Thanks, Shiloh for agreeing to this debate and thanks to everybody for setting it up for us.
I'll be arguing that the bible teaches that the fate of the unsaved is annihilation rather than eternal conscious torment. Here goes:
What is Annihilationism?
Annihilationism, also called Conditional Immortality or Conditionalism is the view that immortality is a gift from God given only to those who have been saved through belief in the death of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Those who are not saved will therefore not receive everlasting life and will be punished by death.
As such, we Annihilationists disagree with the Traditional view that says that everybody lives forever, the saved spending eternity in heaven and the unsaved experiencing eternal conscious torment.
This is where I see a lot of misrepresentation of the annihilationist view, where it is claimed that we believe the unsaved are “evaporated”, “zapped out of existence”, “ceasing to exist”, “disintegration” and such. While these definitions are understandable if one takes a narrow view of the word “annihilate”, in reality though, I simply believe that the unsaved will die, they will cease to live, they will no longer be alive.
We define death in the plain everyday use of the term and as such synonymous with the definition of annihilation meaning “ceasing to live”, “no longer being alive” and so on.
When I say my pet fish died, I am saying that it is no longer alive. When I’m saying that David killed Goliath and he is now dead, I’m saying that Goliath has ceased to live.
How do we define being alive?
Being alive, is a state in which a sometime is active, able to respond to its environment, aware, animated, capable of thought, capable of sensory perception, able to will, etc. As such this is the opposite of death. These are basic timeless, universally understood definitions of life and death that I’m assuming in my exploration of this doctrine.
I agree that metaphorical uses for words, as in “Pete has died, but he’s living on in our memories”, can happen but those instances are determined by their immediate literary context.
Let’s cover some rules of Bible interpretation that are relevant to this issue
Gen 41:4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke.
Literary Context/Genre is important in our interpretation of scripture. If we’re interpreting a dream or a vision wherein, say seven skinny cows happen to eat up seven fat cows, do we take it at face value or do we treat this part of the text as description of something seen in a dream which requires interpretation?
So the literary context/genre will drive our interpretation of what we read.
But what if we don’t agree with a specific word? Can we assign a spiritual meaning to it?
Unless a case is made that the context of that word requires a special theological meaning, we should assume the face value meaning. Even if a word can have multiple meanings in different contexts we cannot just pick the meaning from the total range of meanings a word has and apply it to a particular instance of the word.
There’s a technical term for this and it’s called, illegitimate totality transfer.
So while there may be some verses that might refer to “spiritual death” as a theological term, one cannot simply change the meaning of every instance of “death” to “spiritual death”. A case needs to be made from the context.
Interpret unclear passages according to clear passages not the other way around.
Joh 10:34 Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I said, you are gods'?
This is a rather obscure verse, and it’s just not good Bible study to ignore/reinterpret all the clear passages saying there’s only one God, in favour of this one passage saying people are gods. Instead we should interpret this passage in light of the clear teaching, not the other way around.
White coats on, it’s off to the lab to test the claims against the Bible.
If it is true that the fate of the unsaved is punishment by death and destruction, we should expect to find verses in the Bible that support this. Since another implication of the doctrine is that only one group of people gets to live to forever, we should also see this borne out in scripture.
Let’s explore the annihilationist case:
Gen 2:16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
Gen 3:19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Gen 3:22-23 …lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—" therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.
In the above verses we have a rule and a consequence for breaking this rule. The consequence is called death, and the death is described as returning to the ground from which you were taken.
Gen 3:22-23 is particularly relevant as well because we see God removing Adam and Eve’s access to the tree of life, and the reason given is, “lest they eat and live forever”.
The inescapable conclusion is that as a result of the fall, human beings are mortal, not immortal.
More verses that teach death/destruction for the unsaved.
Joh 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Mat 7:13-14 "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
1Jn 5:11-12 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
Jas 5:20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
2Ti 1:10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
Joh 10:27-28 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
Joh 6:47-51 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
Mat 10:28 And 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.
Now you might object saying “Wait a minute! You’re reading these verses as if they’re talking about ordinary life and death, aren’t they talking about spiritual death and everlasting life in the sense of union with God?” you may ask.
If you believe these verses aren’t talking about ordinary life and death, then a case needs to be made for reading them differently. Nothing about them seems to suggest that they should be interpreted in any way other than their everyday meaning.
I agree that we’ve been taught in Sunday school to think of “perishing” in John 3:16 as “going to hell” and “everlasting life” as “going to heaven”, but my point is that the verses don’t say that. Instead the verses say exactly what we would expect them to say if the fate of the unsaved was simply death.
Did Jesus die in our place or was he eternally tormented in our place?
If the punishment that we justly deserved was eternal conscious torment, then how is it that the Bible says Christ died in our place? Jesus didn’t spiritually die in our place, He was actually crucified, and confirmed dead by the thrust of a Roman spear. So too is His resurrection a bodily resurrection, the tomb was found empty, and Thomas saw the holes in His hands and the felt the wound in His side. The resurrection is our proof that Jesus has broken the curse.
Paul vividly describes the beautiful symmetry of the Gospel:
Rom 5:12-21 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection weren’t mere earthly symbols of some greater spiritual reality. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the reality. The reality that ordinary everyday tragic death that plagues our existence, brought about by sin, has been conquered by the Lamb slain in our place, and by His resurrection from death we can trust in that resurrection that our enemy, death, has been defeated.
1Co 15:53-57 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are mortal and we will see corruption, unless we partake in the gift of eternal life. This clearly contradicts the notion that everybody will life forever, either in heaven or in hell. The Gospel is a life and death matter, not a matter of where immortal being spent eternity.
Backfiring proof-texts for Eternal Conscious Torment
I believe most of classical proof-texts for Eternal Conscious Torment actually contradict the idea, when they are looked at carefully.
The flaw with the interpretation of these proof-texts are that, instead of being looked at through the lens of scripture and how their intended audience might have understood them, they are used as premises in logical inferences that seem to suggest eternal conscious torment.
Let’s look at them individually.
Mat 3:12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
What traditionalists do here is make logical inferences that look as follows:
1: The fire is unquenchable.
2: To be unquenchable is to burn forever.
3: To burn forever requires fuel that’ll last forever
4: It is the unsaved that fuels the fire
5: Therefore the unsaved will burn forever.
This is roughly the thought process that drives the belief that this is a proof-text for the traditionalist point of view. The problem is that premise 2 is a false premise, because this is not how “Unquenchable fire” is understood in Biblical language.
Let’s see if we can interpret the phrase in light of a clear passage elsewhere in scripture that might help us understand what the bible means by “unquenchable fire”:
Jer 17:27 But if ye will not hearken unto Me… then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.
Eze 20:47-48 … Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein. And all flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it: it shall not be quenched.
Scripture then, seems to define an unquenchable fire as a fire that cannot be stopped from completely devouring that which it burns. This aligns even with our English language use of the word “quench”, which means to put out a fire. It’s not a description of how long a fire burns.
So if we look at how the “unquenchable fire” is used in scripture, it seems to better support the Annihilationist view, which is of a fire that consumes and devours rather than merely tormenting that which it burns.
Mar 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. We’ve already covered unquenchable fire, but what about these pesky immortal worms?
Let’s look at the traditionalist inferences:
1: The worms don’t die
2: Worms that don’t die live forever
3: The worms are eating the unsaved
4: Therefore the unsaved are eaten forever
Let’s see if we can get some clarity on what’s going on here, by looking at the passage in the Old Testament that Jesus is quoting here:
Isa 66:24 And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.
The scene in Isaiah 66 depicts carcases being eaten by worms and being burnt up by fire. It’s not a picture of living souls being tormented by fires that burn forever and worms that never die.
The significance of the worms is rather interesting, because in Jewish culture it was considered shameful for a dead body to see decay. Bodies needed to be properly buried, not left out in the open to be devoured by scavengers, maggots and fire. The picture that Isaiah is describing, and which Jesus referencing is a picture of unstoppable decay and corruption.
We see a similar situation in Jeremiah:
Jer 7:33 And the carcases of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth; and none shall fray them away.
This time we have, not worms, but birds feeding on the dead bodies, and the description that there’ll be nobody to ‘shoo’ them away, and thus stopping the shameful consumption of these dead bodies.
We see the emphasis on not seeing decay clearly in the following Psalm:
Psa 16:9-11 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
This Psalm expresses David’s desire to be protected from his enemies, to not be dishonoured by having his body rotting on the battle field, but the psalm is also looking ahead to Christ whose body didn’t see decay and corruption but was risen on the third day, as we see here:
Act 2:31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.
So when Jesus is talking about the unsaved being burnt with unquenchable fire and eaten by worms that won’t die, he is simply saying that nothing will prevent the shameful destruction of the unsaved. The consumption of the bodies won’t be prematurely stopped by the death of the maggots, and the burning up won’t be prematurely stopped by quenching the fires.
Mat 25:41 "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.
Again this appears to speak of a fire that burns eternally if we construct inferences at the face value reading of words, but what if the eternal fire isn’t speaking about how long the fire burns but rather refers to the source of the fire, namely God, who is eternal?
If that were the case then we would expect to see an example of “eternal fire” referring to a situation where the fire doesn’t burn literally forever, wouldn’t we?
Here’s such an example:
Jud 1:7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
So, if we ask what a punishment by eternal fire looks like, we see that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah underwent punishment by eternal fire. Those fires aren’t still burning today, so they’re not eternal in the sense of burning eternally, instead they called eternal because God is eternal and He sent the fire. The biblical interpretation of eternal fire, seems to be like saying “divine fire”, or “heavenly fire”.
So we see Jesus calling the punishment of the unsaved, eternal fire, and we see in Jude that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as an example of punishment by eternal fire.
There’s an even more direct link between the fate of the ungodly and what took place at Sodom and Gomorrah and that is the following verse:
2Pe 2:6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;
So if we were to ask for an example in scripture on what will happen to the ungodly, this verse answers that question directly, and the answer is: extinction.
Eternal punishment vs Eternal Life
Apart from two verses in Revelation that I’ll discuss next, the following is probably the most quoted proof-text offered for the traditionalist view.
Mat 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Let’s look at two criteria that the verse sets for us:
Criterion 1: The righteous gets to live forever, and therefore it is implied that the other group does not.
Criterion 2: The punishment is eternal.
If our doctrine is to conform to this verse, it needs to meet the two criteria, right?
The traditionalist view fails to meet Criterion 1 because traditionalists believe that both the saved and the unsaved live forever, the only difference being where they spend eternity.
Only the Annihilationist can nod in agreement to both criteria. We believe that the unsaved will die, and Criterion 1, implies that clearly. We also believe the punishment of death, unlike the first death, is permanent. The unsaved will remain dead forever, and thus we can nod in agreement to criterion 2 as well.
Smoke Rising forever
Rev 14:11 And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.
One can understand why this verse is popular among traditionalists, because at face value it seems cut and dried. Here you have a description of beast worshippers, being described as having the smoke of their torment ascending forever.
The logical inference here is simple:
1: The smoke of their torment rises forever
2: Therefore the torment must be happing forever
Except that once more when we look at how this phrase is used elsewhere in scripture, it does not describe a scene of people being eternally tormented, but a scene of massive and total destruction.
Isa 34:9-12 And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever. But the cormorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl also and the raven shall dwell in it: and he shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones of emptiness. They shall call the nobles thereof to the kingdom, but none shall be there, and all her princes shall be nothing.
The images that John saw in his visions in Revelation consist entirely of images found the in Old Testament. It seems to me then that we cannot read these images in a vacuum without looking at their original use, and as with all the other images in the book of Revelation. When we do that though, we see Isaiah vividly describing the laying waste of a kingdom, where birds and reptiles roam former palaces, where owls nest, and carrion eaters like ravens dwell. It seems then that smoke rising forever, doesn’t mean what one might infer from a face-value reading, but a scenario where the destruction is total and final. Clearly this is not a scene of people being eternally, and consciously tormented.
Revelation 18 describes the harlot also being tormented with fire and the smoke of this torment is also described as going up forever. When John’s angelic interpreter interprets the vision for John however, the interpretation has nothing to do with torment. The Harlot symbolises the city of Babylon and her torment symbolizes her destruction.
Rev 18:21 And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.
So can we use this a key to decode the other things being tormented, in the Lake of fire? If something is tormented in the vision, then the interpretation is that it is being destroyed:
Rev 20:10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
We see, death and hades thrown into the lake of fire, and both Traditionalists and Annihilationists agree that this symbolizes the end of the underworld and the end of death itself.
We see the angelic interpreter himself interpret the symbol of torment in Revelation as the destruction of a city. We see, another symbol of the smoke of torment, also symbolizing destruction and the laying waste of a kingdom.
So when we see another instance of torment, this time the beast, the false prophet and the devil being thrown into the lake of fire and tormented in Revelation 20:10, do we conclude that this time the torment must be literal eternal torment or do we trust the consistency of the rest of Revelation and assume that this must mean the end of them?
How has God punished sin, thus far?
If prolonged torment is really the only just way to punish sins against an infinite God, as the argument goes, then why isn’t this justice reflected in God’s dealings with mankind throughout history?
God, has dealt consistently with sin, but the consistent consequence of sin has always been death, never once has it been torment of any length of time. There was corporal punishment in the Law of Moses but never sustained torture. In fact the number of stripes a man could receive were limited to forty (Deu. 25:3)
The most heinous of crimes however were always punished by death.
We see this consistency every time God’s patience with man’s wickedness grew thin. In the days of Noah, God dealt with sin by sending a flood which killed the wicked.
And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them."
As we’ve seen, when sin abounded in Sodom and Gomorrah God sent an angel who destroyed the city with fire, laying it to waste, killing everyone except lot. When Egypt oppressed God’s people, God sent plagues culminating in death of the first born not covered by the Lamb’s blood and finally Pharaoh’s entire army was drowned. When the Israelites made the golden calf in the desert, grieving God, God’s desire was to rid the earth of them.
Exo 32:10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you."
Further, God ordered the Canaanites to be killed by Israel when the measure of their wickedness was full, and God sent famines, calamities and warring armies against Israel when their wickedness was on the land.
And so on.
There is no lack of consistency in God’s dealings with sin, but the consistent consequence of sin throughout the Old Testament was never torment.
How does the Bible describe the end game? For one we see mankind once again reunited with the tree of life, but not all of mankind only those who have the right to enter into the Holy city.
Rev 22:14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.
What else do we see in God’s end game? We see the last enemy to be defeated is death and that all things are placed in subjection at Jesus’ feet.
1Co 15:24-28 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
How is it possible that the last enemy to be destroyed is death when nobody can actually die and instead both the saved as well as the unsaved enemies of God, live forever? How can all things be subjected to Jesus if every evil that has ever existed will keep existing eternally?
According to Annihilationism, God doesn’t merely quarantine evil, He gets rid of it. What remains are the real servants of God and they will be immortal having been given everlasting life.
So, given this view, the end game results in literally everybody submitting to God, and literally everybody living forever, because evil doesn’t exist anymore, as such these passages take on a much fuller meaning.
Annihilationists are often said to be “changing the plain meaning of the text”. I think, those who say this demonstrate an ignorance of their own interpretive process.
Any biblical doctrine will encounter some verses requiring harmonizing.
Annihilationists read “forever tormented” in Revelation 20:10 and we interpret it as meaning “destruction” and we give reasons why. Likewise Traditionalists read “destruction” in Matthew 7:13 and they interpret it as meaning “forever tormented” and they, in turn, need to give reasons why.
It is the quality of these reasons that should determine where one falls on this issue. I have no reasons to doubt a face value reading of the many passages in scripture that describe the fate of the unsaved as death, perishing, destruction, and that describe immortality as a gift for the saved alone.