The Biblical Vision of Eternity

The biblical vision of eternity is an element of the conditionalist view that is often not as widely emphasized as the death and destruction of God’s enemies, but it is a worthy arrow to hold in the quiver nonetheless.

This phrase, borrowed from fellow contributor Glenn Peoples, describes what the Bible teaches about the age to come and the eternal state of things. 1 Glenn Peoples, “Why I Am an Annihilationist,” 6, Academia.edu, n.d., https://www.academia.edu/45290811/Why_I_am_an_Annihilationist (accessed August March 31, 2024). Part of this teaching is that the creation will eternally be full of joy, glory, and God. And this description is wholly incompatible with a creation that is eternally marred by an eternal conscious hell of pain, sin, and wickedness.

Such an understanding of the cosmos into eternity requires one of two things to occur. One option is universalism, where God redeems and purifies every individual human and angel unto eternal life. The other option, which I and Rethinking Hell consider to be what is true and biblical, is that anyone who opposes God and ends up still wicked and unrepentant until the end will be eliminated and can no longer mar creation with either their sin or their suffering.

Now, this is one of those times where a small number of texts address it more directly while a lot more of the Bible speaks to it in a more indirect manner insofar as other teachings make more sense once this doctrine is established. The focus here will be mainly on the core biblical case, as this is a topic where there is ample room for additional content and discussion in the future.

1 Corinthians 15:24-28

If I could identify two main texts to this matter, they would be 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Ephesians 1:10 (the latter utilizing the greater context of surrounding verses). 2 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

…then comes the end, when He [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to our God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is clear that this excludes the Father who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:24-28, emphasis mine).

This text, among many major issues it sheds light on, tells us that when the end comes, God will be all in all.

Now, the text does not go into great detail as to what that means, but there are a few things that can reasonably be gleaned from it. Most significantly is that, since this text describes the future, God being all-in-all goes beyond just being omnipresent, since God being everywhere already is something that virtually all who are under the banner of Christendom would affirm (and is also a central part of Psalm 139). Therefore, it must be the case that God must fill creation in a way that it is not filled currently, despite him being Lord of lords over everything already.

While the specifics of how this exactly plays out are a bit speculative, it seems very difficult to reconcile this description of the universe with any model where a segment of creation, filled with many humans and angels, is off in a corner of creation, not being in the midst of God in this new, glorious manner that we do not yet see.

This is an amazing truth to consider as Christians, with incredible significance to what we have to look forward as those who love God.

It also leaves no room for continuing a conscious hell into eternity, either one filled with rebels or one separated from God.

Ephesians 1:9-11a

…He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance…(Ephesians 1:9-11a, emphasis added).

Because of the nature of the larger passage in context, there’s no exact right or wrong place to start or stop a citation to make the point. I have selected Ephesians 1:9 to the first half of Verse 11 as I think it helps show the necessary elements.

With this passage, the overall teaching undoubtedly helps the annihilationist case from the biblical vision of eternity. It only becomes a question as to what degree it does.

At the very least, what is undeniable is that Christ sums up everything together. There is a purpose, a telos to this, and everything in all of creation comes together in unity in a way that is not the case now. How much room does such a view of the universe leave for ongoing sin and suffering in a part of creation? This certainly goes against the overall flow and thrust of the passage, at the very best for the traditionalist.

And it is only because of some potential linguistic ambiguity that was pointed out to me in disucssions with the RH team that I even grant this much to the traditionalist. This is because the way this passage literally reads (Greek ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ/en tō Christō), and is usually translated, makes it even more explicit as to the nature of the world to come.

In normal situations, if I were to say to you that everyone and everything would be “in Christ,”that would sound like there is nothing that is unredeemed. After all, how can a person be damned and also “in Christ”?

The main linguistic ambiguity pointed out to me was that, in theory, in could be that the summing up happens “in Christ,” i.e. Christ is the mechanism behind it, not necessarily that everything becomes “in Christ.” I am not fluent in Greek, and even if I was, I would not be surrised if this was simply intrinsic to the wording of the text. Therefore, I grant that this is possibility and will not put all of my interpretive eggs in the basket of the texts use of “in Christ” meaning everything is in Christ the way we often use that English term in church circles – although the fact that Verse 11 then follows up by reminding us that our inheritance specifically is “in Christ” does not hurt.

That said, whether in Christ, through Christ, under Christ, etc., it is hard to deny that at the very least, this text is speaking of Christ bringing things together in unison, dare I say even in harmony, when the end comes. Even rare translations that do not say “in Christ” make that clear (arguably even more than the NASB). Consider Verse 10 in the New International Version:

…to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (NIV).

For the traditional view, this is a very rough passage at the very least.

Philippians 2:8-11 and Every Knee Bowing to Christ

There is a third passage that I often cite, although it is more controversial among annihilationists (i.e. not all agree with me about its implications):

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:8-11).

It’s not hard to imagine why I might point to a passage like this (as do many universalists). If every knee will bow to Jesus, of those throughout all of creation, then where is there room for anyone who would not bow their knee to Jesus? Either everyone turns to Christ, anyone that does not has been eliminated.

Now, the controversy arises over my implied assertion that those who bow their knees to Jesus are saved, in Christ, and part of God’s kingdom. After all, it is not uncommon to hear Christians assert that everyone will bow their knee, but some will do it by force and not out of wilful submission to Christ.

However, I think there is good reason to deny this idea that there will be sinful, unsaved people grudgingly bending their knee. God does not desire false worship. Consider Matthew 15:7-9 and what Jesus said to the Pharisees:

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

If God rejected the religion of those Jesus rebuked, and those in Isaiah’s time, despite them being among his chosen nation and following worship laws to the letter, how much more would we expect God to reject and see no value in people bowing their knees to him for any reason but devotion from the heart? Their hearts would be far from him in every way.

And yet, this bowing of every knee to Christ is not merely a prediction of what will happen. It is specifically God’s purpose in it all. The telos, the endgame of all this is that every knee bows to Jesus. So why would we think that when God speaks of his purpose being every knee bowing to Jesus, that this purpose includes false worship by the godless?

But if all that is left are those who worship God from the heart, then how can there be anyone who is condemned to eternal conscious hell? Is it theoretically possible that maybe they truly have repented and even been regenerated but they are just too late? Maybe. But I imagine most would have a harder time accepting that idea than they would have accepting annihilationism (and rightly so).

Traditionalist Response

Appeals To Eternal Conscious Hell Prooftexts Without Further Exegesis

Any time someone says that the other side has not given much of a response to an argument or claim, it should always be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I have read a grossly unhealthy amount of literature in the defense of the traditional view, and I have not come across much in response to the argument from the biblical vision of eternity.

To the extent that it is addressed, the response tends to largely just be that the Bible elsewhere teaches eternal conscious hell, so these passages, and this theme broadly, are still consistent with eternal conscious hell because the Bible teaches it elsewhere.

For example, in the book Hell under Fire, Christopher Morgan gives the following rebuttal to John Stott’s argument from the biblical vision and 1 Corinthians 15:28:

Yet, Stott falls into the same trap [as universalists] by presupposing a certain understanding of what God’s being ‘all in all’ means. But a better approach is to ask: What do the scriptures teach about the final victory of God? The Bible seems to teach that God’s ultimate victory is compatible with the endless [conscious] punishment of the wicked.” 3 Christopher W. Morgan, “Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever?” in Hell under Fire. Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 217..

From there, Dr. Morgan cites Revelation 20:10 and Matthew 25:41-46 but does not provide any further exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:28 or even explain what the term “all in all” should mean if it is to be consistent with eternal conscious hell. It simply must be consistent with eternal conscious hell because other passages teach eternal conscious hell. He concludes with the following statement:

This is not some sort of cosmological dualism as the conditionalists allege. How could there be dualism when God reigns supreme and all his enemies are vanquished? No, there will be no hint of dualism. 4 Christopher W. Morgan, 218.

In fairness to Dr. Morgan, he is also addressing a subtly different question, that being whether the victory of God over evil is compatible with eternal conscious hell. However, he does so while noting both the passages above (and others) while also missing or ignoring important aspects of them. While one could at least make the argument that victory over evil is compatible with eternal conscious hell – and Morgan is certainly correct that we should get our answers from the Bible whenever the Bible gives an answer – he misses the significance of passages like 1 Corinthians 15:28 and “all in all.”

The argument from the biblical vision of eternity is not simply a question of God’s victory over sin. It is a question of the nature of the creation once the end has come. A description like God being all-in-all describes a creation where God is everywhere and part of all of it in ways he is not currently (despite already being everywhere and all-powerful). It is this description not of God’s victory but of nature itself that makes the idea of a segment of creation set aside for eternal torment hard to imagine. The dualism we are concerned with is not that of an equally powerful God and devil, but of a creation forever marred by ongoing suffering and, in most models, ongoing evil and rebellion of God. 5 A very small minority of traditionalists have suggested alternative models of eternal conscious hell that attempt to alleviate the problem of ongoing evil and rebellion if the unsaved live forever in hell. These models, which I largely consider to be ad hoc and without biblical basis, will be potential material to address in future articles and content. Similar statements can be made about Ephesians 1:10.

Similar weaknesses arise elsewhere. For example, according to John Blanchard in the book Whatever Happened to Hell?: “Yet why should the promise of God’s final victory over evil be inconsistent with the everlasting punishment of the wicked if this is what God has ordained?” 6 John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Bath, Gt. Brit.: Evangelical, 1993), 221. While Blanchard’s response to the specific question he is addressing is relevant, he likewise does not address the main biblical reason why 1 Corinthians 15:28 is so important.

Robert Peterson reasons similarly: “What does God deem compatible with being ‘all in all’? The Bible’s final three chapters answer: God’s ultimate victory does not involve the eradication of evil beings from the universe.” Peterson then goes on to cite Revelation 20:10. 7 Robert Peterson, Hell on Trial (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 175. However, he likewise does not further interpret 1 Corinthians 15:28 or what “all in all” should even mean.

On the one hand, I get where they are all coming from. Clear scripture should interpret unclear scripture. That’s both a mantra of the Protestant Reformation and simple common sense.

But passages like those that I have looked at above are not all that unclear. This isn’t a matter of clear scripture interpreting unclear scripture. It is, at best for the traditionalist case, different passages that would seem to contradict each other when taken at face value. Therefore, we must dig deeper and see which interpretation (if either one) makes the most sense of all the relevant passages. Simply writing off one interpretation because another text seems clear is not sufficient – especially when your main text is from an extremely symbolic vision that has been addressed at Rethinking Hell before. 8 Regarding Revelation 20:10, see “A Primer on Revelation 20:10“. 9 Regarding Matthew 25:46, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment” Parts 1 and 2. See also Chris Date, “Falling into Error: Grasping At Straws in Matthew 25:46″.

Memories and Remnants Of The Finally Impenitent

One of those arguments relegated to online discussions, at least as far as I am aware, is that annihilationists agree that passages like Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:2 teach that the unsaved will at least be remembered in a negative light. Therefore, it’s not as though God is really all in all, in an absolute sense, even in our view. Not everything is totally and truly in Christ.

This argument is often augmented by saying that if the ashes remain of God’s enemies or any such remnant still exists, God has not really filled all of creation and not everything is in Christ.

To the latter, I would simply say that God can clean up the ashes and zap them away if it’s really going to be a problem. Or maybe he’ll turn any literal ashes into soil for a tree or something. There are so many ways that this isn’t a problem – aside from the fact that you can’t really compare inert matter with people in pain and cursing God.

As for negative memories, they don’t really change that all that exists is in Christ, that God is all in all, and that every remaining knee will bow. Creation itself, which is the focus of the three passages I brought up, is fully intact and renewed when no one in it is in sin or in ongoing suffering any longer. And the negative memories themselves will be tempered with satisfaction that justice was done and the wicked can no longer hurt anyone.

Perhaps if one wants to make the case that the shalom of the world to come is compromised to such an extent that you can’t say that God is *really* all in all if even negative memories exist (even if perhaps only in God’s memory), then feel free to make that argument – for universalism. Because any such dilemma surely isn’t solved by the unsaved still being unregenerate in a place of torment.

Conclusion

While the Bible may not emphasize this aspect of annihilationism as much as the death and destruction, nevertheless, it does show us that this idea, that creation won’t be forever marred by sinners in eternal conscious hell, is not merely something we think makes for a better ending. Rather, the text fills us in that this is part of the plan. It is the whole of creation that is redeemed. The new age will not be like the old. God is already everywhere and all-powerful now, so the age where all things are in Christ must be something like we have never known, something where there is nothing that could challenge the idea that God truly is all in all.

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References
1 Glenn Peoples, “Why I Am an Annihilationist,” 6, Academia.edu, n.d., https://www.academia.edu/45290811/Why_I_am_an_Annihilationist (accessed August March 31, 2024).
2 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
3 Christopher W. Morgan, “Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever?” in Hell under Fire. Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 217.
4 Christopher W. Morgan, 218.
5 A very small minority of traditionalists have suggested alternative models of eternal conscious hell that attempt to alleviate the problem of ongoing evil and rebellion if the unsaved live forever in hell. These models, which I largely consider to be ad hoc and without biblical basis, will be potential material to address in future articles and content.
6 John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Bath, Gt. Brit.: Evangelical, 1993), 221.
7 Robert Peterson, Hell on Trial (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 175.
8 Regarding Revelation 20:10, see “A Primer on Revelation 20:10“.
9 Regarding Matthew 25:46, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment” Parts 1 and 2. See also Chris Date, “Falling into Error: Grasping At Straws in Matthew 25:46″.