Why J. I. Packer Is (Still) Wrong: A Response to The Gospel Coalition (Part 2)

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) recently published an article entitled “J. I. Packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.” 1 In it, TGC reproduces four arguments Packer originally offered against annihilationism in his 1997 article, “Evangelical Annihilationism in Review.” 2 In Part 1 of Rethinking Hell’s response, we critiqued TGC for calling into question the motives of annihilationists and doubting our commitment to the authority of Scripture, and demonstrated that the first of Packer’s reproduced arguments fails at every point as a challenge to annihilationism. 3 As we shall see, Packer’s remaining arguments fare no better.

Eternal Torment?

Packer writes that “though there are texts which, taken in isolation, might carry annihilationist implications, others can’t naturally be fitted into any form of this scheme.” 4 He offers several categories of such texts.


“Texts like Jude 6, Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, and Matthew 25:30,” insists Packer, “show that darkness signifies a state of deprivation and distress, not of destruction in the sense of ceasing to exist. After all, only those who exist can weep and gnash their teeth, as those banished into the darkness are said to do.” 5
In fact, however, none of these texts challenge annihilationism. In verse 6 of his epistle, Jude refers neither to human beings nor to weeping and gnashing of teeth. He writes, “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” Jude does not mention what these angels are experiencing while so bound, but even if they are experiencing distress, it does not follow that when Scripture elsewhere speaks of human beings in darkness, it likewise testifies to their distress. In verse 7, Jude himself indicates just what the final punishment of human beings will be like: “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.”
The punishment of hell, then, will be like that of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, slain by fire from heaven (Gen 19:24). Peter’s parallel is still more graphic: “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” (2 Pet 2:6). These texts in Jude and Peter land squarely in annihilationism’s court.
As for Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30, not a single one of these texts indicates just how long the lost will be weeping and gnashing their teeth. It is true that one must exist if one is to weep and gnash one’s teeth, but one can weep in sorrow and gnash one’s teeth in anger leading up to and while being destroyed. So Packer’s view finds no support in these texts. In fact, Matthew 13:42 strongly suggests that the lost will not weep and gnash forever. Two verses earlier, Jesus interprets his parable of the tares, telling his disciples, “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age” (v. 40). “Burned” translates the Greek katakaiō, which means “to burn something up, to reduce to ashes,” as one would expect fire to do to weeds. 6 Jesus goes on to say, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all lawbreakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv. 41–42). So the lost will weep and gnash in a furnace of fire—until they are reduced to ashes.

Death and Modes of Existence

“Nowhere in Scripture,” Packer continues, “does death signify extinction; physical death is departure into another mode of being, called sheol or hades.” 7 Even assuming Packer’s dualistic anthropology, in which human beings have immaterial souls that live on after death, this statement is only partially accurate. Jesus says of the first death that bodies are killed but not souls (Matt 10:28); James says that it is the body that dies when separated from the spirit (Jas 2:26). When people die, their bodies certainly do not depart into another “mode of being”; rather, they cease to be alive. To die, then, is to lose life; to be dead is to lack life. And whereas only bodies die in the first death, Jesus says both bodies and souls will die in the second (Matt 10:28). 8
Packer goes on, writing, “metaphorical death is existence that is God-less and graceless; nothing in biblical usage warrants the idea that the ‘second death’ of Revelation 2:11; 20:14; 21:8 means or involves cessation of being.” 9 Of course, this assumes that when the Bible speaks of final punishment in terms of death, it does so metaphorically. In fact, Revelation 20:14 and 21:8 strongly suggest that it does not.
Most of Revelation consists of John recounting a highly symbolic, apocalyptic vision he received while in exile on the island of Patmos. 10 In 20:14 and 21:8, however, John and God himself respectively interpret the symbolic lake of fire in John’s dream, saying it symbolizes the “second death” of human beings. And when the Bible interprets its own perplexing imagery, the interpretation it offers is much more plain and straightforward in meaning.
In the dream of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer, for example, three branches on a vine blossomed into grapes which he pressed into Pharaoh’s cup. Joseph interpreted the dream’s meaning, saying, “the three branches are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office” (Gen 40:10–13). Similarly, in Daniel’s vision he sees a series of successive beasts that leaves him “anxious” and “alarmed” (Dan 7:15). So Daniel “approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told [Daniel] and made known to [him] the interpretation of the things. ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth'” (7:16–17). The dreams are bizarre and highly symbolic; if it weren’t for their interpretations recorded in Scripture, no one could know with confidence what they meant. Fortunately for the cupbearer and Daniel—and for readers today!—their meaning has been revealed, but only because it was offered in plain, straightforward language. Additional symbols would not have been helpful.
Likewise, John sees a variety of creatures thrown into a burning lake of fire and sulfur, including those who, rising from the dead, do not have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 20:15), and some of those creatures are portrayed as being tormented forever and ever therein (20:10), but what does this imagery mean? Well, when John interprets it he says, “This is the second death, the lake of fire” (20:14). God interprets it as meaning the same thing: the fate of the wicked, he says, “will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (21:8). Torment in the lake of fire, then, is not a literal description of what awaits the finally impenitent, nor is “the second death” a metaphor. Rather, “the second death” is a plain, straightforward depiction of what awaits the resurrected lost: contrary to Packer’s view, they will literally die again—this time forever.

Fire Equals Pain?

Next Packer writes, “Moreover, Luke 16:22–24 shows that, as in a good deal of extrabiblical apocalyptic, fire signifies continued existence in pain. The chilling words of Revelation 14:10 with 19:20 and 20:10, and of Matthew 13:42, 50, confirm this.” 11 This reasoning is highly problematic, however, on multiple levels.
First Packer begs the question, saying fire in Jesus’s story of Lazarus and the rich man signifies an ongoing experience of pain. But whereas “the second death” is the interpretation of the lake-of-fire symbol in Revelation, fire and pain in Jesus’s story are both elements of the story itself; neither signifies the other. To say fire in the story signifies pain is to assume that the story is either an actual historical event or a parable whose meaning in reality is that in death, the souls of the lost live on in torment. Neither assumption is shared by every conservative interpreter of the story. Even so, the most one can say given either assumption is that fire sometimes signifies ongoing pain, and that it does so when it comes to the intermediate state. After all, the scene takes place in Hades, the underworld, the realm of the dead, while the rich man’s brothers are still alive. 12 Whether fire signifies ongoing pain when it comes to final punishment is another question.
Packer goes on to offer a number of texts which he alleges confirm that fire signifies ongoing pain when it comes to hell, but none of them do any such thing. As was earlier demonstrated, when Jesus said in Matthew 13:42 that the wicked would be thrown into a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, he also said the wicked would be burned up, consumed like the weeds in his parable. Fire, then, does not here signify ongoing pain; it signifies complete destruction. Verse 50 is no better support for Packer’s case, merely repeating verse 42.
As was also demonstrated earlier, the fiery torment of the devil, beast, and false prophet in Revelation 19:20 and 20:10 serves as no support for Packer’s view, for it is imagery which, when it comes to the risen lost, is interpreted by John and God as symbolizing the second time human beings will die. When it comes to the beast and false prophet—the latter depicted as a second beastly creature in chapter 13 13—the meaning of their fate in the lake of fire is not interpreted in Revelation, but the background is Daniel, whose fourth beast’s fate in the fire is interpreted for him as meaning that a kingdom’s “dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end” (Dan 7:26). So the fiery torment of Revelation 19 and 20 symbolizes destruction, not ongoing pain, and this is consistent with the picture of death and Hades being thrown into the fire in Revelation 20:14. As Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26), and as God says, “Death shall be no more” (Rev 21:4).
Packer is left, then, with Revelation 14:10, but again this text does him no favors. Besides consisting of highly symbolic, apocalyptic imagery, John’s vision as recorded in Revelation also draws heavily upon Old Testament imagery and language. 14 Yes, John sees beast-worshipers “tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb,” but he goes on to see that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (v. 11), language his readers would have recognized from the Old Testament as symbolizing complete destruction.
Drawing from the Bible’s record of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, after which Abraham saw that “the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace” (Gen 19:23–28), Isaiah prophesies that “the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever” (Isa 34:9–10). Like today’s mushroom cloud rising from the carnage wrought by an atomic bomb, smoke rising forever signifies total destruction. 15 Hence John sees the harlot Mystery Babylon tormented by fire (Rev 18:7, 10, 15) and hears a crowd in heaven cry out “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (19:3), but the interpreting angel tells John that the scene symbolizes the destruction of a city, saying it will “be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more” (18:21).
So the texts Packer offers as evidence teach neither that darkness and fire signify eternally ongoing distress and pain in hell nor that eschatological “death” is a metaphor for such a torturous life lived forever. Instead, upon examination that goes deeper than a surface-level reading, these texts appear to teach annihilationism. One still struggles, then, to relate to TGC’s claim that these arguments are “pithy and incisive.”

Coming Up…

Packer continues his second argument, offering one final text in support of the traditional view of hell and accusing annihilationists of special pleading. Then he levels a third and fourth challenge at annihilationism, defending the justice of God in eternally tormenting the lost and assuring the saved that their joy in heaven will not be diminished by the knowledge that others are suffering in hell. In the third and final part to our response to TGC, we will see that Packer, as he has thus far been, is still wrong.
Read Part 3 of our response here.

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  1. 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.[]
  2. 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.[]
  3. Chris Date and Nicholas Quient, “Why J. I. Packer is (Mostly) Wrong: A Response to The Gospel Coalition (Part 1),” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted October 23, 2015, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2015/10/why-j-i-packer-is-mostly-wrong-a-response-to-tgc-part-1 (accessed October 23, 2015).[]
  4. Ortlund, “J. I. packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.”[]
  5. Ibid.[]
  6. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Socities, 1996), 178. If “burned” in verse 40 translates the milder kaiō, as some sources indicate, it does not diminish the force of this challenge, for Jesus concludes his parable of the weeds using katakaiō in verse 30.[]
  7. Ortlund, “J. I. packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.”[]
  8. For evidence that “destroy” in Matt 10:28 means “slay” or “kill,” read Glenn Peoples, “The meaning of ‘apollumi’ in the Synoptic Gospels,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted October 27, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels (accessed October 16, 2015).[]
  9. Ortlund, “J. I. packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.”[]
  10. Chris Date, “Annihilation in Revelation, Part 1: Worth a Thousand Words,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted August 6, 2013, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/08/annihilation-in-revelation-part-1-worth-a-thousand-words (accessed October 16, 2015).[]
  11. Ortlund, “J. I. packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.”[]
  12. 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 October 18, 2015).[]
  13. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 1999), 831. Commenting on Revelation 16:13, Beale writes, “This is the first occurrence of ‘false prophet’ . . . in the Apocalypse. The word summarizes the deceptive role of the second beast of ch. 13, whose purpose is to deceive people so that they will worship the first beast.[]
  14. Chris Date, “Annihilation in Revelation, Part 2: In with the Old—in the New,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted August 28, 2013, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/08/annihilation-in-revelation-part-2-in-with-the-old-in-the-new (accessed October 18, 2015).[]
  15. Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. (Cascade, 2011), 241.[]