The Annihilation of Hell? A Response to Alan Gomes

Back in 1991, when hardly anyone had discovered the internet, anti-cult author and Biola university professor Dr. Alan W. Gomes wrote “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell,” a two-part article (see Part 1 and Part 2) for The Christian Research Journal.1 Those familiar with the debate over hell will recognize that things have moved on since then. Responding now could seem a little anachronistic. After all, Dr. Gomes can hardly be faulted for not interacting with more recent writings by evangelical conditionalists.

However, like J. I. Packer’s critical review from 1997, Dr. Gomes’ article is still doing the rounds, suggesting that a belated response may be warranted. My intention will not be to find fault with Dr. Gomes himself, but for practical reasons I will proceed as if Dr. Gomes had been apprised of the clear statements and arguments of today’s evangelical conditionalists. He at least had access to the pre-1991 contributions of evangelical conditionalists such as Edward Fudge and the late John Stott, with whom we are in substantial agreement. This interaction with a decades-long dialogue then should hopefully be instructive, perhaps even taking us all a little further.

Right off the bat, Gomes is to be commended for a genuine attempt to be fair and charitable. He states in his introduction that “evangelical annihilationists” are within the evangelical camp, and are not liberals. Unlike some other critics, Gomes accurately quotes John Stott, who had written that emotions are an unreliable guide compared to the Bible.2 He also correctly identifies the reason: “Stott is, after all, an evangelical.” This point is crucial to any charitable review of our movement: by definition, evangelicals give priority to the Bible.

But Gomes sends mixed messages, because he also says in his introduction, “It is precisely this desire for a kinder, gentler theology that appears to be the dynamic that is driving this movement.” Having absolved Stott of this charge, the only example he offered for his claim was that of Clark Pinnock. And there is some truth to that, in the case of Pinnock’s presentation. However, it just isn’t a fair assessment of the movement as a whole. Rethinking Hell does not advance emotional arguments at all, much less in a way that is driving! The straightforward biblical case is substantial and compelling enough on its own. There are some supplementary arguments to do with the nature of justice, but these are not emotionally driven, and are grounded in the biblical picture of justice.

It may not have been Gomes’ intent, but painting conditionalists as emotionally driven ends up appealing to prejudices among some of his traditionalist readers, which are, ironically, emotional. Considering that Gomes’ own writing toward the end suffers from some appeals to piety and a higher spiritual ground for traditionalists, he doesn’t seem to entirely evade his own criticism.

The Myth of A Kinder, Gentler Theology

The myth that final destruction is somehow a “kinder, gentler” view, or that this matters if it were true, should be put to bed. Gomes rightly rejects the myth that evangelical conditionalists are liberals, and yet these two are intertwined. Whenever this accusation is leveled by our traditionalist critics, what’s usually going on is a failure to see beyond the assumptions of their own paradigm. If you think that the severity of any punishment only ever consists in how bad it feels, and how long that bad feeling lasts, then of course anything less than everlasting torment is going to be less severe. But if everlasting punishment can only consist in torment, then it cannot also consist in privation: the loss of everlasting life. Yet such an eternal loss is clearly quite a serious and weighty thing, once we allow that capital punishment is legitimate too.

Both modes of punishment are equally eternal. Gomes seems to acknowledge this in saying, “the annihilation is eternal,” although he stumbles elsewhere by calling it “the rejection of eternal punishment.” As we will see, this is because he denies that annihilation is punishment at all.

Since eternal torment and annihilation each belong to different categories of punishment (corporal and capital), comparing them is not straightforward, and it’s not obvious that one is more or less severe. Even just subjectively, the reality is that we don’t know just how good eternal life will be, and how bad eternal torment would be.

But eternal torment is not as bad as it used to be, apparently. For much of the church’s history, hell was a place of physical pain. Lately, we’ve been hearing that it’s a realm of melancholic gloom—ever since C.S. Lewis made it respectable to speak of a kinder, gentler hell. Along with this more sanitized version of torment as “separation,” it’s common now to hear that residents of hell want to remain there. In a topsy-turvy kind of way, they refuse to suffer what for them would be a torturous existence in heaven. So, they keep the door of hell locked from the inside, so to speak—and God is just letting them have what they want!

In light of this, it seems ironic that John Piper should tweet, “Annihilation is what the unrepentant want, not what they dread. It would be a reward, not a punishment.”3 What he is assuming, like Gomes, is that final punishment can only be about pain and suffering, not also the forfeit of what is good. This leads Gomes to say the phrase “simply pass out of existence,” while intending to give a fair summary of annihilation. But if a return to nonexistence is to be a punishment at all, it must be due to the forfeit of ongoing life. That is a most serious consequence indeed, so there’s nothing “simple” about the punishment of annihilation.

A traditionalist thinker like Edward Feser appreciates this, so has said the very opposite thing to Piper: “In refraining from annihilating the person who is damned, then, God is precisely letting that person have what he wants.”4

The claim that non-being is nothing to fear goes back at least to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived three centuries before Christ. Plutarch, a contemporary of the apostle Paul, took issue with the denialist school:5

For Epicurus supposes that fear of punishment is the only motive to which we can properly appeal in deterring from crime. It follows that we should cram them even fuller of superstitious dread and bring to bear on them the joint array of celestial and terrestrial terrors and chasms and alarms and apprehensions . . . The great majority, however, have an expectation of eternity undisturbed by any myth-inspired fear of what may come after death; and the love of being, the oldest and greatest of all our passions, is more than a counterpoise for that childish terror . . . Hence it is not Cerberus nor yet Cocytus that has set no period to the fear of death, but the threat of non-being, which allows those once dead no return to being, for ‘there is no second birth; we must forever be no more’ as Epicurus says. For if the limit is non-being, and this has no limit and no exit, we discover that this loss of all good things is an evil that lasts forever, because it comes from an insentience that will never end.

Echoing Plutarch, Stewart Salmond summarizes:6

The idea of annihilation . . . was intolerable to the Greek mind. If they had no choice left them between entire extinction and an eternity of torment in Hades, they would have chosen the latter; almost all, men and women both, would have surrendered themselves to the teeth of Cerberus, or the buckets of the Danaidae, rather than to non-entity.

When Augustine—whose view of eternal torment is far from gentle—weighs in on the question of which would be worse, he strongly opposes the scales used by Piper and others today:7

If those wretches were offered immortality, on the condition that their misery would be undying, with the alternative that if they refused to live for ever in the same misery they would cease to have any existence at all, and would perish utterly, then they would certainly be overjoyed to choose perpetual misery in preference to complete annihilation.

This was so obvious to Augustine and most people in the ancient world, because they understood loss of life to be a valid and very serious punishment. And it’s just as obvious to most people in today’s world. Death is the loss of life, potentially forever. That’s why Hebrews 2:15 suggests that the “fear of death” can be so crippling without the hope of eternal life, and why so many of those who know they “deserve death” are bent on denial, as Romans 1:28-32 suggests.

Even though it can be argued that annihilation is subjectively and objectively more severe, the whole comparison is based on an unsubstantiated notion anyway: that God has selected the most severe punishment possible. Not only is that premise unproven, but if the criticism is just that the more lenient option isn’t right because it’s lenient, then this should cut both ways: neither is something correct because it’s not the more lenient option.

How Gomes Misunderstands Annihilation and Conditional Immortality

Perhaps due to his interest in cults and sects, Gomes introduces annihilationism first in the form held by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists (being careful to say in a footnote that he’s not branding the Adventists a cult, and that none of this means that annihilationism is false). This seems unnecessary for an article purporting to be about annihilationism among evangelicals, and it has the unfortunate effect of sidelining the best evangelical presentation of the view.

After noting that Witnesses and Adventists both teach the doctrine of “soul sleep,” denying any conscious existence between death and resurrection, Gomes merely adds that “other variations are possible.” But as evangelicals, conditionalists don’t need to hold to soul sleep, nor do we need to deny it. Some evangelicals do hold to it, while many don’t. Openness on this topic is a major distinctive of evangelical conditionalism. Since evangelicals affirm that the unsaved are brought back to life in the resurrection, the question of their prior consciousness has no bearing on final punishment. So instead of emphasizing what JWs and SDAs teach, Gomes should have emphasized that evangelical conditionalism doesn’t “teach the doctrine of ‘soul sleep’,” as he put it, even if there are some who happen to hold to that.

Despite this oversight, Gomes is more or less correct to say that what is part of the “irreducible core” is the fact of annihilation as the ultimate end of the unsaved, and that this is eternal. But it is only by understanding why annihilation is eternal, and what is therefore lost, that we can see how it is a punishment at all. If reduced to an event, annihilation doesn’t qualify as a punishment. But seen as a punishment, the event is only a means to an end, which is to forfeit ongoing life. Although Gomes at least notices that annihilation is eternal, he fails to grasp the reason why.

This leads him to make a crucial error when describing conditional immortality, and to issue a failed criticism that will plague his whole analysis. After parting company with the “many writers” who recommend using “conditionalism” and “annihilationism” interchangeably, he asserts that conditional immortality has nothing to do with God’s ultimate intention (even though that’s what immortality in Christianity should be about!). Instead, he says, only annihilation is about God’s ultimate intention, while conditionalism is the denial of the doctrine of a soul’s indestructibility. In lining things up this way, he says that we deny what we “erroneously perceive to be the traditional teaching, namely, that the soul is by nature absolutely impervious to destruction.”

But that’s wrong. Conditional immortality denies universal immortality, the view that all people ultimately live forever. Because this is a tenet of eternal torment, eternal torment is the traditional doctrine we deny. Because it is also a tenet of universalism, we must deny that view as well. In this way, conditionalism is certainly a view of God’s ultimate intention. If it were simply a view about the mechanism of how people might continue forever without being destroyed, it would be fairly trivial, and would not be a distinct view in the debate on hell. As I pointed out in an article explaining our label, it is not uncommon to conflate conditionalism with one of its tenets—that immortality is a gift of God by grace—however, “conditional immortality” has historically meant something about who ultimately receives this gift forever, not how immortality might work at the level of anthropology.

Gomes’ selection of destructibility instead of immortality is where he gets further off track. He mistakenly believes our argument to be that under traditionalism, God made souls so indestructible that He is unable to destroy/annihilate them. We fail to understand the orthodox teaching, he says, that the soul’s immortality is “not an absolute but a contingent immortality” that “depends on God’s continuing providential support.”

But our argument was never about whether or not God is powerful enough to destroy a soul He had made indestructible. That’s obviously spurious, like asking if God can create a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it. Of course God can annihilate a soul He has made indestructible.

The reason that annihilationists have argued against an innately immortal soul, is that this typically serves as a proxy for the doctrine of an ultimately immortal soul. In the history of the church, the soul’s immortality typically implies eternal existence. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, speaks of the “immortal subsistence” of the human soul, with some souls headed for heaven, and the rest for hell. It is this claim to eternal existence that we challenge when we argue that immortality is by grace alone, a gift given only to the saved. It’s not about whether God can annihilate. It’s about whether God will ever do so. Gomes completely misses this due to a blind spot created by asserting that conditionalism isn’t about God’s ultimate intention.

How Gomes Conveniently Mis-Frames the Debate

Unfortunately, the misunderstandings seen in his introductory section end up limiting his ability to assess the debate. Beginning his section on Bible passages, he says:

An exhaustive study on the doctrine of hell is not necessary, for this controversy revolves around only two main points: (1) Do the wicked experience conscious torment?; and (2) Do they suffer this torment eternally? Therefore, in looking at the scriptural evidence for the historic position, we will focus on . . . two sets of texts that answer these two questions conclusively. One set of passages comes from Matthew 25; the other verses come from the Book of Revelation.

Gomes will go on to assess the entire debate in four verses, which amount to the three passages that traditionalists almost always cite, often as the sumtotal of their case. He will explore what Matthew 25:41, 46 says about the nature and duration of hell—hardly one “set of passages”—and what Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10 each say about the same. Notably missing are treatments of passages annihilationists almost always cite, such as Matthew 10:28, 2 Peter 2:6 (cf. Jude 1:7) and 2 Thessalonians 1:9, or passages conditionalists might cite for clearly teaching something about immortality, such as 1 Timothy 6:16, Romans 2:7, 1 Corinthians 15:54 and 2 Timothy 1:10. Gomes’ choice of texts demonstrates clear selection bias.

His stated justification for this narrow focus falls short, since the controversy does not actually revolve around a Yes/No question about torment, and a Yes/No question about eternality. For one thing, both Gomes and Rethinking Hell answer “Yes” to the second question about eternity. For another, Gomes answers “Yes” to the first question about torment, and so do many conditionalists, since they hold that torment is a part of the process whereby the unsaved are destroyed. We all still reject eternal torment, of course, claiming that the nature of punishment is fundamentally about death and destruction, the loss of ongoing life. The question about the duration of any conscious experience is secondary to this, and cannot render the punishment temporary or non-eternal.
 

 
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Missing the Mark on Matthew 25:41, 46

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’ . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.

When Gomes asks us to consider his first passage, Matthew 25:41, 46, he begins by observing that “hell was created for Satan and his angels,” and that “the wicked share the same fate.” But this calls for nuance, because all that is said in this text is that accursed humans go “into” the eternal fire. There is nothing here to say what happens to them there, apart from the mention of eternal punishment. We may assume that the devil and his angels likewise go into the fire, and that theirs is an eternal punishment too, although this is not stated. But we do not know what happens to them there, either, or whether it’s the same as what happens to humans.

It is logically possible that the devil and his angels are tormented forever, while wicked people are destroyed. Indeed, that scenario is compatible with annihilationism, which is just concerned with the fate of human beings. And it is possible that the devil and his angels are destroyed, while wicked people are tormented forever. Again, the text does not give us enough information to draw the conclusion that Gomes does. He says that he’s planning to look at how Revelation depicts the devil’s fate, in order to conclude that the fate of wicked humans is exactly the same, and that he is “fully justified in ascribing this same fate to unredeemed men.” Many conditionalists do happen to think that the fate is annihilation in both cases, but to justify this from Matthew 25:41 alone is weak. A more careful, modest approach to handling the Bible is important in debate, lest we claim too much.

Gomes’ stated intention to decide what “eternal punishment” is merely by consulting Revelation isn’t the best methodology either. The phrase does not appear there, or anywhere else. But the similar phrase “punishment of eternal destruction” does appear in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which decisively favors annihilation. The phrase “eternal fire” also does not appear in Revelation, so again it’s not obvious that we should turn there next. Revelation does give us the symbol of a lake of fire and sulfur, and perhaps there is a correspondence between that and what Jesus said, despite Revelation not existing when Jesus said it. But the better place to turn next would be Jude 1:7, which is the only reference to “eternal fire” outside Matthew. Before we do that, we need to uncover another of Gomes’ assumptions:

Notice that this passage describes hell as a place of “eternal fire.” Should we understand this to mean literal, material, physical fire? Or should we regard the expression as metaphorical language, designed to convey an awful spiritual reality through physical language?

But does the text under consideration describe hell as a place? Does it even mention hell? The setting is the throne judgment, when Jesus comes back to earth and all of resurrected humanity are gathered before him (Matt 25:31, 32). Then, the wicked “depart” from Jesus and “go away into” the eternal fire/punishment (vv41, 46). Obviously there must be a location for this, but we are not compelled to think of it as a separate “place” called “hell,” that is shaped like some sort of  chasm so it can be filled to the brim with fire. It’s true that elsewhere Jesus speaks of a “Gehenna of fire” (Matt 18:9), but Gehenna is a known place on the earth, and there are important prophecies about its role in final punishment that do not easily lend themselves to the abstract idea of a place to be transported into, in order to be alive in “fire” forever (i.e. the traditional hell).

Instead of jumping to this conclusion, what is wrong with associating the fire in Matthew 25 with the fire in Daniel 7? Jesus is apparently referring to this visionary scene when he says “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations . . . ” (vv31, 32). In that scene, the fire encompassed the throne and its wheels (reminiscent of the vision in Ezekiel 1:4-28), and “a stream of fire issued and came out from before” the Lord as he sat in judgment, whereafter “the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire” (Dan 7:9-11). Is it not apparent that when Jesus referred to the prophetic figure of the “Son of Man” sitting on his glorious throne to judge, and of the condemned going into fire, that this scene in Daniel would have been what his listeners envisioned? Do we really need Jesus to say “spoken of by the prophet Daniel” as he did in the previous chapter (Matt 24:15) before we can know what he’s talking about?

Now, when we turn to Jude 1:7 to learn how “eternal fire” is described there, we see something much more consistent with Daniel 7 than with traditionalism’s container of fire inhabited by living people. Similar to the stream of fire in Daniel 7:10, we see a reference to Genesis 19:24, when fire streamed down to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (the text emphasizing that the fire issued from the Lord in heaven). Jude says that the inhabitants of those cities underwent “a punishment of eternal fire,” which the parallel passage in 2 Peter 2:6 says was “an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” There can be no doubt then about the importance of these passages for Matthew 25:41, but Gomes neglects to use them to help unlock its meaning.

The fire from heaven is called “the fire of God” in Job 1:16, and is associated with the deadly consuming fire that issues from the Lord’s presence (Lev 10:2; Num 16:35). Gomes understandably wants to avoid “an exhaustive study on the doctrine of hell,” however, any doctrine of hell should include a full study of punishment by fire, as the matrix of Matthew 25, Daniel 7, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and Jude 1:7 (cf. 2 Pet 2:6) suggests.

Gomes thinks that the eternal fire of Matthew 25 must be a metaphor, appealing to “conservatives” who would agree. But would the same conservatives think that the eternal fire at Sodom and Gomorrah was metaphorical? And if the rest of the elements of the scene aren’t metaphorical, how do flesh-and-blood human beings depart from Jesus into a metaphor? Gomes says that “earthly language” is just inadequate to describe hell, but again the idea of an ethereal place of torment is being read into the passage, which depicts an earthly scene at the second coming of Christ.

Next, Gomes argues that the phrase “eternal punishment” necessarily excludes annihilation:

In the Matthean texts before us, the final state of the wicked is described as one of everlasting punishment (kolasin aionion). From this it follows that the wicked are not annihilated. William Shedd cogently argues that “the extinction of consciousness is not of the nature of punishment.” If suffering is lacking, so is punishment; punishment entails suffering. But suffering entails consciousness. “If God by a positive act extinguishes, at death, the remorse of a hardened villain, by extinguishing his self-consciousness, it is a strange use of language to denominate this a punishment.”

Here, Gomes makes explicit his earlier assumption that the only valid kind of punishment is conscious suffering. To this effect he quotes John Gerstner, who said “Annihilation means the obliteration of existence and anything that pertains to existence, such as punishment.” But the critic’s definition of our view is not our own definition. What Gomes, Shedd and Gerstner all fail to see is that the punishment of annihilation is not about an event, or the subsequent state of non-being per se. It is about the privation of ongoing life. This punishment is to be weighed subjectively while a person still possesses life, and not once they don’t. Once they don’t, the objective nature of the punishment remains, and simply does not require ongoing awareness of the one punished.

Despite the assertions of some traditionalist theologians, capital punishment is widely regarded as a valid form of punishment. As Augustine observed, “the award of death for any great crime” does not reckon punishment “to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted,” but rather in that “the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living.” Traditionalists who assert that the only valid form of punishment is conscious torment are also guilty of circular reasoning: it is supposed to be left for their conclusion only.

But Gomes only doubles down on this point in Part 2 of his series:

As we observed in Part One, the mere fact that the wicked are said to experience “punishment” (Greek: kolasin) proves two inescapable facts by the nature of the case: the existence of the one punished, and the conscious experience of the punishment. If either of these two are lacking, then punishment is not occurring — at least not in any meaningful sense of the term. Someone cannot be punished eternally unless that someone is there to receive the punishment. One can exist and not be punished, but one cannot be punished and not exist. Nonentities cannot receive punishment. . . . But the Bible uses the adjective “eternal” to describe the punishment itself, not merely the result of the punishment . . . Once we have said the word “punishment” we have also said, at least by implication, the word “conscious.” Punishment, per se, is conscious or it is not punishment. A punishment that is not felt is not a punishment.

Enough has been said about the glaring problem with all this, but two observations are worth noting. First, being oblivious to capital punishment at this point, Gomes can only misrepresent the annihilationist position as saying that eternal punishment is “merely the result of the punishment.” What we actually say, is that “punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is a noun of result (not one of process), as it is in “eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” (Heb 5:9; 9:12). This does not strip punishment of being eternal, any more than it strips salvation and redemption of being eternal. No, in each case, while the acts of punishing, saving and redeeming do conclude, the punishment, salvation and redemption are still properly eternal on account of everlasting effects. The same would be true of “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where the destruction itself (not the act of destroying) is eternal. Second, Gomes boldly aligns the Greek term kolasin with his view alone, by smuggling in the alleged “fact” that the wicked are “said to experience” punishment (which of course the passage does not say at all), and making this his hidden premise throughout. But kolasin is accurately translated as “punishment,” which is a general category that specifies no particular kind of punishment. The word can certainly receive more specific meaning from context, but this includes both the kinds of punishment Gomes has in mind, and also capital punishment (for example, in 2 Maccabees 4:38, 3 Maccabees 7:10 and Josephus, Antiquities XV,16).

Gomes concludes his treatment of Matthew 25:41, 46 by arguing that in the phrase “eternal punishment,” the Greek adjective aionion means “everlasting, without end.” But again, we agree. As Gomes himself stated, part of the “irreducible core” of annihilation is that it is eternal! His failure to see why this matters has lead him to reduce the “irreducible” anyway, as if it has no relevance to the debate. He ends up treating annihilation merely through the descriptive lens of a state of non-being, instead of the required lens of justice, which is prescriptive. The result is that he argues in favor of what is already our position at Rethinking Hell!

As with the myth of the kinder, gentler theology, it’s as if today’s critics of annihilation can no longer see what their forebears could see. In the present case, ardent traditionalist Jonathan Edwards simply granted our claim for Matthew 25:

For, if it be owned, that Scripture expressions denote a punishment that is properly eternal, but that it is in no other sense properly so, than as the annihilation, or state of non-existence, to which the wicked shall return, will be eternal . . . and that the fire of hell is called eternal fire, in the same sense that the eternal fire which consumed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha is called eternal fire, because it utterly consumed those cities, that they might never be built more; and that this fire is called that which cannot be quenched, or at least not until it has destroyed them that are cast into it . . . it answers the scripture expressions as well, to suppose that they shall be annihilated immediately, without any long pains, provided the annihilation be everlasting.

Annihilation is a punishment that is properly everlasting, and there is no problem with this in Matthew 25 or anywhere else. For a discussion of this in more depth, see this article.

Claiming Too Much for Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10

…If anyone worships the beast and his image… he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, those who worship the beast and his image…

And the Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Conditionalists readily accept that these passages in Revelation speak of torment, but Gomes spends a paragraph arguing the point anyway, and then addresses two possible objections. The first objection is to suggest that torment might not be conscious, which is obviously wrong (so most likely, nobody has ever said it). The second is to say that “these passages in Revelation do not say that men are tormented, just the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet,” which is a curious fact that should be explored (but Gomes just invokes Matthew 25 to dismiss that kind of inquiry, as he earlier said he would).

After arguing that the passages do speak of torment—we completely agree—Gomes argues that the torment so depicted is eternal, which we also accept. From these two uncontested points, he exultantly concludes that “The language is unambiguous, emphatic, and conclusive. These verses by themselves should be sufficient to settle the argument forever.”

Interestingly, though, Gomes had only just quoted R. C. H. Lenski’s principle, “Human language is able to use only temporal terms to express what is altogether beyond time and timeless.” This limitation of earthly language Gomes appealed to earlier in the course of arguing that eternal fire must be a metaphor in Matthew 25, Jesus painting a picture for us in order to convey just “an awful spiritual reality.” Why is Gomes so willing to jump to metaphor in the context of didactic speech, yet so quick to take literally the symbols of apocalyptic vision?! If anything, shouldn’t we default to the opposite approach?

Such is the claim of many conditionalists: the depiction of eternal torment in Revelation’s imagery symbolizes something else—permanent destruction. This proposal may seem incredible to some, at least at first hearing. After all, in the debate these concepts taken literally are strongly opposed; how then could they be associated closely enough for one to refer to the other by way of symbol?

Objections to a Literal Revelation 20:10 by Pinnock, Stott and Fudge

When Gomes circles back around to Revelation 20:10 in Part 2, he deals with objections by Pinnock, Stott and Edward Fudge. Pinnock had offered that the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet cannot be equated with ordinary human beings, and that the point of the image of endless torment seems to be that “everything which has rebelled against God will come to an absolute end.” Incredulously, Gomes counters with unabashed literalism: “to read the text is to refute Pinnock.”

Stott had offered that the beast, the false prophet and the harlot are symbols representing “the world in its varied hostility to God,” like “‘Death and Hades,’ which follow them into the lake of fire (20:13).” Gomes counters again with literalism: if Stott is right, the text would be “pure gibberish,” since in reality abstractions “cannot be tortured.” But of course abstract symbols can be depicted as being tortured in such a format as apocalyptic vision. In Stott’s original argument, he clearly says “in the vivid imagery of his vision,” separating the symbols from their interpretation. Stott had noticed—along with numerous commentators—that “the most natural way to understand the reality behind the imagery” of Death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire, was that it signifies their end, or destruction (after all, they had just been emptied of their inhabitants in the preceding verse). And so he extended this interpretive function to the other abstractions thrown in. For Stott, this implicated the symbols of a dragon, a monster, and “the harlot Babylon” (given the use of the noun for torment in Revelation 18:7, 10 and 15). Gomes points out that Stott still believes in a personal devil, but no doubt Stott would reply that the symbol of “the dragon” in verse 2 is still indexed to its interpretation, “the devil,” in verse 20.

What is not mentioned in Gomes’ article, but gives credence to the natural reading of Stott and Pinnock, is that the interpretation of the fate of the harlot is that the city is “laid waste” and “found no more” (Rev 18:20, 21), and the interpretation of the lake of fire symbol is given as “the second death” (Rev 20:14), apparently in reference to the people who came out of Death, Hades, and the sea, only to be thrown into the lake of fire after not being found recorded in the book of life (Rev 20:12-15). Such important contextual clues for how to interpret the symbols cast doubt on Gomes’ literalism.

In responding to Fudge, Gomes gives the uncharitable paraphrase: “We know from elsewhere in the Bible that annihilationism is true. Therefore, this verse cannot possibly mean what it says.” This completely misrepresents what Fudge had written. After conceding the singular difficulty of this text for annihilationists, he had simply referenced “the overwhelming mass of material” in the Bible. This is a neutral statement about the whole debate, but Gomes mistakenly read it as if it referred to the strength of evidence for annihilationism. Fudge’s point was to express caution about jumping to conclusions from less common and more obscure material; as he noted, this is a “general hermeneutical rule.”

Gomes counters by asking what is so unclear about Revelation 20:10. Is it the word “devil”? Or maybe the phrase “lake of fire and brimstone?” he asks condescendingly. But that Gomes can fall foul of the text’s ambiguity is clear when he immediately assumes that “the place described in Revelation 20:10 is a place…,” by which he means that the text describes a real place that exists somewhere as such. But it doesn’t. All we know for sure is that John sees in his mind’s eye a lake of fire and sulfur.

Remembering that he had suggested that the fire is a metaphor, Gomes ends up dodging the present issue of hermeneutical consistency by saying that the reality is “at least as bad” as what is depicted (how this claim is even relevant is unclear). Remembering next that “the beast and false prophet” may plausibly be abstractions for what Fudge calls “political power and apostate religious beguilement” (as is the view of many commentators), Gomes counters by saying that the Devil is an individual. In so doing, he falls back on his insistence that the devil’s human followers simply must experience the same fate as he, ignoring the fact that annihilationism need only pertain to human destiny. He concludes by saying that “tormented” and “day and night forever and ever” are not unclear phrases either, based on his misunderstanding that by “abstractions cannot be tormented,” annihilationists must believe that they cannot even be tormented in the vision.

Unquenchable Fire, Undying Worms

Gomes concludes the first part of his article with a detectably pious flourish, about how solemnly we must carry the doctrine of hell from the lips of the Lord Jesus, and how if so many Christian saints got it wrong “Christ Himself [would] be to blame” because he would have “selected language guaranteed to lead His church astray.” And what language is that? For Gomes, it is “undying worms,” “chains of darkness,” “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and “a lake of fire [that] burns but is never quenched.” Such “powerful imagery,” he says, offers “awesome figures [that] force upon our imagination” a picture of eternal torment.

There is an implicit argument here, that such concepts are meant to be plucked from their contexts, and assembled by the power of our imagination. It is predicated on the idea that such a creative method is valid because hell is just too strange to be expressed more straightforwardly.

Yet the two claims are in tension. If the Bible gives us a collection of vignettes and leaves the emerging picture to our imagination, then what ensures that we all imagine the same picture (lest Jesus be responsible for being unclear)? If all these things are necessarily metaphors and the like, how can we tell if we’ve successfully grasped the otherwise ungraspable? Across different times and cultures, whose subjective impression counts? The picture assembled by William Temple, an Archbishop of York and Canterbury, points away from the traditional imagination:8

Are there not, however, many passages which speak of the endless torment of the lost? No; as far as my knowledge goes there is none at all. There are sayings which speak of being cast into undying fire. But if we do not approach these with the presupposition that what is thus cast in is indestructible, we shall get the impression, not that it will burn for ever, but that it will be destroyed . . . after all, annihilation is an everlasting punishment though it is not unending torment.

Are we really supposed to imaginatively assemble Gomes’ collection of images? This is quite a popular approach of traditionalists today, who will typically justify it by pointing out that if taken more plainly, the images of fire and of darkness are incompatible. But it is relatively easy to show that the list doesn’t justify the method.

Firstly, there is actually no single image of “a lake of fire [that] burns but is never quenched.” Instead, this is a conflation of a symbolic image from a vision that was circulated among churches in the late first century, and a public teaching of Jesus about the fire at Gehenna. Jesus did not refer forwards in time to something that wasn’t written yet, but instead quoted Isaiah 66:24 verbatim, which itself echoes the unquenchable fire that causes the destruction of Edom in Isaiah 34:10. But traditionalists require the fires of hell to behave in a peculiar way, in terms of burning without ever burning up; tormenting yet never consuming. The property “unquenchable” seems to traditionalist ears to accommodate such a strange operation, but in reality means no more nor less than that the fire cannot be stopped (i.e. put out). Where is this precise image that we are supposed to imaginatively assemble with others? It turns out that Gomes’ imagination is already in high gear when he thinks of a lake made of fire that is “unquenchable” in that strange way.

Secondly, the meaning of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is not up for grabs, since it contains the biblical idiom and known cultural practice of teeth-gnashing. Far from expressing the idea of writhing in pain, it plainly refers to scowling in anger, hatred or bitterness (see Psa 35:16; 37:12; 112:10; Job 16:9; Lam 2:16; Acts 7:54). Pairing this emotion with the disappointment and regret of weeping only enriches it with the connotation of the wicked receiving their unwanted, just desserts. When the phrase is used in a context with fire, we find that the “weeds” are gathered “first” to be bound together “in bundles to be burned” (Matt 13:40-42 cf. 30). Hence, weeping and teeth-gnashing may occur in the place of gathering, rather than inside the fiery furnace as is normally just assumed. When the phrase is used in parables referring to “outer darkness,” which overall convey the idea of a Master returning to a great feast with his faithful servants, and shutting the door on others, the unfaithful are simultaneously “cast out” of the kingdom as much as they are “cast into” the darkness outside (Matt 8:11-12; 22:13; 25:30 Luke 13:27-28). There is no warrant for associating fire and darkness, since the associations for each occur within unique parables (fire for weeds at harvest time; darkness outside the doors of a kingdom’s feast—presumably at night). Fire is the only element preserved in an interpretation (Matt 13:40-42). This follows the same pattern of the interpretation of the Parable of the Net a few verses later (Matt 13:49-50). When a discussion of gathering and separating follows on in Matthew 25:31-46 from a mention of weeping and teeth-gnashing (perhaps as its elaboration), it is clear that there will be a visceral, emotional reaction (Matt 25:41-44 cf. Matt 7:21-23). Rather than weeping and teeth-gnashing describing what it feels like to inhabit eternal fire, all the evidence points to it being a response to learning of one’s own exclusion from the community of salvation, before being cast into eternal fire. We are told plainly that it happens precisely “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28)—the image is not up for grabs.

Thirdly, “chains of darkness” appears in Jude 1:6 (“eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day”), and in the parallel passage of 2 Peter 2:4 (“…cast them into [tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment”)—each referring to the present temporary state of fallen angels. The “chains” may be eternal, but they are not serving to bind the angels forever. And the reference to Tarturus, the dungeon-like abyss of Greek mythology, is not meant to be taken doctrinally, considering all that the Greeks said of Tarturus. What license do we have to draw from these passages the notion that after the day of judgment, some human beings will occupy an eternal place conveyed in such images? As we’ve just seen, the parables including an “outer darkness” concept supply no exegetical link with this passage either. Ignoring the context, and just extracting “darkness” from all passages as another metaphor for a preconceived notion of hell is clearly the wrong approach.

Fourthly, what Gomes means by “undying worms” is that they never die, which is not a conservative reading of what Jesus meant in saying “their worm does not die” (Mark 9:48 cf. Isa 66:24). As above, this over-interpretation is similar to the traditionalist interpretation of the parallel phrase, “the fire is not quenched,” to imagine a fire that burns its fuel without ever going out. The effect is to invest worms and fire with a strangeness that is necessary for eternal torment. But this is not the idea being conveyed in Isaiah 66:24, which is that the agents of destruction upon dead bodies are relentless, unable to be stopped. The fire is the fire from the Lord that slaughters His enemies at Gehenna (Isa 66:15, 16), while worms are maggots that are likewise unstoppable as they do what maggots do to dead bodies. For a more in-depth discussion, see this article.

Moral Arguments

In a section called “moral arguments” in Part 2, Gomes takes aim at what he ends up disparaging as “emotional” arguments. He quotes both Pinnock and Stott as saying there would be “a serious disproportion” between sins committed “in time” during a human lifetime, and the infliction of torment without end. After quoting Pinnock’s concern that this goes beyond lex talionis, which punishes like for like, Gomes responds by accusing both opponents of assuming that “the heinousness of a crime is directly related to the time it takes to commit it.”

But that’s clearly not what either of them had in mind! It takes a fraction of a second to shoot an innocent person. That’s about how long it should take to figure out that neither Pinnock nor Stott would consider a second of torment to be an appropriate punishment. Lex talionis isn’t about equivalent time. It’s about reciprocal harm, via principles of balance and proportion. Even if lex talionis weren’t in play, one could grant for the sake of argument that committing murder should justly lead to, say, a million years of torment. But the principle would still be the same: the punishment should fit the crime by means of some measure, if it is to be called justice at all. Lashing out at someone once and receiving a million lashes in return may be considered extreme and disproportionate punishment, but receiving infinite lashes is something else entirely. If a punishment is exhausted “in time,” at least it is finite, compared to eternity. Justice is supposed to be about an appropriate measure, whatever that is, but eternal torment discards measure itself.

Gomes’ explanation for this is that “sin against an absolutely holy God is absolutely serious…”—a sentiment entirely compatible with annihilationism. Therefore, he says, “…the unredeemed suffer absolute, unending alienation from God.” He doesn’t say why this must be conscious alienation, or how “absolute” determines “unending.” The annihilationist could just as easily conclude that “the unredeemed suffer absolute, permanent alienation from the source of life, God.” This would perhaps be more fitting, because the absolute holiness and glories of God pertain to His being, as annihilation also pertains to being. But the traditionalist equation shifts from being to time, arguably equivocating on “absolute.” This equivocation is more clearly seen when traditionalists use the term “infinite” instead. To avoid equivocation it may be better—and more theologically grounded—to say that God is perfectly holy, maximally great, and so forth. With that greater precision, it becomes more obvious that the concept of unceasing time for punishing sinners does not naturally emerge from the magnitude of God’s greatness.

Linguistic Arguments

The last section of Gomes’ article that we must deal with covers what he calls the “linguistic arguments” of annihilationists. This amounts to reviewing a range of biblical words and phrases that annihilationists think favor our case. Gomes quotes Edward Fudge’s summary of what they portray: “destruction, extinction or extermination.” But instead of appreciating the careful arguments made by annihilationists for these passages, Gomes does what most critics have done in response: replace what we actually say the language means, with the concept of ultimate annihilation. This leads Gomes to litter his responses with the repeated objection:

Annihilationists believe that words . . . indicate total annihilation . . . But should we understand this . . . to mean total annihilation? . . . It is clear [that] this word . . . need not mean annihilation . . . lapsed into nonexistence . . . not true [that it] must mean annihilation . . . These verses, they believe, prove the utter annihilation of the wicked . . . the Messiah . . . certainly was not annihilated . . . this would not prove that they are removed from any existence . . . Annihilationists also point to words . . . as proof that the wicked are annihilated . . . cannot possibly be annihilation . . . we should not assume automatically that the mere presence of the word . . . proves annihilation.

It bears repeating here that evangelical annihilationists hold to annihilation as eternal punishment. So we are not going to argue that anyone is “annihilated” if they have simply died, and will return to life in resurrection to face their judgment. However, words like “death” and “destruction” could be used to refer to final annihilation, given adequate context. But if the context is not definitive, we would offer a cumulative case, not a simplistic equation that such words just mean annihilation.

For example, when we read that “all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked” (Psa 37:38), we do not automatically know that this is “proof” of ultimate destruction, i.e. annihilation. No conditionalist should argue that it is, because again, we hold to their return to life. At the same time, it is not irrelevant to the debate on the destiny of the wicked, because it contains a principle that an Old Testament saint might expect to pertain to ultimate justice.

Some statements are latent with more potential relevance than others. The one mentioned above points to a time when all sinners will be destroyed and have no future. One might argue that this hasn’t happened yet, and can only be fulfilled at the final judgment—when “destroyed and have no future” would certainly challenge what traditionalists believe. Or take Psalm 73, for example, which starts out in confusion over the wicked prospering their entire lives, to the point where people start to think that God doesn’t even know about this travesty—until the psalmist enters God’s sanctuary to discern the true end of the wicked (v17). With the light of new revelation, he concludes, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you” (vv26, 27). This is rather like Psalm 37:38, only more clearly set in a context where apparent injustices in the world right now will gave way to ultimate justice at some future point. Gomes wishes to force-fit such arguments into the mold of proof, as if the only relevance to final punishment could be where certain words just mean “annihilation” or “removed from any existence.” But the more nuanced argument is that all such words and phrases as can be shown to be relevant to ultimate justice, are suggestive of annihilation on judgment day, more than they suggest eternal torment.

Conclusion

As a piece of criticism, Gomes has made a respectable attempt. But his two-part article never quite recovers from some critical misrepresentations that were introduced early on, and worked through the whole. Gomes presents his own positive case well enough, but unfortunately doesn’t present or critique a good biblical case for evangelical annihilationism.

 

*       *       *       *       *

 

  1. Alan W. Gomes, “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell,” Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, pp. 14ff. and Summer 1991, pp 8ff. []
  2. David L. Edwards and John R. W. Stott, “Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue,” InterVarsity, 1988, pp 312-20. []
  3. John Piper, published at twitter.com/JohnPiper, 10th January 2015. []
  4. Edward Feser, “Why not annihilation?,” https://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2016/12/why-not-annihilation.html []
  5. Plutarch, “Moralia, Volume XIV: That Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible,” Loeb Classical Library 428, Harvard University Press, 1967. p131, 147 []
  6. Stewart Salmond, “The Christian Hope of Immortality,” pp608-609 as quoted in Edward Fudge, “The Fire That Consumes,” Cascade, 2011, 139. []
  7. St. Augustine, “City of God,” XI.27, Penguin Classics Edition. []
  8. William Temple, “Nature, Man and God,” 1934, being part of the Gifford Lectures (available here). []
Criticisms Peter Grice
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  • Mark

    In addition to providing a clear and well reasoned critique of Gomes article, I also found several “jewels” in this post. I’ll just mention one. The description and explanation of “lex talionis” sharpened and refined my own understanding of this Biblical principle. The principle of just and proportional punishment is in itself a very weighty piece of evidence against eternal conscious torment. Thanks!

    • Peter Grice

      Thanks, @disqus_0DZsAl1wuC:disqus!

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