Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Eternal Punishment

This post arises out of a discussion on the Facebook Group "The Bible Study Facebook Group" on the Existance of Hell and Eternal Punishment. If you have a Facebook account you can check it out at: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=6405009186&topic=4746 - Oh join the group while you're there.

As some of you are aware, this “essay” has been worked on over a few days and as such, some of the points that are mentioned here may in fact have been made by other contributors. My objective in writing this is to examine the idea put forward by Nicole that at some point the souls of those who are lost will cease to exist, and consequently to research what seems to be an inconsistency is what Scripture teaches in regard to the fate of those who are not saved. I apologise for the length of this post but it is necessary to do justice to what is a very serious matter.

I have found in my study of the Bible, that from time to time one will come across, or have pointed out to you by a skeptic, a prima facie contradiction in what is said in one part of the Bible in relation to another, and between what is recorded in the Bible and what appears to be the facts in reality. There are “theologians” – albeit non-believing ones, who make it their life’s work to disprove the Bible. A case in point is Richard Dawkins who wrote The God delusion. There are issues such as:
  • “The Problem of Evil” – in other words: if God is omnipotent and all-loving, how could he allow the existence of evil.
  • There is the whole “Predestination versus Free-Will” discussion that has resulted in schisms in the Church.
  • You may be asked if you are amillennialist, premillennialist or postmillennialist – and you may be justified in saying that is a preposterous question. (get it? A – PRE – POSTerous: Thanks David Pawson.)

The point is that all of these discussions including the one that is exercising our minds here: namely the meaning of ETERNAL PUNISHMENT is that they are based on our understanding of what the Bible teaches. As Nicole said, many people claim to be basing their theologies on the Bible, but since people are coming to conclusions that are diametrically opposed, it must mean that one or both of the parties are mistaken about what the Bible is saying.

If, as we do in this group, we agree that the Bible is God’s inerrant word – in other words there are no mistakes and we understand that if there were contradictions in the Bible they would represent a mistake, we have to come to the conclusion that THERE ARE NO ACTUAL CONTRADICTIONS IN THE WORD OF GOD.

I used the expression prima facie before – this is a legal term meaning “on the face of it” – A prosecutor can take an accused to trial based on prima facie evidence that the accused committed the crime, however, it is up to the court to determine if in fact that prima facie evidence is true before they can convict the accused of the crime. In the same way, when we come across what appears to be a contradiction we must not accept it at face value but research more deeply and really understand what the Bible is saying, and we will then, I am confident, see that there was no contradiction after all, but that we had misunderstood what the Bible was saying.

Since we are discussing the nature of eternal punishment, let us look at a very well known verse: John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him (the Son) shall NOT PERISH but have ETERNAL LIFE.

Looking at this verse and seeing what we can learn from it I discover that there are two possible outcomes spoken of here: 1) Perishing 2) Eternal Life. It would seem therefore that since the “reward side” is ETERNAL LIFE that the “punishment side” would be exactly opposite to eternal life. Well, one could conclude that therefore it is, if you’ll the excuse expression “non-eternal death”. I am however making too many suppositions here. It is not necessarily “non-eternal death” but ETERNAL DEATH that is the opposite of ETERNAL LIFE. However, the question remains, and cannot be answered by this verse alone, what is the nature of this death? Does death really mean one ceases to exist?

Based on Hebrews 9:27, which says, “It is appointed unto man ONCE to die and THEN the judgment, we can ascertain that DEATH is not the endpoint in a human’s existence. We know that in physical death, a corpse does not dematerialize. It remains and those who are nearest and dearest have to dispose of the corpse, either by burial or by cremation. As the years go by, that body breaks down and gradually over many years, becomes part of the environment it has been placed in. A basic knowledge of science states that matter is not destroyed. It changes but it does not simply disappear. God does have the right to eradicate the souls He has created, but the Word of God suggests that this He has not done and has no intention of doing.

It is appointed unto man that he should die once and then face the Judgment. The questions remains, “What about after the Judgment?” If we look at the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says in Matthew 25:46 “And then they (the “goats”) will go away to eternal punishment but the righteous to eternal life.” Here we have a juxtapositioning of eternal life with eternal punishment.

J.C. Ryle, commenting on this verse says

The state of things after the judgment is changeless and without end. The misery of the lost and the blessedness of the saved are both alike for ever. The eternity of God and of heaven and hell all stand on the same foundation. As surely as God is eternal, so surely is heaven an endless day without night and hell an endless night without day.” Ryle J.C. (Sheehan R. ed.) Daily Readings from all four Gospels for Morning and Evening, 1998, Evangelical Press, Darlington, England, November 3 Morning

As David has already indicated in other passages so it is here – the same word “eternal” describes both the punishment of the wicked and the life of the righteous – and thus in regard to the dimension of time, the property of both of these outcomes is alike.

I wanted to come back to the use of the word “perish” as it appears in John 3:16. Watching a DVD the teaching on the End Times, David Pawson said that that word – “Perish” does not mean – to be destroyed, but to become useless. A tyre-tube that perishes becomes unusable – you can’t pump it up as it has holes, and so you chuck it out. Jesus spoke about the Salt and the Light. He said it the salt loses its saltiness it becomes useless – you chuck it out. The actual Greek word for perish is not used in that context. However, I have done a word study on Perish and I find something rather interesting.

The Greek word for “Perish” in John 3:16 is “apolaetai” and appears seven other times in the New Testament and it is used twice in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament).

  • Matthew 5:29 + 30 “It is better for you to LOSE (destroy) one part of your body than…”
  • Matthew 18:14 “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones PERISH” (Parable of the lost sheep)
  • Luke 21:18 “But not a hair on your head will be DESTROYED” – context Jesus was prophesying what would happen to us at the end of time.
  • John 3:15 + 16 – We know what it says there – it is interesting however that verse 15 says virtually the same thing as verse 16 – verbatim.
  • John 6:12 “Let nothing be WASTED” – context after feeding 5000.
  • John 11:50 “Do you not realise it is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation PERISH.”

    Old Testament
  • Deuteronomy 22:3 – Speaking of animals that had STRAYED or any item that had clearly been MISLAID and the responsibility of a person finding the animal or item to return it to its rightful owner.
  • Isaiah 38:17 – “Pit of CORRUPTION” – also pit of DESTRUCTION –

Summary:

Looking at the use of these words the general idea of “apolaetai” is “to be lost” - Therefore applying this meaning into John 3:16 – “Shall not be lost, but have eternal life.” Removing thus the incorrect notion of obliteration – which I find nowhere in Scripture, we have the idea that the two possible outcomes described in John 3:16 are: Eternal life for the righteous or being lost forever for those who do not believe.

I therefore conclude that John 3:16 does not preclude an eternal punishment for those who do not believe. In the light of other scriptures, I feel that an eternal lake of fire does await those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of Life.

1 comment:

Nicole said...

John, I agree, the Bible is 100% consistent. I would never for a moment doubt Scripture. It is the only solid thing we have to hang our lives on in this world, and rightly understood, it is always consistent. I have seen this over and over again in Scripture.

I also see that you're definitely correct, the wages of sin is death, ETERNAL PUNISHMENT. The punishment is eternal separation from God, and those who face it, suffer "the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 1:7). The problem is, Jude says that they will suffer eternal fire just like Sodom and Gomorrah did. But they aren't still burning now. They burned UP. They're gone. As Isaiah says, “Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame: there shall not be coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it” (Isaiah 47:14).

I’m just missing one thing. Where are the verses in the Bible that say that the wicked will SUFFER constantly throughout eternity? There is plenty about eternal punishment, but nobody's arguing about whether they will be punished eternally. We all agree on that. I just think the punishment is eternal death, eternal separation from the delightful presence of God, not eternal suffering. I still don't see any place that the Bible says that anyone will BURN forever, though!

On the other hand, throughout the Bible I see consistent references to eternal fire burning the wicked completely UP. As Malachi 4:1-3 says, "For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch....Ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts."

John 3:16 says there are two outcomes, perishing and eternal life. It doesn't sound to me like the wicked get both! Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is death. Ezekiel 18:4 and 20 say that the soul that sinneth shall die. If I could see that the Bible clearly says in other places that the wicked continue suffering throughout eternity, I would have to evaluate these verses in a new light. But I simply don't see any Bible texts that clearly say that the wicked suffer nonstop throughout eternity. I don't think Christians believed that until the Roman Catholic Church introduced that doctrine in the Dark Ages.

I know there are theologians who explain that death doesn't mean death, because the Bible says throughout it that the wicked will burn forever. But where, exactly, does the Bible say that? I see dozens of texts that clearly say that the wicked will be destroyed, burned up, will become ashes, will become smoke that goes up forever (smoke is the evidence that something is being burned to ashes, and exists no more in its previous form). The only, solitary verse that seems to indicate that is Revelation 14:11, which says the smoke of their torment ascends up forever, and they have no rest day nor night. However, in context it refers to only those who worship the beast and his image at the end of time, not all the wicked. And in an unending universe, couldn't smoke go up forever even if the fire went out, thus reminding everyone in the universe that sin used to exist, but has been destroyed?

I believe that, when the Bible seems to be inconsistent, we must take the clear texts and use them to interpret the unclear. Generally the Bible has many verses that all indicate the same thing, that together explain what might seem confusing if you just had one verse. For example, I Corinthians 15:29 seems to indicate baptism for the dead. However, the rest of the Bible makes it abundantly clear that baptism is for those who want to show their decision to follow God. I can therefore interpret this confusing text in the light of the rest of the Bible.

To me, the Bible seems to be packed with texts that say that God doesn't torture anyone forever. Even when He says in Jeremiah 14:4 that the wicked in Israel "have kindled a fire" of God's anger which shall burn "forever," it must mean the Hebrew understanding of "forever," which means "until the end." Otherwise, how could God contradict Himself all through Jeremiah by promising that He "will not cast off forever" and promising to turn around their captivity?

Maybe I'm missing something that's throughout the Bible, but I just don't see it. I see dozens of Bible verses that plainly say that the wicked will burn up, die, and be destroyed. I see that the Bible consistently calls people mortals, and says that God alone has immortality. I see that the wicked will be burned with unquenchable fire, but so were Sodom and Gomorrah. Nobody could quench it because it was doing what God sent it to do. But it went out on its own when its work was done.

I only see one solitary verse that could seem to say that the wicked suffer forever. In light of the consistency I see throughout Scripture on this topic, I believe this one text can be understood to say that the effects of sin will linger on for eternity, as evidenced by the scars in the hands of Jesus, for example, and the remembrance of what sin was like (which will keep us from ever repeating the same mistake). The "smoke of their torment" could easily mean the aftereffects of their sins, and not continual agonies.

I hope that I do not seem to be arrogant or opinionated. My desire is simply and earnestly to follow the Bible and the Bible alone. I simply do not see hell fire that burns and burns without ceasing throughout the endless ages in the Bible. I only see it in popular theology, and I cannot take popular theologians, either Jehovah's Witnesses or evangelicals, over the Word of God.

And by the way, there are plenty of godly theologians who agree with me on this matter, though that isn't why I believe this way. One godly man, Joe Crews, wrote a booklet on it. You can read it for free at:

http://www.amazingfacts.org/FreeStuff/OnlineLibrary/tabid/106/ctl/ViewMedia/mid/447/IID/51/LNG/en/7/Hell-Fire-A-Twisted-Truth-Untangled/SC/R/Default.aspx

I didn’t come to this conclusion because of my preferences, others' persuasion, or because I thought it would be an easier God to believe in. I came to it based on study of Scripture. However, I don’t see the danger of believing in it, honestly. What if you’re right and I’m wrong? I love God with all my heart, soul and strength, and my life is 100% committed to His keeping. I trust Him with my salvation, and I don’t live in fear of anything. Instead, hell fire makes perfect sense to me, and I trust God to know who needs to be burned up. Even my 4-year-old understands why God will burn up the wicked, and why she should let Jesus be in her heart so she won’t be rebellious like Satan was when he was cast out of heaven. I do fear that some of those I love will have to be burned, but if that is their choice, I believe I will have peace someday knowing they are gone, and not writhing in agony in flames while I sing God’s praises in heaven.

And what if I’m right? To work my way through college, I used to sell Christian books door-to-door. I met lots of people who wanted nothing to do with God because they couldn’t reconcile the idea of a loving God who would roast sinners in agony throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. They rejected Him altogether. I’m working on my master’s degree in Biblical counseling, and I have met many people who have been driven to repentance (at least partly) by guilt. But I have yet to meet someone driven to true repentance by fear of eternally burning in hell. I’m sure someone out there somewhere has been persuaded to righteousness by fear of burning for eternity if they didn’t love Him, but I’ve never met them. It seems to me that fear may inspire a temporary desire to seek God, but only love holds us to Him long-term.

It seems to me that far more harm than good has been done by this un-Biblical teaching that God could lovingly roast sinners for all of eternity. It simply doesn't make sense to me. No matter how wicked my children have been, even if I had to punish them according to what they had done, I would want to cut short their suffering as soon as possible. I could never get pleasure from watching them in agony. God must give people the just consequences of their choices, but He says, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (Ezekiel 33:11). I think God, like us, will be anxious to finish the process of cleansing the world by fire, so that He doesn't have to watch those He loves suffering. How could we enjoy heaven while they are writhing in the flames? I don't see how I could.

I believe that love is what God longs for from us--not fear. As it stands now, unless I am persuaded otherwise from Scripture, I will continue to raise my children believing that God loves them and wants them to come live eternally with Him in heaven. I will warn them that if they choose rebellion instead of love, God will burn them up and they won’t get to spend eternity with Him.

At four, my daughter understands very well that God cannot allow her in heaven if she cherishes a rebellious heart. I emphasize the love of God for her, and His intense desire for a relationship with her throughout eternity. So far, that seems to be enough to make my daughter want to spend eternity with the God she loves already, instead of burning up. When she is old enough, I will teach her how to study the Bible and urge her to study this topic (and all others) out for herself. I don’t want her to ever believe anything because I did. What she believes must come from the Bible, not from her parents’ beliefs. And I hope that will give her a solid foundation for a life of endless love for God.