October 2019 Credo
In a 1990 article entitled “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Clark Pinnock argues that the traditional notion of an eternal punishment for unbelievers needs to be rejected as it was “an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity.” He goes on to describe that such an idea implies God is “more nearly like Satan than like God.”
In response, Millard Erickson cautioned that if one is going to describe God as having more likeness to Satan than God, he had better be very certain, “for if he is wrong, he is guilty of blasphemy.” Clearly, the eternal fate of unbelievers evokes strong feelings from all quarters.
The past decades have seen some Christians embrace the idea of conditionalism (also known as conditional immortality or annihilationism, although the latter differs slightly) as a more palatable position compared to eternal punishment.
Conditionalism asserts that immortality is not an inherent part of the human situation but is a gift conditional upon belief in Christ. This means that at the time of the judgment when an unbeliever is resurrected, their existence will be extinguished after the final judgment. As for those who had put their faith and trust in Christ, they will be granted continued and eternal existence in the afterlife.
Some conditionalists also accept the notion of unbelievers headed to hell. They believe hell is a place of punishment for unbelievers, but argue that it is limited such that the unsaved will ultimately cease to exist and be destroyed after justice is served instead of suffering eternal torment.
The Anglican theologian John Stott was one of the proponents of this view in his response to David Edwards in their book, Evangelical Essentials, although later he would move to an agnostic position. Other conditionalists as analyzed by Robert Peterson have also propounded several of Stott’s views.
Some of the supporting arguments for conditionalism include an exegetical reinterpretation of biblical verses that assert destruction of the unbeliever to mean extinction instead. Secondly, scriptural descriptions of hell as everlasting fire could be taken to suggest that human souls will be consumed by fire rather than suffering under it as traditionally understood.
Thirdly, conditionalists such as Pinnock have argued that the notion of human immortality was an import from Platonic ideas of the immortality of the soul. Rather, they assert that the bible does not see immortality as automatically granted to all humans, but only as a gift by God who is truly immortal. This leads to the logical conclusion that those who did not receive it in this life would cease to exist in the afterlife.
The counter-arguments against exegetical possibilities include other biblical descriptions of enduring punishment for the disobedient. In 2 Thess 1:9, Paul says the unbeliever “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” The thought of destruction here does not necessarily imply cessation of existence but could refer to the deleterious effects of the final judgment.
In fact, if Paul had entertained any suggestion of extinction of existence in the afterlife, it would be difficult to reconcile this with his subsequent description of them being “shut out from the presence of the Lord.” As Peterson puts it, does not the act of shutting them out suggest their continued existence?
Secondly, the interpretation that the fires of hell denote consumption rather than suffering is contradicted by other passages that point to the latter. A case in point is Rev 20:10 that describes the fate of the devil in “the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Here, the devil’s ultimate destiny, as well as the beast and false prophet, is presented in terms of perduring suffering, rather than the eradication of his existence. Likewise, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the former describes his situation as being in torment because of fire instead of being consumed by fire, i.e., Luke 16:24 “I am in agony in this fire.”
As to the third objection, while it is indeed the case that biblical revelation asserts God “alone is immortal” (1 Tim 6:16), that does not prohibit him from bestowing some limited aspect upon humans of immortality, especially since humans have been graced with God’s image.
In other words, the bible does not hold to any notions of ontological human immortality, but it does not deny the possibility of derivative immortality, such as can be attained through communion with God.
In comparing the various views, it is clear the biblical text does contain the position that there is unending punishment for the wicked. The enduring nature of the punishment is also evident when we note that the biblical words translated eternal in relation to punishment are the same ones used to describe God as being eternal (1 Tim 1:17; Rom 16:26).
While this is a hard doctrine, it helps to be reminded that God has granted humans freedom of choice. Choices have concomitant consequences, and in this case, the consequences are ultimate. Despite this, God continues to be at work in the world to redeem from ultimate punishment as many as will accept his gracious gift of reconciliation.
Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.