Psalm 37—A Song of Annihilation

1. Psalm 37 shouts annihilationism

It may be that no passage of Scripture declares annihilationism (the ultimate destruction of wicked unbelievers) with clearer language than Psalm 37. Does it surprise you to find such a teaching in the Old Testament? It shouldn’t. Doesn’t Isaiah 53 contain one of the clearest presentations of substitutionary atonement and Psalm 22 convey one of the most graphic and moving descriptions of the crucifixion? As the Old Testament authors were inspired to share God’s work in their lives and their world, sometimes truths were revealed which went far beyond their own horizons.

Psalm 37 is filled with words and phrases that describe the fate of the unrighteous. In this psalm we are told that “the future of the wicked will be destroyed,” and that they themselves will:

“be destroyed”

“be no more”

“not be there”

“perish”

“fade away like smoke”

“be destroyed”

“not be found”

“be eliminated”

These words do not sound like eternal torment. They certainly do not sound like universal reconciliation! But they do sound like annihilation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any language which would more clearly portray the final fate of the unrighteous as one of permanent and complete destruction.

Continue reading “Psalm 37—A Song of Annihilation”

“Hath God said?” A Response to Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and T4G

“You just got a shout out from Al Mohler at T4G.” A friend posted the notice on my Facebook wall while I was at work, and as I could not immediately access the Together for the Gospel (T4G) live video feed, my mind raced until my next short break. What might Mohler have said? I had debated him three years earlier, and he had been kind and gracious, even telling me after the recording was over that he’d love to meet me if I ever find myself on the east coast. I listen to his podcast “The Briefing” almost daily, and share much of his very conservative and Calvinist worldview. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mohler, and the thought that he might have mentioned me in a positive light excited me.

Sadly, I had been naive. Mohler hadn’t mentioned me specifically; he had mentioned our recent Rethinking Hell Conference in Dallas–Fort Worth. And his comments were not at all positive, but were instead derisive and even mocking. With his brief words, he had misrepresented the conference, the ministry, and the broader conditionalist movement. While the derision and contempt hurt, it was Mohler’s unfair mischaracterizations that frustrated me most. I believe that he should know better.

I tried to contact Mohler, asking if he would be willing to discuss his comments with me, but I have not yet heard back from him. So, in this article I shall respond to his comments and those of his co-panelist Ligon Duncan. If you like, you can hear them in this video before reading on:

Continue reading ““Hath God said?” A Response to Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and T4G”

Perspicuity or Ambiguity: Could the Bible Have Been Clearer on Hell?

Conditionalists often make bold claims. For example, we are known to say—with an even blend of sincerity and hyperbole—that our view appears on virtually every page of the Bible. We’re often quick to point out that serious defenders of the eternal torment view will only focus on three or four key verses. And we’ll claim that even these texts provide better support for conditionalism, upon closer examination (take Matt 25:46 for example, or 2 Thess 1:9).

Are our strong statements just a case of over-confidence? Some people think so. Advocates of eternal torment like Jerry Walls and Gregg Allisson were taken aback when encountering them (you can read Glenn People’s reply to Walls here!). In fact, we’ve been accused by critics of everything from ignorance to hubris! In a climate where it is polite to say that everybody’s perspective is valid, and everybody has their own set of verses, why are conditionalists so dogmatic? Why does Rethinking Hell make such strong statements when championing conditionalism, despite also being strong promoters of dialogue?

Part of the reason is the principle that the Bible should be expected to be clear about such an important subject, including with the terms it uses. Defenders of eternal torment will often say, albeit mistakenly, that Jesus spoke more about hell than about heaven, meaning that we should understand and heed his solemn warnings. So there is often the same kind of conviction about the clarity of biblical teaching on the side of eternal torment as well. This article puts that claim to the test.

Continue reading “Perspicuity or Ambiguity: Could the Bible Have Been Clearer on Hell?”

Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23

In Genesis 2:17, God’s warning “you will certainly die” (מֹות תָּמֽוּת) refers to the penalty or consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin, should they disobey God’s command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They had been given free access to the Tree of Life in order to “live forever” (Gen 3:22 cf. 16), but this ongoing privilege would be forfeited if they ate fruit from the other tree, which was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). They did succumb to this temptation, after believing the serpent’s lie that they would not surely die. This resulted in the introduction of human death into the world—death as normally and universally understood; sometimes called “physical death.”1I recommend not using terms like “physical” and “biological” unless necessary, as this can legitimize an unhelpful dichotomy with a so-called “spiritual death.” It can also unduly provoke interest in mechanisms of bodies and souls that might attend death, but which don’t need to be qualified in the ordinary use of “death.” If qualification is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” We should always think about death functionally, as the negation of life. So we should not think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). On both occasions, death still brings life to an end, even if the second time around this may be complete and permanent (Matt 10:28). Romans 6:23 refers simply to “death” because the universal wages of sin is not first, second, physical, or spiritual: it’s just death, the ending of life.

. . . for in the day that you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17)

The most common objection to the above is that if ordinary human death is in view, Adam and Eve apparently did not die “in the day” that they ate (Gen 2:17). But this is to misunderstand the Hebrew idiom “in the day” and the special function of “certainly die,” which, along with attention to context, must inform our reading of the English (lest we misread the warning with modern assumptions). As Walter Kaiser explains:2Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Baruch, “Hard Sayings of the Bible” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 92, emphasis in original.

It is just as naive to insist that the phrase “in the day” means that on that very day death would occur. A little knowledge of the Hebrew idiom will relieve the tension here as well. For example, in 1 Kings 2:37 King Solomon warned a seditious Shimei, “The day you leave [Jerusalem] and cross the Kidron Valley [which is immediately outside the city walls on the east side of the city], you can be sure you will die.” Neither the 1 Kings nor the Genesis text implies immediacy of action on that very same day; instead they point to the certainty of the predicted consequence that would be set in motion by the act initiated on that day. Alternate wordings include at the time when, at that time, now when and the day [when] (see Gen. 5:1; Ex. 6:28; 10:28; 32:34).

In other words, “you will certainly die” became true instantly, as a kind of death sentence or curse. In the Hebrew, this phrase is a language construct known as an infinitive absolute.3The infinitive absolute here is paired with a finite verb of the same root, roughly as “dying-die,” for what Gotthelf Bergsträsser describes as “a peculiarly Hebrew hybrid of verbal noun and verbal interjection of imperative character.” The infinitive absolute is a verbal noun, referring not to the actual dying of Adam and Eve, but to dying itself in the abstract. Then the interjection of “die” carries a similar condemning sense to the sentiment, “Die! Die!,” only without such intensity and animus. Intensification is one function of the infinitive absolute, but in Genesis 2:17 the other main function is served: certification. Death is being certified, or made certain. Since in context the infinitive absolute emphasizes certainty, and lends this effect to the whole construction, it should be read nominally, i.e. functioning as a noun or label–not merely as a death that is incidentally certain, but as a thing called “dying-die” or “certainly-die,” that in turn carries that implication. Therefore we must conclude, even before we learn that this is indeed how it is used elsewhere, that the construct functions as a kind of sentence or curse. It has no exact equivalent in English, and should be read not as a statement about when death will occur, but rather to emphasize the certainty of death being incurred.

Not only is the language different to our own way of speaking, but the general concept is different to our own way of thinking, due to very different cultural contexts. When someone incurs the death penalty today, it happens in a courtroom after some time has passed. None of that was available or needed in Genesis, because God himself had declared what would happen. So it makes sense in this context to focus on God’s warning becoming true and certain the very moment the “crime” would occur. Simply put, the transgression would make certain the death. Beforehand, they were not going to die. But once they sinned, they were going to die. Even if this is a little unfamiliar to us, we can still see how it is simple and straightforward.

So the timing of the death event was never specified in God’s warning, which was about the logical immediacy of the outcome of death, not its temporal immediacy. Both logical and temporal immediacy may be discerned in the idiom “in the day,” but any temporal immediacy here pertains to death becoming certain, not to death itself. As Kaiser pointed out in the quote above, there is simply no “immediacy of action.”

To confirm that modern Hebrew scholars have correctly understood the ancient nuances behind “In the day you eat, you will certainly die,” we can consult the ancient Aramaic rendering of Genesis 2:17 in the Targum Jonathan. It reads, “in the day that thou eatest thou wilt be guilty of death.”4See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865. This is clear and not prone to any misreading. But although our conventional translation is less clear and doesn’t preclude misreadings, it still adequately approximates the Hebrew. Misreadings can occur for different reasons, especially the intrusion of modern assumptions and expectations. For example, from a concordist desire to avoid any suggestion that human death never existed beforehand (based on one’s view of human origins). Or, as we often see at Rethinking Hell, based on the goal of defending eternal torment instead of death. Another reason is just the translation tradition for this well-known verse, which prefers formal-equivalence here since this is a solemn utterance of God with such far-reaching implications for humankind. Regardless, the way it is rendered in the Targum suffices to show that at the time of Jesus, people understood God’s warning to be about ordinary death.

Continue reading “Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23”

1. I recommend not using terms like “physical” and “biological” unless necessary, as this can legitimize an unhelpful dichotomy with a so-called “spiritual death.” It can also unduly provoke interest in mechanisms of bodies and souls that might attend death, but which don’t need to be qualified in the ordinary use of “death.” If qualification is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” We should always think about death functionally, as the negation of life. So we should not think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). On both occasions, death still brings life to an end, even if the second time around this may be complete and permanent (Matt 10:28). Romans 6:23 refers simply to “death” because the universal wages of sin is not first, second, physical, or spiritual: it’s just death, the ending of life.
2. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Baruch, “Hard Sayings of the Bible” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 92, emphasis in original.
3. The infinitive absolute here is paired with a finite verb of the same root, roughly as “dying-die,” for what Gotthelf Bergsträsser describes as “a peculiarly Hebrew hybrid of verbal noun and verbal interjection of imperative character.” The infinitive absolute is a verbal noun, referring not to the actual dying of Adam and Eve, but to dying itself in the abstract. Then the interjection of “die” carries a similar condemning sense to the sentiment, “Die! Die!,” only without such intensity and animus. Intensification is one function of the infinitive absolute, but in Genesis 2:17 the other main function is served: certification. Death is being certified, or made certain. Since in context the infinitive absolute emphasizes certainty, and lends this effect to the whole construction, it should be read nominally, i.e. functioning as a noun or label–not merely as a death that is incidentally certain, but as a thing called “dying-die” or “certainly-die,” that in turn carries that implication. Therefore we must conclude, even before we learn that this is indeed how it is used elsewhere, that the construct functions as a kind of sentence or curse.
4. See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865.

Atonement Debate Redux: Lean Not On Your Own Understanding

While contending for Conditional Immortality within today’s evangelical world, it can often feel like one is in a battle of sorts: a contest of theological rigor, consistency, and biblical fidelity. This sense of contention gives rise to lively deliberations on social media, conversations with friends and family, discussions within churches, and even formal academic debate. What delights me most about all the interaction around conditionalism lately is the increased focus on the atonement and the soteriological implications of what we believe about what awaits the risen lost. In a theological battle that to date has been—to an extent—characterized by misunderstandings and vacuous rhetoric, it is encouraging to see a more focused approach come from both sides, especially those around the atoning sacrifice made by Christ on our behalf.

I recently had the privilege to join the fight for conditionalism on the Rethinking Hell Podcast and have eagerly awaited the continued dialogue that was sure to follow. So imagine my delight when I was informed that a former debate opponent of Chris Date has recently written about the connection between final punishment and penal substitutionary atonement! With great anticipation I prepared for doctrinal battle and awaited the pointed arguments I expected to encounter, only to find that in the end, the only attacks aimed at me fell upon straw men! How sad. Nevertheless, it is instructive to address what arguments have arisen in this new wave of focus on the atonement. Conditionalism’s critics often lean heavily on their own understanding of our claims, hastily waxing eloquent about our supposed errors without representing us fully or accurately. This article will address such arguments, and others, made in “Does the Doctrine of Hell Conflict With Penal Substitutionary Atonement” by  Hiram R. Diaz III on biblicaltrinitarian.com. Continue reading “Atonement Debate Redux: Lean Not On Your Own Understanding”

Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 2): Separation or Obliteration?—The Present Controversy

Note: This article is part of a series. Part 1 presented a clear and consistent understanding of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 based on relevant context. Here, Part 2 justifies that reading by dealing with more complex matters of translation and interpretation, interacting with respected critics.

Around the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul wrote the following to the church in Thessalonica:

…which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe…

This is how the NKJV renders 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (note in particular verse 9, in bold). Some other translations render this passage a little differently, so you might be surprised to learn that it is often touted as a text which speaks in favor of traditionalism. On its face, “affliction” leading to “everlasting destruction” at the revealing of Christ from heaven sounds a lot like the punishment that conditionalists believe will befall God’s enemies. And as the previous article in this series shows, a simple yet thorough reading of the text in its context does indeed support conditionalism.

Despite this, some traditionalists well-versed in the biblical languages have raised arguments suggesting we should look beyond the apparent meaning of this passage. We will now consider their arguments, as we study this passage more closely. What we will discover will add nuance to our understanding, but it will also confirm that the simple, obvious reading is just what Paul intended.

Continue reading “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 2): Separation or Obliteration?—The Present Controversy”

Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence

Note: This article is part of a series. Here, Part 1 presents a consistent, straightforward conditionalist understanding of 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Since conditionalists question the NIV’s interpolation (“and shut out from”)—practically the only time we would quibble with any modern English translation—Part 2 will cover the more complex issues raised by a traditionalist reading, showing that the simple face value reading is correct. All references are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

2 Thessalonians 1:9 is one of those texts which first convinced me to take the idea of annihilation seriously. Not just in isolation, where it seems obvious that destruction due to Christ’s coming is the point, but in the context of what is being said in the first couple of chapters of the epistle. (The NRSV even uses the word “annihilating” a mere eleven verses later concerning the “man of lawlessness,” which is intriguing enough on its own!) The overall impact of the passage I think should give anyone pause about this issue, since it portrays the day of judgment and the fire of judgment differently from familiar expectations from Christian tradition. Too often, our critics treat a single word of this verse as an isolated proof-text, or suggest that’s how we treat it, when of course each side must give due consideration to the fuller structural context.

“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”—2 Thessalonians 1:9, KJV

The conditionalist reading is that the glorious presence and power of the Lord causes the punishment of destruction, which is everlasting because it is God’s permanent judgment. Let’s explore how this makes the best sense. Continue reading “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence”

6 Reasons Preachers Avoid Sermons on Hell

Recently, the modern standard-bearer for neo-Calvinism, The Gospel Coalition (TCG), published 5 Reasons Preachers Avoid Sermons on Hell. Their list boils down to a few causes:

  • Bad theology
  • Bad praxis
  • Fear of man

But we here at Rethinking Hell believe there may be a more accurate, longer list (6 is greater than 5; see what we did there?) of noble reasons why preachers are not preaching the doctrine of eternal conscious torment (ECT). Continue reading “6 Reasons Preachers Avoid Sermons on Hell”

How Conditionalists Approach Wrath, Love, and Other Things

In discussions of heaven and hell, one is hard-pressed to find a conversation in which questions of God’s love, wrath, and mercy do not arise. What is God’s wrath? How does it get reconciled with God’s love and mercy? Does God give every sinner what he or she deserves, or does he show some degree of mercy to the unrepentant by annihilating them?1For our purposes here, we will not even entertain the idea that God would do unto anyone worse than they deserve. Is it loving for God to destroy the wicked—i.e. to send them to hell in the manner that the Bible actually describes (e.g. Matthew 10:28)?

Continue reading “How Conditionalists Approach Wrath, Love, and Other Things”

1. For our purposes here, we will not even entertain the idea that God would do unto anyone worse than they deserve.

Sodom and Gomorrah in the Pseudepigrapha: A Survey and Analysis


James H. Charlesworth offers general readers four initial thoughts on the importance of the Pseudepigrapha. They deserve to be quoted in full:

First, there is the very abundance of the literature, although we possess only part of the writings produced by Jews during the period 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. . . .
 
Second, the Pseudepigrapha illustrate the pervasive influence of the Old Testament books upon Early Judaism. . . .1We can see this is so because of the numerous “Testaments” dedicated to the various patriarchs.
 
Third, we learn from the Pseudepigrapha that the consecutive conquests of Palestinian Jews by Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and the intermittent invasion by Syrian, Egyptian, and Parthian armies did not dampen the enthusiasm of religious Jews for their ancestral decisions. . . .
 
Fourth [and finally], the Pseudepigrapha attest that the post-exilic Jews often were torn within by divisions and sects, and intermittently conquered from without by foreign nations who insulted, abused, and frequently employed fatal torture. . . . 2James H. Charlesworth, “Introduction for the General Reader,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Hendrickson, 2013), 2:xxviii.

Most of these early Jewish writers believed they were free to reinterpret the various Old Testament texts, but it seems quite appropriate to state that they offered very little in the way of a positive reading of the Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G) narrative in Genesis. Instead, they treat the story as it is: a revelation of God’s judgment upon a sinful city (or cities). For an excellent introduction to apocalyptic literature, see the work of John J. Collins and George W. E. Nickelsburg.3John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 1998); George W. E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Harvard University Press, 2006). Continue reading “Sodom and Gomorrah in the Pseudepigrapha: A Survey and Analysis”

1. We can see this is so because of the numerous “Testaments” dedicated to the various patriarchs.
2. James H. Charlesworth, “Introduction for the General Reader,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Hendrickson, 2013), 2:xxviii.
3. John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 1998); George W. E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Harvard University Press, 2006).