Why J. I. Packer Is (Still) Wrong: A Response to The Gospel Coalition (Part 1)

In its eschatology-themed, Spring 1997 issue, Reformation & Revival magazine published an article by J. I. Packer entitled “Evangelical Annihilationism in Review.” 1 In it Packer attempts to refute what he understands to be several arguments advanced in favor of annihilationism, though he has some refreshingly charitable things to say about those who offer them. Reproducing quotes from John Wenham and John Stott in which they warn against the unreliability of emotion and its ability to cause us to twist Scripture, Packer acknowledges that these men embraced annihilationism from a commitment to the authority of Scripture, and not from emotionalism or sentimentality. In the end he calls them and other evangelical annihilationists “honored fellow-evangelicals,” and says “it would be wrong for differences of opinion on this matter to lead to breaches of fellowship.”
Packer also concludes, however, that John Stott was wrong to suggest that “the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.” 2 Packer says Stott “asks too much, for the biblical foundations of this view prove on inspection, as we have seen, to be inadequate.”
Much ink has been spilled in defense of annihilationism in the nearly twenty years since Packer’s article. 3 It seems strange to some of us, therefore, that The Gospel Coalition (TGC) would republish some of Packer’s arguments without dealing with the responses annihilationists have since offered, but that’s what they did in a recent article entitled “J. I. Packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.” 4 Stranger still, the article’s author says of these arguments that they “are some of the more pithy and incisive points I’ve read regarding annihilationism, and are still relevant today.” 5 In reality, Packer’s arguments do not hold up to scrutiny as challenges to annihilationism, and TGC’s commentary reflects uncharitable and inaccurate assumptions concerning the motives of annihilationists, assumptions Packer demonstrates to be false in his own article.

Picking and Choosing?

TGC’s article opens as follows:

The doctrine of hell is the most difficult aspect of the Christian faith for many people. It is for me. I feel acutely the unremitting sadness of this doctrine. But to be a Christian is—at the very least—to confess Christ the Son of God, and to confess Christ the Son of God is—at the very least—to submit to his teaching. And this includes his teaching on hell (which was quite copious and colorful).
. . . We simply don’t have the option to pick and choose from what the Bible teaches: we are called to submit to its authority over us. 6

By opening in this way, the article appears to call into question the motives of Christians who reject the traditional view of hell in favor of annihilationism, implying that sentimentality drives them to be unwilling to submit to the whole teaching of Jesus, and instead to “pick and choose from what the Bible teaches.” If this was not the author’s intent, surely he knew that’s how it would come across, for traditionalist literature is replete with this sort of accusation. Al Mohler writes, for example, “The traditional doctrine is just too out of step with the contemporary mind—too harsh and eternally fixed. . . . For some who call themselves evangelicals, this is simply too much to bear.” 7 Robert Morey laments that “we expect to see more neo-evangelicals moving either into Universalism or annihilationism . . . This is regrettably the result of a weak view of Scripture.” 8 Don Carson says, “Despite the sincerity of their motives, one wonders more than a little to what extent the growing popularity of various forms of annihilationism and conditional immortality are a reflection of this age of pluralism. It is getting harder and harder to be faithful to the ‘hard’ lines of Scripture.” 9
Ironically, in the original article whose arguments are republished here by TGC, Packer lends apparently no support to this staple of traditionalist dialectic. Quite the contrary, he praises prominent annihilationists John Wenham and John Stott for their unwavering submission to the authority of Scripture. Packer quotes the former as saying, “Beware of the immense natural appeal of any way out that evades the idea of everlasting sin and suffering. The temptation to twist what may be quite plain statements of Scripture is intense.” 10 He similarly quotes John Stott as saying that while “emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain,” nevertheless “our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it.” 11 Packer concludes, “Both men adopted annihilationism . . . not because it fitted into their comfort zone, though it did, but because they found it in the Bible.” It is strange, then, that TGC chose instead to give readers a less charitable impression of what drives evangelicals to embrace annihilationism.
From this point on in the article, four arguments Packer originally offered are reproduced without additional commentary, and while Packer was right that evangelical annihilationists submit to the authority of Scripture, unfortunately his arguments against them get it all wrong.

The Meaning of “Everlasting”

Packer writes that annihilationists “attempt to explain ‘eternal punishment’ in Matthew 25:46—where it’s parallel to the phrase ‘eternal life’—as not necessarily carrying the implication of endlessness,” and he offers two examples of such attempts. 12 The first, he explains, is based on the idea that “‘eternal’ (aionios) in the New Testament . . . means ‘belonging to the age to come’ rather than expressing any directly chronological notion,” but he dismisses the conclusion some annihilationists make on this basis, saying, “the NT writers are unanimous in expecting the age to come to be unending, so the annihilationist’s problem remains where it was.” 13 This, however, does not defeat the argument.
To be clear, this is not how many evangelical annihilationists understand Matthew 25:46; it certainly is not how we at Rethinking Hell understand it. The claim of those who do, however, is not necessarily that aionios means lasting as long as the age to come. Indeed, the claim is often that it is not used quantitatively in Matthew 25:46 at all. Edward Fudge, for example, writes that “the New Testament sometimes uses the word in a qualitative sense.” 14 He cites even traditionalists who acknowledge that the word therefore sometimes refers to something that pertains to or is characteristic of the age to come, regardless of its duration. 15 In such cases, he says, it means something like “divine” or “Messianic.” 16 Packer is right: the age to come will last forever. It does not follow, though, that everything qualitatively pertaining to the age to come will do so as well.
Fudge, however, does not see aionios in Matthew 25:46 as being limited to this meaning. He and many other annihilationists—including we at Rethinking Hell—believe it also carries a quantitative meaning. Packer offers this as what he thinks constitutes a second attempt to deny the endlessness of the punishment in Matthew 25:46, but he is wrong to characterize it as such. He quotes Basil Atkinson as writing, “When the adjective aionios meaning ‘everlasting’ is used in Greek with nouns of action, it has reference to the result of that action, but not the process.” 17 So, Atkinson concludes, “The lost will not be passing through a process of punishment forever but will be punished once and for all with eternal results.” 18 Note that Atkinson is not denying the endlessness of the punishment, but of the process of punishment. Fudge puts it this way:

Finally, when an adjective (including but not limited to aiōnios = “eternal”) modifies a noun—in this case a result-noun, recognizable by its form, or morphology, the adjective describes the result of the action (which is what the noun names), not the action itself (named by the noun’s cognate verb), that produced the result. We have seen this in regard to eternal salvation (not an eternal act of saving), eternal redemption (not an eternal process of redeeming), eternal judgment (not an eternal act of judging), eternal destruction (not an eternal process of destroying), and eternal punishment (not an eternal act of punishing). This punishment, more specifically identified as this destruction, will last forever. Those who are punished with everlasting destruction will cease to exist. 19

Atkinson, Fudge, and numerous other annihilationists thus do not deny the endlessness of the punishment; quite the contrary, they affirm, as Fudge does above, that “This punishment . . . will last forever.” The question is whether the noun punishment refers to the process of the verb punish, or its result.
Even so, Packer challenges this reasoning on the grounds that “it lacks support from grammarians,” but this is only partially true. 20 Linguists are aware of the existence of what Atkinson calls “nouns of action,” and that some of them can refer either to the process of a verb or to its result. Elisabetta Ježek and Chiara Melloni call them “action nominals”; 21 Øivin Andersen calls them “deverbal nouns”; 22 and they all write about “the intriguing pattern of polysemy exhibited by these nominals,” allowing them to carry either a “process” or “result-state” meaning. 23 “This is a phenomenon,” writes Andersen, “called logical polysemy. . . . One of the most central and widespread types of logical polysemy concerns the distinction between process and result meanings of event referring nouns.” 24
We at Rethinking Hell explained the phenomenon this way:

First, it should be noted that many deverbal nouns are polysemous, ambiguous between a process or result meaning. For example, the phrase, “The translation of the book took ten years,” means that the process of translating lasted ten years. The phrase, “The translation has been published recently,” on the other hand, means that the translation that resulted from, or was the outcome of, the translating process was recently published. Building may refer to the process (e.g., “building a house”) or to the result (e.g., “a beautiful building”); the word construction is similarly ambiguous. Isolation may refer to the process (e.g., “gene isolation”) or to the result (e.g., “forced into isolation”). Other ambiguous examples include separation, banishment, performance, subjugation, imprisonment, and many more. 25

Linguists have not yet studied this phenomenon in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, nor how such polysemous nouns are affected by the adjective aionios. Packer’s claim—that Atkinson’s argument and that of others “lacks support from grammarians”—is thus in a very rigid sense true. Clearly, however, linguistics recognize more broadly the phenomenon that serves as the foundation for this particular annihilationist response to Matthew 25:46.
What’s more, while grammarians may not yet have written in support of this argument, some conservative, traditionalist scholars in other fields have admitted its legitimacy. Douglas Moo, for example, acknowledges that “there is some point to this claim: In other New Testament passages where ‘eternal’ describes a noun of action, it is sometimes the results of the action that are indicated.” 26 Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle implicitly acknowledge that there is some validity to the argument, challenging it on lexical, rather than grammatical grounds. “Greek nouns that end with –sis (rather than –ma),” they write, “tend to focus on the action of the noun rather than its results.” 27 This rebuttal, incidentally, does not appear to hold up to scrutiny; the author of Hebrews says Jesus secured an “eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12), the Greek word lytrōsis here referring to the results of Jesus’ redeeming work, work the author says has been completed “once for all.” 28
Packer concludes by calling the annihilationist response to “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46 “unnatural” and “evasive.” 29 In reality, annihilationists are not attempting to evade anything, and their understanding of the text is quite natural. After all, Jesus contrasts the eternal punishment awaiting the lost with the “eternal life” awaiting the righteous. The most natural conclusion, then, is that the punishment of the lost will entail their not living forever. Their penalty will be death—as Fudge puts it, “divine ‘capital punishment.'” 30 Since their consequent lifelessness will last for eternity, their punishment will truly be eternal.
It is difficult to relate, then, to the view that this first of Packer’s reproduced arguments is “pithy and incisive.” It fails, after all, in virtually every way.

Coming Up…

In the remaining three of Packer’s arguments reproduced by TGC, he offers texts he thinks require belief in the immortality of the soul, calls into question whether the justice of God challenges the traditional view of hell, and dismisses the notion that knowledge of the suffering of the lost would take away from the eternal bliss of heaven. On each point, as we will see, Packer is still wrong.
Read Part 2 of our response here.

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  1. J. I. Packer, “Evangelical Annihilationism in Review,” Reformation & Revival 6, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 37-51. Online: http://www.rethinkinghell.com/research/critical/j-i-packer.[]
  2. David L. Edwards & John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (InterVarsity, 1988), 320.[]
  3. See, for example, David J. Powys, ‘Hell’: A Hard Look at a Hard Question: The Fate of the Unrighteous in New Testament Thought (Wipf & Stock, 2007); Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. (Cascade, 2011); Edward W. Fudge, Hell: A Final Word (Leafwood, 2012); J. Webb Mealy, The End of the Unrepentant: A Study of the Biblical Themes of Fire and Being Consumed (Wipf & Stock, 2012); Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehena, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Pickwick, 2013); J. Gregory Crofford, The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined (Wipf & Stock, 2013). See also David Hilborn, The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) (Paternoster, 2000), as well as Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (David C. Cook, 2011), both of which side with the traditional view but acknowledge annihilationism as a plausible reading of Scripture. Books which attempt to present both views of final punishment neutrally include Douglas A. Jacoby, What’s the Truth About Heaven and Hell? Sorting Out the Confusion About the Afterlife (Harvest House, 2013); Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin (Thomas Nelson, 2013).[]
  4. Gavin Ortlund, “J. I. Packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong,” The Gospel Coalition, posted October 7, 2015, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/j.i.-packer-on-why-annihilationism-is-wrong (accessed October 8, 2015). Ortlund was a breakout speaker at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference. An audio recording of his presentation is available for free download here.[]
  5. Ibid.[]
  6. Ibid.[]
  7. R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell,” Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson (Zondervan, 2004), 40.[]
  8. Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984), 203.[]
  9. D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996), 524.[]
  10. John W. Wenham, The Enigma of Evil: Can We Believe in the Goodness of God? (Zondervan, 1985), 37–38.[]
  11. Edwards & Stott, 314–315.[]
  12. Ortlund, “J. I. Packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.”[]
  13. Ibid.[]
  14. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 36; emphasis added.[]
  15. Ibid., 36–37.[]
  16. Ibid., 36.[]
  17. Basil F. C. Atkinson, Life and Immortality (n.p., 1968), 101.[]
  18. Ibid.[]
  19. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 41–42.[]
  20. Ortlund, “J. I. Packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.”[]
  21. Elisabetta Ježek and Chiara Melloni, “Nominals, Polysemy, and Co-predication,” Journal of Cognitive Science 12 (2011), 1–31.[]
  22. Øivin Andersen, “Deverbal Nouns as Hybrids: Some Textual Aspects,” Evidence-Based LSP: Translation, Text and Terminology, eds. Khurshid Ahmad & Margaret Rogers (Peter Lang, 2007), 155–170.[]
  23. Ježek & Melloni, 1.[]
  24. Andersen, 164.[]
  25. Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted June 19, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/06/eternal-punishment-and-the-polysemy-of-deverbal-nouns (accessed October 15, 2015).[]
  26. Douglas J. Moo, “Paul on Hell,” Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson (Zondervan, 2004), 106.[]
  27. Chan & Sprinkle, 74n16.[]
  28. The main verb (“he entered [eiserchomai] once for all into the holy places”) is in the aorist tense and refers to a punctiliar action completed in the past. The verb of which “eternal redemption” is the direct object (“thus securing an eternal redemption”) is a participle in the aorist tense and refers to a punctiliar action completed concurrently with the main verb.[]
  29. Ortlund, “J. I. Packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.”[]
  30. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 303.[]