Historically, traditionalists have not shied away from affirming their belief that the lost will rise from the dead immortal in the sense that they will live forever in hell. While some contemporary traditionalists are comfortable speaking this way, others are not. They appeal on the one hand to the longstanding dominance of their view of hell within the Church as a reason to be skeptical of alternatives, but on the other hand they claim that their predecessors were using biblically imprecise language. Their claim, however, does not hold up under scrutiny. Whether intentional or not, it only obfuscates the truth that their view is one in which the lost will, in fact, live forever—biblically speaking—thus failing to truly rescue it from the answer to the biblical question of immortality.
Second century traditionalist Tatian said that the lost will rise and “receive…the painful with immortality.” 1 A millennium and a half later, John Gill wrote that the lost “shall rise to life, to an immortal life, so as never to die more,” 2 and the Belgic Confession says the risen lost, “being immortal, shall be tormented.” 3 Even modern day stalwart of the traditional view, Robert Peterson, writes, “I believe in the immortality of human beings.” 4
Despite the Apostle’s teaching that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), 5 John Gill affirmed the immortality of the risen lost, saying that the body that rises “dies not again.” 6 John Wesley likewise said that after the resurrection, “neither the righteous nor the wicked were to die any more.” 7 According to Charles Spurgeon, rather than die again the lost will “live for ever in torment.” 8 Many contemporary traditionalists agree: John MacArthur says, “Every human being ever born lives forever;” 9 Greg Koukl and Christopher Morgan say, “everybody lives forever;” 10 Wayne Grudem writes that the lost will “live forever in hell;” 11 Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland write that the unsaved “will continue living in a state with a low quality of life.” 12
Some modern traditionalists, however, claim that this classical formulation of the traditional hell is imprecise and poorly worded. For example, Kenneth Boa and Rob Bowman write, “In popular explanations of hell, one often hears that people will live forever either in Heaven or Hell.” 13 (One might be forgiven for inferring that Boa and Bowman think this understanding of hell, while popular, is unsophisticated and unscholarly, but the numerous citations above demonstrate otherwise.) These authors continue, “This way of speaking of Hell is, we will argue, getting at something that is true but is not worded in the best way…the wicked will not ‘live’ forever in Hell,” 14 going on evidently to argue that the truth this way of speaking gets at is that the lost will consciously exist forever “in complete darkness, shattered beyond repair, separated forever from the presence of God, and cut off from his benevolence, his providential care, and his grace.” 15 Dr. Phil Fernandes likewise claims he doesn’t believe in the everlasting life of the lost, biblically speaking, adding in his debate with me that I am mischaracterizing the traditional view: “I do not believe the unsaved will live forever. Chris is misrepresenting the traditional position on this point.” 16 If Fernandes acknowledges that there is any sense in which the lost will live forever in hell, it is only in the sense that they will “exist forever in conscious torment.” 17
Of course, if I’m misrepresenting the traditional position, then so, too, were Gill, Wesley, Spurgeon, MacArthur, Koukl, Morgan, Grudem, Habermas and Moreland. But is it true that in the traditional view, the risen lost will not live forever in hell in biblical terms? Are Boa, Bowman and Fernandes right, and have traditionalists been sloppy in their characterization of their view? Or does this attempt to nuance the traditional view ultimately obfuscate the truth?
Answering the question first requires reiterating that the traditional view of hell is not one in which the dead bodies of the lost remain in their graves while their disembodied, immaterial souls live on in torment for eternity. Rather, their dead bodies will be resurrected at the judgment, which is why Jesus says God “can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28. Emphasis added). In fact, those bodies which had fully decomposed and those which had been completely burned up in cremation will be reconstituted as well. They will all rise, their hearts once again beating, their lungs once again breathing, their blood once again circulating, their muscles once again contracting—functions which characterize a living body and which cease when a body dies. As Spurgeon wrote,
at the day of judgment thy body will join thy soul…thy body from head to foot suffused with agony…thy head tormented with racking pains, thine eyes starting from their sockets with sights of blood and woe; thine ears tormented…Thine heart beating high with fever; thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony; thy limbs crackling like the martyrs in the fire, and yet unburnt; thyself, put in a vessel of hot oil, pained, yet coming out undestroyed; all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on; every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune of Hell’s Unutterable Lament; thy soul for ever and ever aching, and thy body palpitating in unison with thy soul. 18
These functions, which cease when a body dies, characterize a living body. It stands to reason, then, that when the body rises and these functions are restored, the body is once again alive, and if it continues in this fashion for eternity, then it lives forever.
This is, of course, what the English variations of “resurrection” mean. Though derived etymologically from a word that literally means only to “rise again,” when the state from which one is said to rise again is death, then the words mean to rise again to life. Hence, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “resurrect” as meaning “restore to life.” 19 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes the definition, “the rising again to life of all the human dead before the final judgment.” 20 Collins English Dictionary‘s first listed definition is, “a supposed act or instance of a dead person coming back to life .” 21 Critics might not accept the definitions given by English dictionaries since what is in dispute are the meanings of biblical words in their original languages and a corresponding theological concept. However, one should not too hastily dismiss the fact that virtually all English translations of the Bible use the word “resurrection” to refer to the dead rising to face judgment. 22
In any case, it’s not only English dictionaries that define resurrection as rising to life again. The Lexham Bible Dictionary begins its entry on “resurrection” by saying it refers to “A return to life after having died.” 23 The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary says, “A resuscitation, like that of Lazarus, is a return to life, but eventually physical death comes again. Those resurrected will not die again.” 24 According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “at the *Parousia or ‘Second Coming’ of Christ departed souls will be restored to a bodily life.” 25 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary defines “resurrection” as meaning “A rising to life from death.” 26
Breath and Life
It is highly unlikely that the editors of these theological dictionaries are in cahoots with the editors of secular dictionaries, attempting to deceive their readers into misunderstanding the meaning of resurrection. Nor are they being sloppy. Instead, they have a solid biblical basis for defining resurrection as life from the dead. The biblical picture of resurrection simply is life from the dead, and we see this in the prophets of the Old Testament. Consider these verses which open Ezekiel 37:
1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
Of course, this passage might not literally foretell anybody’s physical resurrection; it may instead foretell a future spiritual restoration of Israel, or some related, similar future reality. However, physical resurrection is being used as a symbol for a future spiritual reality, and is said to be a process which brings the dead back to life. The scattered bones of decomposed, formerly living bodies are explicitly called “dead.” The dead bones are reassembled, attached to and covered by reconstituted muscles and skin, but alas, their resurrection is not yet complete, for they do not yet have breath (v. 8). It is only once the bodies are breathing that their resurrection is complete and they are said to “live” (vs. 9-10).
This smokes the red herring often offered by traditionalists who say things like, “Hell’s Result is Endless Death, Not Ended Existence,” 27 and, “the unsaved will exist forever; but, that existence does not have the quality necessary for the Bible to refer to it as life.” 28 The bodies in Ezekiel’s vision had been fully recomposed; they existed. However, having not yet been given breath, they did not yet live. Traditionalists like Boa, Bowman and Fernandes are therefore equivocating since, though a corpse can exist while lacking life, in their view the lost will do far more than exist: they will live. So the debate between traditionalists and conditionalists is really about living forever versus ceasing to live, not “existing forever” versus ceasing to exist. And this passage in Ezekiel isn’t alone.
A Living Being
The Lord formed Adam’s body from the dust of the ground in Genesis 2:7. Adam existed, but he was not yet alive. It is not until God breathes the breath of life into Adam’s lifeless body that he becomes a “living creature.” At death, according to Ecclesiastes 12:7, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath returns to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7, NET). This is likely the intended meaning of James 2:26, which reads, “the body apart from the spirit is dead.” Though typically translated “spirit,” the Greek word is πνεῦμα (pneuma), the word used to translate “breath” in the Septuagint Greek translation of Ecclesiastes 12:7. In the Bible, breath and life go hand in hand, which is why Paul tells the men of Athens that God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). Together with these passages, the biblical picture of resurrection painted in Ezekiel 37, in which reconstituted bodies live once the breath of life returns to them, proves that the traditional view of hell is, indeed, one in which the risen lost live forever, biblically speaking. As traditionalist Daniel Block explains,
…the Hebrews looked on a human being as a unity, a nepeš ḥayyâ (“a living being”), so constituted by the infusion of divine life-breath into the physical matter (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). At death, which was viewed as the divine sentence for sin, the physical matter and life-giving breath divorce and the nepeš ḥayyâ dissolves (Job 34:14–15; Ps. 104:29; Eccl. 3:18–21; 12:7). It follows that any hope of victory over death and a beatific afterlife would require a reunion of the divorced components, which is exactly what Ezekiel envisions in 37:1–14. Admittedly, this is a visionary text, and the resurrection envisioned is that of the nation of Israel, but the rhetorical force of the prophecy depends on its correspondence to and/or basis in a general awareness (if not acceptance) of the idea.” 29
Block goes on to note the parallel here in Ezekiel to Daniel 12:2 in which both the righteous and the wicked rise to life. “Undoubtedly [Daniel] envisions a picture such as that presented by Ezekiel in 37:12–14, according to which Yahweh will open up the graves, infuse his people with his animating Spirit (rûaḥ), causing them to come back to life. According to this text, both righteous and wicked will rise from the dust.” 30 The lost will rise from the dust to life, their bodies reunited with the life-giving breath and animating Spirit of God, and in the view of Block and other traditionalists, will remain so reunited and reanimated for eternity. In their view, therefore, the risen lost live forever in this biblical sense of the word “live.”
Even when understood as referring to an immaterial, conscious part of man that lives on after the death of the body, James 2:26 indicates that a person’s body is dead when it’s separated from his or her spirit. At the resurrection, in which the spirits or souls of all mankind will be reunited with their risen bodies, the lost will therefore rise again to life. And if their bodies and spirits remain united eternally in torment, as traditionalists contend, then it follows that they will remain alive forever. As traditionalist John Blanchard writes, “the Bible says that just as life comes to the body when the spirit enters it, so death comes when the spirit leaves it. One of the clearest statements of this is that ‘The body without the spirit is dead’ (James 2:26),” 31 and because “the bodies of the dead [will be] reunited with their souls…human bodies, which were created to live in time, will be modified in some way to live in eternity. 32
Awake and Live
Like Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 26:19 is another passage in which physical resurrection is apparently used as a symbol for spiritual restoration. It, too, says resurrection entails coming back to life: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!…the earth will give birth to the dead.” To be resurrected is to awake from the dust, language found also in Daniel 12:2 in which both the righteous and the wicked awaken from their sleep in the dust of the earth, coming back to life. Jesus speaks of resurrection as waking from sleep in the same way in John 11:11, in which he says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” John clarifies that “Jesus had spoken of his death” (v. 13), and after Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb, “The man who had died came out” alive (v. 44). Matthew uses the analogy of sleep in the same way, saying that when Jesus died, “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt. 27:52).
To rise and awaken from death is, therefore, to come back to life. This is why God is said to be the only one able both to kill and to make alive again. The Lord says in Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive.” Hannah says in 1 Samuel 2:6, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” In 2 Kings 5:7, the king of Israel rhetorically asks, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” (The implied answer is no.) No wonder Jesus said that Lazarus’ resurrection was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). To rise up out of Sheol, the grave, awakened from sleep, is to be resurrected and live again. Since the traditional view does not entail the risen lost returning to sleep in the ground, it entails the everlasting life of the wicked in hell if we’re speaking biblically.
The Biblical Question of Immortality
In contrast to the traditional view, the Bible indicates that the fate of the lost is one in which they will not live forever. In Genesis 2:17 God tells Adam that if he eats from the forbidden tree, he would die. In our English translations, the warning reads, “in the day that you eat of [the tree] you shall surely die,” and this has led some to believe that there’s some spiritual sense in which Adam and Eve “died” on the day they ate that fruit. But even if that’s true, that’s only one aspect of the death God had warned about, for in Genesis 3:22-24, “Then the LORD God said, ‘…lest [the man] reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—‘ therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden” (emphasis added).
This could not have been to prevent Adam and Eve from living spiritually forever. Many traditionalists think Adam and Eve had already spiritually died the moment they disobeyed God, in which case at this point they no longer possessed a spiritual life capable of going on forever to begin with. If, on the other hand, they had not yet spiritually died, their banishment is not likely to have been intended to end their spiritual life “on the day” they ate of the fruit, either. It would make little sense to say their banishment was so they would not “live forever” if it would, in fact, end their life immediately. The most reasonable explanation is that, as punishment for their sin, God banished Adam and Eve from the garden and from the tree of life so that they would not live forever in the ordinary, physical sense of the word.
John Gill commented on this passage saying Adam “was hindered from eating of it, lest he should flatter himself, that by so doing he should live for ever, notwithstanding he was doomed to die.” 33 James Coffman wrote, “It would have been an unqualified disaster if man had eaten of the tree of life and in consequence thereof lived forever in his shameful and humiliating condition.” 34 According to Daniel Whedon, “now, lest by continuing to eat [Adam] maintain himself in immortal vigour, he must be excluded from the garden, and allowed no access to the tree of life.” 35 James Gray asked, “Having obtained the knowledge of evil without the power of resisting it, would it not have added to their calamity if, by eating of the tree of life, they had rendered that condition everlasting?” 36 Peter Pett put it well: “Death will now become [Adam’s] destiny because the means of ‘life unto the ages’ will be removed. He will no longer be able to eat of the tree of life, the tree whose fruit has the special quality that it can renew life and prevent old age.” 37 At the opposite end of the Bible in the imagery of the closing chapters of the book of Revelation, access to the tree of life is restored, but only the saved, symbolism communicating that only they will live forever (Rev. 22:2).
The hope of immortality, of living forever, was therefore lost in Adam, and is found only in relationship with God. Proverbs 12:28 says, “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death,” implying that any other path brings death. Romans 2:7 says that “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life,” so immortality must be sought, and will not be given to those who “do not obey the truth, [for whom] there will [instead] be wrath and fury.” Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 1:10 that “our Savior Christ Jesus…abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” He says in 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 that the earthly, perishable, mortal bodies of the saved will be made imperishable and immortal, so that they can inherit the kingdom of God.
This is confirmed by verses cherished and memorized by many Christians, but whose contrast between life and death are sadly overlooked. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28). “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). In light of the biblical teaching that resurrection entails rising from death to life, and that both the saved and the lost will rise from death to life to face judgment, these verses just don’t make sense in the traditional view since in it the lost will not ultimately die and perish but will, like the saved, live forever.
Even if one is not immediately persuaded of conditionalism by the biblical answer to the question of immortality, traditionalists ought to acknowledge that their view is, indeed, one in which the lost rise to life and live forever—at least in the sense in which the Bible makes clear that at resurrection, dead people awaken to life. To do otherwise is to obfuscate the traditional view, regardless of one’s motivation. And it’s not simply my stubborn insistence that this is the case, nor an inability on my part to conceive of meanings of “life” that transcend the ordinary, physical sense of the word. As we’ve seen:
- Noteworthy traditionalists, historically and to this day, admit that in their view, the lost will rise to life and will not die again, instead living forever in hell.
- The English word “resurrection,” used virtually universally by Bible translations, means to rise again to life.
- The concept of resurrection is defined by theological dictionaries as one in which the dead rise again to life.
- The Bible explicitly describes resurrection as the dead being made alive again.
- The Bible explicitly describes bodies lacking the breath or spirit as being dead, and people whose bodies are animated by it as being alive.
- The Bible explicitly describes those who awaken from their sleep in the dust, or Sheol, as being alive again.
- The Bible distinguishes the one true God from false gods by saying only he can kill and make alive again.
As something to consider in closing, Dr. Fernandes said in his debate with me that he denies the risen lost will live forever in hell because the Bible does not call their final state “life.” Indeed, it does not; it indicates that only the saved will receive eternal life, and that the lost will instead perish in the second death. Maybe Dr. Fernandes should rethink hell.
- Tatian, “Address of Tatian to the Greeks,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, & A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. J. E. Ryland, vol. 2 (Christian Literature Company, 1885), 71.
- John Gill, “Commentary on John 5:29,” The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible (1999), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?bk=joh&ch=5&vs=29#29 (accessed October 3, 2013).
- “The Belgic Confession,” Article 37, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 3 (Harper & Brothers, 1882), 435.
- Robert Peterson, Hell On Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995), 178.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Gill, J. A Body of Doctrinal Divinity: Or a System of Evangelical Truths (The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2001), 679.
- John Wesley, “Commentary on Revelation 20:14,” John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible (1765), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., http://www.studylight.org/com/wen/view.cgi?bk=re&ch=20&vs=14#14 (accessed October 3, 2013).
- Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Gems; Being Brilliant Passages from the Discourses of the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, ed. B.W. Carr (Oxford University, 1859), 49.
- MacArthur, J. “The Answer to Life’s Greatest Question, Part 1.” http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/42-141
- Koukl, G. (Host). (2011, June 5). “Christopher Morgan on Hell and Inclusivism.” Stand to Reason [radio]. 1:09:25. http://www.strcast2.org/podcast/weekly/060511.mp3.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan, 2004), 657.
- Habermas, G. and Moreland, J.P. Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Thomas Nelson, 1992), 173.
- Kenneth Boa & Rob Bowman, Sense & Nonsense About Heaven & Hell (Zondervan, 2007), 106.
- Ibid., 107.
- Phil Fernandes & Chris Date, Is Hell Forever?: Does the Bible teach that Hell will be Annihilation or Eternal Torment? (CreateSpace, 2013), 48.
- Ibid., 47.
- Charles Spurgeon, “The Resurrection of the Dead,” [sermon] New Park Street Chapel, Southwark, London, England, February 17, 1856. Made available at The Spurgeon Archive, http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0066.htm (accessed October 12, 2013).
- Concise Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “resurrect.”
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., “resurrection.”
- Collins English Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. “resurrection.”
- Sample translations of Acts 24:15, for example.
- The Lexham Bible Dictionary, s.v. “resurrection.”
- Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, s.v. “resurrection.”
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “resurrection of the dead.”
- The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated), s.v. “resurrection.”
- Boa & Bowman, 106.
- Fernandes & Date, 48. Emphasis in original.
- Daniel Block, “The Old Testament on Hell,” Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Zondervan, 2004), 58–59. Emphasis added.
- Ibid., 63. Emphasis added.
- John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Crossway, 1995), 73.
- Ibid., 98. Emphasis added.
- John Gill, “Commentary on Genesis 3:22,” The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible (1999), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=3&vs=22#22 (accessed October 12, 2013).
- James Burton Coffman, “Commentary on Genesis 3:22,” Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament (1983-1999), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., http://www.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=3&vs=22#22 (accessed October 12, 2013).
- Daniel Whedon, “Commentary on Genesis 3:22,” Whedon’s Commentary on the Bible (1874-1909), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., http://www.studylight.org/com/whe/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=3&vs=22#22 (accessed October 12, 2013).
- James Gray, “Commentary on Genesis 3:22,” The James Gray’s Concise Bible Commentary (1897-1910), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., http://www.studylight.org/com/jgc/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=3&vs=22#22 (accessed October 12, 2013).
- Peter Pett, “Commentary on Genesis 3:22,” Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible (2013), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., http://www.studylight.org/com/pet/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=3&vs=22#22 (accessed October 12, 2013).