Annihilationism & Hell: Is Every Soul Eternal?

Recently a friend reached out to me with some questions regarding “annihilationism” and “conditional immortality.”

Will Every Soul Live Forever, or is Immortality Conditional?

One of the key questions in this discussion is this: Although the Bible clearly teaches the promise of eternal life for those who have been redeemed by Jesus, does the Bible teach eternal death for those who die in their sins?

“Conditional immortality” is the term given to the belief that the souls of those who die apart from redemption in Jesus will not go on living forever. They believe that immortality is conditional, meaning that only the souls of those who put their faith in Jesus will live forever, but not the souls of those who do not.

The central argument for conditional immortality in the Bible comes from Genesis 3 and Revelation 22, which talk about the Tree of Life, which was present in the Garden of Eden and will be present again in the New Jerusalem. In Genesis 3 we are told that the people were cut off from it, lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen state. The idea is that if the Tree of Life is in the New Jerusalem (Heaven), it provides people with eternal life, but to be cut off from Heaven is therefore to be cut off from the source of eternal life.

Conditional immortality is also related to the idea of “annihilationism”

Annihilationism or Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)?

Annihilationism is the belief that unredeemed souls will be “annihilated,” i.e. snuffed out in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:15) and cease to exist for all eternity. Seventh Day Adventists in particular argue that since Hebrews 12:29 says that God is a “consuming fire,” those who have not been justified and sanctified through Christ will be consumed by his presence and cease to exist.

In contrast to this is the traditional belief about Hell, held by the Church Fathers and the majority of Christians throughout history, that Hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT).

The key arguments against the ECT view of Hell, and in favor of annihilationism are two-fold:

  1. An eternity of punishment for sins committed in a finite lifetime seems unfair, i.e. “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”
  2. The view of Hell as eternal conscious torment is not Biblical, but is imported from outside philosophies.
    • The ECT view is often blamed on Platonism, or Hellenism more generally, or from medieval assumptions influenced by writings like Dante’s Inferno

Rather than unquestioningly accepting these claims, we should examine if what they claim is true.

What Did Jesus Say About Hell?

Some might find it surprising that most of our understanding about Hell from the Bible does not come from the Old Testament, but from the words of Jesus.

13% of Jesus’ teaching and half of his parables were about Hell, judgment, and the wrath of God.

What that means is that Hell is not a peripheral issue, but is a major theme of Jesus’ teachings. If you claim that Jesus was a good teacher, you have to deal with the issue of what he taught about Hell.

Examining Jesus’ teachings, we find that the view of Hell as eternal, conscious torment was not a later addition to Christianity in the Middle Ages, nor the influence of Platonism or Hellenism, but rather people who simply accept the words of Jesus at face value.

Here are some examples of what he said:

  • Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt. 25:41)
  • And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46)
  • [but some] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (Matt. 8:12)
  • And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
    • Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a man who suffered in Hell after his life on Earth ended, which means that his soul was not snuffed out when he died, but continued living.

Because of the simple clarity of these verses, the great majority of Christians throughout history have accepted that the teaching of the Bible is that Hell is eternal, conscious torment.

Eternal Separation from God

In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the Apostle Paul describes Hell in this way:

those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

2 Thessalonians 1:9

Once again, we see an example of the eternality of the destruction which will be suffered by those who do not know God and who reject the gospel.

Rather than being unkind or heartless, these messages are written to those who are alive so that they can turn from their ways and be saved. As Ezekiel 33:11 says:

As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?

Ezekiel 33:11

It is the heart of a loving God that warns and pleads, knowing the gravity of what is at stake. It is because God cared so much that he came to this Earth to give his life, that people might be saved.

A Message from Beyond the Grave

In the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who died and suffered torment in Hades. Jesus shares that this man longed to be able to send a warning to his family members who were still alive that they should not make the mistake that he did, of not trusting in and walking with God.

For those who are alive, this is a very important story because it helps us to understand the urgency of responding to the gospel and receiving the gift of salvation and life that is extended to us in Jesus.

Unjust Punishment?

The question still remains as to whether it is fair for Hell to be eternal, since life on Earth is finite.

Here 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is helpful, which tells us that the essence of Hell is separation from God and his glory.

Since God is the source of beauty, life, joy, peace, and goodness – to be separated from God and his glory is to be cut off from those things for eternity. In other words: what makes Hell hellish, is that God is not there. What makes Heaven heavenly, is that God is there.

Furthermore, since Hell is the destiny of those who have rejected the grace of God and relationship with him, and have essentially pushed God away or turned their back on Him, Hell is the final culmination of them getting what they wanted in their lifetime.

In Genesis 6:3, God says something very serious: “My Spirit will not always contend (or strive) with man.” If a person continually rejects the offer of God’s grace and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the time will come when God will give them what they insisted upon, forever: life apart from God. This giving people over to their ungodly desires is the essence of God’s judgment (see Romans 1:18-31).

Hope Beyond the Grave

Faithful Christian teachers in history, such as John Stott, have believed in annihilationism, but this view has always been a minority viewpoint, mostly because it seems to contradict the straightforward teachings of Jesus.

What we do know is that the message of the gospel is truly good news, and that there is an urgency to this gospel because of the reality of Hell.

Is the Term “Evangelical” One We Should Embrace or Avoid?

man wearing black crew neck shirt reading book

In a recent post, I reviewed Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossiblein which he takes aim at “biblicism,” which he claims is particularly prevalent amongst evangelical Christians.

This brings up an important question: What exactly is an “evangelical”?

Popular Usage

Recently a friend from church approached me before service one Sunday morning. He pointed out an article in the New York Times about evangelicalism in America, and asked what exactly an evangelical is, and whether our church was evangelical.

Another friend recently posted online about two Christian leaders who had written a book about their support for a particular political issue, and my friend’s comment was that the divide between evangelicals and Jesus is widening all the time.

Obviously my friend is speaking of evangelicals as if they are a single, united group of people, who for the most part do not only hold certain religious beliefs, but also certain political and social positions.

Again, it begs the question: what exactly is an “evangelical”?

Origin of the Term

The word “evangelical” means “of the gospel” or “about the gospel.” It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means a proclamation of good news.

See also: The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us About the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The gospel, which is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and what He has done in order to save us, redeem us, and reconcile us to God, is the core message of Christianity. Thus, an “evangelical Christian” simply means: a Christian who is about the gospel, or a gospel Christian.

Co-Opting of the Term

Since the gospel is the core message of Christianity, one would assume that all Christians would be people who are about the gospel! Unfortunately, some political groups have attempted to co-opt the term evangelical to give the impression that theologically conservative Christians all agree with particular political, social, and economic positions and support certain political parties.

This has led some Christians to feel that they should abandon the term evangelical, as they feel it is no longer helpful in identifying them because the term may be associated in some people’s minds with certain political positions, thus creating an unnecessary barrier for some in approaching Christianity.

So what is an evangelical?

Defining Evangelicalism

Theologian and historian Mark Noll says: “the groups and individuals making up the postwar evangelical movement unite on little except profession of a high view of scripture and the need for divine assistance in salvation.” [1]

Another definition states that evangelicalism is “a transdenominational movement that has sought to transcend its differences in order to work together toward certain common activities and goals, particularly evangelism, world missions, and ministries of mercy and justice.” [2]

Nathan Hatch explains that evangelicals cannot be spoken of as if they are one united group of people who all share the same core beliefs, nor is there one leader who represents or speaks on behalf of evangelicals as a whole. He states, “In truth, there is no such thing as one evangelicalism. [It is made up of] extremely diverse coalitions dominated by scores of self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders.” [3]

Thus, for my friend to say that “evangelicals are moving farther away from Jesus every day” is to suppose that certain leaders speak on behalf of a movement which is united in both their theological and political views, which is absolutely not true. Nevertheless, many people obviously hold this opinion, partly because of “self-appointed” leaders who act as if they do speak on behalf of evangelicals as a whole, which is the reason why many Christians are considering whether it would be best to distance themselves from this descriptor.

Not an American Movement

One of the problems with associating the term evangelical with Christians who hold certain political positions is that it fails to recognize that evangelicalism is a worldwide movement, not an American one, and evangelicals around the world hold a wide variety of positions on social and economic issues. Even in the United States, evangelicals are not united in their political views or affiliations.

Should We Embrace It or Avoid It?

Words are only helpful until they are not. Furthermore, the helpfulness of words depends on context, because in different contexts, the same words can be associated with different things. If a word carries a lot of baggage in a particular context, it might be better to find a different word.

For example, in Hungary, where I pastored for several years, the word evangéliumi (literally: of the gospel) was a helpful and positive term which gave people a sense of who we were and what we were about. In England, where I have done my theological education, the term evangelical does not carry heavy political connotations, and is therefore helpful in describing a certain kind of Christian who is active in their faith, takes the Bible seriously, and is engaged socially. John Stott, an Anglican, is remembered in England as the face of the Evangelical Alliance, a group of churches that works together beyond denominational lines to further the gospel.

In the United States some Christians, including myself, have opted for using alternative monikers, such as “Gospel-Centered,” which retains the idea of being focused on the gospel, while not using a term which has come to be associated with many things other than the gospel in American society. As I often say: as a Christian, the only controversy I want to be known for is the controversy of the gospel.

The Least Popular Fruit of the Spirit

apple tree

In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

I would venture to say that all of these fruits are very popular today, with one exception: the last one – “self-control.”

Jesus told his disciples that a tree is known by its fruit, i.e.: the way to identify what kind of “tree” (or person) someone is, is by looking at the outward evidences that their life produces. And self-control made the short-list of evidential fruits.

John Stott on Why Self-Control is Essential to Loving Others

“Why do I say that love is balanced by self-control? Because love is self-giving, and self-giving and self-control are complementary, the one to the other. How can we give ourselves in love until we’ve learned to control ourselves? Our self has to be mastered before it can be offered in the service of others.” – John Stott, “A Vision for Holiness”

Self-Control Requires Some Effort on Our Part

Colossians 1:29 describes human effort and divine power working together: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he (Jesus) powerfully works within me”

In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul tells us that we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, but then tells us that it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Drew Dyke, in his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, describes how God’s power and our effort work together to produce fruit in our lives:

Sanctification is like sailing. Sailors can’t move without the wind, but that doesn’t mean they kick up their feet on the deck and wait to start moving. They’re tying knots, adjusting sails, turning the rudder—all while making sure the boom doesn’t swing across the deck and smack them in the head. Sailing is hardly a passive enterprise—but it’s completely dependent upon the wind. In a similar way, we’re completely dependent on God’s Spirit to make progress. But we’re not passive. Our effort works with God’s power to move us forward.

How to Bring Glory to God

In John 15:8, in the same passage where Jesus tells his disciples that the way to bear fruit is by abiding in Him (and He in them) – Jesus then says this: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit”

Why should we care about spiritual disciplines and spiritual development? Why should we care about being fruitful? Because it brings glory to God – and this is the very reason we exist! It’s what we were made for!

May the Spirit of God move in us that we would produce the fruit of self-control, and may we be those who work with all the energy that God supplies in order to bear much good fruit that brings God glory!

For more on this subject, see: The Role of Habits in Transformation

What is Dual-Covenant Theology and What Does it Mean that “All Israel will be saved”?

Romans 11:26 makes an interesting statement, which has led to much confusion and debate:

“And in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26a)

Context

As we’ve been studying through Romans at White Fields on Sunday mornings, we have come to chapters 9-11, which deal with questions concerning Israel, such as: Has God forsaken Israel? Since the Old Testament contains many promises to the nation of Israel, are those promises no longer valid? How do we make sense of the fact that many Jews have  rejected Jesus as Messiah – and that most Christians are not ethnically Jewish?

In answering these questions, Paul is quick to assert that, No, God’s word has not failed in regard to Israel (Romans 9:6), nor has God forsaken Israel (Romans 11:1).

Paul explains Jewish unbelief in two important ways:

  1. The remnant argument: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” (Romans 9:4), & “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved'” (Romans 9:27).
    Additionally, it is understood that many who are not ethnically Jewish will be added to the “chosen people of God” – As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26)
  2. The responsibility argument: “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21)

Dual-Covenant Theology?

In an attempt to explain this idea that “all Israel will be saved”, some have adopted a dual-covenant theology, which basically says that the Jews are going to be saved under the old covenant (law), but Gentiles are saved under the new covenant (Jesus, grace).

The problem with dual-covenant theology is that it goes against everything Paul has been teaching in Romans, and what the rest of the Bible teaches: that Jesus is the only way of salvation for all people, both for Jews and Gentiles (i.e. everyone in the world).

John Stott writes this:

There is no hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ. It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism. So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God’s covenant with Abraham was an ‘everlasting covenant’, they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus. This proposal is usually called a ‘two-covenant theology’.

Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it,47 namely that there are two different salvation ‘tracks’—the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God’s covenant with them. Professor Dunn is surely right to reject this as ‘a false and quite unnecessary antithesis’.

Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jewish and Gentile believers both belong. Jewish people ‘will be grafted in’ again ‘if they do not persist in unbelief’. So faith in Jesus is essential for them. Whether or not Dr Tom Wright is correct in the notion of ‘a large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’, his emphasis on present evangelism (‘now’, three times in verses 30 and 31) is healthy: ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith.’

The two-covenant theology also has the disastrous effect of perpetuating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles which Jesus Christ has abolished. ‘The irony of this’, writes Tom Wright, ‘is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.’ ‘It would be quite intolerable to imagine a church at any period which was simply a Gentile phenomenon’ or ‘consisted only of Jews’.

Stott, John. The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (pp. 304-305). InterVarsity Press.

If not dual-covenant theology, then how will “all Israel” be saved?

Since Paul has made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” i.e. not every ethnically Jewish person is part of Israel, i.e. the remnant of God’s chosen people who will be saved – and that additionally, many non-ethnically Jewish people will be grafted into the “olive tree” (Israel) as “wild branches”, from which many “natural branches” have been cut off (Romans 11:17-24), it is in this way that we understand that “all Israel” (the remnant of believing Israel) will be saved, along with the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25) who will be “grafted in”.

Here’s a short video discussion we had about this topic this week:

An Antinomy, Not a Contradiction

In our study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans at White Fields, we have recently been looking at chapters 8, 9 and 10 which talk about divine election, predestination and how those relate to human responsibility. What these chapters teach is that God is sovereign over all things, and yet we are responsible for our actions.

In theological terms, this is called an “antinomy.” As opposed to a contradiction, antinomy refers to the tension between two things which seem at odds, but are yet both true at the same time. Antinomy is not to be confused with antinomianism (a rejection of, and even antagonism towards the moral commandments, rules and obligations which the Bible lays out. For more on antinomianism read: “Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer)

John Stott writes that “few preachers have maintained this antinomy better than Charles Simeon of Cambridge, who said:

‘When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election. When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, I give myself up to that.’ “

To illustrate this antinomy, Simeon borrowed an illustration from the Industrial Revolution:

‘As wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve a common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other, and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man’s salvation.’

Here is a short video we recorded in follow-up to a sermon which touched on the topics of predestination and election:

Is Good Friday Actually “Good”?

thebible-crucifixion-630-jpg_225818

This is the day on which we celebrate the death of an innocent man – and not just any man: the greatest man who ever lived. It is the day when we remember that the Light of the World was overcome by darkness; that the Savior of the World was murdered by those He came to save.

Why in the world would we call this day “Good Friday”?

John Stott put it this way:

“The essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God; we put ourselves where only God deserves to be … that’s the essence of sin. But the essence of salvation is that God substitutes himself for us; God puts himself where we deserve to be … that’s the essence of salvation.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In this verse we see what it is that makes Good Friday so incredibly “good”. It is something we call “imputation”, and it has two sides: On the cross, God imputed your flawed record to Jesus, so that He could impute Jesus’ perfect record to you. On the cross, God treated Jesus as if he had lived your life, so he could treat you as if you had lived his life.

Jesus’ act of substitution, God’s act of imputation – lead to our reconciliation with God.

And the way to receive this gift of God’s grace, the Bible tells us, is to “receive him, who believe in his name.” (John 1:12) This kind of belief isn’t merely to believe that it happened, but to believe it personally, in the sense of trusting in it, relying on it, and clinging to it.

If you do that, then today will indeed by a Good Friday for you!

Should Christians Try to Improve Society?

Tomorrow morning I’ll be teaching on Jesus’ salt and light metaphors from the Sermon on the Mount, as part of our CounterCulture series at White Fields.

I found this quote in a book by John Stott, about the social responsibility of Christians as part of our identity as the salt of the Earth. Since salt has a healing and preserving effect, the idea is that Christians should have a healing and preserving effect on society.

There are some who would say, What’s the point in trying to make society better?  If Jesus could come back any minute, and this life is short anyway, then shouldn’t all our efforts be towards saving people out of this world, rather than “polishing a turd”, to put it crassly?

However, it seems to me that it is an inherent part of the calling of a Christian to make the world a better place, if for no other reason than to “let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Here is that John Stott quote:

Too often evangelical Christians have interpreted their social responsibility in terms only of helping the casualties of a sick society, and have done nothing to change the structures which cause the casualties. Just as doctors are concerned not only with the treatment of patients but also with preventive medicine and public health, so we should concern ourselves with what might be called preventive social medicine and higher standards of moral hygiene. However small our part may be, we cannot opt out of seeking to create better social structures, which guarantee justice in legislation and law enforcement, the freedom and dignity of the individual, civil rights for minorities and the abolition of social and racial discrimination. We should neither despise these things nor avoid our responsibility for them. They are part of God’s purpose for his people. Whenever Christians are conscientious citizens, they are acting like salt in the community.

As Sir Frederick Catherwood put it:‘To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness.’

Stott goes on to say that SALT is not all that the world needs. The world also needs LIGHT – the truth of God, ultimately found in the Gospel.