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By Shawn Anthony

This is the fifth installment of a series of posts collectively titled: “The Literal Tenor of the Metaphorical Hell: A Literary Critique of Scriptural Language concerning Hell, The Human Soul and a Defense of Metaphorical Conditionalism.” The following is a chronological, hyper-linked table of contents, of sorts: 1. The Literal Tenor of the Metaphorical Hell. 2. Mechanics of Metaphor: Hell is a Shabby Hotel of Vicious Circles. 3. Jesus of Nazareth’s Dialogue Regarding Hell. 4. Mixed Up Metaphors: Confusing Tenor and Vehicle.

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The Hell that does Exist. The Hell that does not exist. Learn to Differentiate! It’s Good for You!

The crux of the issue(s) concerning the existence or non existence of a realm called Hell are thoroughly eschatological. While many Christians find the idea/concept of eternal judgment difficult, they will easily admit and embrace the idea of eternal reward with exuberant hope and faith. However, one cannot exist without the other – especially if the Bible is used to build theology.

Both concepts are found in the pages of Scripture. Too, the subject of Heaven and Hell are addressed by Jesus himself, in a purely eschatological manner. Authentic exegesis, therefore, demands a theology of hell for every theology of heaven embraced, or vice versa. The theology regarding this subject varies, as has been already stated a few times; any follower of Jesus of Nazareth must build his or her theology, sooner or later.

As stated in the early portions of this study, of the four traditional views of hell, only three seem worthy of consideration: Literal, Metaphorical, and Conditional. The Literal and the Metaphorical views are not really two separate views at all! Both point to a literal hell, but differences regarding metaphorical vehicle arise and cause literary dissension which results in a theological polemic with which biblical literalists cannot comfortably co-exist. The Metaphorical view of Hell seems to be the superior and most educated option, as a result of the Literal view’s metaphorical ignorance. However, after close scrutiny of the Scriptures, the doctrine of eternal suffering/punishment that remains attached to the Metaphorical view seems out of place, at least in light of a holistic understanding of the Scripture. A purely metaphorical view, as a result, falls short of the Biblical testimony regarding hell and final punishment. Conditionalism, consequently, rises to the top of the fray as the most solid view.

A Metaphorical Conditionalism and a Defense of Annihilation. Don’t Call it an Easy Way Out!

Hell, according to the New Testament & Jesus of Nazareth, is the realm to which those who spend their existence in enmity towards God are consigned. These individuals will suffer the consequences of rejecting God not only in this life, but also for all of eternity. The disciplined interpreter will discover no easy way around this very Biblical concept. The metaphorical tenor is unarguably present and will not happily vanish from either the words of Jesus, or the pages of the Bible. The doctrine is, in spite of the difficulty it presents to our contemporary emotions, intertwined with the message of the Gospel.

George Ladd, while emphasizing the priority of an authentic relationship between humanity and God, summarizes the essence of hell in a brief but precise paragraph:

“[On the other hand] final punishment is pictured as outer darkness (Mt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). This suggests that both fire and darkness are metaphors used to represent the indescribable. “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt. 7.23); “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Mt. 25:12). Exclusion from the presence of God and the enjoyment of his blessings – this is the essence of hell.”1

This is not only the essence of hell, as Ladd points out, but the tenor of the metaphorical language (vehicle) of Scripture. Too, tenor can qualify information we derive from Scripture and thus equip us to discern – as best as possible – supplementary details regarding the image(s) presented in the text.

Metaphorical-Conditionalism is a view based upon the literary mechanics of metaphor. Metaphorical-Conditionalism is not the same as a purely Metaphorical view. A metaphorical view properly identifies metaphor but often continues to ignore the literary mechanics upon which it is constructed (vehicle and tenor); this consequently leads to the continued advance of a doctrine founded upon things like the conceptual eternal suffering of those who reject God. Conditionalism is accompanied by a strong argument in favor of annihilationism, and a strong dedication to the identification and proper interpretation of the mechanics of metaphor (vehicle and tenor).

Will People Suffer for All of Eternity, or will People Die Eternally? Is One Worse than the Other?

Annihilationism is well supported in Scripture. More than a few Biblical and religious scholars support the view. A few are: F.F. Bruce, Michael Green, Philip E. Hughes, Dale Moody, Clark C. Pinnock, W. Graham Scroggie, John Stott, and John W. Wenham. This movement away from traditional views regarding hell is a growing one. Edward William Fudge praises this growth:

“The growing evangelical rejection of the traditional doctrine of unending conscious torment is not propelled by emotionalism, sentimentality or compromise with culture but by absolute commitment to the authority of Scripture and by the conviction that a faithful church must be a church that is always reforming.”2

What Does the Bible Say? What Doesn’t the Bible Say? Context is a Very Good Thing!

Before citing specific portions of Scripture which supports the Conditionalist & Annihilationist view of hell, it would be proper to cite what the Bible does not say regarding the subject.

First of all, the theological process of building a theology regarding Hell finds a serious prerequisite in the realization of Platonic influences. The idea of an eternal existence of the soul is a Platonic (Greek) concept that originated with Socrates. Socrates passed the belief to his pupil Plato, who continued its advance. This belief was passed along to the earliest of Church Fathers, after the Christianity moved to Rome. Plato and Socrates believed that the soul could not die or cease to exist; Jesus of Nazareth, a Hebrew, believed that God could “Destroy both the body and the soul in hell” (Mt. 10.28).

Stanley Grenz, in an article for Christianity Today, offers a weak defense against this position: “Some annihilationists who are better described as holding to ‘conditional immortality’ claim that the idea of eternal conscious punishment depends on the Greek concept of immortality of the soul, which they say is wrongly read back into the Bible. The Bible teaches, they argue, that we are dependent on God for life, so only through participation in Christ’s resurrection are the saved given immortality.”3

Grenz does annihilationists a favor by aptly describing both positions. He also, however, paints himself a hack by stopping exactly there; Grenz offers absolutely no rebuttal as to why the annihilationist position regarding Platonic influence is faulty. He simply says it is. Grenz, later in the article, offers a few more very weak arguments against annihilationism, such as an argument over the connotations of the word eternal,4 and another argument centered upon “varying degrees” of punishment.

Secondly, “no Biblical character is ever said to have placed hope in philosophical notions of natural immortality, or to have supposed that human beings have some mysterious part that cannot die. Whatever the state of mortals between earthly death and the resurrection, their only hope for survival lies in the hands of the Creator who alone is inherently immortal (1 Tim. 6:16).”5

Now that those things the Bible does not say are openly declared, those things that the Bible does say can be properly concentrated upon.

Psalm 1:4 – 6: The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

The wicked, in this Psalm, are likened to “chaff that the wind drives away,” and will finally perish. Perish is a word that implies final destruction, not eternal existence.

Psalm 2:1-9 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

The wicked, again, in this Psalm, are the recipients of God’s justice involving not an eternal existence but ultimate and permanent destruction; the wicked are broken and dashed to pieces – terminology speaking of ultimate and permanent destruction.

Psalm 110:5-6 The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. 6 He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth.

The wicked, in this Psalm, are pictured as being shattered – an ultimate and permanent destruction.

Isaiah 11:4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

The wicked, in this passage, will be killed – or utterly destroyed.

Isaiah 33:14 The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: “Who among us can live with the devouring fire? Who among us can live with everlasting burning?”

Traditionalists, according to Fudge, often look to this passage for defense of a hell wherein the wicked burn for eternity. Fudge, however, offers an interpretation of this passage which is based upon a closer study of its context: “Foreign armies afflicted Israel in Isaiah’s day, but in Isaiah 33:10-24 the prophet foretells a day when the wicked will be burned up. That day will come at the end of the world. Then god’s people will ’see the king in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar’ (Is 33:17). They will look on the eternal Jerusalem (Is 33:20). They will never be ill again, and all their sins will have been forgiven (Is. 33:24). God will ‘arise,’ and the wicked will be unable to protect themselves. They will ignite themselves by their own sins, producing a fire that ‘consumes’ them (Is. 33:10-11). They will blaze as easily as ‘cut thornbushes’ and burn thoroughly ‘as if to lime’ (Is. 33:12).”6 No metaphor could describe a destruction more complete.

Isaiah 66:24 And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Again, in this passage, traditionalists seek to find support for their belief regarding unending eternal torment of the damned. Fudge, however, offers more contextual evidence that, if honestly accepted, will render correlation between the traditionalist doctrine and the passage impossible. “We must read the context, which foretells a time when God will execute judgment ‘with fire and his sword,’ when many will be ’slain’ and will ‘meet their end together’ (Is. 66:16-17). Then the righteous and their descendants will endure forever, and all ‘mankind’ will worship God, for the wicked will no longer be alive (Is. 66:22-23). In chapter 66 Isaiah anticipates the same scene [as per. ch. 37] on a massive scale at the end of time. In this prophetic picture, as in the historical event of Isaiah’s day, the righteous view ‘the dead bodies’ of the wicked. They see corpses, not living people. They view destruction, not conscious misery. Discarded corpses are fit only for worms (maggots) and fire – both insatiable agents of disintegration and decomposition. To the Hebrew mind, both worms and fire signify disgrace and shame (Jer. 25:33; Amos 2:1). Worms and fire also indicate complete destruction, for the maggot in this picture does not die but continue to feed so long as there is anything to eat. The fire, which is not ‘quenched’ or extinguished, burns until nothing is left of what it is burning. According to God’s prophet Isaiah, this is a ‘loathsome’ scene, which evokes disgust rather than pity (IS 66:24; see the same in Dan 12:2).”7 This scene portrays shame and not pain. This passage of scripture says nothing about conscious suffering and certainly nothing about suffering forever.

Matthew 10:28: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

There is no exegetical way around the usage of the Greek word “Kai” in this text; it implies, without doubt, that both the body and the soul can and will be destroyed in hell.

Annihilationism, therefore, seems a well supported doctrine; annihilationism, in fact, is the only doctrine of eternal punishment to be found in the Scriptures. It is unfortunate that traditionalists find the concept of perpetual non-existence (eternal death) too “comfortable” a doctrine to be placed alongside a Gospel that offers perpetual existence (eternal life). In fact, traditional scholars of the subject, like Robert A. Peterson, adhere to a masochistic belief that the Gospel, if it is ever to be authentically grasped by those who reject God, demands a consequence that goes beyond the already devastatingly grim concept of eternal death:

“I [Peterson] fear that if annihilationism is widely accepted by Christians, that will hinder the missionary enterprise. Many people have devoted their lives to bringing the Gospel to the unsaved around the globe. Would they continue to do so if they really thought that the worst fate awaiting those who reject Jesus is final extinction? I seriously doubt it. Annhilationists can argue that the obliteration of the wicked is a terrible fate if measured against the bliss of the righteous. But when compared to suffering in hell forever, it is simple not that bad to cease to exist.”8

Peterson’s statement, besides being psychologically disturbing, is absolutely the best illustration of how a doctrine can go so terribly wrong.

Watch for the seventh part of this series, titled: Lord, Forgive Us Our Crudely Literalistic Terms.

End Notes:

1. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich., Eerdmans 1974: 1974), 196.

2. Edward Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell : A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 21.

3. Stanley Grenz, “Is Hell Forever?,” Christianity Today, 1998 1998.

4. Annihilationists claim that eternal is represented well in terms of the results of the judgment; traditionalist/literalists believe the word is better suited to the duration of the punishment.

5. Fudge and Peterson, Two Views of Hell : A Biblical & Theological Dialogue, 23.

6. Ibid., 31

7. Ibid., 31-32

8. Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial : The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1995), 179.

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