Several years ago, I started publicly deconstructing the topic of hell and received the most vehement pushback. “Good Christian people” sent me death threats (the only issue I’ve received such threats about). Others attacked my character for even bothering to suggest that eternal conscience torture wasn’t real.
I brought up the topic again this last week, and many Christians were true to form. Someone close to our family cavalierly declared that you simply couldn’t be a Christian and doubt the existence of eternal suffering. Another Christian woman proclaimed that I would soon discover for myself that hell was real.
When talking to some Christians about the judgment, it becomes apparent that they legitimately think that belief in the gospel and belief in eternal conscious torment (ECT) are the same thing. And I hate to say it, but the idea that you can’t be a Christian and doubt the existence of hell seem to be inversely proportional to one’s understanding of Scripture—meaning that the less you know about the Bible, the more likely and firmly you are to believe that to deny hell is to deny God.
The weakness of proof text arguments
Inevitably, discussions about the topic become a game of proof-texting. Proponents of hell begin throwing out Bible verses and then gaze triumphantly at you because they’ve clearly proven their point.
This is frustrating because the topic is so much deeper and richer than playing Whac-A-Mole with prepackaged Bible verses. It requires thoughtful engagement with Jesus’ teaching style, the intersection of first-century beliefs on the afterlife, and a nuanced discussion of language. Typically, the person who is ticked that you’re questioning their pet doctrine doesn’t have the patience or interest to sit through a thoughtful discussion about this (or any) topic. They want the CliffsNotes.
What I always find interesting is that many of the same people who believe the Bible teaches that hell exists for eternal punishment also soften the idea with a form of belief that “hell is just being cut off from God and wandering alone for all eternity.” Naturally, there is no basis for believing any such thing.
I want to talk about some traditional viewpoints counter to the ECT narrative. The first is the conditionalism/annihilationism position, which suggests that what God cannot redeem through the cross will be wiped from existence.
Let’s take a closer look at what this means.
Are humans immortal?
One of the legs that ECT rests on is the idea that God created humans to be immortal, and there’s nothing that God or anyone else can do about it. This is why it’s one of the arguments occasionally presented for eternal damnation, “Well, people exist forever, and bad people have to go somewhere. . . right?”
And, I guess, since sitting in a cosmic waiting room with expired copies of Highlights and People Magazine is too good for bad people, they needed to suffer torture forever.
Scripturally speaking, the significance of Adam and Eve’s lost access to the Tree of Life is not just a loss of earthly life but a loss of any collective immortality. As Paul tells Timothy, “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.” (1 Tim. 6:15–16)
Conditionalists believe that eternal life rests entirely upon a right relationship with God. This is why it’s called conditionalism. God gifts eternal life on the condition that redemption has occurred. Paul seemed to agree when he told the Romans, “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom. 2:6–7)
Notice that God’s wrath and anger contrast with a willingness to extend eternal life. This suggests that eternal life is a gift given to those who align themselves to the Lord and isn’t simply humankind’s natural state.
(Also see verses like John 3:15–16, John 10:28, John 17:2, Gal. 6:8, 1 John 5:11, and 1 Cor. 15:53–54.)
What is annihilationism?
While conditionalism considers the nature of immortality, annihilationism considers the fate of those who find themselves outside of a redeemed relationship with God through the cross. The two beliefs support each other and are usually seen together.
One of the most beautiful images in Revelation is seeing the tree of life standing once again in humanity’s midst (Rev. 22:1–2). Having God again plant life at the center of humankind tells me that the benefit of being found “in Christ” is eternal life. So the tree does represent life after all, and its reintroduction suggests to me that this life is given to us as a gift.
For many, Scripture suggests that, apart from Christ, humanity ceases to exist. People who support ECT get caught up in words like “eternal punishment,” but this doesn’t need to be interpreted as torment without end. Annihilation is precisely that—eternal punishment. Nothing’s more eternal than ceasing to exist. I mean, we don’t think of the eternal redemption of Hebrews 5:9 or 9:12 as an ongoing process of redemption, but rather a redemption that goes on forever.
Paying attention to the Old Testament
You can’t ignore 75% of the Bible when you talk about what happens to people after death. But whenever I get into this conversation with a traditionalist, they inevitably tell me that the writers of the Old Testament were not interested in what happens to people after they die. My response is always a resounding, “Give me a break!”
Throughout the Old Testament, God often threatens the wicked with complete extermination.
“Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.”—Isaiah 5:24
Notice the imagery of fire that gets transferred over to the New Testament? These tongues of fire may burn forever, but what’s thrown in them is burned up (see also Malachi 4:1–3). God warns that those trapped within his wrath will have their names blotted out under heaven (Deut. 29:20).
The Psalms frequently speak of the wicked’s final judgment with verses like:
- They’ll be cut off of remembrance (Psalm 34:16)
- They’ll be uprooted and remembered no more (Psalm 9:6)
- The righteous will abide forever (Psalm 37:27), but the wicked will be no more (Psalm 37:20)
- They’ll be like a snail that dissolves into goo, or a stillborn child that never sees the sun (Psalm 58:8)
- All sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked (Psalm 37:38)
These are not the only Old Testament references to an end for the enemies of God. You can find this imagery spoken by Daniel (Dan. 2:35), Nahum (Nahum 1:10), Proverbs (Prov. 10:25), and so many more.
Before you say that there wasn’t clarity in the Old Testament concerning these issues, Peter goes back to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to give us a picture of the unredeemed’s fate (2 Peter 2:6). Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t burn forever. They were blotted out. This mirrors Old Testament language about a final, definitive judgment while contributing to and confirming its position.
But New Testament judgment is about burning forever, right!?
The New Testament does kick off with John the Baptist’s promise that the ax is already at the root of that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 3:10). Jesus echoes this imagery (Matt. 7:19). But I believe that everywhere that it talks about fires (whether unquenchable or not), the fire represents God’s hatred of sin . . . it isn’t going to be extinguished before it consumes what’s thrown into it.
By and large, destruction is the imagery used to communicate the fate of those outside of the cross (James 4:12, 2 Peter 2:3, 2 Peter 3:7, 1 Tim. 6:9, Phil. 3:18–19, 1 Cor. 3:17, 1 Thess. 5:3). It’s verses like these that seem to indicate that the fate of the wicked is destruction and not perpetual torment.
This point of view is also communicated in the way the New Testament talks about death as the final end for the wicked, typically contrasted against the gift of life for the redeemed:
- Those who believe in Christ will not perish (John 3:16)
- Those who are “perishing” have an aroma of one going from death to death—as opposed to those who in Christ have the aroma of those going from life to life (2 Cor. 2:15–16)
- The wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life (Romans 6:23)
- Four times Revelation talks about the “second death” (2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). If we are doomed to die and then face judgment, it only makes sense that death would represent an actual cessation of life and not an ongoing but tortured existence.
That covers a tiny bit of the Scriptural argument for a final, terminal judgment. As you can see, this position isn’t one taken to avoid dealing with Scripture. It seeks to encapsulate and sift through the entirety of the scriptural witness, and not just a handful of proof texts for one position.
I intend to look at the universalism discussion and wade through some common arguments for eternal torment in future discussions.
If you haven’t already read it, check out my philosophical look at the Absolute Monstrous Absurdity of Believing in Hell.