One of the things Rob Bell’s book Love Wins seems to suggest is that there may be a get out of jail free card for those who go to Hell (not necessarily in a handbasket). He argues this case on the basis of the great love of God for all human beings, but at the same time he argues that love woos, rather than makes an offer one can’t refuse. In other words, there is some internal incoherence to that kind of argument. If you are going to say that love is freely given and freely received, then one has to allow that whether it’s now or later in eternity, the receiver may say— ‘no thank you’, in which case, God’s love doesn’t win in those particular lives, which is a tragedy, not a triumph, and certainly nothing to celebrate.
Having already made the case that an annihilationist view can be shown to be exegetically defensible and theologically coherent, if you aren’t already confused, I am now going to turn around and make the other case, the case for Hell being permanent and having some permanent residents. I am going to refrain from calling it eternal torment, since the Bible doesn’t really directly use that language but we are going to talk a bit more about everlasting destruction.
What then is the case for their always being a Hell with permanent residents, forever and ever Amen? Firstly, there is what I already pointed out in a previous post from the very last book of the Bible, loved and loathed by millions precisely because of this sort of subject. Look once again at Rev. 22.14-15, the very last reference to ‘insiders and outsiders’ in the entire Bible. What it says is that the blessed have the right to enter the city gates and the right to eat of the tree of everlasting life. The contrast in the next verse is with the outsiders—the ‘dogs’, the sorcerers, the fornicators, the murderers, the idolaters, and ‘everyone who loves and practices falsehood’. There is certainly no suggestion at all that the outsiders listed could become insiders and enter the city gates. No, they are parked outside, looking on from afar, and they are still alive and conscious. This conclusion is simply reinforced in Rev. 21.27 which stresses “But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Let’s talk about that last phrase, a very important phrase in Revelation, which should be compared to the simpler OT phrase ‘the book of life’ (Ps. 69.28) which refers to merely physical existence, not everlasting life and could be translated ‘the book of the living’.
Revelation does not tell us how a person gets their name written in the Lamb’s book of life, and indeed Revelation warns that your name can be erased from the Lamb’s book of life if you commit apostasy, even if it was provisionally in there previously. This is very clear in Rev. 3.5 and it comports with the overall theme of Revelation, namely the warning of Christians in Asia Minor who are being persecuted, prosecuted, and even executed, that they need to hold on to their faith to the end, and overcome or conquer in the same way Jesus the Lamb— by martyrdom, faithfulness even unto death.
Revelation is the canonical book of martyrs, and the stern exhortations to remain faithful clearly enough imply the possibility that this or that Christian might fail to do so. And if they fail to do so, their names can be erased from the Lamb’s book of life. If one also looks at Rev. 13.8. 17.8, and 20.15 these references suggest at a minimum that God has always known, even from before the foundation of the earth, that some folks were never going to respond to him positively, not ever, and that they would end up in the lake of fire. Even allowing for the fact that this book is highly metaphorical and apocalyptic in character, it sounds very clear that in the case of those folks, those who refuse to be saved, that they will never turn and live, and will never be rescued from the lake of fire. In their cases, love does not win. Whatever else one can say about John of Patmos, he certainly doesn’t believe in the salvation of every last human being in the end.
Let’s go back to a couple of Gospel and Pauline texts now. I am thinking of Mt. 25.31-46, the famous parable of the sheep and goats. Bearing in mind this is an extended metaphor, a parable, still it has stark language that has to be seen as referential and taken seriously, even though it cannot be taken literally. Parables don’t work that way, not this parable, nor the one in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus. The danger is over pressing the language to give us more information than it intends to give us. Nevertheless, this parable is indeed about the great divide at the final judgment. It uses language very much the same as the language about the Lamb’s book of life in Revelation.
The parable of the sheep and the goats says for example, that the sheep will be addressed as follows “Come you blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from before the foundation of the world” (vs. 34). God always had a plan for kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven, had always planned for it (not the other worldly heaven) to be the final dwelling place of the saved. Our final destination as believers is not somewhere up there, but right now here in the new earth, in the new Jerusalem, after the restoration of all of creation. This is a theme Rob Bell stresses, and he is right to do so. The final state of affairs for believers does not involve disembodied life in heaven.
This deliberate and clear contrast where the word everlasting seems to be used in the same way in both alternative phrases strongly suggests Jesus believes that there is no annihilation of the lost. There is only everlasting punishment. And it is a perfectly fair reading of 2 Thess. 1.8-9 to conclude that Paul is saying exactly the same thing. However much the phrase ‘everlasting destruction’ may sound like an oxymoron to our ears, it had to have some definite meaning to Paul, and he expands its sense by adding— “separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.’ Whatever else we may wish to say about Hell it involves separation from the presence of the Lord forever, something the parable in Luke 16 also suggests.
So where does this leave us, if a good case, solidly based in Scripture, can be made for either anihilationism or everlasting punishment? Where it leaves me, at least, is that I have to be honest and say, either conclusion is possible, and equally orthodox. This is one of those points where equally orthodox Christians can agree to disagree and should not question each other’s orthodoxy because of it.
It is also worth stressing that both cases rely on highly metaphorical language to make their case, which is why I would suggest that we back off from being overly dogmatic about our conclusions on this matter. I would also finally like to stress as well that in neither case are we talking about a scenario in which all persons end up being saved, and in neither case are we talking about anyone being saved who is not in the Lamb’s book of life. In both views, Jesus is the only savior for all the world, and having a positive relationship with Jesus in the end is the only way love wins.
Based on all my work on the theology and ethics of the NT (see The Indelible Image Vols. 1-2), if I were a betting man (which I am not), I would bet that probably the annihilationist view is closer to the truth, based on the revealed character of God in Christ as both just and loving. But I don’t know that I can be sure about this when the evidence is so imagaic and so metaphorical.
What I do know is that many of our notions of Hell are probably out to lunch. As those two texts from the end of Revelation we mentioned at the beginning of this post make clear, exclusion from the new Jerusalem is on the basis of sin, conscious sin— sins of the mind (idolatry and false worship), and sins of the flesh (immorality). The lake of fire is a punishment for those who love their sins and falsehood instead of loving their God and the evidence suggests they could have done otherwise. It is never an unfair outcome when someone goes to Hell. Never, for there is no injustice with God ever.
But the emphasis is not placed on the lake of fire, even in Revelation, and that is not the end of the story. The end of the story in Rev. 21-22 is about inclusion in the city of God, the inclusion of ‘whosoever will’ be included. For as the Johannine writer said “For God so loved the world (not merely the elect, but the world), that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever will believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3.16-17). This is a clear revelation of the heart of God who is both loving and just, both merciful and righteous, both compassionate and holy. And we do well to emphasis over and over again that truth enshrined in what my fellow Charlottean Billy Graham thought was the greatest Good News passage ever written. I agree with him. Let us stoke and extol the fires of divine Love, not the fires of Hell.