Friday, October 21, 2016

Hell No: The Terrible Hermeneutic of Annihilationism

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.
Jesus said that upon judgment the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment.”[1]That is, the “cursed” will “depart” and enter “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” John characterized the punishment of Satan and his demons saying that they “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”[2] Demons confirmed this eschatology supposing that Jesus had come to “torment” them “before the [appointed] time.”[3] Similarly, John characterizes the punishment of the wicked saying,
He will drink the wine of God’s wrath poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night…[4]
Given this state of affairs, it is evident that the fate of the reprobate is akin to that of the devil and his angels. Harmon likewise noted, “It is hard to discern any ground on which to conclude that the punishment of the goats is something qualitatively different.”[5]
Annihilationists suppose that this eternal punishment results in “extinction.”[6] However, this requires one to interpret the statement “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” to mean the painful cessation of personal existence. So too, the statement “they have no rest day or night” must be similarly interpreted. Such a sentiment requires an atypical hermeneutic. In this case, Revelation 14:10-11 and 20:10 are thrown under the allegedly opaque curtain of apocalyptic imagery.[7]
The wicked will be tormented “forever and ever.” The punishment will be so unrelenting, that no rest will be had, neither during the day nor night. Jesus, implying the terrible nature of his punishment, said of Judas, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”[8]Judas’ punishment would be so awful that it would have been better for him had he never been born. Should a painful annihilation been Judas’ judgement, it would have been as if he hadn't been born since non-being is the state, for lack of a better term, of the never-born and the annihilated. However, Jesus stated that Judas’ punishment is worse than non-being. Judas, the “son of destruction”[9] wouldn't face a painful annihilation, but the eternal suffering and affliction justice demands.[10]
Torment, even severe torment that will eventually end, is worse than being put out of existence. Job, after suffering the loss of his progeny, his wealth, and his health “cursed the day of his birth,”[11] essentially desiring non-being instead of temporal torment. Jeremiah, overcome by the persecution of a false teacher, stated, “Cursed be the day on which I was born.”[12] For Job and Jeremiah, non-being was preferable to the affliction that faced them. Revelation 9:1-6 speaks of a people who were so tormented, that they sought death, and even longed to die, but God withheld death from them. Therefore, biblically speaking, death is qualitatively more desirable than torment, and is a less severe punishment.
Jesus stated that the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment” just as “the righteous into eternal life.” The preposition used in both of these clauses (εἰς) communicates something incongruous to annihilation. One doesn't go “into” annihilation, rather they are annihilated. The preposition connotes “extension toward a goal which is inside an area,”[13] just as “Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”[14] This place of punishment is so terrible that it is better to be dismembered than to be “thrown into hell.”[15] For those who corrupt youth, hell is more terrible than having a millstone hung around one’s neck only to be drowned.[16] As for the wicked, their “whole body” will “go into hell.”[17] Hell is a place that is characterized by “eternal fire” in which the damned are “thrown into.”[18] Eternal punishment is a subsistence of torment and not annihilation.
Annihilationists eagerly cite the destruction of  Sodom and Gomorrah, which serves as “an example” of a “punishment of eternal fire.”[19] This they say, is proof that what comprises “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire” isn't everlasting torment, but the cessation of existence.[20] After all, the suffering of Sodom has ended and the fire has gone out.. For instance, Fudge has argued saying, “Jude 7 defines and gives content to the phrase ‘eternal fire’ by reference to the fire that destroyed Sodom once and forever.”[21]
The annihilationist assertion however, is predicated upon a misreading of the text. Jude said that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and their surrounding cities serve as a current example (πρόκεινται) not by having had suffered through the “eternal fire” previously, but by presently “undergoing” (ὑπέχουσαι) “a punishment of eternal fire” even now. The verb ὑπέχουσαι is a present active participle, and therefore precludes the annihilationist contention. The eternal fire which punishes those people is still burning.  Hence, Fudge’s assertion that “Most traditionalist authors seem almost unaware of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah”[22] is itself a statement likely born of ignorance.
Despite the grammar of the text, Atkinson has argued,
The fire by way of Jude 7 cannot be a fire in which the inhabitants of the guilty cities are burning today in another world, because they would not in such case be “set forth for an example.” It must have been the historical fire.[23]
In the above comment Atkinson has assumed his own conclusion, and in so doing, ignored the sense of the text. If, he has argued, the sodomites are in a place of torment, then they cannot be an example to those of us in this world. Exactly why would that be the case? Within the very same pericope Jude reminds his readers of those angels who suffer “under gloomy darkness.” Are they too unsuitable as an example of the judgement of God and as a warning to us because of their location?  In the same manner as these angels, the present suffering of Sodom and Gomorrah serves as profound example of the judgement to come.
Atkinson’s objection further applies to the final state of the wicked. Edwards notes that “The glorified saints will see the wrath of God executed upon ungodly men.”[24] That is true of the intermediate state,[25] and the final state. Jesus taught that in hell “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” when the damned “see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God.”[26] Jesus understood Isaiah 66:24 not in terms of the redeemed looking upon corpses, but upon conscious people weeping and gnashing their teeth, and who are in some sense “dead.” Indeed, “The saints will not only see the misery of the wicked at the day of judgement… [but also] the state of the damned in hell will be in the view of the heavenly inhabitants.”[27] The smoke of the wicked’s torment rises forever and forever as it is in the sight of the saints, the holy angels, and their Lord.[28] The sight of the damned serves a blessed purpose for the redeemed; their suffering has amplified the saints praise of the Triune God, since it is only the grace of God which separates the saints from those in the flames.
Annihilationism is a troublesome teaching which requires one to read numerous biblical texts in such a way that their explicit meaning is ignored. In order to affirm annihilationism, one must understand “forever” to mean temporary, and “eternal fire” to refer to a fire long extinguished. Such a hermeneutic is typical of cultic groups. Christian cults are infamous for their ability to ignore and obfuscate consistent biblical teachings. Unsurprisingly, many cults have long affirmed annihilationism (e.g., ‘biblical’ unitarianism, Seventh Day Adventism, The Watchtower Biblical and Tract Society, The Worldwide Church of God). So-called evangelical conditionalism rests in the precarious tension caused by holding the pretense of evangelical bibliology while imbibing the hermeneutic of cults. One cannot serve two masters.

[1] Matt 25:46.
[2] Rev 20:10.
[3] Matt 8:29.
[4] Rev. 14:10-11.
[5] Cameron, Nigel M.de S., Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference in Christian Dogmatics, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1993), 115.
[6] Fudge, Edward W., The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2012),  39.
[7] See ibid., 240ff. Judging by the use of the phrase “forever and ever” elsewhere within both Revelation and the balance of the canon, it becomes rather evident that there is no cogent means to conclude that the phrase really refers to annihilation. For instance, John said of Christ, “To him be glory and dominion forever and ever,” which is similar to Moses’ statement, “The LORD will reign forever and ever,” Rev 1:6 and Exodus 15:18 resp. The LXX renders the Masoretic text’s le`olam wa`ed (“forever and ever”) αἰῶνα καὶ ἐπʼ αἰῶνα καὶ ἔτι (“forever and into forever and beyond”), thereby making the force even stronger. Cf. 1 Chron 29:10; Ps 10:16; Phil 4:20; 1 Pet 4:11; Rev 4:9-10; 5:13; 7:12; 10:6; 11:15; 15:7; 22:5.
[8]  Matt 26:24; cf. Mark 14:21.
[9] John 17:12.
[10] Edwards has poignantly articulated why justice demands that the reprobate suffer in hell forever. In his sermon entitled The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, Edwards wrote, “God is infinitely lovely…he is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honorable…His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him. So that a sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.”
Additionally, I am not using the so-called “ABA” argument allegedly presented by Slick and argued against by Date. See www.rethinking hell.com/2012/07/the-same-before-and-after-a-response-to-Matt-slick/. Rather, I am arguing that the Bible teaches that Hell is more terrible than annihilation, and therefore annihilationism is unbiblical. In any event, Date’s argumentation against Slick doesn't follow since the loss inflicted upon the annihilated cannot be realized because they no longer personally exist. In other words, the non-being of the never-born = the non-being of the annihilated. Moreover, it is a category error to draw a parallel between the execution of a violent criminal and annihilation since capital punishment serves more purposes than merely punishing the guilty (e.g., the protection of the innocent, discouragement to potential law breakers). Societies ought to execute violent criminals not because that is the worst punishment that could be inflicted, torture is worse, but because execution is both better for human flourishing and it is obedient to the general equity of the Mosaic penal code.
[11] Job 3:1.
[12] Jer 20:14.
[13] Louw & Nida, 84.22.
[14] Acts 1:25.
[15] Matt 5:29.
[16] Luke 17:2. One wonders how, if this punishment results in death, annihilation could be worse—especially for those who espouse physicalism.
[17] Matt 5:30.
[18] Matt 18:8-9.
[19] Jude 7.
[20] Some annihilationists object to the characterization that annihilation constitutes the cessation of existence since a corpse may remain. Such an argument presupposes some kind of anthropological monism, a view which is erroneous and heretical.
[21] Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, 65.
[22] Ibid., 64.
[23] Date, Chris M., Stump, Gregory G., Anderson, Joshua W. Eds., Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), 108.
[24] Edwards, Jonathan, On Knowing Christ, (Carlisle:Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 248.
[25] See Luke 16:19-31. Despite the claims of some, the story of the rich man and Lazarus possesses qualities that make it unlikely to be a parable. Parables are stories that are intended to portray a truth by means of a story. Hence, the underlying meaning of the story is the point, and not the story itself. There is no underlying meaning of this story. Unlike parables, the pericope features actual people who are named (e.g., Lazarus, Abraham). Further, the notion that Jesus would convey a fictitious story is itself a product of a low Christology.
[26] Luke 13:28-29.
[27] Edwards, On Knowing Christ, 249.
[28] See Ibid. Edwards argues that, “The church is the fullness of Christ, and is called Christ, 1 Cor 12:12. So in the 19th chapter, ver. 2, 3 the smoke of Babylon’s torment is represented as rising up for ever and ever, in the site of the heavenly inhabitants.”

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