Is Hell Forever? [part 4: the logic of the thing]

In my previous two posts, I shared some of my interaction with Peter Grice, of Rethinking Hell. I laid out my basic argument against conditional immortality, and shared Mr. Grice’s initial response.

As I mentioned in the last post on the issue, one item that really surprised me in his response was how he shied away from defining death as the cessation of existence. I asked him how he would rather define life and death, and he said this:

I think that the concepts of life and death are normally left undefined, because everybody already understands them. I’m alive right now, and my grandfather is dead… It’s only when we get into theology and philosophy that we start to feel the need for definitions.

I’ve never though of not worrying about a definition for understanding death. If you can’t/won’t define something—do you really understand it?

The reason we “start to feel the need for definitions” when we get into philosophy and theology is because we’re seeking to truly understand things.

Death speaks of separation. Physical death—contra the conditionalists—is not the cessation of consciousness, or the ending of all of that person’s activity. Physical death happens when the soul and body are separated—see James 2:26. Physical death is the separation of the soul and body. Spiritual death is our spiritual separation from God. Again, not unconsciousness… not cessation of existence.

Mr. Grice did not want to define death. He insisted that everyone intuitively knows what we mean. But I disagree. If you can’t define it, how much do you really understand it? One of the most important disciplines in theology is defining your terms.

Perhaps a couple of syllogisms can best demonstrate the formal logic of the issue:

Here is the basic argument of Conditional Immortality syllogized:

  • The penalty for sin is death.
  • Death is the cessation of existence.
  • Jesus bore the penalty for sin on the cross on our behalf.
  • Therefore…

Do you see the necessitated conclusion of the logic? It’s that Jesus ceased to exist (at least temporarily).

Now, Mr. Grice would probably challenge my representation of the second premise above, as he did in his response. But, having received no satisfactory definition in response, and given the way it’s stated numerous times throughout Rethinking Hell, I think it’s fair to say that, no matter the semantic gymnastics, conditionalists are functionally defining death as the cessation of existence.

Allow me to try to put my own argument from the initial post into a syllogism as well:

  • The penalty for sin is death.
  • Jesus bore the penalty of sin on the cross on our behalf.
  • Therefore, however one defines death, Jesus experienced it.
    • But Jesus did not cease to exist.
    • Therefore, annihilation (cessation of existence) is not the penalty for sin.

Another syllogism, taking the above conclusion (and the foundational premise) and applying it to the definition of death then:

  • Death is the penalty for sin.
  • Annihilation is not the penalty for sin.
  • Therefore, death is not the cessation of existence (annihilation).

There are a couple of other ways to syllogize the logic, but I hope this exercise has at least been helpful enough for now. Keep studying!

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Is Hell Forever? [part 3: defining life and death]

In my previous two posts, I shared some of my interaction with Peter Grice, of Rethinking Hell. I laid out my basic argument against conditional immortality, and shared Mr. Grice’s initial response. One item that surprised me in his response was how he shied away from defining death as the cessation of existence. Now, read their defining statement, search around on their site, and see how you think they are understanding life and death. This seems to be one of the basic tenants of their view, and yet Mr. Grice pushed against it. They may want to nuance it more than I am, certainly; but it’s difficult to get around the fact that the basic claim is: death means the annihilation of body and soul; the penalty for sin is death; thus, the penalty for sin is the annihilation of body and soul (destruction/cessation of existence). Well, I sent a short reply to Mr. Grice to see if he would more clearly explain his understanding of life and death. Here it is, with his response, below.

Mr. Grice,

Thank you so much for your response. That was helpful on some fronts. I am curious though: if you would not define death as the cessation of existence (annihilation), how would you define life and death?

Thanks again.

His Response:

I think that the concepts of life and death are normally left undefined, because everybody already understands them. I’m alive right now, and my grandfather is dead. This is consistent with how the Bible speaks. Though the “dead in Christ” could be considered conscious in death, on one view of the intermediate state, nonetheless they are reckoned “dead,” not living. The dead come alive in resurrection (Rev 20:5).

It’s only when we get into theology and philosophy that we start to feel the need for definitions. In Christian theology we often hear people try to define death as separation, as if death is the splitting apart of one thing into two. And maybe that occurs, but that’s no justification for loading it into the definition of death.

When I say that my grandfather died thirty years ago, I do not mean that he split in two, or that half of him died and half didn’t. Rather, I mean that one moment he himself was living, and the next moment he himself was not living.

Hence, death is the cessation of life. That was my working definition below. Life is just what Adam and Eve had in the garden, but do not have until the resurrection.

So to me the cessation of life isn’t about annihilation, or the cessation of all aspects of being. It’s an embodied thing. A human being / living creature is not a disembodied spirit. That’s not how Genesis portrays us at all. Whatever immaterial aspects we may have are only part of what we are, not the whole.

What do you think? Is this a satisfactory answer? The reason we “start to feel the need for definitions” when we get into philosophy and theology is because we’re seeking to really understand things. Do you think that “everybody already understands” life and death if we can’t even define them (without begging the question)? I’ll try to summarize a few of my concluding thoughts in another post. Until then, keep studying, keep doing theology, and keep defining your terms!

Is Hell Forever? [part 2: response]

In my last post, I shared a concern I have with the view called Conditional Immortality, the idea that the unsaved “will finally be destroyed (annihilated).” I wrote to Peter Grice, articulating my argument against conditionalism based on their very argument against eternal conscious torment. Read my initial argument here to get the context, and then read Mr. Grice’s response below.

Dear Christopher,

Thank you so much for the kind and encouraging words about our ministry!

Your question makes sense, and comes up fairly often.

It is understandable when people think that our claims include such things as the definition of death being ceasing to exist, and the punishment for sin being annihilation. I think that you’re rightly discerning some of the relationships and pitfalls in this area.

But evangelical conditionalism is a particular model to essentially bracket out the thorny questions of constitutional anthropology (physicalism vs. dualism vs. agnosticism), and whatever goes on in the intermediate state. Here’s what I would say. Death is the ending of life (not existence). In the relevant case, human life. Human life and personhood is biblically constituted in Genesis, where Adam (for example) is more than the sum of his parts, at least while alive. Whatever might be believed about an immaterial part surviving between death and resurrection, it’s not Adam as we know him, nor is he alive as we know it. So we must not shift to philosophical categories and, against the grain of biblical terminology, call the dead the living. Resurrection is a concept “of the dead” and “from the dead,” so our definition of life and death is preserved until everyone has been brought back to life again. The biblical language of sleep isn’t meant to disclose whether an immaterial part is conscious or not in death, but is a logical construct used to anticipate resurrection as a return to life.

So we arrive at Jesus’ criticism to the Sadducees: we need to know both the scriptures and the power of God, in order to see that God’s revealed intention is how we know something will happen, and no natural mechanism or circumstance could possibly stand in his way. Discussing means and mechanisms is often how our topic can get dragged into the weeds. In the final analysis, our category is soteriology, not anthropology, and we are looking to the question of immortality proper, which pertains to everlasting life.

Unfortunately, some conditionalists in the past (not necessarily part of the evangelical conditionalist movement) have conflated God’s intentions in eternal life and eternal punishment, with one of conditionalism’s tenets, the denial that an immaterial soul has immortality (note: not the denial of an immaterial soul). It turns out that even this is not a necessary tenet of our view, for that is only talking about natural immortality, the mechanistic capacity to survive on its own steam, which is not match for a God who would be prepared to annihilate such a soul nonetheless. It turns out that pretty much all of our philosophical reasoning in this area is circumvented by divine prerogative. All we need to focus on is understanding God’s will with respect to our eternal fates.

Which brings me to the other aspect of your line of questioning, to do with final punishment being eternal, and the demands for consistency with the substitutionary payment of Jesus Christ, under penal substitution.

To that I would offer that the requirements for an atoning sacrifice of death are indeed the same as the penalty for sin, where death is the cessation of life. Furthermore, the same penalty for sin is the standard for final punishment as well, as I’ll explain. But we need to also follow through on what I call ordinary death, which is Adam’s death and our own, in terms of the conundrum of how Christians can possibly still die if we annihilationionists are right about the penalty for sin (how indeed can Christians be punished for our sins anyway?).

Well, the problem is that we are reducing death to an event, when the point of a death penalty is the ongoing cessation of life. That kind of privative punishment is active so long as the person remains dead. Romans 6 helps to show that in the relevant biblical application, death is a thing that can still have dominion and power of you, even in resurrection, where to be released from that dominion means that you will never die again. Ergo, the function of death extends beyond the mere event of death, and principally has to do with an abstract administration, whether we speak of the delegated role given to Satan in wielding the power, or God’s higher judicial economy in which individual deservingness is assessed (against, for example, the harm they will continue to cause if permitted to live on).

So the payment of death for sin is foremost a judicial standard that God uses, requiring the laying down of life, and enduring so long as God is reckoning that punishment to the individual. A temporary resurrection unto judgment is not a victory over death, but a resurrection unto eternal life is. A second death is essentially a ratification of the first, and resumes it forever. Not because death itself must necessarily be permanent, but because the context of judgment day provides an “eternal judgment” (Heb 6:2) and “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), such that the punishment receives its eternality on that occasion from that context.

The fact that Jesus laid down his life, committing his spirit into the Father’s hands, was enough. Hypothetically, the Father could have kept him dead. But once the atoning sacrifice is accepted (let’s say three days later, as it pleased the Father), Jesus is rescued from death on account of his own righteous life (“the power of an indestructible life,” Heb 7:16). He does not deserve to stay dead forever. Instead, he deserves life forever. You might like to read my recent article at our website, responding to Tim Keller, at the point where I talk about how Jesus was saved from death not by avoidance, but in the midst of death—and this is how Christians are also saved from death, the penalty of sin (the article points to a few things that aren’t commonly appreciated). It is not as if most of us avoid the event of death. But our deaths will be swallowed up in victory, as we rise to immortal life. We are saved from the penalty of sin in this way.

Finally, it’s true that some of what I’ve said might technically leave open the door for the destruction of the body only, in final judgment. There’s more to say about that, and I’ll try to address it in an article I’m working on about this whole question. I would simply offer for now that Matthew 10:28’s “body and soul” seems to preclude it. And it’s not such a bad thing if we need to rely on special revelation to know for sure that the whole person is destroyed in the end. It may be that the term “destruction” provides that stronger connotation, as well as the notion of consuming and unquenchable divine fire being the destroying agent. All we need to know is that we really miss the point if we insist that death must be defined according to such mechanics. The whole point of annihilation is the forfeit of eternal life, and we can allow God the flexibility to do that more thoroughly than the forfeit of life on a previous occasion.

I hope that there’s something here to shed light, and that it helps to resolve some tensions for you.

Blessings,

Peter Grice

What do you think of Mr. Grice’s response? There were some helpful aspects to it, and a couple of good points he made (particularly the point about the effectiveness of the death penalty being the lasting cessation of life, and the point about not avoiding the event of death, but death being swallowed up in victory in the resurrection). But there still seem to be some weaknesses and blind-spots in his response, and in Conditionalism in general. One issue is the simple definition of life and death. I asked Mr. Grice specifically about how he would define death, and I’ll share his response to that inquiry in the next post.

Is Hell Forever?

Annihilationism, or Conditional Immortality—the term preferred by those who hold to it—is the view that when the unsaved are cast into the lake of fire after the Great White Throne Judgment, they, body and soul, will be annihilated. They will cease to exist.

There is a group of conservative (as opposed to those who don’t care about the inerrancy and authority of Scripture) evangelical theologians who are propounding this idea through their website and podcast titled Rethinking Hell. In their “Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism,” they state:

Conditionalism is the view that life or existence is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately either be granted forever on the basis of righteousness (by grace, through faith), or revoked forever on the basis of unrighteousness.

Evangelical conditionalists believe that the saved in Christ will receive glory, honor and immortality, being raised with an incorruptible body to inherit eternal life (Romans 2:7). The unsaved will be raised in shame and dishonor, to face God and receive the just condemnation for their sins. When the penalty is carried out, they will be permanently excluded from eternal life by means of a final death (loss of being; destruction of the whole person; Matthew 10:28).

Although I have not been convinced of conditionalism, I have grown to respect these men and have benefited from thinking through their work. I recently interacted with one of the writers at Rethinking Hell, Peter Grice, about one of their common arguments, and thought it may be of help to share part of our discussion (with Mr. Grice’s permission), in several posts here.

After a brief introduction and thanking Mr. Grice for his work, my initial argument and inquiry are as follows:

One objection to Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) is that if ECT is the punishment for sin, then how do we explain Jesus taking our punishment on himself? That would mean Jesus must have suffered eternally—which, of course, he did not.

I actually agree with you that the common answer—that Jesus, being God, could suffer infinitely in a finite matter of time—is not a good response. If the nature of the punishment must be eternal in time, then Jesus could not have experienced that temporarily. That’s equivocating on the nature of the punishment. We agree. I think your critique at this point is entirely fair, and has helped me think through my understanding of the nature of the penalty for sin.

My response would be more along the lines of this: it seems that the penalty for sin is not inherently eternal conscious torment. Rather, the penalty for sin is, and always has been, death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). I have not been convinced of how you define death as necessarily meaning ceasing to exist (rather than separation—see James 2:26), but the solution to your critique in my view, then, would be that the length of time someone remains in conscious torment is not necessarily inherent in the penalty itself. The penalty itself is that of being in the state of death (again, I’d still argue spiritual death is spiritual separation from God). So, for Jesus to take the penalty on himself, but only to remain dead for a short time, is not quite as problematic in my view, since—the penalty being death—Jesus did fully experience that state.

The question of how long unbelievers remain existing in that state without ceasing to exist is then simply a matter of exegesis. In other words, I don’t have any strong theological problem with the idea that unbelievers go to hell and, by implication (not by necessity) are annihilated. I would just separate out that natural result from the penalty for sin and say that this annihilation is not itself the penalty for sin.

This leads me to my actual question. The reason I would have a theological problem with annihilation itself being the penalty for sin, is, once again, the atonement of Christ. I think that your critique of the traditional view (as creating problems for interpreting the atonement) is a solid, strong critique at this point. However, in my opinion, looking at the atonement is actually one of the strongest arguments against the conditional immortality view as well.

If you say that the penalty for sin is death, and you define death as annihilation—both body and soul ceasing to exist—and this is why annihilation of unbelievers in the lake of fire is necessary, then I think you still have an issue at the atonement. If the penalty for sin is one’s soul being destroyed—annihilated—then in order for Christ to truly take the penalty of sin on himself, that would mean his soul was annihilated—Jesus ceased to exist (at least until he was, somehow, brought back into existence at the resurrection).

Is that actually an implication you would follow through on? Or am I misunderstanding your position entirely, and you would not say that death (annihilation) is the penalty for sin (which would be difficult given Romans 6:23 et al)? Again, I would argue that death does not mean annihilation, so the absolute state of death (with no inherent reference to chronological duration of conscious torment) is the penalty for sin, though I would argue exegetically that the souls of unbelievers do remain forever in hell (and I might argue that the length of time does not increase the degree of suffering; it’s incidental). For that reason, I don’t have a strong theological objection to unbelievers being annihilated at some point (even if I have exegetical objections).

But if we connect death and annihilation and say that ceasing to exist is the penalty for sin, then I have a huge theological conundrum, because I can’t see how we can say that Jesus experienced the penalty for sin—unless his soul too was annihilated. Are you going to argue that Jesus, in his death on the cross, was, body and soul, annihilated? And if he didn’t cease to exist—his soul was not annihilated—then in what sense did he actually experience the penalty for sin as our substitute?

Thank you for your time.

In my next post, I’ll share Mr. Grice’s first response. And, in the meantime, I encourage you to contemplate the implications of such a view.

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Series on How to Compose a Doctrinal Statement

Below, you’ll find links to my series on how to develop and write a doctrinal statement. I’ve geared this toward churches specifically, but I hope it will be of some benefit to you personally as well. This also is my personal statement of faith (adapted for churches of course), so this will let you get to know me a little better as well.

Composing a Doctrinal Statement [section 8 — End Times]

Composing a doctrinal statement (or any other essential documents) can be one of the most arduous (but crucial) projects undertaken by a church. In this series, I’m sharing my own doctrinal statement in an attempt to provide a helpful example of a detailed statement that is worded positively, but articulated precisely enough to exclude certain theological positions for the protection and unity of the church.


Section 8 — End Times

The Rapture and Subsequent Events: We believe in the imminent, premillennial return of Christ for His people [1]. At that moment, all those in Christ [2], dead and alive, shall receive their glorified bodies, and be caught up in the air by the Lord and taken to heaven to await the establishment of Christ’s physical, everlasting kingdom on earth following the tribulation, the seventieth week of Daniel, when Christ will reign over all the earth from the Davidic throne in Jerusalem. At the end of the Millennium, there will be a final rebellion of Satan and his followers (fallen angels and living unbelievers) against the rule and authority of Christ, at which time they will be summarily destroyed — Satan, his fallen angels, and all the unsaved being thrown into the Lake of Fire to suffer eternal punishment. At this time, God will create a New Heaven and a New Earth in which there will be no more curse and no more death, where all believers will live in peace and fellowship with God in His kingdom forever.

(Daniel 9:25–27; Matthew 24:19–31; 19:28; 25:31–32; Luke 1:32–33; 1 Corinthians 15:26; 1 Thessalonians 4:14–18; Revelation 20–22)

The Eternal State: We believe that at death the souls of those who have trusted in Christ for salvation pass immediately into His presence and there remain in conscious bliss until the resurrection of the glorified body when Christ comes for His own, whereupon soul and body, thus reunited, shall enjoy fellowship with Him forever in glory; but the souls of the unbelieving remain after death conscious of condemnation and in misery until the final judgment of the great white throne at the close of the millennium, when soul and body, reunited, shall be cast into the lake of fire — not to be annihilated, but to suffer punishment and everlasting separation from the presence and glory of the Lord.

(Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:46; Luke 16:19–26; 23:42; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9; Jude 6; Revelation 20:11–15)


Notes:

1] I am very firm on the pre-millenial rapture, but not so firm on the pre-tribulational rapture. In fact, I haven’t even made the pre-trib rapture a part of my doctrinal statement (though it fits best). I personally am convinced that the rapture happens before the 7-year tribulation. There are three primary reasons I hold this view: 1) The pre-trib rapture most fully and consistently maintains the doctrine of imminency; 2) The pre-trib rapture is the only view that sufficiently explains where mortal unbelievers living in the millennium come from; 3) The pre-trib rapture best holds together as a view in light of various prophetic passages. However, I simply do not think the pre-trib rapture is explicit enough in Scripture to be dogmatic about it, since arguments can be made in favor of a rapture that is not pre-trib (though, in my opinion, all other views have significant problems with one or more various passages which a pre-trib rapture view resolves).

Read more: here, here, here, and here.

2] I changed this from “all believers” to “all those in Christ” not only because it matches the language Paul uses (1 Thess 4:16), but also because there is a legitimate interpretation among some dispensational theologians that this refers only to church-age believers (since they say only church-age believers are “in Christ”), leaving Old Testament saints to be resurrected either at the beginning or end of the Millennium (Rev 20:4–5). I don’t hold this view, but instead hold that all believers, Old and New Testament believers, are resurrected at the rapture. However, because the other view is a legitimate and common interpretation, I don’t mind simply saying “all those in Christ” and allowing us to understand the reference in slightly different ways.