The Biblical Doctrine of Hell
Why does God send some people to hell?
- Biblical Reasons for the Doctrine of Hell
- Texts Regarding Hell
- Objections Against the Idea of Hell as Eternal Torment
- Apologetic Justification of the Doctrine of Hell as Eternal Torment
- Divine Empathy – The Link Between God's Love and God's Wrath
- Hell – The State of Tragic Loss
The fundamental point of biblical revelation is that God is Love. The apostle John, in his epistles, emphasized this essential truth about the God of the Bible:
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.1
The same apostle uttered, in his gospel, one of the greatest declarations of God's love:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.2
The Bible informs us that God wants to save all people:
Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.3
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.4
For this reason it seems inconsistent to contend that the Bible warns us of hell, if hell is understood as a place of eternal torment of the lost souls who did not reconcile with God. Nevertheless, we can find in the Bible numerous descriptions of God's wrath. In some of these biblical scenarios of God's wrath, God is seen as judging some people by sending them to the everlasting torment of hell. This biblical picture of a wrathful God is very hard to harmonize with the picture of the benevolent God full of love. We are, therefore, confronted with the cardinal question of God's fairness: how can God impose these kinds of punishments involving everlasting and ceaseless torments if God is inherently good and full of love?
Christians have two different approaches to the problem:
- Finding alternative interpretations of hell texts where hell is understood as something not involving eternal torment. Hell is rather understood as a place or state involving temporary torment.
- Finding explanations showing how the idea of hell, as eternal torment, is in harmony with the doctrine of God's inherent benevolence and love.
It seems that alternative interpretations of hell texts are motivated by the conviction that it is, in principle, impossible to harmonize the notion of an eternal punishment of hell with the concept of God's perfect love and goodness. In this article, we will show that the idea of hell, as the place of eternal torment of lost souls, is not incompatible with the doctrine of God's intrinsic benevolence and love, and by that token, it is not necessary to seek alternative interpretations of hell texts. We will demonstrate that hell, as the place of eternal torment, is metaphysically possible in the universe of a morally perfect God who is full of love and goodness.
Before proceeding with our examination of the question of the possibility of hell as eternal punishment, we will show why alternative interpretations are problematic from a hermeneutical standpoint. (Biblical hermeneutics is a theological discipline dealing with the general question of the interpretation of the Bible).
Therefore, this article is in two parts. The first one, "Biblical Reasons for the Doctrine of Hell as Eternal Torment," will examine all relevant biblical texts about hell and show that the Bible teaches that lost sinners, who died in unrepentant sin, will be punished with everlasting torment. The second part, "Apologetic Defense of the Doctrine of Hell as Eternal Torment," is more philosophical in approach and endeavors to explain how eternal torment of lost souls is metaphysically possible in the universe of a benevolent God. (Christian apologetics deals with scientific and philosophical arguments for Christian beliefs).
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I. Biblical Reasons for the Doctrine of Hell
A. Texts Regarding Hell
1. The Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus
One of the clearest texts describing hell as a place of torment is Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus:
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.5
The usual objection to this text is that it is a parable, and as such, we should not take the description of hell as a literal place of torment; rather the story should be understood in a figurative sense. In other words, the text should be interpreted allegorically, where it is assumed that Jesus intended to convey something else with his story than what is literally expressed.
The problem with such an allegorical interpretation is that the story would be a very strange parable of Jesus. All Jesus' other parables are anonymous: names of protagonists in the stories are not given. However, in our story, Jesus provides the name of the man who "was carried" to heaven, namely Lazarus. Furthermore, other details are given, such as the number of brothers in the rich man's family, namely that he had five brothers. Are these details "allegorical"? If so, what do they figuratively represent?
Also characteristic of Jesus' parables is that Jesus makes it clear they are allegorical in nature by giving us the key to understanding their symbolism. Thus, if the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, it is odd that Jesus did not explain what the story allegorically meant. There is no key to its symbolism present.
The main objection against the allegorical interpretation of the story is that there is no clear answer to what the supposed figurative meaning is. Should we not literally understand that there is an afterlife? If there is no afterlife, what did Jesus try to tell us with his story? On the other hand, if we accept that there is an afterlife, then not all elements of the story are figurative. We would meet, then, a new problem: which elements in the story are figurative, and which are not? What criteria do we have in order to determine this? For instance, if we do not have any problems accepting Lazarus' blessed state in heaven, why would we not likewise literally understand the rich man's state in hell? According to which allegorical rules can we accept that Lazarus is in heaven, while simultaneously denying the rich man's existence in hell?
Given the problems above, we see that it is not plausible to interpret Jesus' story as a parable. Therefore, from this text, we can conclude that hell is a place or a state of torment.
The text does not tell us about the duration of the torments, whether they are temporary or eternal. Still, we can conclude that God has a harsh attitude towards unrepentant sinners. Unrepentant sinners do not cease to exist after their physical death, but dwell in hell, which is described in the story as "this place of torment."
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2. Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth
Matthew 13 is a chapter full of parables. There we will find the following parables: (i) The Sower and the Soil; (ii) Tares; (iii) The Mustard Seed; (iv) The Leaven; (v) The Hidden Treasure; (vi) The Costly Pearl; and (vii) The Dragnet. For all these parables, Jesus gives us the key to understanding their figurative meaning. All these stories figuratively show us certain spiritual truths about the kingdom of heaven.
Two of the seven parables tell us about the existence of hell, which is described as a place where there is "wailing and gnashing of teeth." The parables in question are the Parable of the Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet.
The Parable of the Tares
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.6
Explanation of the Parable of the Tares
Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.7
The Parable of the Dragnet
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.8
Explanation of the Parable of the Dragnet
So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.9
In the explanations of the parables above, we are informed about the existence of hell described as "a furnace of fire" where "there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." The explanations of the stories should therefore be understood literally since their function is precisely to explain the figurative meaning of the parables. We cannot explain some figurative story by giving an example through another figurative story, but rather by providing a key to understanding that would give us the literal meaning of the story.
Understanding this, we therefore see that the underlying moral of each story is that hell truly exists. Not only we do see that it exists, but it is specifically designed as a place of horrific anguish, lacking any reprieve from the pain one experiences, completely realized as a place of torment.
Neither of these stories discuss the duration of the torments of hell. Nevertheless, we do not get the impression that their suffering will cease since the suffering is described as "wailing and gnashing of teeth." The text does not tell us that they will be consumed, but rather emphasizes their painful existence.
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3. Jesus' Warnings about Eternal Torments of Hell
Among all biblical prophets, Jesus was the one who most warned us about the danger of hell. In one of His warnings, hell is described as the place of evil souls "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44, 46, 48):
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.10
Jesus uses here a rabbinic hyperbole, a figure of speech that was much used by rabbis, i.e., religious Jewish teachers, to emphasize some moral or religious truth. Generally, a hyperbole is a figure of speech in which statements are exaggerated. It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally. Hyperbole is used to create an emphasis. Therefore, Jesus does not expect from us to take his advice literally, i.e., to cut off the "offending hand or eye." He rather expects from us not to use our bodies as instruments of sin, which can be achieved through other, less drastic measures. A simple change in our attention towards good things would be likewise an effective measure in our fight against sin.
Nevertheless, Jesus' rabbinic hyperbole does not indicate that hell should be figuratively understood. If hell were figuratively understood then Jesus' hyperbole would lose its convincing force. Exaggeration must be based on some "grain of truth," making the exaggeration convincing. If we take a figurative understanding of hell then it seems that there is no "grain of truth" in Christ's warning, and by that token, Christ's hyperbole would lose its emphasizing force. We would then have a problem explaining why it is better for a man to be mutilated instead of "enjoying" sin if there is no punishment of hell. As Larry Dixon observes,
Jesus is obviously using exaggeration for effect, but let us not water down His point. Jesus is teaching that hell is the horrible reality behind the hyperbole; spiritual amputation may be necessary to save one's soul. Nothing in life, including the precious and well-protected parts of one's body, is of more value than gaining heaven.11
Therefore, we should understand Christ's warning about hell literally. In support for the literal understanding of Christ's warning regarding hell, it is worth mentioning Jesus' comments about the destiny of his betrayers:
But woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.12
Here it is said that the destiny of a betrayer would be very hard indeed. Christ's statement would make no sense if there is no punishment awaiting for the betrayer. Why would it be better for the betrayer not to be born if there are no torments of hell in the afterlife?
The expression "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched," is of interest, because it shows that the torments of hell are eternal. The text says that "the fire is not quenched." Similarly, in Mat 3:12, it says: "Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." The Greek term "unquenchable" (asbesto) lies behind the English word "asbestos," which is a mineral supposed to be inextinguishable when set on fire. As Reymond observes, "Why does John [the Baptist] characterize the fire as 'unquenchable' if every impenitent sinner at the final judgment is instantly consumed by it?".13 It makes sense to use the term "unquenchable" only if the lost souls will not be consumed by the fire of hell. The Bible gives us an example about a fire that does not consume, namely God's fire that did not consume the bush when Moses encountered God:
Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.14
The same question arises for the expression "where their worm dieth not." As Alan Gomes argues,
Worms are able to live as long as there is food for them to consume. Once their food supply has been consumed, the worms eventually die. But the torments of hell are likened to undying, not dying worms. This is because their supply of food – the wicked – never cease.15
Thus, residents of hell will not be consumed, and their torments will be eternal. John, in his Revelation, reports about the eternal character of their torments:
And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.16
We also have to consider how Jesus' contemporaries understood his statements about hell. How did Jesus' hearers understand his statements? Most of his hearers were Pharisees or people influenced by them. Pharisees were the largest religious group in Israel at that time and they were quite popular. The Gospels mention the Pharisees as a group who believed in the resurrection of the dead.
What view did the Pharisees have about the destiny of unrepentant sinners? We know from historical reports that the Pharisees believed in the existence of hell as a place of eternal torments of evil souls. Josephus comments on the Pharisees:
They believe that souls have power to survive death and that there are rewards and punishments under the earth for those who have led lives of virtue or vice: eternal imprisonment is the lot of evil souls.17
Every soul, they maintain, is imperishable, ... the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.18
How then would Jesus' hearers understand Christ's statement "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched," in light of their background's beliefs? They would understand Jesus' words as a warning that hell is as a place of eternal torment, where the wicked will ceaselessly suffer eternal punishment. As William Crockett argues,
It is important to remember that the largest and most popular groups of Jews in first-century Palestine were Pharisees – and they taught the imperishability of the soul. So when Jesus warns about the coming destruction in the afterlife, he does so to a Pharisaic audience. We ask ourselves, therefore, what the Pharisaic crowds would think Jesus meant when he said, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell" (Luke 12:4-5) ... These words meant something to the hearers. Would they really have been thinking that destruction in hell meant annihilation when they thought in terms of imperishable souls? And would Jesus have been so sloppy, here and elsewhere, that he never quite got his meaning across?19
The point is that Jesus would not have expressed himself as he did if hell is not a place of eternal torment for the wicked, for otherwise he would have been totally misunderstood on this very important point. Therefore, we can conclude that Jesus himself taught the doctrine of the eternal punishment of hell.
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4. Eschatological Prophecy of Hell
The text we are going to discuss is eschatological because, as we shall see, it is in the context of Christ's prophecy about the end times. (Eschatology is a theological discipline dealing with biblical prophecies about the end times.) An interesting fact about biblical prophecies in general is that they have, so far, been fulfilled literally; see, for instance, John F. Walvoord's great study Major Bible Prophecies. All past events that had been prophesied were fulfilled, and in addition, they were fulfilled with meticulous accuracy. Thus in support of the literal view of biblical prophetic interpretation, namely that biblical prophecies are intended to be interpreted literally, we would then expect that Christ's eschatological prophecy of hell would likewise be fulfilled. As John F. Walvoord argues,
In fact, it is difficult to find a single fulfilled prophecy that was fulfilled in other than a literal fashion. Would not this historical fact require the interpretation of the future as being fulfilled literally?20
Christ's prophecy is relevant because it mentions the judgment of all nations, where the righteous ones will receive "life eternal," while the wicked ones "shall go away into everlasting punishment" (Mat 25:46). This text is important because we shall see in the second part that it explains why hell is necessary in the universe of a perfect moral God who is intrinsically benevolent. Therefore, we will quote the whole passage and only briefly comment on it. In the second part we will dwell deeper in the text and show how the text explains the necessity of hell.
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.21
"And these shall go away into everlasting punishment." The text above explicitly and quite clearly states that the lost sinners will be eternally punished. The word "punishment" is translated from the Greek kolasis which also means "torment". As Barnes observes in his commentary,
The noun is used but in one other place in the New Testament, 1Jo 4:18, "Fear hath torment." The verb from which the noun is derived is twice used, Ac 4:21 2Pe 2:9. In all these places it denotes anguish, suffering, punishment. It does not mean simply a state or condition, but absolute, positive suffering; and if this word does not teach it, no word could express the idea that the wicked would suffer.22
If this text is not clear about the destiny of lost sinners, how else could Christ have said it more clearly to his audience, wanting us to be warned about a place of eternal punishment? As we have seen, hell as an eternal torment was also a belief held by the popular party of Pharisees in the first century. It is in this context that the saying above was made. Notice the parallel between eternal punishment and eternal life; as Robert Gundry argues, "the parallel between eternal punishment and eternal life forestalls any weakening of the former."23
We should also consider whether Christ would express himself as he did if there were no eternal suffering of lost sinners. Christ surely knew that his words would be understood as a doctrinal teaching that lost sinners will suffer for all eternity, and that this would be understood by the majority of Christians as well. As Barnes argues, Christ also "knew that the doctrine was calculated to produce fear and terror; and if he was benevolent, his conduct cannot be vindicated in exciting unnecessary fears."24 Christ's words have only one meaning, namely that the wicked will be punished with eternal torment, where "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night" (Rev. 14:11).
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B. Objections Against the Idea of Hell as Eternal Torment
1. Seemingly Contradictory Descriptions of Hell
A typical objection intended to show that the biblical descriptions of hell cannot be taken seriously is that these descriptions are contradictory. Hell is described both as "fire" and "darkness" by many biblical writers.25 One and the same author can use conflicting descriptions, as for instance Matthew and Jude. Matthew describes hell as "fire" and "darkness."26 Jude likewise uses descriptions such as "eternal fire" (v. 7) and "blackest darkness" (v. 13). However, are not "fire" and "darkness" two concepts that exclude each other? How can something be dark in the presence of fire?
It seems that the objection takes for granted that fire emits light of red, orange, yellow or white color. However, the flame of fire can have any color from the color spectrum of white light depending on the type of the fuel involved in combustion. For instance, copper sulfate yields a green flame, while butane yields a blue flame. Fire can even have a colorless flame if methanol is used as a fuel.
Moreover, we cannot limit spiritual superphysical reality to our limited physical laws. In our physical world a black fire is physically impossible, but it does not follow that it is metaphysically impossible in the spiritual superphysical realm. Therefore, there is a metaphysical possibility that the fires of hell are black. It is interesting that Jewish apocalyptic literature describes two kinds of fire: white and black. For instance, 2. Book of Enoch pictures hell as "black fire."27 Even the Torah was said to have been written with "black fire on white fire."28 Therefore, we cannot take for granted that the fires of hell have the same physical properties as the physical fire here on Earth.
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2. Biblical Terms 'Destruction' and 'Death'
Another objection is that the Bible teaches that sinners will be destroyed.29 It also teaches that all lost sinners will be resurrected unto God's judgment, and afterwards again die by a "second death."30 Would not these biblical teachings contradict the idea of hell as an eternal torment?
That is far from being the case, because a biblical concept of destruction refers to something that is damaged, ruined or lost. The following is Larry Dixon's observation of how the terms associated with the concept of destruction are used.
The most common Hebrew term for "destroy" is abad, a word with a wide range of meaning. The people of Chemosh were "destroyed," but this refers to their being sold into slavery, not their being annihilated (Num 21:29). Saul's donkeys were abad in 1 Sam 9:3, 20, but abad obviously means "lost," not annihilated, in this text. A "broken" (abad) vessel (Ps 31:12) is one which is rendered unfit for use, not one that has ceased to exist.
In the New Testament the Greek verb apolumi is translated "destroy" (…) The same term "destroy" (apolumi), however, is used in Luke 15 by Jesus of three illustrations of lostness: in verses 1-7 to describe the lost, but existing, sheep; in verses 8-9 to describe the lost, but existing, coin; and in verse 24 to describe the prodigal, but existing, son.31
The Biblical concept of death refers to separation. Physical death is a separation of human soul from its body, while spiritual death refers to the separation of human soul from God. Hell is a place of spiritual death because it is the place of total alienation from God.
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3. Gradation of Punishments and Inclusivism
The Bible does not offer much information about the punishments in hell. However, we know that the punishments will be different for each person according to the level of responsibility, knowledge and the kind of sin committed. A person who committed greater sins will be punished more than a person who committed lesser sins; a person who had greater responsibility or knowledge will be more punished than a person who had it in a lesser degree (cf. Mat 10:15; Luk 12:48).
However, how can punishments differ in a significant way if every lost soul will burn in the fires of hell? Would not the pain be more or less the same for everybody there?
We do not know exactly what the nature of the fires of hell is. Let us remember that we are speaking of a spiritual realm, and the fires of hell are not physical. In some sense, they can be thought of metaphorically, similarly to how we often figuratively use the word "burn" or "fire" - as, for instance, in the expression "burning conscience." There are several biblical examples where "fire" is used figuratively: it is used for discord (Luk 12:49), judgment (1 Cor 3:15), sexual desire (1 Cor 7:9), and unruly words (James 3:5-6). So, there is a possibility for a metaphorical interpretation of the fires of hell. Nevertheless, a metaphorical understanding of hell will not mitigate the horrible reality of hell. We talk about an eternal separation from the benevolent presence of God with a realization that there is no one to blame other than oneself for such a final predicament. Hell's fire can also involve "a searing pain" of regret for all wrong decisions and moral choices. Most importantly, lost souls will have the pain of the realization that they could have been with God in heaven if only they had believed in God when they had the opportunity to do so. According to the metaphorical view, the fires of hell have a spiritual nature involving a terrible mental anguish and pain.
However, it is equally consistent to maintain the "superphysical" view of hell, where the spiritual realm is thought of as superphysical in nature: a reality that encompasses our physical world, but is not limited by our physical laws. Thus, in this context, the fires of hell are superphysical in nature. According to such a view, denizens of hell will have different resistance to pain with respect to the degree of punishment they suffer; the difference in resistance to pain is probably determined by the kind of spiritual body they have, or the region of hell they reside in.
Thus, both views of hell can account for a gradation of punishments where the punishments differ in a significant way. Both the "metaphorical" and "superphysical" interpretations of the fires of hell are equally plausible with respect to all relevant biblical data we have on this subject; thus, it cannot be determined which of these views is preferable.
A last, but no less important question that needs to be considered is the question of the destiny of unevangelized people. Who will be in hell? Will all unevangelized people end in hell? This question is relevant because it is related to the question of moral responsibility and the moral knowledge one possesses. We are of the firm belief that all people who have rejected God and his moral law, in accordance to their knowledge and moral responsibility, will end in hell. However, we also stress that our view does not imply that all unevangelized, i.e., people who have never heard about Christ, will be lost. Christ died for them as well. We subscribe to the view known as Inclusivism, the biblical view upholding Christ as the savior of humanity, but affirming also God's saving presence in the wider world outside Christian influence. According to such a view, unevangelized people can be saved also in accordance with the light of knowledge and responsibility they have had. Unfortunately, due to the scope of this article, we cannot dwell much on this issue of the destiny of the unevangelized, nor to offer an extensive justification for Inclusivism. However, if interested in this issue, please read our article "Inclusivism - The Destiny of the Unevangelized." There are several works showing the biblical foundation of Inclusivism, such as John Sander's classic work, No Other Name, or Clark Pinnock's A Wideness in God's Mercy.
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4. The Moral Objection Against the Idea of Hell
We have established that the Bible teaches clearly that hell exists where lost sinners will be in eternal torment without God. Yet we have to ask ourselves how it is possible that God can condemn unrepentant sinners to hell if God, in his moral perfection, is full of goodness and love. The point is that our interpretation of hell texts has to be cogent, i.e., our interpretation should not contradict other teachings of the Bible. In this case, the problem with our interpretation is that it appears to be in contradiction with clear biblical teachings of God's moral perfection. Our interpretation has to provide a good explanation that would harmonize the idea of the torments of an eternal hell with the idea of God's moral perfection.
Many prominent Christian philosophers and theologians, such as universalists Karl Barth, Nels F. S. Ferré, C. H. Dodd, John A.T. Robinson, or annihilationists Clark H. Pinnock, John R.W. Stott, Stephen Travis, etc., seek other alternative interpretations of biblical hell texts because they are convinced that it is, in principle, impossible to harmonize the idea of eternal torment with the idea of God's goodness and love. We consider their hermeneutic attitude commendable. We have to seek other alternative, but plausible, understandings of biblical hell texts, which can be justified by respecting all sound principles of interpretation. As William Crockett notes,
Naturally, when we interpret a verse, the object is not to wring out every possible meaning and then choose one that best fits our view. The object is to see how a word or phrase is used in its literary and historical context.32
We do not seek to find every possible interpretation, but rather those that are plausible. We find our interpretation most plausible, and, as we have mentioned in the Introduction, it seems that alternative interpretations of hell texts are motivated only by the conviction that it is, in principle, impossible to harmonize the notion of an eternal punishment of hell with the concept of God's perfect love and goodness. Nevertheless, we are of the opinion that hell, as the place of eternal torment of lost souls, does actually and necessarily exist precisely because of God's perfect love and goodness, and by that token, there is no need to seek alternative interpretations of hell texts. We are also of the opinion that through a serious Bible study, we can find an explanation that can answer the question, "How is it possible that God can condemn unrepentant sinners to hell if God is, in his moral perfection, full of goodness and love?" The second part of our article deals with this question.
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II. Apologetic Justification of the Doctrine of Hell as Eternal Torment
A. Divine Empathy – The Link Between God's Love and God's Wrath
1. God's Infinite Understanding – The Essential Quality of God
The word "infinite" is used in the Bible only three times. Of these three occurrences only one is used to describe God. It is interesting that it is not used for describing God's power, but for the description of God's understanding:
Great is our Lord, and of great power: His understanding is infinite.33
Given this biblical fact, namely that of all divine attributes, only God's understanding is described with the quality of infinity, we can conclude that God's understanding is considered as the most important divine attribute. Divine understanding is a unique quality of God, i.e., only God possesses infinite understanding.
Why does divine understanding have such a prominent place among all divine attributes? God's understanding is connected to another profound divine quality, namely God's great love manifested through perfect empathy. Empathy is a special form of understanding: being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. Empathy is an act of understanding, and in God, this particular empathic understanding is infinite. To have compassion towards those who suffer is an example of empathy.
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2. God's Empathy and Divine Vulnerability
God's infinite understanding involves the wisdom of understanding everything. This would mean that God can understand the experience of pain. Given the infinite quality of divine understanding, God's experience of pain can be of infinite intensity. Moreover, through divine empathy, God can participate in the experience of the suffering of others. This is especially true when God had to watch the suffering of His beloved Son, because God's "watching" involved an empathic experience of Christ's suffering on the cross.
God's infinite understanding manifested through perfect empathy reveals a special quality of God, namely the quality of divine vulnerability. We understand God as almighty and sovereign, but in so doing we often forget that the symbol of our Christian faith is the cross. Through Christ's crucifixion, we get to know a God who, in His unfathomable love towards humanity, exposed Himself as vulnerable:
The Vulnerability of God is the peculiar characteristic of Christian teaching, the point on which it differs from other, more intellectually acceptable, religions. We can understand why it is that God should chose to limit His power, and create men with free will, able therefore to thwart His wishes, and to make a mess of things. But the price is high. Whereas the Buddhist portrays the Buddha as impassive, the symbol of Christianity is the cross.34
Why are we Christians? We are Christians simply because of Christ. We have recognized in His human nature the perfect embodiment of God, which was expressed through His actions, and reported by His closest friends while He was among us. In the maturity of His character was the highest manifestation of the dignity of human personhood with each of us having the same potential. His character, expressed in His actions, also reveals who He is as a God. The highest revelation of God through the history of communication between Him and us was when He revealed Himself in human flesh. It is the culmination of God's revelation, where He tried to tell us one important thing, namely about His exceeding love for the dignity of our human nature, which was created in His image. Through God's revealed love we get to know a God who is ready to sacrifice himself and suffer for us. Through Christ's crucifixion, God has revealed Himself to be vulnerable and showed us that He can experience pain.
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3. God's Empathy and God's Wrath
Through the prism of God's vulnerability, we understand the profound dimension of God's long-suffering towards us. His long-suffering is a patient endurance of our offenses. The term "long-suffering" is in Greek makrothymia, which is curiously a compound word of makro, "long lasting", and thymos, "wrath, fierceness, indignation", expressing the prolonged restraint of anger or agitation:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness, but is longsuffering (makrothymei) toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.35
God waits, with a great enduring patience, for us to repent; a repentance leading us to a spiritual fellowship with Him. Nevertheless, God in His righteousness must also punish all unrepentant sin.
How can God, who is full of enduring patience, punish unrepentant sinners? This is because God, through His perfect and divine empathy, experiences Himself the suffering caused by their bad and destructive acts. Their sinful actions are directed either against themselves, and as such become their own self-inflicted victims (alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, etc.), or against other people, where other people become victims by their actions (fighting, stealing, rape, murder, etc.). In any case, a victim's pain is also God's pain.
Given God's empathic experience of suffering caused by human-committed sins, it follows that God has a strong revulsion against any sin. In other words, God is disgusted by all sins. This particular feeling of disgust is very strong, with a hatred that is infinitely intense.
Since God is intensely disgusted at every form of sin, He has a very harsh attitude towards unrepentant sinners. In order to understand God's moral revulsion towards sin, let us take an example of moral indignation against a gross and extremely abominable crime. Due to the personal character of moral indignation, the example will be narrated in the 2nd person perspective:
Examine your emotional attitude towards some gross and abominable sins, as for instance the evil of selling children into sexual slavery where they become subject to unspeakable abuse and degradation. Assuming that you are a person with a normal moral sensitivity, this horrible, debasing abuse of children would incite in you an intense revulsion, which in its turn stirs up in you an incredible hatred towards the perpetrators of the crime. Feel your disgust and hatred towards such evil! Your experience of these particular emotions are essential constituents of moral revulsion. It is partially founded on your empathy towards the victim of a crime, as it is also on your need to punitively confront the evildoers with their evil and abominable actions. In other words, you wish that the evildoers are punished in the name of victim's helpless and humiliating suffering. Feel your horror and aversion to the nauseating crime! Exactly this particular emotion is infinitely intense in God, and in the Bible it is called the Wrath of God.
Thus, God's wrath is based upon divine empathy towards a victim of evil, where a victim's suffering and pain is also God's suffering and pain. Given the infinite quality of God's empathic understanding of a victim's suffering, God can experience all facets of it.
In the context of our example above, we see that God's wrath is a satisfaction of justice in the name of the victim's suffering: the agents responsible for evil have to be retributively confronted with the abominable and nauseating character of their actions. Their deliberate infliction of pain on the victim is also an act against God who empathically experienced the victim's suffering. God's empathy with the victim's suffering is experienced in a divine particular way involving God's infinite understanding. Therefore, their unrepentant sin will be punished with eternal consequences: they will be removed from God's presence for all time because their unrepentant crime was a crime against God.
The point of our illustration above is to give a picture of human moral indignation against crimes, in which we can readily see their obvious evil and abominable character. However, God has a greater moral revulsion than us, because God is infinitely more sensitive towards sins. God's moral sensitivity has an extreme aversion against any sin. He would consider human greed or drunkenness equally abominable as we would consider abuse of children. We see, thus, that our human moral sensitivity is less pure than God's, because we have acquired sinful habits that make us blind to see them as wrong. Only when we acquired more of God's moral sensitivity would we understand more of the justice of God's wrath. Consequently, we would understand more of the necessity of hell.
However, there are certain obscurities with our argument prompting the following objection:
We still do not understand why God punishes the wicked with eternal punishment. How can God inflict punishment if it involves eternal conscious torment? What kind of justice is this?! For surely, would not Divine Empathy let these poor lost souls get some rest, allowing them to die in peace?
No, it would not, if these lost souls are souls of Hitler, Caligula, Nero, Stalin, and other evil tyrannical mass murderers. But what about ordinary people who are in hell? Is it fair that they are there even though they have committed some sins that all ordinary people commit? Yes, it is absolutely righteous that they are in hell because they have never repented their committed sins. "But why?" one might incredulously ask. In order to answer this question, let us briefly summarize our findings.
In our exposition, we have shown that God has infinite moral revulsion or disgust at all kinds of sins. This is due to His perfect empathic and moral understanding: our sins also hurt God. So, the most important finding is that God has infinite moral revulsion at sin. What is the significance of this? The significance of this truth is summarized as follows:
Given God's infinite moral revulsion at sin, His punishment must also be infinite.
The above idea is the idea of infinite moral sensitivity. Is the idea true? Yes, the idea is true, but comprehension of its truthfulness depends on certain moral intuitions. In order to understand this truth, let us consider the following, starting with the examples of radical evil:
Consider Hitler, Himler, Stalin and other mass murderers in hell. Or imagine radically evil people in hell, namely people who take immense sadistic pleasure in torturing and committing gross, repugnant, evil deeds. Recall our example of radical evil where children were victims of gross debasing abuse, and imagine that evildoers responsible for such unspeakable evil are in hell. If you are a person with a normal moral sensitivity, I am sure that you would not have any moral qualms about the eternal conscious punishment of these abominable, wicked people. Why? This is because their unspeakable crimes are indeed obscene crimes against humanity. It would be morally unspeakable not to punish them with eternal conscious torment!
Thus, we do not have moral qualms about lost souls in hell if they are guilty of radical evil, where we can readily see their obvious evil and hideous character: "It would be morally unspeakable not to punish them with eternal conscious torment!"
However, the cardinal problem is the following question: how can we not have moral qualms about "ordinary" people who are in hell? We have certain moral qualms when considering people who commit "ordinary" sins. Is there justice to punish ordinary people with eternal conscious torment? There would not be justice if the torment in question were the same for all who are punished, but we do not claim that eternal punishment involves the same punishment for the unrepentant wicked. Taking into account the difference in punishments, there is indeed justice in the eternal punishment of "ordinary" people if God has at least as much moral disgust at their sins as we have at Hitler's. And we have seen that God has such moral revulsion, and even more so, because his moral loathing of sin is infinite. If we could send people to hell because of our intense disgust at radical evil, God has to punish all people who did not repent from their sins with eternal torment, given God's infinite moral disgust at any sin. Moreover, when the idea of infinite moral sensitivity is combined with the idea that every sin we commit is also a literal sin against God (as explained when we considered the divine attribute of God's Vulnerability), the idea of eternal punishment becomes highly possible. As our moral revulsion cries for retributive justice, so does God's moral revulsion at any sin require eternal punishment.
However, one should note that the Bible teaches that punishment in afterlife has gradations. As there are different rewards in heaven, so we have different levels of punishment (as was taken into consideration in the section Gradation of Punishments and Inclusivism). God has infinite distaste for any sin, but this does not imply that the punishments would be the same. Therefore, it would not be correct to equate sins of radically evil men with those of "ordinary" men in terms of graduation of punishment. But an aspect of punishment will be the same: all unrepentant lost souls will be forever removed from the divine presence of God's glory. They will not enjoy magnificent fellowship with God, who is the Glorious Creator and the Source of all Good and Beauty.
It seems that we cannot totally fathom God's wrath, knowing that divine wrath involves a particular form of understanding unique to God. Nevertheless, we can see the possibility of hell's necessity when our moral sensitivity becomes more pure and when we start to see the grossly repugnant nature of sin.
Our explanation of God's wrath by linking it to His unique infinite empathic understanding has a biblical foundation. The next section shows the biblical support for linking God's wrath to divine empathic understanding.
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4. Jesus' Explanation of Hell
Does the Bible give any answer to the question, "How is it possible for God to condemn unrepentant sinners to hell, if God, in his moral perfection, is full of goodness and love?" In the text of Mat 25:31-46, we can slowly comprehend the answer to the question about the necessity of hell. There we read Christ's explanation of why some people are condemned to hell:
Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I hungered, and ye gave Me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me not in; naked, and ye clothed Me not; sick and in prison, and ye visited Me not.' Then shall they also answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when saw we Thee hungering or athirst or a stranger, or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister unto Thee?' Then shall He answer them, saying, 'Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to Me.' And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.36
The condemned people were indifferent to the poor ones of the world. They did not help those who were hungry and thirsty. Neither did they care for those who were "naked" or "in prison." In other words, they did not have love towards their fellow man because they lacked compassion for people who suffer. With this kind of sinful attitude, they have hurt Christ because all who suffer are Christ's "brethren" (v. 40). In Christ's words "inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me," we sense their reference to the divine perfect empathy - the most mysterious divine attribute - which for us limited people is simply unfathomable.
God's empathy, which is the manifestation of His infinite understanding, is one of the great mysteries of God. Often we ask ourselves why God does not simply obliterate the evil of our human world, and just end all misery of this world. However, by such an act He would also destroy us, since we, in our selfish natures, are not so innocent. God thus chooses to continue his long-suffering towards our sinfulness, instead of destroying us right away, even though our sinfulness is abominable in God's eyes, and by the fact that through His long-suffering, God experiences the suffering of mankind through His divine empathy. God's empathic long-suffering is, therefore, an expression of His great unselfishness, and was most revealed through Christ's crucified body.
Yet there is a limit to God's patience ... God has great patience in His waiting for our repentance. He is long-suffering towards our sins as long as there is a possibility for us to change and repent. However, when repentance is no longer possible, God's patience is then at its end. Unrepentant sinners will, therefore, be confronted with God's infinite hatred towards their evil acts. If people, throughout their entire life, never showed a desire for repentance, nor had any desire to come close to God, then such people have never showed love towards Him. On what grounds can there be forgiveness then? The only ground for forgiveness is repentance. These people did not show remorse for their evil acts, and therefore they will be "the vessels of wrath" (Rom 9:22).
In order to understand how God's forgiveness is impossible towards unrepentant sinners, let us consider the following hypothetical scenario. Imagine that you are a parent and that you have a great love towards your children. Imagine further that one of your children was a victim of a brutal crime. The perpetrator of the crime enjoyed torturing your child, and after being arrested, they show no remorse and repentance. Could you, in all your honesty, forgive such a person for their sadistic crime? If we were truthful and honest about our moral emotions, we would require that a sadistic person of that kind be punished because we could never forgive such a person. Justice requires that a person of that sort be severely punished. If we cannot forgive them, why would we then expect this of God? Notice that it is our empathy, expressed through our compassion towards the victim of the crime, that forbids us to unconditionally forgive the perpetrator. Likewise this is so with God, who has an infinitely greater empathy towards victims of a crime. Their pain is also God's pain.
Moreover, as we have shown in the previous section, any sin is a great crime in God's eyes. Human greed or verbal insults are just as abominable to God as the most heinous of crimes are to us. This is due to God's infinite moral sensitivity grounded on divine empathy and infinite understanding.
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B. Hell – The State of Tragic Loss
1. Human Personhood – A Distinctive Nature Created After God's Image
Paradoxically, God is patient in His waiting for us to repent, and, at the same time, quite harsh in His confrontation with our sins. We read in the Bible how God waited for the Canaanites to repent from their awful religious ceremonies. They practiced ritual burning of children to their god Moloch. God warned them through his prophets, but they did not repent. In spite of their unwillingness to heed the warning of God's prophets, God patiently waited 400 years for their repentance, something I doubt that you would do if you were a god. You would stop them immediately if you constantly saw their inhuman perversions preformed before your eyes. If you were a morally good god, who possessed a perfect empathy, then all inhuman perversions would hurt you. You would surely destroy them in all anger and moral indignation. You would not have mercy towards them any more. When I say that you would destroy them, then I assume that you have a moral sensitivity and empathy that cries for the end of all evil. So, before you can judge God, you have to first judge yourself. "GNOTHI SEAUTON - Know Thyself." Knowing yourself, you would understand more of God's nature.
The main point with the above paragraph, written in the 2nd person perspective, is to emphasize the personal-emotional aspect of our moral judgments. Moreover, it serves to introduce a school of Christian thought known as Christian Personalism. Generally speaking, Personalism views personhood as the fundamental category for explaining reality and asserts that the real is the personal, i.e., that the basic features of personality — consciousness, intentionality, free self-determination, directedness toward ends, self-identity through time, and value retentiveness — make the pattern of all reality. In the theistic form that it has often assumed, Personalism has become specifically Christian, holding that not merely the person but the highest individual instance of personhood — Jesus Christ — is the pattern.
In Christian theology, Personalism can have various forms and expressions. I subscribe to a view which states that the human personal-emotional dimension partially reflects the inner experience of God. The personal dimension of our lives is a complex one, which is no wonder, as it is a dimension we share with our Creator. Emotions are complex phenomena. If we understand our personal-emotional life, we would start to understand more of God's nature. By knowing ourselves, in all honesty, we will also start to understand the personal nature of God. If we are hurt and terribly disappointed by people whom we love, why then should it be so different with God? Moreover, if we morally condemn people who unnecessarily hurt others, why should it be so different with God? Would it not rather reflect a personal dimension we share with God, if a Personal God created us? Some would rather say that it is our human conception of such deity. Their answer only reflects their gross underestimation of the importance of the personal dimension of our lives. That dimension is a fundamental feature of our being, it is a divine gift given by our Creator even if it can be the source of every pain. In any case, the God of the Bible is a Person, and to understand His nature we must treat Him as a Person. (It is another matter whether the God of the Bible exists. What does matter is to have a proper concept of the God of the Bible in order to evaluate his moral character.)
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2. Repentance – The Condition for Forgiveness
Human personhood is holy because it is created after God's image. We should not hate people for their evil acts, but, instead, only hate the evil acts themselves. The distinction between the person and their acts is important because it makes the act of forgiveness possible. It is possible to forgive, because doing so, we forgive the person rather than their wrong actions. Even though the person has expressed an evil intention through their acts, the evil intention is not the essence of their personality. Of course, we should hate the evil intentions expressed through actions, but the Bible teaches us that there is always hope for change and repentance. The repentance is the basis for forgiveness. (Repentance, in Greek metanoia, means the change of mind and attitude.) If there is no repentance, forgiveness becomes a blind tolerance towards sin - as, for instance, a blind tolerance towards someone's stupidity, where the foolish person neither understands nor acknowledges their error, makes forgiveness meaningless. Nevertheless, we should be ready to forgive, since the person in question can change themselves and show a genuine remorse for their wrong actions that have hurt us.
God is ready to forgive us, and in His justice, He, who does not tolerate sin, let Himself be killed on the cross for our sins. The crucifixion is an act of condemnation of sin, i.e., He has shown through His sacrifice how sin is abominable and disgusting before God's eyes. His suffering on the cross is also an act of love because it was done for us: His innocent suffering represents a vicarious sacrifice on our behalf. J. Kenneth Grider explains the vicarious aspect of atonement:
This is the special basis for our understanding that there is a vicarious element in the Atonement. Not only was it something done as a substitute for something else, but also it was done vicariously for us or on our behalf, so that its benefit can be transferred to us. … According to this [substitutionary] theory, what Christ did became a substitute for something else that would otherwise occur. There is a substitution of the guiltless Christ's suffering for the punishment that those who repent and believe would have received in eternal hell.37
In other words, Christ's suffering is a redemptive act through which we find redemption from punishment only if we repent. The act of repentance is the condition for forgiveness and reconciliation with God; in God's forgiveness we find God's grace made possible through Christ's suffering and death.
Therefore, repentance is a necessary soteriological act in the reconciliation with God. It is our unrepentant state that separates us from the presence of God. Lost souls in hell are punished not necessarily for their committed sins, but for not having repented from their sins while they had the opportunity to do so.
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3. God's Silence and Human Faith
God now is a silent God because we are the ones who must make the first move towards reconciliation with Him. He has nothing more to say to us, for everything has been said through Christ, who is the culmination of God's revelation in the history of communication between Him and mankind. Christ is the human incarnation of God who dwelt among us:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.38
And beyond controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.39
For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.40
Therefore God has nothing more to say to us, because everything was said on the cross. Through Christ's crucifixion, God showed His infinite love towards us, and at the same time His infinite hatred towards sin. God has showed great love even though we are sinful before his eyes.
God's silence gives us freedom in our thinking and beliefs, expressed through our attitudes and actions. Through our freedom we show love towards what we choose. If he revealed himself now in all His glory, we would be destroyed, because we have something in us that is totally alien to God's nature. The thing alien to God's nature is sin. If he revealed himself now, in all his glory, then the only way for human salvation, i.e., salvation from hell, would be lost. The only way unto reconciliation with God consists in our free choice to believe in Him. By our belief, we express our love for God.
Why is belief in God so important? Interestingly, the Bible tells us about one thing impossible with God.
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.41
Why does God require of us to believe in Him? Having belief is so important for God that the Bible even uses the word "impossible" (Gk. adunatos) to emphasize its significance.
To illustrate how our belief in Christ is soteriologically necessary in reconciliation with God, let us assume that suddenly all people are perfectly certain that the God of the Bible exists. There would not be any more belief in God, since believing involves some degree of uncertainty in our knowledge. However, in our hypothetical scenario, everyone would have a perfect certainty about God. We would have awe for His greatness, experience His divine beauty and goodness. However, we would also be fatally confronted by God's holy nature, which is totally alien to our nature due to the accumulation of our sins. In the face of our accumulated sins, we would be very frustrated with the inability to show that we really love Him, because it would be too late then. It would also be impossible to show that we have loved God in the face of our committed sins, knowing that every sin is a hostile act against God.
Our belief is an expression of our freedom, for there is always an uncertainty in our understanding. God does not require of us to know about His existence, but only that we believe in Him: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). God does not want to impose our decision about him, nor to manipulate us. Thus, with our belief we express the freedom to choose.
We should start to think more about how belief is a pervading feature in life and in our relations to people, and realize how important it is. To people we love, we show our confidence. There is no presence of love unless there is a minimal presence of trust. If we choose to believe in God then we have shown our love to Him. Our love would exceedingly impress Him because there are so many reasons for not believing. It is now that we can express our love to Him, and not when we are in the Presence of His Divine Beauty in heaven. In heaven, we would be drawn compellingly into God's Glorious Bliss. Our worship in heaven would not be based upon our belief that God is worthy of our worship, but rather be based upon our experience of God's Being as Gloriously Beautiful, Good, Wise and Morally Perfect.
The Bible tells us that we shall be justified by our belief in Christ. Now we have an opportunity to show our love, which is based on the choice to believe in Christ. Our sins are forgiven because we show that we care about Him. On the other hand, how can we become justified by God if we have never expressed love for Him, given the accumulated sins of our lives?
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4. Punishment - Time Aspects and Eternity
We will once again examine time aspects and eternity of punishment, although we have already given an answer as to how eternal punishment is possible by understanding the idea of infinite moral sensitivity. To repeat the idea:
Given God's infinite moral revulsion at sin, His punishment must also be infinite.
In this section, however, we will deal once again with the problem of temporal aspects of eternal punishment, this time from another angle. The problem is that sins committed consciously in time seem not to merit conscious torment throughout eternity. To inflict infinite suffering upon those who have committed finite sins, as Pinnock argues,
would go far beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There would be a serious disproportion between sins committed in time and the suffering experienced forever. The fact that sin has been committed against an infinite God does not make the sin infinite.42
There are several responses to Pinnock's objection.
First, as Dixon and Reymond observe,
The argument that infinite punishment for finite sin is unjust rules out not only the traditional view of hell, but also the suggested alternative view of annihilation. "On this ground," as one writer argues, "God could not even annihilate the sinner for his sin since annihilation is certainly eternal in its effect."43
The point is that an annihilationist cannot avoid being universalist if one follows the conclusion of the annihilationist argument. According to soteriological universalism everyone is saved, even people such as Hitler or Caligula. For this reason, such a traditionalist reply has a valid point only in the context of a dispute with an annihilationist. It would not affect the universalist position.
The next response worth noting is given by Alan Gomes. Gomes argues that the annihilationist argument is fallacious for two reasons. The first one concerns the relation between the duration of time in committing a crime and the heinousness of a crime. The annihilationist argument
assumes that the heinousness of a crime is directly related to the time it takes to commit it. But such a connection is nonexistent. Some crimes, such as murder, may take only a moment to commit, whereas it may take a thief hours to load up a moving van with someone's possessions. Yet, murder is a far more serious crime than theft.44
The second of Gomes' reasons concerns the relation between the victim of the crime and its heinousness:
Torturing an animal is a crime, but torturing a human being is an even greater crime, worthy of greater punishment.45
In the same vein, Gomes argues:
How much more serious, then, is even the slightest offense against an absolutely holy God, who is worthy of our complete and perpetual allegiance? Indeed, sin against an absolutely holy God is absolutely serious. For this reason, the unredeemed suffer absolute, unending alienation from God; this alienation is the essence of hell. It is the annihilationist's theory that is morally flawed. Their God is not truly holy, for he does not demand that sin receive its due.46
Gomes makes an excellent observation of the two mentioned relations: (a) the relation between the duration of time and the seriousness of the crime; and (b) the relation between the victim of the crime and the seriousness of it. The seriousness of a committed crime is not related to the time that it takes to commit; moreover, the seriousness of a crime depends also on the crime's victim, and not only on the degree of damage the victim suffers. The argument opens the possibility that crimes against God are so serious that they merit eternal punishment even if these crimes took a finite time to commit.
However, can Gomes' observation work as a premise in an argument showing that punishment with eternal torment is deserved? It seems that Gomes tries to establish this, but what he can establish at most is that "sin against an absolutely holy God is absolutely serious." Pinnock would readily agree with Gomes about the seriousness of sin, but disagree that this "seriousness of sin" merits the eternal suffering of hell. Furthermore, Gomes' response seems to beg the question, because one might ask why sin against a holy God would merit eternal suffering. The argument needs more improvement for it to work. It seems that Gomes' underlying assumption is based upon the idea of an infinite sin, where it is assumed that sin against an infinite God renders such sin as infinite. As we have seen, Pinnock outright rejects such an idea about infinite sin.
We should even question the coherence of the idea of an infinite God. What would it mean saying that God is infinite? In order to make sense of such an idea, we would rather ask: in relation to what is God infinite, since infinity is a relational concept? Talk about infinity makes sense only when we speak of properties of things or persons, but not of things or persons themselves. Qualities of a person, such as being powerful or having understanding, can possibly be infinite, such as we have observed with God when we talked about His infinite understanding.
The God of the Bible is certainly infinite in time: there was no point in the past where God did not exist, nor will there be a point in the future where God will cease to exist. God has always existed, exists still, and will always exist.47 However, the temporal infinity of God does not render sin against God as infinite. In order to show that sin against God is infinite, it must be shown that such sin causes damage of eternal consequences. An infinite sin should be understood in terms of possessing the damaging effects of eternal consequences.
We would agree with Pinnock that sin against God does not necessarily render sin as infinite. Whether human agents are capable of committing infinite sins is another issue. Fortunately, as we shall see, the question of the human capability of committing infinite sins is not decisive in the dispute between traditionalists and annihilationists.
Does a traditionalist have a reply that does not appeal to the idea of infinite sin? Yes, and the idea of it is as follows: Lost souls in hell are punished not necessarily for their committed sins, but for not having repented while they had the opportunity to do so.
In their lifetime, they have not shown repentance that would lead to a changed attitude and character. Their unrepentant state at their death was a final expression of lacking love towards God. Metaphorically speaking, they were quenching the light of God's image in their lives to the point that it became a total darkness, spiritually dead, i.e., emptied of God. They never reconciled with Him while they had the opportunity to do so freely.
It is precisely their lifelong unwillingness to genuinely repent that is punished. But why is it punished with eternal consequences? This is so because their final unrepentant state was an expression of unwillingness to have a fellowship with God. God does not want to have a fellowship with people who freely choose not to have fellowship with him.
Why God does not want to have a fellowship with them? Why will He not forgive their final choice? The simple answer lies in the nature of the final choice, namely that it does not allow forgiveness. That choice of theirs is an accumulated effect of a lifelong attitude towards God: their attitude has not allowed a personal space for God's benevolent influence to work in their lives. As such, at the final moment in life, they will be in a state where God's benevolent presence is missing. As a result of this lifelong accumulated godless state, they die in an utter rejection of God's will and moral law. For this reason, the condition of forgiveness is not fulfilled. There is no repentance as an expression of a genuine free choice to love God, belief in His wisdom, and respect for God's moral law.
We have shown that in the pure spiritual realm, i.e., the realm of full certainty of God's existence and His Holy Will, it is impossible for a sinner to express a genuine love towards God in the face of accumulated unrepentant sins (see the previous section about God's silence and human faith). How can God forgive them when their repentance, as an expression of a genuine free choice of love, is not possible in the pure spiritual realm? Surely, we would not require of God to grant unconditional pardon to people like Hitler and Caligula, to rapists and child molesters.
Could not God wait until they repented and then allow them to die? The question presupposes that God does not wait for our repentance. The whole Bible is about God's patient waiting for us to repent. For instance, God waited 400 years for the Canaanites to repent from their horrible religious ceremonies involving the ritual burning of infants. According to the biblical report of God's dealing with the Canaanites, they did not repent in all those years of God's waiting, and there are good exegetical reasons to suppose that they would never have repented if they had been allowed to continue to live. The same biblical report shows that God waited until "the iniquity of Amorites was full" (Gen 15:6). (The Biblical Amorites are one of the Canaanite nations.) What would be the moment for God when their iniquity is full? It would be the moment when God knew that the next generation would end up as an incorrigible one. In such a state of depravity, there is no longer a possibility that they could turn away from their sinful practice. Consequently, the young children of the Canaanites would grow up and become worse than their parents were.
The above consideration concerning the Canaanites can be extended generally for all people. God waits for repentance until our "iniquity is full." This would imply that the lost people of hell would have never repented from their sins if they had been allowed to continue to live.
There is another consideration showing that lost souls lack the ability to repent, which is discussed in the next section.
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5. Metaphysical Possibility of Demonization
Let us repeat what was said about human personhood: human personhood is holy because it was created after God's image. We should not hate persons for their evil acts, but rather hate the evil acts themselves. In so doing, we perceive the distinction between a person and the person's acts. This makes forgiveness possible, for when we forgive, we don't forgive the misdeeds, but the wrongdoer. We do not tolerate wrong acts, but rather tolerate the person who commits them.
However, the consideration above does not apply for the lost sinners who have died in their godless state of unrepentant sin. The accumulated sinful attitudes and habits in such persons become permanently and integrally connected with their souls at the time of their physical death. The sinfulness of such souls remains as the only motivating force of their personality. Such persons cease to be human because their sinfulness takes on the identity of their soul, and as a consequence, such souls are in a state of total godlessness – a state without God's presence. In the state of total godlessness, a person no longer has the ability for repentance, i.e., any desires for change, since the identity of their soul is integrally united with sinful intentions and attitudes. The process of the total domination of sin in a soul is a process of demonization. The final result of demonization is a godless state where sinful desires and intentions are totally dominating the lost soul.
The process of demonization, where the sinfulness of soul becomes the integral and permanent feature of the soul, is metaphysically possible. Such a metaphysical possibility would give a good explanation as to why the lost souls must reside in hell for all eternity, i.e., they do not have a genuine ability to repent.
Why does God not destroy them then, where "destruction" is understood in the annihilationist terms? This is so because, likewise, it is metaphysically possible that human souls are of an indestructible nature, i.e., they cannot be annihilated. The Bible gives an indication for the metaphysical possibility of the immortality of the human soul. It is written that God "breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."48 The word "breath" in Hebrew is ruah, which can mean also "a spirit". It suggests that the qualities of the human soul (personhood) were inherited from God's divine breath or spirit, and thus were not created. God's being is indestructible. Likewise, something that comes out from God's being, having been part of God's being, can preserve its indestructible nature. Our souls at birth inherit this property of indestructibility.
Demons and demonized human souls are persons that have freely chosen to be irreversibly subjugated by sin. It is exactly this irreversible act of losing their freedom that is punished. They have thrown away the divine gift of freedom. For this reason Christ will say: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels [demons]."49 Demonized souls, i.e., souls that have lost their humanity, are sent to hell precisely because hell is a place prepared for demons.
The only way to prevent the demonization of our souls is to possess God's power. Having God's power, we can overcome sin. For this reason, while we are on earth in our physical bodies, we have the potential for change and spiritual growth.
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6. Depart from me!
In Christ's eschatological prophecy about hell, cf. Mat 25:31-46, we can observe several truths.
Hell was not a created place, but a place prepared for demons. As we shall see, there is a distinction between creation and preparation.
Hell was never meant to be a place prepared for humans. The basis for the statement above is Mat 25:34, 41:
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" ... Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels."
There are three things we can observe.
First, it was not said that hell is a place prepared for humans, but prepared for demons.
Second, hell is referred to a place "prepared" and it is not referred to as a "created" place. 'God's kingdom' refers also to a prepared place. For whom was it prepared? God's kingdom was prepared for people who have preserved the essence of their humanity. It was prepared for humans before the foundation of the human world, simply because God wanted to create human beings who would bear His image:
And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." ... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.50
Does this imply that God's kingdom was created then? No, since God's kingdom is an eternal realm. This same consideration applies for hell, namely that it is not a created realm.
One of the reasons for saying that hell was not created is that God has always hated evil. This divine hatred is hell itself. Hell is a manifestation of God's hatred of evil. Since God is eternal and uncreated, so hell must be also, since it is constituted by an eternal divine hatred.
Recall that God has an infinite understanding of everything. It is an infinitely manifold understanding of every possibility, and this would include evil possibilities as well. What kind of attitude God would have towards evil possibilities, such as the possibility of Nazi atrocities? Since God is a perfect moral person, he would hate it with an infinite intensity. This very hatred is hell itself, an intense hatred that has always been present in His infinite understanding.
If God has always been against sin, then hell has always existed as a place, although empty before the creation. Since God is intensely disgusted at every form of sin, God has a harsh attitude towards it. Consequently, hell is a realm where there is no divine presence, except of tremendous forces manifesting divine hatred towards evil. From the start it was empty of everything else, with the potential to be filled up with "things" that are totally alien to the nature of God, such as demons.
Third, what does God's punishment consist of? It consists of three words: "Depart from me!" - a separation describing the nature of the punishment: no presence of God anymore. Lost souls are truly lost. Everything that is human in them will be gone forever, since human nature has aspects of God's nature. The humanity in them will disappear because every aspect of God's presence will be removed from them, except for the intense disappointment and anger of God.
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In the first part of our discussion, we have tried to show that the traditional (literal) interpretation of hell texts is the most plausible one. We have also explained how a traditionalist can meet objections against the literal understanding of hell texts. Furthermore, we discussed how several objections towards literal understanding could be problematic - such as the objections which promulgate allegorical interpretation. However, our conclusion, in which we accept the traditionalist view of hell, has two main bases: (i) historical evidence showing that Christ's contemporaries understood His teaching of hell as a place of eternal torment, and that such view of hell was also popular among Pharisees, who were the dominant religious group at that time; and (ii) Christ's main exposition of hell's eternal torments is seen in an eschatological prophetic context. All eschatological prophecies have been literally fulfilled so far.
In the second part of the article, we have shown that a traditionalist interpretation of hell texts does not contradict with the biblical teaching of God's intrinsic goodness. We have demonstrated how hell as a place of eternal torment is metaphysically possible in the universe of an inherently benevolent God. Our conclusion is based upon three ideas: (i) God's perfect empathy; (ii) the idea of demonization of the human soul that dies in unrepentant sin; and (iii) the immortality of the human soul.
The idea of God's perfect empathy leads to two propositions: (i) God's moral understanding (sensitivity) is infinitely greater than our human one; and (ii) God is also affected by our sins knowing that our sins are genuinely hurting Him.
The first proposition, about God's transcendent moral understanding, shows the possibility of an intrinsically benevolent God who manifests a divine wrath that includes eternal torment. We demonstrate this through the following observation about God's wrath:
We cannot totally fathom God's wrath, because divine wrath involves a particular form of understanding unique to God in His divine attribute of infinite empathic understanding. Nevertheless, we can see the possibility of hell's necessity when our moral sensitivity becomes more pure and when we start to see the grossly repugnant nature of sin.51
Thereby, it is quite possible, according to God's moral standard, that our sins merit the punishment of eternal torment. Moreover, we have pointed out that lost souls in hell are punished not necessarily for their committed sins, but for not having repented sin while they had the opportunity to do so. We have also shown how such an idea of punishment can meet the annihilationist argument of the disproportionality of eternal punishment with respect to "finite sins."
The second proposition, which is about God's vulnerability, shows that our sins are actually acts that genuinely hurt God, and as such, we cannot come unto the presence of God unless we have been reconciled with him. By the idea of demonization, reconciliation is not possible if we die in unrepentant sin. Following the idea of the immortality of the human soul, lost demonized souls cannot be destroyed in the annihilationist sense, simply because a human soul is indestructible in its nature. Obviously, something which is metaphysically indestructible cannot be destroyed. Thus, even God cannot destroy them. Lost souls are truly lost: they cannot be saved even if God wished to save them. They are totally demonized and, being so, have lost all their humanity irrevocably.
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1 1 John 4:16.
2 John 3:16.
3 1 Timothy 2:4-6.
4 2 Peter 3:9.
5 Luke 16:19-31.
6 Matthew 13:24-30.
7 Matthew 13:36-43.
8 Matthew 13:47-48.
9 Matthew 13:49-50.
10 Mark 9:43-48.
11 Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News, (BridgePoint, 1992), p124.
12 Matthew 26:24, Mark 14:21.
13 Robert L. Reymond, "Dr. John Stott on Hell," Presbyterion 16, (Spring 1990), 46.
14 Exodus 3:1-5.
15 Alan W. Gomes, "Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part Two," Christian Researcher Journal (Summer 1991), 10.
16 Revelation 14:11.
17 Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews 8:14.
18 Flavius, The Wars of the Jews 2:163.
19 William V. Crockett, "The Metaphorical View," in Four Views on Hell, (Zondervan, 1996), p.69-70.
20 John F. Walvoord's response to William V. Crockett's "The Metaphorical View" in: Four Views on Hell, p. 79.
21 Matthew 25:31-46.
22 Albert Branes, Notes on the New Testament, notes on Matthew 25:46.
23 Quoted in: Dixon, op cit, p. 88.
24 Branes, Ibid.
25 Matthew 8:12ff; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17, Jude 14.
26 Matthew 3:10, 12; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8-9; 25:41.
27 2 Enoch 10:2.
28 Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:1, 49d.
29 Psalm 37:20, 38; Malachi 4:1-2; Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 3:7; Hebrews 10:39.
30 Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8.
31 Dixon, op cit, p. 78.
32 William V. Crockett, op cit, p. 74.
33 Psalm 147:5.
34 J. R. Lucas, "The Vulnerability of God."
35 2 Peter 3:9.
36 Matthew 25:41-46.
38 John 1:1, 14.
39 1 Timothy 3:16.
40 Colossians 2:9.
41 Hebrews 11:6.
42 Clark H. Pinnock, "The destruction of the Finally Impenitent," Criswell Theological Review 4.2, 255; quoted in Dixon, op. cit., 81-82.
43 Dixon, op. cit., 82. Dixon quotes Reymond, "Dr John Stott on Hell," Presbyterion 16, 57.
44 Gomes, op. cit., 9.
47 There is much theological discussion about God and Time: nature of God's eternity (i.e., whether it is timeless or everlasting), whether God is essentially in time or beyond time, etc. We believe that God is essentially in time, and that the concept of eternity is not constructed in terms of timelessness, but in terms of temporality. More about this issue, see our article series "God and Time."
48 Genesis 2:7.
49 Matthew 25:41.
50 Genesis 1:26-27.
Appendix - Biblical Terms Used to Refer to Afterlife
Many annihilationists interpret Hebrew and Greek terms for the afterlife simply as "death," "grave" and similar terms. They argue that English word "hell" is wrongly translated from hades, gehenna, and tartarus; all these terms rather refer to "death" or "grave". We will take a brief look at all biblical terms that are used to refer to the afterlife and see whether the annihilationist view is correct. Much of what follows is from John F. Walvoord's article "The Literal View" that appears in Four Views on Hell.
It is clear from the Old Testament that sheol in many cases means no more than the grave or the place where a dead body is placed. (The corresponding Greek term is hades). In Psalm 49:14, for instance, there is the following statement: "Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions." In many other cases, however, it is debatable whether the term "grave" is a proper designation. Even the NIV translates sheol otherwise in Deuteronomy 32:22 : "For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below." The NIV tries to avoid the idea of two compartments in sheol. It is the mind of the interpreter that determines whether sheol in a particular passage refers to the grave only or to a life after this life in the intermediate state.
The two-compartment theory of sheol/hades is as follows: Sheol (or Hades) was made up of two compartments - an upper and a lower. The upper level was called Abraham's bosom, while the lower level is the place of torments. The righteous were in the upper level, while the unrighteous existed in the lower. This makes it possible for the ones in the lower level to look up at the ones in the upper.
Charles Hodge did not find the two-compartment theory of sheol in the Old Testament incompatible with Scripture. He wrote: "Sheol is represented as the general receptacle or abode of departed spirits, who were there in a state of unconsciousness; some in a state of misery, others in a state of happiness. In all points the pagan idea of hades corresponds to the scriptural idea of Sheol" (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York, 1892), 3:717.). Hodge found support in Luke 16:19-31, in the story of Lazarus in Abraham's bosom and the rich man in hades. The fact that the Old Testament view of sheol is less specific than the New Testament view of hades is not surprising according to Hodge: "It is not, therefore, a matter of surprise that the doctrine of the future state is much less clearly unfolded in the Old Testament than in the New. Still it is there" (Ibid., 3:715.).
As described in the Old Testament, sheol is a place of darkness. The book of Ecclesiastes expands on this in Ecclesiastes 9:4-6. The dismal picture of sheol in many passages of the Old Testament, however, is offset by some passages that apply blessedness for the righteous. The Old Testament clearly teaches that for the righteous, the life after this life is one of blessedness, as in the case of Enoch, who went to heaven without dying (Gen. 5:24). Balaam stated in one of his oracles, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs!" (Num. 23:10). In a psalm of Asaph, the poet said: "You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory" (Ps 73:24). While there are occasional references to blessedness in the intermediate state, most of the references to hope after this life for the righteous anticipate their future resurrection and blessings in the presence of God. Comparatively little is said about the intermediate state in the Old Testament.
The lot of wicked, however, is also made clear. Sheol was a place of punishment and retribution. In Isaiah the Babylonians killed in divine judgment are pictured as being greeted in sheol by those who died earlier. The prophet writes in Isa 14:9-10:
Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will answer and say to you: "You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!"
The NIV translates sheol as "grave" in verse 9, though translating it this way does not explain the conscious state of those who are mentioned in the passage.
As previously mentioned, Deuteronomy 32:22 states, "For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below." The "realm of death below" refers to sheol and implies that there is punishment by fire once an unsaved person dies. The Old Testament is clear that judgment follows the death of the wicked: see Job 21:30-34, where the idea that the wicked escape punishment and are spared from the day of calamity and God's eternal wrath is declared to be a "falsehood." Obviously, the wrath of God is more than mere physical death. Psalm 94:1-2 states, "O Jehovah, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth. Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve." In verse 23 of the same psalm the psalmist says of God, "He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; Jehovah our God will destroy them." In Isaiah 33:14-15, Isaiah writes, "The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: 'Who of us can dwell with a consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?'" Likewise, Jeremiah and Daniel say:
And I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten. (Jer 23:40)
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Dan 12:2)
The last quote above is interesting, because those who "sleep in the dust of the earth" will either be rewarded or punished. For those who will be punished, what will their punishment consist of? It is said that they will awake to shame and everlasting contempt. If one insists that the punishment of the wicked is that they simply cease to exist, why would they then awake, and afterwards again "go to sleep"? What is the point of waking for the purpose of going to sleep again, if they were already punished as dead persons who ceased to exist?
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The Greek word hades corresponds to sheol, and it is far from clear that sheol signifies death in annihilationist terms, as argued above. In Acts 2:27-31, we read the report of Peter the Apostle's testimony of Christ's bodily resurrection. It is interesting to note how Peter describes Christ's bodily death, namely that His soul (psyche) was not left in Hades. This means that Christ's soul, before His bodily resurrection, in some period of time, was residing in Hades. Does it makes sense to talk about souls (psyche) residing in Hades if they simply cease to exist there?
Hades in biblical usage cannot mean death for the simple reason that the New Testament makes a distinction between hades and death. It is said of Christ that He has the keys to hades and to death (Rev. 1:18), and that the event of casting death and hades into the lake of fire is referred as the second death (Rev. 20:14). Moreover, hades is the place of dead wicked souls, but not of righteous ones. The fact that Christ's soul was in hades is connected to His preaching "unto the spirits in prison" (1 Pet. 3:19). Some argue that Jesus used hades in a figurative way to indicate the debasement of Capernaum compared to heaven (cf. Matthew 11:23, Luke 10:15), but such arguing begs the question: "Why should we figuratively/metaphorically interpret Christ's use of hades as reported in Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15?" Let us take a careful look at Matthew 11:23-24:
And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
Why would it "be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for Capernaum" if hades simply means cessation of any form of existence? Would not their punishment be the same: the people of both cities will ultimately cease to exist?
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Gehenna (from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, "valley of Hinnoma") was a valley west and south of Jerusalem where children were burned as sacrifices to the Ammonite god Moloch. This practice was carried out by the Israelites during the reigns of King Solomon in the 10th century BC and King Manasseh in the 7th century BC and continued until the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC. Gehenna later was made a landfill to discourage the reintroduction of such sacrifices. Many annihilationists would point out that it is wrong to translate Gehenna as "hell," simply because Gehenna is a literal place - a valley west and south of Jerusalem. For this reason, they argue, Christ's use of Gehenna is figurative.
Annihilationists are correct to say that Christ's use of Gehenna is figurative, but we should ask the following important question: what would this figurative use of Gehenna mean? Why use so strong image of a fiery place to describe spiritually dead people if the souls of those people have ceased to exist? The obvious answer is that Christ warns us of a place where the soul of wicked people will be tormented.
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The Greek word tartarus is found only once in scripture:
For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell (tartarus) and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment. (2 Pet. 2:4)
We can clearly see from the passage that it does not mean "death" in the annihilationist sense. According to Gill's commentary on 2 Peter 2:4, the expression "but cast them down to hell (tartarus)": [T]hey were hurled out of heaven, from whence they fell as lightning, into the "lowest", or inferior places, as the Syriac version renders it; either into the air, as in Eph 2:2 or into the earth; as in Re 12:9 or into the deep, the abyss, the bottomless pit, where they are detained, as in a prison, Lu 8:31 Re 9:11 20:3,7 though for certain reasons, and at certain times, are suffered to come forth, and rove about in this earth, and in the air: and these, when removed from their ancient seats in heaven, were not merely bid to go away, as the wicked will at the day of judgment; or were "drove" out, as Adam was from the garden of Eden; but "cast down"; with great power, indignation, wrath, and contempt, never to be raised and restored again.
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