In a recent Beliefnet article titled “6 Myths Christians Need to Shatter about Hell,” author Lesli White makes a case for the doctrine of eternal torment by rebutting six myths about hell.1 Needless to say, we at Rethinking Hell disagree with White’s conclusion. The doctrine of eternal torment in hell, frequently called “traditionalism” or the “traditional view,” is not biblical. Rather, the Bible teaches that only those in Christ will have life in any sense of the word. The unsaved will die the second death and be destroyed forever, unable to know either joy or pain because they will be gone forever.
Below are six myths that we really do need to shatter. These all have some connection to the Beliefnet article, although some are more loosely connected than others.
1. Everybody Lives Forever Somewhere
At the start of the article, the claim is made that “the Bible tells us that everyone will exist eternally in either heaven or hell.” In reality, however, although everyone who goes to heaven (i.e. is resurrected and granted life in the new earth) will live for eternity, those who go to hell will not consciously exist forever.
Contrary to popular belief, the Bible never teaches that the soul is immortal. It’s hard to prove a negative, but when it comes to pointing to any actual biblical texts that teach this doctrine, the silence on the part of traditionalists is deafening. For this reason, some, like British theologian Eryl Davies, will say that the Bible must just assume it:
“This [the immortality of the soul] is everywhere assumed in the Bible, although it is not explicitly stated.”2
The late Lorraine Boettner expressed similar sentiments.
“In general the Bible treats the subject of the immortality of the soul in much the same way that it treats the existence of God – such belief is assumed as an undeniable postulate”3
At least they’re upfront about it.
Similarly, the claim that everybody consciously exists forever is largely an inference that results from the doctrine of eternal torment. Now, if the Bible actually taught eternal torment, this would be a sound argument. But the Bible does not do so.
Not only does the Bible not say that everyone will consciously exist forever, it teaches the opposite. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Eternal life is what Jesus brings to the saved who would otherwise perish (John 3:16). Those without Jesus do not have life (1 John 5:12). But without eternal life, how does one live for eternity? If one does not live for eternity, how can one be subject to eternal consciousness in any state, torment or otherwise?
Similarly, the unsaved face destruction (e.g. Matthew 7:13, Romans 9:22, Philippians 1:28, 3.19, 1 Thessalonians 5:3, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 2 Peter 3:7). God will destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). Both the world and its intangible, non-tormentable desires will pass away; in contrast, the righteous shall abide forever (1 John 2:17). That sure doesn’t sound like everyone will consciously exist forever
Some will argue that when referring to the eternal destinies, the Bible always uses “life” and “death” metaphorically or with some special, Bible-only definition. Therefore, someone can be conscious and able to think and feel and suffer but nonetheless be “dead.” Similarly, when describing damnation, “destruction” conveniently never refers to destruction that is in any sense complete. Equivocation regarding “annihilation” also comes into play.
But given how the Bible uses language that on its face is completely incompatible with the traditional view, shouldn’t we at least question the idea that everyone consciously exists forever somewhere?
Notice that I kept referring specifically to “conscious” existence above. That was because language can get muddled when we talk about “existence.” Regardless of whether one can argue that someone “exists” or not, if there is no consciousness then eternal torment is impossible. For example, if a person’s body dies, the body becomes a corpse. The corpse “exists,” but its existence is meaningless. You cannot torment a corpse. A corpse cannot feel or think or do anything. It is inert matter. If someone who suffers the second death becomes like a corpse, in both body and soul, then even if they “exist,” they are still annihilated as far as we are concerned.
- ”Obfuscating Traditionalism: No Eternal Life in Hell?“ by Chris Date.
2. The Word “Hell” in Scripture Automatically Means a Place of Eternal Torment
As far as I can tell, White does not go nearly as far as arguing that since the Bible has the word “hell” in it, therefore the Bible teaches eternal torment. However, this idea of an eternal pit of fiery torment called “hell” is so deeply ingrained in our minds and culture that it can color how you interpret the various relevant passages. But to fairly read what the scripture truly teaches, you must be willing to acknowledge this bias and work past it.
And remember, as mentioned above, Matthew 10:28 describes “hell” specifically as the place where God destroys both body and soul. Hell in the Bible might not be what you were taught to believe.
3. Jesus Talked about Hell More Than He Talked About Heaven
Under myth #2, titled “Jesus Didn’t Talk about Hell,” the claim is made that “Jesus talked about hell more often than he talked about heaven.”
This claim gets made over and over and over again in evangelical circles, but it’s just a cliché without support. Have you, the reader, ever actually gone through the Gospels (and perhaps Revelation and the first chapter of Acts for good measure) and looked at how many times Jesus speaks about hell versus heaven? Or, did you simply hear the claim and accept it without any evidence? There is a good chance that the people you heard it from did the same.
A detailed analysis of the examples would go beyond the scope of this article, but you might notice that when you go through the Gospels, almost every reference to hell also includes a reference to heaven. For example, the oft-cited Matthew 25:46, which speaks of “eternal punishment,” mentions going to “eternal life” in the same sentence, contrasting the two destinies. If Jesus mentions heaven and hell together, then obviously it nets out to zero in terms of which one Jesus talked about more.
But Jesus also sometimes talks about the glorious fate of believers without mentioning hell, the resurrection unto damnation, or the like. He makes reference to the eternal life he brings his followers without making any sort of warning of the alternative. (e.g. Mark 10:30, John 6:35-40, John 10:10)7 He talks about treasures in heaven in Matthew 6:20. He tells his disciples of the amazingly glorious fact that he will eat with them in the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 26:29. There is no negative reinforcement.
Ultimately, I would say that Jesus doesn’t talk that much about heaven or hell as destinations. He puts more emphasis on himself and how he’ll lead you to the right destination. But if you actually look at the Bible, claim #3 looks to be no less of a myth than the citation-free cliché that conditional immortality was condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople.
- “Did Jesus Preach Hell More than Heaven?“ by Dr. Glenn Peoples at the Right Reason blog.
4. Jesus’ Conscious Suffering on the Cross Was the Equivalent of Hell
Under myth #4, titled “Hell is the Result of a Flaw in God’s Love,” the actual question of how a loving God could send someone to a place of eternal torture is ignored, but an appeal to the love of God is made in light of hell. It is argued that Jesus shows us the depths of God’s love by suffering the equivalent of hell while he was dying (but not dead) on the cross.
However, this is not how the atonement worked by any orthodox measure. Although the suffering was part of the whole crucifixion package, it cannot and must not be separated from Jesus’ death. Jesus didn’t just suffer on our behalf; he died on our behalf. That is at the very heart of Christianity. Jesus’s death is what ultimately atoned for our sins. The Bible emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ death in both literal and figurative language (e.g. Matthew 26:28; Romans 5:10; Hebrews 9:26; 10:10; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 7:15).
If Jesus’s conscious suffering, prior to his death, was him suffering the equivalent hell on our behalf, why did he have to die after? After all, if he suffered the equivalent of hell while alive and suffering on the cross, is it not implied that the point of that was to take on our punishment and therefore atone for our sins so we would be spared? But if his conscious suffering accomplished that, why did he have to die? If Jesus atoned for our sins by suffering hell before he died, then his death was unnecessary!
Jesus’ death was not unnecessary. Rather, it was the central part of the atonement. Our sins are not forgiven because he suffered “hell” before death, but because he suffered death. Any orthodox treatment of the cross has to treat Jesus’ death as at least part of the atonement, at least part of the price he paid to save us. Traditionalists do not believe that the fate of the wicked entails suffering that concludes upon death (as was the case with Jesus). The very best a traditionalist can say when it comes to the atonement is that there was not meant to be a one-to-one correspondence to what Jesus endured and what the unsaved will face without Christ. And I am actually okay with that. But by any measure, the atonement can only help conditionalists because Jesus died for our sins.
- “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death, and the Fate of the Wicked“ by Chris Date.
5. Matthew 25:46 Shows that Hell is Consciously Experienced for as Long as Heaven Is
Under myth #4, titled “Hell is Temporary,” Matthew 25:46 is put forth as proof that people who are sent to hell remain consciously existent (i.e. living) in a state of torment for as long as the saved live in heaven, which is for eternity.
I have addressed this passage in depth before (see recommended resources), and I welcome anyone who wants to look at it deeper to consult those articles (they are free at least!).
For our purposes here, I want to explain that annihilation is actually consistent with the term “eternal punishment.” First of all, death can be a punishment. That’s why we call the death penalty “capital punishment.” While the Greek term for “punishment” only comes up one other time in the New Testament (1 John 4:18), we know from the Septuagint that the term can refer to the death penalty.8 It is used, for example, to describe the punishment of death that God was to inflict upon Israelites for their idolatry.9 It also described the punishment of death for Andronicus in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees 4:38.10 So it certainly can be the case that God can punish someone by annihilating them (the way we mean it), subjecting them to the second death.
Can this ultimate capital punishment, however, be called “eternal punishment”? After all, once someone gets the death penalty, they cannot be killed again (unless they come back to life, which defeats the purpose). It is hardly punishment to beat a dead body or try to torment spiritual ashes, so it may seem like eternal punishment requires the person to be alive and conscious forever to experience suffering.
However, annihilation actually is a form of eternal punishment because eternal punishment is not the same as eternal punishing. If God punishes the unsaved person by destroying both body and soul, turning them into nothing but ashes under the soles of the saved (cf. Malachi 4:3), and they remain in that resultant state for eternity, then the punishment is eternal, even if God is not actively punishing them for eternity. If God punishes the wicked by destroying them, then the result of that act of punishing, the “punishment,” lasts as long as the life of the saved. It is eternal.
It may sound like I am pedantically playing with words, but on the contrary, in several instances in the Bible, phrases like this must be interpreted in this fashion. Hebrews 6:2 makes reference to “eternal judgment.” If we interpreted “eternal judgment” the same way we have been taught to interpret “eternal punishment,” it would mean that the process of God judging people would continue for ever and ever. But that is absurd. There are only a finite number of people to judge! It is clear that “eternal judgment” is referring to a one-time act, God judging everyone, and the result of that act, the “judgment,” lasts for eternity. Similarly, Jesus bought us “eternal salvation” in Hebrews 5:9. Jesus will not be spending eternity in the act of saving us over and over again. In eternity, there will be no sin or death or anything to save us from. Similar things can be said of the “eternal redemption” of Hebrews 9:12. He redeemed us by dying for us and rising again. He certainly won’t be doing that again and again forever! Other passages such as Hebrews 9:15 and Mark 3:29 follow a similar pattern.
The wicked are alive to be punished when God punishes them with a death that lasts forever; that is enough to call their fate “eternal punishment.”
6. People in Hell Keep Committing Evil Acts
This is one area where I agree with the author, though ultimately for different reasons. Under Myth #6, titled “Hell Won’t Be That Bad,” White writes the following:
Popular media often depicts hell in movies, books and music as a place similar to that on earth today, with people running around killing and committing evil acts. If you think hell is anything like this, you’ve got the story very twisted.
That is a very twisted idea of hell indeed, because those who are cast into hell are like weeds cast into a fiery furnace (Matthew 13:40). They are destroyed and killed and are no longer consciously existent to commit any more sins.
Some traditionalists have actually argued for traditionalism by asserting that sinners in hell will sin more, then earn more time in hell as punishment, and then sin more and end up on an endless hell treadmill that results in them staying in hell forever. But such a view is wrought with problems, not the least of which is that in judgment scenes like Matthew 25:31-46, damnation is final and in some sense eternal. According to this view, however, the wicked really only get finite punishment in hell. They stay there forever because they keep sinning and earning more. It also has no serious biblical warrant at all.
- “No Penitent in Hell: A [Reformed] Response to D.A. Carson“ by Chris Date.
For Further Reading
In addition to the recommended resources listed for each myth above, and everything else rethinkinghell.com has to offer, I also recommend the following for anyone who wants to look into this further.
- For a great overview that addresses the main points but is shorter than a full book: “Why I am an Annihilationist” by Glenn Peoples (also available in podcast form in episodes 5, 6, and 7 of his podcast Say Hello to my Little Friend).
- For the reader who really wants to dig deeper and is willing to spend a lot of time on this subject: The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, my free ebook.
- Other great books for purchase would include The Fire that Consumes by Edward Fudge, the standard for all conditionalist works that have followed, and Rethinking Hell, an edited compilation of numerous works by past conditionalists (some of which are very hard to obtain elsewhere).
- The article is actually from a few months back, but I and others still see the Beliefnet page pop up on Facebook and so the conversation is apparently still going. [↩]
- Eryl Davies, The Wrath of God: The Biblical Doctrine of Wrath, Final Judgment, and Hell (Evangelical Press of Wales, 1984), 56. [↩]
- Lorraine Boettner, Immortality (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001), 78. [↩]
- Articles with no listed author are by yours truly. [↩]
- There is an obvious bias of course, but it may be quite eye-opening. [↩]
- Also available in essay form in Rethinking Hell’s Second Book, A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge. [↩]
- Of course, any mention of a positive consequence by its very nature has the warning implied that you won’t get to enjoy the positive consequence if you do not do whatever is required to bring about that positive consequence. But that truth applies to warnings of negative consequences as well. And telling people that you bring the gift of eternal life is hardly a fire-and-brimstone sermon. [↩]
- For those who have not heard of the Septuagint, it is a highly respected ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament from the period between Malachi and the coming of Christ. Among other things, it is useful for determining how certain words may have been used in ancient Greek. [↩]
- Larry Perkins, “114. Punishment (kolasis, kolazein) – Eternal or Otherwise (Matthew 25:46; Acts 4:21; 2 Peter 2:9; 1 John 4:18),” Internet Moments with God’s Word [blog], posted May 30, 2011, http://moments.nbseminary.com/archives/114-punishment-kolasis-kolazein-%E2%80%93-eternal-or-otherwise-matthew-2546-acts-421-2-peter-29-1-john-418/ (accessed August 12, 2016). [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]