Craig versus Annihilationism
Jefferson Vann explains why utilizing Old Testament prototypes in search of the biblical doctrine of hell is not “bad hermeneutics.”
In a recently published article on William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith blog, a reader asked why the Old Testament prototypes of hell seem to be ignored by those like Craig who teach that it will involve eternal torment. After all, the flood did not torment its victims forever. It drowned them. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were not tormented perpetually, they were destroyed.
Craig’s response was:
…it’s just bad hermeneutics to take Old Testament “prototypes” as the interpretive key to New Testament doctrine on the state of the damned after death. You risk imposing some accidental feature of those stories onto New Testament teaching, which may be contrary to that feature. These Old Testament judgments of people of course involve destruction of the people concerned in the sense of the termination of their earthly lives, lest they still be around today, somehow preserved through the centuries in prisonhouses in Palestine! Moreover, what these prototypes essentially involve is the death of the persons judged, and the New Testament doctrine of everlasting torment involves exactly the same thing.”1
Dr. Craig’s response makes a number of implications which are important to flesh out in terms of their specifics. I will attempt to do that, and then make counter arguments to defend conditionalism in general, and its approach to the Old Testament.
Dr. Craig implies that conditionalism utilizes bad hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is a set of principles that govern the proper interpretation of a text. The principles apply to any text, not just biblical texts, but some of those principles have evolved specifically due to the unique nature of canonical scripture. One of those hermeneutical principles is called progressive revelation.
This principle teaches that the doctrines of scripture are taught more clearly in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. Thus, we can understand doctrines relating to the nature of God, humanity, sin, salvation the church and the last things better after reading the New Testament than if we only read the Old.
Craig implies that the New Testament adds significant content to the biblical doctrine of hell. He also implies that conditionalism misses the mark because we ignore this new revelation. For this implication to be accurate, two things have to be true. First, the Old Testament statements about the final state of the lost must have sufficient wiggle room to allow for eternal conscious torment. Secondly, the New Testament statements must clearly teach this new doctrinal understanding, and refute any previous inferences.
For Craig, the destruction aspect of God’s punishment prototypes in the Old Testament is an “accidental feature.”
He concludes that the significance of God’s punishment of the reprobate in Genesis— the flood victims and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah — is that both were killed. He then concludes that sinners will be killed as their final punishment, but in both cases the judged will continue to exist.
The best way to evaluate such conclusions is to see how they match what the New Testament says when referring to those Old Testament prototypes.
What the New Testament says when referring to those Old Testament prototypes
Matthew 24:37-42 (CSB)
37 “As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 38 “For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark. 39 “They didn’t know until the flood came and swept them all away. This is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be. 40 “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 “Two women will be grinding grain with a hand mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 “Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming.
Jesus used the word “taken” (paralambano) to refer to one fate, and “left” (afiemi) to refer to another, but scholars have debated which of these verbs actually refers to punishment and which refers to salvation. The ones taken could be rescued, or their lives could be taken in judgment. The ones left could be survivors of judgment, or they could be abandoned to it. Regardless of how one interprets this text, however, it is hard to justify Craig’s conclusion that destruction is a merely accidental feature.
Luke 17:27 (CSB)
“People went on eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the day Noah boarded the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.
The destruction aspect is the clearest feature of this Old Testament prototype according to its New Testament interpreter!
2 Peter 2:5-6 (CSB)
5 and if he didn’t spare the ancient world, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others, when he brought the flood on the world of the ungodly; 6 and if he reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes and condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is coming to the ungodly;
Peter links both of the prototypes in question and specifically tells us that the saved will be rescued from the coming punishment, and what that punishment will be. Like the inhabitants of Sodom, the lost will be reduced to ashes (tefroo). The word means to incinerate something with fire until it is nothing but ashes. Like Sodom, the lost will be condemned to extinction (katastrophe). Any English reader can see the link between this word and our English catastrophe and catastrophic. These words refer to events which destroy people and property on a massive scale. Therefore, Craig’s conclusion that destruction is an accidental feature of the prototypes is shown to be fallacious.
For Craig, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 makes a clear doctrinal statement of eternal conscious torment.
Craig sees eternal torment so unmistakably in this verse that he is forced to look back at the Old Testament prototypes and read eternal torment into them.
An examination of the verse in its context will show that it is in complete agreement with the Old Testament teaching that the lost will be destroyed.
2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 (KJV)
9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; 10 When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed ) in that day.
Paul’s reference at the end of verse 10 is especially significant because it sets the calendar date for the event he is describing. Whatever he is talking about is going to happen in that day (en te hemera ekeine). He refers, of course, to the coming of Christ. The punishment referred to in verse 9 will be meted out on the date set in verse 10. Craig (and other proponents of eternal conscious torment) ignore this aspect of the statement. They are so brainwashed into seeing a never ending process of final punishment in verse 9 that they fail to see that Paul is describing an event that will take place on a single day — judgment day.
It is possible for a fate to be everlasting (the KJV word for aionios here) without being perpetual. The punishment of everlasting destruction can be (and will be) a destruction that will last forever. It is possible for that punishment to be meted out in a single day. It is not possible for a punishment of perpetual torment to be meted out in a single day. It would take an eternity of punishing. Paul does not describe a never ending process. If he had meant to do so, he could have used a participle form of a verb like basanizo (Matthew 8:29), and the adverb for perpetual (which never appears in the New Testament). Instead, he uses a noun signifying a destruction event (olethros). In his previous letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had used that word:
1 Thessalonians 5:2-3 (CSB)
2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “Peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
Destruction that is both sudden and permanent requires an event that is unforeseen and that will produce a permanent (aionios) result. But that is Paul’s point. The people who are persecuting the Thessalonian Christians will suddenly be destroyed. The Thessalonian Christians will be victorious because Christ himself will intervene. One can get a great deal of homiletical mileage out of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 without inferring a new doctrine of eternal conscious torment from it.
I have mentioned in the previous article that some versions mistranslate the verse by reading the genitives as ablatives. The suffixes of the words would be identical, so the reader would have to discern from the context whether Paul was referring to destruction from the Lord (genitive) of away from the Lord (ablative). I maintain that the context makes it certain that Paul was using the words in their genitive sense— that he was talking about punishment coming from the Lord rather than punishment resulting in separation from the Lord.
The following versions agree with my assessment:
- Christian Standard Bible
- King James Version
- New King James Version
- American Standard Version
- Young’s Literal Translation
- Darby’s Translation
- Webster’s Translation
- The Bible in Basic English
There are four significant modern versions which translate the text as ablative. These are:
- English Standard Version (ESV)
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
- New Living Translation (NLT)
They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power.
- New American Standard Bible (NASB)
These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,
- New English Translation (NET)
They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength,
Proper exegesis does not consist of simply choosing which version one likes the best. To best read the text, one has to be aware of the theology of the text in its context. The theological setting of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 contains these elements:
- A present suffering church
- A coming Savior who will rescue the church
- A coming Savior who will punish those who are persecuting the church.
Given that context, it is more probable that Paul was referring to the coming of Christ as the source of the church’s rescue. Also, that interpretation does not involve the addition of new theology. Paul had previously written the Thessalonians a letter which outlined this eschatology:
- Jesus is coming to rescue believers from the coming wrath (1:10).
- The Thessalonian Christians will be Paul’s joy and crown of boasting when Jesus comes (2:19).
- Paul prayed for the sanctification of the Thessalonians, that God would make them blameless in holiness at Christ’s coming (3:13; 5:23).
- Jesus will raise those who have fallen asleep (died) in him when he comes (4:14).
- Jesus will catch up the living believers in the air when he comes (4:17).
- Jesus will suddenly destroy unbelievers when he comes (5:3).
- God has appointed believers to obtain salvation, not to suffer this coming wrath (5:9).
What we do not find anywhere in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is mention of any perpetual torment of the lost. Paul had taught that they will experience wrath and destruction— the very things he refers to again in 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
Craig sees a new theological revelation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 — a revelation that God will never really be able to destroy his enemies. He reads into the text a process of punishment that can never end. As a result, all the biblical theology in both Testaments which clearly teach destruction of the wicked will have to be revised. The significance of those Old Testament prototypes will have to be minimized.
Conditionalism, on the other hand, looks at the whole of God’s revelation in scripture and sees a constant and consistent message. It is a message about a God who loves the universe he created too much to allow evil to exist in it forever. It is a message about a God who is strong enough and glorious enough to put an end to this evil once and for all by permanently destroying it.
Hell is a difficult subject to teach about. We don’t like to think about such an event. But the good news about hell is precisely the thing which makes conditionalism so welcome. The good news about hell is that it is not God’s perpetual problem— a sore spot in his universe which must exist forever. Hell is not God’s problem; it is God’s solution. Hell will destroy all evil and render the universe free once again from its influence.