During his missionary journeys, Paul often faced fierce opposition and was run out of many towns. When he came to Berea, however, Paul encountered Jews who were willing not only to hear his message but also to take the time to investigate it in light of the Hebrew Scriptures (Acts 17:11). What a blessing this must have been! Joy undoubtedly filled Paul’s heart as scrolls were unrolled in search of the truth. And heaven surely rejoiced over the evangelistic victory that followed: “Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men” (Acts 17:12).
The eagerness of the Bereans to consider Paul’s claims regarding Jesus and his resurrection in light of God’s word is celebrated in Scripture as a noble endeavor. To this day, to be known as a “Berean believer” is a huge compliment. It speaks of valuing Scripture above tradition and personalities, especially with regard to controversial subjects. It refers to one who opens his or her Bible and carefully examines the details of the text.
Do you stand ready to take a fresh look at the Scriptures to see for yourself what they actually say? Those of us in the evangelical conditionalist movement hope so. And we encourage you to join us in testing the common claim that divine justice requires suffering throughout all of eternity.
For those wondering about the need to investigate what the Bible says about final punishment, or who might be looking for help getting started, here are some questions for your consideration:
- Are “few stripes” (Luke 12:48) and eternal suffering compatible concepts?
- Does it seem reasonable that a holy God would eternally sustain sinfulness that he absolutely abhors?
- In light of Ezekiel 33:1-9 and the great importance God places on providing warning, if unending anguish were a possibility for Adam and Eve, should they not have been made aware of this?
- The essence of the traditional view of hell is that every human being exists eternally either in God’s presence or separated from him. Did God say to Adam in the Garden of Eden, “If you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will live forever, but you will do so without the benefit of My fellowship?”
- Traditionalism explicitly holds that the penalty for sin is to eternally suffer in the lake of fire. Did Adam hear God say, “Adam, if you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will experience pain and suffering that will never end?”
- The earliest Scripture typically cited by traditionalists in support of their position is Isaiah 66:24. Therefore, if traditionalism is true, not only were Adam and Eve uninformed as to the price of rebellion, but for more than half of human history, God kept silent about the penalty of ECT that loomed over one generation after the next. Does such silence seem reasonable?
- What punishment for transgression did God declare to Adam?
- In Romans 1, we learn that from the beginning people knew God through the things that he had made. Rather than glorify him as God, however, many became idol-worshipers. Though these did not like to think about God, Paul assures us that they were well aware of the Creator’s penalty for sin. According to Romans 1:32, what punishment did their sinful ways merit? Was God’s warning to Adam and the understanding of the ancient idol-worshipers, one and the same?
- Given the gravity of the penalty, wouldn’t ECT merit straightforward declaration: crystal-clear warning in Scripture? Further, if ECT were true, would it not be plainly declared throughout the Bible? What are we to conclude, then, if this is not the case?
- Of the some 23,000 verses in the Old Testament, there are two that traditionalists typically cite in support of their view: Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:2. In Isaiah 66:24, do the corpses of those slain by the Lord picture ongoing suffering or bodily death? In Daniel 12:2, it appears that the righteous will have fixed contempt for the evil of the ungodly that rise to condemnation, but is the shame that the unsaved experience said to be everlasting?
- Does Matthew 25:41 say anything about ECT when the unsaved are cast into the lake of fire? Do we find the words eternal conscious punishing in Matthew 25:46 or simply eternal punishment? In Luke 16, what is the actual setting of the story of the rich man and Lazarus? Isn’t it Hades, the intermediate state which precedes final judgment?
- Is Revelation 14:9-11 plain as day or a rather complex passage? Are specific and unique conditions required to come under this judgment? Could “the wine of the wrath of God” refer to the trumpet and bowl judgments?1 Inasmuch as holy angels sound the trumpets and pour out the bowls of God’s wrath on the earth, isn’t it clear and undeniable that the wrath of the trumpet and bowl judgments, which include torment by fire and brimstone, takes place in the presence of holy angels? If the burning of the city of Babylon (Rev. 18:9-18), produces smoke that is said to ascend “forever and ever” (Rev. 19:3), smoke that surely won’t cloud the skies of the renewed earth during the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:4-6), nor pollute the new earth (Rev. 21:1), wouldn’t it be possible for smoke to rise “forever and ever” from fire and brimstone judgments that torment beast-worshipers during the Great Tribulation?2 Couldn’t the “no rest day or night” of the passage be accounted for by the relentless tribulation of the trumpets and bowls?
- Does Revelation 20:10 have human beings in view or is it a passage concerning the devil and a beast that ascends out of the abyss (Rev. 11:7, 17:8), a place of confinement for fallen angels (Luke 8:31; 2 Pet. 2:4; Rev. 20:3), and a false prophet that is another like the beast (Rev. 13:11, 16:13)?
- By their own admission, Matthew 25:46 is the best support traditionalists have, yet the verse is of limited detail. It is a generic warning that does not explicitly tell us what happens to the impenitent in hell. Indeed, those who believe in conditional immortality are just as comfortable with the phrase “eternal punishment” as traditionalists are. When a government carries out the death penalty, we certainly do not conclude that the lawbreaker escaped punishment. Through the death penalty, the government punishes the lawbreaker by denying him all that might have been in his flesh and blood life on this present earth. Conditionalists believe God’s justice works the same way. Through the termination of body and soul, God will deny unbelievers the privilege of having a place in his eternal universe and the blessings thereof. Moreover, if every day believers enjoy throughout eternity is a day denied to the unsaved (by virtue of their annihilation), wouldn’t the punishment of the unsaved be precisely as long as the life of the redeemed?
- In Matthew’s Gospel, there are a number of passages that address the final judgment of unbelievers. Wouldn’t God expect us to notice these texts and keep them in mind when interpreting eternal punishment in Matthew 25:46?
- In Matthew 3:12, John the Baptist tells us that by means of unquenchable fire the chaff (the unsaved) will katakaiō. Is the dictionary definition of katakaiō “endlessly smolder” or “burn up, consume?”
- In Matthew 7:13, to what end does the broad way lead?
- In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says that God can destroy both soul and body in hell. This is in contrast to what man can do, which is to kill the body only. God alone is able to kill both body and soul. Not only is the verse structured to lead us to this conclusion, but also when used in similar New Testament contexts (where action is taken or proposed by an authority against those deemed deserving of punishment), destroy always means to kill. See Matthew 2:13, 21:41, 22:7, 27:20, Mark 3:6, and Luke 19:47. If body and soul are put to death by God, wouldn’t life, biological and conscious, come to an end? Isn’t this what verses such as John 3:16 and Romans 6:23, taken at face value, have been saying all along?
- In Matthew 13:40-42, Jesus likens the fate of the impenitent to tares of the field that are gathered and burned up (katakaiō). Whether in the first century or in your own backyard, what happens to weeds thrown into a blazing fire? Is this not exactly what was predicted in Psalm 37:20?
- After saying that the angels will cast the tares into the furnace of fire, Jesus adds that there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Wailing and gnashing of teeth is found seven times in the Gospels: Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30, and Luke 13:28. Do any of these passages state that wailing and gnashing of teeth lasts eternally? If you were being cast into a fire where not only your hopes and dreams but your very life would end, might you wail and gnash your teeth?
- In Matthew 13:47-50, the dragnet collects both good and bad out of the sea. The traditionalist view would eternally preserve the bad catch, yet the thought of preserving the bad is utterly foreign to the parable. The bad are thrown away. When corrupted things are thrown away into a furnace of fire, is it not expected that the fire will consume what is discarded?
- In Matthew 18:8-9, there is a parallel between eternal fire and hell. Does the fact that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah came under the judgment of eternal fire and yet are not burning today but rather were obliterated (Gen. 19:23-28; 2 Pet. 2:6; Jude 7) help or hinder the traditionalist position?
- In Matthew 21:44-45, does the warning of the stone falling in judgment upon the impenitent and grinding them to powder paint a picture of endless suffering or annihilation?
- In Matthew 22:13, we see a man without a wedding garment cast into outer darkness. The distinction between fire and darkness may indicate that both are figurative with regard to final judgment. If final-judgment fire is figurative, would not the reality it represents still accomplish the same purpose, namely, the utter destruction of the chaff? If it didn’t, how would we know what God is saying? Because final-judgment fire and final-judgment darkness represent the same end, would not final-judgment darkness also indicate cessation of life?
- In Matthew, the unsaved are destined for incineration (3:12), broad is the way that leads to destruction (7:13), God can kill soul and body in hell (10:28), tares are burned up, consumed, in God’s judgment fire (13:30, 40), the bad catch is not preserved but rather is thrown away into a furnace of fire (13:47-50), and the stone grinds unbelievers to powder (21:44-45). What do these texts plainly declare the end of the impenitent to be?
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- In Revelation 13, pressure from the satanic trinity to worship the beast is immediate and intense to life and livelihood. The beast with two horns (Rev. 13:11) is granted power to kill those that refuse to bow to the image of the beast whose death wound was healed (Rev. 13:12-15). He also denies the right to engage in commerce to any refusing to receive the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:17). In Revelation 14, the everlasting gospel is preached to the world (14:6). Thus, leading up to Revelation 14:9-11, two distinct paths emerge: Worship the beast or “worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Rev. 14:7). Is this choice to be made in the face of intense tangible pressure from one side only? Is it not contextually fitting that the third angel of Revelation 14 should warn of relentless wrath and suffering on earth for those that worship the beast and take his mark?
- W. E. Vine states that the various “forever and ever” phrases, formed in conjunction with aion, an age, are “idiomatic expressions betokening undefined periods” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, vol. 2 [Revell, 1966], 47). Gregory K. Beale, in Hell Under Fire (considered the best modern defense of traditionalism), acknowledges that the duration of “forever and ever” depends on the “context of the passage and of the book” ([Zondervan, 2004], 128). While the smoke of Revelation 19:3 may not rise eternally, we can expect it to rise continually as Babylon burns to the ground. Similarly, regarding the smoke that anabainō (ascends) “forever and ever” in Revelation 14:11, Fritz Rienecker notes: “to go up, to ascend. The pres. tense connected w. the temporal designation ‘forever’ indicates a continual unbroken action” (A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament [Zondervan, 1976], 844).