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.

If you’ve benefited from resources like this one, would you be willing to send some support to help us begin delivering more regular content? Please consider giving a one-time donation through PayPal with this link, or becoming a regular supporter through Patreon with this link and get even more each month!

Devote Yourself to the Public Reading

When it comes to reading the Scriptures, another thing we commonly do today is say “okay, okay, reading the Scripture is important… so let’s all do that—each of us on our own time, by ourselves. Just get alone with God, and have this wonderful personal experience, just you and God.”

What we often don’t remember (or sometimes were never taught), is that the Scriptures were actually written to be read aloud, in community. From Moses, to King Josiah, to Ezra and Nehemiah reading and teaching the word of God to the people, to Jesus reading the scroll in the synagogue, to the apostles sending out letters to various churches to be read aloud before the assembled congregations, the Scriptures were written to be read aloud together with other believers. And we see in Acts 2 that the early church devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, reading the Scriptures together daily.

In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul calls Timothy to keep this practice going. “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and teaching.” Sometimes we can be all for that teaching part, but actually then fail to give ourselves, in any meaningful way, to the public reading of Scripture. But what would happen if we actually began to devote ourselves to reading the Scriptures together with our brothers and sisters? What would it look like for our church to be unified in our commitment to come together to hear the Word of God read aloud?

Our church is doing just that on Wednesday evenings. We’re coming together to read the Scripture together—several chapters at a time, sometimes letters in their entirety—and then talk about what we just heard. It’s a little new and different for us, but I’m looking forward to this time of fellowship and growth as we follow Paul’s instruction and devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture.

The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. — Isaiah 40:8

 


If you’ve benefited from resources like this one, would you be willing to support our work and help us deliver more regular content? Please consider giving a one-time donation through PayPal with this link, or become a regular supporter through Patreon with this link and get access to more content each month!

On The Reading of Scripture

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. — Psalm 27:4

I think we’ve lost that fervor for time spent simply inquiring of the Lord, gazing upon his glory, contemplating who He is and what He’s done—learning from our Savior.

Remember the account of Mary and Martha in Luke 10? Jesus and his disciples stop at the house of Martha in the village of Bethany. And we see Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching, but Martha, Luke says, “was distracted with much serving.” She was preparing and tending to the meal, she gets frustrated with her sister for not helping, and she actually tells Jesus to rebuke Mary.

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” — Luke 10:40-42

In our churches today, I think we pay lip service to the devotion of Mary, but in reality have too many Marthas, anxious and flustered about so many other things in life. We often feel the need to stay busy, as though if we’re not doing something all the time then we’re not being useful; and then we can start to look down on others who do take the time to just sit at the feet of Christ and hear his instruction. People say “the times have changed; it’s different now; we don’t have time to just stop, and spend time in the Scriptures. There’s too much to be accomplished!”

But Jesus says this one thing is of lasting value—what Mary’s doing.

How can we then justify keeping ourselves so busy, and fretting over temporal matters so much, that we neglect the one thing that Jesus says is necessary—to sit at his feet and hear his instruction?

All throughout Scripture, this is the ultimate priority of the follower of God—to learn His Word. But we’ve lost that. We’ve left that commitment. Now, people are all about what we think, and what we feel about something. But what we think and feel just doesn’t matter if our thoughts and feelings and affections are not aligned with God’s thoughts and affections. So doesn’t it make sense then that we would want to turn to his Word—His revelation of Himself—that we might begin to better understand His thoughts, and His ways, knowing they are far superior to our own, and to allow Him then to mold us and conform us to His likeness by His Word working in us, as Paul says, to bring us to glorify God in our lives more and more?

It’s no wonder that we are easily overwhelmed by the worries of the world and the needs of our every-day life when we’ve unmoored ourselves from the unwavering truth of the Word of God. The psalmist says in Psalm 119:

The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” And, likewise, Solomon says, “The Lord gives wisdom; and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

See, the way to gain stability, wisdom, peace, contentment, and joy, is to devote yourself to the instruction of the Word of God. Psalm 1 says that to meditate on the instruction of the Lord makes someone like a tree planted by streams of water that produces abundant fruit, and whose leaf doesn’t wither, because it is rooted at a constant, consistent, source of life. And if we are planted at the life-giving water of the Word of God, we can then be fruitful, and we won’t have to fear the times of drought, as Jeremiah says, because we have sent out our roots to that living water—the Lord Himself. How can we neglect that? How did we drift so far from the commitment of God’s people throughout history—the overwhelming passion for this one thing: to listen to the teaching of the Lord!

 


If you’ve benefited from resources like this one, would you be willing to support our work and help us deliver more regular content? Please consider giving a one-time donation through PayPal with this link, or become a regular supporter through Patreon with this link and get access to more content each month!

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 1 — on the Scriptures]

Composing a doctrinal statement (or any other essential documents) can be one of the most arduous (but crucial) projects undertaken by a church. One of the major projects I began this summer was to draft a sample doctrinal statement that was detailed, precise, well-worded, and well-documented with verse references. The statement I ended with is almost certainly more detailed than most churches would like, and most likely contains a combination of doctrinal beliefs no one shares but myself. However, the goal of the exercise was to produce a detailed statement that was worded positively, but articulated precisely enough to exclude certain theological positions for the protection and unity of the church. I’d like to share my statement, posting a section at a time, and at times make comments pointing out key features and specific wording that I found to be crucial for the precise articulation of the view and for the protection of the church from false doctrine.


Doctrinal Statement
What we Believe(1)

Section 1 — The Scriptures

We believe that the Bible (the 66 canonical books of the Old and New Testaments[2]) is, in the original manuscripts, the inerrant and infallible Word of God, inspired equally in all the words and all the parts. God graciously revealed Himself to mankind by directing men to record, utilizing their own individual personalities and writing styles, the very words of God to mankind, without any mixture of error. As the Word of God, the Bible is the absolute, sufficient, self-authenticating source, standard, and measure of truth, and the binding, inceptive[3], and final authority on all matters to which it speaks. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, moral, religious, or redemptive themes, but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.(4) The Bible is the center of true Christian unity, and the supreme standard by which all human life and conduct will be evaluated and judged. We affirm and hold to, in full, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. (5)

We believe that the Bible was designed for our practical instruction and is sufficient to equip and mature believers. It is to shape the Christian’s beliefs, morals, and affections (6). Being the defining authority for doctrine and discipleship, the Bible, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit and the caring body of Christ, is entirely sufficient for every spiritual, relational, or emotional problem (7).

We believe that the Bible is an objective, propositional revelation (8), and is rightly interpreted by using the normative, plain-sense hermeneutic of grammatical-historical exegesis (8). The final guide to the interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself. We affirm and hold to, in full, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics.

(Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 30:5; Matthew 4:4; 19:4; Mark 10:3; John 17:17; Romans 3:4; 15:4; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:19–21; Revelation 22:18–19)


Notes:

  1. “What we Believe:” There are varying opinions on the wisdom of this wording. Many hold that a church should only require members to “agree to be governed” by the doctrinal statement, rather than actually agree with it. I understand the pragmatics behind this approach. But the fact that it is usually for pragmatic purposes is what concerns me. It’s just easier to not try to have a group of people all agree on doctrinal issues (doctrine divides right?). But because I believe one of the main purposes of the doctrinal statement is to provide for unity among the church, I think we have to structure the doctrinal statement as what this church believes, and what thus unifies this church. Perhaps in a world where doctrine doesn’t really matter, I could be a fellow member of a church with someone who disagrees with me on the spiritual gifts, or on Calvinism, or the Millenium. But doctrine divides precisely because truth matters. And I understand the primacy of the gospel, but we are not called to stay merely contemplating the gospel; we are called to move on to maturity, and to dig into the Word and seek to understand it more fully. So I don’t see how a church that plans to do that can retain a full-throated functional unity, and at the same time not worry about agreeing on what the Bible teaches (even if you separate out the essentials and non-essentials, it still gets messy). I don’t know. It just seems like a church-split (based on groups who agree with each other!) waiting to happen.
  2. Defining “the Bible:” It’s important to define what we mean by “the Bible,” since we want to exclude other “holy” books, such as the book of Mormon, or the Apocrypha.
  3. “Inceptive:” I know this sentence is wordy, and I know no one uses the word “inceptive” anymore, but I think it conveys the intended idea well. Most doctrinal statements claim that the Bible is the “final authority.” While that is certainly a position I affirm, what often happens is that Christians seek knowledge and understanding from any other source, and then weigh it against Scripture at the end of the thought process. What we need to understand is that Scripture is not only the final authority, it must be our starting point — it’s our first authority, because knowledge comes from God. In fact, everything comes from God. We mustn’t look around for truth and then check it against what Scripture has to say; what makes Scripture the standard of truth is that God’s word is the very source of truth. I could (and need to, and perhaps will soon) write an entire post explaining this better, but in short, in other words, I’m a rather committed presuppositionalist, and I think saying the Bible is our inceptive authority and the source of truth conveys it well. As Graeme Goldsworthy says, “By definition, a final authority cannot be proven as an authority on the basis of some higher authority. The highest authority must be self-attesting… Either we work on the basis of a sovereign, self-proving God who speaks to us by a word that we accept as true simply because it is his word, or we work on the basis that man is the final judge of all truth. The Christian position, to be consistent, accepts the Bible is God’s Word…” (for more on presuppositionalism, see especially here, here, here, here, and here)
  4. Authority in history and science?: This will be a controversial claim for sure, but is in fact the historic orthodox and standard evangelical view of inerrancy (see John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church), and this statement is taken almost verbatim from the Chicago Statement (the defining statement on inerrancy). The Chicago Statement also says, “We affirm that since God is the author of all truth…the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else” (Article XX). If the Bible is the Word of God, we can trust what it says no matter what it is talking about! (also see this article)
  5. Chicago Statement: You may have a succinct statement such as this in your doctrinal statement that references another document which goes into fuller detail on a given subject. In so doing, you can save a lot of space in your own statement, but the referenced document legally becomes equally binding on the church as well.
  6. This is a uniquely conservative distinctive. Most evangelical Christians will affirm that the Bible should shape our beliefs and morals (usually), but many have not even given thought to how the Bible ought to shape and cultivate rightly-ordered affections within us as well.
  7. A faithful theology of Scripture leads to a firm conviction of the absolute sufficiency of Scripture. To get started on understanding the biblical counseling ‘model’ and its view of the Bible’s sufficiency for discipleship, I urge you to watch these interesting and enjoyable videos of Nicolas Ellen.
  8. In other words, not merely a story, or metanarrative, or helpful lesson, that we just need to find our place in, or need to discover what it means for us.
  9. A consistent plain-sense hermeneutic is, I believe, the hermeneutic that Scripture itself establishes, and is the only hermeneutic that faithfully and simply takes God at His word, and understands Scripture in the way one normally interprets any other kind of literature. For more info, I’d highly recommend Dr. Henebury here, here, here, and here.

Do You Have the Courage to Search the Scripture?

Scripture is the key to answering all of life’s questions. Yet sadly, we do not turn to Scripture enough. And certain topics are even harder to turn to Scripture for, such as gender issues, because the Scriptures tend to get skewed and twisted in order to fit one’s own views. But as I have said, in order to be true students of the Word we must be willing to put our prejudices aside and plunge below the surface to see what Scripture truly teaches. We may not like what we find all the time, but it should be worth it to know that we have done all we can to seek the truth and to seek to have a godly viewpoint.

Gender issues and roles are a touchy subject, but they are touchy because it is such an integral part of who we are as male and female human beings. So I encourage you not to run from this subject, and not to run from entering into the discussion in culture, but to redeem gender roles through espousing and practicing the better way to live – the way God designed us to live as men and women.