What I would have to deny in order to teach eternal torment

For some people, the concept of hell as a state of eternal torment is so central to their faith and their portrait of God that giving it up would mean giving up the faith altogether: giving up the authority of Jesus; giving up, in principle, the authority of Scripture; discarding the testimony of the church; and ultimately denying the gospel. This is the stance Tim Challies takes, somberly telling his readers that “If I am going to give up hell, I am going to give up the gospel and replace it with a new one.” Of course, by “hell,” he means eternal torment, not the biblical picture of final judgement and the loss of life and being forever.

Setting aside more popularist visions of hell like that of Challies and turning to the biblical account of life, death, judgment, and eternity, we could ask a similar question: If we were to give up the biblical position of immortality and eternal life found in Christ alone and to instead embrace the doctrine of eternal torment, what would we have to give up? What would be the cost of embracing the traditional view instead of the biblical one?

We would have to deny what Jesus taught

It’s interesting that we have to start here, because this is where Challies started as well. He quoted the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (the only biblical passage he actually interacts with in any detail, which reveals much), which at most says something about the intermediate state, and spoke of the image of a fiery furnace (perhaps forgetting that it was a furnace in which weeds were completely burned up —the Greek katakaio, an intensified form of the verb to burn, meaning to completely consume with fire). He thinks that if we give up eternal torment, we have to give up on the teaching of Jesus, which just leaves me wondering: Has he even read the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels about judgment? The truth is that Jesus never spoke a word in favor of eternal torment—not even by innuendo. Sure, hell is forever, rather than temporary. There’s no coming back. But what is it, according to Jesus?

Over and over, Jesus spoke of hell in clear terms that describe death, destruction, and finality. The broad way, found by many, is the road that leads, not to endless suffering, but to “destruction” (Matthew 7:13), while the narrow path leads to life. Instead of fearing men, who can only kill us in this life, we should fear God, who can kill and then cast us into Gehenna (Luke 12:4-5), where he will destroy both soul/life and body (Matthew 10:28). Jesus compares the last judgment to a scene in which weeds are uprooted and then burned up in a furnace (Matthew 13:40-42). Jesus taught that the one who believes “has eternal life” (John 3:36) and “will not perish” (John 3:16; cf. 10:28) because that person “has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). Those who choose not to receive his life therefore do perish. They “will not see life” and “have no life” in them (John 6:53) because they “refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:40).

To borrow from Tim’s language, then, if I am going to affirm eternal torment as he does, then I “will need to outright deny what Jesus teaches and declare that he is wrong, or I will need to obscure what is so plain. I will need to make all of Jesus’ language symbolic and all of the meaning something other than what seems so clear. I will need to deny what Jesus says.”

We would have to deny the plain sense of Scripture

The irony just accumulates, since this was Tim’s second point as well, even though he affirms the doctrine of eternal torment. But if we’re going to give up the biblical stance that the wages of sin is really death and eternal life is a gift, affirming eternal torment instead, then we have to simply junk the idea that Scripture is clear on this subject, because what Scripture clearly teaches is definitely not the doctrine of eternal torment. This observation has been made by many. Clark Pinnock surveyed the evidence:

Our Lord spoke plainly of God’s judgment as the annihilation of the wicked when he warned about God’s ability to destroy body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28)…

The Apostle Paul creates the same impression when he wrote of the everlasting destruction that would come upon unrepentant sinners (2 Thess. 1:9). He warned that the wicked would reap corruption (Gal. 6:8) and stated that God would destroy the wicked (1 Cor. 3:17; Phil 1:28)… Concerning the wicked, the apostle stated plainly and concisely: “their destiny is destruction” (Phil. 3:19)….

It is no different in any other New Testament book. Peter spoke of the “destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7) and of false teachers who denied the Lord, thus bringing upon themselves “swift destruction” (2:1, 3).1Clark H Pinnock, “The Conditional View” in William Crockett (ed.), Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 146.

Tim Challies must simply grit his teeth—along with all those who hold the doctrine of eternal torment—and say that when the Bible repeatedly speaks of the death and destruction of the lost, it doesn’t really mean what it says. He can’t wiggle out and try to say that this isn’t what Scripture says, because the evidence is simply a landslide. Attempts to make words mean something other than what they appear to in this case (for example, the term apollumi – destroy) are a total failure. Bible translator R. F. Weymouth was in despair at these sorts of doomed manoeuvres:

My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying “destroy,” or “destruction,” are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this [italics original].2Quoted from a letter to Edward White, in Henry Constable, The Nature and Duration of Future Punishment (London: Edward Hobbs, 1886, 6th ed.), 36.

When Scripture says repeatedly that the lost will die and not have life, we would have to play the role of a lawyer trying to get a guilty client off, assuring the judge that “die” means “be spiritually ruined,” and that losing life just means losing a particular quality of life. Destruction means… “ruin” also (that word is like a get-out-of- the-Bible-free card). And as for pictures of chaff or weeds being completely consumed, well… ahem… it’s about hell, so they just don’t mean what they appear to mean. Comparisons to the annihilation of Sodom? We’ll just overlook those.

There’s really no getting around it. If I were going to join Tim Challies in affirming the doctrine of eternal torment, then, to use his language, I would “have to do a great deal of redefining, a great deal of reinterpreting. As with the teaching of Jesus, I will need to change what is plain to what is symbolic, I will need to take what is clear and make it obscure.” A plain, honest reading of the Scripture results in the view that eternal torment is a false teaching and the lost will be destroyed forever. In order to adopt Tim’s view of hell as eternal torment, we would have to jettison other things that he takes seriously, like the authority and perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture.

We would have to say that the church started out in error and got better a few hundred years later

It’s true that many good things take time (like a fine wine or good cheese). But that is not what happened with the doctrine of hell. There is an irony in Tim’s post here (in fact there is a huge amount of irony in it, as we have already seen). “From the church’s earliest days until today, hell has been understood as a place of conscious, eternal torment.” Although this is no laughing matter, it’s almost funny that, to establish this claim, Tim quotes from the Westminster Larger Catechism—written in the seventeenth century!

The truth is that early Christianity, as seen in the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, or later Fathers like Arnobius and Athanasius the Great, did not teach the doctrine of eternal torment at all. Tim’s view became the mainstream view from the time of Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century. It is true, of course, that among Evangelicals, Tim’s view is the most popular at the moment. But current popularity is no measure of truth.

We would have to walk away from the doctrine of the atonement

Tim thinks that without hell as a place of eternal torment, “the message of Christ dying for the lost in order to save their souls will be meaningless,” so that denying eternal torment means denying the gospel. In reality, Tim is making the death of Christ for the lost of no effect. At the heart of the atonement is the concept of substitution. Jesus stands in our place, and a terrible exchange takes place. Christ died in our place.

But if the end result of our sin is not really death but endless torment in hell, then why on earth did Jesus die? You might want to say that Jesus suffered in our place. Maybe you think the wrath of God was poured out on him as he hung on the cross, bearing the pain of hell. This really isn’t what Scripture says about Jesus’ death, but even if it were, how can you say that Jesus died for us? If you believe in eternal torment, dying is not what awaits the lost in hell! As I have said before, some traditionalists pay a terrible price here, striking a blow at the very cross of Christ, downplaying his death for us.

Tim may think that if he is going to give up eternal torment then “I am going to give up the gospel and replace it with a new one.” I have some good news for him!

Tim says that if the doctrine of eternal torment were not true, he would rejoice. Let’s invite him to do so as he considers what the Scripture says and rethinks hell. Holding on to the doctrine of eternal torment is an expensive exercise: gone is virtually all of what Jesus said about hell, what the rest of Scripture says about it, our honesty in handling church history, and the atoning death of Christ. Is that a price you think you should pay in the name of standing up for the gospel? What gospel is left after that?

Glenn Peoples

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1 Clark H Pinnock, “The Conditional View” in William Crockett (ed.), Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 146.
2 Quoted from a letter to Edward White, in Henry Constable, The Nature and Duration of Future Punishment (London: Edward Hobbs, 1886, 6th ed.), 36.