Daniel 12:2 and “Eternal Contempt” 1
Few passages from the Old Testament are cited as evidence that hell is a place of eternal torment. Given the Old Testament’s emphasis on death and destruction, this shouldn’t surprise us. If I believed that the unsaved live forever in torment, I wouldn’t run to passages about the wicked withering and dying like grass, 2 or that call for them to melt away like slugs, 3 or that describe them being burned to ashes and left without root or branch at the final judgment (like Malachi 4:1-3 does) either. But one passage stands out as an exception. One passage is a commonly cited as proof of eternal torment. That passage is Daniel 12:2:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt (NASB).
Basically, this passage speaks of the resurrection of both the saved and the unsaved. But aside from the fact that this does not speak of inherent immortality, it doesn’t say anything about eternal conscious existence for the damned, period.
I am not questioning the eternal duration of the contempt for the wicked, nor do I disagree with the following:
“Grammatically, there is no difference here between the length of time mentioned for life and that for punishment; rather, there is simply eternal life and eternal death.” 4
But while both the life and contempt are eternal in duration, that does not mean that both groups of people consciously exist for eternity.
Put simply, it is perfectly reasonable to read Daniel’s description of the unsaved as describing not what they feel (which would require consciousness), but rather, how others feel about them. They rise to everlasting contempt because at their resurrection they discover that they will always be viewed with contempt by the righteous who, unlike them have risen to eternal life. Although the wicked will not live for eternity, the contempt held for them will.
Consider this: Adolf Hitler is dead, yet don’t we still revile his name? Even if his soul is conscious in some intermediate state, 5 he probably can’t hear us or read our minds when we scorn his memory. Does this mean that when we think of Hitler we don’t think of him with contempt, since he is gone? Of course not! Even an atheist who does not believe that Hitler exists in any form would still say that he is looked upon with contempt. His contempt is ongoing, even if he himself is not (though he will certainly be resurrected). Just in terms of common sense, being disgraced and a subject of contempt does not by any means prove conscious existence.
Furthermore, consider the significance of Isaiah 66:24:
And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (KJV).
At first, it may not be apparent why I quoted this passage. But this passage sheds light on Daniel 12:2 once we understand the Hebrew behind the word for “an abhorring.” The Hebrew term deraon, translated “an abhorring” in Isaiah 66:24, is the same word translated as “contempt” in Daniel 12:2. 6 Isaiah 66:24 is also the only other passage in the Old Testament that uses this term. 7 For this reason, we can look at Isaiah for some guidance as to what the term means and how it applies to Isaiah.
Isaiah uses the same rare Hebrew term that Daniel does to describe what is often translated in English as “contempt.” It is assumed in the case of Daniel that the “contempt” is an emotion that conscious, living people are experiencing in hell. But notice that Isaiah says that carcasses, dead bodies, are what will be loathsome or abhorrent. How conscious is a dead body? How much shame can a dead body feel? None, obviously. These corpses are an abhorance, i.e. they are subject to contempt, because even though they have no conscious existence, other beings that do have conscious existence abhor them.
I suppose one could try to say that in Isaiah, the carcasses of God’s enemies are actually conscious living people (as opposed to carcasses). Even then, however, the term deraon is not describing the experience of God’s enemies, but how others view them. Those whom Isaiah describe as looking upon those dead bodies will look upon them with contempt.
Now, if one is said to rise to contempt, as Daniel 12:2 describes it, it is perfectly logical to think of the situation in similar terms. The unsaved rise to everlasting contempt because even after they are destroyed and all that remains of them is inert matter, they will still be an abhorrence to all flesh.
Facing contempt does not require one to be alive to be scorned. It does not necessarily mean that one can actually feel the scorn. As a matter of common sense, it just simply doesn’t. Dead people like Hitler face contempt whether they know it right now or not. Even concepts and non-personal entities can face contempt. Who doesn’t hate death with a passion? Who here has at least some degree of ill will towards the now defunct Soviet Union? To this day the non-existent, non-living Soviet Union is disgraced and looked at with contempt, yet obviously it never could feel anything in the first place!
The same can be said for shame. Shame can be an emotion that a conscious person experiences, but it can also describe the fact that such a person or entity is viewed with contempt, regardless of their knowledge of it. Glenn Peoples gives us an example of this occurring even now:
It makes sense to talk this way even today. In preparing this part of the presentation, I did a quick look on the internet to see if any of this type of language was out there, and one of the first results I found was an example of a person condemning the integrity of a certain political figure, saying (and I quote) that “after he and his kind are dust, only their shame will remain.” 8
Although it is true that the unsaved who awake to disgrace and everlasting contempt will not always be awake, the disgrace and contempt outlives them. Absolutely nothing is said in Daniel 12:2 about endless life or conscious existence for the damned. The scripture only tells us that they rise, not that they remain risen forever. 9 Daniel 12:2 does not prove eternal torment, because it does not mention anything about eternal conscious existence for the unsaved.
The Significance of “Life”
One last thing to consider is this: the fate of the wicked is contrasted to those who have “eternal life.” On its face, contrasting them with those who have life sure doesn’t sound like they have conscious existence forever.
What about “life” in Daniel 12:2? It is said, in defense of the traditional view, that “life” has a special meaning in the Bible that refers to consciously knowing God, as opposed to death, which is consciously being separated from God. Is Daniel using “life” to mean “knowing God,” following the paradigm that everyone is conscious (i.e. alive) and “life” vs. “death” is just a matter of the quality of life?
This special Bible-only meaning of the word life is problematic to say the least. 10 But even beyond problems with this overall approach that one might point to, it is quite clear that at the very least, many times the Bible speaks of “life” it means it in the normal sense of the term. One can be alive without being conscious (at least for a time), but one cannot normally be conscious and yet be considered to not have have life. They may be living a miserable life, but they still have life regardless of the quality of it. We cannot, therefore, just assume that Daniel means life in a metaphorical sense of knowing God (in contrast to being physically alive but not knowing God).
Of course, this would not be to deny that Daniel ultimately envisions eternal life as a glorious life of knowing God. It’s just that the phrase itself would be referring first and foremost to conscious existence (as opposed to lack thereof). In the world to come, according to evangelical conditionalism, all who consciously exist will live in a glorious new heavens and earth. The term “eternal life” itself does not tell us this, but we know from the rest of the Bible that our eternal life will be absolutely incredible. Therefore, even if “eternal life” does not itself mean “glorious life of knowing God,” in practice, when Jesus and others tell us we will have eternal life, we know what kind of life we will have for eternity.
But regarding the use of life in Daniel 12:2, it is worth noting that the sense of life having a more standard, dictionary meaning is clearer in the Old Testament than it is in the New. 11 The Hebrew scriptures do, after all, put much more focus is put on earthly things (which is not to belittle the Old Testament at all, it’s just a matter of what God, in his perfect wisdom, knew best to focus on at a given time). A lot of different words are translated as life. Like “life,” they certainly could be used metaphorically, but at times, they clearly aren’t.
The word chay, which is what Daniel 12:2 says the saved awake to, is used in many such contexts. It refers to all the living creatures created throughout Genesis 1. It is used to describe the earthly life of human beings in Deuteronomy 4:10. It describes how God lives forever in Deuteronomy 32:40. In 2 Chronicles 25.12, it describes those left alive after being captured by the army of Judah. Psalm 63:3 says, “Because Your lovingkindness is better than life [chay], My lips will praise You” (NASB). In that context, I think it is safe to say the David isn’t saying that God’s love is better than knowing God! He’s saying that even the most important thing man knows, staying alive, can’t compare to how great it is to be loved by God. Such a statement obviously has a figurative element (you literally can’t experience God’s love if you are not alive), but that figurative element is based on “life” having a literal, biological meaning.
Although it can be used figuratively, 12 it is not the major theme of the word. It usually just means being alive.
With that in mind, if anything, this passage helps the case for evangelical conditionalism. The saved get to have “eternal life,” using a term for life that is primarily used to describe not quality of life, but rather, life itself. The fate of the unsaved is contrasted with this glorious fate of eternal life. Therefore, this passage teaches that the unsaved will not have eternal life. On its face, especially in a Hebrew context, that sure doesn’t sound like two groups consciously existing (which requires living) for eternity, does it?
As is the case with passages like Matthew 25:46, a rush to judgment is made that since a passage mentions eternality, and is even paralleled with “eternal life,” it must therefore be speaking to the eternal conscious experience of the unsaved in hell. However, as you can see after just a brief examination, Daniel 12:2 fails to prove the eternal conscious existence of those who do not rise to eternal life, and therefore, it fails to disprove evangelical conditionalism.
Why then does Daniel 12:2 seem to mean eternal torment to so many people? Perhaps there is something to the idea that, because of tradition, we assume that everyone lives forever somewhere. If we take it for granted that everybody lives forever somewhere, then of course those who arise to eternal contempt will live in that state forever – despite the fact that the passage says that they do not rise to eternal life in the first place.
- Adapted From The Bible Teaches Annihilationism by Joseph Dear, Section XX.
- Psalm 37:2.
- Psalm 58:8.
- Driscoll, Mark and Gary Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Crossway, 2010), 430.
- Or even if, unbeknownst to anyone, he repented and genuinely accepted Jesus right before his death and will end up rising to life in the end…
- Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny (Biblical Perspectives, 1997), 199.
- “1860. דֵּרָאוֹן (deraon),” Bible Hub, n.d. http://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_1860.htm (accessed July 26, 2017).
- Glenn Peoples, “Why I Am an Annihilationist,” 26, Right Reason, n.d., http://www.rightreason.org/article/theology/annihilationist.pdf (accessed July 26, 2017).
- As to why God would resurrect the unsaved just to destroy them, I have written some about that in the article “Double Jeopardy: Why Raise the Dead, Only to Destroy Them?”
- For a few of the problems with this approach to the meaning of of its many problems, see the “Traditionalism and the (Not So) Second Death” and “Obfuscating Traditionalism: No Eternal Life in Hell?” by Chris Date.
- See the Merriam-Webster learner’s dictionary definition here.
- James Strong, “A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible,” The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Thomas Nelson, 1983), 38.