The Hell Debate, Part 3 – Annihilationism

Annihilation or Eternal Torture?

I so appreciate all the feedback I’ve received regarding my last two e-teachings. The majority has been positive and encouraging, and those that expressed disagreement have been, for the most part, written with kindness and respect. I am amazed at the interest in this topic, and that people take the time to read these especially long e-teachings.

I have discovered that the subject of the nature of hell can be a very touchy subject for some folks. And I’ve also learned, from feedback I’ve received, that many Christians and Christian leaders who believe in just punishment followed by annihilation keep their belief secret for fear of the repercussions. So let me declare again, from the outset, my love for those who see things differently than me. I was on their side of this issue for four decades, and I know how difficult it can be to have long-held beliefs challenged. The important thing is that we strive to be “Bereans” who “examine the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things are so” (Acts 17:11).

If nothing else, I hope I’ve helped you to see that the debate about the nature of hell is not as cut and dried as many suppose. Francis Chan, in his recent book that debunks universalism, Erasing Hell, candidly admits:

The doctrine 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.

If you read through his book carefully (including the footnotes), you will gain some idea of why Chan has his doubts.

In any case, with this e-teaching, I intend to complete this series, unless the feedback I receive this month contains significant questions that I haven’t sufficiently answered, that compel me to write one more article. But I’m hoping that will not be the case.

If you haven’t at least read last month’s e-teaching, I strongly recommend that you do before you read this one. This teaching builds upon that one.

This month I want to first consider some of the common explanations that are used to defend how God can be just as He (allegedly) tortures the unrighteous forever. Then I’d like to answer a few of the usual objections to annihilation that are based on claims made about the meanings of some English and Greek words. Then we’ll take a closer look at the handful of proof texts that are generally used to support the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Finally, I hope to answer a few final objections. I do apologize for yet another longer-than-usual e-teaching. But I do think it will be worth your time to read it.

Wannabe Heretics

I find it interesting that almost anytime someone objects to the idea of just punishment followed by annihilation, they quickly affirm their personal dislike of the doctrine of the eternal conscious torment. Some call it “a horrible doctrine.” They tell me that they would change it if they could, tacitly admitting that this is one thing they don’t appreciate about their heavenly Father. In fact, I often sense they are concerned about their own reputation, afraid that I would think that they are in favor of something so morally troublesome as eternal torture.

And their concern is valid. All of us would think there was something perverse about a person who was enthusiastic about people being eternally tortured in unspeakable anguish. If we ever found such a person, we would wonder how he or she could possess such a twisted sense of justice.

Now think about this: When we affirm that we are personally not in favor of eternal torment lest others think there is some moral deficiency in us, we unwittingly charge God of being morally deficient. He does what we would never want others to imagine we endorse!

Let’s be honest enough with ourselves to admit this. Unless we are in favor of God eternally torturing the unrighteous in hell’s flames, we disagree with the psalmist who wrote, “The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9). If we believed eternal torment is just, we wouldn’t see a need to tell others that we would change it if we could. And because we really don’t believe eternal torment is just, we really don’t believe that God is just.

All of this is to say that if we believe God will eternally torment all the unrighteous, we had better say we are in favor of it—lest we find fault with God, judging Him to be morally inferior to ourselves. In fact, we ought to enthusiastically voice our support. We should never say that it is “a horrible doctrine.” We should call it “a glorious doctrine.”

If you are a pastor who claims to believe in the eternal torture of the damned, do you ever preach about it to your flock? If “no,” why not? If “yes,” do you apologize for it or confess your dislike of it? Do you only warn of “an eternity without Christ” when you speak about the fate of those who reject the gospel, tacitly admitting your shame regarding the idea of eternal torture? If you really believe in eternal torture, you should proclaim boldly God’s alleged intention to torment the damned, including teenagers who die in automobile accidents, in unspeakable agony forever.

Facing the quandary of actually not believing that God is just yet saying we believe He is just, we tend to grasp for any explanation that offers some justification for God’s alleged insatiable desire for never-ending revenge against His enemies. I’ve heard at least five such “explanations.” Let’s consider them.

1.) “God must actually be just in eternally torturing the unrighteous, but we simply don’t understand it, and we are not qualified to make a judgment in that regard. He told us in Isaiah 55:9: ‘My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’ In heaven we will understand. Besides that, God’s judgments, as they are recorded in the Bible, don’t always seem just to our limited human understanding.”

Certainly, if God actually will eternally torture the unrighteous, it is definitely beyond our comprehension how He could remain just in it. I can’t help but wonder, however, if we are entirely unqualified to judge whether eternal torture is just or unjust. We all possess a God-given, inner moral compass (see Rom. 2:14-16). According to Paul, our consciences are reliable enough that God will judge every person one day on that very basis. And we have hundreds of verses in the Bible that offer us guidance regarding what is just and what is unjust. For example, God Himself set limits on punishments under the Mosaic Law (see Ex. 21:22-25; Deut. 25:1-3).

You may recall that during Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah, he said to God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25). Abraham apparently felt he was qualified to determine something about justice in relationship to God’s judgment of two cities. Did God reply to him, “Who are you, oh man, to assume you know anything about what is just or unjust on My part?”

In light of all this, have we really no current capacity to make a judgment regarding the justice of eternal torture? And is it really possible that what we now believe to be unjust (whether we admit it or not) will one day be just to us because, as some say, we will then fully possess “the mind of Christ”? Will we really, as some say, be filled with joy in heaven whenever we contemplate the eternal sufferings of the damned—including our own damned friends and relatives—because we will then finally love God with all our hearts and will rejoice in His decision to eternally torture sinners?

Personally, I find all of that very difficult to believe. And I think the fact that every one of God’s children dislike something they believe is true about their heavenly Father should cause us to question whether it is true. Even those who brand me a heretic for leaning towards annihilation often admit they would love to join me in my heresy. They know I’m wrong but they hope I’m right! I can think of no other “heresy” that most of God’s children would love to believe.

Regardless, I do wish Christians would stop taking Isaiah 55:9 out of its context to invalidate so much of what God has revealed about Himself in the Bible. When God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” He was not speaking to submissive believers whose minds were being renewed on His Word. He was speaking to wicked, unrighteous rebels who were filled with wicked, unrighteous thoughts:

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:7-9, emphasis added).

Additionally, when it is said that God appears unjust in some of His judgments recorded in the Bible, I agree. But I assume that my knowledge of all the facts is limited, and those cases are of no comparison to the apparent injustice of eternally torturing sinners who will forever suffer inexpressible agony. Eternal torture is off the charts, in a category by itself.

And when I survey the Bible and count up the number of times God’s judgments appear to me to be unjust, and then count up the number of times God appears to me to be overly merciful, there is no comparison. If God has erred by human judgment, it would seem He has erred much more on the side of mercy than justice. I’m not worried about the few times God seems unjust in the Bible. I’m awestruck by His long suffering and mercy.

2.) “People have sinned against an infinite God, so they deserve an infinite punishment!”

This is, of course, not an explanation that you will find in the Bible. It is human reasoning, and it is flawed for the simple reason that we can, using the same logic, take any attribute of God and assign it to the punishment that sinners deserve. We could just as easily reason, “People have sinned against a merciful God, so they deserve a merciful punishment!” Or, how about this: “People have sinned against a God who will never be tormented in hell, so they should receive a punishment that does not include torment in hell!”

One advocate of eternal torture, a seminary professor, wrote, “Torturing an animal is a crime, but torturing a human being is an even greater crime, worthy of greater punishment.” With that interesting example, he tried to convince his readers that “even the slightest offense” against God deserves infinite torture in hell.

Again, this explanation is just a speculation and one that can’t be found in the Bible. And I have to wonder, if a person who commits one sin deserves infinite torture, what does the person deserve who commits two sins? Wouldn’t justice demand twice the punishment of the single-sin sinner? What about the person who commits one thousand sins?

In any case, I found it ironic that the author of that argument used examples of torture to make his point. He declared that temporarily torturing a human is a crime, obviously due to the cruelty of it, yet he sees nothing troubling about God’s alleged torture of billions of humans, not for a few hours or days, but for trillions and trillions of years, continuing for eternity. That makes the Inquisition appear like a holiday.

And may I pose a question that I asked in my first e-teaching on this subject? If we all believe that children who die before reaching the age of accountability are not condemned to hell, what do we believe happens to a pre-adolescent/adolescent who dies just one day after reaching the age of accountability but without Christ? Ask yourself this question: Do you really believe that the God who is revealed to us in the Bible takes that young person and tortures her in the flames of hell forever in unspeakable anguish?

If you answer, “No,” then you don’t believe in the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, at least not in the purest sense, because you believe that there could well be people who will not be in heaven and who will also not be eternally tortured. And you obviously are persuaded that mercilessly torturing a person forever to repay that person for one day of sin does not harmonize with what we know about the character of God.

And here is the other side of the coin: If you maintain that you believe in the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, you must answer my question with a “Yes.” You must believe that God mercilessly tortures some people forever whom He only held accountable for one day’s sin.

But are we really to imagine that after 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years, God will be saying to Himself, “No, that is still not anywhere near enough unspeakable agony for this teenager’s one day of sinning”?

And that is why this is an important issue to discuss. How are we representing God? I no longer have to represent Him as a person who tortures some people forever to repay them for one day’s sin, and I can do it with a clear conscience because of hundreds of verses in the Bible through which God revealed Himself to us.

3.) “The unrighteous continue to sin in hell, and so God simply continues to give them what they deserve. Thus He is just in punishing them in hell forever.”

Again, this is not a biblical answer, but a conjecture. Judging from what we know about the lake of fire, the list of sins that one could commit there would seem to be rather limited. And it would stand to reason that, if there actually was a cause-and-effect relationship between the sins committed by the damned while in the lake of fire and the continuation of their punishment in that lake, they would eventually realize it given the amount of time they would spend there, and thus they would be highly motivated to stop sinning to escape their continued punishment. Therefore, this explanation is improbable to the point of impossibility. In fact, it is much more reasonable to suppose that sinners would cease sinning in hell than that they would continue to sin if they realized their sins were keeping them there.

Incidentally, those who offer this explanation unwittingly reveal their true conviction that eternal punishment is only deserved by those who eternally continue sinning.

May I add that it is reasoning like this that leads some to suppose that hell’s fires will improve sinners, which therefore necessitates their ultimate release, and thus hell becomes purgatory. Surely every person who is allegedly tortured in hell will realize how foolish they were to not repent on earth when they had the chance (like the rich man in Hades in the story of the rich man and Lazarus). Naturally, they will long for a second chance to follow the narrow road to life.

If that is true, hell’s eternal fire can be said to instruct sinners as they are tormented. And if they react rightly to that instruction, might not a merciful God eventually give them another chance? So you see, the “slippery slope to universalism” does not begin with annihilationism, as some claim, because annihilationists believe that sinners, after being justly punished according to their deeds, are annihilated and cease to exist. There is no second chance. It is actually much easier to slide to universalism from a belief in eternal torture, since its advocates keep the damned alive, which, in some far-fetched scenario, opens the possibility of them repenting and God extending mercy if they do.

4.) Because God will eternally torment Satan, the beast, and the false prophet in the lake of fire, He must be just in doing so. Therefore, God’s eternal torment of humans must also be just.

I pointed out in my previous e-teaching that Satan is certainly in a class by himself in regard to his sin and guilt before God:

Might not the devil, God’s arch-enemy from before the fall of humanity, the ruler of the kingdom of darkness and master of demonic minions, who led a rebellion in heaven in an attempt to exalt himself above God, who bears almost infinitely greater guilt for the world’s evil and sorrow than any other creature, who for thousands of years has continually tempted every person to sin against God and inspired humanity’s most sinister savagery, gross perversions, and abominable wickedness, who has never been offered forgiveness, whose sins Jesus never died for—is it not much more reasonable to conclude that Satan—who makes Hitler look like an angel—might not be slightly more worthy of eternal torment than a teenager who lost his life in an auto accident?

If anyone deserves to be eternally tormented in the lake of fire, it is Satan. But I can’t understand why anyone, after reading about the supreme sinner receiving the supreme sentence, would assume that those who are lesser sinners—by an almost infinite magnitude—will receive essentially the identical punishment. If I happened to witness a convicted murderer receive a life sentence as I was waiting for my turn to stand before the same judge for a traffic violation, I would be quite surprised if that judge handed down a life sentence to me for failing to use my blinker.

Although I may not understand the magnitude of my offense against God, I certainly know that my sin, as well as the sin of every other human, is immeasurably minuscule compared to Satan’s. So if we scale human punishment according to justice in light of Satan’s sentence, we would not expect any to be eternally tortured like Satan.

All of this is to say that God’s eternal torture of the devil does not make just His alleged eternal torture of humans.

Regarding the fact that the beast and false prophet will also be eternally tortured, they must be equally deserving as Satan, and so their eternal torment likewise does not prove that all the unrighteous will also be eternally tortured or make just God’s alleged eternal torment of human beings.

Moreover, there is very good reason to believe that neither the beast nor the false prophet are human beings. We note that the beast “comes up out of the abyss” (Rev. 11:7), which is the same place the devil will be incarcerated for 1,000 years (see Rev. 20:1-3), the same place that a legion of demons once begged Jesus not to cast them (see Luke 8:31), and the same place from which hoards of locust-like demons will be released to torment people on the earth for five months with scorpion-like stings (see Rev. 9:1-11). All of this indicates that the beast is a demonic spirit. (Note: In Revelation 9:1, the Greek word abussos, elsewhere in Revelation translated “abyss,” is sometimes translated “bottomless pit.”)

The false prophet is also described as “another beast” who comes “up out of the earth” (Rev. 13:11). And it should also be noted that from the mouths of the beast and the false prophet come “unclean spirits,” just as they do from the mouth of Satan (see Rev. 16:13). So it seems safe to conclude that the beast and false prophet are very high-ranking evil spirits like Satan, not humans. They do seem to have human counterparts whom they empower to perform great miracles and do evil, but still it is they, along with Satan, who will be cast into the lake of fire to be eternally tormented. It seems that lesser demons are also anticipating future torment (see Matt. 8:28-29), so perhaps they, too, will also experience eternal torment in the lake of fire. Remember, according to Jesus, the “eternal fire” was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).

5.) “Was it fair for Jesus to bear God’s wrath for our sins?”

This explanation is a variation of #1 in our list, the supposition that we are not qualified to judge the justice of God’s alleged eternal torture of sinners. This variation, however, is supported by the notion that God’s treatment of His Son also appears unjust to us.

Of course, had Jesus not been an equal collaborator with His Father in the plan of redemption, that is, if the Father had forced Jesus to suffer for our sins against His will, Jesus’ death for our sins could be considered an injustice on the part of the Father. But Jesus went to the cross by His own volition (see John 10:17-18), and He could have escaped His terrible death by calling for twelve legions of angels whom His Father would have dispatched immediately to rescue Him (see Matt. 26:53). So Jesus did not view His sacrificial death as an injustice, and neither do we if we possess a basic understanding of it. It was an act of love, not an injustice. Is a person’s act of being run over and killed by a bus in order to push a child out of harm’s way considered an injustice? Is a volunteer soldier’s act of jumping on a grenade in a foxhole in order to save the lives of his fellow soldiers considered an injustice?

So there you have five of the more common explanations for how God can be just in eternally torturing sinners. In the end, all these explanations don’t strengthen the position of the advocates of eternal torture. Rather, they all serve to weaken it, because (1) they are not based in Scripture, (2) most of them contradict both Scripture and logic, and (3) their very existence testifies to the fact that Christians wrestle with the apparent injustice of eternal torture, otherwise such explanations would not exist.

When we offer these explanations to unbelievers, they are as weak and unconvincing to them as they are to us. What a relief it is to be able to say with biblical conviction that there is no problem with God’s apparent injustice in eternally torturing people, because He simply doesn’t eternally torture people, but rather justly punishes the unrepentant as He promised in His Word, “according to their deeds,” administrating perfect justice in keeping with His perfect character. Just punishment followed by annihilation does not require any of the five explanations above.

Linguistic Tricks

In last month’s e-teaching, I presented a fairly thorough consideration of the doctrine of annihilation along with the related doctrine of conditional immortality. I included lots of scriptural support, which consisted of the direct quotation of 45 Scripture passages that strongly affirm the annihilation of the unrighteous, as well as 68 other supportive passages cited by chapter and verse, for a total of 113 Scripture passages.

My study was not exhaustive, and my initial focus was on 25 New Testament passages that indicate that the ultimate fate of the unrighteous is that they will “perish” or “be destroyed.” Reading those passages at face value would lead one to believe that the unrighteous will ultimately be destroyed and perish, two words that denote finality, not eternal continuity.

Those passages, all so plain, present significant problems for advocates of eternal torture, especially those passages that contrast the righteous inheriting eternal life with the unrighteous being destroyed or perishing (such as Matt. 7:13-14; John 3:16; 10:28). Those who are destroyed/perish obviously do not live eternally.

The task of proving that those many passages mean something other than what they appear to mean falls on the shoulders of the advocates of eternal torture. And the only way they can hope to succeed is through linguistic tricks, either with Greek or English. Let’s start with English, since we should all know something about that.

Limited Destruction?

Some advocates of eternal torture search for alternate meanings for the English words destroy and perish. They sometimes reason that one can “destroy” his car in an accident, but the car still exists in a wrecked form, or that one might be “destroyed” by his opponent in a tennis match, yet continue to exist as a losing player. Thus we are wrong, they say, to equate the word “destroy” with annihilation in scriptures that speak of the ultimate fate of the damned.

This kind of reasoning is flawed, however, because the location for the “destruction” of the damned is not an intersection of two roads or a tennis court. It is in the unquenchable fires of hell where the unrighteous will be “destroyed” and “perish.” So when Jesus speaks of people’s souls and bodies being destroyed in hell (Matt. 10:28), He gives us no indication that He wants us to imagine women dented like wrecked autos or men slumped over like defeated tennis players, all standing around in flames.

If you said to me, “I’m going to destroy you by casting you into an industrial incinerator that burns 24 hours a day, I’d assume you used the word destroy to mean “annihilate” or “incinerate,” not “wreck” or “defeat.” Context always helps us understand the meaning of a word that has alternate meanings.

Those who are searching for support for eternal conscious torment in alternative meanings of the English words “destroy” and “perish” need to ask, If the New Testament authors wanted their readers to believe the damned would be eternally tortured in flames, why did they repeatedly choose to use the words “destroy” and “perish” when they could just as easily have chosen to use the words “torture” or “torment eternally in flames” when they wrote of the ultimate fate of the damned?

And Now to the Greek…

Some advocates of eternal torture try a different tack by pointing out that the Greek words so often translated “perish” or “destroyed” are sometimes translated differently in certain places in the New Testament. And if the alternate translations of those Greek words had been used in the passages that speak of the ultimate fate of the unrighteous, we would not conclude that the unrighteous will perish or be destroyed.

There is no dispute that some of the Greek words that are often translated perish and destroy in English Bibles have alternate translations. The reason is because there is sometimes no single English word that carries all of the shades of meaning found in certain Greek words. The Greek verb apollumi, for example, is translated in the New American Standard version 55 times as “destroy,” “destroyed,” “perish,” “perishable,” “perished,” “perishes,” or “perishing.” It is also translated 16 times as “lose” or “loses,” 14 times as “lost,” 3 times as “ruined,” and once each as “bring to an end,” “dying,” “passed away” and “put to death.” The Greek noun apoleia that is derived from apollumi is translated 13 times as “destruction,” and once each as “destructive,” “perdition,” “perish,” “waste,” and “wasted.”

Does all of this prove that apollumi should never be translated in English as “destroyed” or “perish”? That apollumi actually never carries any sense of meaning related to “destroyed” or “perish”? That all the Greek scholars who translated the various English Bible translations erred whenever they translated apollumi as “destroyed” or “perish”? Those would all be outlandish claims. The primary meaning of apollumi is “destroy” or “perish,” which is why it is most often translated in the New Testament with those words or variations of those words. Any New Testament Greek dictionary affirms that.

If an alternate translation is in order, context helps translators make the correct decision. Which is why the translators always choose “destroy” rather than “lose” or “ruin,” for example, when they translate apollumi in the angel’s warning to Joseph that “Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy (apollumi) Him” (Matt. 2:13). Can you understand why translators didn’t translate Matthew 2:13, “Herod is going to search for the Child to ruin Him” or, “Herod is going to search for the Child to lose Him”? Herod ordered the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem. Those babies were both lost and ruined (in some sense), but if you had a choice to say that they were either lost, ruined or destroyed, obviously you would say that they were destroyed.

Similarly, translators don’t translate Matthew 10:28 to read, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to lose (apollumi) both soul and body in hell.” If the worst thing that happens in hell is that people are lost, why would that be reason to fear going to hell more than fearing being murdered? The translators, recognizing that Jesus was clearly conveying that something occurred in hell that was worse than being physically murdered, and that hell is the place of unquenchable fire, naturally decided that the word “destroy” is a much better choice for translating apollumi than the words “lost” or “ruin.”

Beyond all this, any successful attempt to soften the force of the 25 New Testament scriptures that I listed by substituting alternate translations of Greek words doesn’t actually solve the linguistic problems faced by advocates of eternal torture regarding those scriptures. Rather, such a strategy actually increases their linguistic challenges. The reason is because the alternate translations of apollumi, such as “lose,” “lost,” “ruined,” “bring to an end,” “dying,” “passed away,” and “put to death” don’t convey eternal torture any more than when apollumi is translated “perish” or “destroy.” In fact, it is much easier to persuade us that the word destroy might mean “eternally torment” than the words lose or ruin. And imagine trying to persuade us that the phrase “passed away” actually means “eternally torture”!

So here is a good question for those who rely on arguments from Greek words in attempt to soften the force of the 25 New Testament scripture passages I listed that all indicate that the unrighteous will ultimately perish or be destroyed: How often are apollumi or apoleia translated “eternally tortured” or “eternally tormented” in English versions of the New Testament? The answer: Never. The reason? They do not possess such a meaning or even a shade of it.

And if there is anything that it is abundantly obvious that apollumi does not mean, it is “eternally exist,” as the Bible tells us that those who believe in Jesus “shall not perish (apollumi), but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

For this reason, New Testament translator R. F. Weymouth laments in regard to popular preaching on eternal torment:

My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language when the five or six strongest words which the Greek language possesses, signifying “destroy,” or “destruction,” are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this.

In essence, the “Greek argument” of some who advocate eternal torture goes something like this: “The verb kill doesn’t always refer to the act of taking the life of a person or an animal. The word can also be used to describe putting an end to an idea or project, or to be overwhelmed, such as in the expression, “the suspense is killing me.” Therefore, when we read the word kill in the Bible, we should interpret it to mean ‘make alive.'”

And that is a valid example of the linguistic voodoo put forward by some who advocate eternal torture to persuade us that many scriptures don’t mean what they appear to mean. They are telling us, “The Greek word apollumi doesn’t always mean “destroy.” It can also mean “lose,” “lost,” “ruined,” “bring to an end,” “dying,” “passed away,” or “put to death.” So whenever we read it in relationship to the ultimate fate of the wicked, we should interpret it to mean ‘eternally preserve while torturing.’

There are, of course, Greek words that do denote “torment” and “torture,” words that the authors of the New Testament did use at times when they wanted to communicate torture or torment, including torment in Hades and Hell (see, for example, Matt. 8:6, 29; 18:34; Mark 5:7; Luke 16:23, 28; Heb. 11:35; Rev. 9:5). If they had wanted to, they could have used those words in my list of two dozen scriptures that describe the ultimate fate of the damned, but they chose not to. Instead of writing that the damned would be tormented or tortured forever, they wrote that the unrighteous would perish or be destroyed. How significant is that? Very significant.

Mr. Vine to the Rescue?

W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, the standard reference in every pastor’s library for Greek word meanings, states that apollumi means “to destroy utterly.” Not just “destroy,” but “to destroy utterly.” That is quite plain. Mr. Vine goes on to say, “The idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being.”

Of course, everyone knows that when you destroy something, at least in human, earthly experience, it doesn’t become extinct in the sense that nothing remains. When a building is destroyed, the materials of the destroyed building do not vanish. Science and experience teach us that matter cannot be destroyed. Mr. Vine’s elaboration that destruction is not extinction is common knowledge.

But some advocates of eternal torture hold up Mr. Vine’s elaboration to show annihilationists that when the New Testament often speaks of the damned being ultimately destroyed (using the word apollumi), it doesn’t mean they will be made extinct or suffer “loss of being.” Rather, they will only suffer “loss of well-being” as they continue to exist. And voila! The word apollumi, which Mr. Vine defines as “to destroy utterly” suddenly means “never destroy in the least, but eternally torture”!

The flaw in this line of reasoning is obvious. When something is “utterly destroyed,” it dramatically changes form. Advocates of eternal torture who use Mr. Vine’s elaboration that destruction is not extinction ignore his definition. Let’s consider a biblical example of what happens to someone when God “apollumis” them.

Jesus once spoke about some people who were destroyed by fire, and He used the word apollumi: “On the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed (apollumi) them all.” What happened to the Sodomites? They were utterly destroyed (Mr. Vine’s definition of apollumi) and were dramatically changed as a result. Their bodies became smoke and ashes. Although the elements that formerly formed their bodies did not become extinct, their bodies became extinct. Their bodies not only died, but ceased to exist as bodies. They no longer were breathing, thinking, walking, talking bodies. They were little piles of ashes. That is a picture of the apollumi of people’s bodies.

Of course, after the bodies of the Sodomites were destroyed, their spirits/souls lived on in Hades (an after-death abode we will consider later in this teaching that is not to be confused with the lake of fire).

One day the bodies of the Sodomites will be resurrected and rejoined to their souls/spirits, and they will stand in judgment before God. After that they will be cast into hell (the lake of fire), where Jesus said, using the word apollumi, that God will again destroy their bodies as well as their souls (see Matt. 10:28).

So if the result of God’s apollumi by fire of the bodies of the Sodomites the first time was smoke and ashes, what warrant do advocates of eternal torture have to claim that His apollumi by fire of their bodies the second time will result in nothing that even remotely resembles His apollumi by fire of their bodies the first time? How can they claim that God’s destruction of their bodies in hell is actually nothing like a destruction, but rather is an eternal preservation of their bodies, because God supposedly gives them immortal bodies, bodies that will never be burned up and that won’t change form in any way, bodies that will be eternally tortured in hell’s flames? They have no biblical or logical right to make such claims.

And of course, according to Jesus, God is not only going to apollumi the bodies of the damned in hell, but also apollumi their souls there as well (see Matt. 10:28). So what are we to imagine when we imagine God’s apollumi of the souls of the damned, souls that are united to their bodies that He will also apollumi?

That is difficult to say, as souls are immaterial, unlike physical bodies. We don’t really know what the destruction of a soul might look like. But in light of the fact that we have a very good picture of what the apollumi by fire of a body looks like, why would we ever imagine something that doesn’t resemble “utter destruction” (Vine’s definition) in the least, but rather imagine the eternal preservation of souls that can never be burned up, that don’t change form in the least, and that are eternally tortured? It stands to reason that the apollumi by fire of souls will be similar to the apollumi by fire of bodies (remember that they will be united together).

All this is to say that it would be much more reasonable to imagine the result of God’s apollumi by fire of souls to be the death of those souls, the extinction of those souls (as souls), and the radical change of form of those souls, and not the eternal preservation and torture of those souls. God’s apollumi by fire of bodies in Sodom resulted in a pile of physical, material ashes, an utter destruction. God’s apollumi by fire of souls can be no less in the spiritual realm. The fact is, the Bible teaches that one day, evildoers will be nothing but ashes under the feet of the righteous (see Mal. 4:1-3).

So Mr. Vine has not come to the rescue of advocates of eternal torture through his definition of apollumi. W.E. Vine says that apollumi means “to destroy utterly.” His elaboration that utter destruction doesn’t result in extinction doesn’t prove, in the least, that hell is an eternal torture chamber for all the unrighteous.

In the end, all of the linguistic trickery that is used in an effort to disprove the annihilation of the unrighteous—from attempts to change the meanings of English and Greek words, to attempts to redefine definitions—only serves to establish the annihilation of the unrighteous. If the language of the New Testament didn’t present such a big problem to advocates of eternal torture, they wouldn’t need to resort to such tactics to prove their case.

Incidentally, the New Testament refers to the fire that reduced the people of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes as an “eternal fire,” indicating that what burns in an eternal fire is not necessarily also eternal:

Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire (Jude 7).

At Sodom and Gomorrah, God set an example of what happens to immoral people: He reduces them to ashes by His eternal fire. Note that the example Jude says was “exhibited” was not exhibited in Hades or hell, but on the earth. That is where the fire fell. Nobody witnessed what happened to the Sodomites spirits/souls after they died, and so there was no way their after-death experience could have served as an example to anyone, otherwise it was an invisible example. What people saw (and heard from witnesses) was God’s example to them of what happens to immoral people.

Moreover, the spirits/souls of the Sodomites were not cast into the lake fire after they were destroyed, as no one to this day has been cast into the lake of fire. If they were cast after their physical deaths into any fire, the Sodomites were cast into fire in Hades (like the rich man in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which we will consider later in this teaching), a fire which is not eternal since everyone in Hades will one day be released from Hades and be cast into the lake of fire, and Hades itself will itself be cast into the lake of fire (see Rev. 20:13-15).

Note that Jude used the same phrase as Jesus in Matthew 25:41, namely, “eternal fire,” and he used it in reference to a fire that completely consumed the bodies of the Sodomites. So we have no scriptural reason to assume that Jesus’ warning that the “goats” will be cast into an “eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41) is any proof that the “goats” will be eternally burned. Remember, when Jesus tells the goats to depart from Him into the “eternal fire,” He calls it “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), a truth that is confirmed in Revelation 20:10 which tells us that Satan, when cast into the lake of fire, will be tormented eternally there. The eternal fire was created to eternally torment Satan and his angels.

Peter echoes Jude:

And if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter (2 Pet. 2:6, emphasis added).

How does the example that God set in Sodom and Gomorrah teach us that God eternally tortures the unrighteous? It simply doesn’t. It teaches us that God destroys the unrighteous by fire.

The Proof Texts

A few well-meaning folks (and I love them dearly) have sent me short lists of Bible verses to correct what they saw as my misunderstanding, and they were all very short lists, as the proof texts that are used by advocates of eternal conscious torment usually consist of four or five scriptures (of which I was already aware). But none of them explained to me how they harmonize the 113 annihilation-affirming passages that I quoted or cited with their small handful that, for them, sew up the case for eternal torment. Regarding the scores of scriptures that I mentioned, they were silent.

That is what is known as “proof-texting,” the practice of finding verses that support your doctrine while ignoring all the other verses that contradict your doctrine. It is possible, of course, to make the Bible say just about anything you want it to say by proof-texting. But the only legitimate interpretation of any passage of Scripture is one that harmonizes with the rest of Scripture, simply because the Bible has one Author, and He is not confused nor does He contradict Himself.

So as I wait for an explanation from any advocate of eternal torture that shows how they harmonize the scripture passages that I quoted or cited with their short list of proof texts, let me explain how their short list is harmonized with the mountain of texts that support annihilation. Some of these I have already looked at in my two previous teachings, but I will do my best to stay away from undue repetition.

Proof Text #1: Matthew 25:41, 46 – Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’…. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

In this passage, Jesus clearly taught that the “goats” will be sent to an “eternal fire” and suffer an “eternal punishment.” They will not, however, like the “sheep,” receive “eternal life.”

Remember that we have already learned by means of a scriptural example found in Jude 7 that an “eternal fire” does not prove an “eternal burning” of everything that is cast into it. Moreover, it does not logically follow that everything that is cast into an eternal fire burns eternally, anymore than it logically follows that everything cast into a ten-hour fire burns for ten hours.

Take note that the person who spoke of the “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:41, 46 is the same person who warned that God would “destroy both soul and body in hell” in Matthew 10:28. So unless Jesus contradicted Himself, the destruction of the souls and bodies of the unrighteous in hell must occur in an eternal fire. And that destruction must be an eternal punishment. We don’t have the option of believing either Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:41, 46 or Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28. Both are true. So there lies the problem. We have something that we generally consider to be an event with an ending—that is, a destruction in a fire, but this is a destruction that in some sense is eternal.

In order to reconcile this contradiction, we can do one of two things. We can either make the word destroy in Matthew 10:28 mean “never destroy, but eternally preserve,” which is the opposite of what destroy means, or we can try to think of a way that the destruction of one’s soul and body in the eternal flames could be considered to be an eternal punishment. The latter is quite easily done by annihilation, while the former is nothing less than making God say the exact opposite of what He said, changing “God will” to “God will not,” a ploy we’d expect from Satan, not Christians. The former also requires that we pretend hundreds of scriptures which contradict and expose that ploy don’t exist. In short, we must become proof-texters.

If pretending those hundreds of scriptures don’t exist seems too dishonest, then we’ll need to change the meanings of the words destroy and perish in dozens of New Testament passages that refer to the ultimate fate of the unrighteous (which I listed in last month’s e-teaching) so that they mean “never destroy or perish but eternally preserve in conscious torment.”

We’ll also need to change the meaning of the words destroy and perish in scores of Old Testament passages that also refer to the ultimate fate of the unrighteous (a few of which I quoted or cited in last month’s e-teaching).

We’ll also need to grant the unrighteous immortality and the promise of living forever, something the New Testament promises only to believers (which I proved in last month’s e-teaching).

Plus we’ll need to change Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and Tares so that the tares are not “burned up” but are rather preserved forever in the fire, and we’ll need to change John the Baptist’s warning that Jesus “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” to read “will eternally roast the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Finally, we’ll have to change Revelation 21:4 from, “There will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” to, “There will always be death because the unrighteous will forever be suffering ‘the second death’ in the lake of fire, and there will always be mourning, crying and pain, because the unrighteous will be weeping and gnashing their teeth forever.”

So those are our choices. We can radically change the clear meaning of hundreds of scriptures to force them to harmonize with a certain interpretation of Jesus’ words “eternal punishment.” Or we can embrace an alternate interpretation that easily harmonizes with all of the Bible without radically altering the plain meaning of words. If the eternal punishment of which Jesus spoke is annihilation, our problem is solved. The undeniable fact is, annihilation in the lake of fire is a punishment just as capital punishment is a punishment, because the condemned person is punished by forfeiting future years of his life. And it is an eternal punishment, because it lasts just as long as the righteous enjoy eternal life—forever.

Personally, I’m going to take the choice that doesn’t require me to pretend that hundreds of Bible verses don’t exist or twist those same scriptures to mean the exact opposite of what they plainly say.

And as I have already pointed out in both previous e-teachings, the New Testament also speaks of “eternal judgment,” which obviously does not describe a never-ending court case before God’s throne, but a one-time judgment that has eternal consequences. Jesus also warned about the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, something He called an “eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). Clearly, He was not speaking of a sin that is committed eternally, but a sin that is a one-time event, the consequences of which are eternal and irrevocable. So “eternal punishment” can rightly describe a one-time punishment that has eternal consequences.

Proof Text #2: Mark 9:47-48 – And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.

I wrote in my previous e-teaching that Jesus was directly quoting from Isaiah 66:24 when He mentioned the undying worms and unquenchable fire, and He knew it. In fact, it could be rightly said that He was quoting Himself. And Jesus, through Isaiah, was irrefutably describing a scene of dead corpses, not living people, that were being eaten by maggots and consumed by flames, a scene that the righteous would view with abhorrence (see Is. 66:24). Jesus was not warning His audience of eternal conscious torment; he was warning them, by means of a scripture that they were already familiar with, that the dead bodies of the unrighteous will one day be food for worms and flames. Those corpses would have no hope of a resurrection to eternal life, as the worms and flames would be unstoppable, being undying and unquenchable.

If Jesus’ audience was not only familiar with the last verse of Isaiah, but also familiar with the last verses of Malachi, they would have easily connected the two, as Jesus similarly said through Malachi:

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord of hosts (Mal. 4:1-3, emphasis added).

The result of the unquenchable fire is clearly described by Jesus through Malachi. Evildoers will be completely burned up like chaff (as John the Baptist also affirmed; see Matt. 3:12) until they are nothing but ashes to be trodden under the feet of the righteous. So it seems that the abhorrent scene Jesus described through Isaiah of rotting, burning corpses will only last until the undying worms and unquenchable fires have done their intended jobs. All that will remain will be ashes.

It remains the job of proponents of eternal torture to harmonize Isaiah 66:24 and Malachi 4:1-3 with their doctrine, an impossible task. Amazingly, some try to turn Isaiah’s corpses into living people, something that no one has yet attempted with Malachi’s ashes.

Proof Text #3: Daniel 12:1-2 – Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.

God, through Daniel, reveals that there will be a future resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. Advocates of eternal torment seem to be grasping at straws when they claim that the words “everlasting contempt” denote eternal conscious torment in hell’s flames. Just because God or the righteous have everlasting contempt towards the unrighteous does not prove the unrighteous are being consciously tortured or that they even exist for that matter. People have contempt for Adolph Hitler decades after his death (even people who don’t believe in life after death).

Moreover, the Hebrew word translated “contempt” in Daniel 12:2 is the identical Hebrew word translated “abhorrence” in the verse we just considered, Isaiah 66:24, the word that describes the feelings of the righteous towards the dead corpses they witness being consumed by undying worms and unquenchable fire. So possessing contempt towards someone does not presuppose they are still alive. God’s contempt for those who spurned His offer of mercy will be irrevocable, guaranteeing no second chance for the unrighteous once their souls and bodies have been destroyed in hell, just as Jesus promised (see Matt. 10:28).

Finally, notice that the righteous are promised “everlasting life” (Dan. 12:2), not the unrighteous.

Proof Text #4: Revelation 20:10-15 – And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

What does this passage actually teach about the ultimate fate of the unrighteous, without adding any human assumptions? It teaches that they will each be judged according to their deeds and be cast into the lake of fire, something called “the second death.” It doesn’t teach anything beyond that concerning the ultimate fate of the unrighteous.

I covered Revelation 20:10-15 quite thoroughly near the end of my previous e-teaching and listed numerous reasons why it does not stand to reason that the unrighteous will, like Satan, be “tormented day and night forever and ever,” not the least of which is the undeniable fact that this passage simply does not say they will be tormented in the lake of fire day and night forever and ever. It only says of the unrighteous that they suffer “the second death” when they are cast into the lake of fire (something, incidentally, it does not say in regard to Satan).

Some who advocate eternal torture are quick to define the word death in the phrase “the second death” as “separation from God” lest anyone think it means “cease to live,” as it so often does in the Bible and in the English language. Of course, if one assumes that everyone who is cast into the lake of fire survives the experience and is tormented eternally there, it must then be assumed that the “second death” does not mean “to cease living.” One assumption requires another.

If death in the phrase “second death” actually does mean “separation from God,” then “the second death” must mean “the second separation from God.” If there was a second separation from God, there must have been a first separation from God followed by a reconnection with God. Only then could there be a second separation. By the time the damned are cast into the lake of fire, most have already been separated from God for at least 1,000 years in Hades (see Rev. 20:4-15), not to mention their years of separation prior to their physical deaths. Clearly, defining “the second death” as “the second separation from God” makes little sense.

Taken at face value without the “help” of theologians, the phrase “the second death” defines itself for readers who don’t cling to a pre-existing theological bias. By the time they experience the “second death,” the unrighteous will have already died physically at some time in the past, when they experienced their “first death.” At a later time they will be resurrected and “come to life” (Rev. 20:5) to stand before the “great white throne” (Rev. 20:11) and be judged “according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:12). After that they will be cast into the lake of fire, what is called “the second death” for an obvious reason. It will be the second time the unrighteous die physically. It will, however, be more than just the death of their bodies, as Jesus told us that, unlike those who can only kill bodies, God will destroy both souls and bodies in hell (Matt. 10:28).

This plain interpretation is also supported by Jesus’ message to the church at Smyrna:

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death (Rev. 2:10-11).

Although the Smyrna believers would not escape the first death, they knew that if they overcame, they would escape the second death. How would they have interpreted Jesus’ words to them without the help of theologians to tell them that the word death as it is used in the phrase “second death” does not denote any sense of finality of life, even though it undeniably does when it is used one sentence earlier?

Again, take note that, although Satan is cast into the lake of fire, Scripture does not refer to that event as a “second death.” But why don’t advocates of eternal torture state that it is a second death for Satan? Since they make the assumption that humans who are cast into the lake of fire, will, just like Satan, be tormented there forever, why then don’t they also make the assumption that Satan, when he is cast into the lake of fire, will, just like humans, experience a “second death”? Why the inconsistency? And why don’t they also assume that “death and Hades,” which will also be thrown into the lake of fire (see Rev. 20:14), will similarly be tormented there forever? Again, why the inconsistency?

Finally, in light of the fact that Scripture teaches differences in future punishment for the unrighteous based on the principle of God’s justice, it is completely unwarranted to assign to all the unrighteous of all ages essentially the identical fate that Satan, the beast and false prophet will suffer. Remember, for example, that Jesus once said concerning certain cities that rejected the twelve, “Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city” (Matt. 10:15).

Proof Text #5: Revelation 14:9-11 – And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

First, note that the warning of Revelation 14:9-11 is directed only to those who face the temptation to take the mark of the beast and who ignore the warning that they hear with their own ears from an angel who flies over the earth. Such hard-hearted people are particularly deserving of the “full strength” of God’s wrath, a phrase that implies that less deserving people will not taste God’s wrath in “full strength” (Rev. 14:10) since God will justly recompense everyone “according to their deeds” (Is. 59:18; Rev. 20:12-13). So on that basis alone, we certainly have no warrant to apply the punishment described in Revelation 14:9-11 to all of the unrighteous of all the ages. We would be just as warranted to claim that all the unrighteous from all the ages must have suffered, near the end of their lives, the malignant sores that we are told (in Revelation 16:2) those who take the beast’s mark will suffer.

So we could stop right now and confidently declare that Revelation 14:9-11 has no application to our discussion regarding the fate of the unrighteous (with the exception of those who take the mark of the beast). And to their credit, some who advocate eternal torture recognize that fact and don’t include Revelation 14:9-11 in their handful of proof texts.

Another reason that we have no warrant to apply the punishment described in Revelation 14:9-11 to all the unrighteous is because we are told that it will occur “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev. 14:10). If Paul’s inspired promise that the unrighteous will “pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thes. 1:9) describes eternal torment in the lake of fire—as those who advocate eternal torment say—how does that harmonize with what we read in Revelation 14:9-11? The select group of Revelation 14 will be tormented in the Lord’s presence while those of whom Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 will pay their penalty away from the Lord’s presence.

So we could stop a second time and with even more confidence declare that Revelation 14:9-11 has no application to our discussion regarding the fate of the unrighteous (with the exception of those who take the mark of the beast). Clearly, the punishment of the beast-worshippers described in Revelation 14:9-11 is not a description of what happens to all the unrighteous.

But let’s continue looking at the select group of Revelation 14 just for the sake of interest. Are we to imagine that they will be tormented with fire and brimstone in Jesus’ presence forever? That any time any of us appear before Jesus’ throne, there, off to one side, in His presence, will be those who took the mark of the beast, screaming in agony in flames? That the God who declared that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (see Ezek. 33:11) will somehow derive satisfaction from forever having some writhing, screaming people burning in brimstone nearby? If that seems out of character for God, doesn’t it then seem more plausible that such a scene will be of limited duration?

“But what about the fact that Revelation 14:11 says “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever”?

Eternal smoke rising from eternal flames does not prove the eternal existence of those cast into that fire, and the proof is found in the book of Revelation itself. We read in the 18th chapter that, after the wicked city “Babylon” is “burned up with fire” (Rev. 18:8), “her smoke rises up forever and ever” (Rev. 19:3). That eternal smoke does not symbolize the eternal torment of Babylon’s populace, because John describes Babylon as being obliterated and completely absent of life after God’s judgment (see Rev. 18:21-23). The continual smoke symbolizes Babylon’s complete and irrevocable destruction, as John wrote, “And a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘Thus will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer‘” (Rev. 18:21). Babylon will be completely gone, but its smoke will rise forever. So we shouldn’t assume that the eternal smoke of the torment of the beast-worshippers proves their eternal, tormented existence. (For a similar biblical example of eternal smoke rising from utterly destroyed Edom, see Is. 34:1-10.)

But what about the fact that Revelation 14:11 says that those who worship the beast “have no rest day and night”?

Those six words could simply mean that, as long as the beast-worshippers are being tormented with fire and brimstone in Jesus’ presence prior to being cast into the lake of fire with all the unrighteous (as described a few chapters later in Revelation 20:11-15), they will have no rest day or night. We read in Revelation 12:10 of Satan accusing the brethren before God “day and night.” Obviously, that does not mean that Satan accuses the brethren before God every day and night for all eternity, but for day and night during a limited time period.

Occasional Proof Text #6: 2 Thessalonians 1:9 – These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.

Some advocates of eternal torture say that the phrase “eternal destruction” describes a process in hell during which the damned are destroyed and then reconstructed, which prepares the damned to be once again destroyed and reconstructed in infinite repetition. Some also say that, if the damned are “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” they must still exist somewhere.

The Bible makes no hint of anything like the cycle of destruction-reconstruction-destruction that some advocates of eternal torment use to describe the phrase “eternal destruction.” In fact, “eternal destruction,” if interpreted to mean a destruction that never results in a final destruction, changes the meaning of the word destruction, as it always denotes finality.

So does the phrase “eternal destruction” mean “eternal non-destruction”? There has to be a better interpretation. Why can’t it be a destruction that is eternally irrevocable, just as “eternal life” is life that is eternally irrevocable? Once the unrighteous experience what Jesus solemnly warned of—the destruction of souls and bodies in hell—they will be eternally destroyed. They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction.

Finally, does the fact that the unrighteous will be “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” prove they will continue to exist? No. It could be rightfully said, and perhaps this is what Paul intimates in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, that the greatest penalty that will be suffered by those who are justly punished and annihilated is not that they will cease to exist, but that they will never be in God’s presence, enjoying a relationship with Him. For what is existence without Him? “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Occasional Proof Text #7: Luke 16:19-31 – The story of the rich man and Lazarus

I haven’t quoted the entire passage as most readers are familiar with the story. It is not a story about a man who had been resurrected, faced final judgment, and found himself suffering in the lake of fire. Rather, it is a story about a man who died, leaving behind five living brothers on earth, and whose soul/spirit went to Hades (see Luke 16:23) as he awaited his future resurrection and final judgment described in Revelation 20.

Note that the New Testament Greek word Hades is equivalent to the Old Testament Hebrew word Sheol (see Psalm 16:10 & Acts 2:27), considered to be the abode of the unrighteous dead as they await their resurrection and final judgment and, prior to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, also the abode of the righteous dead. It seems clear from Scriptures that, since Jesus’ ascension, the spirits/souls of the righteous go to heaven upon physical death, not Hades (see 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:21-24; Rev. 7:9-17.) Also note that Sheol/Hades is not the same as the lake of fire, as one day people who are currently in Sheol/Hades will be removed and cast into the lake of fire, and even Sheol/Hades itself will be cast into the lake of fire; see Rev. 20:13-15.

All of this is to say that the story of the rich man and Lazarus really has nothing to do with our topic regarding the nature of the punishment of the unrighteous in the lake of fire, and knowing that, most advocates of eternal torture do not mention this story to argue their position.

On the other hand, some question how God’s justice is served as we compare two unrighteous people who died at different times in human history. The time each spend in Sheol/Hades could differ by thousands of years before both are cast into the lake of fire.

It does seem curious when this question is posed by advocates of eternal torment, who have a much greater challenge justifying their position when it is evaluated in terms of serving God’s justice. They should first ask the identical question of themselves, as their doctrine also includes the same potential disparity of thousands of years in Sheol/Hades among those who die at different times in human history as they wait for the final judgment. Then beyond that, they should also feel a need to explain how God’s justice is served in light of the sufferings that they say every unrighteous person will suffer forever without end. A few thousand years of disparity in the sufferings of the unrighteous would seem to be much less problematic than trillions and trillions of years of suffering (and that is just the beginning) allegedly imposed by the God who promised He would “repay every person according to his deeds.”

But back to the question of how God’s justice will be served by the disparity of time that the unrighteous, who died at different times in human history, spend in Sheol/Hades before they are cast into the lake of fire.

That question, of course, is predicated upon the belief that the damned actually do suffer in Sheol/Hades, a belief that is derived in Scripture primarily from Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. If it were not for that story, our understanding of Sheol/Hades might be very different, as it would be based on the 76 other references to Sheol/Hades in the Bible, many of which would lead us to think that Sheol/Hades is a place of semi-conscious slumber (see, for example, 1 Sam. 28:11-15; Job 3:11-19; 14:10-15; Eccl. 9:5, 10; Is. 14:9-11). There are also numerous direct and indirect references to Sheol that don’t include the actual word Sheol, such as the word “pit,” or the phrases “land of silence” or “gathered to his people.”

You may find it interesting that the famous reformer Martin Luther believed that the souls of the departed, righteous and unrighteous, fall asleep at death into an unconscious state in which they would be unaware of the passage of time, only to be reawakened at the resurrection, which effectively eliminated the idea of the unrighteous experiencing any suffering until they are cast into the lake of fire. Luther believed that the story of the rich man and Lazarus was a parable (and for some good reasons), and that the post-mortem details of the two men highlighted in that parable should not be trusted to establish doctrines about what happens to people soon after they die.

In any case, if Sheol/Hades is a place where the damned suffer torment, the disparity of time that the unrighteous spend there could serve God’s justice by various means. Perhaps those who spent a longer time suffering in Sheol/Hades will receive less time suffering in the lake of fire before annihilation. Or perhaps the prescribed suffering for those who spend more time in Sheol/Hades is less intense than those who spend less time there before the final judgment, and all suffer annihilation at the same moment in the lake of fire. Or perhaps the unrighteous do not spend all their time in Sheol/Hades suffering. Again, all these possibilities are predicated on Sheol/Hades being a place where the damned suffer torment. One thing we can all be certain of is that God is just and that He will repay everyone according to their deeds.

Again, the story of the rich and man and Lazarus it is not relevant to our topic of the ultimate fate of the unrighteous in the lake of fire.

Considering All the Evidence…

So I hope you see it is quite possible to harmonize the handful of proof texts used by advocates of eternal torture that might appear to contradict the 113 that I previously listed that favor annihilation.

Here then is the challenge that advocates of eternal torture have before them. They must harmonize more than 100 scriptures (Ps. 1:4-6; 2:9-12; 11:5-7; 37:20, 28, 38; 73:16-20, 23-27; 92:7; 94:23; 112:10; 145:20; Prov. 10:25; 24:12, 19-20; Is. 1:28-31; 10:17-18; 24:6; 33:10-12; 41:11-12, 66:24; Ezek. 18; Dan. 12:2-3; Mal. 4:1-3; Matt. 3:12; 7:13-14; 10:28; 13:30, 40-42; 16:25-27; 18:14; 19:16, 29; 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 12:47-48; 13:3-5; 18:18, 20; 20:34-36; John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 39, 6:27, 40, 47, 50-51, 54, 58, 68; 8:51; 10:28; 11:25-26; 12:50, 15:6; 17:2; Acts 3:23; 13:41, 46, 48; Rom. 2:6-7, 12; 5:21, 6:22-23; 9:22; 1 Cor. 1:18; 15:50-54; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; Gal. 6:8; Phil. 1:28; 3:18-19; 2 Thes. 1:9; 2:10; 1 Tim. 1:16, 6:9-10, 12, 15-16; 2 Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:2; 3:7; Heb. 10:27, 38; 12:29; Jas. 4:12; 2 Pet. 2:1, 6, 12; 3:7, 9; 3:16; 1 John 1:2, 2:25, 3:15, 5:11, 13, 20; Jude 7, 21; Rev. 11:18; 20:12-14; 21:8), and many more, with their handful of proof texts, texts that they claim support eternal torture in the lake of fire, but none of which actually states that the unrighteous will be eternally tortured in the lake of fire. So rather than running to the internet to search for “articles that disprove annihilation,” why not study the Bible for ourselves?

A Few Final Objections

Included in some of the feedback I’ve received are a few common objections. Here they are:

1.) I saw a list that quoted from the writings of the “church fathers,” and it showed what they believed about the nature of hell. None believed in annihilation. All believed in eternal torture.

First, it is dishonest, in such “lists of what the church fathers believed about the nature of hell,” to not include any of their quotations that would suggest that they favored annihilation over eternal torture. That is just like “proof-texting.” Second, when church fathers wrote using pure biblical terminology to describe the ultimate fate of the wicked, it is also dishonest to put them in a list to prove that they believed in eternal conscious torment.

For example, in one such list I recently read, the first quote listed is from The Epistle of Barnabas (AD 70-131 AD), and the list-compiler quotes from it the following sentence: “The way of darkness is crooked, and it is full of cursing. It is the way of eternal death with punishment.” Of course, that does not prove that the author of The Epistle of Barnabas believed in eternal torture. It could just as well describe annihilation. Annihilationists believe that all the unrepentant will be justly punished and then suffer an eternal death, that is, a death from which they are never resurrected, what the Bible calls the “second death.”

What is interesting, however, is that particular list-compiler didn’t finish the sentence he was quoting from The Epistle of Barnabas, which continues, “and in it are things that destroy men’s souls.” I wonder why he didn’t want to include that portion of the sentence that made reference to Jesus’ words that God would destroy men’s souls in hell?

The second quotation in that same list is from Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD). The list-compiler mentions that Ignatius wrote of a false teacher who will “depart into unquenchable fire.” Again, Ignatius uses biblical terminology that does not prove he believed in eternal conscious torment. John the Baptist spoke of the unrepentant being “burned up with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12; Like 3:17). No annihilationist denies that the fires of hell are “unquenchable,” a term that is obviously not synonymous with “eternal.” So we could add Ignatius to a list of church fathers who believed in annihilation (and some annihilationists who play the “church father game” do that very thing). Ignatius only wrote of the unrighteous “departing into unquenchable fire,” not “being tortured forever in unquenchable fire.”

The third quotation in that list is from Clement of Rome. Two epistles carry Clement’s name, the first, written around 95-97 AD, is considered authentic, and the second, written around 150-160 AD, was obviously not written by Clement. The list-compiler quotes the author of the second epistle, who writes of “eternal punishment” and “terrible torture in unquenchable fire.”

Again, the phrases “eternal punishment” and “unquenchable fire” are biblical terms that do not prove the author believed in eternal torture.

It is interesting that the list-compiler fails to mention the author of 2 Clement wrote of Jesus, who came to save us when we were “perishing” and “hastening toward destruction” (2 Clem. 2:7). He fails to mention the author’s quotation of Jesus’ warning to “fear Him that after ye are dead hath power over soul and body, to cast them into the Gehenna of fire” (2 Clem. 5:4). He fails to mention the author’s quotation from Isaiah 66:24 about the corpses of the wicked: “Their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched, and they will be for a spectacle unto all flesh” (2 Clem. 7:6).

So again, it is dishonest on any author’s part to put those who use pure biblical terminology into a list to prove they believed in the eternal conscious torment of the unrighteous. And it is especially dishonest when they fail to mention quotations that would weaken their argument.

Of course, the “church fathers” were not infallible, and their teaching, like the teaching of anyone else, including myself, should be scrutinized in light of the Word of God. Anyone who studies the writings of the church fathers in light of the Bible gains some insight into how the church began to tragically drift from its biblical moorings.

Finally, if we are going to determine our doctrine by aligning ourselves with the historical majority within Christendom, we should all embrace the doctrines held by the church from 300 AD to 1,500 AD, many of which are still held by the one billion Roman Catholics who comprise the largest body in Christendom. The majority, however, is not always right.

2.) All people are created in God’s image, and thus they are created with immortal souls. Therefore everyone must spend eternity somewhere.

It is wrong to conclude that because God is immortal, we who bear His image are also immortal. We could just as well conclude that, because we bear God’s image, we are all-knowing just like God.

Moreover, how could our souls be immortal? God obviously can destroy what He has created, and Jesus warned that God will destroy souls and bodies in hell (Matt. 10:28).

3.) The Bible teaches that when God resurrects the unrighteous, He will give them glorified bodies that are immortal, and the reason He does so is to fit them for eternal torment in the lake of fire. They will be cursed with bodies that cannot die.

That also contradicts Jesus’ word in Matthew 10:28 that God will destroy souls and bodies in hell. Moreover, the Bible does not say that when God resurrects the unrighteous He will give them “glorified” or “immortal” bodies. Writing to believers, Paul said that Jesus “will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20). Only believers will be blessed with glorified bodies. Immortality is only promised to Christians (see Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:50-54; 1 Tim. 6:15-16; 2 Tim. 1:10).

God is well able to resurrect dead bodies without making them immortal or giving them glorified bodies. All of the people whom God resurrected in the Bible eventually died.

Incidentally, when God drove Adam and Eve out of Eden, it was to prevent them from eating from the tree of life, which would have allowed them to “live forever” (Gen. 3:22). Had they eaten, they would never have died physically, gaining immortality.

The tree of life appears again in the New Jerusalem of which we read in Revelation’s closing chapters. The privilege of eating from that tree is promised to all who overcome (see Rev. 2:7), and we are similarly told, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14). Clearly, only the righteous will have the privilege of eating from the tree of life. And clearly, eating from that tree is something that is very significant and something the righteous will all desire. To have the privilege taken away is portrayed as being just as dreadful as being banned from the New Jerusalem (see Rev. 22:19).

If eating from the tree of life makes one immortal then as it would have done for Adam and Eve, that would seem to be one more indication that the unrighteous will not live forever, as they will not have a right to eat from the tree of life.

4.) “A least one cult, and several denominations that have some questionable doctrines, adhere to annihilation.”

All cults within Christendom believe in God. Shall we reject belief in God to distance ourselves from the cults? Truth is determined by what the Bible states, not by embracing the opposite of what cults believe.

5.) “I read a vision by so-and-so, and she saw people in hell, and an angel told her they would be writhing in agony in the flames forever.”

Again, truth should be determined by studying the Bible, not by people’s visions. Visions that contradict what the Bible teaches should always be rejected.

6.) Jesus did not say in Matthew 10:28 that God would destroy people’s souls and bodies in hell. He only said that God is able to destroy people’s souls and bodies in hell. We should not say that God will do something that He says He is only able to do.

How else could Jesus have communicated the sobering fact that some people, but not all, will suffer the destruction of their souls and bodies in hell? If He had said, “Fear Him who will destroy both soul and body in hell,” His words could have been interpreted to mean that God will destroy the souls and bodies of everyone.

And are we to think that Jesus actually meant, “Fear Him who is able to, but of course never will, destroy both soul and body in hell? Were His words nothing more than an empty threat? No, clearly He was warning His own disciples that they should fear God because He will indeed destroy the souls and bodies of the unrighteous in hell.

When Jesus asked two blind men if they believed He was able to heal them, and they said, “Yes, Lord” (Matt. 9:28), we would have been surprised if Jesus had replied, “That is good, because I am indeed able, but I wasn’t implying that I had any intention of actually healing you. From now on, please listen carefully to what I actually say!”

When Paul wrote that God is able to graft believing Jews into His tree of salvation (Rom. 11:23), no one would interpret him to mean that God is able, but would never do such a thing.

When the author of Hebrews wrote that God is able to save forever those who draw near through Jesus (Heb. 7:25), no one would interpret him to mean that God is able, but never actually would save anyone who drew near to Him through Jesus.

In Conclusion

I’ve done my best to “handle accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), not by “proof-texting,” but by considering all that God has said about the ultimate fate of the unrighteous. I think that anyone who does the same with an open mind will come to the same conclusion, based upon the preponderance of the evidence. How humbling it is to think that the obvious truth has been hidden in plain site in the Bible’s most well-known verse, a verse that is so simple that a child can understand it, and only a theologian can miss it:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16, emphasis added).

Isn’t it wonderful to possess eternal life? We who believe in Jesus will live forever!

If you’ve been restraining yourself from sending any feedback because you’ve been waiting for me to finish what I had to say, feel free to write now. I’m done. I do read all original feedback (but not links to web articles) because I am very interested in what you have to say, but may not have time to reply. Thanks for your understanding.

Every blessing, David