Ed Christian, Professor of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, shows how words about Hell and eternal punishment are misunderstood.
This presentation was given at an Evangelical Theological Society annual conference in 2001. The topic for the conference was Defining Evangelicalism’s Boundaries.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Evangelicals have long prided themselves on basing their beliefs on Scripture alone. In fact, however, we cling to sola scriptura when arguing against the unbiblical beliefs of other denominations, but when it comes to our own dearly held views (sometimes with our jobs at stake), we are not above ignoring biblical evidence that contradicts us. Should Evangelicals ever argue from tradition rather than Scripture? I say no. Should Evangelicals base their teachings on ambiguous texts viewed by the light of traditional understandings, while ignoring clear texts that say the opposite? I say no.
It seems to me that like Humpty Dumpty, we have often assigned arbitrary and contradictory meanings to words whose meanings are already perfectly clear in English, Hebrew, and Greek—words like “destroy,” “consume,” “dead,” and “devoured. “ It is true that these words as used in Scripture may refer to several areas of life, and it is also true that they are often used metaphorically. However, when metaphors are used, they always allude to the established meanings of words, not to their opposites.
We have come to this meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society to discuss the boundaries that do, should, or might keep us together and keep out all the others. I have come to believe that the biblical evidence for the annihilation of the wicked at the Last Judgment is so strong that not only should it be within the boundaries, but perhaps belief in the eternal torment of the wicked should be outside the boundaries, as it seems to be essentially based on eisegesis rather than exegesis.
However, I may be wrong. Indeed, I’ve come here primarily so you can show me where I’m wrong. Accordingly, what I plan to do is present to you a number of texts that seem clear to me, along with a few notes about the implications. When I have finished, I hope to learn from your response.
I would ask that you respond not by dragging out the ambiguous proof texts we know so well, but by dealing with the texts I present, whether you agree with me or disagree with me.
What Does “Eternal” Mean?
Heb 6:2 “of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”
The period of judging or judgment is limited in duration, but the verdict will never be reversed, so the judgment is eternal.
Heb 9:12 “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all having obtained eternal redemption.”
Jesus redeemed us “once for all,” but the effect of that redemption is eternal.
Heb 5:9 “And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.”
Jesus saved us by a “once for all” act, called salvation, but the effect of that salvation is eternal.
Mark 3:29 “but He who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
The sin occurs during a finite lifetime, but its effect is eternal.
2 Thes 1:9 “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
Destroyed once, but the effect of that destruction is eternal.
koílasin aioœnion / zoœeìn aioœnion
Matt 25:46 “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”
Resurrection to life happens “in a twinkling of an eye,” but the effect is eternal.
Execution is an event completed only by death, and it has not occurred unless death results, but it is an eternal punishment because it is irreversible.
What Do the “Worms and Fire” Verses Mean?
Mark 9:44, 46, 48 “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
Citing: Isa 66:24 “And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses [peger; corpse/carcass] of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
1) One is not a corpse until one is dead. 2) Maggots eat only dead flesh, but fire kills maggots. 3) Thus, this is a mixed metaphor, and literal fulfillment is impossible. 4) But, the metaphors point to an irreversible process of destruction following death.
What Does It Mean to “Die”?
Gen. 7:21–23 And all flesh died [apeíthane] that moved on the earth: . . .”
John 11:26 “‘And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die [apothaéneœ]. Do you believe this?’”
Logically, thus, those who do not believe will die at some time, becoming like those who died in the Flood.
What Does “Devoured” Mean?
2 Kings 1:12 “And fire of God came down from heaven and consumed [wattoœ}kal / kateéphagen] him and his fifty.” [kai« kate÷bh puvr e˙k touv oujranouv kai« kate÷fagen aujto\n]
Rev 20:9 “They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured [kateéphagen] them.” [kai« kate÷bh puvr e˙k touv oujranouv kai« kate÷fagen aujtou/ß.]
If in Elijah’s day God literally kills the wicked with fire from heaven, and if John then quotes this phrase exactly to indicate what he has seen in vision about the fate of the wicked, how can we say they will not be devoured to death?
*From }aœkal, to “eat up” or “consume.”
Isa 24:6 “Therefore the curse has devoured [eédetai, eaten] the earth, and those who dwell in it are desolate. Therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left.”
Isa 26:11 “. . . Yes, the fire of Your enemies [hupenantˆíous] shall devour [eédetai, eaten] them.”
Heb 10:27 “. . . but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour [esthˆíein, eat up]the adversaries [hupenantˆíous].”
What has been devoured or eaten up exists no longer. What has been devoured by fire can no longer be alive. Esthioœ and edoœ usually refer to eating food, and they are often used metaphorically, but they are not metaphors of something not being eaten but remaining eternally uneaten.
What Does “Perish” Mean?
Matt 22:7 “‘But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed [apoœlesen] those murderers, and burned up their city.’”
Matt 26:52 “But Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish [apolountai] by the sword.’” [“Perish” here means death, not some continuing flaying with a sword throughout eternity.]
Luke 11:51 “‘from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished [apolomeénou] between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation.’” [Was Zechariah still perishing in Jesus’ day, or had he completed the process implied in the word and perished, as the text says?]
Luke 13:3, 5 “‘I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish [apoleˆísthe].’” [If the process of perishing cannot be completed, then Jesus is wrong about this.]
John 3:16 “‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish [apoéleœtai] but have everlasting life.’” [If those who believe do not perish, then those who do not believe logically must perish. But if the wicked suffer everlasting torment in Hell, then they don’t perish, and they also receive everlasting life. Thus, both the righteous and the wicked receive everlasting life—the difference is only in the nature of that life. If this were so, then Jesus would be wrong here.]
2 Pet 3:6 “by which the world that then existed perished [apoœleto], being flooded with water.” [That world died, along with the people in it, except for Noah and family.]
2 Pet 3:9 “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish [apoleésthai] but that all should come to repentance.” [Those do not repent perish. If they cannot die, they cannot perish.]
Rom 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death [thanatos], but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [The wages are not eternal suffering, but death.]
What Does “Destroyed” Mean?
Luke 17:29 “‘but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed [apoœlesen] them all.’”
Matt 10:29 “‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy [apoleésai] both soul and body in hell.’”
If they live on in eternal torment, they have not been destroyed.
What Is “Eternal Fire”?
Gen 19:24–29 “Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens. So He overthrew those cities, . . . And Abraham . . . looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and behold, the smoke of the land which went up like the smoke of a furnace. . . . God destroyed the cities of the plain, . . . He overthrew the cities in which Lot had dwelt.”
Jude 7 “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example [deigma, a specimen], suffering the vengeance of eternal fire [puroìs aioœnˆíou].”
2 Pet 2:6 “and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, . . .”
How Long Does “Stubble” Burn?
Exod 15:7 [Against Egypt] “‘You sent forth Your wrath; It consumed them like stubble.’”
Obadiah 16, 18 [Against Edom] “‘And they shall be as though they had never been. . . . The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame; but the house of Esau shall be stubble; they shall kindle them and devour them, and no survivor shall remain of the house of Esau,’ for the LORD has spoken.”
Isa 47:14 [Against Babylon] “‘Behold, they shall be as stubble, the fire shall burn them.’”
Nahum 1:9–10 [Day of the Lord] “Affliction will not rise up a second time. For while tangled like thorns, and while drunken like drunkards, they shall be devoured like stubble fully dried.”
What Are “Ashes”?
Mal 4:1, 3 [Day of the Lord] “‘For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,” Says the LORD of hosts, “That will leave them neither root nor branch. . . . You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ Says the LORD of hosts.”
What Does “Slay” Mean?
Isa 65:15 [Day of the Lord] “‘For the Lord GOD will slay you.’”
Isa 66:15–16 [Day of the Lord] “‘For behold, the LORD will come with fire and with His chariots, like a whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by His sword the LORD will judge all flesh; and the slain of the LORD shall be many.’”
Isa 66:24 “‘And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.’”
If they have been slain by the fire of God, they cannot still be alive. They are corpses.
What Does “End” Mean?
Zeph 1:18 [Day of the Lord] “‘Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD’s wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of His jealousy, for He will make speedy riddance [NIV, “a sudden end”] of all those who dwell in the land.’”
Matt 13:40 “‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.’”
What Does It Mean to “Cease to Be”?
Ezek. 28:18–19 “‘By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries. Therefore I have brought fire from the midst of you; it has consumed you, and I have turned you to ashes on the earth in the eyes of all who see you. All who know you among the peoples are appalled at you; you have become terrified and you will cease to be forever.’” [Some think this is speaking covertly of Satan.]
I asked Ed what kind of reaction he got from his colleagues and he said nobody really had anything to say. I hope it’s because he really made them think twice about a long-held belief in the Christian church that rarely gets any critical consideration.
Speaking of which, I was in an adult Sunday School class where I asked the question, “Where is eternal conscious torment for the unsaved in the bible?” to which the elder leading the class replied, “What kind of a question is THAT?” I was so dumbfounded by his lack of intellectual honesty that I didn’t get a good answer out but I should have said, “Us Evangelicals pride ourselves on getting our doctrines from the bible only. So, we should be asking where in the bible we are getting all of our doctrines, no?” Whether we agree with them or not, we should at least know from which scriptures we get our doctrines so we can examine our interpretations of said scriptures. There should not be any “Sacred Cows” of doctrine that we can’t scrutinize and disagree with if we find them to be un-biblical.