Matthew 10.28 — Why Annihilationism is not Universalism

One of my brightest former students who now pastors in Wisconsin  Facebooked me (that really ought not to be a verb any more than ‘friend’ is a verb)  asking about Matthew 10.28.   Doesn’t this text, he asked, favor the view of eternal torment?   The text literally reads “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the psuchen. Fear rather the one who is able to destroy  (apolesai) both body and psuchen in Gehenna.”    Here we have yet another stern saying of Jesus about Gehenna.   Jesus is making a contrast between what human beings can do to a person (physically kill them) and someone else who can destroy both body and human spirit.

It needs to be remembered that the Greek notion of the inherent immortality of the soul was apparently only believed by the most Hellenized of Diaspora Jews,  and Jesus doesn’t qualify as such a person, as this very saying proves.   Jesus thinks your whole self can be destroyed.   But who is the destroyer here?   From the context (see the reference to Beelzebul in vs. 25) it would surely appear to be Satan in this case, doing his dirty work in what Jesus calls Gehenna.   The verb apollumi means to destroy or kill, and in the middle voice to perish, be lost, be ruined, and even ‘to pass away’.   Much depends on what sort of and how strong a nuance one wants to put on the verb here, but in view of the parallel construction it would appear certain that Jesus is referring to someone who can kill, do away, destroy the human spirit, not merely the body, and the place of that destruction is Gehenna.

Let us consider a war scene for a moment.  It is one thing to be wounded and suffer a long time or endlessly (throughout the rest of one’s life)  for it,  it is another thing to be killed or destroyed.  These verbs in this verse refer to an end of something, it’s terminus, not it’s continuation.   Though it is certainly possible to read this text in another way,  it would appear to me that this text definitely does favor the  annihilationist view of what happens to a person in Gehenna,  and it must carry the most serious of weight, as it is a saying of Jesus, warning his own disciples  (you will notice it is not a warning to the non-elect or non-disciples, though he could have said the same thing to them presumably).

My good colleague Lawson Stone and I had a good exchange on annihilationism this week, and one of his objections was that the annihilationist view seems to imply instant extinction (nihilism) and so not really a suffering for one’s sins that one committed in this life.    I disagreed.

In none of the texts in the NT that might be said to favor anihilationism are we told that one’s termination is instantaneous and does not involve a considerable period of suffering.  Indeed, from the parable in Luke 16 and several other texts, we would assume that it does involve an agonizing period of suffering.   The point is, the suffering doesn’t last forever because eventually the person is —- burned up or destroyed, or his spirit is killed— use whatever language you like.

And here is where it may be well to ask a good question—– Why would even a holy God, the God of the Bible  require infinite suffering for a finite number of earthly sins?   Here I think, Rob Bell is right to ask a question about such a notion.   Is that actually fair and just?  The OT law of lex talionis, which says only a hand for a hand, only a foot for a foot, only a life for a life, suggests a principle of justice that involves proportional and appropriate response depending on the sin committed.

While I certainly believe God is holy, just, and fair,  I also believe God is loving, compassionate, and merciful, even to the lost or damned.    The issue of the whole character of God is certainly raised when we see for example, Jesus balancing justice and mercy in the famous woman caught in adultery story  (John 7.53-8.11 — probably not an original part of the Gospel of John, but I would suggest nonetheless a true story about Jesus).    Do we really want to say the character of the Father is dramatically different from the character of God revealed to us in Jesus his Son?   I don’t think so.  Thus while I think there are a variety of texts, especially from Revelation which may suggest eternal torment of the lost,  there are none that I see that MUST be interpreted this way.    And I say this after having read a lot of early Jewish apocalyptic literature where there is a lot of gloating of the vindicated and oppressed about the ongoing suffering of the lost.   The NT comes across as much less vindictive than that,  and indeed even the martyrs under the altar in Revelation are told to take a chill pill and leave vengeance and indeed final justice in the hands of God.   And so we should.   The rider on the white horse  (AKA the Lamb/Jesus)  will sort things out in the end and as part of the last judgment.

Is anihilationism then any sort of  form of universalism?   No, it is not.   Let us return to the battle field imagery.  My father fought in WWII for  George Patton’s army and he saw many destroyed villages at the end of the war in Germany and Czechoslovakia, destroyed by Allied bombers.  When he walked into a village and found a few survivors, a few who had been saved through and despite the malestrom,  while the vast majority had been destroyed,  he could never have said—- “well they all ended up being saved”.  Of course not.   The last persons standing were saved, and none of the last persons standing were destroyed,  but this is hardly any form of universalism at all.

In other words,   if you believe that Mt. 10.28 supports the notion of the lost suffering and then being extinguished or destroyed in Gehenna (see the lake of fire in Revelation), you are not a universalist.   You simply believe that the only persons left standing on the promises and sitting in the premises in the new earth, the new Jerusalem will be saved persons– Jew and Gentile united in Christ, as Paul would put.     This in no way denies: 1) justice for sin and wickedness on earth; 2)  that only some will in the end be saved, and they are saved on the basis of the atoning work of Christ;  3) that there is suffering in Gehenna, where God allows those who insist on being separated from him forever to have their way.     What this view does not necessarily do, in the same way the eternal torment view does,  is raise questions about the loving, merciful,  compassionate character and proportional response of our God to sin and wickedness and even to the lost.

I would just add that this view also does not mean that in the end love wins in the case of every last human being God ever created.   I believe God is heartbroken about the lost, precisely because his love has not won over those who insist on having no part of it, even unto eternity.

I would suggest that all of you read the powerful poem of Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy entitled the ‘Sorrow of God’  written by a British chaplain in WWI  who saw the worst in the trenches in France, and then ask yourself again—- What is God really like?

My own college Bible teacher, Bernard Boyd was a chaplain in WWII in the Pacific and he read Studdert-Kennedy to us, because it had helped him with the hard questions (see also his poem on ‘Faith’).    One day,  as the Allies were landing on a beach to retake an island from the Japanese a very young American soldier was cut down and Dr. Boyd raced to him to administer morphine as there was no saving him.  As he lay there on the beach looking up into the blue sky with mortar fire falling all around him, the young man asked Dr. Boyd — “You are a chaplain. Surely, you must know.  What is the God like whom I go to meet?”   Dr. Boyd without hesitation said “He is like Jesus who died on the cross for your sins so you might have everlasting life”.   We may never know if the boy agreed, as he spoke his last question with his last breath.    But what I am more sure of is that if I know anything,  I know that God the Son is the spitting image of God the Father,  and I can trust the character of Jesus to reveal to me what God is like,  a God who so loved the whole world that he sent his Son on a radical rescue mission to save it all.

[Editor's Note: for more on the "Hellgate" controversy, see Patheos' book feature on Love Wins. For more of Dr Witherington's thoughts, see his recent post, "Hell? No??"]

  • http://edbrenegar.typepad.com Ed Brenegar

    I make no claim to what I will say as being consistent with Biblical teaching. I’m wondering about other aspects of this topic.

    By living in the in-between times, we live with both an awareness of God’s presence and his, seeming, absence. Before the fall, there was total awareness of God’s presence, and none of his absence, to the point, we probably had no clear distinction between ourselves as God’s creation and God as creator. After the fall, we could distinguish ourselves from God, treat Him objectively, as an object of scientific discovery, and come to conclusions ranging from faith in the absolute presence of God to a belief in God’s non-existence. We live in a time of mixed messages as a result.

    It also occurs to me that much of what God has created is centered in our relationship to the three persons of the Trinity. Relations being the key word. Our relationship is more than knowledge, it is as whole persons. It is communal, social and personal. It is not primarily a legal, contractual, or forensic relationship, though it does exist, as it does in the other parts of our lives.

    It has struck me on several occasions through the years, that what follows the consummation is not clouds and fire, but a world very much like what we have now. Except for those who have chosen the path of faith, they experience the full completeness of God’s intended creation, as Adam and Eve did of so long ago, and walked away from. And for those who do not chose faith, they live in a parallel world, with the knowledge of what they have lost.

    What have they lost is the mediating remnant of God’s spiritual presence in our world today that buffers all our lives. Take that away, and you have what many of these apocalyptic movies portray today. Desolation, alienation, predation, and a fully living, always present awareness of what has been lost, and one’s own recognition of having chosen wrongly.

    Some of this thinking is derived from trying to understand precisely why God created as he did. Why is it like this if not because it has inherent value beyond what is personal to me. In other words, God created a context for us to know him fully. Rejecting has the eternal consequence of living with that grief, regret and shame.

    Just a thought that I’ve had over time.

  • aaron

    another very good article. Do I sense that you are moving more favorably towards affirming annihilation rather than eternal torment?

    One objection I have often heard towards annihilation is that it is not very harsh on the consequence of sin. I maintain that it is more harsh than eternal torment for several reasons.

    1. As Ben has pointed out already annihilation doesn’t exclude the pain and anguish of being burned to death.

    2. One look at the death penalty debate will tell us that it is seen as a worse thing to die than to be imprisoned for life.

    3. Everybody will be resurrected before the final judgment and the bible does not specify that those raised for judgment will be any different from those raised for aionion life.

    5. we know that when we are raised we will be in a glorified body, just as we were always meant to be.

    6. On that day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

    7. having a full experiential knowledge of what it is like to truly live, and who God truly is in all His Glory; He will say to some of us. “Depart from me you evildoers, for I never knew you!”

    8. On that day there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Not just from those burning to death in gehenna but also from those of us who have loved ones, close friends, and associates in those fires; whom we might have saved if we had offered them the salvation we enjoyed while in this life.

    9. On that day Jesus will weep.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi Ed:

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reflections— always a pleasure to hear from you….and

    Go Tar Heels!

    BW3

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Aaron I appreciate these reflections. I am open to persuasion either to eternal torment or anihilationism, but I just think on the whole the latter view explains more of the Biblical evidence and is more consistent with the full character of God. But I freely admit, I could be wrong.

    BW3

  • David

    Two questions pertaining to the post.

    1) In reference to Matt. 10:28 you stated, “But who is the destroyer here? From the context (see the reference to Beelzebul in vs. 25) it would surely appear to be Satan in this case, doing his dirty work in what Jesus calls Gehenna.” How does this correlate with Revelation 20:7-15 where Satan himself is said to be thrown in the ‘lake of fire’ for “eternal” torment prior to the final judgment at the resurrection of the dead? At least in that text it seems that the judging agent cannot be Satan. I would love some clarity.

    2) In the comments you have made on annihilationism vs. eternal torment, including reference to the ambiguity at times of the meaning of the Greek word ‘aeon’, there is a verse that I cannot reconcile yet, and would love some help. Matthew 25:46, the parable of the final judgment states, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This seems to set up a contrast within the verse between the wicked and the righteous. My question is, if we are viewing the greek word ‘aeon’ here in reference to eternal punishment to mean ‘limited time, or age’ what does that do to the promise of eternal life. This seems to be highly problematic, and I would love some clarity.

    Thanks for all of your posts, they are insightful and helpful!

  • http://saintsandsceptics@blogspot.com graham veale

    I understand that exegetical issues are of primary importance here. However the issue of moral repugnance has a huge bearing on our interpretations. So I think that we do need to be careful when describing what annihilationists oppose. I’m not sure that what I’m reading here describes what I believe at all.

    a) I’m unhappy with the term eternal torment/. It’s redolent of a mediaeval torture chamber.

    b) I’m not entirely happy with the expression “infinite punishment”(i) Mathematically some infinities are “bigger” than others. (There are more even numbers than prime numbers, for example). So the term is not very helpful.
    (ii)The image of inifinite punishment suggests “the greatest conceivable amount punishment”, and that everyone ‘in Hell’ receives this punishment.
    (iii) Infinite punishment pictures an neverending succession of moments. I’m simply not sure that this is how time would be experienced. In fact, I’ve no idea how time would be experienced. Our experience of time is tied up with the physical laws of this universe, and the nature of our bodies.

    c) What we can say about Hell is that it involves punishment, separation and ruin. There has been some suggestion that punishment does not cohere with CS Lewis’ idea that the gates of Hell are shut from the inside. However, consider Romans 1 v 24 “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.”
    This text seems to tie punishment, separation and destruction together. One way of punishing human beings is to give them exactly what they want.

    d) On the images of destruction – i)I think that proponents of the “endless torment” view have tended to view the residents of Hell as embodied. I can’t see how this could be right. The believers Resurrection seems to be intrinsically linked with Christs. ii) I don’t see any conceptual problems with disembodied existence. And if Hell does not contain bodies, the idea of endless physical pain/torment is not relevant to the discussion. iii) In any case, I think “Hell” should be contrasted with Resurrection. Our focus seems to be on what Hell does to you. In fact, I think the New Testament’s primary focus is on what you lose out on. iv)
    The image of being cast outside God’s great feast, or not being able to enter because you ignored the invitation, seems as important as Gehenna. Yet we seem obsessed with flames.

    But I am very glad that we are discussing something substantive.

    Graham

  • http://www.matthew94.blogspot.com Matthew

    Thanks for your coverage of this issue and for your willingness to step out of the box from mainstream evangelicalism.

    I, myself, studied this issue a few years back and also came to the conclusion that the conditional immortality view has more on its side than the other 2 popular views (eternal torment and universal reconciliation). As an aside, I prefer the term ‘conditional immortality’ over ‘annihiliationism’ specifically b/c I don’t agree with the Greek notion that souls are naturally immortal. Annihilationism, to me, sounds like God is putting an end to a life that would have otherwise lived forever. I think, rather, that death is simply the natural result of sin-filled life. We only have eternal life in the Son.

    I actually taught the 3 views at our district summer camp 2 years ago and was surprised how open minded the 20-30 people in attendance were once presented with the evidences for each view.

  • http://saintsandsceptics@blogspot.com graham veale

    BTW
    I found Ed’s thoughts, in particular, very helpful.

  • Craig

    I have no problem with annihilationism and am open to this possibility. It certainly is has nothing to do with universalism.

    The “one” in Matthew 10:28 being Satan is questionable, however, and I lean in the other direction – the “one” being God. This certainly is not unheard of within Jewish tradition. The OT often makes reference to God’s ability to kill and restore life. For example:

    See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand.
    Deuteronomy 32:39

    The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
    1 Samuel 2:6

    Also see 2 Kings 5:7; Tobit 13:2; Wisdom of Solomon 16:13.

    Additionally, Matthew 10:26 says, “So do not be afraid of them…” Who is “them”? Beelzebul and his household? (v.25). If this is the case, then Jesus is saying do not be afraid of Satan and his followers who will persecute you, but instead fear God who can destroy your soul (psuchen), as well as your body.

    In any case, this is a very thought-provoking discussion.

    Craig

  • http://bealsacc.tumblr.com JB

    David in response to your question #2 (not to disregard #1, but I happened to be thinking on this very thought lately)… just a thought I have always wondered in consideration of what shape ‘eternal punishment’ takes in the sense of weighing eternal torment vs. annihilationism. To use the example mentioned earlier about a death sentence vs. life imprisonment, in a sense, even though a death sentence carried out involves a period of suffering and then a termination of life, does it not (in regard to simply this ‘here and now’ physical life) have a degree of ‘eternal’ to it… i.e. it is a irrevocable sentence? I guess what I’m throwing out there is that even though we have a tangible sense of what eternal suffering means, in the same regard, is a period of suffering with a complete terminus of that life no less “an eternal punishment” in the fact that both are irrevocable, desolate, soul-tearing separations from God? Get what I’m trying to say? I think there is a possible argument to be made that either system could carry the title “eternal” while still differing in function. Again, just a thought I’ve always wondered as I grew up in a denom which is solidly and thoroughly evangelical, but claims annihilationism as one of it’s distinctives. While both are up for debate, I do agree completely with Ben, with either eschatological view, NEITHER supports a universalist view as both depend on a clear foundation of the gospel… we’re sinners desperately in need of righteousness only Christ can give and grievous punishment awaits unrepentant sin.

  • http://bealsacc.tumblr.com JB

    Agreed with Matt above, conditional immortality should be the proper terminology used. :)

  • http://www.stonesfence.com Lawson Stone

    As I feared, you have continued the tradition of introducing with “esteemed colleague” a person whose point of view is then reduced and eliminated.

    I don’t believe anyone goes to hell for committing sins. Not one, not a million. Hell is the experience of separation from God, which I believe to be the ultimate agony. So there is not a proportionality argument applicable as for what punishment is “fair” or “enough.” Hell is eternal separation from God for those who have not surrendered their will to the redemptive presence of God. So the whole issue of “enough sins” is not any part of my discussion. There are degrees of liability, but no degrees of lostness.

    I have several problems with your view of a long-extended punishment ending in “destruction.”

    First, if hell isn’t about “sins” but about separation from God, then “destruction” in the end in fact would be a relief, because the person no longer has any sense of their separation from eternal joy, or of anything else for that matter. I know many moderns who would be fine with ultimate annihilation and happy to take their chances in that game.

    Second, one has to ask, really, if they are going to be tortured for millions of years, or however long, before being “destroyed,” and if destruction is the real point, the essence of the punishment, why does God want to torture them? Why does he want to inflict a painful, agonizing, slow death upon them if the real punishment is anihilation? Wouldn’t a merciful God who planned to “destroy” people (annihilate them) just get it done? What’s the point of subjecting them to cruel extensive agony? When does an infinite God of infinite justice “have enough?” Why does god want to inflict aeons of cruel agony if ultimately, the sinner will be “destroyed” and literally put out of his misery?

    If the answer is that perhaps they might decide to submit and believe, that means that people who didn’t believe when they were free to do so, will believe when tortured sufficiently? I reply that just as today, we cannot condone the use of coercion, torture, to force belief. It’s one thing to inform people about hell, that a choice against God, active or passive, will result in an eternity apart from him. It’s another thing for God to subject them to unspeakable, horrible suffering and say “Anytime you want it to stop, just believe in Jesus!” If the parable of Lazarus and Dives teaches anything, it teaches that the time of choice is this life, and not later.

    So your annihilation position to me raises worse questions about the goodness of God, much worse than eternal hell. Eternal hell teaches (a) our choices or neglect of choosing have significance because we will exist forever (b) we will really get what we have chosen, whether the choice is explicit or implied in our life patterns; (c) the time in which we may choose is limited, and we have no assurance of any kind that our choice to reject, ignore, or marginalize God in this life can be emended somehow after death.

    Lastly, I feel your handling of the text is rather casuistic and not your usually insightful literary-rhetorical approach. It almost sounds more like looking for loopholes in the lexicon than trying to listen to the terrifying words of the text, which sure is not intending to include assurance that punishment will end at some point (annihilation). I doubt anyone have come to the “destruction=annihilation” view if they weren’t already looking for it.

    The traditional view of hell affirms that human beings are awesome creatures capable of making choices with which we must deal for all time. Of the whole creation, we are the only creatures who can say to God “My will be done” and he will allow it. He allows it because our having that freedom is exactly his will. The traditional doctrine of hell ultimately underscores the terrifying dignity of human beings.

  • aaron

    The most important thing to remember about any doctrine (at least in the protestant stream of thought) is that it must be in agreement with scripture. I urge anyone who is truly interested in this subject to search the scriptures on this topic. What does the canon say? The most important thing is to keep an open mind in this endeavor. I think you may find as I have that when the whole witness of scripture is consulted the overwhelming portrait is that the wages of sin is death (annihilation) but the gift of God is aionion (eternal) life. There are a few verses that may be interpreted in a way to promote unending torment, there are a few verses that might indicate unending separation. but I think a good methodology is to interpret the obscure by what is made plain, not the other way around.

    On a side note. The trouble with the term conditional immortality is that it could be seen to imply that there is no resurrection of the wicked.

  • http://www.matthew94.blogspot.com Matthew

    Aaron said…
    “On a side note. The trouble with the term conditional immortality is that it could be seen to imply that there is no resurrection of the wicked.”

    Fair point, but I’d rather take that trouble (and proceed to make a positive case for resurrection of the wicked) than take the trouble that comes with the term annihilation (and proceed to make a negative case against God eliminating people that would have otherwise been eternal).

  • Chris McCauley

    Just a couple of thoughts to persuade you to annihilationism Ben:

    1. Jesus describes in metaphor things which will be consumed in an unquenchable FIRE. That is, it’s the fire that’s eternal, not the thing being burned. Jesus gives examples: all things which are highly flammable and would be utterly destroyed: branches, leaves, wheat, chaff, vines, and so forth. All flammable material.

    2. If Jesus meant that you would burn forever, he would have made the analogy one of a stone or brick in the fire, rather than something that would be consumed and destroyed. Jesus’ metaphor is not one of torture or enduring pain. It’s one of total destruction.

    3. Being totally burned and destroyed and having no body (as opposed to being buried) could have been chosen as a metaphor by Jesus to show that there would be no way one could have a body at the resurrection of the righteous. If you were buried, you could be resurrected. But if you were burned up and consumed, there’s no body to resurrect.

    4. The “gift of eternal life”. If all persons were already going to either go to heaven or hell, why would Jesus need to give people the “gift of eternal life”? Jesus at this point can be calling for people to live eternally RATHER than be destroyed. It could be argued that the Jews of this time DID believe that the afterlife was negligible. It was the grave or sheol. Jesus GRANTED eternal life rather than a simple grave in the ground. Thus the alternative to eternal life is not torment, but death and annihilation.

  • http://www.stonesfence.com Lawson Stone

    The Greek term απολλυμι does not invariably involve going out of existence. In Luke 15, for example, the coin, the sheep, and the son are all declared to be “lost” using this term or a derivative but none were annihilated. It also likely brought with it from the Septuagint a good bit of the OT idea, where it translates אבד which also, in addition to meaning “perish” also means “be lost, wander.” In fact, Leviticus uses precisely this term to describe not the death, but the permanent expulsion of persons from the covenant community (“cut off from among his people”). Last, the notion of conditional immortality, were it so clearly expressed by the use of this word, must surely have been evident to early Christian writers such as the Apostolic Fathers and the apologists of the 2nd-4th centuryh, who spoke and wrote in Greek. But in fact, the idea of conditional immortality is not found in early Christian literature, as far as I know, before Arnobius in North Africa (ca. 300 AD). If the plain, literal sense of passages using απολλυμι to describe the final judgment was merely annihilation, I would think this point would have been made in all the Origenist controversies. It would have been a welcome solution. But it didn’t get proposed even by these Greek speaking and Greek writing theologians because they realized this was not the plain sense of those texts. For whatever it’s worth, the RC church condemned conditional immortality in the 5th Lateran Council, though they carries little weight for us protestants.

  • http://www.matthew94.blogspot.com Matthew

    Lawson Stone said…
    “But in fact, the idea of conditional immortality is not found in early Christian literature, as far as I know, before Arnobius in North Africa (ca. 300 AD)”

    1. First of all, what is being suggested is that the NT case for conditonal immortality is quite strong. Certainly the NT counts as early Christian literature.

    2. Many of the quotes from early Christian literature often taken to support the eternal torment view are simply quotes from Scripture passages that don’t necessarily say that and can, indeed, be supported by the conditional immortality camp. Thus, someone who reads the relevant biblical passages with a pre-commitment to the eternal torment view will find what they’re looking for in the apostolic fathers as well.

    3. Likewise, someone who concludes that the Scripture more clearly teaches conditional immortality will be able to find support in the first centuries. The didache talks about 2 ways (life and death) and that those who choose death will ultimately perish. The epistle of barnabas talks about the road to eternal death where men’s souls are destroyed and people perish. Clement appeals to Isaiah 66 (the worm dieth not), but also quotes the part that traditionalists often miss (the wicked are, here, dead bodies). Etc, etc, etc.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Thanks for all this Lawson. But Hell is about sins. I quite agree it involves separation from God, but the biggest sin of all is willingly rejecting the presence of God in this life. Secondly, it does not make sense for anyone to talk about giving someone the gift of everlasting life, if in fact we are inherently everlasting or immortal. Were that the case Jesus would be talking about a better quality of everlasting life—- but he isn’t. Thirdly, see the post of Matthew here for the evidence for the anihilation idea in 1rst-2nd century Christian literature. And lastly, Dan Reid, my editor wrote a fine paper some ten years ago, which he was to give at ETS on precisely this topic. His conclusion— Paul believes in anihilationism.

    As for the comment of Jake, and the cheap shot at the UMC, in fact the UMC is a more conservative church now, on the whole, with many more Evangelicals now than in the 80s. Liberalism is dying in this denomination. And Jake, frankly God’s being infinite has nothing to do with torment being eternal. The issue is the degree of offense to God, not God’s ontological quality of being inifinite. That is totally irrelevant.

    BW3

  • http://baptismandthebigpicture.blogspot.com/ Matt Viney

    There is a post here that talks about the injustice of a temporally limited conscious experience of hell. I found it interesting:

    http://aporeticchristianity.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/the-injustice-of-infinite-punishment-for-finite-sin/

  • AStev

    One of my profs at Taylor was an annihilationist, he blogs here: http://www.wisdomandfollyblog.com/

    I’m not entirely persuaded, but I do think it’s a reasonable interpretation of Scripture.

    Although one verse that becomes a bit chewy is Matt 25:46 where it says the righteous will go to eternal life, and the unrighteous to eternal punishment, using the same word (αἰώνιον) for eternal in both places.

    As for your question, “Why would even a holy God, the God of the Bible require infinite suffering for a finite number of earthly sins?” I’ve heard one answer speculating that the gravity of any given offense may depend on who the offense is committed against. i.e. Killing an ant is a smaller offense, than killing a dog, which is a smaller offense than killing a human. Assuming that premise is true, the idea is that rebellion against an immeasurably worthy God is not a finite offense but an infinite one, and does not merit a finite punishment but rather an eternal one.

  • Jaymes Lackey

    Dr. Stone,

    You may know more about Dr. Witherington’s personal beliefs than I do, but it seems to me that in this post and in “Hell? No!” that Witherington isn’t so much espousing annihilationism as saying that it isn’t universalism and isn’t necessarily outside the realm of orthodoxy.

    Though the wording and analogies are personal, I still get the feeling that he is saying something akin to “An orthodox person who is fairly intelligent can believe in the annihilation of the soul and still be all good.”

    I may be wrong, but it seems like Ben keeps getting personal attacks for showing what positions he thinks can be in or out of orthodoxy.

    Also, I don’t think he dismissed you, he just brought up ONE objection that he thought you articulated. He may be mistaken, but I don’t feel that his intention was to mis-represent you as a spring-board for a talking point.

    Blessings!

    j

  • AStev

    Just one additional comment for Chris: “If Jesus meant that you would burn forever, he would have made the analogy one of a stone or brick in the fire, rather than something that would be consumed and destroyed.”

    I’ve seen this point suggested before (about the relative flammability of the fuel), but I don’t think it really supports the argument.

    After all, there is Scriptural precedent for stones being consumed by fire (1 Kings 18:38) as well as wood that was not consumed by fire (Ex 3:2), and Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with these instances.

    Most analogies have a point beyond which they tend to break down, and I don’t think Jesus’ point was for his audience to draw conclusions about the relative metaphorical flammability of souls.

    (Although if Hollywood is running out of ideas, they should probably make a film about an evil oil company that invents cars that run on combustible human souls, only to be stopped by Matt Damon or someone.)

  • Jarrett Cooper

    I believe harsh punishment and then annihilation of the individual to be more obtuse than eternal torment. Why finite punishment and then complete annihilation of the individual? What is the point of the suffering if the individual will eventual cease existing altogether?

    There’s a really good post, written by Alexander Pruss, called, “A Common Mistake About Hell.” (http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2011/03/common-mistake-about-hell.html)

    The common mistake is the view that: It is better not to exist at all, or even not to have existed at all, than to spend eternity in hell.

    Another reason to believe in Hell being eternal is this. For Christians we believe sin deserves to be punished, and we have very good reasons to believe that in Hell that people continue to sin against God. In fact, in Revelation 18:10-11 says people still/will curse God while in Hell, “The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.”

    As Christians we believe God will continue to punish people’s sins and this goes for those people in Hell who continue to sin against God. We have Scriptural support to believe people will continue to sin while in Hell. Therefore, we should believe in Hell being eternal. (This argument I got from William Lane Craig: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6199)

  • Jarrett Cooper

    I made a mistake, it’s Revelation 16, not 18.

  • graham veale

    “Why would even a holy God, the God of the Bible require infinite suffering for a finite number of earthly sins?”

    I don’t think that there’s much mileage in this.

    i. I’m not committed to infinite suffering. At most, I’m committed to infinite punishment.
    ii. That punishment could be giving someone over to their freely chosen desires. So a person could be given over to their desire to commit an infinite number of sins.
    iii. We do not know how time would be experienced by the damned. Time is a measure of change. The nature of that change is determined by certain physical laws. And our experience of the “specious present” is determined by our nervous systems.
    iv. Which is a long way of saying, we do not know what it would be like to endure “eternal” punishment. That punishment could be timeless, for example.
    v.And if the images of destruction are to be taken seriously, and if sin is dehumanising, I’m not even sure that we can be clear on what endures the punishment

    Something that was once human? That was once a person? Who can say? I do think that annihilationists have drawn attention to aspects of the biblical teaching about Hell that had gone (relatively) unnoticed. The reason that I don’t buy annihilationism is that it seems to explain away the strangeness of Hell. It’s too neat a solution.

    Graham

  • graham veale

    “it does not make sense for anyone to talk about giving someone the gift of everlasting life, if in fact we are inherently everlasting or immortal.”

    Another thought. If substance dualism is true, it might well be that humans are not naturally immortal in the sense that we do not remain fully human unless we are embodied. And our bodies (including our brains and nervous systems) are not immortal.However, there could still be some aspect of humans that could “naturally” survive the death of the body.

    And I don’t think that idea can be identified with “Platonism”. “Platonism” would insist that the essential human is non-physical. But a form of substance dualism could maintain that to be fully human is to be embodied. A non-embodied person would not be fully human. (For example, consider how our emotions are “coloured” by physical feelings. Arguably this “colouring” is lost in a non-embodied state.)

    Graham

  • http://www.stonesfence.com Lawson Stone

    Ben-the problem with making hell about “sins” is now you do have to ask how many, how bad, etc. Hell is not about “sins” but about lostness and unbelief. Nobody goes to hell for one sin or one million sins, but for leaving God out of their lives, whether actively or passively, through rebellion or indifference.

    Matthew-the comment that “the NT counts as early christian literature” fails to realize the point I was making. “Early christian literature” is scholarly shorthand for material shortly after the NT that gives us some sense of how the earliest post-apostolic generations understood the NT. Those writers would surely have responded to, say, Origen’s view of apokatastasis and the voices that did complain that an eternal hell was unjust by correcting the objectors and reminding them that in fact they were only talking about annihilation, not everlasting torment. But they did not do that. They objected to “universalism” and countered with affirmations of God’s love and justice, not by commending annihilationism. When it does emerge with Arnobius ca. 300, it’s notable precisely for its novelty.

    And to all-I have the greatest respect and affection for Dr. Witherington, whom I admire as a defender of the faith and discerning interpreter of the scriptures. We both get a kick out of this sparring and ribbing each other. Neither of us takes it personally, whatever theatrics may appear in the rhetoric.

  • Dave

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thanks for the many recent posts on this issue. The posts and the subsequent comments have given me much to ponder!

    Also thanks to Dr. Stone for his comments. I believe what you are describing is closest to what I believe about hell (at least right now). I tend to agree with the comment that hell, at a base level, isn’t about sin. I think it is about the attitude of the heart that rejects God. Although I believe the individual sins have an effect on the degree of separation experienced.

  • Peter

    Some of these comments, with their taking literally the fiery imagery, disturb me. They suggest that there is a desire within the Godhead to inflict excruciating pain on sinners. Whether it is for eternity or for a decent period of time until they’re “burned up”, a God who would do something like that is certainly more monstrous than any of the wicked he’s punishing.

    Even Ben implies this line of thought with his “lake of fire” logic. All I can say is I’m shocked.

  • http://www.matthew94.blogspot.com matthew

    Lawson said…
    “the comment that “the NT counts as early christian literature” fails to realize the point I was making. “Early christian literature” is scholarly shorthand for material shortly after the NT that gives us some sense of how the earliest post-apostolic generations understood the NT.”

    No, I didn’t fail to realize the point you were making, I was making a counterpoint. You were attempting to argue that no early commentators on the NT Scriptures understood the scriptural authors in a conditionalist way. I countered by suggesting that since you seem to read the relevant NT verses in a non-conditionalist way, you’re too easily dismissing potential support from the apostolic fathers.

    Thus, the more important point here is that the Scriptures themselves become the key b/c how they are best interpreted dictates which view had the most support in the early church.

  • Marc Axelrod

    I’d prefer annihilationism to be true, but Matthew 25:46 is a deal breaker. The text says “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” If eternal life is life without end, then wouldn’t eternal punishment also be punishment without end? You can’t change the meaning of the word ‘eternal’ for one without changing the meaning of eternal for another. This verse is the one that gives the annihilationist position trouble and I haven’t seen a single reference to it from anyone. How can we take seriously the annihilationist position when its proponents dodge the verse that devastates their
    view the most? Appolumi in Matt 10:28 can be debated for eternity but the elephant in the room is Matt 25:46.

    Also, note verse 41. Eternal Fire was prepared not so much for man but for “the devil and his angels.” The only reason why the goats go there is because of their unwillingness to serve the king by serving others. They in essence choose the fire that is their destiny

  • Jarrett Cooper

    My post has been waiting for moderation for some time now. I guess it’s because I used links for my references.

    Here it is without the links:

    I believe harsh punishment and then annihilation of the individual to be more obtuse than eternal torment. Why finite punishment and then complete annihilation of the individual? What is the point of the suffering if the individual will eventual cease existing altogether?

    There’s a really good post, written by Alexander Pruss, called, “A Common Mistake About Hell.” (You can search for Alexander Pruss’ Blog and search for the post ‘A Common Mistake About Hell’.)

    The common mistake is the view that: It is better not to exist at all, or even not to have existed at all, than to spend eternity in hell.

    Another reason to believe in Hell being eternal is this. For Christians we believe sin deserves to be punished, and we have very good reasons to believe that in Hell that people continue to sin against God. In fact, in Revelation 16:10-11 says people still/will curse God while in Hell, “The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.”

    As Christians we believe God will continue to punish people’s sins and this goes for those people in Hell who continue to sin against God. We have Scriptural support to believe people will continue to sin while in Hell. Therefore, we should believe in Hell being eternal. (This argument I got from William Lane Craig: You can visit his website — Reasonable Faith and search for the article ‘Do the Damned in Hell Accrue Further Punishment?’)

  • Marc Axelrod

    Craig Blomberg puts it this way in his Matthew commentary: “The parallel between eternal punishment and eternal life in Matt 25:46 makes it difficult to see in the former any kind of annihilationism, even if the word ‘eternal’ can refer to a qualitative rather than a quantitative attribute of life.”

    Leon Morris says pretty much the same thing in his Matthew commentary.

  • Ben Witherington

    Yes, I think that is a good argument in the other direction, however, in neither of those phrases does the adjective mean eternal! At best it means everlasting. You and I don’t have eternal life (a life that has always existed and will always exist). Only God has that. We have everlasting life.

    BW3

  • http://www.matthew94.blogspot.com matthew

    I don’t find Matthew 25:46 devestating to the conditional mortality position at all. It contrasts ‘life’ that is eternal with ‘punishment’ that is eternal. I suppose if it contrasted ‘reward’ that is eternal with ‘punishing’ that is eternal that’d be a problem.

    To me, it simply says that some receive life that will never be taken away and some receive a punishment (which we know from many other verses is death) which will never be reversed.

    What I find odd is that someone would take this one verse as devestating to the conditionalist case, but not find the many verses which refer to dying or perishing or destruction to be just as compelling in the other direction.

  • http://www.stonesfence.com Lawson Stone

    @Matthew
    We have to bracket the NT statements because they are the ones whose meaning we are debating. I was not assuming any particular reading of the NT, but looking at how later Christian writers address the question, esp. in the light of an ongoing controversy that developed surrounding Origen’s universalism. If annihilationism were such an obvious and clear way to read the NT, then we’d expect to see explicit statements to that effect followed by calls to relax, no impugning of divine compassion is needed. We do, in fact, find it in North Africa with Arnobius. If you want to see early Christian conditional immortality, check him out. What you will see immediately is that nothing like that can be found in the earlier literature, and Arnobius himself is very aware he is presenting an against-the-grain point of view. Justin Martyr, in referring to those who go to hell, uses the explicit phrase “eternally sentient.” Whatever you think the NT teaches, I can find no evidence for the idea of conditional immortality prior to Arnobius, and almost none following until the 5th Lateren. In the 19th century it gets very popular as a half-way house between the historic position and universalism. So if you have good evidence, other than assertions without support or reassertions about possible casuistries in playing with word meanings, I’m genuinely open to hear them.

  • http://www.matthew94.blogspot.com matthew

    I already posted 3 that you never responded to. I believe the bulk of the NT evidence favors conditionalism. And then the Apostolic fathers quote the relevant passages in agreement. Edward Fudge has a chapter that goes through each fathers comments if you are interested. I think you are both overestimating the evidence that the fathers supported the doctrine of eternal torment and underestimating the case that they supported conditionalism. In reality, there is some evidence for both positions.

    But we’re pretty much just re-stating things at this point. Thanks for the dialogue :)

  • Rick C.

    First post here….

    Matt 10:28 is probably one of the strongest ‘support verses’ for CI (Conditional Immortality). It led me to ‘lean’ toward CI in my studies of the 3 Views of Hell.

    Andrew Perriman has a short blog that has me reconsidering if Matt 10:28 is really about the ‘final judgment’ here. Thus, I’m reconsidering my things.
    ==========

    Matthew (Hello)!
    I was wondering if you could explain why you think ‘annihilationism’ seems to indicate that people would be ‘eternal’ if they were not to ‘come to nought’. Is this because you think everyone will be resurrected, and that the wicked would live forever if they will not be annihilated? (This seems to be a foundational belief among folks who say they believe in CI and/or Annihilationism). Personally, I’m unsure if the wicked dead will be [bodily] resurrected at all. In Rev 20 where the dead are standing: Are they still dead? (Do all get judged before anyone is resurrected? – with only the righteous experiencing the same)?
    ==========

    Dr. Ben,
    If you have time: Does the UMC have an official belief regarding Hell? I’ll take a guess that the traditional view (‘eternal conscious torment’) and CI (or Annihilationism) would be considered ‘orthodox’ and that Universalism would be ‘heterodox’.

    And perhaps, if you have any input on the ‘standing dead’ in Rev 20?

    Thanks!

  • Rick C.

    Errata (duh, sorry, should have read) -

    Thus, I’m reconsidering [b]many[/b] things (along these lines).

  • Rick C.

    I’d better do one more post (for context).

    Rev 20 (NKJV)
    11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is [the Book] of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
    ==============

    The dead are ‘given up’ by the sea, Death and Hades. The dead are pictured as standing. Are they still dead? Can the sea, Death or Hades ‘resurrect’ anyone?

    From what I read on the Greek for ‘gave up’, it’s the opposite of ‘to take’. Thus, it would appear that the sea, Death, and Hades are simply “releasing” their former ‘hold’ on the dead. But it doesn’t look like they’re actually ‘resurrecting’ the dead! Rather, they’re ‘letting go’ of their captives, giving them over to (or for) judgment. Like a prison guard letting an inmate ‘out’ – to appear in court.

  • Jonathan

    Fascinating discussion. I find myself reading and understanding the Scriptures along the lines of Dr. Lawson Stone, that Hell is more about rejecting God’s invitation than it is about sin, and that the results of that decision are eternal separation from God and torment. But, I also fully agree with the premise of the article that annihilation is not universalism. I also want to thank each of you for the cordial and passionate way in which this discussion is being carried out…
    I have read many blogs that are discussing the things of Christ void of the love of Christ. I must say, it’s refreshing.

  • Ken Anwari

    WOW! “I know that God the Son is the spitting image of God the Father”. It helps to know that “spittin’ image” is an old contraction of “spirit and image”. It has nothing to do with expectorating. =]

    Thanks Ben for this masterful presentation of the annihilation position that so many must hold secretly. It’s difficult and potentially dangerous living among those who confidently anathematize believing in anything less than divinely ordained, everlasting torture for any and every human, regardless of age or circumstance who is not an evangelical.

  • http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com Jason Pratt

    My first time posting on this journal. (I used to post long defenses of various trinitarian and historical Christian apologetics on Ben’s old journal, but I doubt he remembers me.)

    As someone who actually is a trinitarian Christian universalist, I have to say I agree with the critique against Matt 10:28 referring to Satan. Verse 25 is not (in the Greek, nor in any English translation I am aware of, nor in variant transmission texts) about fearing Beelzebul or even about Beelzebul doing anything at all. It’s a warning that disciples of Christ should not be surprised if those who have called Christ Beelzebul go on to do the same or even more to disciples of Christ. Do not fear them, therefore, i.e. do not fear those who have called Christ Beelzebul and will persecute His disciples even more.

    The parallel at Luke 12 (different scene later in the ministry, recapping some thing) not-incidentally: (a) makes it clear that we should fear the one who has authority to throw into Gehenna (which surely is not Satan???); (b) has nothing anywhere in local context even as distantly related to the concept of Satan as Matt 10:25; and (c) also features a recap of the warning about the sin of the Holy Spirit nearby. Which in turn involves forgiveness from God, or a lack thereof, for whatever reason and to whatever extent–but doesn’t involve a threat from Satan. (It also happens to call back to the scene, shared in both GosMatt and GosLuke, where Christ’s opposition among the Pharisees and scribes were willing to contradict their own principles in order to accuse Christ of exorcising by the power of Beelzebul.)

    I have also in the past located the OT prophecy reference being referred to here, although I don’t recall at the moment where it is–maybe someone else will remember where to find it. (Not in Craig’s list. I half-recall it was in Isaiah, although almost everything seems to be in Isaiah. {wry g}) But again it has nothing to do with fearing that Satan, after killing us, has authority to destroy both our bodies and our souls in Gehenna/hell.

    I greatly admire BW3, but in this case I have to call “no way”. (As did Craig before I got here, credit where credit is due. {g})

    JRP

  • http://nimblewillsgrace.blogspot.com mike

    ……………..fear one who is able to kill the body and soul, seems to be a far cry from saying that He is going to do it. Didn’t he say that He was able to make the rocks cry out?

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  • http://occupy-till-i-come.webs.com/ Andrew Patrick

    Marc Axelrod (post 31) wrote:

    I’d prefer annihilationism to be true, but Matthew 25:46 is a deal breaker. The text says “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” If eternal life is life without end, then wouldn’t eternal punishment also be punishment without end? You can’t change the meaning of the word ‘eternal’ for one without changing the meaning of eternal for another. This verse is the one that gives the annihilationist position trouble and I haven’t seen a single reference to it from anyone. How can we take seriously the annihilationist position when its proponents dodge the verse that devastates their view the most? Appolumi in Matt 10:28 can be debated for eternity but the elephant in the room is Matt 25:46.

    I fail to see how this is supposed to “devastate” the annihilationist position.

    1. The wages of sin is death.
    2. The punishment of the judgment is the second death.
    3. If those who were killed came back to life, then you could claim that the punishment was merely temporary.
    4. A death that shall never be undone is permanent (everlasting, eternal) by definition.

    The word trick employed by Torture Theologians is to ignore that the wages of sin is death, and instead substitute an assumption that the wages of sin is torture (a circular logic if there ever was one.)

    Rom 6:23 KJV
    (23) For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    If someone claimed that those who are killed with the second death will return to life (and consciousness) at any point in the future, that person would be supporting Universalism, not Conditional Immortality.

    1. Death is a cessation of existence.
    2. Torture requires a prolonged existence.
    3. The punishment is death, not torture.

    If someone has a scripture saying that the wages of sin is an infinitely prolonged existence in torture, now would be the time to bring it forward. Otherwise that “Torture Theologian” argument falls flat and revealed as simple word sophistry.

    If anyone has any more “elephants” that they think need to be addressed, please contact me through my website.

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