Excursus: Hell is Permanent

Hell_Planes Travis Allen, director of Internet Ministry for Grace to You, recently posted an article entitled Is Hell Really Endless?Allen’s article defends the concept that final punishment by God is a process that will never end. Allen rejects the view he calls Annihilationism, which is “a denial of the endlessness of hell.”[1]

Allen asserts that annihilationism “seems to be making a strong resurgence today among evangelicals.” That may be an overstatement, but it is a helpful correction to the assumption many have that the view only exists among the cults and theological liberals. Most of us who are labeled annihilationist[2] argue from the same belief in an inerrant, infallible, authoritative scripture as Allen and John MacArthur do. We are solidly in the evangelical camp, and reject the concept of an endless hell on scriptural grounds. We appreciate it when that is admitted.

Allen accurately portrays our view when he says we “don’t allow (God’s wrath) to extend beyond the lake of fire.” As we read the book of Revelation, the lake of fire is precisely described as the place of final punishment, and that the lake itself will commence the second death, from which there is no possible resurrection. It is the ultimate end of the old age, and its consummation will make room for the new heavens and new earth.

The Bible teaches that every sin not atoned for by the blood of Christ will be punished thoroughly in that lake of fire, then death and hell itself will be thrown into it. These words describe an end – a solution to a problem that had a beginning. It is fitting that Revelation should give us the story of how God’s grace will eventually correct the result of the rebellion which is recorded in Genesis.

This second death will be a horrible, agonizing, event in which every transgression against God’s holiness will receive its appropriate punishment. Not until that happens – and God is thoroughly vindicated – will he “snuff every unbeliever out of existence.” He will do so because he has determined what the ultimate wages of sin are. He did not decree that sinners will have the luxury of an eternal life anywhere – not even hell. The wages of sin is death. Eternal life is a gift he has reserved for those he has saved by grace.

Allen makes four specific assertions about how we argue our case against an endless hell. Each of these assertions speak to the heart of the issue, so each is worthy of analysis and a reply.

1) Allen asserts that we redefine the word eternal.

Allen quotes John MacArthur, who asserts that annihilationists “would like to redefine the word aionios and say, ‘well, it doesn’t really mean forever.’” He refers specifically to Matthew 25:46, where Jesus describes two final destinies. Jesus says that the sheep (those who treated the least of his brothers with compassion) will go away into eternal life. The goats (those who do not treat the least of his brothers kindly) will go away into eternal punishment.

The word aionios is an adjective. Its purpose is to explain and further define another word – in this case a noun. Like any other adjective (indeed, practically any other word) aionios has more than one possible meaning. For example, the adjective “hot” may describe the day’s temperature, or it may explain that certain jewels have been stolen. The meaning of the adjective depends a great deal upon the noun it modifies. Any one adjective can have a number of possible meanings in its semantic range. The term itself has no set meaning. Its meaning is determined by the context – in this case, the noun it modifies.

Annihilationists are not guilty of redefining the term eternal. In Matthew 25:46 the term eternal is used twice. In both cases the term modifies an event in such a way as to draw attention to its finality, and so aionios should thus be translated permanent. In one case – eternal life — the noun life clearly depicts the event when believers will inherit immortality: permanent life.[3] In the other case, the term punishment also describes an event: destruction in hell. Both the noun kolasis and its corresponding verb kolazō refer to an anticipated event.[4] The Bible elsewhere describes this event as “the day of the LORD”[5] or “the day of judgment.”[6] When the noun that aionios defines refers to an event in time, then the meaning implied by aionios is not perpetual. A more accurate definition in that case is permanent. The English word eternal can mean either.

Other biblical examples of this use of aionios include:

· the permanent sin which can never be forgiven (Mark 3:29).

· the permanent weight of glory compared with our slight momentary affliction (2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10).

· the permanent things that are unseen compared to the transient things that are seen (2 Corinthians 4:18).

· the permanent house (body) in the heavens compared to our temporary tent (body) on earth (2 Corinthians 5:1).

· the permanent destruction the lost will face at Christ’s return (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

· the permanent comfort and good hope we have through God’s grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16).

· the permanent glory that accompanies salvation in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10).

· Philemon’s permanent return to Colossae, after being parted from them for a while (Philemon 1:15).

· The permanent salvation made possible by Jesus, our great high priest (Hebrews 5:9).

· The permanent judgment that will take place after the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 6:2).

· The permanent redemption secured by Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:12).

· the permanent covenant made possible by the shedding of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 13:20).

· entrance into the permanent kingdom provided for all those who make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11).

Most other uses of aionios in the New Testament are when the term describes God,[7] or something that comes from God: his gospel,[8] or the fire he uses to destroy the wicked on judgment day.[9] In neither of these cases is the emphasis on duration. The emphasis is on God as the source. That is why Jude tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as examples of undergoing a punishment of aionios fire. Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed. The destruction was not a perpetual process, but an event in which they were punished by God, the eternal one.

Greek adjectives can appear in plural form, and when that is done to aionios in the New Testament, it is so that the term can modify a plural noun,[10] or it refers to an event predicted or promised long ago, which has now been fulfilled or revealed. The three examples of this are:

· “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages[11]

· “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.[12]

· The final example actually uses aionios twice, once in the sense of permanent, and once in the sense of something promised long ago “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.[13]

In summary, annihilationists are not redefining aionios. This article has surveyed every use of aionios in the New Testament and has not found a single reference where it has to describe a perpetual process. Once released from the shackles of the presuppositions of pagan philosophy, we are simply free to describe how the Bible consistently uses the term.

2) Allen asserts that we object to an endless hell on moral grounds.

Allen claims that annihilationists cannot fathom a holy and merciful God perpetually torturing billions of people in hell because we see it as “a form of cruel and unusual punishment.” We do often make arguments like this, but not as a means of judging God on our standards. We simply point out that the picture of God that the Bible uniformly presents is of One whose justice is always tempered by mercy. He destroyed the earth with a flood, but in his mercy saved Noah’s family and the animals with the ark. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins, but saved Lot and his daughters by his mercy. The psalmist declares, “his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.”[14]

Our real objection to a perpetual hell on moral grounds is that we see it as inconsistent with God’s character as revealed in his word. Perhaps there are those who go too far with this line of reasoning and say “if God were a God who tortured people forever, then I would not believe in him.” The only logical response to such an argument is “then you would be tortured forever.” We try not to cross that line in our arguments against a perpetual hell. We honestly believe that when all the biblical evidence is presented, God is not revealed to be a sadistic monster who will keep people alive forever simply to torment them.

3) Allen asserts that we fail to understand the theology of justice.

Allen spends four out of 13 paragraphs in his post arguing that annihilationists reject an endless hell because we do not get how sinful sin is, and how holy God is. He says our view “fails to account for a lawgiver who is infinite and eternal by nature.” He implies that if we really understood God, then we would see how a never-ending hell fits into his plan. To be fair, he admits that even those who believe in a place of perpetual torture have problems with it when they contemplate its severity. He insists, however, that those contemplations are there because of “how little we understand the sinfulness of sin on the one hand, and the holiness of God on the other.” He argues that since God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9), then we should ignore those contemplations and accept a perpetual hell on faith.

But we annihilationists are theologians too. We know how dangerous it can be when God’s people are told to accept a line of reasoning on faith, and to avoid questioning. From the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus spent a great deal of his time on earth questioning and arguing against the contemporary theologians and accepted doctrines of his day.

It is true that God’s thoughts are not our own. It does not follow that the doctrine of an endless hell clearly represents God’s thoughts. We argue that the doctrine of an endless hell is the result of the syncretistic combination of what the Bible says about final punishment with the pagan philosophy of innate immortality. The idea of a perpetual hell was created out of this syncretism. It reasoned not from the nature of sin or the nature of God but from Plato’s doctrine of the nature of man.

Since Augustine (whom Allen quotes as an authority) accepted Plato’s idea of innate immortality of the soul, he reasoned that hell must be perpetual because the soul of man cannot die. It was for that reason that he rejected the idea of a hell of limited duration as “the height of absurdity.” But if one accepts the clear statements of scripture that God alone has immortality,[15] and God will punish sinners by destroying them,[16] so that they exist no more,[17] it becomes clear that Plato’s innate immortality theory cannot be accepted on the same basis as scripture. They contradict each other.

Perhaps that is why Allen does not argue for human immortality, but chooses rather to defend perpetual hell on the basis of the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God. But, even there, the argumentation fails. Allen argues that because God is infinite, then sins against him require infinite punishment. If that were so, then how could Jesus atone for the sins of all humanity by merely dying on the cross and remaining dead for a few days? Surely if the punishment for any sin against God requires perpetual suffering, then Christ should still be on the cross!

The Bible clearly states what God requires to pay for sins. The wages of sin is death[18] – not perpetual suffering. Not satisfied with this clear description of just punishment for sin, proponents of the concept of perpetual hell simply redefine death – as eternal separation from God. This can only be the case if the person who dies cannot really die. Again, we see that the theology behind the perpetual hell idea is not really based on the nature of God, but is derived from Greek dualism and its understanding of the nature of humanity.

Neither does the concept of a holy God require a perpetual hell. In fact, God’s holiness requires that sin and unrighteousness be destroyed – not kept alive and tormented eternally. There was a point in time in eternity past, when there was no sin – no rebellion. Everything was good in God’s universe. Then sin entered heaven through the rebellion of Satan and eventually came to humanity and earth by Adam and Eve’s transgression.

Ever since sin entered God’s realm, he has been at work to destroy it. There is nothing within his character that requires that he tolerate it. He has a plan that includes the undoing of the curse of sin, and the undoing of the consequences – including death. God’s holiness demands that the plan be carried out. The sin which has infected his universe will be eradicated, and all that is under him will again be his. The doctrine of an endless hell requires God to capitulate. It robs God of his sovereignty – insisting that sin is just as eternal as he is, and there is finally nothing that he can do about it.

Those who accept this notion are imprisoned by a pagan theology that finds no place in the Bible. Until they come to reject the concept of the immortal soul they will always have to place the immortal souls of dead sinners somewhere. A perpetual hell seems the logical place.

4) Allen asserts that we refuse to embrace the hard doctrines of the Bible.

Allen implies that those who accept the concept of a perpetual hell have embraced “the hard doctrines of the Bible” and that is evidence that their faith is “true” and “God-given.” The assumption, of course, is that the Bible teaches this hard doctrine. If the Bible actually teaches that hell will be perpetual, then all believers should accept it as truth, no matter how hard or easy it is.

Annihilationists argue that the doctrine of endless torture is not clearly taught in the Bible. We argue that those passages which appear to teach it are being misread. Many of our writings examine those texts because our concern is that this hard doctrine is hard because it really does not fit the evidence.

It is true that some of the doctrines the Bible clearly teaches are difficult to get a handle on. Anyone who has struggled with the implications of God’s sovereignty and how it affects man’s will can attest to this fact. God is complicated and we should not expect his word to be always easy to understand.

It is also true that accepting the things we learn in scripture is evidence that our faith is genuine. The Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of believers, giving them insight into what God means by what he said in scripture. We call this the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Without His guidance, believers would be prone to all kinds of deceptions and false theologies.

History has shown, however, that the illumination of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee that all Bible-believing Christians will agree with each other, or that a doctrine that is popular is also biblical. In fact, many doctrines over the ages which were extremely well-received by the Church have been proven to be unbiblical and discarded.

The doctrine of perpetual hell, which grants eternal life to sinners and requires that they spend eternity alive “outside of the mercy of God” should be discarded. While it is obviously a hard doctrine – and “an absolutely horrible, terrifying doctrine” – it has always had its dissenters who are convinced that it is not a biblical doctrine. There is no advantage to holding to an unbiblical doctrine. Holding to an unbiblical doctrine cannot be evidence of the veracity of one’s faith.

An Alternative

Annihilationists believe in a literal hell which will appear at the end of the age. It is the lake of fire of Revelation, and it will burn as hot as it needs to burn. It will be a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.[19] It will include all those who regret their not coming to faith, and all those who defy God’s right to judge them to the very end. It is the place of final justice. All wrongs will be dealt with. In the end, God will be vindicated. Everyone in hell will understand that it is their own sins and rebellion that put them there. It will last as long as it needs to last for every deserved punishment to be meted out. It is the final historical event of the present age.[20] In it, God will destroy the lost completely, soul and body.[21]

Then, a new age will begin, after Christ destroys all God’s enemies – even the last enemy – death itself.

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.[22]

After hell ends, then there will be a new heaven and a new earth because the old order of things will have passed away.[23] Hell is aionios in both major senses in which the term is used in the Bible. It is from God, the perpetual one, who had no beginning and will have no end. Hell is also permanent, an event having a beginning, and a definitive end, and from which there will be no deliverance.

God is perpetual. He never had a beginning, and will never have an end. Human beings have a beginning. We are not infinite. God in his grace offers eternal life to those who believe in his Son. We have the opportunity to become perpetual. By trusting in Christ as our Savior and Lord, we take hold of his promise of eternal life. He intends to keep that promise by granting us immortality at his return.

He has not promised immortality to unbelievers. Their fate is to be destroyed permanently in hell. To make hell an endless process requires that unbelievers as well have immortality. That is not honoring to God nor is it taught in the scriptures.

The title of Allen’s post is “Is Hell Really Endless.” The word endless only appears once in the Bible, and refers to teachings “which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”[24] The Bible never uses the term endless to describe hell. Instead, the Bible says:

· “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”[25]

· “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.”[26]

· “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.”[27]

· “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.”[28]

· “So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”[29]

· “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”[30]

· “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”[31]

The only permanent things in this universe are events that happen in history, God himself and the beings he has decided to rescue from this age into the next. Hell will not be perpetual, like God’s life. It will be a permanent event in history, but not a perpetual process.

[1] All quotes not otherwise referenced are from Allen’s post.

[2] This is not a term we often use or appreciate. The term most of us use is conditionalist, because we argue that human immortality is conditional. Since the unsaved will not be made immortal, they cannot exist forever in a burning hell.

[3] Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 18:18, 30; John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3; Acts 13:46, 48; Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:22, 23; Galatians 6:8; 1 Timothy 1:16; 6:2; Titus 1:2; 3:7; Hebrews 9:15; 1 John 2:25; 5:11; Jude 21.

[4] 2 Peter 2:9 NET: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to reserve the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment.”

[5] Isa. 13:6, 9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad. 1:15; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:5; Acts 2:20; 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:10.

[6] Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36; 2 Pet. 2:9; 3:7; 1 John 4:17.

[7] Romans 16:26; 1 Timothy 6:16; Hebrews 9:14;

[8] Revelation 14:6.

[9] Matthew 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7.

[10] 2 Corinthians 4:18 “the things that are unseen are eternal.”

[11] Romans 16:25.

[12] 2 Timothy 1:9.

[13] Titus 1:2.

[14] Psalm 30:5.

[15] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[16] Matt. 10:28; 22:7; Luke 17: 27, 29; 20:16; 1 Cor. 3:17; 6:13; 15:24, 26; Heb. 10:39; 2 Peter 2:12;

Rev. 11:18.

[17] Psalm 104:35; Ezekiel 26:21; 27:36; 28:19.

[18] Romans 6:23.

[19] Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28.

[20] Revelation 21:8.

[21] Matthew 10:28.

[22] 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.

[23] Revelation 21:1-4.

[24] 1 Timothy 1:4.

[25] Zephaniah 1:18.

[26] Mark 3:26.

[27] Romans 6:21.

[28] 1 Corinthians 15:24.

[29] 2 Corinthians 11:15.

[30] Philippians 3:19.

[31] 1 Peter 4:7.

Author: Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is pastor of Piney Grove Advent Christian Church in Delco, North Carolina. You can contact him at marmsky@gmail.com -- !

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