( From Chapter Six (Part 3B – The Final State ): The Judgment of God from Life, Death and Destiny)
THE FINAL STATE OF THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE WICKED
(b) Everlasting suffering. The most common view, at least since the great Augustine of Hippo,1 has been that the wicked will suffer forever, whether physically or spiritually or both. Apparently this view was first declared to be Church dogma at the Second Council of Constantinople in 533 A.D.2
This view has been argued on three main grounds.
(1) It has usually been assumed that the human soul or spirit is inherently immortal and indestructible, and that therefore the only conceivable alternative to everlasting life in bliss is everlasting life in suffering.
(2) It is often argued that annihilation hardly amounts to real or sufficient punishment at all, for unrepentant rebellion against an infinite God, and is both an insufficient deterrent to evil and an insufficient incentive to righteousness and mission.
(3) Scriptures such as the following are referred to: Mark 9:48; Matthew 8:12, 13:50, 18:8, 25:41-46; Luke 16:19-31; II Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 14:8-11 and 20:10.
These arguments are weak.
(1) As we have already argued at length, the Bible gives no support at all to the view that the soul or spirit is immortal. To quote yet another outstanding contemporary Bible scholar: “The immortality of the soul is a non-biblical doctrine derived from Greek philosophy. In biblical teaching, man is ‘conditionally immortal’ – that is, he has the possibility of becoming immortal if he receives resurrection or immortality as a gift from God. This would imply that God grants resurrection to those who love him, but those who resist him go out of existence” (i.e. after final judgment).3
(2) Annihilation is certainly not a negligible punishment. Capital punishment is usually regarded as the most extreme sanction open to a court and New Zealand, for example, has removed it from the statute books as being too severe. Well, annihilation, total extinction, is far more absolute!4 However, certainly even annihilation is not comparable in severity, as a penalty, to everlasting torment! Can any unprejudiced person seriously maintain that eternal torment is a more just and characteristic way for the Father of Jesus Christ to treat the wicked than literal destruction?
Furthermore, the threat of punishment is not our main reason to follow Christ. To argue so hardly does Him credit! We follow Christ because we have learned to love and trust Him, and because the God Jesus reveals, and His Kingdom, are infinitely precious, the one incomparable pearl beyond price.5
On the other hand, you cannot love or trust a God who is not just. The fact is, it is the extravagant theory of everlasting suffering, not annihilationism, that has brought the whole doctrine of the judgment of God into disrepute, driving some towards universalism and many away from God altogether, and stifling the proclamation of judgment as such. It has also given rise to the absurd but horrific popular conception, that hell is some kind of viable alternative to God’s Kingdom, presided over by the devil! “Whatever may have been the case in the past, in these days the doctrine of everlasting torment drives the unsaved further away from God, not to Him. And in practice it is very rare indeed that this doctrine, clearly stated, is made the instrument of an evangelistic appeal.”6
(3) In reality, there is no clear, explicit biblical support for eternal torment. We have already shown, in Chapter Four, that Luke 16:19-31 is irrelevant: in fact, it is not about the final state at all. The other texts will be discussed during the next two chapters. The true origin of the doctrine is to be found in pagan religion and philosophy.7 The pagan origin of the machinery in Dante’s Inferno, for example, is perfectly obvious to any alert reader.
However, one aspect of the case against eternal torment is worth pointing out here: those so-called universalist texts already referred to. “God…all in all,” says I Cor. 15:28; “a plan…to gather up all things in (Christ),” says Eph. 1:10; “God…pleased to reconcile to himself all things,” says Col. 1:20. How so, if the devil and the wicked continue in hell forever? “When Christ fills all in all and God is everything to everyone (Eph. 1:23, I Cor. 15:28), how is it conceivable that there shall be a section or realm of creation that does not belong to this fullness and by its very nature contradicts it?”8 “Only that which is worthy to live, that which is of God, can ultimately live, and if He is to be all in all, then all that is alien to His will must cease to be.”9
- 354-430 A.D. See The City of God, Bk 21.
- J. W. Wenham, The Goodness of God, London: I.V.P., 1974, p.28.
- Stephen Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus, p.198.
- Philip Larkin writes of
…specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with…. (In “Aubade”)
- Matt. 13:34-35.
- H. E. Guillebaud, The Righteous Judge, Taunton: Phoenix Press, n.d., p.48.
- See the observation by Bertrand Russell cited in my Introduction.
- P. E. Hughes, The True Image, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969, p.406.
- H. H. Rowley, The Relevance of Apocalyptic, London: Lutterworth Press, (1944) 1961, p.176.