Does the Bible Teach that All Men Are Immortal?
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John Hepp, Jr.
Unless otherwise indicated, Bible quotations are from the New Inter-national Version and bolding is added. The word man is often equivalent to a human being. To show sample teachings that assume man’s immortality, I will most often quote Arthur W. Pink, whose influence continues strong, and more recently, Ajith Fernando. Quotations espousing conditional immortality are generally from Edwin Froom.
In this study I deal with a perplexing belief prevalent in current evangelical Christianity. Most conservative teachers, though not all, insist that in effect all men are immortal. After a transition period—they say—every person will live forever in a body, whether in heaven, the new earth, or hell. Accordingly, the unsaved will for all eternity suffer conscious torment. That aspect of their belief elicits scorn or revulsion from some non-Christians. However, many Christians feel obli-gated to hold it, albeit with deep concern. They are told that in certain biblical passages God teaches everlasting torment.
One such passage often cited is the Lord’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus. After dying, the formerly rich man found himself “in hell [Greek Hades], where he was in torment” (Luke 16:23). So he begged, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire”(16:24). A picture of unrelenting torment, for who knows how long. Here are other passages alleged to teach the same.
[The angels] will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 13:42)
Then [the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt. 25:46)
If anyone worships the beast, he, too will drink of the wine of God’s fury.…He will be tor-mented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast.… (Rev. 14:9-12)
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Rev. 20:10)
In the first three passages just quoted, the duration of the suffering is not clear. The “torment” and “agony” of the formerly rich man (Luke 16) would end if he finally expired (see Matt. 10:28, Luke 12:47–48). The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13) would continue only while God was “burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). The “eternal punishment” of the wicked (Matt. 25) may refer to its unalterable result rather than a continuous process. But in the two passages from Revelation, the suffering is pictured as non-ending. If that picture must be interpreted literally, those so tormented will in effect be immortal. Each one will drink oceans of pain far larger than our minds can imagine. On the next page I will try to represent a drop of water from those oceans.
What Unbelievers Will Have in Hell
If they are immortal, as some teach, this condition will never cease or improve.
Miles of such pages could not even begin to represent it all.
No normal human being can accept complacently this picture of non-ending suffering. If God wants it to be so, we can only try to swallow it. We cannot escape by supposing that everyone will eventually be converted. Many Scriptures contradict that notion. For example: “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). However, there is a legitimate escape. It is based on Scriptures, such as the following, that teach or imply man’s mortality. They show that God has given conditions for attaining immortality. Only those who meet the conditions will attain it. All the rest will suffer punishment but eventually cease to exist.
[God,] who alone is immortal. (1 Tim. 6:16)
“The man…must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Gen. 3:22)
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Rom. 2:7)
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Rev. 2:7)
That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready…will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. (Luke 12:47–48)
Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
Every word God has spoken is pure. “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). So what do we do when God seems to contradict Himself? We struggle to see what each passage means in context. We seek evidence whether the language is literal or figurative and whether the belief it reflects was temporary or final. We try to become aware of our preconceptions that color each passage we read. In this paper I will show considerable evidence that conditional immortality fits the biblical revelations. To support it, I will propose the following five sets of arguments from the Bible and Church History. I will explain each set by numbered articles.
A. The Scriptures ascribe immortality to God but mortality to man. p. 4
B. A central theme of the Bible is how God provides for immortality. p. 10
C. Nearly all relevant Scriptures point to ultimate destruction of the wicked. p. 16
D. God’s purpose for Christ requires for the wicked to cease to exist. p. 24
E. The early Church Fathers believed in conditional immortality. p. 25
Most of the biblical evidence favors the conditional immortality view. That view, however, clashes with two traditions now widespread but not found in early Church Fathers. They are (a) that all men will live forever, and (b) that many of the prophetic promises about the kingdom are being fulfilled for us in a different form. (See Article 5.) These two traditions have scant support in the Bible and often make readers miss what God says there. Our traditions and our thinking are worthy of trust only insofar as they reflect the perfect revelation He gave us.
A. The Scriptures ascribe immortality to God but mortality to man.
The articles under this section will show the following about immortality: (a) what the Bible means by it as applied to God and man, and (b) how God originally offered it to man but temporarily withdrew the offer. These arguments depend partly on accepting the early chapters of Genesis at face value and as of prime importance. One’s convictions from Genesis will tend to color all the additional evidence.
1. Only God is immortal, which means He can never cease to exist. First Timothy 6:16 says that God “alone is immortal.” The Greek is literally “who alone has immortality [athanasian].” The key Greek word means “non-susceptibility to death” (thanatos is death). Therefore, we could paraphrase by saying, “Of everyone that exists, only God the Creator will automatically live forever and never die.” Notice that this is affirmed of One who—like His angels (Heb. 1:7, 14)—is spirit and has no literal body. Is that the reason He is immortal, because every spirit is immortal? Of course not. Otherwise, angels would be immortal too. But since God “alone is immortal,” only He is essentially immune to death. At least in His case, immortality cannot refer primarily to the body and death cannot mean separation of body and spirit. They must mean something more basic. We can conclude that God’s immortality refers to His eternal being—that nothing can make Him cease to exist.
In contrast to God, man is mortal. And since his Fall every “man is destined to die once” (Heb. 9:27). Could man’s death, unlike the death denied for God, simply mean separation of soul/ spirit from body? Apparently not, as you will see starting in Genesis 1–3, where it seems ille-gitimate to define death as separation. In man’s case death ultimately means ceasing to exist, just as it would in God’s case. Unless God intervenes, death ends in man’s complete cessation.
Many evangelical Christians do not agree with what I just said about man. I will express their opinion in the words of Arthur W. Pink (see the beginning of my first page). Pink sprinkles on his pages such statements as “Man possesses an imperishable soul” (I:35) and “We have been created by the Eternal God, we possess a never-dying soul” (I:49). What evidence does Pink give for saying this? None. Apparently he assumes that such statements are corroborated by biblical revelations somewhere and need no proof. Ajith Fernando agrees with Pink that men are imperishable. Furthermore, he purports to address the issues in his chapter “What about Annihi-lationism?” (pp. 37–44). In it he tries to adduce biblical evidence against conditional immortal-ity. Yet, Fernando is also unaware of his presuppositions. Therefore, he says absolutely nothing about such key passages as 1 Timothy 6:16 or Genesis 2-3—and the issues they raise.
2. To certain men God will communicate immortality, which is eternal life. The Bible reveals how the deadly “sting of death” (1 Cor. 15:56) can be removed. We will consider this in more detail in my second set of articles. For now notice two of the New Testament promises of immortality. The first one is part of a discussion of the coming judgment. Like other such descriptions of God’s judgment (e.g., Matt. 25:31–46), it equates immortality with eternal life.
You are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will give eternal life to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:5b–7)
The second promise pairs immortality with imperishability.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immor-tality…then the saying…will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor. 15:50–54)
Such promises clearly imply (a) that immortality is essentially the same as eternal life and (b) that we do not have it yet but will receive it later. Now we will further consider what it means in man’s case—and the fact that men have never had it by nature.
3. In each man’s case immortality will require a body. God is immortal without a body; men cannot be immortal without one. That is because man is not essentially a spirit (as God is) but a body infused with spirit from God. That basic truth is taught in Genesis 2, as we will consider in the next paragraphs and Chart A.
The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Gen. 2:7)
Genesis 2:7 should be understood in its context of Genesis 1-4, which is summarized in Chart A. Read the first column, which covers the majestic introduction in 1:1 to 2:3. That introduction gives the overall picture of the original creation. After it, the chart continues with Genesis 2:4 to 4:26, the first of numerous main sections in that book. Each main section begins with the title “This is the account of…” (Gen. 2:4; 5:1 [slightly different]; 6:9; and so on). This first section, divided into two parts, takes up the subsequent history as far as Lamech’s civilization. It begins with a supplementary record of man’s creation (Gen. 2:5–25), shaded in the chart. This sup-plement gives added details about the creation of man and woman, also their first conditions. God made man to be a “living being” (2:7; Hebrew nephesh hayah). He had already made “liv-ing creatures” (same Hebrew words) in the sea (1:20) and on the land (1:24). But He used a different method to create man. He first formed man’s body from “dust of the ground,” then breathed life into it. Not a body-clothed spirit but a spirit-infused body (James 2:26).
Chart A Genesis 1–4
Beginnings of the World & Civilization
Introduction, 1:1 to 2:3
Original Creation First Main Section, 2:4 to 4:26
History until Lamech’s Civilization
of original creation
(six days plus rest),
including man & woman Supplementary record
of creation of man
(as a spirit-infused body)
& of woman, 2:5–25 Subsequent History, 3:1 to 4:26
Why does Genesis give this supplementary record of man’s creation? In part to show his unique relation to God. But probably to show also that his body is essential to him; he cannot/will not become immortal without it. That means that his soul cannot indefinitely exist separately from a body. In the case of the wicked, God not only can but will “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
4. The method and product of creating man do not imply immortality. As just pointed out, calling the newly created man “a living being” does not suggest his special character. The same label was used of animals also. However, God did make man in a unique way and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Some think, as you saw in Article 1, that man’s divinely supplied spirit makes him immortal. But not so, as God quickly revealed. His warning Adam not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was all about mortality. “When you eat of it,” God said, “you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). We do not have to speculate what dying meant. God made its meaning unmistakable after man fell: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). One who could die by returning to dust was certainly mortal. Those who define immortality and mortality as spiritual must also define death as spiritual. But in the Genesis story they will search for their concepts in vain.
5. Being in God’s image does not imply immortality but dominion. This Article 5 introduces us to the subject of the kingdom, which is the Bible’s main theme. God will make some people immortal in order for them to inherit the coming kingdom (James 2:5). If this seems confusing, it may be because you have heard diverse teachings about the kingdom, some of them unbiblical. Please make an effort to understand the main ideas and evaluate them biblically.
Twice in Genesis 1:26–28 man is said to be in the image of God. Nevertheless, he is mortal; witness the evidence just cited in Article 4 (“you will die”). God’s image is not absolute; man is unlike God in many ways. For example, he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. What, then, does that image mean? The answer is right there in 1:26–28, which presents man as God’s final and crowning step in creation. For six days He had made order and inhabitants. Now He made a creature enough like Himself to be His representative and exercise dominion (“let them rule”) over all creation.
That purpose for man remains constant throughout the Bible, in spite of the Fall. For example, it was restated in Psalm 8:6: “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put every-thing under his feet.” Commenting on that very psalm and purpose, Hebrews 2:5-10 denies that it has been fulfilled: “at present we do not see everything subject to him” (Heb. 2:8). Hebrews assures us, however, that this purpose of God will be fulfilled in “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5). “The world to come” is the kingdom Jesus will inaugurate when He returns, as He Himself promised. In that day man will realize his rulership potential as God’s image.
Here I can illustrate one risk in the current tradition of “realized eschatology.” This is the belief that prophetic promises about the kingdom are being fulfilled for us in a different form. Most of those holding to that tradition seem to mistake the perspective of Hebrews 1 and 2. Those chap-ters point to the coming kingdom, “the world to come, about which we are speaking.” So says the author (2:5). He also calls that coming world the “salvation” that believers “will inherit” (1:14) and “such a great salvation”(2:3). That equates the future glorious kingdom with salva-tion, a common practice in both Testaments (e.g., Isa. 12:3; 25:6-9; 1 Thess. 5:8-9; 1 Peter 1:5). Yet, it is rare nowadays to teach that most of salvation (like “eternal life”—see Article 16) is future. Why? Probably because belief in “realized eschatology” often makes the teacher think a passage refers to the present when it refers to the future.
6. In his Fall man lost the access to immortality. That loss is made evident by comparing two facts before the Fall to two facts after it.
Before the Fall
• Man had access to the tree of life (Gen. 2:9).
• Man was warned that “when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17).
After the Fall (some consequences of man’s sin)
• God cursed man, saying in part, “Return to the ground; since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 2:19).
• God expelled him from the garden because “he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22).
These facts make it evident that the tree of life pictured the offer of immortality. After the Fall, his dying (= returning to the ground) and not eating from that tree showed that man was being kept from immortality.
7. Man’s death in the Fall was primarily physical. This is a corollary of the point just made. Reread the four biblical facts in the previous article. The curse of returning to dust and the exclusion from the tree of life clearly refer to physical death. This meaning should be empha-sized because some interpreters claim that Adam’s death was primarily spiritual (non-material). In contrast to the account in Genesis, they claim either that his spirit was separated/alienated from God or that it ceased to exist. Arthur Pink, for example, says, “God faithfully warned man that if he ate of the forbidden fruit, he should surely die. And die he did, spiritually” (I:15). A few pages later Pink reiterates that interpretation:
In the day that Adam sinned, he died spiritually. Physical death is the separation of the spirit from the body; spiritual death is the separation of the spirit from God. When Adam died, his spirit was not annihilated, but it was “alienated from God.” (I:18)
Here is yet another example of Pink’s understanding of death as separation:
God’s original threat to Adam, namely, spiritual death (for he did not die physically that same day), which is the separation of the soul from God. (I:54)
Why does Pink make Adam’s death primarily spiritual? One reason may be that he has been misled by the King James Version in Genesis 2:17. Its translation is mistakenly word for word: “in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Since Adam lived many years after he first sinned, Pink concludes that on that day he must have died spiritually. But the Hebrew expression translated “in the day” is a common idiom that does not refer to a twenty-four-hour period. It normally means a longer period of time. Therefore, NIV is correct in translating 2:17 “when you eat.” (It also uses “when” for the same expression in 2:4; 5:1, 2; et al.) So God’s warning meant that some time in the new epoch of his existence, Adam would die physically. And so he did, as the texts in Article 6 have shown.
Another reason for Pink’s wrong conclusion is his assumption that man’s spirit/soul is immortal. If that assumption were right, spiritual death would be quite distinct from and more important than physical death. More far-reaching. Indeed, all are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). So Pink assumes that Genesis 3 relates the origin of that condition. Though Genesis gives him no support, he assumes that spiritual death alone must be the main point. Nevertheless, he later acknowledges that the result of Adam’s sin was his physical death. He says,
The divine record of the Fall is the only possible explanation of the present condition of the human race. It alone accounts for the presence of evil in a world made by a beneficent and perfect Creator. [And it alone] explains the mystery of death. Man possesses an imperishable soul, why then should he die? He had breathed into him the breath of the Eternal One, why then should he not live on in this world for ever?” (I:35, bolding mine)
In this quotation Pink, though alleging man’s immortality, acknowledges the obvious meaning of death in the Fall. Yet, as you saw earlier, he usually disregards that meaning. He usually over-looks the physical nature of the curse and the physical consequences of being excluded from the garden and the tree. Many other conservatives follow Pink’s lead. But they can hardly find con-vincing evidence of their “spiritual death” view in the Genesis account itself. Some remain unconvinced by Genesis for the same reason as Pink. They give more importance to a meta-phorical sense of death in some other passages (such as, in Eph. 2 and Col. 2). But since when does a metaphorical use deny or supersede a word’s basic meaning? Consider another example. Sometimes eating is used spiritually: “When your words came, I ate them” (Jer. 15:16). But such spiritual eating can in no way imply that eating the fruit in Genesis 3 or elsewhere must be spiritual. Neither does the occasional use of death as a spiritual metaphor elsewhere imply that it is spiritual in Genesis.
8. All men die (not attaining immortality when they die) because of Adam’s sin. This fact is illustrated in succeeding chapters of Genesis (see “he died” in Gen. 5:5, 8, 11, 14, et al.). And it is taught explicitly in the main New Testament commentary about Adam’s sin, Romans 5:12–21. That passage is considered difficult, partly because of current confusion about the term death or died. But it is important enough to read and study repeatedly. In Chart B I have summarized its parts. It is a key step in Romans, the book that shows why the gospel of grace works so powerfully. Notice the title I have given the passage. It shows that Christ’s supreme act of obedience can change the whole world just as Adam’s sin did. It compares and contrasts the effects of the two men’s actions. The whole argument assumes that Adam’s death was physical.
Chart B Romans 5:12–21, Universal Results from Adam & Christ
Part 1. Because of Adam’s Sin,
all in him die, vv. 12–14
This Principle Stated & Proved Part 2. Because of Christ’s Obedience,
all in Him will live, vv. 15–21
Contrasts & Similarities to the Influence of Adam
Stated, v. 12
“just as” Proved, vv. 13–14
by the death of everybody (“death reigned”) between Adam and Moses, when there was no law to punish Three Contrasts, vv. 15–17
Three Similarities, vv. 18–21
Continue to study Romans 5:12-21 in Chart B. Look at Part 1 (vv. 12-14) and Part 2 (vv. 15-21). Part 1 gives Adam’s side in the comparison, namely, that Adam’s sin brought (physical) death to all men in him. It states that principle (to which I will return) in verse 12, then proves it in verses 13-14. Part 2 gives Christ’s side in the comparison, namely, that He brings life to all men in Him.
Now return to verse 12, the beginning of Part 1: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.…” This is the principle of Adam’s influence: “all sinned” and incurred the death penalty not as separate individuals but in Adam. That same principle is reiterated in nearly every verse of Part 2. For example: “the many died by the trespass of the one man” (v. 15). Especially relevant to our study is the argument by which the apostle proves that principle in verses 13–14.
After Adam disobeyed the law God gave him, then died, “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses.”
The people born during that period from Adam to Moses, though punished by death, had no divine law to disobey and make them guilty.
Therefore, their death must have been for Adam’s sin, not their own.
Remember that the object of these verses is to prove that one man’s action can affect everybody. The whole argument depends on the physical and observable nature of the evidence. Unless “death reigned” refers to physical death (as abundantly witnessed in Genesis 3-5), it cannot be seen or convince anyone. Thus, this passage confirms that Adam’s sin and the curse resulted not primarily in “spiritual” death but in mortality for all. No one will naturally live forever!
B. A central theme of the Bible is how God provides for immortality.
The articles in this section will show the following about immortality: (a) The purpose of Christ’s first coming was to make it possible. (b) It will enable us to reign as originally planned. (c) It will be granted at our resurrection. (d) In one quite limited sense believers already have it.
9. God wanted man to have immortality (live forever), but man lost the opportunity. This reiterates my earlier argument. “In the middle of the garden” God put “the tree of life” (Gen. 2:9). Was this an actual tree—and therefore a sacrament —or is the record a figure of speech? I suppose that since the garden and man were material, the tree was also material. But material or not, the message is the same: God was making eternal life possible. However, He withdrew that immediate offer when He expelled us from the garden and set a guard. He does not want man to “eat and live forever” (Gen. 3:22) with the curse on him and on the earth. The obvious meaning would seem to be that we lost our chance at immortality.
How does Arthur Pink interpret this tree and this judgment? As a sample, consider more of his remarks on Genesis 3:21ff. First, Pink emphasizes God’s mercy in slaying animals to provide clothing for Adam and Eve. This, he says, was a perfect type of the Lord Jesus laying down His life for His sheep. Then Pink continues with the following paragraphs (emphasis is his):
Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise. The moral significance of this is plain. It was impossible for them to remain in the garden and continue in fellowship with the Lord. He is holy, and that which defileth cannot enter His presence. Sin always results in separa-tion.…
Here we see the fulfilment of God’s threat. He had announced, “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Die, not only physically—there is something infinitely worse than that—but die spiritually. Just as physical death is the separation of the soul from the body, so spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God.…When it is said that we are by nature “dead in trespasses and sins,” it is because men are “alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18). In like manner, that judicial death which awaits all who die in their sins—the “Second Death”—is not annihilation as so many are now falsely teaching but eternal separation from God and everlasting punishment in the lake of fire. And so here in Genesis 3 we have God’s own definition of death—separation from Him, evidenced by the expulsion of man from Eden.
The barring of the way to the tree of life illustrated an important spiritual truth. In some peculiar way this tree seems to have been a symbol of the Divine presence (see Prov. 3:18), and the fact that fallen man had no right of access to it further emphasized the moral distance at which he stood from God.…
Summing up, then, this important division of our subject—God and the Fall—we discover here: An exhibition of His condescension in seeking man; an evidence of His mercy in giving a blessed prophecy and promise to sustain and cheer the heart of man; a demonstra-tion of His grace in providing a covering for the shame of man; a display of His holiness in punishing the sin of man; and a typical foreshadowment of the urgent need of a Media¬tor between God and man. (Pink, I:45–46)
There is much that is good in Pink’s comments. But did you notice the two following defects? (a) Pink insists that Adam’s death was separation and spiritual, though God called it returning to the dust. (b) Pink is confused about the meaning of the tree of life. To him it is “in some pecu-liar way…a symbol of the divine presence,” whereas God said it would allow one to “live for-ever.” In fact, in his summary Pink quite eliminates any reference to our going back to dust or being barred from that tree. Why does he miss such obvious points? Is it because he has arrived at more important conclusions? Or the obvious ones do not fit his traditions? Instead, we should simply accept what the record clearly implies: Living forever—which equals eternal life, which equals immortality—was offered but was lost.
10. In His first advent Christ suffered to make immortality available. In view of man’s mor-tality and increasing failure (Gen. 3–11), God chose Abram/Abraham through whom to bring salvation. He prospered Abraham and the nation He created from him (Gen. 12ff). He later made that nation into His prototypical kingdom on earth (Exod. 19:5–6; 25:22; Ps. 114:1–2). This finally led to the first advent of the royal Christ (the title of the Anointed Ruler), who was also God’s Lamb. In the works He did during His first advent, Jesus gave overwhelming evi-dence of His royalty (Matt. 11:2–6). But He did not begin His rule (Luke 19:11–15). Instead, He suffered in order to make men immortal: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10; cf. 5:26, 29; 11:25). The apostle Paul referred to this purpose in his final epistle:
God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Tim. 1:8–10)
11. As the sin of one brought death, the righteous act of another One will bring life. This is the main point of the comparison in Romans 5:12–21 (see Article 8 and Chart B there). The mournful result of Adam’s sin will be reversed by the free gift of God through one Man: “justifi-cation that brings life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). As stated in preceding articles, that fullness of life will be no less than the promised kingdom: “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned…how much more will [those justified] reign in life by the one man, Jesus Christ” (5:17). This statement reflects God’s purpose in creating man to rule. (a) Adam’s sin brought universal death, which hindered the fulfillment of that purpose, but (b) immortality through Jesus the Messiah will fulfill it.
12. He will make men immortal to enable them to reign forever on earth. Revelation 5:9–10 gives thanks to the Lamb for His purpose and action: “With your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9–10). Not all men will rule, of course, but only those who “have part in the first resur-rection.…They will reign with him” (Rev. 20:6). Notice that they will be raised to “reign on the earth,” not in heaven. We do not go to a supposedly spiritual (non-material) kingdom in heaven but pray, “your kingdom come…on earth.…” We do not ourselves establish or extend His kingdom because, as Jesus explained, it “is not from this world” (John 18:36, Greek). Instead, as predicted by the prophets (e.g., Dan. 2:34–35, 44–45), God will bring it from heaven. It will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1; 2 Peter 3:13), designed for those redeemed and resurrected. Indeed, it requires immortal people to inherit it (1 Cor. 15:50).
Though the coming kingdom is “not a matter of eating and drinking” (Rom. 14:17), yet it will have such material elements. We will need our bodies in order to “take [our] places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). In it we will return to God’s garden and eat always from the tree of life (Rev. 2:7; 22:2). We will “reign for ever and ever,” as God planned and promised (Rev. 2:26–27; 22:1–5). The curse will be lifted, and all things will be made new (Rev. 21:5; cf. Isa. 35). He will make each believer immortal in order to inherit/reign in such a kingdom.
13. Our confident hope in immortality (and the kingdom) gives us courage. If immortality and inheritance in the kingdom constitute the Christian hope, we expect the Bible to say so. And it does. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…he will sit on his throne [and] will say, ‘Come…take your inheritance, the kingdom…” (Matt. 25:31, 34). Even negative statements imply that same future for us. “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor. 6:9, 10). That implies that we who are now “saints” (holy) will inherit it. However, we must become immortal to inherit it: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50). After the resurrection we will no longer be “flesh and blood” nor “perishable.” Look at two other examples from the same apostle.
• 2 Corinthians 5:1–2, 4. Here Paul speaks of our hope when we die (“if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed”). Even then we know “we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.… We do not wish to be unclothed [that is, to die] but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” When we are clothed with that eter¬nal building from God—that eternal house, that heavenly dwelling—we will no longer be mortal. To what “heavenly dwelling” does Paul refer? To the glorious resurrection body, as he shows in the previous context: “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14—the same thought as 1 Thess. 4:14). “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far out¬weighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
• Romans 8:18–25 says the same thing and relates it to all nature:
First, Paul asserts, “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Rom. 8:18)
Second, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration [but] will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (8:19–20)
Third, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (8:23)
In other words, our coming glory will at least include our full “adoption…the redemption of our bodies.” And when that happens, all “creation will be liberated” from the curse. Thus will come the promised kingdom we constantly pray for (Luke 11:2). When it does come, “Oh, that will be glory for me”! Keeping our eyes on that goal helps us endure (Heb. 12:1–3).
14. Believers will attain immortality when they are raised from the dead. We have just been reminded from 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 8 of a coming renewal for us and for all nature. Some such passages tell us when this will take place: not at our death, of course, but at the resur-rection. Reread the verses just cited from 2 Corinthians 4 (vv. 14, 17). Jesus said the same thing plainly in Matthew 19:28–29. At “the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne…[every believer] will inherit eternal life.” As seen in earlier articles, eternal life is the same as immortality. It is the goal of “the road that leads to life,” in contrast to the goal of “the road that leads to destruction” (Matt. 7:13–14; see also 25:46 and Rom. 2:7). The current belief that immortality comes at death is a mistake. Listen again to the great resurrection chapter: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality…then the saying…will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor. 15:50–54).
15. Belief in conditional immortality accounts for the New Testament emphasis on the resurrection. The chapter just cited (1 Cor. 15) says that resurrection of the body is absolutely essential to Christianity.
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Cor. 15:16–19)
Dead believers would be lost if there were no coming resurrection and Christ had not already been raised. As the chapter goes on to show, our hope of glory is our own resurrection, not our death. Accordingly, bodily resurrection was a main theme in Acts, apparently in every evan-gelistic message. For example, the first persecution began when priests and others “came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:1–2). Here and in the quotations below, the Greek word for “dead” is plural, referring to more than Jesus. That is especially obvious in Acts 24:15. Look at some summaries of Paul’s mes¬sage to unbelievers, especially from the last chapters of Acts.
• “Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18)
• “I stand in trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 23:6 and 24:21)
• “I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righ-teous and the wicked.” (Acts 24:15)
• “O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8)
It should be obvious that the early church did not consider death to be our goal. We will receive what is promised only when we are raised. But that is not what most of Western Christianity believes nowadays. Bodily resurrection is no longer in favor and is unimportant in most modern creeds and most funeral services. That is because we think all men are automatically immortal. We mistakenly think that a saint “sleeping” in death already has everything in heaven. If he has everything, what could a resurrection body really do for him? I do not mean to deny any advan-tage “to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:7; cf. Phil. 1:23). But to be raised and receive our eternal inheritance (Rev. 11:17–18) will be far greater.
16. Since we will become immortal at the resurrection, how should we interpret John 5:24? According to the first three Gospels, eternal life will be granted at Jesus’ Second Coming. See Chart C, which follows. As Jesus said in a description of that coming: “Then [the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:46; cf. 7:14). He identified that life with fullness of life in the kingdom He will then inaugurate: “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt. 25:34; cf. 19:16–29).
Chart C Life or Eternal Life in the Synoptic Gospels
Matthew Mark Luke
7:13–14 Enter through the narrow gate.… small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life (zoen), and only a few find it.
16:25 whoever wants to save his life (psuchen) will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it 8:34–37 [same as Matt.] 9:24; 17:33 [same as Matt.]
18:8–9 better to enter life [zoen, also 19:17] maimed or crippled [9, with one eye] than to have two hands or two feet [9, two eyes] and be thrown into eternal fire [9, the fire of hell] 9:43–47 [same as Matt. except] enter the kingdom of God
19:16 What good thing must I do to get eternal life? [first use of “eternal life,” which is equiva¬lent to phrases in the next verses] 10:17 [same as Matt. except] inherit eternal life 18:18 [same as Mark]
19:23–24 hard for a rich man to enter the king¬dom of heaven.…a rich man to enter the king¬dom of God.…Who then can be saved? [This is equivalent to “inherit eternal life” in 19:29.] 10:23, 24, 25 [same as Matt. except only] enter the kingdom of God 18:24, 25 [same as Mark]
19:28–29 At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you…will inherit eternal life. 10:29–30 [same as Matt. except] in the age to come 18:30 [same as Mark]
22:23–33 Sadducees, who say there is no resur¬rection.…Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection.…people will neither marry.…He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 12:19–27 [same as Matt.] 20:27–38 [same as Matt. except specifies or adds] this age, that age, can no longer die, are God’s children…for to him all are alive
25:34, 46 Take your inheritance, the kingdom.… The righteous [will go] to eternal life.
To reiterate, the Synoptic Gospels all say that believers will get eternal life when Jesus comes again. But the Gospel of John adds quotations to the effect that we already have it.
“Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
Similarly, John writes his first epistle so that we can “know that we have passed from death to life” (1 John 3:14; cf. 5:13). Such statements seem to contradict the verses that promise immor-tality at the resurrection. Actually, John has quotations on both sides of this question, even in the same context. That is true in the context of John 5:24. Notice that some of these statements agree with the first three Gospels and make the gift of life future.
Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.…A time is coming and has now come, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.…A time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:21, 25, 28–29)
Both sides are true: We already have eternal life but will get it fully in the resurrection. This affects our interpretation of “life…to the full” in John 10:10, which cannot be limited to what we already have. John’s writings do not deny the basic facts of the good news—but they supple-ment those facts. John neither contradicts nor discounts the huge change that awaits us at the resurrection. But he emphasizes the assurance we already have by faith and by the gift of the Spirit and His work in our lives. He dwells on the fact stated in 1 Corinthians 3:22, that even the future is ours already.
The Book of Acts is like the Synoptic Gospels in respect to “life” as the goal of faith. In this sense it usually or always refers to life in the future.
Acts 3:15—you killed the author of life
Acts 5:20—the full message of this new life
Acts 11:18—repentance that leads to life
Acts 13:46—not…worthy of eternal life
Acts 13:48—appointed for eternal life
[also probably implied by “the Way”: Acts 9:2; 19:23; 24:14]
The same thing is true in the Epistles.
Romans 5:21—grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life
Romans 6:22—the result is eternal life
Romans 6:23—the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life
Galatians 6:8—from the Spirit will reap eternal life
Titus 1:2—the hope of eternal life [also 3:7], which God…promised
James 1:12—when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life
One more point. It is obvious that we obtain eternal life by hearing His word and believing it. Genuine faith in Him, the kind that perseveres, is the only requirement from us.
C. Nearly all relevant Scriptures point to ultimate destruction of the wicked.
The articles under this section will show (a) that most biblical references to the judgment of the wicked point to their destruction and (b) that neither God’s char¬acter nor poetic nor parabolic descriptions require His punishing them forever.
17. Pictures of fire or unquenchable fire imply destruction. One of the best-known pictures of non-ending destruction is the last verse of Isaiah, often reflected in the New Testament:
And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind. (Isa. 66:24)
Is there anything about these “dead bodies,” “their worm,” or “their fire” that suggests unending consciousness? Instead, they picture unremitting (nonstop) destruction of the wicked. Mark 9:43–48 warns about being thrown into the same place: “hell, where the fire never goes out…is not quenched” and where “their worm does not die.” Consider two more typical examples where the Gospels use the same pictures.
John the Baptist praised the One who would come after him. First, that One would baptize not in water like John, but in the Spirit. Also He would judge, “gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). The interpreter must decide which of the following is the meaning of “unquenchable fire.”
Chart D “Unquenchable fire”
in Matthew 3:12
Does it refer to
TIME? OR POWER?
it burns how strong
that it will not be put out that it cannot
be put out
If the phrase refers to time, what the fire burns might remain whole and conscious forever. If it refers to power, it cannot be put out until it finishes consuming! The fact that John pic-tures chaff burning in this fire favors the power meaning. Chaff does not last long in fire.
A second example concludes the Lord’s parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The owner of the field represents the Lord Himself when He returns to set up His kingdom. Notice, when He instructs the harvesters, what the purpose of the fire is: “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned [Gr. katakausai, to be burned up]; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matt. 13:30). He repeats that purpose when He later explains the parable:
As the weeds are pulled up and burned [Gr. katakaietai, burned up] in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Matt. 13:40–43)
The fire will burn up the wicked, which would normally mean destroy them. But in the “fur-nace…there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Does that mean that they will weep forever and never be destroyed? Only a pre-conceived notion would so insist.
18. The wicked will be raised, not to live but only to be judged and punished. “Man is des-tined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). All Christians believe that it is the Lord Jesus “whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). He will not only judge the living, as just seen in Matthew 13, but also the dead. “All who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28–29). Reread my comments on this passage in Article 16. As noted there, in these words Jesus contrasts future living with future being condemned. As in other Scriptures, the unrepentant are not promised immortality but punishment. Both good and evil will be judged, but only the good will “live.”
The same thing is pictured in Revelation 20:11–15. The apostle first saw “a great white throne and him who was seated on it” (Rev. 20:11). Then he “saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne” to be judged (20:12). “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done” (20:13). The most important criterion in that judgment will be whether “anyone’s name [is] found written in the book of life” (20:15). Nevertheless, “what they had done as recorded in the books” (20:12) will be made public, for the righteous as well as the wicked. The whole universe will then see the “evidence that God’s judgment is right” (2 Thess. 1:5). The same purpose, principles, and results for the judgment are seen also in Romans 2:1–16 and Matthew 25:31–46. In each passage Jesus is the Judge. In each passage He judges both the godly and the ungodly according to their works. In each passage He gives eternal life (also called “immortal¬ity” in Rom 2:7) only to the godly.
19. Punishment in “the lake of fire, [which] is the second death,” points to extinction. Reve-lation 20:11–15 concludes with the outcome of the judgment, primarily for the wicked. “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If any-one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14–15). Observe three things about this outcome.
John saw each person judged “according to what he had done” (Rev. 20:13; cf. v. 12 and Rom. 2:6). This shows that not all the ungodly will receive the same punishment. Either the length or the severity (or both) of being in the lake of fire will vary depending on one’s works.
Since fire and death both point to destruction, that lake needs to exist only until destruction is complete. Later we will consider certain passages that seem to make the lake eternal.
Throwing death and Hades into that lake (Rev. 20:13) marks the end of those two. (Is there a better suggestion of what it means?) This is confirmed by the expression “no more death” in Revelation 21:4. Notice how this contradicts the idea that death means separation. If it meant that, it would never cease (as indicated in 21:4) but would continue forever.
20. The similar figure of speech Gehenna (“hell”) also points to extinction. Final punishment is pictured in different ways. Sometimes it is a horrible darkness (e.g., Matt. 22:13; 25:30). More often, it is a fire in Gehenna (e.g., Matt. 5:29, 30), usually translated “hell.” Apparently Gehenna is equivalent to the lake of fire. Its name came from the Valley of Hinnom outside the wall of Jerusalem, where fires continually consumed garbage. Hell is awful, as our Lord implied twice in one sermon: “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29 and 30). That punishment will be irreversible, eternal (aion-ios) like immortality (Matt. 25:46). It should make us “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). As you have noticed before, hell fire will torment those in it but its main function will be to destroy. The Greek verb in Matthew 10:28 is apolesai. This verb and cognate nouns refer not to torment but to loss or destruction in many aspects. It seems unreasonable to insist that anyone would survive after God destroys both soul and body.
21. The Bible indicates that Hades/Sheol is temporary. The King James Version uses the word hell to translate both Gehenna and Hades. (In Matt. 16:18 KJV says “gates of hell” but NIV says “gates of Hades.”) But that is misleading; the terms are not synonymous. Hades, usually equivalent to Hebrew Sheol, represented to Jews and others the destiny of all who die, not just the wicked. Sometimes (as in Matt. 16:18) it meant death. But usually it meant the grave or the supposed place of disembodied “spirits.” Hades was not Gehenna but, in Jesus’ time, included Gehenna. For example, in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19–30, the formerly rich man found himself “in Hades [literally], where he was in torment” (16:23). Jews would under¬stand that Lazarus was in Hades also (16:22), in a different compartment separated by a “great chasm” (16:26).
But the concept of Hades was not wholly true to divine revelation. It was a cultural construct until the coming of “Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim. 1:10). If the concept was flawed, why then did God make use of it? As a bridge to the truth—the same reason He uses many flawed words and concepts. Remember the example I gave earlier from the Book of Job. In that book God quoted from Job’s friends many high-sounding but wrong opinions, which He twice blasted in Job 42:7–9. Similarly, He did not expunge wrong attitudes and words from some of the psalms. This fact affects our interpretation of the startling poetry in Isaiah 14:9–20, about “the spirits of the departed” in Sheol. In their shadowy bodies they “rise from their thrones” (Isa. 14:9) to greet and taunt “the king of Baby-lon,” who comes to join them (14:4). Should we accept that picture as sober theology? That is doubtful. Furthermore, don’t forget that even what is true about Hades is temporary. As you saw in Revelation 20:13, Hades and death will both be brought to an end in the lake of fire. They are not everlasting.
22. God will not keep men alive to punish them forever. I have affirmed that “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28) suggests extinction. How long will that take? In other words, how long will the wicked be punished? God instructs us in Isaiah 28:23–29 how to apply measured punishment that fits the crime. “When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow con-tinually? Does he keep on breaking up and harrowing the soil?” (Isa. 28:24). Of course not, because “His God instructs him” (28:26). Accordingly, Jesus will not give the same punishment to everyone but “to each person according to what he has done.” Yet, current tradition says that He will not destroy anyone but will keep them alive and punish them forever. This creates a moral dilemma. Why would the Son or His Father endlessly punish sins committed during this brief life?
Those who believe in unending punishment recognize our human ignorance and the conjectural nature of our answers. Yet, to resolve this dilemma they venture some suggestions, such as the following. (a) The heinous nature of sin derives not from its duration but from the Person who is sinned against. (b) The sin of the ungodly will never cease, since they will never repent. In regard to the first suggestion, no parent, however holy—and especially if holy—would require what unending conscious punishment suggests about God. No matter how heinous the offence, it would not justify unending retribution. In regard to the second suggestion, Revelation 22:11 may agree, “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong.…” But the story of the rich man and Lazarus shows at least a change in attitude after death, regret if not repentance—though it was too late. Also, if mortal men continue to sin forever, it will only be because God keeps them alive to do so.
To repeat, conditional immortality teaches that punishment by God will be measured and finite. Therefore, it does not create a moral dilemma about His nature.
23. Other figures describing divine punishment point to its limited nature. The Lord will make the punishment fit the crime. He will follow His own instructions in Isaiah 28:23–29 of how to apply measured punishment. The figures used there—plowing the soil, breaking it up, harrowing it—are common ones for divine punishment. Jesus added that it will be “more bear-able” for some than for others (Matt. 11:22–24). That will require different degrees or dura-tions of punishment, or both. He further warned that some will receive “many blows”; others, “few blows” (Luke 12:41–48). How could such language mean unending punishment?
Consider the perplexity of one who believes that the ungodly will live forever. Discussing “Degrees of Punishment,” Ajith Fernando insists on differences:
The Bible also teaches that the sinfulness of some people is more serious than that of others, and that those whose sinfulness is more serious are headed for a more serious punishment. There are many places in Scripture where this is either taught or implied.
He discusses examples of this principle in Matthew 11:20–24; Luke 12:47, 48; Hebrews 10:26–29; and Revelation 20:12, 13; then comes to this interesting conclusion:
So in hell everyone will not suffer to the same extent. But we do not know in what ways this suffering will be different. (p. 35)
Too bad he couldn’t accept conditional immortality, which provides the best explanation. The ungodly will not live forever but only until their punishment is finished.
24. Even apocalyptic descriptions of unending torment do not prove that all are immortal. As pointed out earlier, pictures of unquenchable fire do not imply immortality. The accompany-ing “weeping and gnashing of teeth” will last only as long as the punishment does. This fits the considerable evidence that immortality is conditional. In spite of such evidence, however, there are descriptions of apparently endless torment. In Chart E is the clearest one, with parallels.
Unending torment. In Chart E notice Revelation 14:9–11 in the left column and Revelation 20:10 in the middle column. They go further than the last verse of Isaiah (66:24) by picturing unending torment in a “lake of burning sulfur.” This torment will not be hidden but “in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” It is “for those who worship the beast” and for the devil, the beast, and the false prophet. It will continue “day and night for ever and ever.”
Chart E An Apocalyptic Description of Unending Torment & Parallels
(Paralleled words are bolded.)
Revelation 14:9–11 Parallels in Revelation Parallels in Isaiah 34
9…If anyone worships the beast… 10 he, too [like Babylon the Great], will drink of the wine of God’s fury.…
He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.
11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.
There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast.… 19:3 The smoke from [the great prostitute] goes up for ever and ever.
19:20…The [beast & the false prophet] were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.
20:10 And the devil…was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
21:8 But the cowardly… their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. 9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch,
her dust into burning sulfur; her land into burning pitch!
10 It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever.
From generation to genera-tion it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.
Apocalyptic hyperbole. These pictures are awful. Yet, like the parallel quoted from Isaiah 34 (in the third column of Chart E), they are not intended to be interpreted literally. As many inter-preters recognize, they are a feature of the “apocalyptic literature” used throughout Revelation. Apocalyptic literature presents realities, including spiritual realities, in highly figurative forms. I will quote two more of the examples of apocalyptic hyperbole in Revelation:
• Under the seventh bowl of God’s wrath, John saw the greatest earthquake in history take place (Rev. 16:17–19). Then “every island fled away and the mountains could not be found” (16:20). However, this overturn is not as absolute as it sounds. It leads to the con-flict of Armageddon (19:19–21) and the ensuing reign of peace (ch. 20) on the same earth.
• “Earth and sky fled…and there was no place for them” (Rev. 20:11). This description also seems absolute but is not. Right after it, the earth is still there, because “the sea gave up the dead” (Rev. 20:13).
There are also Old Testament apocalypses that shed light on Revelation 14:11 and 20:10. For example, compare a description from the “Isaiah Apocalypse” (Isa. 24–27): “The earth falls, never to rise again” (Isa. 24:20). This result looks eternal, but it is not. It is followed by “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast” (Isa. 25:6–8). Similarly, the third column of Chart E quotes from Isaiah 34:9–10. That is a poetic picture of punishment similar to Revela-tion 14:11 but referring to a whole country. Edom’s “burning sulfur [and] blazing pitch…will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.” Sounds eternal, doesn’t it? Yet, the next verses (Isa. 35) picture a restored world and mankind, which many prophecies describe as universal. In that kingdom “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9). Such a world would leave no trace of a smoking Edom. Whether the same area gets transformed or all gets replaced, in either case the absolute language is not literal.
I conclude that the few pictures of continued punishment may be hyperbolic. They should not be pressed to contradict descriptions of the new earth—or other doctrine already established, such as, conditional immortality.
25. The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) does not prove immortality. This was a parable Jesus spoke to Pharisees (16:14). In it are certain details relevant to our discussion. A formerly rich man found himself “in hell [Gr. Hades], where he was in torment” (16:23). He begged Abraham to send Lazarus “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire” (16:24). Failing that, he asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers and “warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (16:27–28). So the story certainly emphasizes suffering in Hades. Will that suffering last forever? There is no indication in the story; nothing there requires that the wicked will live forever. So it is unlikely that Jesus was here teaching the Pharisees unending torment in hell.
Furthermore, He did not intend for anyone to take most of the details literally. His purpose was to show the Pharisees how ungodly, perverse, and fatal their priorities were. To do so, He bor-rowed concepts from Jewish rabbis.
It is no purpose of the parable to give information about the unseen world.…The details of the picture are taken from Jewish beliefs as to the condition of souls in Sheol, and must not be understood as confirming those beliefs.
It is risky to make this parable a key source of information about the afterlife; parts of it are untrue to doctrinal teaching elsewhere. For example, we have seen that punishment will be assigned after the resurrection and judgment—not at death. And those in torment will not be able to talk to Father Abraham. Since Jesus here adapted typical Jewish teachings, we must assume that His lessons are limited to points He emphasized, such as
• the rich man’s selfish profligacy and lack of compassion for miserable Lazarus
• the great reversal of their conditions after death, comfort for one and torment for the other
• the awfulness of the unrelieved torment
• the finality of mindset in this life
• the sufficiency of God’s Word, rather than experience, to convict people
26. “Eternal punishment” does not require unending existence as does “eternal life.”
Then [the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt. 25:46)
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlast¬ing contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
The first quotation gives the last words of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25). This verse labels both the final verdicts, for the wicked and the righteous, as “eternal” (Gr. aionios). It is probably the verse most relied on to teach immortality for everybody. The verse in Daniel is a close paral-lel—the Greek version of it using the same adjective aionios (for Hebrew ’olam) in the same two positions. Since both verdicts are called “eternal,” many assume that both will be unending: that just as the righteous will live and never die, the wicked will be punished and never die. But nei-ther the adjective nor the verdict for the wicked requires that.
• This adjective aionios, like Hebrew (ad) ’olam, can mean unending, but not necessarily. Sometimes it is used for things that looked unending but had or will have an end. For exam-ples, see Genesis 49:26 (mountains), Exodus 40:15 (the Aaronic priesthood), Leviticus 16:34 (the ordinance for the Day of Atonement), and Psalm 24:7 (the doors of ancient Jerusalem or the temple). All of these ended or will end. Equivalent forms of the same root are used in the same way. The adverbial phrase eis ton aiona, for example, can also imply either no end or simply long duration. In the latter sense it tells how long “Naaman’s leprosy” would cling to Gehazi and his descendants (2 Kings 5:27). The adverb aionion is similar. Paul wrote Philemon about his slave, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good [aionion]” (Philemon 15).
• The verdict for those made immortal will, by definition, be eternal, unending life. But if the wicked are really mortal, their verdict will result in oblivion. In both cases the verdict itself will be final and unchangeable (aionios) and appropriate for the final age (aion). Thus, Mat-thew 25:46 could be paraphrased, “These wicked people will go into irreversible punishment, but the righteous ones into unending life.”
The word for “punishment” (Gr. kolasis) in this verse can imply severe pain. But it implies nothing about duration. A similar expression in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (olethron aionion) probably refers to the same judgment as Matthew 25. It has the same ambiguity about duration. “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” The last part of the sentence probably does not refer to the location of the wicked’s destruction but to its source (the Lord’s presence and power). The words “and shut out” are not in Greek and should be omitted. The repeated preposition “from (apo)” and “from (apo)” introduces source, as it does in Revelation 1:4 and 12:6.
D. God’s purpose for the Messiah (Christ) requires for the wicked to cease to exist.
The articles in this section show (a) that immortality for the wicked would frustrate God’s purpose for our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, (b) that preaching non-ending conscious punishment may detract from, rather than add to, His honor.
27. God’s purpose to sum up everything in Christ implies extinction of the wicked. One title for the Messiah is “Son of God.” Above all, this refers to the fact that He is God’s Heir (Ps. 2:7–8; cf. Rom. 8:17; Gal. 4:7). God’s purpose for His Heir accounts for everything else He does. It is the key to the “mystery” (revealed secret) preached by all the apostles and elaborated by that name in Ephesians. As stated in Ephesians 1:9–10, God will “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” But this purpose produces a dilemma: How can all be unified under one head if wickedness and its punishment continue forever? That is just what will happen if every human being will live forever. Some answer that everybody will eventually be saved (universalism). But that conclusion is wrong and contradicts many Scriptures (e.g., John 3:36: “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him”). So the best answer is the one argued in these pages, that evil will finally cease to exist. Only the immortal will survive.
28. It does not honor Christ to preach eternal punishment in order to get more to repent. Certainly punishment in hell will be horrible. We should warn men as Jesus did. But practical considerations should not determine the duration we assign to that punishment, nor any of our theology. Yet, they sometimes do. As noted before, missionary evangelist Ajith Fernando wrote a chapter titled “What about Annihilationism?” In it he does not consider many of the issues I have raised, including those from Genesis and 1 Timothy 6:16. Yet, he concludes with this prac-tical argument.
Annihilation is very similar to what orthodox Buddhists view as salvation. In the Bud-dhist scheme the devotee achieves Nirvana after a long climb representing numerous rebirths. The Nirvana of orthodox Buddhism is quite similar to the annihilation we are responding to here. What to the Buddhist is a reward after climbing a difficult path is similar to the punishment for sin in the eyes of the annihilationist! This has prompted someone to speak of the “bliss of annihilation.”
We will show in Chapter 12 that the prospect of hell is a key source of motivation to repentance.…Having spent my life in ministry working with Buddhists, I know how hard it is for them to make their final decision to break with the religion of their people in order to follow Christ. Many who are convinced of the truth about Jesus are yet reluctant to commit themselves to him because of the costliness of such a step. Why should such a person bother to pay this price if the consequence of rejecting Christ is so similar to their goal of Nirvana?
Fernando’s argument is purely practical and non-biblical. But even from that viewpoint, it is not certain. Teaching non-ending punishment may turn away from Christ more people than it wins.
E. The early Church Fathers believed in conditional immortality.
The articles in this section (a) quote representative Fathers to show their belief, then (b) suggest that the current tradition of innate immortality was reinforced by Platonic Dualism and Gnosticism.
29. None of the Apostolic Fathers believed that all are immortal. The Apostolic Fathers were the earliest writers in the church after the Bible canon was completed. Froom extensively quotes them (and others) to show that innate immortality was not taught until after A.D. 155. Among the early ones he cites are Barnabas (ca. 140) and Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 154). After the Apostolic Fathers (and just before and after A.D. 200) he cites, among others, the Apologist Justin Martyr and the bishop Irenaeus. For example, he quotes from Justin extensively to show him opposing the notion of innate immortality. Of course, even the earlier Fathers must be measured by the Bible; they were not always right. Now read some sample quotations from their writings. These are copied from Froom with emphasis and glosses he adds.
It is well, therefore, that he who has learned the judgments of the Lord, as many as have been written, should walk in them. For he who keepeth these shall be glorified in the kingdom of God; but he who chooseth other things [condemned in the previous chapter] shall be destroyed with his works. On this account there will be a resurrection, on this account a retribution. (The Epistle of Barnabas, ca. A.D. 130–140)
They only who fear the Lord and keep His commandments have life with God; but as to those who keep not His commandments, there is no life in them. (The Shepherd of Hermas, ca. A.D. 154)
Thou shalt despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when thou shalt fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. Then shalt thou admire those who for righteousness’ sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shalt count them happy when thou shalt know [the nature of] that fire. (Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, ca. A.D. 130 or later)
But some one will say to us, Was man made by nature mortal? Certainly not. Was he, then, immortal? Neither do we affirm this. But one will say, Was he, then, nothing? Not even this hits the mark. He was by nature neither mortal nor immortal. For if He had made him immortal from the beginning, He would have made him God [like]. Again, if He had made him mortal, God would seem to be the cause of his death. Neither, then, immor-tal nor yet mortal did He make him, but, as we have said above, capable of both; so that if he should incline to the things of immortality, keeping the commandment of God, he should receive as reward from Him immortality, and should become God [like]; but if, on the other hand, he should turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he should himself be the cause of death to himself. (Theophilus of Antioch, died ca. A.D. 180)
Froom has many pages of quotations from Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 165), first and most prolific of the Apologists. Some of Justin’s phrases are often misinterpreted to mean eternal conscious punishment. Two examples are “to undergo everlasting punishment” and “suffer punishment in eternal fire.” But Justin explicitly declares that when the fires have done their work, the wicked “shall cease to exist” (Second Apology, chapter 7). Elsewhere, he says that the wicked will be punished “so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished” (Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 5). Here are further examples.
Now the soul partakes of life, since God wills it to live. Thus, then, it will not even partake [of life] when God does not will it to live. For to live is not its attribute, as it is God’s; but as a man does not live always, and the soul is not for ever conjoined with the body, since, whenever this harmony must be broken up, the soul leaves the body, and the man exists no longer; even so, whenever the soul must cease to exist, the spirit of life is removed from it, and there is no more soul, but it goes back to the place from whence it was taken. (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 6)
If you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this [truth], and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians. (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 80)
He [Christ] shall raise all men from the dead, and appoint some to be incorruptible, immortal, and free from sorrow in the everlasting and imperishable kingdom; but shall send others away to the everlasting punishment of fire. (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 117)
Although the church soon adopted the belief in innate immortality, there were always dissenters. Martin Luther is an example. However, this paper is primarily concerned with Scriptural proofs.
30. The current belief in innate immortality was partly due to Platonism and Gnosticism. Platonic Dualism teaches that there are two basic, eternal essences in this world, not just one. Those who agree with it suppose that in addition to God and His people, even the souls of evil men will exist forever. Although that belief was essential to Platonic thought, it did not begin showing up in Christian theology until about A.D. 220. When Christians accepted Platonism, they had to conclude that both the evil and the righteous are innately immortal. They had to redefine eternal life. The first ones to adopt aspects of that philosophy were Alexandrian Fath-ers, such as, Clement and Origen. Earlier fathers, as you have seen in the previous article, had rejected Platonism. Genesis and other books did not reflect it.
But when Bible students read Genesis through Platonic spectacles, they find what is not there. They assume that when God breathed life into man, it made him immortal. Some think that liv-ing forever is implied by being in God’s image. Furthermore, to them living forever must not require a body. Death is reinterpreted; it no longer means cessation of the person but separation of soul from body. Eternal life is no longer the same as immortality; it becomes primarily quali-tative rather than quantitative. At death the immortal soul receives its reward; it need not await the resurrection or the judgment. And so on.
Gnosticism soon came into the church like a flood and, though later rejected in general, affected many beliefs. Gnosticism dislikes all things material, including man’s nature and God’s many promises of a material kingdom. Along with Platonic Dualism, it helped condition many teach-ers to redefine the predicted kingdom. That redefinition began in the third century and was gen-eral by the time Constantine merged state and church. Augustine helped convince the majority, as today, that the church itself is the promised kingdom. Such developments have made real immortality and the resurrection seem unimportant. But they have not altered man’s real nature nor God’s glorious plans.
In conclusion, read the summaries in the two boxes that follow and weigh the evidence. The first box (Chart F) lists the two best arguments for eternal torment. The second box (Chart G) lists some of the biblical evidence you have seen favoring or agreeing with conditional immortal-ity.
Chart F The Two Best Scriptural Arguments for Eternal Torment
(Weigh these against the evidence for Conditional Immortality.)
Revelation 14:9–11, with a parallel in 20:10, pictures eternal torment. However, these are like other highly-figurative, hyperbolic descriptions typical of apocalyptic literature (see Rev. 16:17–19; 20:11; Isa. 24:20; 25:6–8; 34:9–10). Are they to be interpreted literally or as figurative hyperboles, like the similar descriptions?
Matthew 25:46 puts “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” side by side. The latter by definition requires unending existence. Does the former require the same?
Chart G Some Scriptural Teachings Supporting Conditional Immortality
(The numbers after each item are for my articles in this writing.)
God “alone is immortal,” but man is mortal and perishable. 1, 4
Mortal man can live forever only if he complies with God’s conditions and God grants it. 2, 16
In man’s case immortality is not survival of the soul but eternal life in a glorified body. 1, 3, 4, 14
After the Fall God defined Adam’s death as material (returning to the dust), which implies that when man gains immortality, it will also be material. 4, 7, 9
The main New Testament commentary on Adam’s sin and death (Rom. 5:12–21) assumes and implies, like Genesis, that man’s death and eternal life are basically material. 8, 11
Immortality is sometimes equated with the eternal life that God will grant only to believers. 2, 16
Only when/after He raises all the dead to judge them, will Jesus make some imperishable. 14, 15
He will raise the wicked only to judge and destroy them, not to make them “live.” 18
The New Testament presents as our goal and inheritance not death but resurrection and the subsequent glory of the kingdom. 5, 13, 14, 15
The promised kingdom will be both spiritual and material, requiring that its heirs have eternal bodies. 12
The purpose of Christ’s dying in His first coming was to make immortal those people who will inherit the kingdom in His Second Coming. 10, 12, 13
Believers are chosen to rule in “the world to come,” where they will always eat from the tree of life. 5
Admission to or exclusion from the tree of life pictures giving or denying immortality. 6, 9
Although the apostle John emphasizes our present preliminary possession of eternal life, he also ratifies its fullness in the coming resurrection. 16
Pictures of judgment fire nearly always imply destruction, with torment incidental. 17, 19, 20
Just as death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire to be terminated, so will ungodly people. 19, 21
Warnings to “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28) imply an end to such people. 20
Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus (Luke 16:19–30) pictures continual torment but does not imply how long it will last. 25
Though God used Hebrew concepts of Hades/Sheol, He did not fully endorse them. 21
Since God teaches us to apply punishment in measure, He will not punish all wicked people with equal severity or equally long. 22, 23
God’s purpose to “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” would be spoiled if the wicked continued forever. 27
Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Genesis, Volumes I and II (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1922). I must quote Pink with caution, for he says, “It is not our purpose to give a detailed and exhaustive exposition of Genesis, rather shall we attempt to single out some of the less obvious treasures from this wonderful mine, in which are stored inexhaus-tible supplies of spiritual riches. This first book in the Word of God is full of typical pictures, prophetic fore-shadowings, and dispensational adumbrations, as well as important practical lessons, and it will be our delight to call attention to a few of these as we pass from chapter to chapter” (I, 27). In spite of writing 206 pages on Genesis 1–20, Pink does not comment on everything of importance there. So I will generally limit my quotations to what he does say repeatedly.
Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions about Hell (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991).
Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, 2 vols. (Washington: Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1965, 1966). I was first introduced to this subject in the 1970s, when I read much of Froom’s exhaus-tive work on it. No doubt I still use some of his arguments, which I tested back then and got mostly tentative answers. But now I will try to give my own logic and exegetical results. I can only hope that some will face the biblical and historical issues in spite of Froom’s Seventh Day Adventism and my own lack of denominational cre-dentials.
Despite the lack of Scriptural support, universal salvation is a growing heresy. See Ajith Fernando’s chapter on this subject.
Of course, God’s Word also quotes wrong ideas, such as, those of Job’s friends and some sayings in the Psalms. There is progressive revelation, in which incomplete or distorted human views later get corrected. And there are literary genres like apocalyptic, in which exaggeration and metaphors are not supposed to be taken literally. Our basic approach should be literal but not blindly so.
To oppose current traditions can be unsafe for two reasons. (a) If one’s contrary view is completely new, it is nearly certainly wrong. (b) Religious leaders do not take kindly to opposition. Rarely can one convince them that their creed is faulty—or get them to consider arguments against it. Even “good friends” may suspect and reject the maverick. In some cases they prefer the approval of their group more than the approval of God (John 12:43).
Some opponents try to change the meaning of immortality. (Perhaps they recognize what a powerful argument 1 Timothy 6:16 is for conditional immortality.) An example is N.D. George, who seems to contradict himself: “All men will exist forever, either in misery or bliss. This we should proclaim. But we have found no Scriptures which teach that all men are immortal.” Note how George attributes a new meaning to 1Timothy 6:16, which he thinks describes the Lord Jesus (though “invisible” shows it is God). The terms immortal and immortality, he says,
are generally considered, in the theological world, to mean, eternal conscious being; whereas the Scriptural import of these terms is, eternal happiness, being synonymous with the phrase ‘eternal life,’ which always in the Scriptures means moral purity, coupled with that eternal blessedness which results therefrom.…‘The King eternal, immortal, invisible.’ Now, if the term ‘immortal’ in this text means eternal conscious being simply, how apparent its tautology! for precisely the same signification belongs to the preceding word ‘eternal.’ But if it be understood to mean moral purity and blessedness, as belonging to Jesus Christ, and, therefore, to last for¬ever, how strikingly beautiful is this passage! Eternal! that is, always existing. Immortal! that is, always pure and blessed. Invisible! that is, invisible to mortal eyes.…The man Christ Jesus is the only man who has not been affected by the fall, and who, consequently, did not suffer the loss of immortality by it.
(Annihilationism Not of the Bible, 2nd ed. [New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1871], pp. 124–125; emphasis his)
It is true that immortality/eternal life is always associated with blessedness in the New Testament. However, that is not because the concept has that meaning but because only such people will attain it.
Is the fact instructive that such terms are even ascribed or denied to Him? Since He is the Great Spirit, who has no body, does such use signal their meaning?
John’s Gospel quotes Jesus’ promise that whoever believes in Him “will never die” (John 11:26). A later article will address this special point of view recorded in John.
Apparently it is common to omit 1 Timothy 6:16 and the Genesis record from such discussions. John Piper omits them in his treatment in Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), pp. 119–128. So does Fernando, whom Piper recommends for “a thorough assessment.”
For our present purposes, it is immaterial whether the different descriptions of judgment refer to the same event or not. The important fact is that in each description the principles are the same.
As in other pictures of the coming judgment, the apostle says that God “will give to each person according to what he has done” (Rom. 2:6). The words he quotes are from Psalms 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12 (also in Matt. 16:27). Twice in the following verses (Rom. 2:7, 10), he affirms that glory, honor, and immortality will be for those who “do good.” Since salvation is and will be by undeserved grace, why will good works be acknowledged? Not as earning merit but simply as public proof of saving faith (James 2:18, 26; Matt. 25:34–45).
The history in Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 is of the original creation, not—as some suppose—of a later re-creation. There are many clear statements to that effect, e.g., in Genesis 2:4 and Exodus 20:11.
Are human spirits conscious in heaven? Do they have interim bodies before the resurrection? Passages such as Matthew 17:3–4; Luke 23:43; John 8:56–57; Hebrews 12:23; Philippians 1:21–26; 2 Corinthians 5:3–9; and Revelation 7:9–17 may require yes answers to both questions. However, we can be sure that such a condition is tempo¬rary, to end at the resurrection.
My website, www.kingdominbible.com, has many studies of biblical kingdom texts. See especially the “Kingdom” category. My key study, to be revised and enlarged, is a survey of “Christ’s Coming Kingdom” (68 pp.). A later work is “Did Jesus Establish His Kingdom?” (10 pp.). Nearly ready (March 2011) is a substantial study of Revelation from the perspective of the kingdom.
Read Jesus’ promises in Matthew 13:40–41; 19:28–29; 25:31, 34, 46 to come and establish His kingdom. These picture the same kind of kingdom the earlier prophets pictured. We are not free to define it any way we wish; they defined it. No kingdom corresponding to those biblical descriptions has been initiated yet. See my website.
Hebrews 1:5-14 had quoted from seven passages showing the Son to be greater than the angels. They all pointed to His glory in the coming kingdom, in which He will have “companions” (1:9), “those who will inherit salvation” (1:14). Next, and closely related, is the first warning in the book (in 2:1-4), to “pay more careful attention” to what the Son said and “not drift away” from it. What the Son said, and authenticated with many miracles, was “such a great salvation” (2:3). All of this, the book continues, is “the world to come, about which we are speaking” (2:5; cf. the future “salvation” in 1:14). Chapter 2 goes on to discuss the Son’s death as the means of “bringing many sons to glory” (2:10) in that world to come, the kingdom.
Pink is not “intellectually challenged” nor dishonest. He finds many of his meanings by handling biblical history as an allegory: to him nearly everything has a hidden meaning superior to the literal one. This is also a common approach for conservatives elsewhere in Scriptures, for example, in preaching on our Lord’s miracles.
I also deal with Romans 5:12–21 on my website.
A sacrament both symbolizes and imparts divine grace. To believers, all good things are sacramental.
In his book on hell Fernando does not even mention this evidence from Genesis.
Compare the conclusions by another conservative writer. Allen P. Ross has written a helpful commentary on “Genesis” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, Old Testament, eds. Walvoord and Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985). But on Genesis 3:22–24 he says only this: “God would ensure…that they would not live forever in this state” (p. 33). Ross later published a 744 page book on Genesis: Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study & Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988). In it he adds little about the curse of death. I will quote three paragraphs below. In the third paragraph notice the words I have bolded, which suggest that death seems to imply separation. However, I could find no pas-sage where Ross substantiates that meaning for death—or even uses it in that sense. I carefully searched through his comments on Genesis up to the time of Abraham, also in his appendices.
• The only hope left from the oracles is that the human race will not live forever in this state—death will be a release—and that there will ultimately be victory over the seed of the serpent. (Ross, p. 148)
• The man’s difficult toil in life would continue until he died (a gracious provision in view of the suffering) and returned to dust to become the serpent’s prey once again (see v. 14). His death, then, would not only underscore the fact that the serpent caused death to replace life but also be a reminder that human beings were earthbound, dust. So much for ambitions of divinity. (Ross, p. 147)
• This concept of death needs thorough study because it is a major theme in Genesis, especially in the early part of the book concerning the spread of sin. The basic idea seems to be more of alienation, or separation rather than cessation or annihilation. The death predicted here certainly includes physical death, as Genesis 5 attests, but it involves more than just physical death, in view of the struggle in the surrounding context between God’s blessing and cursing. (Ross, p. 125)
Many assume that John 10:10 refers to the present because John 5:24 looks at life as a present possession. See Article 16 about John 5:24.
Many prophecies proclaim that God’s coming kingdom will last forever. Messiah “will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:33; cf. Isa. 9:7). Yet, Revelation 20 several times speaks of reigning “a thousand years,” a relatively short period. Will there be a short material kingdom on earth but an eternal non-material kingdom in heaven or after the millennium? There is no biblical evidence for such a plan, only some wrong conclusions about Revelation 20–21. Instead, the millennium will be the beginning and transition period for the eternal kingdom.
Does the possibility of our being “unclothed” imply that we can exist without a body or require a temporary body? Apparently so, but only temporarily. See Article 3 and my footnote there. But 2 Corinthians 5:1–6 certainly looks beyond that—to the final, certain, and eternal “clothing” to be received in the resurrection!
“Eternal life is the same as immortality.” I began to show this in Article 2. But this statement makes no sense to those accustomed to think only in categories peculiar to the apostle John’s writings. They think that eternal life primarily refers to the present. Other books, such as, the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, emphasize a different per-spective. As I will continue to show, those books consistently relate the gift of eternal life to the future. See Article 16 and Chart C.
“Are lost”in 1 Corinthians 15:18 represents the Greek verb apolonto from apollumi. This verb does not necessarily indicate that something is abolished, but neither does it imply continuing function. For various NIV translations of it, see the note about it with Article 20.
What pessimism to say (1 Cor. 15:18, 19) that dead believers might be “lost” and living believers should be “pitied”! Under what conditions would this be true? Certainly, “if Christ has not been raised.” But likely Paul intends to include the initial condition also: “if the dead are not raised.” A Christianity without both a risen Christ and a coming resurrection would be worse than worthless. As Paul’s statement implies, dead believers get neither immortality nor inheritance at the time of death.
All three Synoptic Gospels record how our Lord proved that there will be a bodily resurrection. I will refer to the version in Luke 20:27–38. Many interpreters now miss His point because they believe that dead believers are already immortal. They think that the Lord was proving the soul’s survival. But that interpretation misses both the question and the answer. The Sadducees’ question was packaged as a story trying to make “the resurrection” look impossible (Luke 20:27, 33). Jesus’ answer discussed those who will “take part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead” (20:35). His scriptural proof that “the dead rise” (20:37) was that God still identified with Abra-ham, Isaac, and Jacob long after they died. “To him all are alive” (20:38) does not deny their death but its finality. What looks final to man is not final to Him (cf. John 11:11–15). God must and will raise them from the dead to ful¬fill His promises to them.
Other uses of “life” are not included in Chart C because they are clearly not eternal. Here are examples in Luke, indicating the Greek words used:
6:9 Which is lawful…to save life (psuchen) or destroy it?
12:15 a man’s life (zoe) does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
12:22–23 do not worry about your life (psuche).
12:25 Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life (helikian)?
15:24, 32 This son of mine was dead and is alive again (anadzesin).
21:19 By standing firm you will gain life (psuchas).
Notice that “rise to live” (Gr. “resurrection of life”) in John 5:29 indicates the purpose or goal of rising, not its means. In the parallel phrase, “rise to be condemned,” condemnation is also the goal.
See also my earlier article on Romans 5:12–21.
Just as the future is ours (1 Cor. 3:22), so is the future kingdom. Once the apostle Paul speaks of the kingdom as though we were already in it. As our inheritance it is future (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:10; Eph. 5:5); it has not started. That is our de facto (factual) relationship to it. But from a de jure (legal) standpoint, we are already “qualified…to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light…He has…brought [Gr., transferred] us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:12–13). In other words, we belong to the future. Legally we have died and been raised with Christ, and are already seated in heaven with Him (Col. 2:12; 3:1). “Your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3–4). But it is confusing and misleading to interpret such Scriptures as implying that the kingdom has already begun.
In Acts here are other references to life that is not eternal life: 2:28 “you [God] have made known to me the paths of life.” 8:33 “his life was taken from the earth.” 17:25 “God gives all men life and breath and everything else.” 27:10 “loss…to our own lives”
Matthew 18:8 calls it “eternal (aionion) fire.” In Article 26 I will show that things that are aionion can come to an end.
The Lord predicted the same contrast (of sentences for the wicked and the righeous) in Matthew 25:31–46. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory” (25:31). After being judged, the wicked go into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41) and the righteous into eternal kingdom glory (25:34).
Sometimes the figure used is that fire eats, as in Hebrews 10:27: “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” Observe Fernando’s strange logic when discussing “The Fires of Judgment.”
Annihilationists say that the main function of fire is not to cause pain but to secure destruction. We agree…But when people think of fire in connection with punishment, what usually comes to their mind is the pain of being burned. So it is most likely that the biblical writers used it in this sense. (Fernando, p. 39).
Fernando decides that the initial pain of being burned in fire is reason to think that the fire will not destroy. Judge for yourself if this is sufficient proof that the fire represents unending torment.
It seems probable that some pictures of judgment may point to different occasions. Whether that is the case or not, is irrelevant to this discussion. The important thing here is that they all show the same principles and the same final results.
The King James Version also translates the Greek word Hades as “hell” (cf. KJV and NIV in Matt. 16:18). But that is misleading. See Article 21 about Hades.
The Greek verb translated “destroy” in Matthew 10:28 is from apollumi. As I said in a note for Article 15, “this verb does not necessarily indicate that something is abolished, but neither does it imply continuing function.” Here are some samples from the NIV to show its meaning: “search for the child to kill him” (Matt. 2:13); “lose one part of your body” (Matt. 5:29, 30); “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 10:6); “wineskins will be ruined” (Matt. 9:17); “a hundred sheep and loses one” (Luke 15:4; cf. v. 6); “ten silver coins and loses one” (Luke 15:8, cf. v. 9); “this son of mine was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24, 32); “little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18:14); “to have Jesus exe¬cuted” (Matt. 27:20); “deceives those who are perishing” (2 Thess. 2:10); “those who shrink back and are destroyed” (Heb. 10:39); “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (1 Cor. 15:18); “the world of that time was deluged and destroyed” (2 Pet. 3:6).
A well-known Bible teacher has been quoted as follows: “Sin, though committed by a finite person and in the confines of finite time, is nevertheless deserving of an infinitely long punishment because it is a sin against an infi-nitely worthy God.” That logic would require that the slightest sin against God demands payment for ever and ever. Not so. (a) No supposed law of punishment requires God to be far more severe than His creatures are with their own children. (b) God will continue to follow His own instructions in Isaiah 28:23–29 and will not “plow continually.” (c) Our Lord’s sacrifice did not take eternity to accomplish but was done in a brief period of time. Yet, it is more than adequate for any and all sins.
Rather than “more bearable,” Hebrews 10:29 gives the converse: “How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot…?” God does not punish all alike.
Other samples of apocalyptic descriptions in Revelation include (a) heaven, with its inhabitants and activities (chapters 4–5 and elsewhere); (b) the four horsemen inflicting damage under the first four seals (6:1–8); (c) a series of earthquakes, each devastating the whole world; (d) “locusts” that come “from the Abyss,” not to kill men “but only to torture them for five months” (9:1–12); (e) John’s eating a scroll given him by a mighty angel (10:1–11); (f) reaping and gathering grapes (= human beings) with the use of heavenly sickles (14:14–20).
There is a similar event under the sixth seal. “There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black…the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth…and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Rev. 6:13–14). Even if the mountains and islands were only shifted, this apocalyptic plague seems absolute. But it is not. For immediately it is followed by “They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us’” (Rev. 6:16).
Is Luke 16:19-31 a parable? Jesus does not call it a parable. But neither does He so designate most well-known parables, such as, Luke 12:16-21; 15:11-32; or 16:1-13. If it is a parable, why does He, contrary to His usual procedure, give one character a name, Lazarus? Simply because this parable needed a name for the beggar, who was often referred to by others in the parable. Lazarus was appropriate, suggesting his helplessness. It was “a common abbreviation of Elasar, as it were, ‘God help him!’” (Alfred Edersheim, The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, two vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953] II:279)
See Article 21 about the use of Hades here.
Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, 5th ed., The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1922), 393. Similarly, Alfred Edersheim warns that “it will be necessary in the interpretation of this Parable to keep in mind, that its Parabolic details must not be exploited, nor doctrines of any kind derived from them, either as to the character of the other world, the question of the duration of future punishments, or the possible moral improvement of those in Gehinnom.”
(Alfred Edersheim, The Life & Times… II:277, 280f; bolding mine)
The Greek word for “punishment” in Matthew 25:46 (kolasis) is also used in 1 John 4:18. The corresponding verb (koladzo) is used in 2 Peter 2:9 and Acts 4:21 (the Jewish council “could not decide how to punish” Peter and John).
The word translated “destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is olethros. It is also used in 1 Corinthians 5:5 (prob-ably of physical sickness); 1 Thessalonians 5:3 (sudden “destruction”); and 1 Timothy 6:9: “People who want to get rich fall into…many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”
The apostle explains that “Christ” includes both His head and His body (Eph. 1:22–23; as in Gal. 3:26–29). But it seems unnecessary to discuss that now. See the relevant discussions in my website.
Fernando, Crucial Questions, pp. 43–44.
For example, the early Fathers soon switched to episcopal church polity and the teaching that the church takes over Israel’s promises. Some of us call the latter view “Replacement Theology,” discussed on my website.
Froom recognizes that some conclude “that the dogma of the Innate Immortality of the soul and the Eternal Torment of the wicked, as later taught by Tertullian and finally established by Augustine, was always the position of the Early Christian Church. But the scholarly investigations of Henry Constable, Anglican Prebendary of Cork, Ireland, led him to reply with positiveness, ‘We wholly deny it.’” He then quotes from Constable’s conclusion:
From beginning to end of them [the Apostolic Fathers] there is not one word said of that immortality of the soul which is so prominent in the writings of the later fathers. Immortality is by them asserted to be peculiar to the redeemed. The punishment of the wicked is by them emphatically declared to be everlasting. Not one stray expression of theirs can be interpreted as giving any countenance to the theory of restoration after purgatorial suffering. The fire of hell is with them, as with us, an unquenchable one; but its issue is, with them as with Scripture, “destruction,” “death,” “loss of life.” (Froom, The Conditionalist Faith, II, 801)
The following paragraph is from the Roberts-Donaldson EnglishTranslation of Justin’s Second Apology, available at the website http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-secondapology.html. Out of Chapter VII, it has both expressions just mentioned (bolded), for comparison.
Wherefore God delays causing the confusion and destruction of the whole world, by which the wicked angels and demons and men shall cease to exist, because of the seed of the Christians, who know that they are the cause of preservation in nature.… But since God in the beginning made the race of angels and men with free-will, they will justly suffer in eternal fire the punishment of whatever sins they have committed.
The following quotation was in the Theopedia article on Annihilationism May 18, 2009 (bolding is mine). By way of introduction the article says that in 1520 Martin Luther (1483-1546) published a defense of forty-one of his propositions. In his twenty-seventh proposition he called the pope’s immortality declaration a “monstrous” opinion:
However, I permit the Pope establish articles of faith for himself and for his own faithful—such are: a) That the bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament; b) that the essence of God neither generates nor is generated; c) that the soul is the substantial form of the human body; d) that he (the pope) is emperor of the world and king of heaven, and earthly god; e) that the soul is immortal; and all these endless monstrosi¬ties in the Roman dunghill of decretals—in order that such as his faith is, such may be his gospel, such also his faithful, and such his church, and that the lips may have suitable lettuce and the lid may be worthy of the dish.
See Froom’s documentation that Greek dualism had such influence. Suffice it now to point out that Fernando acknowledges the mistaken character of such dualism. However, he insists that human immortality is also biblical.
What was wrong with the Greek conception was the dualistic separation of the body and the soul as opposed to the wholistic biblical view that conceives of the human being as a unity. If some people obtained their view of the unending existence of persons from the Greek view of human nature, then they have got it from an erroneous source. But they don’t need to discard this belief, for the Bible also teaches it.
(Fernando, Crucial Questions, p. 43)
Plato also disliked material things. William Shedd quotes him from the Phaedo (64, 65):
The philosopher is entirely concerned with the soul, and not with the body; and would like, as far as he can, to be quit of the body and turn to the soul.…The philosopher despises the body; his soul runs away from the body, and desires to be alone and by herself. (William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. III, second ed. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, orig. publ. 1888], p. 489)