One of the most difficult things to explain to someone who embraces Eternal Torment is the idea that the words in their English Bibles probably don’t mean what they seem to mean.
For example, there are dozens of verses in the New Testament that use words like “endless” and “everlasting” and “eternal” to describe judgement, punishment and torment, [and smoke and worms and fire], but in each case the actual word in the Greek [Aionius] doesn’t actually mean “infinite.”
So, yes, it’s true that you can open your Bible and turn to a verse that says that the wicked will be judged eternally, or that they will suffer endless destruction, or that the smoke of their burning will rise forever and ever, without end. But what’s not true is that those verses intend to communicate something that is truly without end.[And it’s also usually the case that the verse is actually an example of Apocalyptic Hyperbole intended to communicate a literal, real-world destruction rather than a post-death spiritual destruction.]
“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…” [2 Thess. 1:9]
Now, the only thing “eternal” here is the destruction which the unrighteous suffer. In other words, their destruction is complete and final.
If we’re honest, this verse is actually a great verse to support the doctrine of Annihilation (or Conditional Immortality). Why? Because what it speaks about is “eternal destruction”—not eternal conscious torment.
Also, if we read the entire chapter, what we notice is that the author [most likely not the Apostle Paul, but I digress] says that this destruction he’s referring to is connected to the “coming” of Jesus which happened in AD 70.
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” [2 Thess. 1:7-10]
This verse is written to Christians living in Thessalonica in the First Century. What Paul [or whoever] is speaking to them about is something he says “includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” This is another reason to see that what is being discussed was about to be fulfilled for those people who were reading the epistle.
The “coming” and “revealing” of Jesus here is a nod to Jesus’s words in the Olivet Discourse where he speaks about when and how the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. That happened in AD 70.
Now, we need to address the use of the term “everlasting destruction” here. Because, as I alluded earlier, it does not necessarily mean “endless” or “infinite.”
The term in the Greek is “aionios” and while it can mean “eternal” or “without end” in some contexts, it can also be used to refer to long periods of time that do eventually end, or to an age, or even to events in the past [which were quite obviously not endless but merely “long ago.”]
For example, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “olam” is translated using the Greek word “aionios” in Isaiah 32-14-15 which says:
“The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever [“aionios”], the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks, until the Spirit is poured on us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest.” [emphasis mine]
Please notice that this verse tells us both that “the fortress will…become a wasteland forever” and that this will last “until the Spirit is poured on us from on high.” So, which is it? Will the fortress be a wasteland forever (without end)? Or will it only be a wasteland until the Spirit is poured out from on high? Obviously, it cannot be both.
Therefore, the term “aionios” here does not mean “without end.” It can only mean “for a very long time” which
will come to an end when the Spirit is finally poured out. This is not the only such example of the use of “aionios” in
the Scriptures to refer to an indefinite period of time that is not necessarily endless in duration. And the same is true for the Hebrew word “olam” which is also used over 300 times in the Old Testament scriptures to indicate something that endures for a very long time, but not necessarily without end.
In at least twenty cases, the word “olam” is used to refer to events in the past. Therefore, “olam” and “aionios” are quite often used to refer to events that last a very long time, but are not necessarily without end.
Don’t believe me? Well, according to the Theological Word Book of the Old Testament:
“The Septuagint generally translates olam by aion which has essentially the same range of meaning. That neither the Hebrew nor the Greek word in itself contains the idea of endlessness is shown by the fact that they sometimes refer to events or conditions that occurred at a definite point in the past, and also by the fact that it is thought desirable to repeat a word, not merely saying “forever,” but “forever and ever.”…Both words came to be used to refer to a long age or period.”
And other scholars agree, noting that:
“Few are so bold as to claim that the Greek adjective ‘aionios’ always suggests ‘infinity in time’—such thinking has been rejected by most modern exegetes.”
Even Francis Chan, in his book Erasing Hell admitted that the meaning of the word “aionios” was not conclusive enough for him to say that Hell was indeed endless:
“The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty.”
And, if we keep in mind what we’ve already learned about how the terms “aionios” (eternal) and “apocalyptic hyperbole” are often used in the Bible regarding warnings of destruction, we are probably safe to assume that—whatever this verse in 2 Thessalonians might mean—chances are pretty good that it probably doesn’t speak of something that is literally endless, and most likely is a reference to the literal destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, not about what happens to anyone after they are dead.
So, the bottom line is that whenever you read the English word “Eternal” or “Endless” or “Everlasting” in your Bible, there’s a very good chance that what is being referred to not actually “Infinite” or “Without End” but merely poetic language intended to remind Christians in the first century about Apocalyptic Hyperbole in reference to the fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end of the Jewish Age. All of which took place in AD 70, just as Jesus predicted it would.
Keith’s next book, “Jesus Undefeated: Condemning the False Doctrine of Eternal Torment” releases Nov. 9, 2019 on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brad Jersak.