(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: eternal destruction and 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!
What Jesus accomplished on the cross was “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”.17 And this was through His death “once for all”,18 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!
In both Testaments, the destiny of the godless is repeatedly defined, by means of the most emphatic terms at the writers’ disposal, as destruction. Not only do the words themselves signify literal destruction, but the contexts often place that interpretation beyond dispute.
(a) The Old Testament. A standard modern lexicon, here, is that of W. L. Holladay, based on the German work of Koehler and Baumgartner. That is the source of the definitions given in quotation marks in the following survey.19
To begin with, there is the Hebrew word kalah: “to complete, finish: destroy, exterminate; use up, exhaust, bring to an end”. It is translated “consume” in Isaiah 1:28 and Ps. 59:13. The Psalmist leaves no doubt as to the outcome envisaged: “Consume them until they are no more”! A seminal Old Testament passage on Judgment Day is Zephaniah chapter 1. In Zeph. 1:18, we find that, on that Day of the Lord, “a full, a terrible end will he make (kalah) of all the inhabitants of the earth.”
The word translated “consume” in Ps. 104:35 is a different verb, but the meaning is equally certain. The word is tamam: “to be finished, completed, used up, spent, gone, annihilated”. The context puts the point beyond doubt: the wicked will “be no more”:
Let sinners be consumed (tamam) from the earth
and let the wicked be no more.
Another verb is machah: “to wipe out, destroy”. It is used of what happened to the victims of the Flood, in Gen. 6:7, 7:4. Psalm 9:5-6 uses it of the final destiny of the wicked: “You (God) have blotted out (machah) their name forever and ever.”
In Psalm 92:7, as in Psalm 145:20, the root word is shamach: “to exterminate”: “they are doomed to destruction (i.e. extermination) forever”. Yes, the word “forever” is used here, but it is very clear that it is the effect of the destruction, not the process of destroying, that lasts forever. This is a vital point of interpretation, as we shall see when we come to II Thessalonians 1:9. Psalm 52:5 teaches the same thing by means of yet another verb, nathats: “to tear down, break up, demolish”: “But God will break you down forever.”
However, the most common verb of all in this connection is ‘abhadh: “to become lost (property, etc.), perish, be ruined; destroy, exterminate.” This is what happens to burned up idols (II Kings 19:18)! Some 40 times it is used of ordinary death and killing. For example, Esther 9:6 says: “In the citadel of Susa the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred people.” And this word is often used of the end of the wicked: e.g. Judges 5:31, Ps. 1:6, Ps. 9:5. Psalm 73:27 says:
Indeed, those who are far from you will perish (abhadh);
you put an end to those who are false to you.
Note how the second line serves to define the meaning in this context: “destroy” means “put an end to”. Similarly, vivid associated similes in Job 20:7-8 and Ps. 68:2 leave absolutely no doubt what is meant. Job 20:7:
they will perish forever like their own dung;
those who have seen them will say, “Where are they?”
Notice again the use of “forever” to refer to the effect, not the process, of destruction. Isaiah 41:11-12:
those who strive against you (God)
shall be as nothing and shall perish (abhadh).
Notice what is the effect of being destroyed, or perishing, according to this verse: it is to “be as nothing”.
It is amazing how often the claim is made, by advocates of eternal torment, that Scripture never refers exactly to the annihilation of the wicked. This is simply not true. We have already quoted Ps. 59:13, Ps. 104:35 and Is. 41:12. What of Proverbs 10:25 (“the wicked are no more”) and Obadiah 16 (“they…shall be as though they had never been”)? And what do the similes in Hosea 13:3 mean, but extinction?
Therefore they shall be like the morning mist
or like the dew that goes away early,
like chaff that swirls from the threshing floor
or like smoke from a window.
As Hughes observes: “What God has brought into being he can also destroy.”
- 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.
- Hebrews 2:17; compare Rom. 3:25.
- Hebrews 7:27, 9:25-26, 10:10; compare I Peter 3:18.
- W. L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1971.