I promised to come back and focus on the scriptural reasons why I reject eternal conscious torment (ETC), which is the idea that those who die without Christ will suffer forever in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. After this post, I’ll probably write one more to talk through some arguments for ETC and responses I’ve received from people who endorse this view.
So here, in a nutshell, is why I believe the Bible teaches conditionalism/annihilationism.
What is conditionalism?
When I was growing up, one presuppositions that bolstered a belief in eternal torment was the idea that God created us immortal. Because we were immortal—and God couldn’t do a thing about it—we simply had to exist forever. And, since sitting in a cosmic waiting room with expired copies of Highlights and People Magazine is too good for bad people, they needed to suffer torture forever.
Scripturally speaking, the significance of Adam and Eve’s lost access to the Tree of Life is the loss our collective immortality. As Paul tells Timothy, “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.” (1 Tim. 6:15–16)
Conditionalists believe that eternal life rests entirely upon right relationship with God. Paul seemed to agree when he tells the Romans, “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom. 2:6–7)
This seems to suggest that eternal life is a gift given to those who align themselves to the Lord and not mankind’s natural state.
(Also see: John 3:15—16, John 10:28, John 17:2, 2 Tim. 2:10 , Gal. 6:8, 1 John 5:11, and 1 Cor. 15:53-54)
What is annihilationism?
While conditionalism considers the nature of immortality, annihilationalism considers the fate of those who find themselves outside of a redeemed relationship with God through the cross. The two beliefs support each other and are usually seen together.
One of the most beautiful images in Revelation is seeing the tree of life standing once again in humanity’s midst (Rev. 22:1–2). Having God again plant life at the center of humankind tells me that the benefit of being found “in Christ” is eternal life. The tree does represent life after all and its reintroduction suggests to me that this life is given to us as a gift.
I think Scripture is clear that, apart from Christ, we cease to exist. I know that people get caught up on words like “eternal punishment,” but this doesn’t need to be interpreted as torment without end. In fact, annihilation is exactly that—eternal punishment. Nothing’s more eternal than ceasing to exist. I mean, we don’t think of the eternal redemption of Hebrews 5:9 or 9:12 as an on going process of redemption, but rather a redemption that goes on forever.
What does the Old Testament say about the wicked’s fate?
You can’t really ignore 75% of the Bible when you talk about what happens to people after death. But whenever I get into this conversation with a traditionalist, they inevitably tell me that the writers of the Old Testament were not interested in what happens to people after they die. My response is always a resounding, “Poppycock!”
Throughout the Old Testament, God is often threatening the wicked with complete extermination.
“Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.”—Isaiah 5:24
Notice the imagery of fire that gets transferred over to the New Testament? These tongues of fire may burn forever, but what’s thrown in them is burned up (see also Malachi 4.1–3). In fact, God warns that those trapped within his wrath will have their names blotted out under heaven (Deut. 29:20).
The Psalms frequently speak of the wicked’s final judgment with verses like:
- They’ll be cut off of remembrance (Psalm 34:16)
- They’ll be uprooted and remembered no more (Psalm 9:6)
- The righteous will abide forever (Psalm 37:27), but the wicked will be no more (Psalm 27:20)
- They’ll be like a snail that dissolves into goo, or a stillborn child that never sees the sun (Psalm 58:8)
- All sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked (Psalm 37:38)
These are not the only Old Testament references to a final end for the enemies of God. You can find this imagery spoken by Daniel (Dan. 2:35), Nahum (Nahum 1:10), Proverbs (Prov. 10:25), and so many more.
Before you say that there wasn’t clarity in the Old Testament concerning these issues, Peter actually goes back to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to give us a picture of the unredeemed’s fate (2 Peter 2:6). This both mirrors Old Testament language about a final, definitive judgement while contributing to and confirming its position.
But the New Testament’s about burning forever, right!?
The New Testament does kick off with John the Baptist’s promise that the axe is already at the root of that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 3:10). Jesus echoes this imagery (Matt. 7:19). But I believe that everywhere that it talks about fires (whether unquenchable or not), the fire represents God’s hatred of sin . . . it isn’t going to be extinguished before it consumes what’s thrown into it.
By and large, destruction is the imagery used to communicate the fate of those outside of the cross (James 4:12, 2 Peter 2:3, 2 Peter 3:7, 1 Tim. 6:9, Phil. 3:18–19, 1 Cor. 3:17, 1 Thess. 5:3). It’s verses like these that seem to indicate that destruction, and not perpetual torment, is the fate of the wicked.
This point of view is also communicated in the way the New Testament talks about death:
- Those who believe in Christ will not perish (John 3:16)
- Those who are “perishing” have an aroma of one going from death to death—as opposed to those who in Christ have the aroma of those going from life to life (2 Cor. 2:15–16)
- The wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23)
- Four times Revelation talks about the “second death” (2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). If we are doomed to die and then face judgement, it only makes sense that death would represent an actual cessation of life and not and ongoing but tortured existence.
That covers a tiny bit of the Scriptural argument for a final, terminal judgement. As I said before, I’ll probably do one more post addressing some of the arguments raised by ECT apologists.
I was considering addressing what the historical church believed about judgement prior to Augustine. But I think that Glenn did it better than I would over on AfterLife.