In “a little bird told me” Jefferson Vann responds to a recent article by Greg Morse. Jeff explains why conditionalists are not going to be convinced that the Bible teaches a perpetual hell.
On February 6, 2020, Greg Morse, staff writer for desiringGod.org, wrote a carefully crafted theological article1 defending the idea of a perpetual hell against objections from conditionalists. I suppose the purpose behind such an article is that its force of argumentation would suddenly cause all of us who believe in a hell of permanent destruction to repent of our shameful heresy. It does not. It will not. Here’s why.
1. Revelation 14:11 is not the final biblical description of hell.
Morse used Watson’s “little bird” illustration to depict a hell that is perpetual – a wrath from God that is so immense that even if it endured for billions of years it could not be sated. God must torture sinners, and it must go on forever. But the actual text which Morse uses to describe this perpetual process is Revelation 14:11. Should it occur to Morse to read on in the book of Revelation, he would find that horrible process actually coming to an end – the sky and land which contained that awful scene being wiped away:
- “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more.”2
When Morse argues that hell will never cease to exist, he is categorically denying that blessed truth: the truth that even God’s wrath is not the last word. God’s plan for eternity is a cleansed universe, not one which is forever blighted with sin and sinners.
2. There have always been biblical scholars who object to the concept of eternal conscious torment.
Morse asserted this himself when he quoted John Stott, stating that Stott was “one of the first notable evangelicals of the previous generation to contradict” his view. But even if Morse was generally correct that eternal conscious torment is the church’s view “overwhelmingly held over its two millennia” that is the weakest possible argument. What matters ultimately is not what the church has believed, but what God has said. Conditionalists have consistently argued that the popular view is wrong precisely because it has misread the scriptures.
3. God’s promised life is permanent, and God’s threatened death is permanent.
Morse does a pretty good summation of the argument that both heaven and hell are everlasting, and that means that neither one will ever cease. That argument would have some weight if what God was actually telling us about in his word was two places, and giving us the option as to which place we want to spend eternity in. But even though that is a popular understanding, it fails to reflect the actual message of scripture.
- “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”3
The two options John 3:16 reveals to us are not an eternity in a place called heaven, or an equal eternity in a place called hell. It is much more simple than that. It is perishing in permanent death or living forever in permanent life.
John used the Greek adjective αἰώνιος (aiōnios) to modify the word life by saying that it will not be temporary like the lives we live today. It will be permanent. But that permanence is promised only to the ones believing in the Son.
When describing hell, Paul also used the adjective αἰώνιος. Does that mean that hell is a perpetual process? No, αἰώνιος is not an adverb. Adjectives normally modify nouns, not verbs. So, what noun describing hell did Paul use αἰώνιος to modify?
- “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;”4
Paul’s descriptive noun for hell is destruction. That destruction will be permanent. That is the penalty for rejecting God’s grace. The wages of sin is not another form of eternal life. The wages of sin is death. The wages of Adam’s sin is temporary death, from which all will be resurrected when Christ comes. The wages of the unbeliever’s personal sin is a permanent death, from which there will be no resurrection. It is everlasting destruction.
4. Hell will be horrible, but it has to come to an end.
Morse argues that God’s punishment for sinners has to be a process that never comes to an end, because that is the nature of hell itself. He claims that we conditionalists are arguing uselessly when we talk about biblical terms like destruction, perishing and death. He claims that the language describing the punishment in hell requires it to be a never-ending place of anguish, torment, weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Conditionalists agree that hell will certainly be a place where people actually suffer anguish, torment, weeping and gnashing of teeth. We just choose to also believe (as the Bible also teaches) that it will ultimately come to an end. Destruction will actually happen there. People will actually perish. Those condemned to permanent death will actually permanently die. Those thrown into the fire will actually be burned up by that fire. How long it will take we do not know. But we tire at those who insist that they do know. We tire of those who insist that God created human beings with immortal souls who cannot die. We tire of those who insist that the nature of hell, or the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of humanity requires an endless duration of hell. It is just not the case.
Morse quotes his mentor – John Piper – who insists that hell can never come to an end because the unrepentant will always offend the dignity of God. So, he argues that God’s infinite holiness requires infinite torment in hell. But God’s infinite holiness did not require that Christ stay on the cross forever. His love sent Christ to the cross to die – to pay the actually price for our sin.
Morse misrepresents what Christ said about blasphemers who will not be forgiven (Mark 3:29), suggesting that their lack of forgiveness means that all sinners everywhere must endure an eternity of pain.
Those God does not forgive, he destroys. Morse quotes D. A. Carson, who wondered why “if people pay for their sins in hell before they are annihilated, they cannot be released into heaven, turning hell into purgatory.” The answer is that the pain that people suffer in hell is not the payment for sin. It is the side-effect of being destroyed. God’s penalty for sin is not torment. So, it is true that a person could hypothetically suffer for eternity and that suffering would not be enough to atone for their sin. But the reason that this is true does not have anything to do with the nature of God or human nature. The nature of hell5 itself is destruction, and no sinner can enter into hell without being destroyed by it.
5. The Lamb has died for us!
After an entire article in which he insisted that the wages of sin is eternal conscious torment, Morse finally gets back to the Bible and talks about the death of Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s offer of escape from the permanent punishment of hell. Our loving heavenly Father sent his holy sinless Son to pay the one price which will keep all believers from experiencing hell, no matter what it entails. We conditionalists can certainly agree with Morse on that point.
The Old Testament teaches that God has only two ways of dealing with sin. He either destroys the sinner, or accepts the atoning death of the sacrifice instead. So, it is strange to hear Morris say that Christ “endured, for us, the righteous judgment that would have been ours for eternity.” Christ did not have to go to a place called hell in order to be our righteous substitute. Christ went to a cross in Jerusalem. God’s sacrifice of his only Son was not sending him to experience perpetual torment. His mission was to die in our place.
- “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.”6
- “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”7
- “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;”8
That is why conditionalists are not going to be convinced that the Bible teaches a perpetual hell. We see hell in all its horrible reality, a destiny that awaits those who reject God’s offer of forgiveness and grace through his Son. But we do not see the Bible projecting the nature of hell into an infinity of time. We breathe in the fresh start of an eternity in which there is a new sky and land, where righteousness alone dwells, where the last enemy has been destroyed. Hell is not a futile task, taking a little bird billions of years to work at. All it will take is our Saviour’s word. He has promised to make everything new.
2 Revelation 21:1 NET.
3 John 3:16 NET.
4 2 Thessalonians 1:9 KJV.
5 I only use the word “hell” in reference to the final punishment Jesus mentioned in Matthew 10:28.
6 Romans 5:6 KJV.
7 Romans 5:8 KJV.
8 1 Corinthians 15:3 KJV.