Hey, if Dr. Robert Peterson can do it, so can I. Beg the question, that is, from my article’s outset—in its very title, “Everlasting Torment or Eternal Punishment?” By setting the traditional view of hell up against the biblical phrase “eternal punishment,” the question I ask in the title assumes that eternal torment is not the fate Jesus warned awaits the lost, and it subtly influences my readers to assume the same before they’ve had a chance to consider the case for the view I’m critiquing. But if Peterson is allowed to similarly beg the question and poison the well in his article, “Annihilation or Eternal Punishment?”, featured in the February 2014 issue of Tabletalk magazine, certainly I should be forgiven for doing it.

Perhaps, then, I could also be forgiven if I were to begin my article by misrepresenting the view I’m critiquing, saying, “The traditional view is that lost people in hell will be maliciously and capriciously abused and tortured for eternity, as payment for their sins.” After all, Peterson opens his article by similarly misrepresenting annihilationism. Our view is not that “lost people in hell will be exterminated after they have paid the penalty for their sins” (emphasis added). We believe that “the wages of sin is death” (, emphasis added), not that it precedes death.1 Edward Fudge made that clear in his written debate with Peterson (who therefore knows better), Two Views of Hell. “We do not measure capital punishment,” Fudge wrote, “by the time required to carry it out but in terms of its lasting consequences.”2 Annihilationism is thus the view that lost people will be exterminated as the penalty for their sins.
I ought likewise to be forgiven if, like Peterson, I chose not to provide the strongest evidence typically offered by those I’m attempting to represent. Imagine, for example, that I were to write, “We are told that the unsaved will be resurrected to face an eternity of torment (; ).” While these texts support the orthodox belief—shared by evangelical conditionalists—that the lost will one day be resurrected and judged, neither hints at a subsequent eternity of torment, and traditionalists would understandably complain that I hadn’t at least cited which reads, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”3 Were I to do so, I’d be in good company; after all, alleging to represent annihilationists, Peterson writes, “We are told that fire consumes what is thrown into it, and so it will be for the lake of fire (),” yet none of the texts he cites explicitly mentions the consumption of the wicked—indeed, one of them records John’s having seen the devil, beast, and false prophet “tormented day and night forever and ever,” albeit in apocalyptic, symbolic imagery.4 A faithful representation of the conditionalist argument would have cited  (“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?”), (“you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet”), (“he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire,” NASB, emphasis added), (“For if we go on sinning . . . [there remains] a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”), or (“for our God is a consuming fire”). Peterson is certainly familiar with these texts, having been challenged with them by Fudge in their book.5 The case for annihilationism is based, not merely on our consistent and uniform experience that “fire consumes what is thrown into it,” but on Scripture’s explicit testimony that the fires of hell will do precisely that.
Next, perhaps I could describe the weakest, most seemingly laughable variation of the traditional view as if it’s representative of all who believe in eternal conscious punishment. I should be forgiven for that too. “Traditionalists,” I might write, “believe that the reason the resurrected lost will be capable of eternal life in flames, never consumed, is because the fire that melts the flesh off their bones simultaneously restores it.”6 Few traditionalists today believe that, but neither do most annihilationists believe eternal “means only pertaining to ‘the age to come’ and not ‘everlasting'” (emphasis added). As Fudge explains—once again, in the book he co-authored with Peterson—many annihilationists believe “[eternal punishment] is called ‘eternal’ because it will last forever.”7 If the penalty to be paid is death, and if that death is forever, then it is an eternal punishment, not merely one pertaining to another age.
Of course, I won’t actually do any of these things. Whereas Peterson is apparently comfortable erecting a straw man easily consumed by far less than unquenchable fire, I am not. But Peterson’s paper tiger aside, what of his responses to the arguments he imagines are ours?
He responds first to the argument annihilationists make from the biblical imagery of fiery judgment. He writes, “Many passages use this language without interpreting it.” This is true in many cases, although in , Jesus first offers a parable in which a landowner instructs his servants to “gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up” (v. 30, NASB, emphasis added), and then interprets the parable, saying, “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (vv. 40-42).8 Peterson continues, “we do not want to read our ideas into the Bible, but to get our ideas from the Bible.” This is laudable, but he insists that when we do so, “we find that some passages preclude an annihilationist understanding of hellfire.” Yet the first passage he points to is and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, whose scene isn’t set in hell to begin with; it’s set in Hades, the so-called “intermediate state.” What’s more, the rich man and Lazarus are both dead, not resurrected, and the rich man’s brothers are still alive on this side of eternity.9 The only other text he offers as support for his claim is , a highly symbolic passage reusing apocalyptic imagery from the Old Testament in which ever-rising smoke communicates the utter destruction of Edom (), as Peterson well knows.10
Next Peterson responds to what Dr. Glenn Peoples has called “The Biblical Language of Destruction.”11 Peterson writes concerning biblical texts promising “destruction” or “perishing” for the wicked that “some passages are impossible to reconcile with annihilationism.” His first example of such a passage is (incorrectly cited as ), but he fails to explain how “the punishment of eternal destruction” is irreconcilable with the view that the lost will be destroyed forever.12 Next he argues that “the Beast’s ‘destruction’ is everlasting torment,” failing to distinguish between biblical symbols and their interpretation. The beast’s eternal torment takes place in the imagery (), but the destruction of that which the beast represents is foretold in the angel’s interpretation (). Therefore “destruction” can’t be argued to mean “eternal torment” any more than “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” means the water atop which is seated a vampiric, blood-drunk prostitute (, cf. 17:1, 6).
Peterson moves on to respond to the straw man he has constructed in place of the annihilationist’s real arguments concerning the word translated “eternal.” Pretending our case hinges upon its meaning “pertaining to ‘the age to come,'” he argues that “the age to come lasts as long as the life of the eternal God Himself,” and that in , “The punishment of the lost in hell is coextensive to the bliss of the righteous in heaven—both are everlasting.” This is true, but as explained above (and to Peterson by Fudge), if the punishment is death, and if the lost die forever, their punishment is eternal. Peterson doesn’t explain, however, why only the saved are promised “eternal life” when in his view the risen lost will likewise live forever, having been rendered immortal.13
Responding next to the argument from justice made by many annihilationists, that the penalty of eternal torment is not proportionate to a finite lifetime of sins, Peterson is right to suggest that “We would do better to determine from [God’s] Holy Word what He deems just and unjust.” He goes on, however, to cite as if the “eternal fire” of which Jesus speaks clearly supports the traditional view, seemingly oblivious to the other two places in Scripture in which the phrase is used. Jesus himself uses the phrase earlier in , setting it in parallel to “Gehenna,” a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase, “valley of [the sons of] Hinnom.” Once a place where idol worshipers burned up children as sacrifices to their gods, says Gehenna would become “the Valley of Slaughter” where “the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth.” In the valley is likened to a funeral pyre, a pile of wood for burning up corpses. The phrase “eternal fire” is used in quite a similar way in to refer to the fire which came down from heaven and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and which killed their inhabitants. If Jude’s words weren’t clear enough, the parallel in says that “by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes [God] condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” Jesus’ reference to “eternal fire,” then, quite the opposite of supporting Peterson’s traditional view of hell, serves as powerful evidence in favor of annihilationism.
Peterson is absolutely right when he insists toward the end of his article that “We have no right to rewrite the biblical story.” Conditionalists concur, and we wish traditionalists like Peterson would simply let that story inform their understanding of the language it uses, instead of reading into the story the meanings they imagine.

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  1. 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. []
  2. Robert A. Peterson & Edward W. Fudge, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (InterVarsity, 2000), Kindle edition, p. 45. []
  3. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from . []
  4. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from . []
  5. Peterson & Fudge, pp. 31, 33, 38, 59. []
  6. Marcus Minucius Felix argued this very thing in the third century, writing, “The clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them.” See Marcus Minucius Felix, Octavius, ; quoted in Williams A. Jürgens, trans., The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 1:110. []
  7. Peterson & Fudge, pp. 45-46. []
  8. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from passages like this one which warn of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” []
  9. Chris Date, “Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment.” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted June 23, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/06/lazarus-and-the-rich-man-its-not-about-final-punishment (accessed August 11, 2014). []
  10. Peterson & Fudge, p. 28. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from . []
  11. “Episode 4: The Case for Annihilationism with Glenn Peoples,” Rethinking Hell

    , hosted by Glenn Peoples, September 4, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/09/episode-4-the-case-for-annihilationism-with-glenn-peoples (accessed August 11, 2014). []
  12. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from . []
  13. Peterson & Fudge, p. 88. []

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

29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.

Revelation 20:10

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.

Revelation 20:14

14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:15

15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

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.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

14 The sinners in Zion are afraid;
trembling has seized the godless:
“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?
Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”

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.

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

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

29 for our God is a consuming fire.

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24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’

10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch.
10 Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
none shall pass through it forever and ever.

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

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.

The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.

Revelation 17:11

11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.

15 And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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.

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.

32 Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. 33 And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away.

33 For a burning place has long been prepared; indeed, for the king it is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of sulfur, kindles it.

just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;