The plethora of literature that has been published in the last decades on the topic of the nature of hell is an indicator of the debate that is growing exponentially in the evangelical circles. This thesis will set forth the theological issue of whether hell will be of an eternal nature according to Biblical doctrine. Thus, a Biblical scrutiny and theological analysis of the views of universalism, Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality, and finally the literal eternal one will aid in the proposition of a healthy doctrinal position.
The Attractive View of Universalism.
R. C. Sproul recapitulates the position of simple universalism as one that presents God as so loving that will eventually accept everyone in His Kingdom. A variant form universalism is that as propounded by Origen in his doctrine of apokatastasis panton. He taught that human punishment and correction for sin starts on earth and is prolonged after death until the stage of eventual purification is completed , and only then God restores the fellowship of the ‘being’ with Him. Thus “an obvious corollary of universalism is that hell does not exist in any objective sense, or at least that if it does, it will be empty at the end of the age.”
The Challenge of Annihilationism & Conditional Immortality
The basic structure of mainstream annihilationism teaches that “all the wicked will be extinguished at death.” A mutant form of this is known as ‘Possible Annihilationism/Postmortem Evangelism. The advocates of this idea reason that “after the resurrection, unbelievers will have another opportunity to ‘receive Christ’, and those who reject Him for a second time will then face extinction.
Conditional Immortality articulates that human beings are “naturally mortal, but that God will grant them immortality if they turn from sin and put their trust in God.” A number of scholars argue that this is different from that of universalism as it upholds the doctrine of judgement except for its eternal continuity, whilst others see it as a another form of annihilationism. Whatever the case may be, both deny the doctrine of eternal retribution.
A Historical Oversight of the Traditional View of Eternal Retribution
The belief of eternal unbroken retribution in hell has overwhelmingly been the orthodox testimony of the church. One of the earliest surviving treatises on hell is that of Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD). Tertullian opposed the doctrine of annihilation and instead, he maintained on the everlasting character of hell. In his treatises, he attacked the position of conditionalism, by suggesting that it renders the final resurrection redundant. (See Appendix A)
“The unconditional immortality of mankind has generally been universally accepted both in and outside of the church.” The annihilationists have argued that Platonic philosophy has been the main precursor of the idea of human immortality, and the development of the doctrine of everlasting retribution by the Christian Church. However, W.O.E. Oesterley has demonstrated that the general belief of immortality predates the Platonian teaching, and thus rendering that argument weak. It would be illogical to suggest that for almost 2000 years the Christian Church would have blindly embraced and integrated into the Christian theology, a pagan philosophical idea, and simultaneously disregarding the teaching of Scripture on this topic.
Eternal Retribution Suggested in the Old Testament
There are at least two passages that give a clearer representation of the eternal fate of the impious. Isaiah 66:22-24 used imagery of ultimate disgrace, from the present world to describe the future order of the wicked. The prophecy in Isaiah 66 uses vivid earthly imagery of worm corpses, and fire to point to the final eternal retribution of the rebellious.
The second passage that teaches of the final destiny of the wicked is from the book of Daniel 12:1-2. This eschatological passage contains the construction of “Multitudes who sleep,” and that is to be rendered as ‘all’. Although The Hebrew word used in verse 2, olam, does not always mean ‘eternal’, its repeated use and the immediate context indicates that it must. Thus, the immoral enemies of God will be raised, and then judged to suffer a terrible never-ending disgrace.
The Witness of the New Testament
Matthew 5:22,29-30; 18:7-10 and Mark 9:42-48 draw attention to the description of a place consigned as Gehenna (See Appendix B), as a place of torment where the fire is inextinguishable and the worm never dies. In applying the theological methodology of progressive revelation, the evangelists use figurative language to portray the endlessness of the sinner’s torment. Dwight Pentecost stated that “Gehenna would then have in view the retribution in the lake of fire as the destiny of the wicked.” Jesus’ teaching is clear in that the retribution of hell is not temporary in duration but an everlasting one.The adjective αιώνιος (See Appendix C) can sometimes refer to very long periods of time; however the context of the Matthew passages strongly determines that the meaning should be taken as ‘forever’. In particular the Matthew 24:46 verse contains the word αιώνιος in two parallel phrases, and it would be very hard if not impossible that the “word means one thing when joined with κόλασης and another when joined with ζωή.” Consequently the logical conclusion is that Apostle Matthew asserts that eternal life shares a common idea with eternal punishment, and that “αιώνιος implies the unending continuance of that.”
Annihilationists, often argue that the New Testament usage of the word apollymi proves that the wicked will at the end be totally obliterated. A survey of New Testament usage of apollymi illustrates that the word never means annihilation when used in other general ways, and thus it would not be expected to mean that when used to describe a human’s eternal destiny. Grudem states that “the passages which speak of destruction do not necessarily imply a ceasing to exist or some kind of annihilation, but can simply be ways of referring to the harmful and destructive effects of final judgment on unbelievers.”
Further evidence for the eternal retribution of the non-believers can be found in 2 Peter, Jude 7 and especially Revelation 14:10-11; 20:10; 21:8. That the torment will continue in eternity is sturdily supported by Revelation 20:10 in that the wicked will be ‘tormented day and night forever’. The book of Revelation strongly implies that the “wicked will be resurrected in order to enter into the eternal punishment of the lake of fire.” There is an abundance of warnings of the everlasting torment of the devils, demons, and the people that rejected the truth of the gospel. In the context and the light of these statements, it would be very hard to reject the doctrine of eternal retribution in hell.
The eternal nature of hell and its real existence is continuously and irrefutably indicated and taught in Scripture. The strong testimony of the Scriptures compels us to believe in the eternal nature of hell, as a place of continual torment for the unredeemed. The endless nature of hell has historically been the orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church. Everlasting retribution is not needless cruelty, but it is a consistent Scriptural teaching and requirement of God’s justice.
It would be most absurd if the flesh should be raised up and destined to the ‘killing of hell’, in order to be put an end to, when it might suffer such annihilation (more directly) if not raised up again at all. A pretty paradox, to be sure, than en essence must be refitted with life, in order that it may receive that annihilation which has in fact already accrued to it!
(Roberts and Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:570)
GEHENNA is a transliteration of the Aramaic form of Heb. gebenhinnom, valley of the son of Hinnom. This was an area were children had once been offered as sacrifices to Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6), and later it became an area where all the garbage, and discarded bodies were incinerated. After the OT period, Jewish apocalyptic writers began to call the Valley of Hinnom the entrance to hell, later hell itself. The NT distinguishes sharply between Hades, the intermediate, bodiless state, and Gehenna, the state of final destiny after the resurrection of the body. The word Gehenna is used in Matthew 5:22,29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.
The duration is explicitly indicated in the NT. The word "eternal" (aionios) is derived from the verb aion, signifying an "age" or "duration." Scripture speaks of two aeons, or ages: the present age and the age to come (Matt 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Eph 1:21). The present age--this world-- is always contrasted with the age to come as temporal, while the future age will be endless. As the everlasting life of the believer is to be endless, just so the retributive aspect of hell refers to the future infinite age. In every reference in which aionios applies to the future retribution of the wicked, it indisputably denotes endless duration (Matt 18:8; 25:41, 46; Mark 3:29; 2 Thess 1:9; Heb 6:2; Jude 7).
A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among the Evangelicals. The Nature of Hell. U.K: Paternoster Publishing, 2000.
Baldwin, Joyce G. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Daniel. Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1978.
Blanchard, John. Whatever Happened to Hell? England: Evangelical Press, 1993.
Cameron, Nigel. (ed). Universalism & the Doctrine of Hell, Papers presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference in Christian Dogmatics.U.K. Paternoster Press, 1991.
Cole, Alan. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries- Mark. InterVarsity Press, Leicester England, 1989.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books. 2001.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1994.
Gundry, Stanley. Four Views On Hell. Grand Rapids, Michigan:Zondervan,1996.
Hoekema, Anthony. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.
McGrath, Alister. The J.I. Packer Collection. Leicester, England: IVP, 1999.
Pentecost, Dwight. J. Things To Come. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.
Peterson, A. Robert. Hell On Trial: The Case For Eternal Punishment. U.S.A.: P&R Publishing, 1995.
By Arthur Bardis
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