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HELL - TORMENT OR ANNIHILATION?

Part 1

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.

[Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9]

Few teachings have troubled the human conscience over the centuries more than the traditional view of hell as the place where the lost suffer conscious punishment in body and soul for all eternity. The prospect that one day a vast number of people will be consigned to the everlasting torment of hell is most disturbing and distressing to sensitive Christians. After all, almost everyone has friends or family members who have died without making a commitment to Christ. The prospect of one day seeing them agonizing in hell for all eternity can easily lead thinking Christians to say to God: "No thank you God. I am not interested in Your kind of paradise!"

It is not surprising that the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment has been a stumbling block for believers and an effective weapon used by skeptics to challenge the credibility of the Christian message. For example, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), a British philosopher and social reformer, faulted Christ for allegedly teaching the doctrine of hellfire and for the untold cruelty such a doctrine has caused in Christian history.

Russell wrote: "There is one serious defect to my mind in Christís moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching, an attitude which is common with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. . . . I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world. . . . I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hellfire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that."1

Russellís charge that Christ is "partly responsible" for the doctrine of everlasting punishment which "gave the world generations of cruel torture" cannot be dismissed lightly as the fruit of an agnostic mind. If Christ really taught that the saved will enjoy eternal bliss while the unsaved will suffer eternal torment in hellfire, then we would have reason to question the moral integrity of His character. It is hard to imagine that the God whom Jesus Christ revealed as the merciful "Abba? Father" would wreak vengeance on His disobedient children by torturing them for all eternity!

It is not surprising that today we seldom hear sermons on hellfire even from fundamentalist preachers, who theoretically are still committed to such a belief. John Walvoord, himself a fundamentalist, suggests that the reluctance to preach on hellfire is due primarily to the fear of proclaiming an unpopular doctrine.2 In my view, the problem is not merely the reluctance of preachers today to tell the truth about hell, but primarily the awareness that the traditional view of hellfire is morally intolerable and Biblically questionable.

Clark Pinnock keenly observes: "Their reticence [to preach on hellfire] is not so much due to a lack of integrity in proclaiming the truth as to not having the stomach for preaching a doctrine that amounts to sadism raised to new levels of finesse. Something inside tells them, perhaps on an instinctual level, that the God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not the kind of deity who tortures people (even the worst of sinners) in this way. I take the silence of the fundamentalist preachers to be testimony to their longing for a revised doctrine of the nature of hell."3 It is such a longing, I believe, that is encouraging theologians today to revise the traditional view of hell and to propose alternative interpretations of the scriptural data.

Objectives of This Chapter. The issue addressed in this chapter is not the fact of hell as the final punishment of the lost, but the nature of hell. The fundamental question is: Do impenitent sinners suffer conscious punishment in body and soul for all eternity, or are they annihilated by God in the second death after suffering a temporary punishment? To put it differently: Does hellfire torment the lost eternally or consume them permanently?

This fundamental question is examined first by analyzing the traditional view and then by presenting the annihilation view, to which I subscribe. The first part of the chapter analyzes the major Biblical texts and arguments used to support the literal view of hell as the place of a literal everlasting punishment of the wicked.

The second part of this chapter considers briefly two alternative interpretations of hell. The first is the metaphorical view, which regards hell as a place where the suffering is more mental than physical. The fire is not literal but metaphorical, and the pain is caused more by the sense of separation from God than by physical torments.4 The second is the universalist view of hell, which turns hell into a purging, refining fire that ultimately makes it possible for every person to make it into heaven.

The third part of this chapter presents the annihilation view of hell as a place of the ultimate dissolution and annihilation of the unsaved. Some call this view conditional immortality, because our study of the Biblical wholistic view of human nature shows that immortality is not an innate human possession; it is a divine gift granted to believers on condition of their faith response. God will not resurrect the wicked to immortal life in order to inflict upon them a punishment of eternal pain. Rather, the wicked will be resurrected mortal in order to receive their punishment which will result in their ultimate annihilation.

Some may question our use of "annihilation" for the destiny of the wicked, because the first law of thermodynamics says that nothing is destroyed but changed into something else. When corpses are burned, their smoke and ashes remain. This is true, but what remains is no longer human life. From a Biblical perspective, the fire that consumes the wicked annihilates them as human beings.

PART I: THE TRADITIONAL VIEW OF HELL

With few exceptions, the traditional view of hell has dominated Christian thinking from the time of Augustine to the nineteenth century. Simply stated, the traditional view affirms that immediately after death the disembodied souls of impenitent sinners descend into hell, where they suffer the punishment of a literal eternal fire. At the resurrection, the body is reunited with the soul, thus intensifying the pain of hell for the lost and the pleasure of heaven for the saved.

Graphic Views of Hell. Not satisfied with the image of fire and smoke of the New Testament, some of the more creative medieval minds have pictured hell as a bizarre horror chamber where punishment is based on a measure-for-measure principle. This means that whatever member of the body sinned, that member would be punished in hell more than any other member.

"In Christian literature," writes William Crockett, "we find blasphemers hanging by their tongues. Adulterous women who plaited their hair to entice men dangle over boiling mire by their neck or hair. Slanderers chew their tongues, hot irons burn their eyes. Other evildoers suffer in equally picturesque ways. Murderers are cast into pits filled with venomous reptiles, and worms fill their bodies. Women who had abortions sit neck deep in the excretions of the damned. Those who chatted idly during church stand in a pool of burning sulphur and pitch. Idolaters are driven up cliffs by demons where they plunge to the rocks below, only to be driven up again. Those who turned their back on God are turned and baked slowly in the fires of hell."5

These early images of hell were refined and immortalized by the famous fourteenth-century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. In his Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), Dante portrays hell as a place of absolute terror, where the damned writhe and scream while the saints bask in the glory of paradise. In Danteís hell, some sinners wail loudly in boiling blood, while others endure burning smoke that chars their nostrils, still others run naked from hordes of biting snakes.

The more cautious approach of Luther and Calvin did not deter later prominent preachers and theologians from portraying hell as a sea of fire, in which the wicked burn throughout eternity. Renowned eighteenth-century American theologian Jonathan Edwards pictured hell as a raging furnace of liquid fire that fills both the body and the soul of the wicked: "The body will be full of torment as full as it can hold, and every part of it shall be full of torment. They shall be in extreme pain, every joint of them, every nerve shall be full of inexpressible torment. They shall be tormented even to their fingersí ends. The whole body shall be full of the wrath of God. Their hearts and bowels and their heads, their eyes and their tongues, their hands and their feet will be filled with the fierceness of Godís wrath. This is taught us in many Scriptures. . . ."6

A similar description of the fate of the wicked was given by the famous nineteenth-century British preacher Charles Spurgeon: "In fire exactly like that which we have on earth thy body will lie, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all thy veins roads for the feet of Pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the Devil shall for ever play his diabolical tune of hellís unutterable lament."7 It is hard to comprehend how the Devil can torment evildoers in the place of his own punishment.

Today, those who believe in a literal eternal hellfire are more circumspect in their description of the suffering experienced by the wicked. For example, Robert A. Peterson concludes his book Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, saying: "The Judge and Ruler over hell is God himself. He is present in hell, not in blessing, but in wrath. Hell entails eternal punishment, utter loss, rejection by God, terrible suffering, and unspeakable sorrow and pain. The duration of hell is endless. Although there are degrees of punishment, hell is terrible for all the damned. Its occupants are the Devil, evil angels, and unsaved human beings."8

In making his case for hell as a place of eternal punishment, Peterson marshals the following witnesses: the Old Testament, Christ, the Apostles, and Church History (early church, Reformation, and the modern period). He devotes chapters to each of these witnesses. A similar approach is used by other scholars who support the traditional view of hellfire.9 A comprehensive response to all the alleged witnesses of eternal punishment of the wicked would take us beyond the scope of this study. Interested readers can find such a comprehensive response in The Fire that Consumes (1982) by Edward Fudge. The book, with a foreword by F. F. Bruce, is praised by many scholars for its balanced and fair treatment of the Biblical and historical data. Our response is limited to a few basic observations, some of which will be expanded in the second part of this chapter.

1. The Witness of the Old Testament

The witness of the Old Testament for eternal punishment rests largely on the use of sheol and two main passages, Isaiah 66:22-24 and Daniel 12:1-2. Regarding sheol, John F. Walvoord says: "Sheol was a place of punishment and retribution. In Isaiah [14:9-10] the Babylonians killed in divine judgment are pictured as being greeted in sheol by those who had died earlier."10

Regarding sheol, our study of the word in chapter 5 shows that none of the texts supports the view of sheol as the place of punishment for the ungodly. The word denotes the realm of the dead where there is unconsciousness, inactivity, and sleep. Similarly, Isaiahís taunting ode against the King of Babylon is a parable, in which the characters, personified trees, and fallen monarchs are fictitious. They serve not to reveal the punishment of the wicked in sheol, but to forecast in graphic pictorial language Godís judgment upon Israelís oppressor and his final ignominious destiny in a dusty grave, where he is eaten by worms. To interpret this parable as a literal description of hell means to ignore the highly figurative, parabolic nature of the passage, which is simply designed to depict the doom of a self-exalted tyrant.

Isaiah 66:24: The Fate of the Wicked. The description of the fate of the wicked found in Isaiah 66:24 is regarded by some traditionalists as the clearest witness to eternal punishment in the Old Testament. The setting of the text is the contrast between Godís judgment upon the wicked and His blessings upon the righteous. The latter will enjoy prosperity and peace, and will worship God regularly from Sabbath to Sabbath (Is 66:12-14, 23). But the wicked will be punished by "fire" (Is 66:15) and meet their "end together" (Is 66:17). This is the setting of the crucial verse 24, which says: "And they shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh."

R. N. Whybray sees in this text "an early description of eternal punishment: though dead, the rebels will continue for ever."10 In a similar vein, Peterson interprets the phrase "their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched" as meaning that "the punishment and shame of the wicked have no end; their fate is eternal. It is no wonder that they will be loathsome to all mankind."11

Isaiahís description of the fate of the wicked was possibly inspired by the Lordís slaying of 185,000 men of the Assyrian army during the reign of Hezekiah. We are told that "when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies" (Is 37:36). This historical event may have served to foreshadow the fate of the wicked. Note that the righteous look upon "dead bodies" (Hebrew: pegerim), not living people. What they see is destruction and not eternal torment.

The "worms" are mentioned in connection with the dead bodies, because they hasten the decomposition and represent the ignominy of corpses deprived of burial (Jer 25:33; Is 14:11; Job 7:5; 17:14; Acts 12:23). The figure of the fire that is not quenched is used frequently in Scripture to signify a fire that consumes (Ezek 20:47-48) and reduces to nothing (Am 5:5-6; Matt 3:12). Edward Fudge rightly explains that "both worms and fire speak of a total and final destruction. Both terms also make this a Ďloathsomeí scene."12 To understand the meaning of the phrase "the fire shall not be quenched," it is important to remember that keeping a fire live, to burn corpses required considerable effort in Palestine. Corpses do not readily burn and the firewood needed to consume them was scarce. In my travels in the Middle East and Africa, I often have seen carcases partially burned because the fire died out before consuming the remains of a beast.

The image of an unquencheable fire is simply designed to convey the thought of being completely burned up or consumed. It has nothing to do with the everlasting punishment of immortal souls. The passage speaks clearly of "dead bodies" which are consumed and not of immortal souls which are tormented eternally. It is unfortunate that traditionalists interpret this passage, and similar statements of Jesus in the light of their conception of the final punishment rather than on the basis of what the figure of speech really means.

Daniel 12:2: "Everlasting Contempt." The second major Old Testament text used by traditionalists to support everlasting punishment is Daniel 12:2, which speaks of the resurrection of both good and evil: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Peterson concludes his analysis of this text, by saying: "Daniel teaches that whereas the godly will be raised to never-ending life, the wicked will be raised to never-ending disgrace (Dan 12:2)."13

The Hebrew term deraon translated "contempt" also appears in Isaiah 66:24 in which it is translated "loathsome" and describes the unburied corpses. In his commentary on The Book of Daniel, Andre Lacocque notes that the meaning of deraon both "here [Dan 12:2] and in Isaiah 66:24 is the decomposition of the wicked."14 This means that the "contempt" is caused by the disgust over the decomposition of their bodies, and not by the never-ending suffering of the wicked. As Emmanuel Petavel puts it: "The sentiment of the survivors is disgust, not pity."15

To sum up, the alleged Old Testament witness for the everlasting punishment of the wicked is negligible, if not non-existent. On the contrary, the evidence for utter destruction of the wicked at the eschatological Day of the Lord is resoundingly clear. The wicked will "perish" like the chaff (Ps 1:4, 6), will be dashed to pieces like pottery (Ps 2:9, 12), will be slain by the Lordís breath (Is 11:4), will be burnt in the fire "like thorns cut down" (Is 33:12), and "will die like gnats" (Is 51:6).

Perhaps the clearest description of the total destruction of the wicked is found on the last page of the Old Testament in the English (not Hebrew) Bible: "For behold, the day comes burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch" (Mal 4:1). Here the imagery of the all-consuming fire which leaves "neither root nor branch" suggests utter consumption and destruction, not perpetual torment. The same truth is expressed by Godís next prophet, John the Baptist, who cried in the wilderness summoning people to repentance in view of the approaching fire of Godís judgment (Matt 3:7-12).


[PART 2 The Witness of Intertestamental Literature]