From cover to cover the Bible indicates that immortality and everlasting life are gifts given by God only to his people. In Genesis 3:22-23 God banished Adam and Eve from the garden so that, without access to the Tree of Life, they would not live forever. In the imagery of Revelation 2:7 and Revelation 22:14, only believers will have access to the Tree of Life as inhabitants of paradise, the New Jerusalem. The hope of immortality was lost in the fall, but 2 Timothy 1:10 says life and immortality were brought to light through the gospel. According to 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 believers in Jesus Christ will be clothed with immortality so that they can inherit the kingdom of God. The lost will not be granted immortality and will therefore not live forever. No wonder John 3:16 says those who do not believe will perish, and Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is death.
The biblical vision of eternity is one in which sin and evil are no more, and everything will be united under Christ. Ephesians 1:10 says God will “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (NIV). Thus using an accountant’s terminology Paul says that all the totals will be summed up, the accounts settled, and everything will be in Christ’s name. He writes similarly in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 that when the end comes, after Jesus Christ “has destroyed all dominion, authority and power . . . then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (NIV). In God’s creation there will be no eternal dualism of horror and bliss, good and evil, for as 1 John 2:17 says, “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
All orthodox views of the atonement share in common the belief that Jesus’ atoning work consisted largely of acting as a substitute in the place of his people. But what did he bear on their behalf, so that they would not bear it? Isaiah 53:8-9 says that “he was cut off out of the land of the living” and that “they made his grave with the wicked.” Romans 5:6 says that “Christ died for the ungodly,” and 1 Corinthians 15:3 says that “of first importance” is that “Christ died for our sins.” And if it weren’t clear enough, 1 Peter 3:18 makes explicit that it was by physical death that Jesus stood in place of believers, saying, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh.” So the saved will not die, since Jesus died for them. But the lost must die, since they reject the substitute.
It should be no surprise by now that, of all the language scripture uses to describe the fate of the lost, most of all it promises their death and destruction. Matthew 10:28 says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 7:13-14 warns that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction.” In Matthew 13:40-42 Jesus interpreted his own parable of burned up weeds to caution that “as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire” so too will Jesus and his angels “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace.” 2 Peter 2:6 says that “by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes” God “condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.”
Before we suppose that either the traditional or conditional view is correct, we might first ask of any doctrine, “Is this consistent with the moral character of God revealed in the scriptures?”
While it is true that God’s character is primarily revealed to us by what scripture says he has done and will do, it is nevertheless fairly intuitive and obvious that there are some things which he would not do, for it would be inconsistent with his revealed character. When apologists leverage the moral argument for God they will often ask their detractors whether or not it is objectively wrong to torture young children for fun, a rhetorical question whose affirmative answer ought to be obvious. While this is not an argument for the character of God, a fairly intuitive corollary is that God would not torture young children for fun, because it would be inconsistent with his perfectly moral character.
One such description of God’s character is that he is full of mercy and truth, and the delicate balance between these complementary opposites must be maintained in our understanding of God. We have all seen the error of those who dismiss part of the nature of God by over-emphasizing either his justice or his mercy—making God either overly harsh, as the Pharisees did, or so loving that he excuses sin and subverts justice.
So one is not completely without warrant in asking whether the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT) is incongruent with God’s character. It is true that God is holy and wrathful, justly punishing wickedness. At the same time, however, God’s righteous anger is apparently not unending (Psalm 30:5; 103:9). He is also a God of love (1 John 4:8) and of mercy (2 Samuel 24:14; Psalm 119:156), and it is legitimate to ask if such a God would render immortal the risen lost or otherwise supernaturally keep them alive forever in order that he might cause them to suffer unimaginable pain and misery for all eternity, as punishment for their sin.
One of the primary philosophic and intuitive or gut level objections to ECT is that it seems unjust to punish people forever for temporal sins. It can be viewed as cruel or tortuous and out of proportion. In the context of punishment the common expression for this is that the punishment should fit the crime. Philosophical and subjective intuitions about the justice of God are certainly not to override what the scriptures teach, but such reasoned counter-indications at least ought to warn us and make us reconsider our current understanding of scripture. Have we misunderstood? And is there a biblical warrant for these concerns?
First we must answer a more foundational question: Does God expect us to understand and do justice here on earth to some extent? And, if so, does he give us principles and examples in the Bible? The clear answer is yes. And, further, insofar as those principles reflect the nature of God we would expect God to act according to those same principles.
When Abraham pleaded with the Lord by the oaks of Mamre on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah he asked God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” He said to God, “Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:20-33). Abraham knew, as do evangelicals, that God is perfectly just, for “all his ways are justice . . . just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). It follows, therefore, that the final punishment of the unredeemed would reflect God’s perfect justice.
Like Abraham many conditionalists ask, “Won’t God act according to the principles of mercy and justice that he has revealed to us as part of his righteous character?” In this example Abraham is questioning harsh retribution that sweeps away the innocent with the wicked. Surely God would not do that! That is rather unlike him. And what this demonstrates is that we can understand and question theologies which seem out of character with God’s revealed ways of exacting justice.
With that idea established, we can now ask the question relevant to ECT and proportional justice: Does the eternal torment view actually violate the principle of proportional justice, and can such a principle be found in Scripture? Most readers will immediately think of or recognize the Old Testament principle of an eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24). This principle of proportionality is central to God’s view of justice and is repeated in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21.
Many conditionalists argue that when the philosophical and moral objection to the disproportionality of ECT is brought up there is scriptural support for such a stance. This does not, however, invalidate the traditional view. We must still primarily rely on good exegesis—interpretation of the specific Bible passages that teach on hell—but we must also admit that the important yet secondary proportionality argument may also have biblical merit.
Assuming for the moment that the exegetical argument for conditionalism is the superior and correct understanding of the biblical passages on hell, we might then ask, “How does the conditionalist view fare when evaluated by the argument for proportional justice?” Many conditionalists argue that, while both annihilation and ECT have eternal consequences, conditionalism has a temporal experience of punishment for the wicked (“the second death”) while ECT requires an eternal experience of suffering. The conditionalist view, in a sense, can be viewed as administering a temporal experience of punishment for temporal sins, rather than an eternal experience of punishment for temporal sins, thereby being much more proportional than ECT, if not less cruel and unusual and non-tortuous.
Again it must be admitted that arguments around the relative harshness or eternality of these two views is a bit of an endless debate but, as mentioned, they always take a backseat to direct and accurate interpretations of what the Bible actually teaches. If we elevate philosophic arguments over biblical authority we run the risk of being taken captive “by philosophy and empty deceit” that is “not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). However, for many people this moral objection to ECT is a strong one, and many conditionalists will at least agree that for those who need an answer to the question of proportional justice conditionalism is much better answer than the traditional view.
One primary objection that many traditionalists level at conditionalism is that it reduces in some sense the harshness of God’s justice and so provides less of a contrast to the sacrifice of Jesus, thereby lessening the gospel’s appeal. The conditionalist, however, has many replies to such an objection.
First, whether or not conditionalism is more or less harsh is a debate, and some even argue that the annihilation of sinners is actually more harsh than ECT.
But second, and more importantly, there is a bad hermeneutical assumption underlying the traditionalist’s objection, that the harsher punishment is more likely the correct one because it forms a greater contrast for the gospel. The problem with this view is that it suggests that we should take the harshest possible view of hell as the correct one. But is this a valid hermeneutic? And is it consistent with the balance of justice and mercy of God as revealed in the Bible? No.
Third, the conditionalist would reply that what is most impactful for the gospel is to preach the truth, which is what the Holy Spirit will confirm in the hearts of hearers.
If the ECT view is incorrect, as conditionalists claim, then we may be doing grave harm to the cause of the gospel, adding an additional stumbling block to the gospel and barring many from faith who otherwise might be saved. Bertrand Russell, articulating the sentiments of many who reject the gospel of Jesus Christ, said, “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that he believed in hell.” (Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 17.) Charles Darwin said, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so . . . men who do not believe . . . will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882, ed. Nora Barlow (W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), 87.) It is the Holy Spirit who changes hearts, to be sure, but whether salvation is monergistic or synergistic, we’re not to add offense to the gospel in our evangelism efforts because how the gospel is delivered can play a role in how it’s received. And the traditional view of hell often impacts how the gospel is received.
Few reasons for rejecting Christianity are given more often than the prospect that the lost face an eternity of torment as punishment for their sins. Many people cannot conceive of worshiping a God so malicious (in their mind) as to cause endless suffering forever. Others simply scoff at the message of Christ, finding the traditional view of hell to be an absurdly ludicrous, laughable notion. Of course, unbelievers will in their enmity toward God drum up any number of reasons to reject him, but there can be no doubt that this issue will feature toward the tops of their lists.
Conditionalism, from the perspective of the proportionality argument, may actually have a huge positive impact on evangelism, opening up the minds of those who might otherwise reject the gospel on hearing the ECT doctrine. In addition, however, it may also positively affect our presentation of the gospel in other ways.
First, it may simplify the gospel to something we all understand: a simple reckoning of our works before God, resulting in being brought to an end, the deprivation of life perhaps by means which are painful. In light of the fact that societies throughout history, including many today, punish the most grievous of sins with the death penalty, the final destruction of the wicked may ring more true and reasonable than the traditional view.
Second, rather than viewing God as mainly punitive, that is, depriving humans of something they had (eternal souls), annihilation allows one to instead see the lost as being given exactly what they had earned – the wages of sin is death. This removes undue emphasis on the punitive nature of God and makes hell more of a just consequence. Therefore, immortality is presented more as something graciously given to the repentant rather than something maliciously taken away.