Denominational Doctrine on Damnation: The Developing Story of the Bible Fellowship Church

In January of 2022, a church petitioned its parent denomination to reexamine biblical teaching on hell, in part because some congregants had embraced annihilationism. As reported in the minutes of its 139th annual meeting, the Bible Fellowship Church (BFC) was asked by member Whitehall BFC “to form a study committee of five people to examine what Scripture teaches about the eternal destiny of the unregenerate, with careful attention to both its apologetic and shepherding use.”1“Whitehall BFC Petition to BFC Conference,” One Hundred Thirty-nineth Annual Meeting of the Bible Fellowship Church Conference 2022, rev. ed., 137. The stated reason behind the petition:

Whitehall Church has been ministering to some who have serious doubts regarding the eternal conscious torment of the unregenerate; some of whom have abandoned the Faith in large measure due to this historic doctrine of the Church, and others who (remaining devoted to Christ and His Word) have moved away from the eternal conscious torment position and to an annihilation position . . .

Two years later, BFC published its “Report of the Study Committee on Eternal Conscious Torment” on pages 97–111 of its 141st Conference Report Book. It concludes, “passages throughout Scripture indicate that an annihilationist position doesn’t, in a sense, fit the crime,” and “we believe that the Bible teaches that those whose names are not written in the book of life will experience an eternal conscious torment.”2“Report of the Study Committee on Eternal Conscious Torment,” Bible Fellowship Church 141st Conference Report Book, 109–110. Unfortunately, the provided analysis, on which the committee based its conclusions, reflects a poorly informed and less-than-careful study of conditional immortality (or annihilationism) and the larger subject of biblical teaching about hell.

Before I review the committee’s report below, I want to first urge readers not to contact or publicly criticize BFC and to instead let it and its member churches and congregants further discuss the matter. BFC is to be commended for having agreed to reexamine the topic in the first place, and it’s possible they will do so again soon. I am in contact with members of BFC churches and am providing them with this review, as they plan to petition the committee to study the topic further. There is no need for readers unaffiliated with BFC to contact or publicly criticize the denomination; such actions may in fact stymie the planned petition if BFC feels ganged up on and takes up a defensive posture, rather than an open-minded one. Let’s allow the denomination to work through this topic without undue outside influence.

Misrepresenting Annihilationism

The committee’s report begins its treatment of annihilationism by mischaracterizing it. The very first sentence reads, “annihilationism (sometimes known as terminal punishment or conditionalism) teaches that hell exists as a place of terminal and temporary punishment” of those who “will simply cease to exist.”3Ibid., 100; emphasis added. The report goes on to charge annihilationists with believing in “a punishment that does not last forever.”4Ibid.; emphasis added. Such claims are in fact false and erect a strawman easily burned down.

The bibliography at the end of the committee’s report includes Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, widely regarded to be the seminal work in defense of annihilationism, and in it, Fudge explicitly affirms that the punishment meted out in hell will last forever. “This punishment,” he writes, “more specifically identified as this destruction, will last forever.”5Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. (Cascade, 2011), 42; emphasis added. Critics often mischaracterize Fudge and other annihilationists as believing it’s the results of the punishment that will last forever, not the punishment itself, but that’s untrue. Fudge explicitly rejects such a caricature offered by NT scholar Douglas Moo, writing, “This is not ‘a destruction whose consequences last forever’ but a destruction which is itself the consequence of an act of destroying.” And he goes on to explain that the adjective aiōnios, meaning “everlasting,” “modifies destruction—a noun that names the result of the action that the noun necessarily implies (‘destroy’).”6Ibid., 198; italics in original. Annihilationists like Fudge therefore believe final punishment is indeed properly everlasting punishment and everlasting destruction. If the BFC reconsiders the topic of hell again, they would do well to give Fudge’s book a more careful read.

As for the committee’s claim that annihilationists believe the damned will “simply cease to exist,” this is a very strange way to describe capital punishment, which is nigh universally thought to be the most severe penalty a government can inflict. Annihilationism is not the view that the lost will instantaneously vanish into the ether, as if the result of Thanos snapping his fingers while wearing the Infinity Gauntlet. No, it’s the belief that God will inflict the death penalty, executing all finally impenitent capital offenders. Most means of capital punishment inflict pain, and to varying durations and degrees, ranging from relatively quick and painless (e.g., guillotine, firing squad) to protracted and excruciating (e.g., stoning, crucifixion). Of course, God wouldn’t utilize barbaric and torturous methods of destroying the risen lost in hell, but nothing obligates him to end their lives utterly painlessly. As Fudge explains, “This ‘death,’ not annihilation in some technical literal sense, is the penal consequence of wrong-doing committed during earthly life,” and “the process of dying the second death will encompass whatever type, intensity, and duration of conscious torment divine justice might require.”7Ibid., 209. Simply cease to exist indeed!

Misrepresenting Motives

The BFC committee next purports to “look at the three distinct reasons why annihilationism is increasingly being held,” but it cites secondary, critical sources, rather than primary annihilationist ones.8“Report,” 100. It claims annihilationists are motivated by:

1) the apparent inconsistency of eternal conscious punishment with the love of God; 2) the apparent injustice involved in the disproportion between sins committed in time and punishment that is eternal; and 3) the fact that the continuing presence of evil creatures in God’s universe will eternally mar the perfection of a universe that God created to reflect His glory.9Ibid.

These three reasons, it explains in a footnote, are “laid out by Wayne Grudem in his Bible Doctrine.”10Ibid., n18; italics in original. To be clear, I love Grudem; not long after I became a Christian—over twenty years ago—I cut my proverbial teeth as a young theologian on Grudem’s Systematic Theology, to which I return regularly as an academic. However, annihilationists themselves are obviously a better source than critics for what motivates annihilationists.

Curiously, the committee only reproduces the last three of what Grudem offers as four primary reasons some Christians embrace annihilationism, thereby misleading readers as to why some Christians embrace annihilationism. Introducing his list, Grudem writes, “Arguments advanced in favor of annihilationism are: (1) the biblical references to the destruction of the wicked, which, some say, implies that they will no longer exist after they are destroyed”;11Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Zondervan, 2022), 575; italics in original. only then does Grudem offer the three reasons reproduced by the BFC committee. Importantly, there is much, much more to the biblical case for annihilationism than texts warning of destruction in hell, but the point here is that if the committee had reproduced Grudem’s complete list, and in the same order, they’d have given the correct impression that the explicit teaching of Scripture is what motivates annihilationism more than anything else. Instead, by omitting the first item in Grudem’s list and focusing only on the second, third, and fourth—God’s love, God’s justice, and the eradication of sin from the cosmos—the BFC committee gives readers the mistaken impression that philosophy is what primarily motivates annihilationism.

I don’t happen to think eternal torment is inconsistent with God’s love and justice, so I have little interest in rebutting most of the committee’s response to the philosophical concerns it claims motivate annihilationism, but it’s worth observing how seemingly little thought was put into the arguments here. For example, annihilationism allegedly “downplays what Scripture says about the severity of our sin.”12“Report,” 101; italics in original. Yet, in the committee’s view, God hates sin only enough to punish the wicked severely, but not enough to get rid of evil altogether. By contrast, in annihilationism, sin is so odious to God that he will one day obliterate all traces of it, by obliterating all who rebelliously persist in it. In another example, the committee attempts a rebuttal of the annihilationist argument “that the presence of the wicked in hell for eternity is untenable with the restoration and redemption of all things in God’s new heaven and new earth.” The committee responds, “Scripture repeatedly claims that God’s justice is magnified by his judgment of the wicked, not by their elimination.”13Ibid. This response is deficient thrice-over. First, it offers a false dichotomy, for judging and eliminating are not mutually exclusive; God can judge the wicked by eliminating them. Second, it shifts the goalposts, for whereas the annihilationist argues from the biblical promise that God will restore and redeem all things, the BFC committee focuses on the justice of God’s judgment. And third, it begs the question, by assuming its interpretation of proof-texts is correct when the annihilationist argument is meant to challenge that interpretation. These kinds of mistakes suggest the committee sought merely to defend its preexisting view, rather than consider and evaluate the alternative.

Misinterpreting the Old Testament

When the BFC committee begins its scriptural argument for eternal torment, it surprisingly points to OT texts that record God slaying his enemies—which the committee thinks God will never do to the risen lost in hell. The “examples of the Flood in Genesis 6” and “the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19,” readers are told, “show that God’s disposition toward the wicked is not in question.”14Ibid., 102. Indeed! But how did God express his disposition toward the wicked in these events? By killing them. And NT texts point to these events as examples of what awaits the ungodly in future judgment (Jude 7; 2 Pet 2:6). By contrast, in the committee’s view of eternal torment, the resurrected lost will never die. Grudem himself, in the very book cited by the committee earlier, says the wicked will “live forever in hell.”15Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 331. And he isn’t alone; from Augustine, who says the human spirit’s inability to die will “be hereafter in the bodies of the damned,” to John MacArthur, who insists “every person will live forever in bodily form,” eternal torment has always entailed the immortality and endless life of the resurrected wicked.16Augustine, City of God, 21.3.2; John MacArthur, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: The Main Event in Redemptive History,” Grace to You, sermon delivered on April 12, 2009, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/90-374/the-resurrection-of-jesus-christ-the-main-event-in-redemptive-history. In attempting to prove its view, the committee begins by refuting it.

Having shot itself in one proverbial foot, the committee takes aim at its other foot, citing Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:2. In the former text, it is the “dead bodies” of God’s enemies, slain by sword and fire (vv. 15–16), whose “worm shall not die” and whose “fire shall not be quenched” (v. 24). Pictured are maggots that won’t be prevented by death from ignominiously devouring the carcasses of the wicked, conveying the same message as Jeremiah’s warning that “the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away” (Jer 7:33). The committee mistakenly claims, “a fire that is not quenched points to severe suffering that does not end”;17“Report,” 103. no, its resistance to being quenched—put out, extinguished—guarantees it will burn up its fuel, like the fire that will “not be quenched” and therefore will “devour” the palaces of Jerusalem (Jer 17:27; cf. Ezek 20:47–48; Amos 5:6).18 For  more on Isaiah 66:24, as well as Mark 9:48, see “Their Worm Does Not Die: Annihilation and Mark 9:48” and “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation in Mark 9:48 (Part 2)“.  As for Daniel 12:2, one might be forgiven for thinking the committee is trying to prove annihilationism:

Once more the biblical writer presents a parallel: “everlasting life” vs. “everlasting contempt,” again using the Hebrew olam. In Daniel 12:2, the term translated as “contempt” (Hebrew deraon] only appears in one other place in Scripture—curiously, in Isaiah 66:24, where it is translated in the ESV as “abhorrence” as a reference to “unburied corpses who have fallen under the judgment of God.”19Ibid.

There it is, in the committee’s own words: only the righteous will rise and live forever (“everlasting life”), while the unrighteous will rise briefly to shame but be subsequently slain, reduced to abhorrent corpses, and remembered forever in abject contempt.

Misinterpreting the Gospels

After several paragraphs of arguing that Jesus thinks hell is real—something annihilationists believe as well—the committee begins its NT case for eternal torment with an untenable argument from Matthew 10:28. Jesus warns hearers not to fear mortals, who can kill only one’s body and not one’s soul, but rather to fear God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell. The committee concedes that the Greek word translated “destroy” can sound like it favors annihilationism, but it argues that “the addition of ‘in hell’ seems to indicate an ongoing punishment in a place to which the wicked person has been assigned. If the condemned simply ceases to exist, what ensues—‘in hell’—is unnecessary.”20Ibid., 105. This is obviously false. For hundreds of years until 1830, pirates sentenced to death by the British Admiralty were brought to London’s Execution Dock to be hanged. Its name evoked its gruesome reputation, as in James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan, in which it is said of Hook’s pirates, “A more villainous-looking lot never hung in a row on Execution dock.”21J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (Warbler Press, 2022), 46. Therefore, if would-be pirates were threatened with death by hanging at Execution Dock, the mention of the notorious location would not be redundant or superfluous; it would make the already dire warning even scarier. Likewise, by warning that God will destroy both the bodies and the souls of the wicked in Gehenna (a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew expression “Valley of Hinnom”), Jesus evokes the OT prophetic picture of the “Valley of the Son of Hinnom” as a place that will be called the “Valley of Slaughter” when God will slay his enemies there and leave their corpses exposed to scavenging beasts and birds (Jer 7:32–33).

Next, the BFC committee cites Jesus’ contrast between two equally everlasting destinies in Matthew 25:46, namely, “eternal punishment” and “eternal life.” Readers are told this proves “the certainty of man’s unending existence.”22“Report,” 105. Yet, Jesus here says nothing whatsoever about people being unending. Rather, he says their punishment will be unending, and as demonstrated above, if the resurrected lost are killed a second time and never raised again, their punishment—their death penalty—is unending. Meanwhile, though the dual fates are parallel in duration, both of them described as “eternal” (aiōnios), it is also true that they are contrasted, offered by Jesus as two mutually exclusive destinations. Jesus therefore implies that only the righteous will live forever, that only they will go into “eternal life.” This powerfully challenges the committee’s belief that the resurrected lost will also live forever, immortal. 23 For more on Matthew 25:46 and “eternal punishment,” see Joseph Dear, “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment,” Parts 1 and 2.

The committee goes on to argue that the punishment of hell entails “rejection and separation from God,” but this in no way challenges annihilationism;24Ibid. indeed, it seems to support it. When someone pruning a tree rejects one of its branches and separates it from the tree, the branch dies, precisely because it’s separated from the source of its life. Consider, then, that God is the source of every human being’s life and very existence. As Paul says at the Areopagus, God “himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything,” and, “he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:25, 27–28). It stands to reason that human beings, if separated far from the God on whom they are contingent for life and existence, would cease to be altogether.

Readers’ attention is drawn next to “repeated mentions of ‘outer darkness,’ where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth,’” but once again, these texts are at minimum consistent with annihilationism.25Ibid. Yes, the expression “‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ represents more than regret for the wrongness of actions and decisions but indicates persistent anger, rejection, and opposition—even in hell.”26Ibid. But none of the texts that feature it indicate that this weeping and gnashing will go on forever. Quite the opposite: After narrating a parable (Matt 13:24–30) in which weeds are burned up (v. 30)—the Greek katakaiō meaning “to burn something down, to burn something up, to reduce to ashes”27Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (United Bible Societies, 1989), 178.—Jesus explains his parable, saying, “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire,” so “at the end of the age” will the wicked be thrown “into the fiery furnace” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv. 40, 42). It’s easy to imagine enraged but impotent criminals weeping and gnashing while waiting to be burned to death, if not also while engulfed in flame until they breathe their last.

The BFC committee continues by arguing that Jesus warns of a fate worse than death, but it doesn’t think carefully enough about the text it cites. “In Mark 9:42–48,” the committee writes,

Jesus taught about the consequences of sin and causing others to stumble. His conclusion: it would be “better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” for causing “one of these little ones who believes in Me to sin.” In the same context, Jesus said it is preferable to cut off the foot that causes you to sin, or to tear out the eye that causes you to sin, than to have all your appendages and perfect sight but to be thrown into hell. . . . what could be worse than wearing a millstone around one’s neck and being tossed into the depths of the ocean?28“Report,” 106.

The committee’s concluding rhetorical question, however, is incomplete as worded, and the omission makes all the difference in the world. The question to ask is this: What could be worse than wearing a millstone around one’s neck and being tossed into the depths of the ocean before later being raised unto eternal life? After all, “it would be better for him” (kalon estin autō) if he were drowned, in verse 42, is parallel to “it is better for you” (kalon estin se) “to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell” (emphasis added), in verse 43. Of course being thrown into hell by God and violently executed there, with no further hope of resurrection, would be worse than being drowned but later raised to eternal life! Of course being thrown whole into hell and killed would be worse than going on living with a missing limb or eye!29Though, Jesus obviously doesn’t intend hearers to literally maim themselves. Far from challenging annihilationism, this text seems to teach it vividly.

Concluding its handling of the gospels, the BFC committee turns to Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, but it completely overlooks the actual setting of the story. The committee repeatedly identifies the setting as hell, a mistake more easily made by readers of the KJV, in which the rich man is said to be “in hell” (v. 23).30“Report,” 106–7. The committee’s preferred translation, however, appears to be the ESV, which accurately renders the underlying Greek as “in Hades” (en tō hadē), the place of the dead. Indeed, most reputable translations reject “hell” in favor of “Hades” (NASB, NIV, N/RSV, H/CSB, NKJV, GNT) or “the place of the dead” (NLT, NCV). This is what theologians call the intermediate state, the place out from which the dead await being resurrected (cf. Rev 20:13). Even Grudem, in that very same book the committee cited earlier, acknowledges the distinction between “hadēs, which can just mean ‘grave,’ [and] geenna, ‘hell, place of punishment.’”31Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 316. Sure, then, the disembodied souls of the lost may be awaiting resurrection from “a place of ongoing suffering and pain.”32“Report,” 107. But this place is not hell, about which the story has nothing to say.

Misinterpreting the Epistles

Turning its attention from the gospels to the epistles, the BFC committee begins with a misreading of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, a text that teaches annihilationism when properly interpreted (and, frankly, at face value). Readers are correctly told that the Apostle Paul warns in this text of “eternal destruction” and that this points to an eternal punishment.33Ibid. The committee doesn’t even attempt, however, to argue that the expression points to an eternal conscious punishment. Meanwhile, Paul uses a peculiar combination of terms in verses 7–8 to describe concurrent phenomena: “flaming fire” (puri phlogos) and “vengeance” (ekdikēsin). This combination is peculiar inasmuch as it appears in just one other place in Scripture: the Septuagint Greek translation of Isaiah 66:15, in which Yahweh will “render his anger [ekdikēsin] in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire [phlogi puros].” And as observed earlier, in this text, God slays his enemies by fire and sword (v. 16), reducing them to rotting, smoldering corpses (v. 24). This is the eternal destruction Paul has in mind. 34 For more on 2 Thessalonians 1:9, see “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9”, Parts 1 and 2 by Peter Grice, and by Ronnie Demler and Williams Tanksley Jr., respectively.

The committee seems to think the author of Hebrews has eternal torment in mind when he calls the punishment of hell “eternal judgment” (Heb 6:2), but this fails to account for how the author uses the adjective “eternal” with comparable nouns.35Ibid., 108. Earlier (5:9), he says Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation.” Later (9:12), the author says Jesus, by his death, secured “an eternal redemption.” Of course, Jesus will not be saving or redeeming his people for all eternity; that process was accomplished “once for all” (9:12) on the cross. Rather, the nouns salvation (sōtēria) and redemption (lutrōsis) refer to the result, outcome, or product of the corresponding verbs save (sōzō) and redeem (lutroō), respectively. The process of saving and redeeming was relatively short in duration, but its outcome—the salvation and redemption of sinners—is everlasting. Likewise, the noun judgment (krima) refers to the result, outcome, or product of the corresponding verb judge (krinō). The process by which God judges the finally impenitent may be relatively short in duration, but its outcome—the judgment of sinners, their death sentence—will last forever.

Jude 7 and 13 feature next in the committee’s epistolary case for eternal torment, but it crucially misinterprets what the author says about Sodom and Gomorrah.36Ibid. The committee insists that “eternal fire” (v. 7) precludes “even a hint of the possibility of annihilation” and instead connotes “ongoing punishment.”37Ibid.; emphasis added. However, Jude seems to be saying that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah suffered this eternal fire, or at the very least are good examples of what it does.38The phrase “by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (v. 7) is an adverbial participle of means, indicating the means by which the cities “serve as an example.” As observed by scholars, Jude here reproduces one variation of a familiar series of examples of divine judgment found throughout the literature of Second Temple Judaism.39Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude (IVP Academic, 2007), 610; Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Word, 1983), 46; Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2006), 47; Jerome H. Neyrey, 2 Peter, Jude, Anchor Yale Bible (Yale University Press, 1993), 59–60. And every extrabiblical occurrence of this series that includes Sodom and Gomorrah recalls the cities’ past destruction by fire (Sir 16:8–9; 3 Macc 2:5; Jub 20:5). This is what Jude calls “a punishment of eternal fire,” as confirmed by the Petrine parallel, which says, “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” (2 Pet 2:6). Whatever Jude’s reason for calling this fire “eternal,” it slayed the cities’ inhabitants; it did not torment them immortally.40Perhaps Jude calls the fire that fell from heaven and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah “eternal” because its source—God himself—is eternal. After all, if flames shoot forth from the sun and burn up a meteoroid passing by, the flames will dissipate but the sun, whence they came, will keep burning. 41 For more on “eternal fire” in the Bible, see Joseph Dear, “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire'”, Parts 1 and 2.

Unsurprisingly, the committee concludes its case for eternal torment from the epistles with the Book of Revelation, but in so doing it overlooks the vital distinction between what is depicted in the apocalyptic vision and what that depiction symbolizes in reality.42“Report,” 108–9. Yes, Revelation 14:9–11 and 20:10–15 depict the everlasting fiery torment of all God’s enemies, but the vision these texts record is not a straightforward portrayal of the future, as if caught on camera and sent back in time. Rather, and like all such prophetic visions of the future in Scripture (e.g., Gen 37:1–11; 41:14–32; Dan 2:31–45), the seer is shown symbols representing the future. Thus, John sees stars symbolizing messengers, and lampstands symbolizing churches (Rev 1:20); incense symbolizing prayers (Rev 5:8); and a beast whose heads and horns symbolize a series of kings (Rev 17:9–12). What, then, does the eternal torment depicted in Revelation symbolize in reality? The committee doesn’t appear to even consider this question.

At least three symbols converge in Revelation 14:9–11, and they converge again only a few chapters later to symbolize death and destruction. John first sees that the worshippers of the beast will be made to drink God’s wrath (14:10) and be tormented with fire (v. 10), and that smoke rises from their torment forever (v. 11). This is connected with the pronounced fall of the woman Mystery Babylon (v. 8), who John later sees will be forced to drink God’s wrath (18:6) and be tormented with fire (18:9–10), a fiery torment from which smoke rises forever (19:3). When an angel interprets this imagery for John, he says, “So will Babylon the great city [she represents] be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more” (18:21). Yes, the woman in the vision suffers fiery torment, but it symbolizes the destruction of the city she represents and the deaths of many of its inhabitants. Therefore, annihilationists interpret Scripture with Scripture, understanding the fiery torment of the beast-worshippers to also symbolize death and destruction.

The depiction of endless fiery torment in Revelation 20:10–15 also symbolizes death and destruction. The BFC committee rightly observes that John sees “even ‘Death and Hades’” cast into the lake of fire (20:14).43Ibid., 108; emphasis added. And in John’s vision, death and Hades are conscious beings—the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse and his squire (6:7)—and therefore they are presumably tormented forever with all other conscious beings cast into the fire. But immediately thereafter, the meaning symbolized by this fiery fate is made clear, when God says he “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (21:4). This alludes to Yahweh’s promise in Isaiah that, one day, “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isa 25:8). Paul likewise alludes to this promise (1 Cor 15:54) and says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (v. 26). What, then, is represented by the eternal torment of symbols for death and the place of the dead? Their annihilation. Death shall be no more. When all of God’s enemies have been destroyed and the risen saints are made immortal, death itself will have been destroyed; no one will ever die again.

Misrepresenting the Cross

In their conclusion to their report, the BFC committee makes one final statement worth addressing, but it escaped my attention the first two times I read it. Eyes like mine, belonging to an aging man of forty-four years who sees his demise looming ever nearer, are sooner drawn to the dubious claim here that people will gleefully reject the gospel if told they can sin all they want and then “simply” die.44Ibid., 109. (Tell that to Clay Jones, the eternal-torment-believing author of Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It, in which he documents humankind’s universal fear of death as annihilation.45Clay Jones, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House, 2020).) Eyes like mine, belonging to a biblical inerrantist whose commitment to the authority of Scripture forced him to embrace annihilationism against his wishes, are sooner drawn to the language implying here that annihilationists sacrifice Scripture at the altar of their emotions. (Tell that to John Stott, who acknowledges his emotions in defending annihilationism but insists, “our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?”46David L. Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (InterVarsity, 1988), 314–5.) Only upon a third reading did my eyes catch what truly stands out in the committee’s conclusion.

In their impassioned attempt to highlight the gravity of sin in the experience of the one who bore its consequences in our place, the BFC committee locates his substitutionary atoning work in his pain and in his alleged separation from his father, but it makes no mention of his death, whatsoever. It writes,

we see the seriousness of sin in the consequences, and the greatest picture of how seriously God takes sin—in terms of doling out punishment—is the cross, for there Jesus suffered both horrific physical torment and the even greater punishment of temporary separation from His Father as He bore the wrath of God—a wrath we as sinners deserve.47“Report,” 109.

Physical torment? Sure. Separation from God? Arguable. But whatever else one might say in pushing back against this way of characterizing the nature of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, surely his death is missing here! He himself says he came “to give his life as a ransom for sinners” (Matt 20:28; cf. Mark 10:45). He is the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). “Greater love has no one than this,” he says, “that someone lay down his life for his friends” (15:13). Paul tells the Romans, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The author of Hebrews says Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9). Such examples, in which Jesus’ substitutionary work is identified with his death, are easily multiplied.

Importantly, these texts are not talking about a spiritual death, if that’s what the committee means by saying Jesus suffered “temporary separation from His Father.” Paul says that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (1 Cor 15:3–4), the language of burial and resurrection unmistakably highlighting the bodily death of Jesus. Peter is more explicit, writing, “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” (1 Pet 3:18; emphasis added). The author of Hebrews says that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10; emphasis added). Whatever else Jesus suffered on the cross in the place of sinners, he suffered death as ordinarily understood, the privation of embodied life. His heart stopped beating, and he stopped breathing.

The BFC committee is right, I think, to point to the cross as a picture of how God will deal with sin, but the central focus of this picture is death. Yes, “we see the seriousness of sin in the consequences,” and yes, “the greatest picture of how seriously God takes sin . . . is the cross.” But this picture, portraying God taking sin most seriously and meting out the gravest of consequences, is one that includes a grave. As Fudge puts it, “Jesus’ death for sinners does provide a window into the final judgment awaiting the lost. But the view we see through that window is one of suffering that ends in death—not one of everlasting conscious torment.”48Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (IVP Academic, 2000), 204. 49 For more on the importance of Christ’s death that traditionalists sometimes overlook, see “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death, and the Fate of the Wicked“.

A Closing Appeal to the Shaken at Whitehall

I always struggle with deciding how to conclude something like this, but I feel burdened to end with a plea to some of the people mentioned in Whitehall’s original petition. You are those “who have serious doubts regarding the eternal conscious torment of the unregenerate” and “have abandoned the Faith in large measure due to this historic doctrine of the Church.”50“Petition,” 137. If that describes you, please consider coming back home to the historic Christian faith. You likely have additional reasons for doubting traditional, creedal Christianity, but if you thought it required belief in eternal torment, perhaps now you can see that it doesn’t. The Bible doesn’t appear to teach this doctrine, and the earliest, ecumenical creeds of Christendom affirm no one view of hell over another.51I.e., the Apostles’, Nicean, and Chalcedonian Creeds. We followers of Christ can agree to disagree on this important, but not essential doctrine of the faith. We can and should debate it rigorously and with a passion tempered by mutual love and respect. But our disagreement and intramural debate needn’t prevent us from being united and working together to take the gospel to a dying world that desperately needs the life of Jesus.

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References
1 “Whitehall BFC Petition to BFC Conference,” One Hundred Thirty-nineth Annual Meeting of the Bible Fellowship Church Conference 2022, rev. ed., 137.
2 “Report of the Study Committee on Eternal Conscious Torment,” Bible Fellowship Church 141st Conference Report Book, 109–110.
3 Ibid., 100; emphasis added.
4 Ibid.; emphasis added.
5 Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. (Cascade, 2011), 42; emphasis added.
6 Ibid., 198; italics in original.
7 Ibid., 209.
8 “Report,” 100.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., n18; italics in original.
11 Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Zondervan, 2022), 575; italics in original.
12 “Report,” 101; italics in original.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., 102.
15 Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 331.
16 Augustine, City of God, 21.3.2; John MacArthur, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: The Main Event in Redemptive History,” Grace to You, sermon delivered on April 12, 2009, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/90-374/the-resurrection-of-jesus-christ-the-main-event-in-redemptive-history.
17 “Report,” 103.
18 For  more on Isaiah 66:24, as well as Mark 9:48, see “Their Worm Does Not Die: Annihilation and Mark 9:48” and “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation in Mark 9:48 (Part 2)“.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid., 105.
21 J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (Warbler Press, 2022), 46.
22 “Report,” 105.
23 For more on Matthew 25:46 and “eternal punishment,” see Joseph Dear, “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment,” Parts 1 and 2.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (United Bible Societies, 1989), 178.
28 “Report,” 106.
29 Though, Jesus obviously doesn’t intend hearers to literally maim themselves.
30 “Report,” 106–7.
31 Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 316.
32 “Report,” 107.
33 Ibid.
34 For more on 2 Thessalonians 1:9, see “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9”, Parts 1 and 2 by Peter Grice, and by Ronnie Demler and Williams Tanksley Jr., respectively.
35 Ibid., 108.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.; emphasis added.
38 The phrase “by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (v. 7) is an adverbial participle of means, indicating the means by which the cities “serve as an example.”
39 Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude (IVP Academic, 2007), 610; Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Word, 1983), 46; Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2006), 47; Jerome H. Neyrey, 2 Peter, Jude, Anchor Yale Bible (Yale University Press, 1993), 59–60.
40 Perhaps Jude calls the fire that fell from heaven and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah “eternal” because its source—God himself—is eternal. After all, if flames shoot forth from the sun and burn up a meteoroid passing by, the flames will dissipate but the sun, whence they came, will keep burning.
41 For more on “eternal fire” in the Bible, see Joseph Dear, “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire'”, Parts 1 and 2.
42 “Report,” 108–9.
43 Ibid., 108; emphasis added.
44 Ibid., 109.
45 Clay Jones, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House, 2020).
46 David L. Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (InterVarsity, 1988), 314–5.
47 “Report,” 109.
48 Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (IVP Academic, 2000), 204.
49 For more on the importance of Christ’s death that traditionalists sometimes overlook, see “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death, and the Fate of the Wicked“.
50 “Petition,” 137.
51 I.e., the Apostles’, Nicean, and Chalcedonian Creeds.