There is a view espoused by many individuals within Christian circles who don't believe in the ongoing reality of hell neither it's eternal punishment. That view is called Annihilationism. Here is a working definition of this view:
Annihilationism ~"A Christian doctrine that sinners are destroyed rather than tormented forever in "hell" or the lake of fire. It is directly related to the doctrine of conditional immortality, the idea that a human soul is not immortal unless it is given eternal life. Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. Some annihilationists believe the wicked will be punished for their sins in the lake of fire before being annihilated, others that hell is a false doctrine of pagan origin."
Now, in my previous post, Does The Bible Teach A Literal Hell, we addressed the fact that hell is taught throughout the bible and that hell is a literal and not merely figurative place. In fact hell as is taught throughout scripture is a place of ongoing conscious reality and one of torment.
However under the annihilationist construct, there is an emotional appeal to a western sense of morality and guilt based righteousness. Hell either does not exist as a literal place or abode, or is a temporary place of punishment described with figurative terminology specifying extinction rather than an ongoing conscious reality of suffering. Scriptures such as Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10, which are used to claim that there is no consciousness or pain beyond death and Malachai 4:1, and Mt. 10:28, claiming that the destruction of the individual in hell is actually the extinction of the individual rather than eternal ongoing punishment.
Just in case you were wondering, this view is not relegated to the biblically illiterate or intellectual slouch. In fact it has been gaining acceptance in some scholarly circles, particularly reformed theology circles and threatens to be a doctrine that the church should draw out and examine more thoroughly. One quote by a famous scholar supporting this doctrine is from the late and highly referenced historical document scholar F.F.Bruce:
Is Eternal Conscious Torment Incompatible With The Character Of God?"annihilation is certainly an acceptable interpretation of the relevant New Testament passages ... For myself, I remain agnostic. Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God." [Letter from F. F. Bruce to John Stott in 1989, as quoted in John Stott: A Global Ministry, 354]
There are 4 primary objections to the eternal nature of hell that I'll address and then conclude with what I believe is a better biblical construct of hell, its purpose and its eternal nature.
"Hell is eternal. men are finite. Therefore finite men will not suffer in eternal hell."
This usually goes along with something like this also:
"The punishment of an eternal hell and suffering is disproportionate to the sins of humanity because humans are finite and sins are finite. Therefore for a finite being to suffer in an infinite way especially because of finite sin would be unjust. "
These are popular questions/assertion of the atheistic, agnostic and other biblical liberals, claiming that God is somehow unjust for rendering 1- a punishment upon beings that he knew would fail and 2- making that punishment conscious and eternal. that combination causes the critic such as F.F. Bruce (who's critical on this issue only) to digress into the more sensitive parts of the nature of God such as his love and mercy.
Although I won't oversimplify why people believe the aspects of God's mercy overshadow the aspects of his justice, I believe part of the reason that a persons don't fully comprehend why the suffering of hell is and should be eternal. This is because within our society there is no distinction between shame and honor culture punishments and guilt culture punishments.
In his article "Shame-culture band Guilt-culture" James Atherton details the difference in why and when a person is "guilty" or held culpable for their crimes or accusations against them in a shame-honor culture contrasted to a guilt culture. In a shame-honor culture the guilt could be long before a magistrate or police are involved and may not necessarily involve police at all. The shame comes when things are noised throughout the community and when one is shamed by the belief of the community or the group to which one belongs. This was the setting of the bible historically, and was the culture of Jewish community in Jesus' day.
On the contrary within western society, we are in what is called a "guilt culture" where one is innocent until proven guilty and the opinions of others don't matter until one can be found guilty. In fact most courts also dole out sentences based on one's remorse even if they are not guilty of the offense. One could be found innocent legally and yet be dreadfully sahmed, but there is usually no credit or penalty given for shame.
Within a shame culture the penalty of that shame lasts until it is compensated or accounted for or until the shame is removed.
This is not uncommon to us in America. We have all heard the saying that there is "honor among thieves" for example. What does that mean? That there is a certain sense of shame that comes to a thief who dishonors another. The ultimate price for that dishonor may be a "hit" placed on the guilty party. That penalty lasts until there is proper compensation for the original dishonor.
With this is mind the death of Jesus is best understood as a "substitutionary shame culture sacrifice", where Jesus took upon himself the shame in our place:
Hebrews 12:2 ~ "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising THE SHAME, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Back To Hell and Everlasting Punishment:
In the NT we see Jesus we see Jesus describing hell as a place of "outer darkness" and "weeping and gnashing of teeth". (Mt. 8:12, Mt. 22:13, Mt.24:51, Mt. 25:30 & Lk. 13:28) In all instances of the message of hell in the NT it was also clear that:
1- Individuals in hell were consciously aware of it
2- Individuals in hell received punishment in proportion to their works or inactions
2- Individuals in hell received punishment in proportion to their works or inactions
3- Individuals in hell were not tortured but lived in torment consciously.
4- Part of that torment included a conscious realization of actions or inactions in their prior existence.
5- At no time do wee see Jesus describe a non-conscious torment or one where those who were in torment were unaware of their presence or the effects of their presence.
To Disbelieve God Is The Ultimate Dishonor To Him Requiring A "Shame-Honor" Offering Or Atonement.
As stated a shame-honor atonement is exactly what Jesus experienced upon the cross in dying for our sins. This paid the penalty of the shame brought upon all mankind in a substitutionary way God is our God and as much as we state that he is our friend, he is not merely a "friend" in the sense of someone to whom we don't have to worry about being accountable. This sheds light on the eternality of hell. If there has been no substitution for the ultimate dishonor portrayed toward God there is no payment for the sin or dishonor. Therefore the penalty is in full effect for the duration of the being exacting the penalty. If God is eternal the penalty would also be expected to be eternal along with him.
The critic draws parallels stating that
"Even children aren't punished indefinitely or in some way into oblivion by loving parents."
The criticism further states:
"God couldn't be a loving father punishing his children forever."
However, is this an adequate parallel? Does this damage the concept of a biblical hell or relegate it to a mere control mechanism? Is nature and character of God repudiated by these statements?
In light of the information on the "shame-honor culture" in which the bible was written in Objection 1, and the additional understanding of the nature of sin and son-ship, I think not. First, the reality is that the punishment of hell is proportionate to the acts that it took to place one there. Therefore all acts of sin will not be punished to the same degree. Further, when it is considered that the nature of God is holy and that God does not entertain sin and that all sin dishonors him it becomes more understandable to see why there must be a penalty to and for all sin. Further, it is the sin of unbelief which is the arch dishonor to God. Unbelief is the root of all sin and uncleanliness and the determining factor of whether one is a "child" of God or not. In other words all humans aren't children of God. Only them that obey him and the obedient receive no punishment. (1 Thess. 5:9) I'll explain:
The Effect Of Sin
Throughout the NT unbelief was seen as the prohibitor of mighty works (Mt. 13:58), the damper to faith in God (Rom. 3:3), the restricting agent of the OT Israelites from fully receiving the promise (Heb. 3:19) and ultimately the whole reason that sin entered into the world. (Rom. 5:12)
The biblical command from the beginning was for man to be holy (Lev. 20:7, 1Pet. 1:15-16). God's nature has always been holy from eternity. Sin caused dishonor and the ultimate rift between God and man:
Isaiah 59:2~ "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid [his] face from you, that he will not hear"
The first preparation that God made for man was covering the effects and result of his sins:
Genesis 3:21~"Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them."
Then there is the consideration that there was no sin in Jesus (2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Pet. 2:22) and (1 Jn. 3:5) and that Jesus was the covering and propitiation for sin from the beginning of creation (as would be required as God operates from eternity)
Revelation 13:8 ~"And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."
The Mishandling Of Inheritance
What this says is that sin is the only inhibitor to all men when it comes to relationship to God and his word and that all begins living in unbelief cannot and will not inherit the promises of God. Using the cultural motif once again, In ANE (Ancient Near East) times true children would have been expected to believe their fathers (parents also) and obey their will. This was an especially important thing to do for the firstborn son as the inheritance of the family would automatically fall to him.
Example: Esau had been raised all of his life to know what his birthright was and its importance. The Abrahamic promise had been rehearsed to him practically since the womb. He had been versed in the customs of family and history, and knew that he and his family was a part of God's promise to the Earth:
Genesis 17:7 ~ "And I will establish my covenant between me and THEE AND THY SEED after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee."
Genesis 22:16-18 ~ "16-And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only [son]: 17-That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which [is] upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18-And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice."
For a bowl of soup (pottage) Esau sold his future. Did that make him less than Issac's son? No, he remained a son, but he lost the priority and favor of his inheritance forever because he did not believe in the importance of his birthright.
Any "priority" that Esau may have had was immediately lost even though he was the eldest son. Even though the blessing had to be pronounced, he lost the blessing of God that day in all actuality.Genesis 25:31-34 ~ "31-And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. 32-And Esau said, Behold, I [am] at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? 33-And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. 34- Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised [his] birthright."
The Effect Of Son-ship
Individuals are in a similar boat to Esau today except the stakes are based on a far greater eternal inheritance. Contrary to what the song said, we are NOT all God's children. One is not a child or a "son" of God, in God's eyes unless one receives, believes and obeys. (John 1:12, Rom. 8:14, 1 John 3:1) Jesus called all others born of their father, "the devil". That puts an end to the claim that any of God's children receive punishment in hell. God's "children" don't receive eternal punishment as they identify the father clearly in all they do.
John 8:44 ~"Ye are of [your] father THE DEVIL, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."
In Pt. 2 of this study I will outline and address 2 additional objections to the eternality of hell and lay down various reasons why I believe that it is an improper biblical interpretation to claim that the effects of hell are eternal while the conscious condition of hell is not. More specifically I plan to deal with the following objections:
Objection III: "Hell wasn't created for men therefore men won't continue to suffer in it."
Objection IV: "The Greek words used to describe the longevity of hell "aionios" is also used to describe a non eternal time frame. Therefore hell is temporary in nature."
Continue To Pt. 2 Of This Article