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HELL: TORMENT OR ANNIHILATION?

PART VI

2. The Language of Destruction in the Bible

The Language of Destruction in the Old Testament. The most compelling reason for believing in the annihilation of the lost at the final judgment is the rich vocabulary and imagery of "destruction" often used in the Old and New Testaments to describe the fate of the wicked. The writers of the Old Testament seem to have exhausted the resources of the Hebrew language at their command to affirm the complete destruction of impenitent sinners.

According to Basil Atkinson 28 Hebrew nouns and 23 verbs are generally translated "destruction" or "to destroy" in our English Bible. Approximately half of these words are used to describe the final destruction of the wicked.79 A detailed listing of all the occurrences would take us beyond the limited scope of this chapter, beside proving to be repetitious to most readers. Interested readers can find an extensive analysis of such texts in the studies by Basil Atkinson and Edward Fudge. Only a sampling of significant texts are considered here.

Several Psalms describe the final destruction of the wicked with dramatic imagery (Ps 1:3-6; 2:9-12; 11:1-7; 34:8-22; 58:6-10; 69:22-28; 145:17, 20). In Psalm 37, for example, we read that the wicked "will soon fade like grass" (v. 2),"they shall be cut off . . . and will be no more" (vv. 9-10), they will "perish . . . like smoke they vanish away" (v. 20),"transgressors shall be altogether destroyed" (v. 38). Psalm 1, loved and memorized by many, contrasts the way of the righteous with that of the wicked. Of the latter it says that "the wicked shall not stand in the judgment" (v. 5). They will be "like chaff which the wind drives away" (v. 4). "The way of the wicked will perish" (v. 6). Again, in Psalm 145, David affirms: "The Lord preserves all who love him; but all the wicked he will destroy" (v. 20). This sampling of references, on the final destruction of the wicked is in complete harmony with the teaching of the rest of Scripture.

The Destruction of the Day of the Lord. The prophets frequently announce the ultimate destruction of the wicked in conjunction with the eschatological Day of the Lord. In his opening chapter, Isaiah proclaims that "rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed" (Is 1:28). The picture here is one of total destruction, a picture that is further developed by the imagery of people burning like tinder with no one to quench the fire: "The strong shall become tow, and his work a spark, and both shall burn together, with none to quench them" (Is 1:31).

Zephaniah stacks up imagery upon imagery to portray the destructiveness of the day of the Lord. "The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; . . . A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry . . . In the fire of his jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth" (Zeph 1:14, 15, 18). Here the prophet describes the destruction of the Day of the Lord in the context of the historical judgment against Jerusalem. By means of the prophetic perspective, the prophets often see the final punishment through the transparency of imminent historical events.

Hosea, like Zephaniah, uses a variety of images to describe the final end of sinners. "They shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window" (Hos 13:3). The comparison of the fate of the wicked with the morning mist, the early dew, the chaff, and the smoke hardly suggests that sinners will suffer forever. On the contrary, such imagery suggests that sinners will finally disappear from Godís creation in the same way as the mist, dew, chaff, and smoke dissipate from the face of the earth.

On the last page of the Old Testament English Bible (not the Hebrew Bible), we find a most colorful description of the contrast between the final destiny of believers and unbelievers. For the believers who fear the Lord, "the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings" (Mal 4:2). But for unbelievers the Day of the Lord "comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of host, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch" (Mal 4:1). The day of the final punishment of the lost will also be a day of vindication of Godís people, for they "shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of [their] feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts" (Mal 4:3).

We need not interpret this prophecy literally, because we are dealing with representative symbols. But the message conveyed by these symbolic images is clear. While the righteous rejoice in Godís salvation, the wicked are consumed like" stubble," so that no "root or branch" is left. This is clearly a picture of total consumption by destroying fire, and not one of eternal torment. This is the Old Testament picture of the fate of the wicked, total and permanent destruction and not eternal torment.

Jesus and the Language of Destruction. The New Testament follows closely the Old Testament in describing the fate of the wicked with words and pictures denoting destruction. The most common Greek words are the verb apollumi (to destroy) and the noun apoleia (destruction). In addition, numerous graphic illustrations from both inanimate and animate life are used to portray the final destruction of the wicked.

Jesus also used several figures from inanimate life to portray the utter destruction of the wicked. He compared it to the following: weeds that are bound in bundles to be burned (Matt 13:30, 40), bad fish that is thrown away (Matt 13:48), harmful plants that are rooted up (Matt 15:13), fruitless trees that are cut down (Luke 13:7), and withered branches that are burned (John 15:6).

Jesus also used illustrations from human life to portray the doom of the wicked. He compared it to: unfaithful tenants who are destroyed (Luke 20:16), an evil servant who will be cut in pieces (Matt 24:51), the Galileans who perished (Luke 13:2-3), the eighteen persons crushed by Siloamís tower (Luke 13:4-5), the antediluvians destroyed by the flood (Luke 17:27), the people of Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by fire (Luke 17:29), and the rebellious servants who were slain at the return of their master (Luke 19:14, 27).

All of these figures denote capital punishment, either individually or collectively. They signify violent death, preceded by greater or lesser suffering. The illustrations employed by the Savior very graphically depict the ultimate destruction or dissolution of the wicked. Jesus asked: "When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?" (Matt 21:40). And the people responded: "He will miserably destroy [apollumi] those wicked men" (Matt 21:41).

Jesus taught the final destruction of the wicked not only through illustrations, but also through explicit pronouncements. For example, He said: "Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt 10:28). John Stott rightly remarks: "If to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being."80 In our study of this text in chapter 3 we noted that Christ did not consider hell a the place of eternal torment, but of permanent destruction of the whole being, soul and body.

Often Jesus contrasted eternal life with death or destruction. "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (John 10:28). "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt 7:13-14). Here we have a simple contrast between life and death. There is no ground in Scripture for twisting the word "perish" or "destruction" to mean everlasting torment.

Earlier we noted that seven times Christ used the imagery of gehenna to describe the destruction of the wicked in hell. In reviewing Christís allusions to hell, gehenna, we found that none of them indicates that hell is a place of unending torment. What is eternal or unquenchable is not the punishment but the fire which, as the case of Sodom and Gomorra, causes the complete and permanent destruction of the wicked, a condition that lasts forever. The fire is unquencheable because it cannot be quenched until it has consumed all the combustible material.

Paul and the Language of Destruction. The language of destruction is used frequently also by the New Testament writers to describe the doom of the wicked. Speaking of the "enemies of the cross," Paul says that "their end is destruction [apoleia]" (Phil 3:19). Concluding his letter to the Galatians, Paul warns that "The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction [phthora]; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from that Spirit will reap eternal life" (Gal 6:8, NIV). The Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, "like a thief in the night, . . . then sudden destruction [olethros] will come upon them [the wicked]" (1 Thess. 5:2-3). At Christís coming, the wicked "shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [olethron]" (2 Thess. 1:9). We noted earlier that the destruction of the wicked cannot be eternal in its duration because it is difficult to imagine an eternal inconclusive process of destruction. Destruction presupposes annihilation.

John Stott perceptively remarks: "It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed; and, . . . it is Ďdifficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing.í It cannot, I think, be replied that it is impossible to destroy human beings because they are immortal, for the immortality and therefore indestructibility of the soul is a Greek and not a Biblical concept. According to Scripture only God possesses immortality in himself (1 Tim 1:17; 6:16); he reveals and gives it to us through the gospel (2 Tim 1:10)."81

In Romans 2:6-12, Paul provides one of the clearest descriptions of the final destiny of believers and unbelievers. He begins by stating the principle that God "will render to every man according to his works" (Rom 2:6). Then he explains that "to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek" (Rom 2:7-9).

Note that "immortality" is Godís gift to the faithful, awarded at the resurrection, and not an inherent human quality. The wicked do not receive immortality, but "wrath and fury," two words associated with the final judgment (1 Thess. 1:10; Rev 14:10; 16:19; 19:15). Paul largely repeats the words and phrases found in Zephaniahís classic description of the great day of the Lord, as "a day of wrath . . . distress and anguish" (Zeph. 1:15). God will "consume" the whole world with "the fire of his jealous wrath" and He "will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth" (Zeph. 1:18).

This is most likely the picture Paul had in mind when he spoke of the manifestation of Godís "wrath and fury" upon the wicked. This is indicated by the following verse where he says: "All who have sinned without the law will also perish [apolountai] without the law" (Rom 2:12). Paul draws a contrast between those who "perish" and those who receive "immortality." In this whole passage, there is no allusion to eternal torment. Immortality is Godís gift to the saved, while corruption, destruction, death, and perishing is the wages of sin and sinners.

In view of the final destiny awaiting believers and unbelievers, Paul often speaks of the former as "those who are being saved [hoi sozomenoi] and of the latter as "those who are perishing [hoi apollumenoi]" (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:10). This common characterization is indicative of Paulís understanding of the destiny of unbelievers as ultimate destruction and not eternal torment.

Peter and the Language of Destruction. Peter, like Paul, uses the language of destruction to portray the fate of the unsaved. He speaks of false teachers who secretly bring in heresies and who bring upon themselves "swift destruction" (2 Pet 2:1). Peter compares their destruction to that of the ancient world by the Flood and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which were burned to ashes (2 Pet 2:5-6). God "condemned them to extinction and made them an example to them who were to be ungodly" (2 Pet 2:6). Here Peter states unequivocally that the extinction by fire of Sodom and Gomorrah serves as an example of the fate of the lost.

Peter again uses the example of the destruction of the world by the Flood, in dealing with scoffers who mocked at Christís promised coming (2 Pet 3:3-7). He reminds his readers that as the world "was deluged with water and perished" at Godís command by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (2 Pet 3:7).

The picture here is that the fire that will melt the elements will also accomplish the destruction of the ungodly. This reminds us of the tares of Christís parable that will be burnt up in the field where they grew. Peter alludes again to the fate of the lost when he says that God is "forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet 3:9). Peterís alternatives between repentance or perishing remind us of Christís warning: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). The latter will occur at the coming of the Lord when "the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up" (2 Pet 3:10). Such a graphic description of the destruction of the earth and evildoers by fire hardly allows for the unending torment of hell.

Other Allusions to the Final Destruction of the Wicked. Several other allusions in the New Testament imply the final destruction of the lost. We briefly refer to some of them here. The author of Hebrews warns repeatedly against apostasy or unbelief. Anyone who deliberately keeps on sinning "after receiving the knowledge of the truth," faces "a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries" (Heb 10:27). The author explicitly states that those who persist in sinning against God ultimately experience the judgment of a raging fire that will "consume" them. Note that the function of the fire is to consume sinners, not to torment them for all eternity. This truth is reiterated consistently throughout the Bible.

Throughout his epistle, James admonishes those who do not practice the faith that they profess. He warns believers not to allow sinful desires to take root in the heart, because "sin when it is full-grown brings forth death" (James 1:15). Like Paul, James explains that the ultimate wages of sin is death, cessation of life, and not eternal torment. James speaks also of God "who is able to save and to destroy" (James 4:12). The contrast is between salvation and destruction. James closes his letter encouraging believers to watch for the welfare of one another, because "whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:20). Again, salvation is from death and not from eternal torment. James consistently refers to the outcome of sin as "death" or "destruction." Incidentally, James speaks of saving the "soul from death," implying that the soul can die because it is part of the whole person.

Jude is strikingly similar to 2 Peter in his description of the fate of unbelievers. Like Peter, Jude points to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah "as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7, NIV). We noted earlier that the fire that destroyed the two cities is eternal, not because of its duration, but because of its permanent results. Jude closes, by urging his readers to build themselves up in the faith, caring for one another. "Convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire" (Jude 23). The fire to which Jude refers is obviously the same kind of fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah. It is the fire that causes the permanent destruction of the wicked, as envisioned by Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, Hebrews, and the entire Old Testament.

The language of destruction is present, especially in the book of Revelation, because it represents Godís way of overcoming the opposition of evil to Himself and His people. We noted earlier how John describes, with vivid imagery, the consignment of the devil, the beast, the false prophet, death, Hades, and all the wicked into the lake of fire, which he defines as "the second death." We found that the phrase "second death" was commonly used to describe the final, irreversible death.

A text not mentioned earlier is Revelation 11:18, where at the sounding of the seventh trumpet John hears the 24 elders saying: "The time has come for judging the dead . . . and for destroying those who destroy the earth." Here, again, the outcome of the final judgment is not condemnation to eternal torment in hell, but destruction and annihilation. God is severe but just. He does not delight in the death of the wicked, let alone in torturing them for all eternity. Ultimately, He will punish all evildoer, but the punishment will result in eternal extinction, not eternal torment.

This is the fundamental difference between the Biblical view of final punishment as utter extinction and the traditional view of hell as unending torment and torture, a view shared by many cruel pagan systems. The language of destruction and the imagery of fire that we have found throughout the Bible clearly suggests that the final punishment of the wicked is permanent extinction and not unending torment in hell. In the light of this compelling Biblical witness, I join Clark Pinnock in stating: "I sincerely hope that traditionalists will stop saying that there is no Biblical basis for this view [annihilation] when there is such a strong basis for it."82

The Language of Destruction Is Metaphorical. Traditionalists object to our interpretation of the language of destruction which we have just surveyed, because they maintain that words like "perish," destroy," "consume," "death," "burned up," "lake of fire," "ascending smoke," and "second death" are often used with a metaphorical meaning. This is true, but their figurative meanings derive from their literal, primary meanings. It is an accepted principle of Biblical interpretation that words occurring in non-allegorical prose are to be interpreted according to their primary meaning, unless there is some reason to attribute to them a different meaning.

Scripture never indicates that these words should not be interpreted according to their ordinary meaning when applied to the fate of the wicked. Our study of the usage of these words in Scripture and extra-Biblical literature has shown that they describe a literal, permanent destruction of the wicked. For example, Johnís vision of the "smoke ascending forever" (Rev 14:11) occurs in the Old Testament to portray the silent testimony of complete destruction (Is 34:10) and not of eternal torment. Similarly, the "lake of fire" is clearly defined as the "second death," a phrase used by the Jews to denote final, irreversible death. Incidentally, if the "lake of fire" annihilates Death and Hades, we have reason to believe that it hardly can preserve the lost in conscious torment for all eternity. We sincerely hope that traditionalists will find the courage to take a long, hard look at the Biblical data which envision hell as the permanent destruction of the lost.

[PART 7 -  The Moral Implications of Eternal Torment]