Where is our eternal destiny?

Our church covenant, to which we all sign up, says that we will hold to the historic truths of the Christian faith.  Those include

* The universal sinfulness and guilt of fallen man, making him subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.

* The substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God as the sole and all-sufficient ground of redemption from the guilt and power of sin, and from its eternal consequences.

But what does God’s "condemnation" mean. and what are the "eternal consequences" of sin.   Christian have held two views.  One is that the unsaved experience eternal suffering and the other, known as annihilationism, is that those who die outside of Christ eventual are eternally destroyed. The later is a minority view but one with which I have quite a bit of empathy.  That is because of the passages which speak of the unsaved as perishing (John 3:16) or being destroyed (Matthew 10:28). Therefore, verses like Rev 21:8 which speak of the second death, seem to me to refer to a soul ceasing to exist. Many annihilationists believe that the concept of an immortal soul separated from the body came from Greek philosophy, particularly from Plato, and not from the Bible.

Inherent in an annihilationist view are notions of divine justice and love (1 John 4:16). For them, the idea of an eternal place of torment is morally repugnant, and an unfair punishment for finite sins. How can this accurately reflect God’s ultimate victory over suffering and evil, they argue, when it permanently installs a place of suffering in the new heaven and new earth? Likewise, how can the saved live in blissful joy knowing that some of their loved ones suffer somewhere forever in hell?  Only the devil, the beast, the false prophet (Rev 20:10), and those who received the mark of the beast or worshiped his name (Rev 14:9-11) will suffer forever.

For opponents of this view (or to be fair, traditionalists), only God is qualified to determine divine justice; he judges and punishes as he chooses.  They argue that the "second death" is the spiritual separation from God for eternal punishment.  It occurs after physical death by a separation of soul from the body.  For them, ceasing to exist is not eternal punishment and therefore conflicts with passages such as Matthew 25:46:

"And these shall go away into everlasting punishment but the righteous into eternal life."

This argument suggests that the "punishment" must forever include some form of suffering.  Punishment, however, can just as well be described as "the imposition of deprivations (e.g. of freedom or privacy or other goods) to which the person otherwise has a right, because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation".  In which case, annihilationism is indeed a form of punishment since the person is eventually deprived of existence itself and and the punishment is eternal.

Key verses:

Genesis 3:19  For dust you are and to dust you will return

Psalm 146:4  When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing

Ezekiel 18:20 The soul who sins is the one who will die.

Ecclesiastes  9:5,10 The dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten…. For in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Jeremiah  32:35 Burning one’s offspring in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (which is where concept of Gehenna or Hell comes from) is not a commandment of God nor did it even enter his mind.

Matthew  10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell

John 3:16 People who don’t believe in Jesus shall perish and not receive eternal life.

2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power

Revelation 21:8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death.

John Wenham has classified the 264 New Testament texts on the fate of the lost:

  • 10 (4%) to "Gehenna"
  • 26 (10%) to "burning up"
  • 59 (22%) to "destruction, perdition, utter loss or ruin"
  • 20 (8%) to "separation from God"
  • 25 (10%) to "death in its finality" or "the second death"
  • 108 (41%) to "unforgiven sin", where the precise consequence is not stated
  • 15 (6%) to "anguish"

Wenham states that just a single verse, Revelation 14:11 sounds like eternal torment:

And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.

History

The vast majority of Christian writers have held to traditional ideas of external suffering in hell. However, forms of conditional immortality can be found in the writing of Justin Martyr and at least one of John Wesley’s recorded sermons are often understood as implying annihilationism.

Since the 1960s, annihilationism has gained legitimacy within modern, conservative Protestant theology, especially in the UK. Better known supporters include John Wenham, C S Lewis, Richard Forster, Michael Green and, it is said, N T Wright displays an openness to the issue. Wenham says:

"I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which as been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the Gospel. I should indeed be happy, if before I die, I could help in sweeping it away."

John Stott offered at least tentative support for the doctrine. He wrote,

"Well, emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal suffering] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain …. I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come [of annihilation]. I hold it tentatively … I believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment."

Even F. F. Bruce wrote,

"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."

The Church of England’s Doctrine Commission reported in February 1995 that Hell is not eternal torment. The report, entitled "The Mystery of Salvation" states,

"Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster. … Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being."

3 comments to Where is our eternal destiny?

  • […] Does God punish for eternity (Rev 20:10)?  Or is the destruction of the soul itself eternal punishment?  I’ve covered this discussion on my own website posting for this sermon click here. […]

  • […] Does God punish for eternity (Rev 14:11; 20:10)?  Or is the destruction of the soul itself eternal punishment?  I’ve covered this discussion in a separate post click here. […]

  • You make a number of very good points. Surely, the God whom Jesus believed in would never hurt anyone, not for a moment, much less torture billions for eternity!

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at http://www.thereisnohell.com), but if I may, I’d like to add one more point from my book to the several good ones you have made here–that there’s substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell.

    For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

    Bear in mind that the historical Protestant doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, not the copies. But sadly, the interpolations that made their way into those copies have provided a convenient excuse for a lot of people to get around following Jesus’ real message.

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