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Letters to a Traditionalist On Hell 01 – Eternal Fire7 min read

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I have a good friend who takes the traditional Christian position on hell, that of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). I have, over the past few years, shifted my position to that of Conditional Immortality (CI), also known as Annnihilationism, and have joined the ranks of contributors over at Rethinking Hell.

My friend has recently engaged me with the relevant texts, and we have begun a dialogue. Here’s the first interchange.

Jesus declares in Matthew 25:41 that the destiny of the unsaved is “eternal fire prepared for the devil.” Matthew 25:46 uses the same adjective, eternal, to describe the fates of the lost and saved: “eternal punishment” and “eternal life.” Jesus depicts “hell” as a place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48). Paul’s reference to “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, indicates a figurative devastation that the damned will experience forever in hell, separated from the Lord’s royal presence. Revelation 14:10, where we read that the impenitent “will be tormented with burning sulfur,” depicts the hellfire imagery as agony, not annihilation. John speaks of everlasting torment when he adds, “and the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever” (v. 11). John’s description of Satan’s fate in Revelation 20:10 as being placed in “the lake of fire and sulfur” and being “tormented day and night for ever and ever” signifies everlasting pain, a fate that lost human beings share (Rev. 20:15).

Glad to see that you are now engaged. Of course, the traditional understanding of the passages you mentioned have Conditionalist answers that, using standard hermeneutics, make the traditional view collapse. Here’s an abbreviated set of answers to those passages.

1. Matthew 25:41 – eternal fire prepared for the devil

The question here is, what is the nature of ‘eternal fire.’ One place you can look in the new testament is Jude 1:7 –

“In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”

So let me ask you – are Sodom and Gomorrah still burning? Then why is the fire called ‘eternal’? Because it is ‘unquenchable’ – that is, it can’t be put out UNTIL it’s object is destroyed.

BTW, in Revelation, hell (the grave), death, the beast and the false prophet are destroyed in the lake of fire – so what makes you think that the devil will not be destroyed by the eternal fire? It may be because of this verse:

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. ~ Rev. 20:10

Sounds straightforward, yes? Not if you are in the book of Revelation, where the vision is symbolic, not literal. The Beast is a government, and death itself is not a being either, so how are they ‘tormented’? The answer is simple once you look for the Biblical interpretation of the images.

For instance, back in Rev 14:11, we read

“And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Note that ‘no rest day or night’ does not mean forever, but that’s just an aside. What’s important here is the phrase “smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever.” This is a direct quote from the OT, where Isaiah 34:8-10 describes the judgment of Edom (also not burning today):

For it is the day of the Lord’s vengeance,
The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
Its streams shall be turned into pitch,
And its dust into brimstone;
Its land shall become burning pitch.
It shall not be quenched night or day;
Its smoke shall ascend forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
No one shall pass through it forever and ever.

So let me be clear. The ‘forever and ever’ in Revelation is meant to be understood as an image to be interpreted, and just like the passage it quotes, it is talking of PERMANENCE (‘for eternity’), not ONGOING PROCESS. But if you want to base your understanding of eternity based on symbolic passages, be warned! Shaky ground.

Speaking of ‘straightforward’ passages that are NOT in a symbolic book, how about this:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not PERISH but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

Note that everlasting life is contrasted, not with punishment, but with PERISHING. This dichotomy will be important in my next answer.

2. Matthew 25:46 – eternal life, eternal punishment

This is probably the Traditionalist’s strongest case, but even here, it is weak. The argument is this – there seems to be a strong parallel between life and punishment, in that both are eternal. And I would agree.

But here’s the question – does eternal ‘punishment’ mean ongoing punishment, or that the outcome of the punishment is eternal and irrevocable? On first glance, if you assume that eternal ‘life’ means an ongoing process, then the punishment would seem to be the same.

But there are three reasons why this is a wrong assumption.

First, we must admit that the use of eternal in scripture can mean EITHER process or final outcome. For instance, in the following uses of the word, which are process and which are the eternal outcome of something once accomplished for all time?

  • eternal judgment
  • eternal redemption
  • eternal salvation

So, in light of these, what makes you think that eternal life is not ‘life gained for eternity’ rather than ‘ongoing life’? In light of the other usages, it is possible that ‘eternal punishment’ refers to the outcome, not a process.

Second, 2 Thessalonians 1;:9-10 describes this ‘eternal punishment’ for us.

These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power

Eternal destruction – tell me, if you are never destroyed for eternity, how is your destruction eternal? It makes more sense to understand this (and the hundreds of other references to the final state of the unredeemed with such words as destroy, perish, consumed, dead) as ONCE destroyed for all eternity.

Third, the opposite of life is not punishment, but DEATH. If you want to understand this passage in Mt. as a parallel, perhaps it is better understood in terms of the contrast that is elsewhere very commonly used with reference to the judgment – the second DEATH. THAT is what the eternal punishment is – it is not ongoing torment, unless you want to IMPORT that definition from the SYMBOLOGY of Revelation. Again, bad hermeneutic.

More to come in Part 2.