. It destroys all who are cast into it. Satan, the beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire and they are destroyed. Verse 10 is just meant to illustrate the horror of falling into the hands of the living God.

Why Are Evangelicals Casting The Doctrine of Eternal, Conscious Torment Into The Lake of Fire?

Reading through this review, you would think that Fudge carried the day. But Peterson raised a few good points that are worth consideration. He defended his interpretation of ten verses and examined how Fudge’s annihilationism damages three other doctrines (including Christology). There were some points that I agreed with, especially regarding the existence of an intermediate state. I hope that illustrates the point that I am not officially declaring that I am an annihilationist. But I do not think the issue is settled nor do I think that we should be taken in by alarmist strategies. While I am not necessarily an annihilationist, I wanted to use this review as an opportunity to argue for annihilationism.

Of course I also know that the reason many evangelicals are casting eternal, conscious torment into the lake of fire is a more emotional reason. They are guilty of the Arminian fallacy. I understand that. I am truly not compelled by the emotional reasons. If there is a motivation like that within me, it is that eternal, conscious torment sounds a bit to much like mythology. It sounds like the Pagan underworld. It just does not sound like something that is real. But I acknowledge that this is not an argument. In summary, what we have covered is:

‌• There is no reason to be alarmed by annihilationism
‌• If the wage of sin is death, then the final punishment will be death
‌• We should not apply strange definitions to the word ‘death’
‌• Death will be defeated. The ‘second death’ will therefore be defeated
‌• The way that we think about Hell may be determined by the poor rendering of Sheol as Hell
‌• The images of Hell, such as fire, weeping, worms, gnashing, etc., are idioms
‌• Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 are better interpreted within an annihilationist framework

Recommended Reading:
Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue
The Fire That Consumes by William Fudge

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