Matthew 10.28 — Why Annihilationism is not Universalism

Matthew 10.28 — Why Annihilationism is not Universalism March 18, 2011

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??“]

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