Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Hell to pay

There are two theoretical alternatives to hell, universalism and conditional immortality. I’ve already considered the former ("Somewhere over the rainbow"), now I’ll consider the latter.

I. Arguments for conditional immortality:

1. The traditional position is only based on a handfull of prooftexts.

2. Only God is naturally immortal

3. Man is a physical entity.

4. Immortality is indexed to the resurrection

5. The traditional position is indebted to Platonic dualism

6. The word "eternal" may either mean the next age, or have reference to eternal consequences.

7. The fate of the damned is described in terms savoring of oblivion, viz., death, destruction, loss, obscurity.

8. In everlasting punishment, the penalty is disproportionate to the crime. It renders God unjust and unloving.

II. Arguments against conditional immortality.

1. The traditional doctrine is more widely attested than, say, the prooftexts for the Virgin Birth. What counts is the clarity, and not the number, of prooftexts.

2. This is a strawman argument. So what?

3. This ignores Scriptural arguments to the contrary.

i) The worldview of Scripture is dualistic. Reality consists of mind and matter. God and angels are incorporeal spirits.

ii) The Scriptural doctrine of the intermediate state assumes that consciousness survives death (e.g. 1 Sam 28; Ps 73:24-25; Mt 22:29-32; Lk 9:30; 16:19-31; 23:43; Acts 7:59; 2 Cor 5:1-10; 12:2-3; Phil 1:23; 1 Thes 5:10; Heb 12:23; Rev 6:9; 14:13)

4. This is not limited to the resurrection of the just. There is a general resurrection (Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2-3,13; Jn 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Rev 20:13-15). To raise the damned just long enough to zap them out of existence is utterly pointless.

5. To begin with, there are only a few theoretical options.

i) The fact that Plato hit on one of these does not invalidate the position. This is a historical coincidence. If Plato had never been born, someone else would have exercised the same option, sooner or later.

ii) Belief in the afterlife is a commonnplace of ANE religion, viz., the Egyptians, Mesopotamians. It has been inferred from the burial customs of cave men, not to mention primitive tribes the world over. Such a belief assumes the possibility of a disembodied existence. We’re talking, not about a Platonic distinctive, but something approaching a cultural universal. That doesn’t make it true, but to narrowly attribute this belief to Platonism is a highly provincial and unhistorical interpretation of the evidence.

iii) Belief in the afterlife, not merely for the just, but the unjust, is a presupposition of the Biblical ban on necromancy.


i) Effects have causes. If the fuel is consumed, the fire goes out—in which event, the effect would not be endless. But that’s the opposite of what the verses say. The worm never dies, the fire is never quenched.

ii) The Greek word is a loan word from the LXX, which is a translation of the Hebrew olam, meaning "forever" or "everlasting." Although the Hebrew word (and its Greek synonym) is sometimes used hyperbolically, the meaning of the word is "everlasting."

iii) The Greek word can also be employed in a more classically "Platonic" sense (cf. 1 Cor 2:7; 2 Cor 4:18; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 1:2-3; Jude 25).

iv) The case for hell must be seen in relation to 1C debates over eschatology. The Sadducees subscribed to annihilationism (Mt 22:23; Acts 23:8), while the Pharisees adhered to something much closer to the traditional position. It is clear that Jesus and the Apostles either side with the Pharisees or situate themselves somewhere to the right on the Pharisees on this issue.

v) The case for everlasting punishment isn’t limited to one word-group. There are other ways of expressing endless duration (cf. Mt 3:12; Mk 9:48; Jn 3:39; Rev 14:11; 19:3; 20:11)

vi) The Bible presents the doom of the damned as a fate worse than death (Mt 10:15; 26:24; Mk 12:40: Lk 12:4-5; Heb 12:26-31). But according to annihilationism, there is nothing worse than death because there’s nothing beyond the grave for the wicked.

vii) The parallelism is Mt 25: 41,46 is very hard to get around. And our effort should be, not to get around a hard saying, but to line up behind it.

7. These are natural metaphors, the significance of which must be gauged by the context.

i) The traditionalist treats the fiery figures as punitive, the annihilationist as destructive, and the universalist as purgatorial. So it’s not as though the annihilationist has the inside track on this usage.

The annihilationist is very literal about his prooftexts, but very figurative about the opposing prooftexts.

ii) Were the lost sheep (Lk 15) extinguished? Were the Galileans extinguished (Lk 13:1-3)? Is a disciple of Christ extinguished (Mt 10:39)?

Can nonentities wail and gnash their teeth (Mt 25:30)? Can nonentities suffer torment (Rev 14:10; 20:10)?

iii) We cannot, like Philip Hughes, turn antonyms into contradictory concepts by saying that "life is the absence of death and death is the absence of life." This confuses the meaning of words with conceptual schemes. A rhetorical contrast is not the same thing as logical or ontological opposition. To suppose otherwise commits an elementary semantic fallacy. On both the sensible and spiritual planes, the relation between life and death in Johannine theology is not a mere matter of reciprocal negation.

iv) Regarding those OT passages that present a stark contrast between life and death, we need to keep the following in mind:
a) Allowance must be made for hyperbole (e.g., Ps 86:13; Jonah 2:2).
b) When in despair, one speaks despairingly—but that doesn't tell the whole story. Just study the mood swings in the Book of Job, psalms of David, and oracles of Jeremiah.
c) The contrast often involves a reversal of fortunes, as the famous are forgotten, the potentates left impotent. In the just judgment and overruling providence of God, today's celebrity may be tomorrow's nobody (Eccl 9; Isa 14; Ezk 32). This carries over to the NT (e.g. Lk 16:19-31; 1 Cor 1-3; Rev 20:4-6).

Ra McLaughlin has a helpful comment on this exegetical issue:

"Some people have thought that Psalm 6:5 teaches that the dead have no memory because many translations render this verse to say that there is no "remembrance" of God in death. Of course, we know that this cannot be taken to mean that in death we no longer remember that God exists (cf. Luke 9:30; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 6:10). In fact, the word for "remembrance"does not mean "memory," but rather "memorial." David means that if he dies he will not be able to praise God for delivering him from this situation (and no one else will praise God for it either). On the other hand, if God does deliver him, then the praise that David renders in return will be a memorial to God's salvation. Psalm 6 itself turns out to be just such a memorial, recording David's prayer and salvation."

8. In annihilationism, the penalty is disproportionate to the crime; for the wicked inflict untold suffering on others, but escape suffering in their own person.


  1. What do you think about a hell that causes pain and suffering commisserate with one's sins and then annihalation?

  2. You seem to have confused annihilationism and conditional immortality.