And Now— The Case for Permanent Residence in Hell

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.

In this same parable, at vs. 41  we hear about those who did not do deeds of charity to whom it will be said “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. “   God was not caught by surprise by the fall of humans and angels, and the corruption of creation.  Before it ever happened he had already planned for everlasting redemption as well as everlasting judgment.   The parable ends with the words — “And those will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life”  (vs. 46).

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.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Forward Thinking on Reading Backwards’– Part Six
Forward Thinking on “Reading Backwards”– Part Five
  • Shane Scott

    Hi Dr Ben
    Thanks for the thoughtful way you have laid out the issues. One side issue that I have mulled over is the very nature of eternity itself, at least insofar as our conscious experience of it is concerned. If in eternity “time shall be no more,” then consciousness of either glory or wrath is not so much a series of endless successive moments, but rather a constant sense of NOW. That is a big IF of course. Philosophers debate the nature of time and God’s relationship to it, and the more I read about these debates the more my head hurts!
    Do you have any thoughts on how Christians will experience eternity – and does this issue have any ramifications on the conscious experience of wrath?

  • Mike Gantt

    Perhaps the wisest words spoken in the entire “Bell Hell” debate:

    “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.”

    Heavy dependence on biblical imagery without supporting declarative biblical statements tends to allow for presuppositions to form the boundaries of our belief – the Bible’s metaphors only brought in to fill in the gaps.

  • jeremy bouma

    Hi Dr. Witherington,

    Thanks so much for these posts and scholarly analysis. Also thank you for both your commitment to the “fires of divine love” and judgment and it’s outcomes.

    I actually think the way this conversation has gone toward universalism, however, distracts from the deeper issues of the book: Rob’s understanding of the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation itself. To be sure Bell is arguing for a universal salvation—no, Rob you can’t redefine the term universalist like you’ve done in every interview so far! The bigger issues in this book are about God, Jesus, and the nature of salvation itself.

    As a pastor in Grand Rapids, I am deeply troubled with the spiritual and theological tsunami he has unleashed on my community, the likes of which will have lasting consequences for Grand Rapids, let alone America.


    PS—Jason Myers was the best man in my wedding and journeyed with me through GRTS. You’re luck to have him as a student!

  • ben witherington

    Shane I don’t agree with the eternal now theory of the afterlife at all. The book of Revelation even makes clear that there is a before and an after in heaven, hence the cry of the saints under the altar— How long o Lord. So I would say there is sequence and procession in the afterlife, even if we don’t want to call it time. It is interesting to me that the ‘to God one day is as a 1,000 years (and vice versa) saying suggests compression or expansion of time—- not no time in eternity.


  • Jason Geraci

    Hey Dr. Ben,

    Good to see you are doing well. My family used to live right across the street from you (541 West Walnut St. Ashland, Ohio). Great stuff in your blog.

    My question to you is, why are all the fundamentalists so offended and angry by Rob Bell asking difficult questions? Martin Bashir stopped just short of calling him a heretic. When exactly did the Rabbinical tradition of binding and loosing become heresy? Didn’t God draw nearer to Moses when he questioned God’s desire to “snuff out” the Israelites? Didn’t Jesus answer most direct questions with at question?

    I am certainly not trying to be smug, these are real questions. I know you are a well respected guy, but I am curious if you could lend some insight.

    Again, great to see you doing so well.


  • aaron

    here are some alternate ways to interpret the metaphorical language you brought up.

    In regards to the images of there being folks wandering around outside of the blessed Jerusalem post Judgment Day; I have often entertained the notion that God so valued the aspect of free will, in both men and angels, at the creation that he allowed a fall of both races. Therefore, it is a reasonable conclusion that even after our resurrection and final justification, we may still have the capacity to freely rebel just as Adam and Eve did. Obviously there is no real support from this view aside from inference from Rev. 22 and the doctrine of free will, but it is a sobering thought.

    In regards to the parallel language of aionion destruction/punishment vs. aionion life; I think we should stress that the adjective used here may be more emphatic or qualitative that quantitative. Therefore, the simple translation as everlasting probably does not really communicate the full sense of the word. Secondly, translating it as everlasting does not neccesarily knock the annihilation view out. We have to keep in mind the reality of resurrection. Thus the emphasis would be that those exposed to aionion punishment or destruction are irrevocably condemned. There will be no second resurrection for them, even though it is entirely within Gods power to bring someone back even from utter annihilation. Thus someone who is put to death is going to stay that way forever and their punishment is therefore everlasting.

  • Tom1st

    Would it be detrimental to our theology to go so far as to say that the biblical writers actually disagree on this (or other matters)?

    What if we went beyond saying that the biblical evidence isn’t completely clear for one position or another to saying that maybe, just maybe, the actual biblical writers – like all human beings – have different conclusions?

    If this isn’t such a terrible idea, I can see some upside – it could be a good model, for example, for us to see that the earliest Christians held to different perspectives about somewhat important matters, but still loved each other and loved the gospel. Unity in diversity per Jn. 17.

    I dunno. Something I’ve been wrestling with. I figure it’s not my job to place a uniformity doctrine over the text if the textual evidence doesn’t support one. After all, my job is not to protect a theological position (inerrancy or otherwise), but rather to let my theology by supported by what the text actually says (or is)…even when it’s ambiguous and ‘contradictory’ (don’t know if ‘contradictory’ is too strong of a word or not).


  • ben witherington

    Aaron the problem for your view is Rev. 20 which is perfectly clear that there is a second resurrection specifically for the lost at the end of the millenium. Jason nice to hear from an Ashlander. I think the ire is that lots of those folks think the influential Rob Bell is betraying the Evangelical cause. Got an email today from a pastor in Grand Rapids saying Bell has created mayhem and outrage in the Evangelical community in Grand Rapids, he (this pastor) is having to clean up on aisle three.

    As for Tom, the earliest Christians were a minority sect with a tight-knit ideological worldview with tight social networks shared by the community in general. The likelihood of there being flat contradictions in their belief system is slim, and of course you are assuming that these documents are not God’s living word as well as being human words.


  • Jason Geraci


    I am not sure what “mayhem” and “outrage” could be caused by the circulation of ideas and questions. Can you expound on that?


  • aaron

    Actually I meant a second general resurrection. even with the two resurrections mentioned in Rev. 20 I don’t think the saints resurrected in the first end up dying and being re-resurrected.

  • Tom1st

    I don’t think I’m assuming anything of the sort. Aside from the fact that I’m just making a proposal (which I don’t even know if I agree with), I’m acknowledging that these documents are both God’s word and the product of human persons.

    It’s not good enough for us to have a gnostic view of these documents.

    As they are God’s word, they communicate exactly what God wants them to communicate. As they are the product of human persons, they occur in the medium of human language, culture, etc. This also leaves the possibility of human opinions (which always vary to some degree or another.

    Does not the existence of the other non-canonical ‘gospels’ suggest that there WERE in fact those who held to contrary opinions, despite the fact that this was a tight knit community? I mean, of course, these are extreme examples, but if such extreme examples exist, why can’t small ones exist, even amongst the biblical writers?

    I mean, doesn’t even the dispute between Paul and Peter suggest some level of contrary opinions at different points early in the church’s history?

    Furthermore, I don’t think ‘contradiction’ is the best word for what I’m saying.

    And, in the end, all I’m trying to do is make sense of the evidence YOU presented.

  • Daniel Levy

    Dr. Witherington,

    Though you removed the post, the entry you put on yesterday about what we think about and renewing our minds spoke to me. The Holy Spirit has been really slamming this on my heart more and more. So I just wanted to say thank you for your service for God’s Kingdom.

    I’m praying for you and your ministry,

  • Dan S

    It seems that Christians have no problem living under the mercy that God has extended to them for their sins, yet at the same time feel compelled to throw sinners under the wheels of God’s justice. I am reminded of the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 and Jesus’ words, “condemn not lest you be condemned” in Luke 6:37.

    Is the impression the world has of Christians supposed to be of the prodigal son’s older brother who begrudges the father for being too lenient? Or are we to be like the shepherd who loves that lost sheep so much that he would hunt them down like the hound of heaven?

    Do Christians hate sinners so much that they feel disrespected by God if he doesn’t roast them like hot dogs on the fire for anything short of eternity? When men like Fred Phelps spoil the image of Jesus in eyes of unbelievers, I thank God for men like Rob Bell who will stand up for the fact that God really is love.

  • ben witherington

    Hi Tom:

    There were no alternative Gospels in the first century A.D. None. Even the Gospel of Thomas is likely from the late second century and they reflect a much later stage in Christian history than the one that produced the canonical Gospels. The first century A.D. was not a period of dueling Christian communities producing dueling Gospels. This is simply historically false. The rise of the Gnostic movement in the second century which was anti-Semitic and anti-historical to the core, reflects what happened when Christianity began to become an almost exclusively Gentile religion.

    The dispute between Peter and Paul had to do with Jewish praxis, not with theology, or even basic ethics. The issues was whether or not Gentile Christians should be obligated to keep kosher, circumcision, sabbath. To draw an analogy, this would be like a dispute between Seventh Day Adventists on the day of worship with mainline Protestants. And in any case, the dispute between Paul and the Judaizers was resolved in A.D. 50 at the Jerusalem conference.



  • Ray

    Excellent post Dr. Ben. I have been leaning annihilationist the past few years. firstly, because of the biblical evidence you’ve laid out and secondly because it is a worse feeling in my present mind and soul to be ‘nothing’ then to be tormented eternally.

  • Keith Jenkins

    Dr. Witherington,

    Debating the points you make quite clearly and effectively in this article would not be profitable for either of us because our views on biblical interpretation are so vastly different. I accept the powerful images of afterlife depicted in the Book of Revelation as an authentic statement of the faith and worldview of late 1st century Christians and of lasting value to all Christians in all times and places. But I don’t consider those images literal (or even figurative) depictions of eternal reality. For me, all theology is metaphor, and the truth is beyond our grasp. So, I hope you are willing to agree to disagree, because I certainly am.

    But I would like to make what some might consider a petty point. Your third paragraph begins with this statement: “What then is the case for their always being a Hell with permanent residents, forever and ever Amen?” What you meant to say is “the case for there always being.” This is not a typo, but a case of mixing up words that sound alike but have very different meanings. It is a common error, and becoming even more common with the decline of precision in both written and oral expression. But you are a man of words. You do what you do via language, so precision should be important to you. I was disappointed to see a man of your obvious learning and intelligence, writing on a topic of such obvious importance to you, make, and then not catch in proofreading, such an egregious error?

  • Keith Jenkins

    And just to show that I am human too, please note that I hit the submit button before changing the punctuation on my final statement from a ? to a .

    I revised the beginning of that sentence but forgot to update the punctuation. And unfortunately, your blog offers no option for deleting a comment in order to correct and repost it.

    But then again, I’m not Ben Witherington.

  • Tom1st

    Thanks for the historical clarification.

    With that said, let me understand your point: There are no points of theology whereby any of the biblical writers disagreed at any point?

    I’m not talking about ‘dueling’ theologies or competing ideologies, like in modern denominatioalism. I’m just talking about simple disagreement.

    NONE AT ALL amongst the first century Christians?

    I don’t doubt God COULD do that. I just wonder if he did.

    So how, then, do you deal with the tension you, yourself, brought up in these last posts? I mean, you present competing images of the afterlife and then YOU CHOSE ONE over the other.

    Practically speaking, it seems like you’re operating from the kind of position I espoused – there are two different images presented, and you prefer one to the other.

    Not trying to be aggressive here. Just trying to understand your affirmations and positions.

    And, again, thanks for the historical information. One can never be too well informed of such things, I suppose.


  • Mike Taylor


    Thanks for these two posts on Hell. I’ve never been able to put the two points of veiw together – eternal versus temperal punishment – and now I see why. Both positions are supported by scripture. I’m guessing if it were essential for us to have a firm, clear answer, the Lord would have provided one. As it is, I’ll just trust Him to do the right thing.

  • Bryant

    Dr. Witherington,
    Hello, my first time posting! I enjoy for the most part your theological parameters ‘you hover in, if not outright land on. The doctrine of hell, specifically if it were two camps of choice or not, is most interesting for in and outside the church proper. I suppose it could have an effect on people’s desire to push it to the limit before final consequences, e.g. “better to burn out than fade away” as the old biker’s motto goes, or akin to some absurd, (yet enjoyable gaming of beating the bad guy, how ironic) netherworld video game where you still have a chance to come out clean on the other side.
    One thing I believe when the WHOLE counsel of God, his word, as revealed in Christ is cut copied and pasted in our 21st century mindset. We tend to overlook the thoughts of great thinkers of antiquity. I need not go into great detail; I believe you know where this originates, in Greek thought. But I would suggest or perhaps go down another dirt level uncovering humanities earliest impression of the hereafter, generally speaking ANE. Culture. I confess up front I know nothing particular, but enough to get in trouble, I suppose. I am curious, has the thought or context on a general thematic believe in life after death and the souls final resting place, if I can use the term influenced our biblical writers to the degree if not felt lead by the spirit to pull the cart in the right direction or has humanity always in context of asking the question what after life in a moral sense is the final place for body & soul/spirit. I am thinking Egyptology for the moment. I mention this avenue of interest merely out of curiosity since the culture is quite old not unlike the ANE cultures. It would seem to predate biblical history; I am thinking the Israelites/Hebrews since they came into the land of Canaan after the fact and their theology if I can use the expression may have been influenced in their understanding of which they passed down by generations having arrived to our present understanding.
    Let me say again in the whole revelation of scripture there is a beginning and end to humanity as we understand it in the flesh. I suppose we all would like to be privy of what the angels know in this context.
    Thank you in advance,

  • Sonia

    FYI — This post has been linked for discussion here:

  • Steve Anderson

    Thanks Dr. Witherington for this clear, scholarly , and biblical article!

  • Danny D


    I’m going to tag in to what aaron said above and ask about a clarification here: on Mt 25:46, with the “eternal/everlasting punishment,” is a view of a permanent destruction allowable in the idea of an ‘eternal’ punishment here? For ‘torment/punishment’ in Mt 25:46 I notice Thayer’s (but not BDAG, why?) mentions the ‘pruning’ idea, and if so, being cut off would be quite the eternal punishment. Thinking in earthly terms of the death sentence – that is a eternal sentence/punishment, yet it does not consciously persist eternally, yet has eternal consequences. Does this fall into distinct possibility for an “eternal punishment?” I ask this on the basis that Mt 25:46 seems to be on of the go-to passage for eternal conscious torment but I don’t understand how people see it as so clear cut.

  • graham veale

    “the problem for your view is Rev. 20 which is perfectly clear that there is a second resurrection specifically for the lost at the end of the millenium.”

    I find this text puzzling, to say the least. Believers are Resurrected because they are “linked” to Christ’s Resurrection. And because believers are part of Christ’s Kingdom they can take up residence in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

    Now, how can unbelievers be resurrected? What can it mean to be resurrected if destruction is what follows immediately after? How can there be eternal bodily life outside the New Heavens and the New Earth?

    Perhaps one way of answering these questions is to concede that annihilationists contribute substantial insights. There is substantial destruction of the person in Hell, but not total destruction.


  • Tiff

    Dr Witherington,

    I’m sorry, but I need some clarification here. I have trouble with your statement: “… the earliest Christians were a minority sect with a tight-knit ideological worldview with tight social networks shared by the community in general. The likelihood of there being flat contradictions in their belief system is slim… ” The early Christians did have disputes between each other about their beliefs; we know this from the New Testament itself. The first six chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is talking about the divisions that were happening in the church and Paul telling the Corinthians what they should be doing to fix it. When Paul chastises the Galatians in chapter three of his letter the Galatians, he’s talking about the Judaizers who were still preaching that Gentiles needed to follow the Jewish law, and it’s after the Council of Jerusalem since Paul refers to it in the second chapter. Even though the leaders of the church came to an agreement, it looks as there is still dissension in the ranks. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he is encouraging them to be unified (chapter 2) and warns them against legalistic teachers (chapter 3). The letter of Colossians he warns against false teachers (chapter 2), my point is; many scholars do believe that these were issues in the early church, which is partly why Paul wrote his letters and talks about them over and over again with different communities. In Ephesians he’s telling them how to live in unity as a new life in Christ which implies that they weren’t already living in unity and they did have disagreements between them (chapters 4 and 5) or he wouldn’t have felt it necessary to even bring it up. It’s the same theme over and over again, be unified, beware of false teachers, and if you have any question about it, this is how you should be living. I personally find these things comforting; that the same issues that plague the church today were going 2000 years ago, and that disagreements between members cannot and will not destroy the church. If it didn’t at its beginnings then it won’t now.

  • CJ Tan

    Dr Ben,

    You mentioned the hell was for those who intentionally rebel and say ‘NO’ to God. They refuse to be with God, and therefore are eternally separated from Him.

    How about those who are indeed charitable and sincere in good works. They desire God but think their own spirituality apart from Jesus would get them to God.

    According to your definition, the latter persons are not being openly defiant against God and reject Him; indeed they are seeking Him but not on the terms laid out in the Bible. Still they deserve Hell?

    For what’s it worth, I do believe that to have any other spirituality apart of the Lord Jesus Christ would be tantamount to rebellion and rejection of God no matter how sincere the person. This fact is not clear from your own description.


  • Curtis

    Ben, I have read several of your books and your blog postings for some time. I am unable, then, to square a) your statement that Mt. 25:41-46 (although an extended parable) “strongly suggests Jesus believes that there is no annihilation of the lost” with b) your statement that “I would bet that probably the annihilationist view is closer to the truth.”

    If Jesus “strongly suggested” eternal punishment, should that not be the more likely, and orthodox, conclusion?

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Curtis: My point is that we have differing images here, and you are right to raise the question whether this image comports with the others. My question to you is— if there are more images that suggest anihiliationism than there are images that suggest eternal punishment, which do you go with? Do you take a majority vote? Or do you say, either is possible and some images favor one view, some the other. Since they are all metaphorical images, they can’t be pressed like literal descriptions can.

  • Brian

    Dr. Witherington,

    As someone who minored in math 20 years ago, one of the things in your post brought to mind the graphs we had in calculus. I’m sure you’ve seen the ones I’m talking about, like

    As the x-axis goes on toward infinity (eternal future), the y-value of the line gets closer and closer to zero (nothing), but never actually becomes zero (no matter how small you divide a number, you can always divide it again, and never reach zero).

    Maybe there’s something mathematical in the eternal punishment. The rebelious souls may continually waste away, without ever totally disappearing. 1, 0.1, 0.01, 0.001, 0.0001, 0.00001, 0.000001, etc.

  • Stephen Enjaian

    Hello Doctor,

    I agree that the emphasis in Scripture is on God’s desire to save, as in John 3:17. Flowing from that is the responsibility of every Christian to invite those outside Christ to come, as in the closing verses of Revelation.

    However, I think you are using the metaphorical brush too broadly, obscuring rather than clarifying. For example, even if the Luke 16 passage is a parable, Jesus gives us no room to believe that there is a second chance after death, whatever else He is teaching.

    I also disagree with your calling Matthew 25:31-46 a parable. The only metaphor in that passage is that of a shepherd dividing sheep from goats as an illustration of how Jesus will divide the righteous from the cursed. Earlier in the chapter Jesus does tell two parables, both of which begin with the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven is like.” But the judgment passage begins in verse 31 with, “When the Son of Man comes….” It is followed by repeated references to what “will” be said and what “will” be done. We know what the sheep and goat metaphor symbolizes because Jesus tells us. But everlasting life and everlasting punishment in verse 46 are not metaphors. (Incidentally, Jesus does not “believe” anything. Jesus teaches. We believe, or disbelieve).

    If history is an indicator, evangelism will be steadily undercut by the implication that there is a second chance after death or that those who refuse the invitation will simply cease to exist, (both of which are taught by the Watchtower Society). We can’t stoke the fires of Hell, but neither can we air condition them.

  • Curtis

    Hi Ben,
    You asked me what to do when faced with contrasting images based on largely metaphorical language about eternal punishiment vs. annihilationism. Since we are firmly in the realm of speculation, if Jesus “strongly suggests” an answer, I think that answer trumps the others, even the majority. After all, He should know…


  • CJ Tan

    Hi Brian,

    Your suggestion of a mathematical curve that never quite touches zero is quite an interesting one.

    It certainly helps to pull together the perspectives of eternal punishment and anihiliationism.

    Also helps to explain NT Wright’s suggestion of a dehumanizing process when souls are separated from God in Hell.


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