Hell Isn’t Forever: A Partial and Incomplete Case
What is Annihilationism?
The belief that those who go to hell will also, in the end, perish from the universe is a position known as annihilationism. In other words, hell exists, but it is not forever, and no one must suffer eternal conscious torment in hell. Conditional immortality is another name for this belief with emphasis being placed on the idea that only those who are saved through Christ receive the gift of immortality. (II Cor.5:1-5) The soul is not seen as immortal in and of itself, but rather immortality is the gift of God received when we get our new bodies. Those who are saved will live forever with God. However, those who have rejected Him are literally destroyed, that is, they perish as it states in John 3:16. Their conscious existence ceases when they are thrown into the Lake of Fire. Hell exists (or Gehenna), but it is the holding place where people await their destruction. Hell is not a never ending, conscious eternal torment. Rather, hell itself is eventually destroyed when it is thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev.20:14).When I first encountered this doctrine, it was still pretty much “outside the orthodox box,” and that troubled me. It took me about 3 years to reach the point of just admitting this doctrine was a possible interpretation of scripture. Then as I began to allow for the possibility and to read the Bible with an openness to this idea, I saw things I had never seen before. Within another few years I was completely convinced. It was definitely a long process, but then this was a huge change in perspective from what I had been brought up to think was the only viable Biblical doctrine. Now, more theologians have come into the annihilationism camp, John Stott being the foremost of these, making this perspective more acceptable among evangelicals.
The realization that hell was a temporary holding ground and would not last forever was definitely a comfort, though I did not grasp hold of it for that reason, but it is definitely one reason I am motivated to share it. Still, I only want this post to go to those who are genuinely interested. I don’t really care to rock anyone’s doctrinal boat. Belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the keystone of our faith. Ultimately, it is all that really matters. The rest is small stuff. So this is, relatively speaking, small stuff.
I have always been one who could put things on a shelf for God to explain later, so I wasn’t unduly troubled by the teaching that there would be lost souls who would be tortured forever in hell. It didn’t make a lot of sense in light of God’s love, and it certainly was not a pleasing doctrine, but I thought I had no choice scripturally (surely this was a sure thing and completely spelled out there), so I figured I had to keep this one on the shelf for later. It never occurred to me to question it. God is good and loving and just and I knew that was true. I knew there would always be some things I did not understand, too, and I was fairly comfortable thinking that He would somehow make this infinite punishment more palatable when I had His perspective in the afterlife. However, I had run into Christian friends who had been so troubled at times by the standard version of hell that it messed with their whole view of God and they just couldn’t seem to get past that. They believed, they trusted, but there was always this fear and a little edge of distrust, too, and it always seemed to go back to, “How can He do that?” (torturing people forever). So I’m writing this for them. Of course, there are other articles out there on the internet explaining conditional immortality, but I wanted to get my thoughts on the subject down on paper anyway, so this is my attempt to explain the main reasons and most of all, the primary scriptures, that swung me over and helped me to escape the dark side (I can’t resist calling it that). Other Christians can stay on the dark side if they want to. But it is certainly happier over here. That’s not any kind of sound reason to change one’s beliefs, of course! We should seek the truth whether it makes us comfortable or not. But a certain theological relief and metaphysical peace have been a very nice fruit of this truth for me.
A Corollary teaching
Along with the whole hell-isn’t-forever proposition, there is a corollary teaching that goes part and parcel with unconditional immortality, and rather than strain in an attempt to avoid it, I am just going to deal with it, too. It is the idea that when we die, we actually do die, or as Paul always and without exception puts it: we are “asleep in Christ.” The reason these two suppositions (of being asleep in Christ and of hell not being conscious eternal torment) go hand-in-hand is that humans must have some kind of innate immortality in order for a human to stay consciously alive in hell forever. Immortality must be a given for both the wicked as well as the righteous. So the idea is that when we die, we actually die. There is no natural immortality before the resurrection, no floating in heaven before getting our spiritual bodies on Resurrection Day, no conscious existence at all between the time of our natural death and Jesus’ return. The resurrection is the door to the afterlife and we all go together! The second you close your eyes in the sleep of death — “in the wink of an eye” you might say — you’ll hear the trumpet sound and see Jesus coming to meet us in the clouds. This state of unconsciousness or death (where you are still held secure in Christ) is often referred to as “soul sleep.” I like Paul’s term “asleep in Christ” better simply because it is Biblical terminology.
The idea of death really being death (and not floating off into a disembodied afterlife) is a Jewish concept which got smothered in Greek Platonic thought as Gentiles took over the Church. Though many folks throughout the ages have held onto conditional immortality, clearly the predominant view of Christians from the middle ages onward is not that we “sleep in Christ” when we die, but that we are conscious and awake awaiting (in heaven or in purgatory) the resurrection of our new bodies. However, the idea of being “asleep in Christ” is entirely orthodox. It does not contradict the Nicene or Apostle’s Creeds, for instance. Neither does the idea of a time limit on one’s torment in hell. Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith people would eat me alive…slowly. After all, they are not averse to slow, unending torture.
During the Reformation, Christians began throwing out Roman Catholic ideas about the afterlife such as purgatory. A surprising number went back to the idea of being asleep in Christ (see the quotes from both Luther and Tyndale below). But over time, the old ideas held on and took back over, though there are disagreements as to what people were actually believing about heaven and hell from the 1500’s onward.
Luther and Tyndale on “soul sleep:
“As soon as thy eyes have closed shalt thou be woken, a thousand years shall be as if thou hadst slept but a little half hour. Just as at night we hear the clock strike and know not how long we have slept, so too, and how much more, are in death a thousand years soon past. Before a man should turn round, he is already a fair angel.”
Martin Luther, WA 37.191
“And ye, in putting them [the departed souls] in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection…And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?”
William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue (1530)
Conditional immortality goes hand in hand with annihilationism because it insists that only those who are saved receive immortal bodies (II Cor 5:4). Those who are in that “second resurrection,” as mentioned in Revelation, are resurrected but only as Lazarus was, for he kept his mortal body even though Jesus brought him back from the dead. Lazarus went on to finally die a natural death later on. Likewise, after judgement, those who are not saved will be cast into the Lake of Fire and, because they do not have immortal bodies, they will perish in the fire.
Oh, Dear, Whose Camp Am I In Now?
As my views changed on the subject of hell and what happens immediately when we die, I came to the uncomfortable realization that I was now in the same camp as some Christian groups with whom I have major disagreements, groups such as Seventh Day Adventists, who are Christians but definitely in a different ballpark from my own, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are in a different stadium in another country.
But there are some respected names among mainline evangelical theologians, too, who support this view. John Stott, mentioned above, and F.F. Bruce come to mind. Here’s a list of some people who have either made statements that at least leaned toward the conditional immortality camp or who have been staunch supporters of it:
Click on the names to get whatever background is being used to support putting this person in this camp.
If your soul is not immortal, what is it?
The popular conception is that your soul is your disembodied self. But man does not “have” a soul. Rather, he is a soul. Genesis 2:7 says “and man became a living soul.” (Hebrew: nephesh, or living being). Dualism (the idea that body and soul are two separate natures) is of Greek origin, not Jewish. The Jews saw man as having one nature.
For instance–Job 6:7
“Can something tasteless be eaten without saltOr is there any taste in the white of an egg?
My soul refuses to touch them;
They are like loathsome food to me.”
This is just one of many examples. “Soul” here obviously is not the non-physical part of Job, but instead his entire being for it both touches and tastes. The Bible often refers to the “heart and soul,” as in, we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. So the answer to what is “soul” is not simple, but I wanted to make clear that a basic tenant of CI (conditional immortality) is that a soul is more like what man is in toto– a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual being, rather than just the stripped-down, non-physical part that somehow lives on after death.
The invasion of Platonism
The early church was predominantly Jewish, of course. Then over the first three centuries the Gentile converts grew in number until they were the vast and overwhelming majority. The Gentiles brought with them a Greek, not Jewish, world view full of preconceptions, a sort of Platonic lens through which they viewed everything including scripture. According to Greek thought (Plato and others), the soul was immortal but it was trapped inside a degrading element: the body. The body, and really all matter, was inherently inferior. It was only the non-physical side of man that was pure and good. Death was viewed by Plato as a release from the body and all of evil matter which had restricted and limited it in this life. The soul would live on after death free at last from its mortal “prison.” This thinking was absorbed into the church as Greek Christians flooded in with their Platonic preconceptions and beliefs. Jewish metaphysical concepts were relegated to the side. Scripture came to be interpreted through this Greek lens.
To illustrate this a bit, look at how we use the term “Platonic relationship.” We mean a relationship that is not physical. Nowadays we are simply being descriptive, but in the past this term meant that the relationship was on a higher plane and of purer essence because it was not sensual in any sense. This was Greek not Jewish thinking. The Jews celebrated sensuality in its rightful place. Food, sex, work, play–earthy stuff–were all part of God’s good creation. But the Greeks would have it that the non-physical is the only thing that is pure and good. These ideas crept into the church during the Middle Ages so much so that there were all sorts of dissertations written on exactly what kind of desire a husband could have for his wife, with some even claiming that any sexual desire at all was sin! If you’ve ever wondered at the attitudes of the medieval church toward sex, just look toward Greek philosophy. The deprecation of the physical desires in and of themselves is not Jewish in origin, far from it. The Jews celebrated the goodness of creation and a God who was passionate and involved in world, a God who compared his love with a husband for a wife and constantly spoke in terms of agriculture and sex using analogies from the wonderful physical nature he had made (e.g., his word being “his seed” which brings forth fruit). The Bible is a pretty earthy text once you take your Platonic blinders off (coming to us even more recently from the overly prudish Victorian Era). The entire book of the Song of Solomon is about sex between a husband and wife and has always been considered also as a metaphor for God and Israel. This alone points to a drastic difference between Greek thought and Jewish thought. But the early church was flooded with Greek thinking. Christians were reading the Bible through their own cultural lens, scrubbing off the more earthy Judaisms as best they could. As Paul said, “we see through a glass darkly” on this side of life.
Perhaps the best example of how Greek thinking won out over a Jewish mind-set is the fact that we celebrate Easter on a pagan holiday and not at Passover. The Jewish Christians fought to keep the celebration in sinc with the Jewish feast of Passover–the time the crucifixion and resurrection actually occurred–yet Gentile Christians thought the Jewish calendar was too unfamiliar and difficult to follow (as if the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox was easy). So, even though God had deliberately made the dates to coincide, the 4th century church took the beautiful symbol of the Passover lamb, who’s blood on the doorposts made the angel of death “pass over” you, and separated it from its literal prophetic fulfillment. Only in recent years have Christians begun to incorporate Passover seders with Easter celebrations. But it took two millennia to get back this lost connection. So don’t underestimate the sweeping nature of the Gentile/Platonic perspective in the early Church and its opposition to a Jewish perspective. Anti-Semitism was already a scarlet thread running through the fabric of the early church by the end of the 3rd century.
So what is the “spirit” of man?
So what about the word “spirit”? We know the spirit goes to God upon death because Stephen cried out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirt.” And also Jesus himself on the cross said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Verses throughout old and new refer to the spirit returning to God upon death. In Hebrew, “spirit” is “ruwach” which basically means “breath” and is often translated as simply breath.(look up the Hebrew here)
The spirit is the life force given to all men– somewhat similar to the light in a light bulb. Upon death, the light goes out, the spirit returns to God. For example, Jesus said “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit” when he died, and yet we know that Jesus himself did not ascend to His Father at that time with his spirit because he tells Mary outside the tomb immediately after the resurrection that “he has not yet ascended to the Father.” So, his spirit, whatever else it was, was not “him.”
If you’re interested in pursuing this topic of what the spirit is, my article is not the place. As I said, this is “partial and incomplete.” But I want you to just get the general idea so you can follow the logic. I don’t expect to convince anyone right-off, but just to give you the basics of what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.
Research you might want to pursue on this topic: the word “spirit” used in the Old Testament, where’s it’s used, how it’s used, what Hebrew word it is translating. Who has a “spirit” (it is actually the same word used when God gives life to animals in Genesis).
Key theological premises of annihilationism along with some of the scriptural back-up (enough at least to get you going):
At death we actually die (since we are not naturally immortal).
When God told Adam and Eve they would “surely die,” he meant it. It was Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece, and every other pagan civilization that believed the “soul” or some version of it lived on somehow after death. They were believing the lie Satan told Eve when he said, “You shall not surely die.” But the Jews did not think that. It was death and then resurrection in their minds. This idea separated them from every other religion. We have lost sight of how incredibly unique is this whole belief in a resurrection. When Paul presented the gospel to the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17), they were receptive until he got to the part about the resurrection. Then that broke the discussion up and most of the audience was upset and walked away. Resurrection as the doorway to an afterlife stood in direct opposition to the Greek idea of freeing the soul from its “prison” of the material body.
Genesis 3:19 By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.”
Ecc.12:7 “then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
Daniel 12:13 “But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age.”
In other words, we really are “asleep in Christ” when we die as Paul, without exception, put it. And why do we never use that phrase ourselves even though it is the one used in the New Testament? Maybe it’s because we don’t believe exactly what Paul believed.
1 Corinthians 15:17-18 If Christ has not been raised…then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
1 Thessalonians 4:15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
- We are not conscious during this sleep of death.
Psalm 115:17 It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to silence;
Ecclesiastes 9:5 “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing”
The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence;
Lazarus — after he was raised from the dead by Jesus had nothing to say about “seeing a light” or “going toward the light” or any sort of out-of-body experience. Why is that? (Could have just been left out, of course).
- We never exist without some kind of body. In other words, we go directly from this sinful body of corruption to the immortal body prepared for us by God. (We are never floating spirits waiting for bodies)
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent , we groan and are burdened because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. [2 Cor.5]
- Upon death, our spirit returns to God. Your spirit is your “breath” — like the light in a light bulb which goes out.
Ecc.12:7 “then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
- The resurrection is the door to the afterlife. We all wake up together on resurrection day. The only exceptions are a few people who have already been “translated” (received their new bodies) — Elijah, Elisha, Moses, Enoch. They are already alive, awake, in heaven with God. They have already been resurrected. Thus Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in the Transfiguration.
- Evil and all unsaved people literally perish at the end. God does not want to immortalize evil, but rather to wipe it off the face of the universe. The unsaved DO get resurrected (the “second resurrection” of Revelation), but they are “resurrected unto judgment.” People are resurrected, judged, and if their name is not in the book of life, they perish (literally) in the Lake of Fire. If anyone at all in this resurrection does get saved (a debatable issue), they are given new immortal bodies then and receive eternal life. This makes sense of verses like John 3:16 where we learn as children “that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” You no longer are forced to re-invent what “perish” means! And this is just one of numerous verses where our minds have been trained not to hear what we are really saying!
- Death and Hell are both destroyed. In Revelation 20:14 it says that Death and Hell were thrown into the Lake of Fire. Again, God is in the business of wiping out sin and death from the universe, not in preserving pain, agony and suffering forever. That’s what the Lake of Fire is all about. It is a death from which no one returns or gets resurrected, that is, it is a permanent death, or eternal death, eternal and everlasting punishment. God is saying this one is final, irreversible, THE END. Eternal death means permanent death. In a universe where resurrections are possible, that has essential meaning! God wants to make sure we understand that there is no coming back, or resurrection, after this one. It’s forever, amen.
- The Bible says death itself is destroyed in the end. Proponents of a conscious hell say that the opposit of eternal life is eternal “death,” and they redefine “death” to mean conscious torment. Yet, one cannot claim hell continues forever by saying it is an “eternal death” because we know that death itself gets destroyed. I Cor. 15:26 says “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” On the other hand, neither can they say that hell is a type of “eternal life” because it is clear in scripture that only the redeemed receive eternal “life.”
Some of the Problem Texts that need to be addressed:
(And remember, almost any doctrine has some problem texts and then texts that support it. One must decide which bear the greatest weight.)
One of the verses that uses the term “eternal punishment.”
But “eternal” can mean a permanent—forever—no coming back punishment. This is a very important concept in a universe where humans can be raised from the dead.
Jude 6–a good one—says the angels are being kept “in utter darkness locked up for the day of judgement”
Again that doesn’t say what happens to them after judgement. They are in hell now for sure.
“...but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
There again hell (or Gehenna) is being described where they are in the outer darkness and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But this could easily be describing the holding cell before the day when all designated for destruction are thrown into the lake of fire. Then “hell itself (death and Hades) is cast into the lake of fire” in Rev. 20:14.
This is an especially good one to deal with because it explicitly says torture. So someone with the mark of the beast will be “tortured with fire and sulfur” —that can be the experience of being thrown into the lake of fire. Then it says “the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever.” But notice the author specifies that it is the smoke that does this. It doesn’t say the pain of their torture, but rather the smoke which stands forever as a memorial to God’s justice and his complete condemnation of sin.
2 Thess 1:9–
“They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction” Here again it means permanently destroyed. Absolutely no coming back from this one.
A Good Summary Argument From Scott McKnight’s blog “Jesus Creed” –This is not a quote from Scott McKnight himself, but a well-worded comment made in response to a blog post discussion on hell:
Over two decades of small-church pastoring has afforded me much time to read and meditate upon scripture. Some of the defining issues on this subject for me include: 1) the infrequency of the mention of hell (including its absence from the writings of Paul); 2) the conflation of the words/concepts ‘Sheol/Hades’ and ‘Gehenna’ under the single rubric ‘Hell’ in the Christian tradition; 3) the utter ‘failure’ of the evangelists in Acts to use the potential of everlasting conscious torment as a motivation to conversion; & 4) the preponderance of terms such as ‘death’, ‘perishing’ and ‘destruction’ to describe the ultimate fate of the unredeemed.
Add to all of that the fact that the basic teaching of the initial covenant under which all mankind lives – the one which our primeval ancestors violated – is that eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would result in death. This, along with other factors, has led me to a tentative embrace of the doctrine of Conditional Immortality, and the ultimate annihilation of the unrepentant.
What does this mean for Christian ministry? That’s the big question, isn’t it? It frees us to do what both Jesus and Paul (Acts 28:31) did: proclaim the Kingdom of God. The salvation we preach becomes more of a salvation ‘to’ something than a salvation ‘from’ something. There are still very big consequences for rejection of the Good News, but everlasting conscious torment is not one of them.
~Comment by jayflm — September 27, 2010 @ 10:25 am
Some concluding comments that summarize my main points:
- I am absolutely not claiming that there is no hell. Also this certainly is not a case for some kind of universalism. I am not saying that hell does not exist or that no one goes there. Jesus made that clear with his description of the outer darkness where there is “weeping and knashing of teeth.” But it is a temporary holding ground, a comparatively quick, one time thing, and hell itself gets destroyed. No one gets immortality except those who, one way or another, believed in or received the Lord.
- God does not torture anyone. Just think…torture was never one of the options in Levitical law for punishment, so why would God himself do it? God never recommends any form of torture for even the worst sins. He never even recommends imprisonment. It’s all about recompense, or quick consequences, with death as the ultimate consequence, And on an eternal level, death would mean annihilation. You have to totally reinvent the term “perish,” “destruction,” and “death” in order to interpret those verses that use such terms as meaning some kind of conscious existence in a horrible place. No matter how bad hell is, if you’re there forever that is by definition immortality, albeit an unpleasant one! There is a ton of Biblical evidence for the belief that we are now quite mortal. There is substantial evidence that this was the belief of the early church, and it was the rampant influx of all the Gentiles into the Church, who brought along all their Platonic ideas, that over-turned the more Jewish view on life after death.
- God is not in the business of preserving evil, but rather in wiping it off the face of the universe. That’s what the Lake of Fire is all about. It’s final, irreversable, that’s all she wrote, THE END.
- And finally, we cannot claim hell continues forever by saying it is “eternal death” because we know that death itself is destroyed.
26 The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. – 1 Cor 15:22-26
Death itself gets destroyed, not immortalized. So if conscious torment did go on forever, it would be a kind of painful, horror-filled, eternal life not death. But only the saved are given eternal life, so isn’t annihilation of the unsaved the only thing left as a viable interpretation?
Links for further study:
Probably my favorite article on the subject of hell is at the following link. It is an excellent apology for annihilationism by a theologian with a super-abundance of scripture references. Written by Greg Boyd–
And read about who Greg Boyd is–
And if you follow this link you’ll find another good article:
Finally, for a healthy rebuttal of annihilationism, see J.I. Packer’s
It’s always best to read the best of both sides to an argument. This article by Packer will give you some more clues about the debate and, obviously, each of his points would need to be addressed to your own satisfaction.