Watering Down Hell

by Jim R. Everett

An Answer to “Conditional Immortality”

The modern, liberal theologian has joined the cultic religionist in seeking to “water down” hell and make eternal punishment nothing more than a momentary oxidation of the body. He inconsistently affirms the eternal nature of God and the future state of the righteous by denying the everlasting duration of the punishment of the unrighteous. He also perverts the Bible’s teaching about punishment in hell. In fact, when he finishes interpreting Bible contexts, “eternal” does not mean “forever and forever,” “punishment” becomes “non-existence,” and “hell” refers to a geographical location where the unrighteous will momentarily experience some degree of suffering as God kills them, then discards their bodies to be eaten of worms and burned by fire. With more than a mere sprinkle of philosophy, he cools the flames of hell with his rationale.

Accepting annihilation, as opposed to believing in everlasting punishment, is not a result of a more accurate definition of the Greek word “aionios” and the Hebrew word “olam” because the words do mean “endless duration” in many instances — the integrity of those opposed to “endless duration punishment” requires that they admit that. If not actually stated, the implication is seen in the writings of the opponents of hell that a proper definition of words requires that one deny the reality of eternal punishment in hell. The reasoning is presented as though in exegeting Biblical contexts since words have a particular meaning in one context, then those words must have the same meaning in all contexts. Specifically, as it relates to this study, the conclusion is drawn that since “aionios” and “olam” mean “age lasting” or a “duration of time,” then that is what they must mean in passages addressing the future punishment of man. That is not an accurate analysis. While words will always retain their basic meaning, there are extensions and variations in different contexts. The rejection of an “endless duration” of punishment does not rest on the definition of the words — it rests on human reasoning that sets aside the most basic understanding of passages.

Every Bible student recognizes that the words “eternal,” “everlasting” and “forever” are used sometimes to describe what is actually less than “endless duration.” For instance, Jonah said of his stay in the fish’s belly that it was “forever” but we know that it was actually only three days (Jonah 2:6). In this instance the word “forever” is used in the sense of that which seems to be so to the writer — that is a legitimate use of language because there is a kind of “poetic” latitude involved. Does the fact that both the Hebrew words and the Greek words that are translated as “eternal” and “everlasting” are used for time-frame references of shorter duration justify a denial of an eternal hell? The preponderance of Biblical evidence proves that such an interpretation is incorrect.

Neither is a person logically forced to believe that the soul or spirit of man cannot exist separate from Divine presence and sustenance because he has learned better definitions of the words “spirit,” “soul,” “death” and “destroy.” Contrariwise, I believe that definitions are manipulated to sustain “conditional immortality.” There may have been some factor that caused a person to accept “conditional immortality” but once having accepted it, he is then logically forced to reinterpret many passages.

And there are some implications necessarily flowing from modern reasoning which, when pursued with consistency, reach far beyond the nature of man and eternal punishment. For instance, Edward Fudge, in being consistent with his belief in “conditional immortality” says, “Every scriptural implication is that if Jesus had not been raised, he — like those fallen asleep in him — would simply have perished (1 Cor. 15:18). Scriptures such as 2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 2:14; Revelation 20:14 affirm that his resurrection reverses every such estimation of affairs, assuring us instead of the death of Death,” [Fudge, p. 145, The Fire That Consumes]. If that statement isn’t saying that not only does man cease to exist at death but that when Jesus died, He also ceased to exist, I must confess that I do not understand it.

Furthermore, I believe that if he reasons consistently, he will cease believing in “eternal life” — radical, liberal theologians have already. Existence then becomes “man-focused” with both heaven and hell a “now” experience. None of us are immune from the flood of religious materials being published containing modernistic concepts. Like all errors, left unattended, it can subtly erode faith. Without hell there is not much incentive to restrain evil aspirations — without heaven, there is not much reason for people to try to live righteously.

More Than a Drop of Water on Lazarus’ Finger — Luke 16:19-31

This account conveys an existence beyond the grave, during which, time continues on the earth — the well-being of the rich man’s brethren on earth was of grave concern to him, lest they should also come to this place — Luke 16:29-31.

Why do “annihilationists” demote the story of the rich man and Lazarus from inspired truth to folklore or mythology? Obviously, because it says some things they refuse to accept. It says, first of all, that there is existence after death. It not only says there is existence but that there is conscious existence. And then it affirms that there is some degree of suffering on the part of the unrighteous which is ongoing, though this context does not deal with “eternal punishment.” Jesus’ teaching here takes direct issue with the “conditional immortality” view of man.

So-called “scholars” who believe in “conditional immortality” first deal with the passage by referring to it as a “parable.” That is nothing new — The Watchtower has been doing that for many years. The purpose of labeling it in that fashion is to imply that it cannot be a true picture of life after death. However, if we were to grant that it is a parable, the parables Jesus taught were always fact or true to fact, else a parallel could not be drawn — parables parallel truth so that from an established, accepted truth, disciples could learn spiritual truth.

Since calling it a parable is not nearly adequate to destroy its credibility, they intensify their attacks by saying that Jesus borrowed the story from the folklore of the Jews. Fudge says, “Morey acknowledges that Jesus borrowed this story from a common rabbinical tale of the time and that it should not be pressed into a literal preview of the world to come” [Afterlife pp. 30f, 84f, as quoted in The Fire That Consumes, p. 126]. Fudge admits that the Jews’ folklore and Jesus' statements in Luke 16 are not exactly the same: “There are differences between these stories and Jesus’, of course, and therein lies the Lord’s uniqueness. But the basic plot was well-known folklore,” [p. 127]. Fudge refers to Froom who cites a discourse of Josephus concerning Hades which, he says, paints almost precisely the same picture as the account in Luke 16. Then Fudge says, “He (Froom) concludes that Jesus was clearly using a then common tradition of the Jews to press home a moral lesson in a related field.” However, Fudge admits that the account in Josephus is generally admitted by his own scholars to be spurious [p. 127], and, in so doing, annuls his own proof.

When the opponent of hell has finished with this context, the rich man doesn’t need Lazarus to come and dip his finger in water to cool his tongue, for he has totally extinguished the flame. The rich man just thinks he exists and that he views Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. Furthermore, the rich man really isn’t suffering, for there is no existence after death — you see, he doesn’t understand that his soul has been extinguished along with the body. However, I consider the most serious consequence of their position to be a necessary charge of either dishonesty or ignorance against Jesus Himself. They must accuse Jesus of, either ignorantly or intentionally, using a lie to try and impress a moral truth when they say that He used the mere tradition of the Jews drawn from folklore and mythology.

It is not just the Lord’s uniqueness that makes the account in Luke 16 different — it is His understanding as God of what is beyond the grave. It is impossible for me to believe that Jesus used a lie to teach a moral truth — such an affirmation is totally incongruous and illogical. It is not from deeper wells of wisdom that men draw their conclusions denying hell as eternal punishment — it really springs from the waters of modern, materialistic concepts that will douse, not just a fiery hell, but the very flames of inspiration. When one begins to question the reliability of certain sections of Scripture to establish the credibility of his position, he needs to understand that he has forsaken God, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out for himself broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13). He dilutes the very truth he uses to sustain his own belief system. One cannot attack the credibility of the scripture on one point and use it as support for his belief system on another.

“Image Is Everything”

Man as a special creation made in God’s image differs significantly from the rest of animal creation — there is more to him than a living, animated body — “IMAGE IS EVERYTHING!”

Are all men infused with an immortal soul? Can God annihilate the spirit (soul) He has given or, once brought into existence, is it indestructible? “Immortality” means “not subject to death.” “Conditional immortality” affirms that the soul can sustain its existence only as it is connected to and cared for by God — left alone it will perish as a coal of fire dies when separated from its source. “Conditional immortality” affirms that only the righteous will be raised to immortality. On the other hand, the unrighteous, perchance they be raised, will be annihilated as their bodies are oxidized in “Gehenna’s” unquenchable fire that will be quenched after it has burned up their bodies and the soul will become nonexistent. “Conditional immortality” necessarily makes “gehenna” a physical fire — a literal place filled with dead bodies being eaten by worms and being oxidized by “unquenchable fire.” Besides other problems, such a physical interpretation presents a conflict between the bodies being consumed in a lake of fire and being eaten by worms.

Proper definitions of the Hebrew words “ruach” and “nephesh,” and the Greek words “psuche,” “zoe” and “pneuma” give us an idea of the flexibility of these words. Consult a lexicon for detailed definitions. Our English words “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “person,” “being,” “breath,” etc., are translations of Hebrew and Greek. Now, whether or not “ruach” means “breath” is not the issue, for it does sometimes carry that simple idea. But, it is inaccurate to say that since “ruach” means “breath,” then it must mean that exclusively. In fact, the definition of the Greek word “pneuma” as “air” or “wind,” since it is used in reference to the Holy Spirit, is the basis for some denying that the Holy Spirit is a part of the Godhead. Nor is the issue whether or not “nephesh” and “psuche” can simply mean a person, a living animated being, for the words convey that thought at times. The real issue is whether or not there is an inner man, made in God’s likeness, which exists after the body is dead. The “inner man” is called both “soul” and “spirit,” but to people who want to quibble about the meanings of words, Paul used neither “pneuma” nor “psuke” when he referred to the “inner man” that is renewed day by day while the “outer man” was decaying — there is an “inner man” and an “outer man,” (II Corinthians 4:14-5:4).

There are generally two positions postulated about the “soul” of man: (1) that the soul is just the life that animates the body and when the body dies man ceases to exist; or (2) that the real man is the spirit or the soul which tabernacles, temporarily, in a living animated body and continues to exist, even when separated from the physical part. For years The Watchtower has denied the existence of an “inner man” by a simplified form of argumentation. Their arguments are stripped of the flare of intellectualism, devoid of philosophical reasoning, missing the reciprocal name-dropping of respected, fellow scholars so common in current times; but, nonetheless, presenting man as a soul — not having a soul — which soul simply ceases to exist at death in the same way that animals die. I doubt that any so-called scholar of our times would wish to be identified with Charles Tazz Russell, nor would they accept him as a scholar, but in the later 1800s and early 1900s, he was making arguments similar to those made by some who have embraced “conditional immortality” in our time.
Man as a special creation differs significantly from animals that have souls (“nephesh”). “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being,” (Genesis 2:7, NKJV). Genesis 2 describes in detail what Genesis 1 revealed in general terms. But Genesis 1:26-27 contains essential information in relating God’s creation of man in order to give a correct interpretation of Genesis 2:7 — “Let Us make man in Our image, According to Our likeness…So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (NKJV). “Image” and “likeness” make a difference in how we understand who and what we are. “Image” is not said of beasts of the field nor birds of the heaven, though it is said of them that they have “soul” (“nephesh,” “life,” in Genesis 2:19). Simply put, God is spirit (John 4:24); man is created in God’s likeness (Genesis 1:26-27); therefore, the likeness man has with God is spirit. If we accept the spiritual nature of God, then we are forced to accept that image in man. In reference to the nature of God, one who believes in conditional immortality will not argue that God is just “breath” or “life,” because if he did, he would reduce God to being just as extinguishable as he conceives of man’s spirit being. What is there about a man that differentiates him from animals, if he is just alive as the animals are alive?

Since God imparted “spirit” to men, is He, consequently, powerless to annihilate the spirit? I would hesitate to affirm what God could not do — that is like asking, “Could God not force men to be good?” or “Could God not have forgiven sin in some other way than through the death of Christ?” God must act consistently with His very nature; hence, I would not answer the question in that form. Rather, since God cannot deny Himself, I would answer that God has conveyed to us what He has done and what He has done is make man in His image and after His likeness. God is both eternal and immortal — man is not eternal, because he had a beginning but his inner part, made in God’s likeness, is necessarily immortal. The issue is whether or not the Bible teaches that the soul part of man survives death. An appropriate question here would be, “Is God powerless to fulfill His threat of an eternal, conscious torment of the unrighteous?”

Two Simple Answers to “Conditional Immortality”

First, in Matthew 10:28, Jesus is giving assurance to His apostles whom He is sending on the “limited commission” — don’t be afraid of what men can do to you. By having a priority in fears, there is an understanding of the greatness of God and His protective ability. Man can kill the body but he cannot kill the soul — thus there is a difference between the outer part, the living animated being, and the inner part of man. Fearing God more than man is based on an understanding of the greater power that God has. But if men can do what God can do by killing the body, why would Jesus say, “But rather fear him...”? Jesus is saying to His apostles, If you have to die — and later they did — those who kill you cannot touch that which is the “inner being” (soul).

There is significance in the words used by Jesus to describe the differences in the greatness of power: “Kill” (Greek, apokteino) means taking life, murder, put to death (Vine, p. 630). It is taking life from the body by inflicting sufficient harm on the body so as to render it incapable of existing — man can take life by harming the body sufficiently. But only God can “destroy” the soul — (apollumi) “The idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being...” [Vine, p. 304]. Jesus’ statements surely indicate the immortality of the soul. If man were able to kill the body but not kill the soul, then when the body dies, the soul lives on — otherwise, to kill the body would also be to kill the soul. God is able to destroy the body and soul in hell (gehenna) — remember, it is not said of God that He is able to “kill” the body and soul but rather that He is able to “destroy” both in hell. In the parallel account in Luke 12:4-5, it is stated differently and proponents of “conditional immortality” would have Jesus say that God will “kill” the soul. But, again, look at the contrasts between the power of men and that of God. Men have the power to kill the body but after that, have no power to do anything more — that is, they have no power to affect the soul, as Matthew records Jesus’ statement (Matthew 10:28). In Luke 12:5, the admonition is to fear the One, which after He hath killed — and the parallel contrast goes back to the power of men to “kill the body” — also has power to cast into hell. “Killing” has reference to the body — not to the “killing of the soul.” Instead of trying to make Jesus say that God “kills the soul,” the consistent parallel is the power of God to deal with the soul, which man cannot touch, by inflicting eternal loss of well-being. Matthew’s account, “...destroy both body and soul in hell,” is recorded by Luke as “after he has killed (the body) hath power to cast into hell.” It is after the “killing”, that God still has the power to do something else. Luke’s account does not say that God “kills the soul,” which is what one embracing “conditional immortality” would like for Him to say.
Then, Jesus answered the materialistic Sadducees conclusively in Matthew 22:23-33. The Sadducees and their belief are identified and they pose their “unanswerable” question to Jesus. The dilemma they posed for Him is found in Matthew 22:24-28. Jesus answers in Matthew 22:29-33. In His answer, He proposes first that in the resurrection — which affirms that there is a resurrection of the dead — men are as the angels. The point of comparison is that angels do not marry but that necessarily implies something else about the nature of angels. Are angels created beings or eternal beings? Are angels immortal? They do exist separate from God (Jude 6; II Peter 2:4). From Peter’s second epistle (II Peter 2:4), evil angels have been cast down to “tartrarosas” and bound in chains — they are existing beings, currently bound and experiencing some form of punishment as they await the coming judgment. Jesus then makes an argument based on God’s statement of “being” — “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Then He states the second part of the argument: “God is not the God of the dead but of the living,” (Matthew 22:32). The necessary conclusion from His argument is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living, though dead physically. “Conditional immortality” contradicts Jesus’ argument.

Shortening the “Eternity” of “Eternal Punishment”

By what reasoning process do the opponents of “eternal punishment” seek to diminish the time-frame reference so that “eternity” is not a quantitative qualification of endless duration? The observations here are not designed to be exhaustive of all the arguments but, rather, are an examination of the most common ones that are considered to be the most persuasive. The answers in this section are summations and objections to the basic fallacies involved in their arguments.

  1. Some opponents of hell say: “The adjectival use of ‘aionios’ can never mean more than the noun use of ‘aion.’ Therefore, since ‘aion’ means ‘age;’ then ‘aionios’ must mean nothing more than ‘age lasting.’” The fallacy of that statement can be seen by examining contexts containing the words “eternal” and “forever.” It cannot be successfully denied by the opponents of an “eternal hell” that the words “eternal” and “everlasting,” as they apply to God, convey “endless duration” — the evidence is there; they have no choice — Romans 1:25, 9:5, 11:36; 16:27; Ephesians 3:21 — cf. Hebrews 13:8. Would they dare affirm that God is just an “age-lasting” God? Furthermore, the passages that describe the existence of the righteous in the resurrection use the word “aionios” to describe an eternal time frame reference — Matthew 19:29; 25:46; Luke 16:9; Romans 2:7; Titus 1:1; Hebrews 5:9; II Corinthians 5:1. To believe in both the eternal nature of God and the “endless duration” of the future of the righteous means that one must accept the fact that “aionios” does, indeed, mean more than the noun usage of “aion.” Therefore, “aionios” (endless duration) can also describe the future existence of the wicked. It is not a more accurate definition of the word, “aionios,” that causes one to deny “everlasting punishment.” The argument, as stated at the beginning of this paragraph, is blatantly false.
  2. Others seek to “water down hell” by arguing that the fire of hell is eternal but the resurrected evil are burned up immediately by the fire. That necessarily recognizes the “endless duration” sense of “aionios” as descriptive of the fire. But the most logical question that comes to mind is, “Why have an eternal fire if it accomplished in an instant the punishment of the wicked in burning up their bodies?” So, a second explanation is offered that is slightly different and is designed to address that problem — “The fire is called eternal because it has eternal consequences but the fire only lasted as long as it took to consume evil men.” John Stott said, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable,’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises for ever and ever’ (Revelation 14:11; cf. 19:3).” This little bit of sophistry throws muddy water on hell by its materialism — so now the fire is not eternal but the smoke is eternal evidence of the destruction of the evil — evidence for whom and for what reason? God did it, so He surely knows about it and why He did it. The unrighteous are supposedly eternally gone, so there are no evil people around for whom the smoke will serve as a warning. The righteous are in a totally different existence, where there is no evil so they don’t need to know. Furthermore, Stott’s answer ignores the rest of verse 11 in chapter 4 — “…and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” (Revelation 11:4). Also, Revelation 11:10, affirms that anyone who worships the beast will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, “and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the lamb.” If the evil souls cease to exist because they are separated from God’s presence, that contradicts what John says here — he says they are tormented in the presence of the Lamb. Their explanation is not only nonsensical, it plainly contradicts what the passage, in its entirety, says.
  3. Notice this subtle play on words — “But Jesus did not say ‘eternal punishing’ — He said, ‘eternal punishment.’ ‘Eternal punishment’ would mean ‘annihilation,’ because its results would be for eternity.” Jesus did not have to employ the participle “punishing” in order to convey a continued, ongoing punishment. For instance, when Cain said to God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear...” (Genesis 4:13), he referred to God’s curse placed upon him (Genesis 4:11-12). As long as he lived, the punishment continued. Cain could have said the same thing by using a verbal expression — “My being punished is too great.” The prepositional phrase “...into everlasting punishment” carries the same connotation as “being punished forever,” just as a person might be sent into banishment would mean that he was being banished and would continue being banished for the whole duration of time. It is significant that the quantitative qualification of the punishment Jesus described is “eternal” — it is not just death — the punishment endures eternally.
  4. Jude said, “Even as Sodom and Gomorrah…are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” The efforts put forth by those who believe in “conditional immortality” and “annihilation” from Jude 7 argue that Jude used the word “eternal” to qualify punishment by fire for a period of time that was of the few minutes or hours that God rained the fire and brimstone on the cities and they were destroyed. They affirm that since Sodom and Gomorrah suffered the vengeance of “eternal fire” and it was the annihilation of the cities, then the “eternal punishment” of the wicked at the final judgment will also be annihilation. In this way, they say that “eternal fire” is called that because it has “eternal consequences” in “annihilation” rather than an “ongoing punishment.” There appears to me to be, first, a certain anomaly in that position. On the one hand, they argue for “the vengeance of eternal fire” being the destruction of the cities that took place in just a few minutes. On the other hand, they affirm that the unrighteous will be raised to suffer “eternal punishment” when their resurrected bodies are forever annihilated. But, if it was “eternal punishment” when fire and brimstone consumed them, then how can it be “eternal punishment” at their resurrection?Another thing that seems strange to me about that interpretation would be the use of “eternal” as it applies to fire since, according to them, even a temporary fire would accomplish the same thing. And, if these inhabitants were annihilated when the fire and brimstone fell on the cities, that fire could just as appropriately be called “momentary” fire instead of “eternal” fire — they would become just as nonexistent by a “momentary” fire as they would by an “eternal” fire — the consequences are the same.

    In the context and in a comparison of a similar account by Peter (II Peter 2:6-9), I do not believe the “eternal fire” describes the physical fire and brimstone that fell upon the cities. The fire and brimstone that destroyed the cities of the plains are not called “eternal fire” — the sulfurous rain from heaven destroyed the cities and left them as a sign of eternal doom. Jude’s illustration serves as a type that includes the righteous vengeance of God in “everlasting punishment.” The word “example” (Greek “deigma” — specimen, pattern) lends credence to that idea. The verb form “deigmatizo” is found in Matthew 1:19; Hebrews 6:6, and Colossians 2:15. The intensified “hupodeigma” is found in II Peter 2:6. In the immediate context, Jude 6 certainly reaches beyond our physical world in anticipation of eternal, existence consequences. “Undergoing the vengeance of eternal fire” goes beyond what happened on the day that God rained fire and brimstone on the cities of the plains - their eternal doom was sealed on the very day of their destruction. Of those inhabitants, Jude could appropriately use the destructive fire as an example of their eternal expectations.

    In Peter’s similar account of God’s righteous judgments on the ungodly (II Peter 2:6-9), he draws this conclusion: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished,” (II Peter 2:9). Literally, the text reads, “...but to keep unjust men being punished for a day of judgment” — “BEING PUNISHED” — the very participial form that the annihilationist says cannot be true. For however long, from whatever time frame Peter wrote, these unrighteous are “being punished” in some form. “Being punished” cannot convey annihilation or a state of “non-existence.”

    And to the “conditional immortalist,” we would say that the disobedient angels who are shut up, the unfaithful Israelites, the worldly of Noah’s day, and the homosexuals of Sodom and Gomorrah continue their existence. Though they are separated from a relationship with God they are “kept” by Him. Or being facetious, we might ask, “Perhaps, after thousands of years, they are at this very moment cooling into nothingness as a coal that is separated from the fire of its life?” Pray tell us, “How long does it take for the soul created in God’s likeness, when separated from God’s presence, to fade into non-existence?”

  5. Also, an argument is made based on the fact that chaff, tares, and branches are to be “burned up,” (Matthew 13:30; 40; John 15:6). This, they say, cannot refer to eternal, conscious punishment, because “burned up” means “annihilated.” Their conclusion is that we must interpret “eternal punishment” by “eternal fire” as meaning “consumed” and “annihilated.” But words must be used consistently within the figure of which they are a part. “Burned up” is consistent with the tares, chaff, or branches. Jesus could not consistently have said that the tares or chaff would be punished with “everlasting punishment.” That would not fit the figures. Whenever a figure is employed in scripture, there must be consistency within the figure. Then when the figure is understood, straightforward conclusions can be drawn and lessons applied from the figures. Their reasoning is fallacious in that it makes the figures of speech employed by Jesus serve as the greater force in interpreting the duration of punishment rather than the straightforward explanation given or the applications drawn from the figures.
  6. Another procedure of diminishing the time frame reference of “eternal duration punishment” is to affirm that “eternal punishment” is said to be a time when souls are “destroyed.” Jesus said that God has the power to destroy the soul (Matthew 10:28). And, if man’s soul is destroyed, eternal punishment would be the burning up of the bodies of the unrighteous after their resurrection. But the Greek word “apollumi” does not mean annihilation — it is never so translated and does not convey that thought. Note Vine, pp. 304-306; Thayer, pp. 64-65. Compare II Thessalonians 1:9 — “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” Its meaning is “loss of well-being,” not loss of being.REASONING IN ANTITHETICAL FORM — In an antithesis one can conceive of the lucidness of truth on one side by coming to a knowledge of the force of the other side. (note Dungan, pp. 346-348). For instance, in Matthew 25:46, the phrases “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” are used as opposites with both “life” and “punishment” quantitatively qualified by “eternal.” Therefore, if one can conceive of the duration described by “eternal life” as promised by God as endless, then he is forced to accept that the threatened “eternal punishment” has the same duration since the word “eternal” gives quantitative qualification to both. Since the word “aionios” is used in the New Testament to designate the duration of eternal happiness, and also to describe the continuance of the future misery of the wicked, by which rule of interpreting language can we possibly avoid the conclusion that the words have the same sense in both instances? I would say, that if the scriptures do not affirm the endless duration of the punishment of the wicked, neither do they affirm the endless duration of the happiness of the righteous nor the endless duration of the nature of God! And that is the reason that I said that if those believing in “conditional immortality” reason consistently, they will eventually deny the endless duration of heaven and the “Eternal God,” Himself.

Interpreting the “Fire” of Gehenna

Literal, spiritual, physical, figurative, real, or metaphorical — these words are tossed around at times without precise concepts and, in the minds of their users, are arrayed as absolute opposites where one’s opponent is supposed to be forced to choose one or the other. When the opponents of “eternal punishment” talk about hell’s fire, they do so either to diminish the pain quotient or limit the duration. They are materialistic in viewing man as a living, animated being without an immortal soul. They try to interpret consistently their concept of the mortal soul of man and the eternal fire that consumes by saying that the unrighteous that are raised are oxidized in a short time in the physical fires of “Gehenna.” They say it is called “eternal fire” only because it has eternal consequences in the total annihilation of the evil. They even ridicule those who believe in eternal punishment by attributing to them a concept about physical maggots and a physical fire burning forever where bodies are neither consumed by the worms nor burned up. And, while they charge those who believe in eternal punishment with grave inconsistencies, they subtly hide their own — how can there be physical maggots in the lake of fire that is consuming bodies? So, how shall we understand the language used by Jesus and His apostles when they speak of “eternal punishment,” the “fire of Gehenna,” “where the worm dieth not,” “outer darkness,” “everlasting destruction,” etc.?

First, the words “literal” and “physical” do not always apply to the same thing nor do they mean the same. For instance, I believe that God is literally God and is existent but I do not believe that He is physical — contrary to Joseph Smith’s claim that he saw God who was flesh and bones. I believe that there are literal angels but I do not believe they are physical, though they, perhaps, in times past took physical forms in appearing to man. I believe that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob literally exist, though they are dead physically (Matthew 22:23-33); therefore, I believe that the inner man survives death and literally exists, while the outer man, the physical part of him, decays in the grave (cf. II Corinthians 4:16-5:4). I believe that one day there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous (John 5:28-29) but I believe it will be a resurrection of changed, spiritual bodies (I Corinthians 15:35-57). Therefore, to affirm that hell and its fire are reality is not to affirm nor believe that it is a physical place.

Second, figurative language does not diminish reality. The engaging of figurative language enhances and adds color to concepts — it gives the communication a greater dimension. Furthermore, the only way that God can communicate existence beyond the physical world is to communicate in a language common to and originating with man’s physical existence. Hence, He speaks of heaven as being made of pure gold to describe its beauty and splendor (Revelation 21:18). He employs “anthropomorphism” when speaking of how He acts in a physical world but only the foolish affirm that God has a physical finger, back, hand, hair, etc. Therefore, to affirm that hell is literal and punishment is excruciatingly painful is not to affirm that it is a physical place. Neither does saying that it is a place mean that there is a geographical, physical location somewhere down below. By comparison, remember that the rich man conveyed his concern to Abraham lest his brothers on earth also come to this “place” of torment, though this does not describe his final state (Luke 16:27-28).
The picture Jesus painted by graphic, descriptive language was, “…where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched…” (Mark 9:43-48); “…outer darkness…” (Matthew 25:30); “…weeping and gnashing of teeth…” (Matthew 25:30); “…eternal fire…” (Matthew 25:41); “…eternal punishment…” (Matthew 25:46); “…God who can destroy both body and soul in hell,” (Matthew 10:28); and John’s statement “…the second death…lake of fire…” (Revelation 20:4,15). Physically, fire and outer darkness cannot exist at the same time; however, in using descriptive language, scripture employs words to convey to us the greatest degree of the most excruciating pain, the greatest depths of despair, and an understanding of what is utterly loathsome. I use the word “descriptive” in trying to avoid the preconceived concepts associated with “figurative” and “metaphorical,” because people frequently conclude that if something is described by figurative language, then it cannot be real. I believe that Jesus chose descriptive words to paint a picture of the continued existence of punishment for the unrighteous. The language is not designed to say that there is a physical fire consuming dead carcasses or that there are physical maggots feasting on dead bodies. In reference to “Gehenna,” Jesus drew from the geographical location in the valley of Hinnom and their acquaintance with all they knew it to be. As applied to the final destiny of the wicked, the descriptive language of punishment conveys to our minds the most horrible kind of experience with which we have any acquaintance. It is the means by which we can identify the terrible, eternal consequences of facing a just God who must vindicate His very nature.

Isaiah 66:24 — “…Where the Fire Is Not Quenched…

Jesus so plainly affirms the resurrection of both the righteous and the evil that even the annihilationist cannot deny it, (John 5:28-29). But, having rejected the continued existence of the evil after the resurrection, they are forced to invent interpretations that try to reconcile the totality of revealed, inspired information and, in so doing, present some nonsensical explanations. For instance, the annihilationist views the resurrection of the evil as a time when God is going to kill them again and this time they will be killed forever — the spirit totally annihilated; totally nonexistent for eternity. God kills them as He casts their bodies into the valley of Hinnom where the maggots will eat them and fire will burn until the bodies have been consumed - “no pain, just shame,” they say.
Though annihilationists are forced to accept the plain truth that the unrighteous will be raised, they have a problem explaining why God is going to raise them and what consequence it is for them to be raised, only to be annihilated again. So, in view of their belief system, their first dilemma is explaining why the evil will be raised. If, when a man is killed, his soul ceases to exist, he has been annihilated. So why raise him to annihilate him again? Their second dilemma is trying to give an interpretation that explains away the ability of man to do what God can do — man can kill the body; God destroys both in hell (Mt 10:28). But, if when a man kills the body, the soul part of man is extinguished, that is, he is annihilated and ceases to exist, then man can do what God does and that makes their interpretations contradict what Jesus plainly said in Matthew 10:28.

To avoid the impact of Jesus’ teaching about hell and eternal punishment in the picturesque language, “where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched,” (Mark 9:44-46), opponents of eternal punishment try to explain away Jesus’ use of Isaiah’s description of the judgment (Isaiah 66:22-24).

Edward Fudge, a conditional immortalist, said,

“In chapter 66 Isaiah anticipates the same scene on a massive scale at the end of time. In this prophetic picture, as in the historical event of Isaiah’s day, the righteous view ‘the dead bodies’ of the wicked. They see corpses, not living people. They view destruction, not conscious misery. Discarded corpses are fit only for worms (maggots) and fire — both insatiable agents of disintegration and decomposition.”

“To the Hebrew mind, both worms and fire signify disgrace and shame (Jer 25:33; Amos 2:1). Worms and fire also indicate complete destruction, for the maggot in this picture does not die but continues to feed so long as there is anything to eat. The fire, which is not ‘quenched’ or extinguished, burns until nothing is left of what is burning. According to God’s prophet Isaiah, this is a ‘loathsome’ scene, which evokes disgust rather than pity (Is 66:24; see the same word in Dan 12:2). This scene portrays shame and not pain. This passage of Scripture says nothing about conscious suffering and certainly nothing about suffering forever.” [Fudge, Two Views of Hell, pp. 32-33].

I must confess that my first reaction to reading Fudge’s interpretation was, “So what — what difference does it make?” And, I don’t mean that in reference to what God reveals through Isaiah but to what Fudge’s conclusions are. So what if the dead bodies are physically burned up and eaten by worms? What difference does that make to the spirits of those bodies which, according to Fudge, suffered for a moment while God killed the body and extinguished the soul into total annihilation? They were just as totally nonexistent, obliterated, gone forever, the moment the physical body could no longer sustain life. What happens to their bodies cannot matter when there is no consciousness. They certainly are not ashamed. Are the righteous who look on their bodies ashamed? Fudge’s explanation presents a vacillating manipulation of Jesus’ use of the text as he makes part of it figurative and then demands that the worms and fire be physical and literal so as to diminish the duration of eternal punishment. His conclusions make the final scene totally inconsequential to the condemned evil.

In reference to the context of Isaiah 66:22-24, Fudge had previously said, “This symbolic picture of the future…” Then when it comes to his interpretation of v. 24, he makes it both literal and physical, not symbolic. On the one hand, he symbolically interprets the statement “…and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me…” as “Then the righteous and their descendants will endure forever, and ‘all mankind’ will worship God,” (p. 32) — no actual, seventh-day, Sabbath keeping as he views it. Then, he makes the bodies, maggots, and fire literal and physical. When Fudge finishes his interpretation of Isaiah 66:22-24, the worm that cannot die dies; the fire that is not extinguished is extinguished.

The annihilationist is not justified in inserting concepts into the picture Isaiah gives us of the final judgment that contradicts the message. Fudge inserts “until the corpses are gone” to qualify how long his physical maggots live and the physical fire burns and, in so doing, takes issue with the very time frame reference as Jesus used the terms to describe “eternal” punishment. According to Fudge’s position, it certainly does not matter to the evil how long it takes for their dead bodies to be consumed, for they are long gone, obliterated and non-existent with no awareness of pain or shame. Nor would it matter to them how loathsome their bodies are to the righteous.

Fudge also said, “It is inexcusable to interpret language from this text, whether quoted directly or indirectly from the mouth of Jesus (Mark 9:48), to give a meaning diametrically the opposite of Isaiah’s clear picture. Yet that is exactly what traditionalist interpreters have done without exception, down to the present day,” (Ibid.). One could just as appropriately say that Joel 2:28-30, says nothing about Holy Spirit baptism and it is inexcusable to interpret the language of the text so as to apply it to Holy Spirit baptism (Acts 2:16-21). Or, since Psalms 2:9, says nothing about the resurrection, Paul’s use of it as applying to Jesus’ resurrection is an inexcusable error (Acts 13:34). But Fudge is really reversing the process of interpreting prophetic language. Proper interpretation of prophetic language should arise from the inspired application of the prophecy and not the reverse.

Similarly, when Jesus used the terminology of Isaiah 66:22-24, He certainly would understand the intent and meaning of the language since he was the one who spoke through Isaiah. Then, when he became flesh his application of that prophetic language in Mark 9:42-47, makes Isaiah 66:22-24 clear, because it comes from his understanding of an eternal hell and its eternal punishment. Who is Fudge to forbid Jesus from using prophetic language exactly as the apostles did?

So, how is this context to be understood? Obviously, it involves figurative language. But figurative language must have its background in that which is real. To paint a picture of the final judgment and the condition of both the righteous and the unrighteous, Isaiah draws from what Israel would understand in their physical history — events, for instance, like Isaiah 37:36. The conveying of eternal existence can be described only in terms with which physical man, in his own experience, can identify. Hence, we are limited in our comprehension of things that are beyond our existence and experiences. The warnings about hell are designed to say that it is so terrible that man should do whatever it takes to avoid it.

Fear can be an appropriate motivation to turn men from their sins, when they are truly aware that they will stand accountable before a just God who, necessarily, will reap vengeance upon evil men (Heb 10:28-29). But annihilation is not punishment — it is merely nonexistence. When men “water down” hell with their philosophical theories they annihilate a God-given restraint of evil. And, in so doing, they also create an unbalanced perspective about God. In magnifying the love of God, they diminish his justness — God is not only love but, in his justness, is also a God who must punish evil.
It matters not how strenuously one may argue to try to shorten eternal punishment or how vigorously he may seek to diminish the pain quotient, hell still is hell. If the “conditional immortalist” is correct, then the unrighteous will suffer for only a moment and then be eternally snuffed out of existence — that will be a great comfort to them. However, if what I have affirmed is correct, then the annihilationist view is one of the greatest deceptions ever fostered on man, and those who embrace it will find out too late. The final, eternal punishment of the unrighteous that reject hell is just as inevitable as the ants that climbed upon the railroad track to challenge the existence of a locomotive. Denying the evidence will not change the facts.

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