Why J. I. Packer Is (Still) Wrong: A Response to The Gospel Coalition (Part 3)

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 demonstrated that Packer’s first argument fails at every point.3 In Part 2, we refuted most of Packer’s second argument, demonstrating that the texts he cites actually support annihilationism.4 In this third and final installment, we will wrap up our response to Packer’s second argument and refute his third and fourth arguments as well.

Eternal Torment? (Continued)

Packer begins his second argument by saying 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.”5 He offers several categories of such texts, and in part 2 of our response we addressed most of them. One text remains.

Eternal Destruction

In thinking about the doctrine of eternal punishment, all evangelical Christians must seek to substantiate their claims with a robust engagement with Holy Scripture. Packer’s brief look at 2 Thessalonians 1:9 treats us to little substantial exegesis. He writes,

In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul explains, or extends, the meaning of “punished with everlasting [eternal, aionios] destruction” by adding “and shut out from the presence of the Lord”—which, by affirming exclusion, rules out the idea that “destruction” meant extinction. ((Ibid.))

It is worth first noting that Packer here relies upon a dubious translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that abuses the original Greek. The words “and shut out from” are offered by a few translations—particularly dynamic ones—as if they correctly render the Greek preposition ἀπὸ.6 In reality the preposition simply means “from,” or in some cases, “away from.”7 At most it may “indicate separation from a place,” but this is with “verbs denoting motion.”8 BDAG does not include 2 Thessalonians 1:9 in this category, instead offering it as a text in which the preposition serves “to indicate distance [from] a point, away from.”8 That is, the destruction of the wicked will take place away from the presence of God.
Stanley Porter argues that the preposition ἀπὸ (when combined with the genitive case: ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ κυρίου) can denote three distinct meanings: first, locative (movement away from); second, temporal (time from which), and finally instrumental (causal, agentive).9 Porter places the text in question in the locative category and translates the verse, “who will pay the penalty, an eternal destruction away from the face of the Lord and away from the glory of his strength.”10
The preposition can also “indicate the point from which [something] begins,” or similarly “origin or source.”11 Traditionalist Gene Green writes,

While the preposition that begins this clause in the Greek text (apo) is construed in the NIV as signaling that the judged will be excluded from the presence of the Lord, the thought is rather that the presence of the Lord is the source from which the judgment proceeds.12

Whatever the case, Paul’s use of ἀπὸ does not warrant inserting the interpretive interpolation “and shut out from” into the translation. Exclusion may be a supplemental connotation of some uses of the preposition, but its use in a translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 truly stretches the word’s meaning and reveals a theological interpretation rather than an attempt at objective translation.13
There are a number of Greek words Paul could have chosen to use had he intended to emphasize the idea of separation. He elsewhere uses χωρίζω to ask rhetorically, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:35).14 He is also familiar with ἀφορίζω, using it to recount his rebuke of Peter for having “separated himself” from Gentiles while eating (Gal 2:12). Paul uses neither of these here in Thessalonians, nor any other word that emphasizes separation or exclusion, so the addition of “and shut out from” seems particularly egregious.
But besides the question of translation, there is also the question of existence. Packer writes, “Only those who exist can be excluded,” but this leaves far too many possible interpretations of the verse unexplored.5 One could exist when the Lord returns only to be blasted out of existence by destruction that comes from God’s presence (as Green’s understanding of the preposition ἀπὸ suggests), or destroyed from existence after being separated from the presence of the Lord (as BDAG’s categorization of 2 Thess 1:9 suggests), or separated by means of destruction from existence (to which Porter’s understanding lends itself). Yes, the wicked must exist in order to be excluded, but they need not go on existing indefinitely, Packer’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding.
There is additionally the question of the nature of the destruction of which Paul speaks. Packer writes, “It’s often been pointed out that in Greek the natural meaning of the destruction vocabulary (noun, olethros; verb, apollumi) is ‘wrecking,’ so that what’s destroyed is henceforth nonfunctional rather than annihilated altogether.”8 Yet the case for annihilationism does not assume that this destruction vocabulary means such a thing. Annihilationists contend that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23; emphasis added), not metaphysical obliteration, a meaning most definitely within the semantic range of ὄλεθρος.
BDAG defines the word ὄλεθρος as a state or act “of destruction, destruction, ruin, death,” citing its use by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:5 as a case in which a person’s ordinary, physical death is in view.15 Paul uses the word also in 1 Thessalonians 5:3, whose background is in Old Testament texts in which the Day of the Lord battle imagery suggests that God’s enemies will not suffer exclusion but death (Isa 13:6, 9; Joel 1:15; Eze 30:2-4). Paul may use the word to refer either to bodily death or “utter destruction” in 1 Timothy 6:9, either of which is consistent with the annihilationist’s reading of 2 Thessalonians 1:9.16
Besides the lexicographical support for annihilationism from the meaning of ὄλεθρος in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, there is also support found in the text’s Old Testament background. As traditionalist G. K. Beale notes, “Paul derives the phrase ‘in a blazing fire, giving vengeance’ . . . from Isaiah 66:15 . . . the only place in the Old Testament where this combination of terms is found.”17 It is no surprise to annihilationists that the scene in Isaiah 66 is one of slaughter, of God slaying his wicked enemies (v. 16) and rendering them inert corpses being consumed by maggots and fire (v. 24).18
In the end, then, none of the texts Packer cites actually support his belief that the risen lost will live and suffer forever in hell. Most or all of them prove, upon closer examination, to be better support for the annihilationist’s belief that the resurrected lost will literally die a second time.
After offering up this host of proof-texts (but not sufficiently exegeting any of them), Packer writes,

Annihilationists respond with special pleading. Sometimes they urge that such references to continued distress refer only to the temporary experience of the lost before they’re extinguished, but this is to beg the question by speculative eisegesis and to give up the original claim that the NT imagery of eternal loss naturally implies extinction.5

As we’ve seen, annihilationists needn’t commit any such special pleading. Instead, Packer’s claim that the texts to which he has pointed refer to “continued distress” is no more than a bald assertion. He is the party guilty of eisegesis, reading continued distress into the texts without proper consideration of their contexts.

Divine Justice

In Packer’s third argument against annihilationism, he attempts to demonstrate the self-defeating nature of the claim “that for God to visit punitive retribution endlessly on the lost would be disproportionate and unjust.”8 This is not a claim all of us at Rethinking Hell make, and so we will not seek to defend it. Still, Packer’s response to the argument is problematic.
Packer begins by saying that “there is no reason to think the resurrection of the lost for judgment will change their character, and every reason therefore to suppose their rebellion and impenitence will continue as long as they themselves do.”8 This, he suggests, makes “continued banishment from God’s fellowship fully appropriate.”8 However, this assumes firstly that the proper punishment for sin is primarily torment, such that sin committed in the midst thereof earns oneself additional punitive torment. If, on the other hand, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23; emphasis added), then everlasting exclusion from life can account for any and all sins committed up until one has breathed one’s last.
Packer’s proposal further assumes that eschatological punishment is for sins committed both in this life and after final judgment, when the biblical data seems to indicate that it is only for the former. In the imagery of Revelation 20, for example, the risen lost are judged “according to what they had done” (v. 13; emphasis added), rather than for what they go on to do.
Packer continues, “It is apparent that the argument [that eternal torment is disproportionate to sins committed], if valid, would prove too much.”8 His argument is twofold: First, if justice does not require endless torment, “how can the annihilationists justify in terms of God’s justice the fact that he makes them suffer any postmortem pain at all?”8 This, however, is based on a premise that does not necessarily feature in the annihilationist’s argument, namely that “God’s justice requires no more than extinction.”8 Annihilationists are quick to point out that Jesus died in the place of sinners, but they note also that in dying he suffered.19 Thus annihilationists who hold this position do not necessarily rule out the possibility that justice may require that the wicked suffer some pain. Their argument is based only on the premise that endless pain is disproportionate and thus unjust. Packer anticipates this response, suggesting that if any pain is required by sin, the continued impenitence of the risen lost necessarily earns them everlasting pain.5 Yet as we have seen, the assumptions underlying this claim are unjustified and dubious. Besides, much of the pain Jesus suffered, and which some annihilationists believe the risen lost will suffer, may be little more than a byproduct of the means by which they are executed rather than a distinct element of the penalty they pay.
Second, Packer asks, “Why would not justice, which on this view requires their annihilation in any case, not be satisfied by annihilation at death?”8 Put another way by Sinclair Ferguson, resurrecting the lost to final judgment “must be viewed as some kind of cynical joke in the heart of this All-Righteous God, that he punishes men and women and then raises them from the dead simply to annihilate them out of all existence.”20 This assumes, however, that the only reason God might resurrect the lost is in order to finally execute them. In fact, he may have several other reasons: so that lost sinners may be justly tried and shown to be guilty and deserving of death; so that the redeemed may be present to witness this judgment and the final vindication of God and his people, and to praise him for it; or so that, in the event that dualism is true, the lost may be tried and judged as whole persons rather than as mere disembodied souls.21 For these and other possible reasons God might have for resurrecting the lost and subsequently destroying them, Packer’s objection fails as a rebuttal to the argument for annihilationism from divine justice.
In the end, although some of us at Rethinking Hell do not side with other annihilationists in arguing that eternal torment is inconsistent with divine justice, nevertheless Packer completely fails to substantiate his claim that the “argument thus boomerangs on its proponents.”5

Diminished Joy in Heaven

Some annihilationists have argued, as Packer explains, that “the saints’ joy in heaven would be marred by knowing that some continue under merited retribution,” to which Packer responds by saying, “this cannot be said of God, as if the expressing of his holiness in retribution hurts him more than it hurts the offenders.”8 So Packer concludes,

since in heaven Christians will be like God in character, loving what he loves and taking joy in all his self-manifestation—including the manifestation of his justice (in which indeed the saints in Scripture take joy already in this world)—there is no reason to think their eternal joy will be impaired in this way.8

Again, this is not an argument leveled by us at Rethinking Hell, but Packer’s response fails as a rebuttal for one seemingly very obvious reason: God is grieved in punishing sin and does not take joy in doing so.
“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” God says, “so turn, and live” (Eze 18:32; cf. v. 23; 33:11). Commenting on Ezekiel 18:23, Lamar Cooper writes, “God is not vindictive and takes no pleasure in bringing judgment on the wicked. . . . Judgment is to God a necessity; but what delights him is the repentance of the wicked because it allows him to forgive and restore.”22 Daniel Block concurs, saying, “Yahweh’s . . . a God who is on the side of blessing and life, not on the side of the curse and death (cf. Deut. 30:15–20).”23 As Ralph Alexander explains, “Sinful mankind normally sees judgment as God’s delight. Nothing could be further from God’s desire, else he would not have sent his only Son to be judged on the cross for the sin of the whole world.”24
Texts like this are tempered, of course, by Deuteronomy 28:62–63, in which God warns Israel that if they are not faithful, “because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God . . . the LORD will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” Yet it is not at all clear that it is the bare act of judging sin in which the Lord delights; it could instead be the knowledge that judgment may spur repentance. For God goes on to say,

And when all these things come upon you . . . and [you] return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you . . . For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you. (Deut 30:1–3, 9)

If God does delight simply in knowing he is meting out just punishment for sin even when there is no hope of repentance, it is nevertheless true that it also grieves him to do so. And so Packer’s rebuttal defeats itself: if “in heaven Christians will be like God in character,” then yes, they will delight in justice—but it will also bring them sorrow. Such an incomplete and tarnished bliss surely is inconsistent with the promise John hears issued by God from upon his throne: “Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

Pithy and Incisive?

J. I. Packer introduced his critical examination of annihilationism by charitably acknowledging that annihilationists are committed to the authority of Scripture. His work is a shining example of exhibiting Christian love while delivering criticism, attributing the best motives to annihilationists rather than encouraging readers to assume the worst. Sadly, TGC reproduces four of Packer’s arguments but omits his charity.
Packer’s charity notwithstanding, the arguments he levels against annihilationism, and which TGC calls “some of the more pithy and incisive points [they’ve] read regarding annihilationism,” fail at every point:

  1. Those who believe annihilation is an eternal punishment have good reasons for understanding Matthew 25:46 as promising that the lifelessness resulting from the cosmic death penalty will last forever.
  2. With virtually no exception, every proof-text Packer cites in support of his belief that the risen lost will live forever in torment proves upon closer examination to be better support for the belief that they will be finally annihilated.
  3. If the argument some annihilationists offer from divine justice is compelling and an eternity of torment is unjustly disproportionate to sins committed, Packer offers no good reason to think the argument defeats itself.
  4. If the redeemed will reflect the character of God in eternity, then like him they would delight in the ongoing and everlasting meting out of justice, but they would also grieve over it, whereas Scripture indicates that our bliss in eternity will be complete.

TGC’s article is a perfect illustration of the failure of contemporary theologians to properly engage with Scripture on the topic of hell. If annihilationism is wrong, Packer fails to provide any reason for thinking so. Meanwhile, TGC has proven only that J. I. Packer is still wrong.

Liked it? Take a second to support Rethinking Hell on Patreon!
  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. Chris Date and Nicholas Quient, “Why J. I. Packer is (Mostly) Wrong: A Response to The Gospel Coalition (Part 2),” 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-2 (accessed October 23, 2015). []
  5. Ortlund, “J. I. packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong.” [] [] [] [] []
  6. The NIV, NLT, RSV, NRSV, NCV, and GNT, for example, render the text in this way. More literal translations like the NASB, ESV, and KJV do not utilize the interpretive phrase. []
  7. BDAG, s. v. “ἀπό.” []
  8. Ibid. [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  9. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 146–147. []
  10. Ibid., 147; emphasis added. []
  11. BDAG, s. v. “ἀπό.” []
  12. Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Eerdmans, 2002), 292. []
  13. This is not to criticize translators, whose job is quite difficult and at times unenviable. []
  14. See also Rom 8:39; 1 Cor 7:10, 11, 15; Phlm 15. []
  15. BDAG, s. v. “ὄλεθρος.” The destructive nature of the man’s sexual sin, and his likely oppressive conduct towards his stepmother, makes sense within the Old Testament narrative in which sexual sin is regarded as being worthy of death. []
  16. George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 1992), 256. []
  17. G. K. Beale, 1–2 Thessalonians, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (InterVarsity, 2003), 189. []
  18. Undying worms and unquenchable fire support, rather than challenge annihilationism: Chris Date, “Their Worm Does Not Die: Annihilation and Mark 9:48,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted July 17, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/their-worm-does-not-die-annihilation-and-mark-948 (accessed October 19, 2015); and Chris Date, “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation and Mark 9:48 (Part 2),” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted November 20, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/the-fire-is-not-quenched-annihilation-and-mark-948-part-2 (accessed October 19, 2015). []
  19. Chris Date, “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted August 12, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/08/cross-purposes-atonement-death-and-the-fate-of-the-wicked (accessed October 19, 2015). []
  20. Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Universalism and the reality of eternal punishment: The biblical basis of the doctrine of eternal punishment.” Preached at the Desiring God Conference for Pastors, January 29, 1990. []
  21. Joseph Dear, “Double Jeopardy: Why Raise the Dead, Only to Destroy Them?” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted July 22, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/double-jeopardy-why-raise-the-dead-only-to-destroy-them (accessed October 19, 2015). []
  22. Lamar E. Cooper, Ezekiel, The New American Commentary, vol. 17 (Broadman & Holman, 1994), 192. []
  23. Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1997), 583. []
  24. Ralph H. Alexander, “Ezekiel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 6 (Zondervan, 1986), 828. []