Dogmatizing About Eternal Conscious Torment in Hell

Dogmatizing About Eternal Conscience

Torment in Hell

Kurt Simmons

 

We were recently forced out of the Mathison Response (together with several other writers) in a power play that attempted to compel all contributors to sign a doctrinal statement affirming their belief in Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT).  We have made it our policy for years not to be drawn into this debate.  We have regularly turned away inquiries with the answer that we are not expressing opinions on the topic.  It is Preterism we are preaching and would prefer not to be distracted with this question, or see the movement further divided by it.  Our conviction is that this is not an essential of the gospel and should not be made a test of fellowship or orthodoxy.  We believe that every man should be persuaded in his own mind and conscience, without fear of reprisal or retaliation.  We want to maintain our policy of not being identified with either camp in this issue.  However, in order to demonstrate the weakness of ECT and why it should not, indeed, cannot be made a test of fellowship, we offer the following points in evidence: 

1 – There are only about 4-6 passages in the New Testament that directly speak to the idea of ECT.  Of these, FOUR occur in Revelation amongst much symbology.  (Rev. 14:10; 19:3, 21; 20:10)  Sound principles of hermeneutics prohibit establishing any essential teaching of the church upon difficult or obscure passages, which cannot first be demonstrated elsewhere in passages that are obvious or plain.  Because the symbolic language of Revelation is “difficult and obscure,” it cannot properly serve as the foundational source for the idea of ECT.  That leaves only about two passages outside of Revelation that suggest the idea of ECT.  The first is Matt. 25:46, where the Lord says that the wicked would go away to “everlasting punishment.”  This passage is susceptible of numerous interpretations and we feel it is sufficiently ambiguous to prohibit dogmatizing about ECT.  Heb. 6:2 speaks of “eternal judgment.”  The same word occurs in both places (aionion). 

The sense of aionion in Heb. 6:2 is “irreversible;” the judgment happens once for all.  It is not pronounced again and again for  all perpetuity.  Likewise, the execution of a criminal happens once for all; it is eternal (aionion).  This appears to be the meaning of aionion as used in Matt. 25:46; the translation there of aionion as “everlasting” punishment probably reflects the doctrinal bias of the translators.  The sense and import of the term is eternal, not ceaseless or perpetual.  The other passage is Jude 7 where Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have suffered the vengeance of “eternal fire.”  Again, the same word is used (aionion).  We ask “are the fires that enveloped Sodom and Gomorrah still burning?”  Obviously not; the language is plainly poetic, like we see in so many passages of the prophets.   Besides, even if it were granted that the fire is somehow eternal and unquenchable this would not be evidence that those it consumes are eternal and suffer endlessly. Concerning Rev. 19:3, David Chilton said: “The phrase [her smoke rises up forever and ever] cannot be pressed into service as a literal description of the eternal state of the wicked in general. The actual flames that consumed ‘Babylon’ burned out long ago; but her punishment was eternal.  She will never be resurrected.”[1]  We think this is equally true of Matt. 25:46 and Jude 7 – the idea is that the punishment is eternal, not ceaseless or perpetual.  Perhaps there are one or two verses more the advocates of ECT can marshal.  However, these are the main texts and, as we have seen, at best they are questionable.  Can we in good conscience make ECT an “essential” of the gospel upon such equivocal evidence?   

2 - The verses for annihilation are at least equal, if not greater in number and strength, than those for ECT.  We will only point to two.  Rom. 6:23 says the wages of sin is death.  Death, not ECT, was what God warned our first ancestors would be the penalty for their sin.  Death is the absence of life (psyche).  The concept of death and ECT are mutually exclusive by any normal usage of logic and grammar.  When men exact the death penalty for crimes, they do not keep the criminal in torment for eternity, but bring his life to a full end.  If ECT is taught in scripture, it is not in the warning God gave our first ancestors.  Matt. 10:28 says we are not to fear them that can kill the body and then can do no more, but that we are to fear him that can destroy both body and soul (psyche) in hell (Gehenna). 

The word “destroy” is apollomi Strong’s (#622), and is defined as “a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to, ruin b) render useless, c) to kill.”  Thus, apollomi = destroy, abolish, put an end to, kill, etc.  (A = B)  The word “abolish” is defined by the New Riverside University Dictionary as “To put an end to; annul; to destroy completely; ANNIHILATE.”  The Random House College Dictionary gives as synonyms for “abolish”: Suppress, nullify, cancel; annihilate, obliterate, extinguish, exterminate, extirpate. The same is true for the word “destroy.”  Synonyms of “destroy” include annihilate, extirpate, uproot, etc.  Thus destroy/abolish = annihilate/exterminate, etc.  (B = C).  But if A = B and B = C, then A = C.  Hence, apollomi = annihilate, extirpate, etc.  Simple logic.  The concepts of annihilation and extirpation are thus inherent in the word apollomi and included in the range of accepted meanings.  Some examples where the thing destroyed no longer exists include the following, all using the Greek apollomi:  

Matt: 5:29 - Better that one of thy members should perishThe idea here is the complete loss and extinction of the member, which corrupts and returns to dust and ashes. 

Jno. 11:50 - That the whole nation perish not – The idea here is the utter annihilation of the nation and its political institutions by the hand of Rome, which, in fact, occurred in A.D. 70. 

II Cor. 4:16 - But though our outward man perishThis verse is particularly on point.  The outward man will utterly perish, and molder in the grave, and be no more.  This is the basic idea underlying the imagery of Gehenna when the Lord talks about the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched.  (Mk. 9:45, 46, 48; cf. Isa. 66:24)  Gehenna was the city dump; it lay in the valley of Tophet where the Jews had buried and cremated 185,000 Assyrians smitten by the angel of the Lord, whose bodies were eaten of fire and maggots.  (Isa. 33:31-33; 37:36)  This became typical and parabolic of the ultimate fate of the lost in hell (Gehenna).  In connection with Matt. 10:28, the idea appears to be that the soul of the lost will be utterly consumed in Gehenna in the same manner as the bodies of those eaten by fire and worms.   

Col 2:22 - Which perish with the usingThis is a reference to the consumption of foods; nothing is left. 

 Jam. 1:11 - The grace and fashion perisheth. – As the beauty of a flower passes completely away and is no more, so the glory of the flesh is consumed and withers, corrupts and returns to dust. 

I Pet. 1:7 - Gold that perishethWhen gold can be shown to suffer ECT, then the soul in Matt. 10:28 can be shown to as well. 

If annihilation is not inherent in Matt. 10:28 or other instances of apollumi, it is because the context contemplates something less is intended.  However, eternal consciousness is a concept that is absolutely NOT inherent in the meaning of apollomi.  The whole idea of eternal consciousness must be imported from outside the text.  The question is, where must we go to get it?  Proponents of ECT will point to Rev. 20:10, which says the devil is tormented for ever and ever in the lake of fire.  But proof that the devil is tormented for ever is not proof that men are.  There is not a single verse we know of that states men are tormented for ever.  If we put a circle upon this paper and ask proponents of ECT to place therein each verse that expressly states men suffer eternal conscious torment, we suspect that at the end of the day that circle would still be empty. Why not take the challenge yourself?  

Conclusion

It is not our intention to become a proponent for annihilationism, but to resume our policy of avoiding this divisive issue.  We have written this merely to demonstrate that the case for ECT is not the “open and shut” case some would like us to think.  However near and dear it may be to some people’s hearts that God torments men in hell fire for eternity, any objective assessment of the evidence must own that the case for ECT is equivocal at best. Christian charity and an honest weighing of the evidence requires that men be allowed to decide this question for themselves without fear of reprisal, and that men abstain from dogmatizing upon an issue of such attenuated proofs.   


 

[1] David Chilton, Days of Vengeance, p. 472, cf. 365, 534; emphasis added.

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