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HELL: TORMENT OR ANNIHILATION?

PART V

THE ANNIHILATION VIEW OF HELL

"Sectarian Belief." The annihilation view of hell has been associated mostly with "sects" like the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovahís Witnesses, and smaller Sabbatarian churches (Church of God Seventh-day, Worldwide Church of God, United Church of God, Global Church of God, International Church of God). This fact has led many evangelicals and Catholics to reject annihilationism a priori, simply because it is a "sectarian" belief and not a traditional Protestant or Catholic belief. Such a belief is regarded as an "absurdity"67 and the product of secular sentimentality.68

To a large extent, all of us are children of tradition. The faith we received was mediated to us by Christian tradition in the form of sermons, books, Christian education at home, school, and church. We read our Bible in the light of what we have already learned from these various sources. Thus, it is hard to realize how profoundly tradition has moulded our interpretation of Scripture. But as Christians, we cannot afford to become enslaved to human tradition, whether it be "Catholic" tradition, "Evangelical" tradition, or even our own "denominational" tradition. We can never assume the absolute rightness of our beliefs simply because they have been hallowed by tradition. We must retain the right and duty of testing our beliefs and reforming them in the light of Scripture when necessary.

Tactics of Harassment. The strategy of rejecting a doctrine a priori because of its association with "sectarian" churches is reflected in the tactics of harassment adopted against those evangelical scholars who in recent times have rejected the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment, and adopted instead the annihilation view of hell. The tactics, as already noted in chapter I, consist in defaming such scholars by associating them with liberals or with sectarians, like the Adventists. Respected Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock writes: "It seems that a new criterion for truth has been discovered which says that if Adventists or liberals hold any view, that view must be wrong. Apparently a truth claim can be decided by its association and does not need to be tested by public criteria in open debate. Such an argument, though useless in intelligent discussion, can be effective with the ignorant who are fooled by such rhetoric."69

Despite the tactics of harassment, the annihilation view of hell is gaining ground among evangelicals. The public endorsement of this view by John R. W. Stott, a highly respected British theologian and popular preacher, is certainly encouraging this trend. "In a delicious piece of irony," writes Pinnock, "this is creating a measure of accreditation by association, countering the same tactics used against it. It has become all but impossible to claim that only heretics and near-heretics [like Seventh-day Adventists] hold the position, though I am sure some will dismiss Stottís orthodoxy precisely on this ground."70

John Stott expresses anxiety over the divisive consequences of his new views in the evangelical community, where he is a renowned leader. He writes: "I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have great respect for long-standing tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the worldwide evangelical community has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to be suppressed, and I am grateful to you [David Edwards] for challenging me to declare my present mind. I do not dogmatize about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among evangelicals on the basis of Scripture."71

Emotional and Biblical reasons have caused John Stott to abandon the traditional view of hell and adopt the annihilation view. Stott writes: "Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be and is not what my heart tells me, but what does Godís word say? And in order to answer this question, we need to survey the Biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilationism, and that Ďeternal conscious tormentí is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture."72

In response to Stottís plea to take a fresh look at the Biblical teaching on the final punishment, we briefly examine the witness of the Old and the New Testament by considering the following points: (1) death as the punishment of sin, (2) the language of destruction, (3) the moral implications of eternal torment, (4) the judicial implications of eternal torment, and (5) the cosmological implications of eternal torment.

1. Death as the Punishment of Sin

"The Wages of Sin Is Death." A logical starting point for our investigation is the fundamental principle laid down in both Testaments: "The soul that sins shall die" (Ezek 18:4, 20);"The wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). The punishment of sin, of course, comprises not only the first death which all experience as a result of Adamís sin, but also what the Bible calls the second death (Rev 20:14; 21:8), which, as we have seen, is the final, irreversible death experienced by impenitent sinners. This basic principle sets the stage for studying the nature of the final punishment because it tells us at the outset that the ultimate wages of sin is not eternal torment, but permanent death.

Death in the Bible, as noted in chapter 4, is the cessation of life not the separation of the soul from the body. Thus, the punishment of sin is the cessation of life. Death, as we know it, would indeed be the cessation of our existence were it not for the fact of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:18). It is the resurrection that turns death into a sleep, from being the final end of life into being a temporary sleep. But there is no resurrection from the second death. It is the final cessation of life.

This fundamental truth was taught in the Old Testament, especially through the sacrificial system. The penalty for the gravest sin was always and only the death of the substitute victim and never a prolonged torture or imprisonment of the victim. James Dunn perceptively observes that "The manner in which the sin offering dealt with sin was by its death. The sacrificial animal, identified with the offerer in his sin, had to be destroyed in order to destroy the sin which it embodied. The sprinkling, smearing and pouring away of the sacrificial blood in the sight of God indicated that the life was wholly destroyed, and with it the sin and the sinner."73 To put it differently, the consummation of the sin offering typified in a dramatic way the ultimate destruction of sin and sinners.

The final disposition of sin and the destruction of sinners was revealed especially through the ritual of the Day of Atonement, which typified the execution of Godís final judgment upon believers and unbelievers. The genuine believers were those Israelites who, throughout the year, repented of their sins, bringing appropriate sin offerings to the sanctuary, and who on the Day of Atonement rested, fasted, prayed, repented, and humbled their hearts before God. At the completion of the purification rites, these persons were pronounced "clean before the Lord" (Lev 16:30).

The false believers were those Israelites who, during the year, chose to sin defiantly against God (cf. Lev 20:1-6) and did not repent, thus failing to bring atoning sacrifices to the sanctuary. On the Day of Atonement, they did not desist from their toil nor did they engage in fasting, prayer, and soul searching (cf. Num 19:20). Because of their defiant attitude on the Day of Atonement, these persons were "cut off" from Godís people. "For whoever is not afflicted on this same day shall be cut off from his people. And whoever does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people" (Lev 23:29-30).74

The separation that occurred on the Day of Atonement between genuine and false Israelites typifies the separation that will occur at the Second Advent. Jesus compared this separation to the one that takes place at harvest time between the wheat and the tares. Since the tares were sown among the good wheat, which represents "the sons of the kingdom" (Matt 13:38), it is evident that Jesus had His church in mind. Wheat and tares, genuine and false believers, will coexist in the church until His coming. At that time, the drastic separation typified by the Day of Atonement will occur. Evildoers will be thrown "into the furnace of fire," and the "righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt 13:42-43).

Jesusí parables and the ritual of the Day of Atonement teach the same important truth: False and genuine Christians will coexist until His coming. But at the Advent judgment, typified by the Day of Atonement, a permanent separation occurs when sin and sinners will be eradicated forever and a new world will be established. As in the typical service of the Day of Atonement impenitent sinners were "cut off" and"destroyed," so in the antitypical fulfillment, at the final judgment, sinners "shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction" (2 Thess 1:9).

Jesusí Death and the Punishment of Sinners. In many ways, the death of Jesus on the Cross reveals how God ultimately will deal with sin and sinners. Christís death on the Cross is a supreme visible manifestation of the wrath of God against all human ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18; cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Mark 15:34). What Jesus, our sinless Savior, experienced on the Cross was not just the physical death common to humanity, but the death that sinners will experience at the final judgment. This is why He was "greatly distressed, troubled . . . very sorrowful, even to death" (Mark 14:33-34).

Leon Morris reminds us that "It was not death as such that He feared. It was the particular death that He was to die, that death which is Ďthe wages of siní as Paul puts it (Rom 6:23), the death in which He was at one with sinners, sharing their lot, bearing their sins, dying their death."75 It is no wonder that Jesus felt forsaken by the Father, because He experienced the death that awaits sinners at the final judgment. At the time of His passion, Jesus went through a period of increasingly excruciating agony culminating in death. The suffering lasted several hours.

"There is no reason why we should not take this [Christís death] as the model and example of the final punishment of sin. We are not likely to go far wrong if we conclude that His suffering was the most extreme that will be inflicted on the most defiant and responsible sinner (?Judas Iscariot) and comprised therefore in itself, and covered, all lower degrees of desert. When the Lord Jesus at last died, full satisfaction was made for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2), Godís holy law was vindicated and all sins potentially or actually atoned for. If He bore the punishment of our sins, that punishment cannot under any circumstances be eternal conscious suffering or misery, for He never suffered this and it is impossible that He could have. Thus the facts of the suffering and death of Christ Jesus prove conclusively that the punishment of sin is death in its natural sense of the deprivation of life."76

Some argue that Christís death cannot be equated with the final punishment of sinners in hell because He was an infinite Person who could absorb infinite punishment in a single moment. By contrast, sinners must suffer eternal torment because they are finite. This artificial distinction between "finite" and "infinite" punishment and victims does not derive from Scripture but from medieval speculations based on feudalistic concepts of honor and justice.77 It also consists of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing infinities, which mathematically speaking is non-sense.

There are no indications in the Bible that God changed the nature of the punishment for sin in the case of our Lord from everlasting torment to literal death. Edward White correctly states: "If it be asserted that it was the presence of the Godhead within which dispensed with the infliction of endless pains, through the substitution of an Infinite Majesty for the infinitely extended misery of a finite being, we reply, that this is an Ďafterthought of theologyí which finds no place in the authoritative record."78

The Cross reveals the nature of hell as the manifestation of Godís wrath that results in death. If Jesus had not been raised, He like those who have fallen asleep in Him would simply have perished (1 Cor 15:18), and not experienced unending torment in hell. His resurrection reassures us that believers need not fear eternal death, because Christís death marked the death of Death (2 Tim 1:10; Heb 2:14; Rev 20:14).

[PART 6  The Language of Destruction in the Bible]