An extract from the latest book “Hell No!” by Michael Bieleski
Paul used to be called Saul and he lived around the time of Jesus Christ. He was an enthusiastic Pharisee, who along with the Sadducees, formed the ruling Sanhedrin of the time. They were zealous for God, nation and the Law, although not necessarily in the right order.
Under Roman occupation, they resented troublemakers and the problems created by them and they certainly considered Jesus to be one. By betrayal and trickery they managed to have the Romans crucify Jesus, something they were not allowed to do.
Unfortunately for them, Jesus did not stay dead, and came back to life to rally his supporters. Of course, this was a great setback for the Scribes and the Pharisees who were more than a little upset.
They began persecuting these early Christians and by trickery and trumped up charges, found ways to secure their death and imprisonment as necessary. Saul was no exception and sought permission from the high priest to go to Damascus to round up some troublesome Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem.1
On the way, Saul encountered the risen Jesus in spectacular fashion. Temporarily losing his vision, he was taken in by the very Christians he sought to destroy. Saul became Paul, a zealous Christian and his letters to the early church eventually made a considerable contribution to the New Testament writings.
Given, that Paul’s writings formed a significant part of the New Testament, that he was knowledgeable and trained in the law and that he was zealous for the truth and his faith in Christ, we would be sure to have confidence in his teaching.
It is certain that the early Church considered his letters important. Paul covered a vast range of subjects; everything from Church governance to the treatment of slaves; from the Gifts of the Spirit to immorality; from the resurrection of the dead to giving; from the Lord’s supper to what one should eat; even circumcision. He had debates and disagreements with others and fiercely rebuked heresy, legalism and Church division. He was persecuted, imprisoned and beaten for proclaiming the gospel throughout Asia Minor, but he never wavered in his determination to tell others what he himself believed.
In particular, Paul was a gifted theologian. The book of Romans is a brilliant dissertation on sin and salvation. He carefully and logically described God’s anger against sinful humanity, God’s righteous judgment, God’s solution of righteousness through faith, the hope for man and life through the Spirit. If there was going to be anyone who was able to carefully articulate the concept of the everlasting torment of the unbelieving soul, it would have been Paul. If this was essential doctrine, we would expect to see clear and explicit teaching on the topic with frequent and solemn warnings.
What does Paul say about everlasting torment? Well…Paul actually says nothing. There are no passages in Paul’s writing that describe the everlasting torment of the wicked. He never used the word hell or referred to anything that might resemble the hell we know.
Wouldn’t we find this a little bit surprising if hell was such an important doctrine? Paul was committed to giving us the whole counsel of God.2 He exhorted the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” that had been taught.3 If the doctrine of hell was important, then why wasn’t it amongst the ‘traditions’ that had been taught?
Had Paul failed to tell us the whole counsel of God? Had he failed to pass on the important ‘traditions’? Had Paul believed that the eternal torment of the wicked was irrelevant to his theological purposes?
Perhaps he had assumed that everyone would understand what he meant when he used the word ‘judgment’, which he used about 6 times in the context of the Judgment of God, but without reference to any eternal torment.
However, this would seem a little strange given that Paul was very specific in his theology and he covered a range of significant topics essential to Christian faith and life. It would certainly seem important to ensure that fellow believers understood the implications of this doctrine and its importance in the proclamation of the Gospel. After all, the Gospel meant good news…and avoiding the eternal torments of hell would be good news. The doctrine would also be very useful as an attention grabber for would be converts. Who would not want to avoid the fires of hell and eternal suffering?
To understand Paul’s thinking we will have to dig a little deeper to gain insight into his perspective on the judgment of man. Firstly, it was clear that Paul expected there to be a judgment.4 This judgment would occur on a day of wrath when God would repay each according to one’s deeds. Those who sought to do good would be given eternal life, while the self-seeking would experience the wrath and fury of God.
Paul also clearly stated that there would be anguish and distress for everyone who did evil. However, it is important to note that the ‘anguish and distress’ in this context refers to the response to the actual act of Judgment. In other words, there is ‘anguish and distress’ because of the Judgment.5 Because there is anguish in the face of judgment, this does not really support the idea that the anguish means everlasting torment.
If Paul does not teach everlasting torment of the wicked, then we are faced with a problem. What happens to those who are being judged? Surely something bad must happen to them. For most Christians, the expectation has been that the wicked will face a never ending punishment of great and unpleasant dimensions. The reason for this is that many believe that man will exist after death as a ‘soul being’ who lives forever and therefore must experience some form of unpleasant forever.
The big problem with this is that Paul does not teach us that man is a ‘soul being’ that lives forever when he dies. He certainly never tells us that this after life ‘being’ lives on forever and ever in eternal torment. In fact, Paul’s teaching is contrary to our expectations about the punishment of souls in the hereafter.
To clarify these issues and explain Paul’s teaching, it is necessary to consider what happens to those who are promised everlasting life. To have everlasting life means that the believer is no longer subject to the penalty of death, because even though they die they will continue to live in the resurrection. In other words, they have immunity from everlasting death. By contrast, it is certain that the wicked are not going to inherit eternal life and will not share in this immunity from the judgment of death. Therefore, logic suggests that the opposite of eternal life is eternal death. It is this death that Paul describes as the end of the wicked.
For some, this is a difficult idea given that many have believed that man will be eternally tormented in a lake of fire. There are some reasons for the development of this idea which we won’t go into now. The important thing to note is that if the wicked faced an everlasting death, we would expect to see clear and explicit teaching from Paul on the relationship between sin and death. This death would be a necessary consequence for the wicked who could not live forever because eternal life was only offered to the righteous.
It should not be surprising then to note that Paul’s teaching clearly defines this link between sin and death. Death exists because of sin, and because of sin, man is subject to death. There is no distinction made by Paul that might indicate that anyone naturally survives this death. In addition, there is no explicit teaching from Paul that suggests that this death leads to everlasting conscious torment. Death is the great consequence for sin, while Eternal life is given to the righteous. For example, Paul stated that sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and because of this, death spread to all.6 He also said that the wages of sin was death, but the free gift of God was eternal life.7 There was no evidence that Paul thought this death would lead to everlasting conscious torment because sin led to death. In other words, Paul was consumed by the fact that death was the one and only consequence for sin that man faced (notwithstanding the possibility of the judgment and a second death).
Other words and phrases used by Paul support the idea that he believed death was the one major consequence of sin. For example, he said that those who did not know God and those who did not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus, would suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.8 It would be difficult to imagine that Paul believed eternal destruction meant everlasting torment. If he meant everlasting torment then eternal destruction was a confusing choice of words. However, destruction is likely to mean what it says. Those that do not believe or do not know God are destroyed. Therefore, the destruction of self is synonymous with the nature of death.
In Paul’s defense of the resurrection, he made the point that if there is no resurrection, then those that had already died in Christ had perished or been destroyed.9 His argument is based around the idea that man’s only hope is in the resurrection of the dead. In other words, when God raises us from the dead we get to live again. However, if there is no resurrection then we are not raised from the dead, and therefore we must have perished (or been destroyed).
Paul goes on to point out that as all die in Adam, so all would be made alive in Christ.10 Therefore, the resurrection of the righteous is God’s answer to the problem of death when those in Christ are made to live again with everlasting life. It is this everlasting life that gives them immortality or immunity from death by which they are able to avoid the destruction that the judgment of death brings.
Paul also makes the point that if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is futile and we are still in our sins.11 Paul’s argument means that if there were no resurrection, then there would be no solution for sin; if there is no solution for sin then there is no answer for death; if there is no answer for death, then destruction of self is the only credible conclusion – because as Paul says – the wages of sin was death.
However, a belief in eternal torment would require us to accept that Paul meant that if there were no resurrection, there would be no solution for sin, which would mean that we would all have to suffer forever. We would all have to suffer forever, because that would be the only remaining option if there were no resurrection. However it would be illogical and contradictory to Paul’s teaching to believe that the righteous would suffer forever because there is no resurrection. But the real point that Paul is making is that there is a resurrection by which we avoid the destruction that death brings and that is where our hope should lie.
Paul’s teaching also clearly describes this death as a physical consequence. For example, while he says that sin leads to death,12 this must be a physical death, because this idea is illustrated through Adam’s disobedience, whose actions led to death for all.13
There was no sense in Paul’s teaching that this might merely refer to a ‘spiritual death’ because we know that the curse on Adam and Eve was a physical death.14 The death of Adam and Eve must have been physical death because God defined death for Adam and Eve as the physical dissolution of self. They were told that because of their disobedience, they would return back to the elements from which they were made, and there was no reference to any potential future existence after this death. In other words, God was quite adamant that they would return to dust because they were made from dust. This was the punishment for man’s sin. This idea of the destruction of the body as the end of man supports Paul’s view of the destruction of those who do not know God.
The view that death meant the destruction of the body is strengthened by Paul’s teaching on the resurrection of an immortal and incorruptible body.15 The whole point to his teaching on the resurrection body was that it was not subject to corruption. It would no longer suffer the effects of aging or death. It now had immunity from death, and therefore the believer could safely enjoy eternal life. In fact, there was no existence for the believer until he was raised from the dead in a new and incorruptible body.
This last point might be difficult for some Christians to accept, which is probably due to the influence of Greek philosophical ideas about the immortality of the soul. Whereas many Christians would presume that man survives in an after death state awaiting the resurrection, Paul clearly explained that the resurrection into a new body is the mechanism by which we are fully saved.
There was no evidence in Paul’s teaching that suggested that he believed that man naturally survived death as a disembodied entity that waits for the resurrection. Such an idea would have contradicted his own teaching on the significance of the resurrection body as the means to avoiding corruption… death…. or destruction.
Jesus himself supports these ideas when he said that “just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.”16 In other words, we only have life when we are raised from the dead, and we are only raised from the dead when we are given new incorruptible bodies that are no longer subject to the corruption of physical death.
This line of reasoning is essential to our understanding of what happens to the wicked in death. If Paul and Jesus expected the believer to only have life when they were raised from the dead, then it is unlikely that the wicked are capable of surviving death in any shape or form. The whole point about the resurrection was not about avoiding death, but being raised from the dead. Even though Jesus died, he was raised back to life.
It would seem illogical and theologically dubious to expect the wicked to survive death in some form to be eternally tormented, when Paul has clearly explained that the resurrection from a place of being dead gives the righteous eternal life or immortality.17 While there was no teaching from Paul that explains that the wicked are able to survive death, the Bible does teach about a second resurrection for the purposes of judgment and a second death, but that is the subject of another chapter.
It is important to note that this resurrection of the dead is not an immediate after death experience. Uncle Harry is not in heaven looking down on his funeral casket as grieving relatives look on. And how do we know this? Paul taught that the resurrection is an end time event when everybody is brought to life in new bodies.18 In other words, everyone had been dead for a very long time and then bang…there we are…back alive again through the power of God. If the dead are brought back to life at the return of Christ, then they cannot have existed as conscious immortal souls in an afterlife death state.
The defeat of death through the resurrection is Paul’s great hope. This is because flesh and blood could not inherit the kingdom of God. The perishable could not inherit the imperishable. However, at the last trumpet when Christ returns, the dead will be raised imperishable into new immortal bodies and death will be swallowed up in victory.19 Therefore, immortality is given to the believer when they are raised in new bodies. Death is destroyed and no longer has any power. However, for the unbeliever, destruction or death must be the final consequence.
The end of death is God’s great victory. Jesus defeated death and we no longer need face its sting. It’s because Jesus defeated death that we have confidence and hope that we too like him will share in the resurrection life. It would be unusual to believe that Paul would focus on death as the consequence of sin and forget to tell us about everlasting torment.
In addition, because the solution for sin and death was immortality through Jesus Christ,20 it would seem that the wicked would also have to experience some form of immortality in order that they be subject to everlasting conscious torment. However, as you would expect, there is no evidence from Paul that suggests that he believed that God made the wicked immortal simply to ensure everlasting torment.
Other writers support Paul’s view of the destruction of the wicked. For example, Peter says that the present heavens and earth were being kept for the day of destruction of the godless by fire.21 In the same passage, Peter refers to the destruction of the wicked during the great flood. The parallelism of ideas suggests that Peter strongly believed that in both instances, the wicked were destroyed without possibility of some form of future continuous existence. The emphasis was on the destruction or the end of self as a punishment complete within itself. There was no expectation or clear and explicit teaching that described suffering in an afterlife state.
A little further on, Peter points out that the Lord was not willing that anyone should perish.22 The Greek tense requires the more passive voice and hence the use of perish. The wicked perish because they do not repent. However the word is the same word translated destroy in other passages. For example, James said that there is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy.23 There are only two options available. Either one is saved or one is destroyed, and the lawgiver is the judge who will determine either outcome.
Jesus also supports the idea of destruction for those that do not believe. In John 3:16 he says that those that believe in the Son will not perish but have everlasting life. Perish is used because the Greek form of the verb is in the passive mood; it means that the unbeliever is destroyed because they chose not to believe. Alternatively, the active voice would be translated destroyed, as in something destroyed something else. Regardless of which way the word is used, it means utter and complete destruction.
Importantly, we should notice the option of destruction or eternal life. These options are those to which Paul and others refer. Interestingly, the Good News Bible translated the word perish as ‘die’. Those that believe in the Son will not die but have everlasting life.
It would be difficult to think of a destruction that does not destroy something. It is unlikely that something is destroyed and yet continues to exist in some form or another. This is especially true when we consider the fact that Paul’s teaching that the wages of sin is death does not tell us anything else about what might happen to the wicked after death. If Paul did not teach about hell, eternal torment of the wicked and other such things, then why should we continue to insist on such things? However, to ensure that we are moving in the right direction, we need to see what others said about Hell and the afterlife. Did Paul fail to get the facts right or is there something that we are missing?
- Acts 9
- Acts 20:26,27
- 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NRSV)
- Romans 2:1-5
- Romans 2:5
- Romans 5:12
- Romans 5:23
- 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 (NRSV)
- 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 (NRSV)
- 1 Corinthians 15:22 (NRSV)
- 1 Corinthians 15:17 (NRSV)
- Romans 6:16
- Romans 5:12
- Genesis 3:19
- 1 Corinthians 15:35
- John 5:21 (NRSV)
- 1 Corinthians 15:50-56
- 1 Corinthians 15:50-56
- 1 Corinthians 15:50-56
- 2 Timothy 1:10
- 2 Peter 3:7 (NRSV)
- 2 Peter 3:9 (NRSV)
- James 4:12-13 (NRSV)