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Everlasting conscious torment?

I was raised on the view that every person who fails to make a deliberate personal decision to put their faith in Jesus Christ—the great majority of the world’s population, it seems—will end up in hell. And hell, by definition, meant everlasting conscious torment of the most fearful kind. Even as a youngster I found that hard to accept and to square with a God who declares himself to be Love. Later, I came to reject it completely, convinced that the relevant Scripture passages could be interpreted otherwise.

Today, it’s fair to say that most evangelical scholars seem to have long since made the same move. They have adopted the view that immortality is not part of the innate human condition but a gift that God gives to his people. So evangelists are mistaken when they warn, ‘You have an immortal soul, my friend, and it must spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Which will it be?’

When Jesus returns, of course, all will be raised to face his judgment. The righteous will enter forever the new heavens and new earth of bliss and fulfillment. The wicked will be consigned to the fire (figurative) of God’s just punishment, eventually to be finally consumed—that is, they will cease to exist. The classic book that examines every biblical verse on final punishment and reaches this conclusion is Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Third edition. Cascade Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-60899-930-9).

[If you own Logos Bible Software the book is also available in electronic format to fit seamlessly with your system.]

Scripture makes it clear that God will resurrect (or transform) the redeemed unto immortality and incorruption, but Scripture never hints that the wicked will be raised either immortal or incorruptible.  (p3)

The doctrine of immortal souls was the womb from which the traditional Christian teaching of unending conscious torment was born.  (p18)

The immortality of the soul became a subject of intense controversy during the Reformation, but the convergence of Calvin’s vehemence, Luther’s reticence, and the antipathy of both men toward the Anabaptists, resulted in the inclusion of Catholic traditionalism into the new Protestant creeds and eventually into unquestioned Protestant “orthodoxy.”  9p22)

Jesus’ quotation of the declaration, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Matt 22:32), has often been used in support of man’s immortality. Staunch conservatives have noted, however, that Jesus uses the quotation to prove, not immortality, but the resurrection. The Lukan parallel (Luke 20:37–38) says that “to him all are alive,” but both the context and the argument point to the resurrection of those who belong to God, not the immortality of every person.  (p26)

The word means “forever,” but within the limits of the possibility inherent in the person or thing itself. When God is said to be “eternal,” that is truly “forever.” When the mountains are said to be “everlasting,” that means that they last ever so long—so long as they can last… Scripture frequently uses aiōn, aiōnios and their Hebrew counterparts (olam in various forms) of things that have come to an end. [Examples then given]  (p35)

The adjective “eternal” does not modify an action-word (a verbal substantive, either infinitive or participle) as if to speak of God as eternally judg-ing. Instead it modifies a noun, indeed a result-noun in form, and so speaks of eternal judg-ment (krimatos). The Bible pictures the judging as taking place on a specific “day” fixed by God (Acts 17:31; Rom 2:16; 2 Tim 4:8; 1 John 4:17). The act of judging will certainly not last forever. However, the judging (action) will produce a judgment (result)—and that result will never end.  (p40)

Just as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed at (the first) death, never to exist again (in the present age), so those finally lost will be destroyed at (the second) death, never to exist again (in the everlasting age to come).  (p65)

From Sodom’s destruction come the symbols and the definitions of fire and brimstone (destruction is total), rising smoke (destruction is completed) and eternal fire (destruction is irreversible).  (p70)

The figure of “unquenchable” fire appears frequently throughout Scripture and signifies a fire that cannot be resisted or put out until it has done what fire is intended to do. Because this fire is “not quenched” or extinguished, it completely consumes what is put into it. Yet an “unquenchable” fire eventually goes out, when it has consumed its fuel. “Unquenchable” does not mean ever-burning, but irresistible. Because it cannot be thwarted in its intended purpose, or stopped short of accomplishing its goal, “unquenchable” fire (“irresistible fire”) fully consumes (Ezek 20:47–48), reduces to nothing (Amos 5:5–6) or burns up what is put into it (Matt 3:12).  (p77)

Since Tertullian, many traditionalist authors have been concerned that the wicked not be punished too “lightly,” even if that meant changing the plain teaching of Scripture to something quite different from what it actually says.  (p80)

[Re Matthew 10:28]   Jesus equates “kill” and “destroy,” making them interchangeable. That is not surprising to the ordinary person in normal discourse, but it flies in the face of traditionalists who always define “destroy” as alive but wishing not to be.  (p123)

There is no scriptural basis for making the worm a metaphor for remorse, a practice as ancient as Origen and now almost universal. This worm devours, and what it eats, in Isaiah’s picture that Jesus quotes here without amendment, is already dead.  (p125)

Ironically, Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), popularly thought to provide the New Testament’s most detailed vision of hell’s torments, likely was not intended to teach anything on that subject at all.  (p148)

…the literal Valley of Hinnom outside the historic Jerusalem—the city’s open-air garbage incinerator, smoldering with fires and crawling with maggots. Although that is the historic reality to which Jesus compares Gehenna of the age to come, traditionalists have always changed the figure in every major respect. In place of corpses, they put live sinners. In place of a consuming fire, they substitute a tormenting fire. Instead of onlookers finding the sight repugnant (as in Isa 66:24), Gerstner’s onlookers take delight in what they see.  (p168)

For Paul, immortality is always God’s gift to the faithful, to be awarded in the resurrection. He never views it as a quality inherent to man, nor does he ever attribute it to the wicked. This fact bears repeating since it is so often overlooked.  (p206)

“My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying ‘destroy,’ or ‘destruction,’ are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this.” [quoting R.F. Weymouth]  (p214)

That the smoke lingers forever in the air means that the judgment’s message will never become out of date. “This is clearly the significance,” writes Bauckham, “when Revelation borrows this imagery to describe the fate of Babylon: ‘The smoke goes up from her forever and ever’ (19:3).”  (p242)

[Re Revelation 20:10]  Together, the vision has these three—beast, false prophet, and the devil—“tormented day and night for ever and ever.” This is clearly symbolic language. In the larger story-line of Revelation, the beast and false prophet represent persecuting civil government and its cohort, corrupt false religion. Neither institution can suffer conscious, sensible pain.  (p247)

The reality, inevitability, and finality of this destiny awaiting the damned is encapsulated in a phrase found in both Old and New Testaments: “a consuming fire.” For the first century-and-a-half of the Christian era, this remained the view of the early church fathers whose writings remain.  (p253)

…the Apologists, converted Greek philosophers who brought into the Christian church the Greek dogma of the immortality of the soul.  (p263)

The three major views of final punishment can be identified and distinguished by the purpose that one ascribes to the fire of hell: whether the fire is consuming (conditionalist), torturing (traditionalist), or purifying (restorationist).  (p274)

Throughout Scripture, God warns the wicked of final punishment in the fire that consumes. During the second century AD, Tertullian and other fathers introduced the understanding of hell as the fire that torments forever. And, a century later, Origen introduced the interpretation of hell as the fire that purifies and results in universal reconciliation. But the two men most responsible for the present popularity of the doctrine of unending conscious torment are Augustine (fifth century), through whose influence Tertullian’s view became Catholic orthodoxy, and John Calvin (sixteenth century), whose influence was largely responsible for bringing Roman Catholic traditionalism on hell into Protestant orthodoxy.  (p297)

Larry Dixon makes the point: “If God can use a burning bush to communicate to his chosen person in Exod 3 without consuming it,” Dixon notes, “who is to say that his fire of judgment cannot punish those who refuse to believe the gospel without consuming them? (cf. Dan 3:19–27)” And, of course, he is correct that God is able to do that very thing. But where, we should ask, does God ever indicate that he intends to do such a thing?  (p299)

Martin Luther said little about man’s supposed natural immortality or about his “soul” as a separable part of his being. He wrote on many occasions of death as a “sleep.” Between death and resurrection, Luther pictured the deceased as having no consciousness of anything—although this sleep was sweet and peaceful for the righteous. In the resurrection, believers would hear Christ’s gentle voice calling them and arise. Their period of death would then seem only a moment, as when one falls asleep at night and “instantly” wakes to find the morning.  (p309)

Among those in Great Britain who have publicly rejected traditionalism’s doctrine of unending conscious torment are F. F. Bruce, John W. Wenham, Stephen Travis, Michael Green, Richard Bauckham, N. T. Wright, I. Howard Marshall, and John R. W. Stott.  (p349)

To sin against God is to offend an infinite Person, Anselm argued, and infinite sin requires infinite penalty. For finite humans, that means suffering for an infinite period of time. The argument is based on notions of feudalistic law that contradicted Old Testament revelation and that enlightened people reject today.  (p367)

We grant to traditionalists the fact that words like “perish,” “destroy,” “die,” and “corrupt” all can have metaphorical usages. However, figurative meanings are possible only because of primary meanings. It is an accepted principle of interpretation that words in non-apocalyptic or poetic literature have their primary meaning unless the context indicates otherwise. Conditionalists take the words at face value regarding final punishment; traditionalists need to show good cause for explaining them all away.  (p370)

There are approximately one thousand verses in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation that relate, in varying degrees of clarity, intensity, and certitude, to the final extinction of the wicked. If we are willing to define biblical figures and ciphers by their biblical usage, I believe that there are only two passages that are difficult to reconcile with extinction. Both texts are in Revelation (14:9–11; 20:10) and both are heavily symbolic. Of course, the advocates of unending conscious torment do not share my evaluation.  (p373 fn)

The wicked also will be raised, but “unto condemnation” and not unto “eternal life.” They are not immortal by nature, and God does not give them immortality in the resurrection. Instead, God expels them from his presence to a place where there is weeping and grinding of teeth. Scripture calls this place hell and the lake of fire. It is the site of the second death, that ultimate, infinite capital punishment that destroys the whole person forever. Here Jesus’ warning becomes reality: God indeed destroys both soul and body in hell.  (p373)

This is a heavyweight volume aimed at those able to grapple with exposition based on the original biblical languages—though you don’t need to know those languages yourself.

If you are looking for a simpler, summary approach to the subject, Edward Fudge has also produced Hell: A Final Word (Leafwood Publishers, 2012. ISBN: 978-089112-149-7).

On the same topic and reviewed on this website:

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