(From Chapter Seven (Part 1A – The Final State): The Judgment of God from Life, Death and Destiny)
In the Bible, the final state of those who reject God is described in a variety of ways. However, all of these amount to the same thing in the end: rejection by God and extinction forever. On these points, the biblical witness is both abundant and consistent, and the case is surely overwhelming. In this chapter and the next, the biblical material will be summarised.
Sinners, says Scripture, will die. In regard to their ultimate destiny, the normal words for death are used, in both Testaments, from Genesis 2:17 to Revelation 21:8. There is never any indication that this “death” is not to be taken literally, but to be understood as life in a state of suffering. On the contrary, the normal meaning is presupposed: deprivation of life: “…God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life…”.1
(1) The Old (Hebrew) Testament. In many Hebrew texts, threats of judgment do not relate unequivocally to judgment at the last day, so much as to judgments within history. Nevertheless, taking all this fully into account, the witness of the Old Testament is still clear: the ultimate penalty for sin is death.
Genesis 2:17 is classical: “…in the day that you eat of it (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) you shall die.” Here, “in the day” is a judicial phrase indicating, not the time of death, but its inevitability in the event of sin.2 In his major study of the biblical doctrine of humanity, Philip Hughes observes: “There is no suggestion that a part of him [i.e. Adam] was undying and therefore that his dying would be in part only.” And again: “It would be hard to imagine a concept more confusing than that of death which means existing endlessly without the power of dying.”3
The great seventeenth century British philosopher John Locke long ago observed: “…it seems a strange way of understanding a law, which requires the plainest and directest words, that by death should be meant eternal life in misery…. I must confess that by death here I can understand nothing but a ceasing to be, the losing of all actions of life and sense.”4
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 agrees:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.5
The alternatives God sets before mankind here are “life” and “death”, and this is confirmed regularly (e.g. Prov. 8:36, 11:19; etc). Ezekiel 18 is a precise, painstaking, priestly definition of the principles of God’s justice (v29). Again, the alternatives are life and death: “The person (Hebrew nephesh) who sins shall die” (4, 20); the unrepentant sinner “shall surely die” (13, 18, 24, 26).
(2) The New (Greek) Testament. This teaching is confirmed repeatedly. The alternative to “eternal life”, again, is death:
For the wages of sin is death,
But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. 6
…sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.7
Chapters 1 to 3 of Romans is the most careful exposition of God’s government of humanity in all of Scripture. What is it that sinners, by God’s decree, deserve? Death (1:32). And to Paul, as to Ezekiel, this justice of God is immediately intelligible to the human conscience: “They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die”.8 By contrast, those who seek to justify the doctrine of eternal torment, usually find it necessary to introduce all manner of special pleading, to explain that we cannot measure God’s justice by human standards.
No biblical book is less restrained in condemning the wicked than Revelation! So it is particularly significant that here, too, their final fate is referred to as “the second death” (2:11, 20:6). This, explains John the seer, is the meaning of “the lake of fire”: it is “the second death” (20:14, 21:8). As in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, the alternatives are still: death, or “the tree of life” (Gen. 2:9, 3:22-23; Rev. 22:2, 19).
In fact, the insight that death is the penalty for sin decreed by God is central to both Old and New Testaments. It is only on this basis that the whole biblical doctrine of atonement through sacrifice makes sense. It is through the taking or surrender of life, in death, that atonement is made for sin: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood;…as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.”9 Commenting on the system of sacrifices detailed from Exodus to Deuteronomy, John Hartley observes, “It needs to be underscored that the sacrificial system loudly proclaims that the penalty of sin is death.”10 By the same token, according to Isaiah it is through death that the Lord’s chosen Servant atones for our sin: “…he poured out himself to death…he bore the sin of many….”11
Accordingly, it is the consistent teaching of virtually the entire New Testament, that in His death Jesus Christ bore the penalty for human sin. Jesus Himself claimed to have come “to give his life a ransom for many”12 and spoke of His “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”13 According to Paul, it is “of first importance” that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures….”14 What Jesus accomplished on the cross was “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”.15 And this was through His death “once for all”,16 certainly not through any committal to everlasting torment! All this then, the redemptive core of the Christian Gospel, can only be true, if in fact “the wages of sin is death”, not everlasting suffering!
- Rev. 22:19; compare Gen. 3:19, 22-23. [↩]
- Compare Ex. 10:28, I Kings 2:37. [↩]
- P. E. Hughes, The True Image, pp.400, 403. On pp.400-407, Hughes powerfully advocates the annihilationist view and presents eleven arguments in support. [↩]
- John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, cited in A. Eyre, The Protesters, Birmingham: The Christadelphians, 1975, p.141. [↩]
- Deuteronomy 30:19. [↩]
- Rom. 6:23; compare 5:12. [↩]
- James 1:15; compare 5:20. [↩]
- Rom. 1:32; compare Ezek. 18:25-29. [↩]
- Leviticus 17:11. [↩]
- John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Dallas: Word Books, 1992, p.65. [↩]
- Isaiah 53:12. [↩]
- Matthew 20:28. [↩]
- Matthew 26:28. [↩]
- I Corinthians 15:3. [↩]
- Hebrews 2:17; compare Rom. 3:25. [↩]
- Hebrews 7:27, 9:25-26, 10:10; compare I Peter 3:18. [↩]