Traditionalism and Annihilationism in Light of the "Face Value" Meaning of Scripture

Face Value?I once had a discussion with a traditionalist over the meaning of a few key scripture passages. One thing that kept coming up was how my interpretations didn’t take the key phrase in the main verse at “face value.” I argued that the context of the verse made it clear what was meant, but this was not satisfactory for the one I was discussing the passage with. They explained to me how in each case I wasn’t allowing the plain meaning of a phrase to interpret the whole verse (and, by extension, other verses that are interpreted in light of it).
So what of the “face value” meaning of scripture? How important is it that our interpretations are consistent with what the scripture seems to plainly and literally say? Like most things there is a measure of tension here and a balance needs to be maintained. Cultists have been known to run with the idea that not all passages are meant to be taken at face value and have therefore ignored what scripture does clearly teach on core doctrines. But is the right response to insist that we must always take everything plainly and at “face value?”
Numerous good reasons can be given for why things aren’t always to be taken at face value. For one, we don’t take everything at face value in our everyday lives. We have idioms and hyperbole. We make veiled allusions to things in literature and politics and so on. In the case of scriptures there is all of the above plus the fact that it was written primarily to an audience in a totally different time and place with their own idioms and language and customs and history, as well as quotations from and allusions to Old Testament passages in the New Testament scriptures. Even if God did always reveal things in plain, simple language (and he didn’t), what we interpret as the “face value” meaning of a passage may not be the meaning the original audience could have taken at face value. Other authors and bloggers have developed this point quite well.12
Now, one might still counter that God is not a God of confusion—one of the most abused biblical phrases, I believe—and therefore he would surely speak in a way that any layman could take at face value today as easily as his original audience could. After all, the Bible is still his revealed word, even thousands of years later. However, even if out of dogma and presupposition we ignore all of the factors brought up above, as well as plenty of others—like the fact that most people don’t know ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic and therefore need scholars just to be able to read the Bible, never mind understand it—we can see in practice when we look at what the Bible says that not everything is to be taken plainly and at face value. Traditionalists are not the only ones who can take passages at face value when looking at the Bible’s teaching on hell. It is true that annihilationists don’t take every relevant passage at face value,3 but this is hardly the case with all relevant passages. This whole argument, that traditionalism is better because of the face value meaning of the Bible, falls apart when one demonstrates just what happens when we take everything in the Bible at face value.4
Traditionalists have to explain, for example, how lost humans will always be sentient beings when the Bible says that God “destroys” both body and soul in hell. (The same goes for numerous passages that speak of the lost being doomed to “destruction.”)5 Now, one might quibble over what “destroy” means, but just think about what would happen if you asked a bunch of lay Christians on the street if they thought God would “destroy” souls in hell. They would probably all give a resounding no, since the soul is immortal, they believe. With some irony, however, Plato, who taught that all souls were totally immortal and indestructible, used the same Greek word translated as “destroy” in to describe what cannot happen to a soul.6
The traditionalist must also explain how, if God reduces the wicked to ashes at judgment,7 the lost can continue to exist in torment. At face value ashes are not conscious; and, since body and soul are both destroyed in hell,8 it isn’t just the body being destroyed and liberating the soul to then suffer more, or something like that. This point is expressed in picture and analogy as well,9 and being compared to burnt up plants hardly sounds like eternal torment when taken at face value.
Furthermore, at face value, being warned of “death” in contrast to “life” certainly doesn’t sound like eternal conscious existence either, given what death appears to be, at face value. One might argue that death means separation; but even if that were the case—and I address this in The Bible Teaches Annihilationism and probably will again in a future post—using this technical, theological meaning (of a word which outside the Bible means something quite different) is hardly taking it at face value. If you asked a lay Christian whether or not the soul ever dies, you would again find a resounding no. (Although apparently nobody told James; see .) Rather it is believed that “every human being ever born lives forever.”10 The traditional view is said to be more righteous than annihilationism because it allows the wicked “to continue living in a state with a low quality of life.”11 Thus we have the old cliché that we read on the occasional license plate and hear every once in a while in church: “Everybody lives forever somewhere.”
Interestingly, in light of , as well as Paul’s references to “destruction,” Alice K. Turner determines that Paul didn’t believe that sinners go to “hell” but that he held to “annihilation theory.”12 Now, one might say we should not be getting our theology from an unbeliever such as Alice Turner, and I would agree whole-heartedly. But I don’t cite Turner because I think she accurately preaches the Bible; I cite her because if there is one thing that unbelievers tend to be quite good at it is reading the Bible at face value. After all, if one assumes that Christianity is false and the Bible was just a bunch of made-up contradictory stories written by backwards and simple-minded ancients, then one has no reason to look any deeper than what the text says at face value.
At face value, death and destruction don’t mean conscious ruin. It is not hard to see annihilationism all over the Bible, if we are to take all of those passages at face value. Taken at face value, a lot of passages would seem to place annihilationists in a very good position.
Regarding final punishment again, it is also true that when taken at face value the Bible not only seems to teach eternal torment in places and annihilationism in others but it also teaches that everyone will be saved! God desires that all men be saved.13 He desires that none perish.14 Surely God gets what he wants! Also, all men are made alive in Christ just as they all died in Adam.15 Jesus is the propitiation for the whole world,16 the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.17 God is reconciling all things to himself.18 Universalists also take a lot of passages at face value, but that doesn’t make them right.
Furthermore, this goes beyond discussions of final judgment to all sorts of other topics. At face value, the Bible teaches that Jesus isn’t God! What does Jesus say to the Father when praying to him in Gethsemane? “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”19 There is only one true God, and Jesus is someone in addition to that one true God. At face value the Bible also teaches that God is a human (before and outside of the incarnation). After all, he has arms,20 hands,21 and a face.22 Mormonism doesn’t get its crazy and ridiculous ideas about God out of thin air. Interestingly, God also has wings.23 At face value, Jesus was hung on a tree, not killed on a cross.24 At face value, the sun revolves around the earth,25 an earth which is not a sphere but a flat quadrilateral!26 Nobody can take scripture at face value all of the time, which is okay; God gave us reason for a reason.

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  1. D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996) 103-105 []
  2. Allison Quient, “Clear Meaning or Simplistic Interpretation?,” Allison’s Blog, July 31, 2012, http://allisonquient.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/clear-meaning-or-simplistic-interpretation/ []
  3. e.g. ; []
  4. Examples and portions excerpted from “The Bible Teaches Annihlationism,” by Joseph Dear []
  5. []
  6. Jay Guin, “Surprised by Hell: Plato and the New Testament,” One in Jesus [Blog]. August 12, 2008, http://oneinjesus.info/2008/08/surprised-by-hell-plato-and-the-new-testament/ []
  7. []
  8. []
  9. ; []
  10. John MacArthur, “The answer to life’s greatest question, Part 1,” Sermon, Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, August 24, 2003). []
  11. Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 173. []
  12. Alice K. Turner. The History of Hell (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 52. Note: Turner incorrectly cites as . []
  13. []
  14. []
  15. []
  16. []
  17. []
  18. []
  19. , ESV []
  20. []
  21. []
  22. []
  23. []
  24. []
  25. []
  26. []

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

4:1  “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.

17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.

15 And the Lord will utterly destroy
the tongue of the Sea of Egypt,
and will wave his hand over the River
with his scorching breath,
and strike it into seven channels,
and he will lead people across in sandals.

20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”

for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.

The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.