Every now and again, I read an article on hell that draws a conclusion that simply cannot follow from the evidence cited in the body of that article. I am an exegete, and I tend to notice when peoples’ interpretation of a verse or passage is not supported by the details in the text. In this case, I have in mind an article written by Matt Slick, in which he discusses the meaning of Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, as they relate to the debate over hell. Since I spent a good deal of my free time over the past few years studying the Gospel of Matthew, I am familiar with the language and imagery used in these two verses, and when I read his article I found myself wondering why he was just not discussing key aspects of those verses.
In order to explain what I mean, I need to begin by quoting the two verses:
“And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:12)
“And His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17)
As you can see, they are virtually the same, and the small differences have no bearing on the meaning of the text. The two most basic questions an exegete can ask are What does this text mean? and (more importantly) How do I know that it means what I think it means? One of the critical things to do when answering this second question is to take account of all the aspects of the verse or passage you are interpreting. That is, take care to avoid ignoring important features of the text that give clues as to what the author is trying to communicate. In Slick’s case, it is obvious that he is driven by the goal of refuting specific conditionalist arguments on these two verses, rather than just following the exegesis wherever it may lead him.
In order to demonstrate this, I only need to point out that he focuses more on the notion of nonexistence than on the key verbs in the verse, verbs that unequivocally communicate that the chaff is burned up completely and thereby removed from the threshing floor. An example of this can be found in his opening statement:
Conditionalists often use these two verses in support of their doctrine of annihilation. They say that as the chaff is burned up and ceases to exist, so too the wicked will be burned up and cease to exist on the Day of Judgment. But, this position is begging the question. The text does not say that anyone ceases to exist. What it does say is that the chaff will be burned up with unquenchable fire.
Are we conditionalists begging the question, as Slick says, or do we instead draw our conclusions from what is written in the text? The NASB rendering of the verses draws out the meaning of the key verbs perfectly. The chaff will “burn up,” so that the one who is threshing will “thoroughly clear” it from the threshing floor. Most people acquainted with the conditionalist argument in the hell debate are aware that the Greek word behind “burned up” is κατακαίω (katakaiō). Rogers and Rogers note in their Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament that κατακαίω is a perfective verb. This is not a comment on the tense of the verb, but a note on how this class of compound verb emphasizes the verbal action as a whole, so that it is brought to a definite conclusion. An example of this can be seen in how the basic verb βάλλω (ballō), which means “to cast, to throw,” can be intensified using the preposition ἐκ (ek), which means “out from,” to form ἐκβάλλω (ekballō), a verb that now carries the meaning “to expel, take out, remove; drive out, bring out, send out.” The compound verb ἐκβάλλω therefore tends to place more emphasis on the completed act of throwing, so that the person, rather than being merely thrown like a judo toss that leaves a person on the ground, is instead thrown the whole way out of some boundary or region.
The same can be said of how κατακαίω is an intensified form of καίω (kaiō; to burn).
Mounce notes that though καίω can mean “to burn up” (John 15:6) in the sense that a fire fully consumes that which it is burning, it can also be used with the sense of lighting something, or with an emphasis on keeping something burning, such as when one lights a lamp (Matt 5:15) or keeps one burning (Luke 13:35). When Mounce discusses κατακαίω, however, he notes that
it means “to burn” with the implication of being completely consumed. It is a compound verb; κατα … is an emphatic form that intensifies the more general καίω.
An interesting way to illustrate this is through noting the use of both words in the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Exodus 3:2:
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning (καίω) with fire, yet the bush was not consumed (κατακαίω).
In this verse, καίω is used to express the ongoing burning of that fire in the bush, while κατακαίω is used to emphasize that that bush is not incinerated by that fire. So, κατακαίω has a much narrower range of meaning than καίω, where the compound form of the verb is not used to speak of a fire continuously burning, but of that fire’s consumption of that which it burns. Of the many lexicons I own, they all make the same basic distinction between καίω and κατακαίω. They all list definitions of these words that show that καίω has a broader range of meaning than κατακαίω, which only relates to the idea of incineration.
If the Baptist had simply utilized the imagery of a threshing process and said that the chaff is blown away, then the message would indeed have been consistent with the idea that the chaff is preserved.
If the point was to say that the fire did not completely consume the chaff, then the Baptist could have easily utilized the phraseology of the LXX translation of Exodus 3:2 to say that the chaff will burn (καίω) but not be consumed (οὐ κατακαίω) by that fire, or else used a metaphor that doesn’t include flammable husks, such as “his fire will separate the rocks from the gold.”
Words do change meaning over time, and sometimes exceptions to the normal usage can occur, so I will offer evidence that this has not taken place in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17. The other main verb in these verses is διακαθαρίζω (diakatharizō), which means “to clear out, clean out.” Though this verb is rare in the NT, it is also a compound verb that carries the perfective force, meaning the action of clearing is carried through to a definite result. As Leon Morris states, “it clearly points to a complete cleansing of the threshing floor.” We have, then, a second verb that adds to the picture of the chaff being completely removed from the threshing floor, something that would conflict with the notion of that chaff being continually burned in the sense that καίω might lend the verses. There can be no doubt that the intended idea communicated in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 is that the unquenchable fire removes the chaff by incinerating it.
Though I have delved into Greek lexicons, Greek grammars, and commentaries to help explain this, the idea itself should have been patently obvious to Slick, by virtue of the standard translations of those verses. The NASB—the version that Slick uses—renders διακαθαρίζω as “thoroughly clear” and κατακαίω as “burn up.” That alone should be enough to settle the issue. I have read through various conditionalist writings to check how they interact with the evidence in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17. All take the verbs κατακαίω and διακαθαρίζω with their normal meaning.
The question is, why is Slick not following the evidence in the text?
In his article, Slick discusses several reasons he thinks these two verses do not support conditionalism. Like all other traditionalists I have read and interacted with, Slick points to the fact that the fire is said to be unquenchable. The early part of his discussion of the unquenchable fire motif has to do with the conditionalist understanding that the unquenchable fire will eventually go out once the fire has fully consumed the chaff. Noting the frequent conditionalist appeal to Jeremiah 17:27 and Ezekiel 20:47, Slick admits that they do support this notion but then goes on to argue,
…on the other hand, it also follows that if the fire is not quenched until the fuel is exterminated, then if a person burns in torment forever, then the fire is unquenchable. It all depends on what the meaning of destruction is. The conditionalists will say it means nonexistence, and the traditionalists will say it means continued conscious torment in hell.
However, focussing on the meaning of the word “destruction” is a red herring, an argument that distracts from the actual evidence. The evidence is the use of κατακαίω and διακαθαρίζω in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, where it communicates that the chaff will be completely removed from the threshing floor by fire. The claim that the chaff is completely destroyed by the fire, so it is gone, is a conclusion from evidence within the text itself. Slick is simply ignoring what the verse says and arguing about words used to summarize the conclusion to give the false impression that there is a choice of two possible kinds of destruction in view in these verses.
Furthermore, while Slick is fully aware that the conditionalist argument is that the chaff is said to be burned up in the fire, he addresses what is at most an ancillary conditionalist argument. While it is true that at times conditionalists do argue or state that the fire will eventually go out, that is not their main argument. The evidence in those Old Testament passages we offer shows what the fire will do to those thrown into it, without commenting on what happens to that fire after that. The ancillary nature of the point about the fire going out is demonstrated by reading what conditionalists do say when commenting on the issue.
For instance, Basil Atkinson writes,
Matt 3:12: “he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The meaning of “burn up” is surely unmistakable. Can it by any trick of imagination be made to mean “preserve alive in everlasting misery”? But many have felt that unquenchable fire expresses a special sort of fire that must go on burning forever. Now even if it actually did so, it would not follow that the persons or things cast into it would exist forever without being burned up. But there is no reason to suppose that it does. The idea of unquenchable fire is taken like so much else in the New Testament from the Scriptures of the Old. In Jer 17:27 we read that the Lord will kindle a fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will devour her palaces and shall not be quenched. The king of Babylon was the instrument through whom God fulfilled this threat and the palaces were devoured. But is the fire burning now? Of course not. No one in the world could quench it till it had fulfilled the purpose for which it was kindled, and then in the course of nature it went out. In Jer 7:20 the Lord says the same thing about his wrath against Jerusalem. Unquenchable fire in Scripture is thus fire that cannot be put out until it has totally devoured what it was kindled to burn up. Such will be the fire that will burn up the wicked.
John Wenham is another example:
There are three passages that speak of unquenchable fire, two in the teaching of the Baptist (Matt 3:12 = Luke 3:17) and one from our Lord who speaks of going away “into Gehenna into the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). The chaff of course is burnt up by the irresistible fire— there is nothing to suggest that the fire goes on burning after it has destroyed the rubbish.
Consider Harold Guillebaud’s comments:
The main emphasis in the texts that speak of fire is on the destructive rather than the tormenting effects of the fire. John the Baptist says of the Lord Jesus that “he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12, Luke 3:17). The Greek word rendered “burn up,” like its English equivalent, is a strong word implying total destruction, and chaff is utterly destroyed by fire. The word “unquenchable” means simply “that which nothing and no one can quench,” which cannot be prevented from accomplishing its destructive purpose. But there may be the further thought that, after it has completed the destruction, it continues forever as a memorial of the wrath of God. In any case it can hardly be intended to reverse the meaning of “burn up” by suggesting an eternally uncompleted process of burning.
Finally, Edward Fudge:
The figure of “unquenchable” fire appears frequently throughout Scripture and signifies a fire that cannot be resisted or put out until it has done what fire is intended to do. Because this fire is “not quenched” or extinguished, it completely consumes what is put into it. Yet an “unquenchable” fire eventually goes out, when it has consumed its fuel. “Unquenchable” does not mean ever-burning, but irresistible. Because it cannot be thwarted in its intended purpose, or stopped short of accomplishing its goal, “unquenchable” fire (“irresistible fire”) fully consumes (Ezek 20:47–48), reduces to nothing (Amos 5:5–6) or burns up what is put into it (Matt 3:12).
Though all four of these conditionalist authors do mention or imply that the unquenchable fire would go out after it has incinerated, there is no reason why conditionalists cannot accept the possibility that the fire might not go out in the end, as is seen in Atkinson’s statement. Some, like Guillebaud (he is not the only one to do this), explain this as a memorial of God’s wrath. Most conditionalists do not even bother talking to the issue at all. This issue of whether the fire dies out is not a hill that conditionalists die on in the hell debate.
In contrast, all four conditionalists emphasize that the chaff will be incinerated because an unquenchable fire cannot be put out or resisted, and because of the language in the verse that explicitly says that the chaff will be incinerated by that fire. They focus on this because their analysis of Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 is guided by the explicit language of κατακαίω and διακαθαρίζω.
One wonders why Slick does not follow suit and let the language of the text guide him on what Matthew and Luke intended to convey, and why he chose to focus on the peripheral argument, as opposed to the main point that was being made.
Slick also skews the conditionalist case from Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 when he talks about what he calls ‘Conditionalist Cremation’.
Most conditionalists I’ve talked to believe in some form of soul sleep whereupon at the Day of Judgment, God awakens them and reunites them with their physical bodies. They are then cast into the fire where their body is consumed, and they become nonexistent. If this is the case, then they would be saying that each wicked person’s physical body is ignited on fire, and they are eventually cremated because once there [sic] body is consumed, the fire goes out, and the soul no longer exists. This would mean that the only qualitative difference between the conditionalist and the traditionalist is the amount of time of the burning torment.
Setting aside the issue of soul sleep, which is just not part of Evangelical Conditionalism, Slick has missed the point by speaking as if we believe the unquenchable fire is cremating bodies that are already dead, or that the qualitative difference between conditionalists and traditionalists has to do with how long a person burns in torment. Our argument is not, as Slick seems to think, in any way focused on torment. In conditionalism, the destruction wrought by the unquenchable fire is one that kills the whole person as it consumes that person’s body. This death by fire is viewed as capital punishment. It is a punishment that deprives the lost of eternal life. That Slick thinks time in torment is the difference between a conditionalist and traditionalist reading of Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 is a demonstration of his failure to grapple with our actual view and arguments for it.
In another article, Slick recognizes that chaff is the husk of a grain, or straw that was discarded after the threshing process separated the chaff from the grain. He lists all the figurative uses of chaff in the Bible, noting where it is used to talk about how the wicked are like chaff that is driven away in the wind (cf., Job 21:18; Psa 1:4; 35:5; 83:13; Isa 40:24; 41:2; Jer. 13:24; Hos 13:3) or burned up in a fire (Exod 15:7; Isa 5:24; 47:14; Joel 2:5; Mal 4:1; Mat 3:12; Luk 3:17). This analysis comports with the oft-recognized point of the chaff imagery, that it signifies something that is unstable, worthless, and not worth keeping.. Chaff is probably the worst possible thing to illustrate the idea of something that could survive a fire, and the employment of the unquenchable fire motif only serves to underscore the certainty of the complete destruction of those who will be judged by fire.
An astute reader will notice that Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 are included as references supporting the burning up of chaff. Slick is the one who added these verses in his conclusion to his article of chaff when he states,
The biblical treatment of chaff is both literal and figurative. There are instances where the destruction of the chaff means that it no longer exists (Exodus 15:7; Isaiah 5:24; 47:14; Joel 2:5; Mal. 4:1; Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17).
Let that sink in for a bit.
Even Slick recognizes that the chaff imagery is used in these verses with the express idea that the fire incinerates the chaff so it is no more. He is openly admitting that the chaff would no longer exist. How is it that he can then accuse conditionalists of begging the question when we come to the same conclusion as he does about those verses?
In his article on Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, Slick does give a few reasons why he changed his reading of those verses.
John uses this imagery regarding the judgment of the wicked. The question is whether or not John was trying to illustrate nonexistence or was he illustrating the terrifying judgment to come which “unquenchable fire” would suggest? I think that’s the key. If John wanted to say that the wicked are annihilated, then why did he use the phrase “unquenchable fire”? Was he merely borrowing the idiomatic expressions found in the Old Testament to convey the idea of future nonexistence? Or, is the imagery better suited to the warning of conscious torment? For me, it is obviously the latter. For you, maybe it is not.
But, this is subjective. I think it is far worse for someone to suffer eternal conscious torment than not to suffer eternal conscious torment. I think it’s clear that the greatest fear invoked by the imagery of unquenchable fire, and the worm that does not die (Mark 9:43-48), etc., would better fit the idea of eternal conscious torment, not the idea of the wicked facing nonexistence.
… If these two verses were the only ones we had on the topic, they might have a case. But they aren’t, so they don’t.
Slick is making much from the idea that John was speaking to the final judgment of the wicked. I agree with him on that point, but it is not at all obvious why the focus on an eschatological context would change the basic meaning of the imagery that Slick already agrees speaks to non-existence. To be clear, my argument is not framed in terms of the imagery directly speaking to non-existence as Slick does. I would argue that such imagery speaks to the slaying of the wicked. I have no doubt that Slick would agree that when that imagery is used in the OT, it most certainly is talking to the death of those who are caught up in God’s judgment, even though those OT contexts also have to do with judgment. The key issue here is that Slick somehow thinks that since the final judgment of the eschaton is in view that must, ipso facto, preclude the notion that the wicked can and will die in the fire of that last judgment. This begs the question.
Slick asks why John used the phrase “unquenchable fire” if the annihilation of the wicked was in view. His second question indicates that he either profoundly misunderstands the way New Testament authors employed images and motifs from the Old Testament, or he has deliberately slid in a mischaracterization of the Baptist’s use of that imagery as “merely borrowing the idiomatic expressions found in the Old Testament.” These are odd questions to ask when he has already admitted in his article on chaff that Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 do indeed indicate that the chaff is burned up completely. Of course, the Baptist used that imagery for a specific purpose, and thus far all the evidence has pointed to the conclusion that the Baptist had in mind the complete destruction of the wicked.
Another question Slick ponders is whether the Baptist used the imagery in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 as a way to illustrate the terrifying judgment to come. How exactly does the imagery relate to terror? Chaff is non-sentient, so that image alone cannot in and of itself relate to the disposition of those it is supposed to signify. Furthermore, Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 have no qualifying note indicating the chaff represents humans standing in terror. So, where does Slick get the idea that this imager has to do with terror? I would suggest his own comments later in his article provided the answer.
If these two verses were the only ones we had on the topic, they might have a case. But they aren’t, so they don’t. There are several sets of scripture that very strongly support eternal conscious torment.
Luke 16:19-31, the rich man and Lazarus
Jude 6-7, angels undergoing the punishment of eternal fire
Revelation 14:9-11, worshippers of the beast are tormented forever
Since Scripture must be taken as a whole, I think it is best to interpret Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 to be speaking of the coming severe judgment that [sic] of the wicked. They should be terrified of what’s to come.
So Slick gets the idea of terror from his conviction that the judgment on the wicked will be severe. I too think that the judgment of the wicked, their execution at the hands of God, is severe and would provoke fear in those being punished. However, to read this back into Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, as if the imagery somehow signifies this is what was part of the intended message, is to read external notions into the text.
To be sure, Slick could claim that the image of separation of chaff from the wheat in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 constitutes support for the idea that hell has to do with separation, but that would be the only point he could relate to the traditional view of hell. Conditionalists can do the same, but also point out that the chaff is separated to be incinerated. We can account for every aspect of the language and imagery in the Baptist’s statement. In the conditionalist reading of that statement, the concepts of separation, incineration, and the clearing of the threshing floor are all analogous with our view of the fate of the wicked.
In contrast, there is a sharp disconnect between what the imagery patently signifies, and Slick’s view of hell. In the imagery, the fate of the chaff is brief and it is incinerated, but for Slick the imagery somehow fits with the notion that the wicked will endure forever in the fire of hell, being eternally burned by that fire. Though the chaff is completely removed from the threshing floor, Slick believes that the wicked will never disappear from hell. They will always be there. The imagery in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 cannot be said to be analogous with Slick’s view of hell.
It is at this point that I would like to draw attention to a sleight of hand on Slick’s part. Earlier in his article, he notes two verses that conditionalists typically cite when discussing the significance of the unquenchable fire motif (Jer 17:27; Eze 20:47), leaving the impression that the evidence for the conditionalist argument is thin on the ground. On the contrary, there are many other verses in which the image of an unquenchable fire is used in a context of divine judgment on human sinners (2 Kg 22:16–17; 2 Chr 34:25; Isa 1:28–31; Jer. 4:4; 7:20; 21:12; Amos 5:5–6). The exception is Isaiah 34:10, in which the motif is used to emphasize the permanence of destruction that has already been completed. In that context, Edom has become a volcanic wasteland (v. 9) populated only by wild animals (vv. 11–15). The human occupants have already been destroyed, and the land itself has become a burning pitch that will never be quenched, precisely so they can never return (cf., Mal 4:1). The perspective of these other examples listed above has to do with a coming judgment, and in each instance, the point of the unquenchable fire image is to emphasize that judgment cannot be resisted or prevented from being inflicted on the wicked. Regardless of whether these instances of temporal judgment go on forever, he must agree that the single point of this imagery is to emphasize that no one would be able to prevent that judgment from being fully and completely meted out on the wicked.
So, it should be clear to the reader, including Slick, that every element of the Baptist’s statement in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 speaks to the complete destruction of the wicked. The three images of a threshing process, chaff, and the unquenchable fire motif, along with the two perfective compound verbs κατακαίω and διακαθαρίζω, are woven together to communicate the idea that no one will survive that judgment. There is simply nothing in these verses that would even hint that this is not so.
This brings us to another reason Slick cites for why he thinks Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 support eternal conscious torment and not conditional immortality. He evokes an argument from subjectivity, saying he thinks eternal conscious torment is a worse fate than escaping that punishment, while asserting that the level of fear provoked by that imagery can only fit with his view of which fate is worse for the wicked.
This surely flies in the face of his own caution elsewhere, where he argues,
Certainly, ECT is difficult to grasp in its enormity and eternal consequence. In fact, it may be repulsive to some and terrifying to others. But it should be affirmed or denied based on what people see in Scripture. … Of course, people are certainly entitled to their emotions and their opinions generated from them, but we must all be careful not to let those emotions govern how we understand God’s word.
Indeed! Slick is quite correct that emotions and opinions should not govern our interpretation of the Bible. One wonders, then, why he thinks that an emotional argument can count as a sufficient reason to ignore the fact that everything in the Baptist’s statement supports conditionalism. He may simply be inconsistent with his own rule, but surely he should heed his own advice and follow the exegesis, not his own perspective on what is the fate to be most feared.
In the final analysis, there is ample evidence that Slick has been unwilling to follow the exegetical evidence that shows every aspect of Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 supports conditionalism, despite admitting elsewhere that the chaff is pictured as being incinerated by the unquenchable fire. I hope this article will serve as a guide for how to interact with Slick’s arguments and exegesis, by showing that one must double check how he is quoting conditionalist authors to ensure he has quoted them fairly, while verifying that the interpretations he gives actually are about the verse, and not about reinterpreting words not present in the verse. I hope I have shown that he does not always employ his arguments consistently, so one can search his articles to see how he handles the same subject in different contexts. That inconsistency in his arguments and exegesis can be used to demonstrate how he approaches the hell prooftexts, having already decided that they must support eternal conscious torment. I hope that this article is a model for how to show that he tends to read outside meaning into biblical texts.
I have not addressed his argument that other passages in the Bible clarify the supposed ambiguity of the Baptist’s statement about Jesus in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, because I want to devote an entire article to demonstrating the problems with that tactic as he employs it. I hope to have that article published soon.
Until then, stay strong for conditionalism.