Looking To The Future Through The Lens
Having experienced one example of using the purpose of God as an interpretive lens ( See The Eternal Purpose Of God: Part 2 ), we look at the important teachings related to the ultimate end of unrepentant wicked people. We will not take an exhaustive view of scripture like Edward Fudge in The Fire That Consumes. Instead, we’ll consider the ideas of the three major teachings through a few verses that encapsulate each view, and then apply the “purpose test” to see the likely interpretation.
Before we begin, I recognize that among sincere Bible-believing Christians there is room for disagreement on the interpretation of these matters. We are called to constructively dialog in love, and not to tear one another down personally or otherwise behave unproductively. I want to
invoke the gracious spirit of Edward Fudge, who began The Fire That Consumes with:
“We begin with the reminder that we are all part of a great family of faith, and that our study is part of a larger ongoing family conversation. Because we are talking to family members, it is important for us to forbear making personal accusations or judging the motives of others in the conversation.”1
If you’re a fellow follower of God through Christ, we’re in the same family regardless of how we see these issues. That’s not to say they aren’t important; on the contrary, misunderstanding them impacts whether many people receive the gospel message. It just means it’s important to be gracious, kind, and respectful when we disagree.
The three major views regarding the ultimate end of the wicked are typically called Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and Universalism. The rethinkinghell.com website has a great triangular diagram that describes the relationship between the three views; I recommend that everyone visit the site and see the diagram and all of the other top-notch resources. My brief description of each view follows:
- Traditionalism: Endless Conscious Torment is the current, popular view. Historically it has been the majority view. It teaches that the wicked will be punished in hell consciously for an endless eternity without possibility of either cessation of existence or redemption. Fudge’s label of the traditional view is “a fire that torments.”
- Universalism: Universal Reconciliation is the view that ultimately, through some process of redemption after death, every person who has ever lived will ultimately receive the gift of eternal life in heaven with God. Advocates of this teaching offer various mechanisms for
purification. Fudge calls this view of hell “a fire the purifies.”
- Annihilationism: Conditional Immortality states that only God possesses immortality, and that eternal life is a gift given only to the redeemed. Therefore, at the time of final judgment, everyone will be raised, and the unrepentant wicked will be punished ultimately with death, meaning complete loss of all conscience existence. In Fudge’s words, hell is “a fire that consumes.” This is the view advocated in The Fire That Consumes and what I believe to be Biblical.
Focus on Traditionalism
As we consider the traditional view of endless conscious torment for the lost, let’s choose one of the primary verses often cited by traditionalists in support of their position:
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; … These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)
As Chris Date so clearly articulates in an October, 2012 article, the nature of eternal punishment here does not2 necessarily specify the nature of the punishment, or the length of time that the accursed ones will be conscious while punished. Taken on its own, it could either support the idea that the punishment is everlasting torture, or that it is an actual death that results in cessation of existence that lasts forever.
Fudge comprehensively makes the case in The Fire That Consumes that the Bible teaches the ultimate death of the wicked, so I won’t do that here. My goal is to present the application of God’s eternal purpose to the idea of eternal conscious torment in general, starting with this verse as one example.
Since “eternal punishment,” when considered in this isolated verse could go either the way of traditionalism or annihilationism, how can our understanding of the eternal purpose of God shine a helpful light? First, recall that God’s eternal purpose is to spend eternity with those who have freely chosen to love Him and accept His gracious gift of eternal life on His terms. Implied in this purpose is that he doesn’t want to spend eternity with the wicked. Instead, the Bible says He wants to completely eradicate evil (Psalm 37:10, 2 Peter 3:7). When God remakes the world as described in II Peter 3 and Revelation 22, it will be after destroying evil from the universe.
If the wicked are conscious, then God would be present with them in some sense. No actual separation from God is possible, because life comes from Him alone. Psalm 139:7-8 says, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there,” and Acts 17:28 adds “in Him we live and move and exist.” God is the sustainer of life, so any conscious activity is due to God’s sustaining power. It is at God’s pleasure that anything lives in any state, and once God is no longer pleased to sustain a life, it is no more.
It does not serve God’s eternal purpose to keep the wicked alive forever for the purpose of tormenting them. Therefore, in Matthew 25:46, the eternal punishment must be a literal ceasing of existence, a real death that ends consciousness with no possibility of another resurrection—a capital punishment. Since the result of this penalty lasts forever, it is correctly spoken of as “eternal punishment.”
Focus on Universalism
The doctrine of universalism is, in my mind, much more difficult to find in the Bible. One of the verses listed in a November 2012 article by Joseph Dear on rethinkinghell.com3 refuting universalism listed this verse as one that is used by universalists in support of their view: “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). A universalist interpretation of this verse is that “every knee” and “every tongue” refers to all people who have ever lived, and that they ultimately submit to the Lordship of Christ in eternity, possibly after some period of purification.
Exegetically, it seems to me that you’d first have to completely erase the language of justice, judgment, perishing, destruction, and the second death from the scriptures to support this view. Edward Fudge’s 1984 article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, entitled “The
Final End of the Wicked,”4 includes this summary:
The wicked will become like a vessel broken to pieces (Ps 2:9), ashes trodden underfoot (Mai 4:3), smoke that vanishes (Ps 37:20), chaff carried away by the wind (1:4), a slug that melts (58:8), straw that is burned (Isa 1:31), thorns and stubble in the fire (33:12), wax that melts (Ps 68:2) or a dream that vanishes (73:20).
Fudge’s article shows that the Bible teaches the wicked are no more. But even if we just take Philippians 2:10-11 on its own, can we use our understanding of the eternal purpose of God to evaluate its meaning and the overall plausibility of universalism?
We certainly can. Let’s start with the Philippians 2:10. Who is intended by “every knee shall bow”? Is it every person who has ever lived, or just every person left after the judgment and destruction of the wicked? If God’s eternal purpose in creating the world was to spend eternity with those who freely choose to love Him and His ways, it could actually go either way. The wicked may bow to Jesus at the judgment, not in reverence, but in humiliation and grudging surrender. This would not lead to salvation, but the simple recognition that they were wrong, and their punishment is just. If only the righteous literally bow their knees, the wicked could be considered to have submitted by having no choice but to surrender to the justice of the King of Kings. God’s purpose is served by either way.
In the larger sense, universalism fails the purpose test by completely invalidating the whole earth episode. God has specifically constructed the world to give people true freedom to either choose to accept or reject him. In this world, some people can look at the information in DNA code and see the hand of God clearly, while others see the same data and remain atheistic. This is by God’s design; people are free in this environment to choose to love their Maker, or reject Him.
Every intervention of God to reveal Himself to people and call us back to Him has been through real-world events. The Flood, the plagues of Egypt, the establishment of Israel, the subsequent judgment of Israel, the prophesies of Christ, and His ultimate birth, death, burial, and resurrection, each of these events occurred in our real world. With God’s grace continually calling people through His earthly interventions, we see how much He values this environment and the fruit it will produce.
If there is a post-death period of cleansing, purification, and surrender to God, why would God go to all of the trouble to make the world as it is, with the potential for horrible evil? If people can repent after seeing Him as He is, why not skip the pain, sickness, loss, and death and go straight to the creation of the end goal? There would be no purpose for the earth episode if God intends to save everyone after living here, regardless of how they lived.
In addition, universalism removes actual freedom to choose from the purpose of God. In the eternal realm after the resurrection, everyone will see God as He is (Isaiah 6). In that environment, all freedom to choose is removed. The overwhelming awesomeness of God will be so compelling that it would override any true intentions of a person’s heart. It would be like holding a gun to someone’s head and asking them to do to something—real freedom cannot be exercised under these conditions.
God saves us through our lives on earth because there is so much value in the fruit of the character crafted through our earthly existence. We seek because we have to; God is not personally and directly visible. However, He constantly works to call and reconcile as many as will receive Him. Parables like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15 speak to God’s tireless work to do all He can to reconcile everyone to Himself, everything except overwhelming our freedom to choose.
Universalism does not achieve the eternal purpose of God because a post-death repentance would be tainted by seeing God in His glory, having overridden real freedom. It likewise invalidates the purpose God has stated for creating the world in the first place. Now, if I’m wrong and there is a way to save everyone in God’s eternal plan, I certainly will not be disappointed. If God ends up saving everyone who has ever lived, or even just a few post-death repenters, I’ll be grateful and celebrate eternally with them. I simply cannot teach Universalism now, because I am constrained by the Bible as the authoritative source of truth about these matters. We are warned of the dangers of speculations (Romans 1:21, 1 Timothy 1:14, 2 Timothy 2:23). The only firm ground we have for interpreting eternal things is by carefully and consistently studying the Bible.
As I said earlier, I am in agreement with Edward Fudge’s interpretation of scripture and see that the end of the wicked is their ultimate and total destruction. One of the clearest verses on the subject is also one of the most familiar to most believers: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The simplest description of the eternal fate of both the saved and the lost is contained here. The saved are given the gift of eternal life, and the lost perish, meaning they are no longer alive in any conscious sense.
John 3:16 summarizes the eternal purpose of God as well. Because of God’s great love for the world, meaning the people He has created on this planet, He gave His Son, Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Jesus was to accomplish His eternal purpose: to provide a way for everyone, Jew or Gentile (Romans 2:9-11), to freely choose to believe in Christ, meaning to listen to His teachings and as a result, trust and follow Him to God. This accomplishes God’s eternal purpose.
The Bible says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), and I certainly do not relish the idea that there will be many people who will ultimately perish. My heart’s desire is that all should be saved (Romans 10:1), and that is why I am compelled to teach these things with clarity. God’s goal, to have a people who really love Him in response to His love includes the potential for evil, along with all of its consequences. Like God, we hate evil and its consequences because it ultimately ends up killing people. But the goal, God’s eternal purpose, has such immense value that it’s worth it all.
And in the scope of eternity, graciously ending the short life of a person who is ultimately unwilling to accept God’s gracious offer of eternal life following a just punishment is the most loving and wise course of action for God to take. God’s children, those who will share eternity with Him, will enjoy unending time in loving relationship with their Creator. Everything associated with the consequences of evil in our world will be gone (Revelation 21:4), including sickness, sadness, and death. In that time, all of God’s children will agree and approve of what He has done, and see that it was the best plan imaginable, accomplishing the greatest good.
We live in a real world, made by the almighty God, who has declared His loving purpose to us through the Bible. Everything God has done, is doing, and will do in the world has this purpose in view.
The opening passage in the introduction, Ephesians 3:8-12, contains this incredible clause: “so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places…” Do you see? God’s eternal purpose is revealed through the church (not a building, but the group of people who are God’s children) to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” This means that through the era of the earth, and specifically through those who love God and His ways, God is teaching something to the entire universe, to angelic beings, to other beings in the unseen realm. Paul is slightly pulling back a curtain here to reveal that God’s eternal purpose may have more to it than just a benefit to people in this world.
It could be that through the earth episode, God’s wisdom is demonstrating lessons that we cannot fully comprehend on this side of the revelation of all things.
I’ve found the eternal purpose of God to be an insightful, Biblical model for understanding many things, including the eternal destiny of those who reject God in this life. Even beyond understanding doctrine, I’ve found my heart challenged to ask the question: do I love God’s purpose? Am I the kind of person who loves what God loves and approves of it? Do I want His kingdom to come? Do people find themselves drawn to fulfill God’s eternal purpose after interacting with me?
I hope that in considering the eternal purpose of God, you also will have a new context from which to evaluate the truths of scripture and the world in general. Many important questions have more clarity when considered under the light of God’s purpose. May God grant you a greater
understanding of His purpose and great fruitfulness in leading others to understand and embrace God’s loving, gracious, and wonderful plans for our lives.
- The Fire That Consumes, Edward w. Fudge, p. 15 [↩]
- http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/clearly-wrong-about-hell-a-response-to-t-kurt-jaros/ [↩]
- www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/the-bible-doesnt-teach-universalism-a-response-to-jason-pratt [↩]
- edwardfudge.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/JETS_final_end_wicked.pdf [↩]