Someone recently brought my attention to the fact that Chris Rosebrough of Pirate Christian Radio and “Fighting for the Faith” recently offered some criticisms of my summary of the positive biblical case for annihilationism in episode 4. Here are my thoughts on the criticisms, which, so it seems to me, go the way of many scurvy criticisms that came before – straight to Davy Jones’ locker.
In the positive biblical case for annihilationism, there are three fairly simple arguments. Firstly there’s the biblical argument from immortality. Scripture teaches that human beings are mortal and that death would be our final destiny were it not for Christ, who came into the world so that people would not perish but have everlasting life. But immortality is only ever promised as a gift to those who are saved by God. It follows that supposing anyone will be lost (as I do, since I think the biblical evidence against universalism is strong), they will lose life itself forever, since immortality is found through Christ alone.
The second biblical argument I used is the biblical vision of eternity. On a number of occasions the biblical writers give us hints of what eternity will look like. Not in great detail (they couldn’t tell us what they didn’t know for themselves of course), but in broad strokes, the biblical picture of eternity is that it will not contain any evil. All traces of sin will be gone, all people everywhere will submit themselves to Christ, and God will, to use a biblical phrase, be “all in all.” But clearly if the traditional view of hell is correct, this would be false, since sinners would still be sinners, and hence sin would still be a part of creation forever. Annihilationism, however, affirms the biblical view that evil will be no more in eternity.
Thirdly and lastly, I pointed listeners to the biblical language of destruction. In countless passages of Scripture, the biblical writers use clear language to state that a time is coming when the lost will be destroyed. All kinds of language are drawn upon by biblical writers to make this point: They will die, be destroyed, be blotted out, they will not stand, they will become as lifeless as the idols they worship, they will be punished with everlasting destruction, they are compared to weeds that are burned up in a furnace, we are warned of the raging fire that will consume the enemies of God, they will die a second death, and so on. There is a sheer wall of evidence comprised of a large volume of biblical texts indicating that the biblical writers viewed the final fate of God’s enemies to be complete and irreversible destruction.
So how does Chris Rosebrough address this substantial case? Sorry, me hearty, but this response is going to have to walk the plank.
Let’s start with the biblical argument for immortality. This one, although not about passages that speak on the subject of hell, is fairly vital. When we get to the passages that do speak about final judgement, the way that we read them should be informed by a biblical worldview. One of the aspects of that worldview is that we are ultimately bereft of life without God, and that God alone is immortal. God will give immortality only to those who find favour with him. And yet in spite of the foundational nature of the question of immortality, Rosebrough’s major response is largely to urge people to ignore these passages as irrelevant, as though they don’t relate to our topic at all. For example, when considering Genesis 3, when human beings were consigned to die and return to the dust because of their sins, Rosebrough asks what the topic of the text is. “Is it damnation?” he asks. He adds “it’s the consequence of sin, but is it talking about the eternal fate of the damned?” Declaring that it is not, he effectively dismisses the passage on the grounds that “that’s not the topic.” This is quite clearly to avoid taking the argument seriously. Of course damnation in the sense of consignment to eternal torment isn’t the topic of the text. After all, it’s my contention that no passage of Scripture has that as its topic! But the point is that the passage clearly speaks to the fate of sinners as being—unless God acts to save them—banishment from God’s presence, and ultimately, death. Granting that there may be an “allusion” to the fate of sinners here, Rosebrough says that since it’s only an allusion the meaning of the passage is therefore “unclear.” So, we really shouldn’t place much weight on it, he suggests, and should instead interpret it consistently with how he interprets other passages of Scripture.
But there were other passages in favour of this argument too. Proverbs 12:28 for example claims that immortality is to be found in the path of righteousness. But Rosebrough again claims that this passage isn’t even on the same topic as the one I am addressing, since the topic is not “damnation.” At this point the listener starts to get the sinking feeling that Rosebrough hasn’t appreciated the purpose of the argument. The point is not that these are passages that go out of their way to speak about hell or final judgement, and that they do so by stating that those who go to hell will not have immortality. This is an argument to an understanding of hell from foundational biblical considerations. And one of those considerations – surely a relevant one – is that although the Bible does speak of people being able to obtain immortality, that fate is bound up which God – and according to this proverb, with being on the path of righteousness. If the lost do not have immortality, then it follows that they do not live forever in hell. So dismissing the evidence on the grounds that the passages do not state anything directly about final punishment misses the point. It is also hard to see why Rosebrough diagnoses the clear/unclear status of this text by simply claiming “it’s unclear.” In what way is it unclear. Is it because Rosebrough is uncertain about what “righteousness” is, or uncertain about what “immortality” is. If neither, how is it unclear?
For some reason Rosebrough lays great stress here on the fact that the term “immortality” in the NIV is translated from the Hebrew , which literally means “no dying” (not quite “no death” as Rosebrough claims, that would be `al-muth). Why this has any significance is unclear, for as Rosebrough is surely aware, this is how the New Testament term for immortality is constructed as well. To be “immortal” in New Testament Greek is to be athanatos, literally “without death” (a is a prefix that means “without” and thanatos is the Greek word for death). Similarly the Greek word for immortality, athanasia, literally means “not dying.” It should not surprise us, then, that the Hebrew phrase `al-moeth, “no dying” is likewise translated as “immortality.” Trying to give the impression that this is improper by appealing to the Hebrew here really does look a bit like someone without a firm grasp of the language bolstering his case by referring to it. Things only get worse when Chris speaks to a member of the audience and directly claims that “the NIV doesn’t get at what it says in the original language.” In fact it does. To live and never die is precisely what immortality consists of.
Chris then turns to 2 Timothy 1, where the writer says in verse 10 that Christ has abolished death and “has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” Predictably, Chris places this text in the “off-topic” category, because it isn’t about “damnation.” As already noted, this is simply a mistake. The point here is that the biblical teaching about immortality can inform our understanding of damnation, because as Chris was fond of reminding his audience – no passage of Scripture is going to teach directly against another. Almost incredibly, Chris’s next question is whether or not immortality is spoken of in this text as something that is conditional, and his immediate answer is “No.” Moreover, he says, this passage “is not clear at all” on what implications it might have for our understanding of final punishment. I have to wryly observe that the sudden case of “wow, this passage is so unclear” that seems to sweep over Chris whenever someone observes how the passage points away from Chris’s theology of hell. The fact is, the passage quite plainly does point to immortality being conditional, for it is brought to light through the Gospel. And contrary to Chris’s denial, the passage likewise has at least one fairly clear implication when it comes to eternity: Those who partake in the Gospel will have it. Those who do not, will not. Lastly, Chris points out that the Greek term here aphtharsia is not the standard term for immortality, athanasia (although he does not mention the latter). True enough, but as he will be aware, it is perfectly capable of meaning immortality, and when placed in parallel to “life” here, it almost certainly means this, as virtually all of our translations indicate.
Next Rosebrough comes to 1 Corinthians 15, that great passage on the resurrection which says that God’s people will be raised immortal, glorious, in power and so on. Yet again, he starts out by asking if this passage refers to “the damned,” and again the answer is “no – but you’re missing the point.” Likewise, he repeats his familiar refrain that the passage is just “not clear” on what it has to say about the eternal state. This is a shame, because the implications are fairly straightforward: The only time the New Testament ever talks about human beings being immortal, it is right here, in a passage that Chris acknowledges to be about the fate of the saved. This is how people receive immortality, and the cumulative picture we have seen in Scripture is that there isn’t another way. It’s a gift of God or nothing at all.
Apparently skipping over the argument grounded in the biblical vision of eternity, Rosebrough moves on to the argument from the biblical language of destruction. Chris admits the inevitable – there are many, many passages of Scripture that describe the fate of the lost as destruction. He starts at the deep end, in Matthew 10:28, where Jesus warns of God’s ability to “destroy the body and soul in hell.” His first refuge here is a lexicon (although I’m not sure which one). The lexicon he cites provides a range of possible meanings, and Chris notes that in the active voice it means “destroy” or “ruin.” But imagine my surprise when in his next breath he makes the staggering claim that in the Greek there is “no room” for the possibility that the word means “cease to exist.” What? Firstly, who used the phrase “cease to exist”? Not me. Secondly, for someone who speaks a lot about following the rules of grammar, this is a doozie. “Destroy” is the active voice. To “cease to exist” would be the passive, or at least the middle. So why is Rosebrough now talking about what the middle or passive voice (allegedly) cannot mean when the passage he has just quoted from uses the active voice? Does he know that it was the active voice? It would appear not. And then, instead of comparing one biblical usage with another – a practice he elsewhere appears to endorse – he then breaks away to talk about his children playing Mario Kart, where one claims that they “destroyed” the other. He also drives home the point that he genuinely does not understand the annihilationist point of view, when he makes comparisons about a car being destroyed by being crashed into a tree, and yet not immediately ceasing to exist. He claims on this basis that “that’s what apollumi here is getting at.” But this is no way to do exegesis of Scripture.
In fact, this is yet another example of traditionalists employing what has been called the “illegitimate totality transfer,” where they pick up a lexicon, observe that a range of meaning exists for a word, and then imagine (incorrectly) that they were entitled to decide for themselves which of those meanings they will find in a passage of Scripture that uses it. The fact is, every time the word apollumi is used in the active voice in the synoptic Gospels to describe the actions of one person or agent against another (I say “agent” because it is once used of the actions of an evil spirit this way), it always refers to a very literal death – not just ruin or loss of function. Proper preparation would have alerted Rosebrough to this fact, which has been pointed out before here at Rethinkng Hell.
This kind of error is made all the more painful given that Rosebrough, in his next example, states that he knows that this methodology is an error. Jesus called people to seek out the narrow way that leads to life, because the path to destruction is broad. Here too the word for “destruction” in Matthew 7:13 (apoleian) is a noun from the apoleia word group (just as apollumi is the major verb in that group), as Rosebrough notes, and here he says that it is “possible” for the word to mean literal destruction as the annihilationists mean that term. For this reason it is remarkable that he claims that there is literally “no room” for the verb form, apolullimi, to convey this meaning. The relationship between apoleia and apollumi is just like the relationship between the English words “destruction” and “destroy.” But he then goes on to make the very observation that he overlooked when looking at apollumi – the observation that the mere fact that one meaning exists within the semantic range of a word does not show that this is the intended meaning in any given instance of that word. Following this advice would have stopped him from illegitimately transferring the whole possible range of meanings for apollumi into Matthew 10:28, a maneuvre used to avoid the inference to literal destruction. But now he remembers the principle, and asks us how we can decide which nuance of meaning we should find in the word “destruction” in Matthew 7:13. Unfortunately, his answer isn’t even close. He says that every doctrine of Scripture will be laid out somewhere in Scripture in clear “non-figurative” language, and such texts should be the governing passages. One can only wonder how “figurative” Rosebrough thinks Matthew 7:13 is, but in any event, this provides him with the opportunity to introduce a straw man, asking: “Is there a passage that says, in clear didactic language, that when the evil are judged, that they will be destroyed and cease to exist?” The straw man is fairly obvious: Firstly Chris is drawing a distinction between being destroyed and ceasing to exist, as though my argument was about people being not merely killed or destroyed in a straight forward sense, but also having every atom pulverised out of existence – metaphysical annihilation! Yet clearly that was never my argument. I don’t believe I ever referred to people “ceasing to exist.” Death and destruction is what Scripture indicates, and the reality is that there are many texts that teach precisely this, including Matthew 10:28 and this one here in Matthew 7 – although others come to mind (including Romans 6:23 or the comparison to weeds burned up in a furnace). Chris becomes distracted at this point, but his implied answer is “no.”
Chris then moves into very familiar proof texts for eternal torment such as Matthew 25:46, Matthew 20:10 and others. Chris Date and I have already addressed many of these in episode 18 I note, however, with a sense of irony, that after emphasising that we need clear, didactic passages to guide us, Rosebrough hangs his strongest arguments on the apocalyptic imagery in the book of Revelation, arguably neither didactic nor clear! He tops off his argument with the clearly untrue claim that the early church fathers clearly and unanimously taught the doctrine of eternal torment. We know that this is simply not the case. The error here is that Rosebrough quotes fathers who simply quote biblical phrases like “eternal punishment,” committing the informal fallacy of begging the question. Clearly it is the meaning of these passages that is in dispute, so pointing out that the church fathers used these phrases is not evidence that they agreed with Rosebrough’s interpretation of them.
I won’t repeat the arguments that we made in Episode 18, but they address the effort that Rosebrough exerts to find the doctrine of eternal torment in Scripture, as does Chris Date’s Episode 7: Answering Traditionalist Objections. The point is just that Rosebrough’s attempt to undermine the biblical case for annihilationism is demonstrably weak. Often passages are simply dismissed as being “unclear” with no obvious good reason, effectively silencing their witness. Similarly, passages are dismissed as off-topic even though they clearly speak to issues that are foundational (most importantly, the question of immortality). Well-known fallacies of biblical interpretation are depended on at crucial junctures, preventing the evidence from speaking at all (so that, for example, the force of the many biblical passages that teach the destruction are simply blunted by selecting less likely meanings – while completely ignoring other passages that teach the destruction of the lost like the parable of the weeds or comparisons with the annihilation of Sodom), and double standards abound (e.g. appealing to sound principles about how to approach words with a range of meanings one moment, violating those principles the next moment, or demanding clear didactic passages one moment and depending heavily on apocalyptic imagery in the next). I appreciate that traditionalists are trying to take the annihilationist position more seriously, but the biblical resources to overturn the case are simply not there. I submit that even among Rosebrough’s audience, there will be those who hear the evidence and Rosebrough’s response to it, and who will be struck by a resounding “…wait a minute.”