Clarifying Tom Ascol’s “4 Truths About Hell”

Tom AscolRecently, Dr. Tom Ascol, respected pastor, theologian, and executive director of Founders Ministries, contributed an article to R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries website. “4 Truths About Hell,” a modified reproduction of “The Horror of Hell” published in TableTalk magazine in 2008, promotes the traditional view of hell. As the title indicates, the article is split into four parts, each of which will be addressed here.

1. Hell Is a Place of Separation

Truth be told, this statement is not in itself untrue. Ascol is correct when he says,

On the day of judgment, Jesus will say to all unbelievers, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (v. 41). This is the same sort of language that Jesus uses elsewhere to describe the final judgment of unbelievers (see 7:23).

(He was referencing Matthew 25:41.) But the key issue is what happens when unbelievers are sent away from the Lord. As we consistently argue at Rethinking Hell, they are destroyed. They perish. Their conscious existence ends forever.

But how can they be destroyed yet also separated from God? It’s not hard to imagine. Just consider what Jesus said in this passage. When they are sent away from him they are sent to a raging fire—not anything that resembles an eternal sadness chamber. The description of an “eternal fire” is quite compatible with annihilation, as we will see shortly. So the unsaved go away from the Son of Man and to their destruction. They go to hell where God destroys body and soul (Matthew 10:28).1 If you were a first-century farmer whose harvesters typically pulled up both the wheat and weeds together, you would not just remove the weeds from your presence but also send them away to the furnace to be burnt up. Why do I bring up ancient farmers who burn weeds to ashes? I do so because in Scripture we read, “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age” (Matthew 13:40). The unsaved will be sent away, gathered and burned like weeds. That is hardly a good way to describe being sent to a place of eternal, conscious existence.

Ascol writes, “To be separated from God is to be separated from anything and everything good.” But why would this not include life itself in the usual sense of the word? God is our creator and our sustainer. Who is to say that if we are cut off from the one who gives life that we would not lose life in every sense of the word?

2. Hell Is a State of Association

I agree with most of this. As Ascol says, the unsaved are thrown together and cast off with the devil and his angels. Unlike some in the broader conditionalist camp, those who I would refer to as “partial conditionalists,” I believe that the Bible teaches that the devil and his angels suffer the same fate as men. However, they will not be tormented together forever, as they will all be destroyed, left with no more consciousness than the ashes of a corpse. In a world where God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28) and all things in heaven and earth are in Christ (Ephesians 1:10), where could they go? It isn’t just about God’s victory over sin, which theoretically could be fulfilled even with the eternal torment of sinners, but the Bible teaches that there just isn’t any place for them.

3. Hell Is a State of Punishment

Again, I can’t disagree with Ascol’s initial points:

Jesus describes it as “fire” (v. 41) and a place of “punishment” (v. 46). Hell is a place of retribution where justice is served through the payment for crimes.

That much is true. But what is the just punishment for their crimes? How does God fulfill his wrath in hell? Does he do so by tormenting the wicked for ever and ever? Just saying that sin is terrible doesn’t answer that question. Neither does Ascol’s assertion that “anything less than the horrors of eternal punishment [i.e. torment] would be a miscarriage of justice.” Annihilation is quite terrible too. It is so terrible, in fact, that some traditionalists argue for traditionalism because the idea of someone created in God’s image being thrown into the ash heap is unacceptable. Robert Morey writes, “In light of the dignity and worth of a man as the unique image-bearer of God, we cannot, therefore, accept the idea of conditional immortalists that man’s death can be reduced to the death of brute beasts”2. J. P. Moreland agrees, writing that hell is where God says “I value my image-bearers too much to annihilate them.”3. Who is to say that the only fate truly horrible enough, truly reflective enough of the horror of sin, is to tell those who are part of the pinnacle of God’s creation that they aren’t even worth keeping in existence?

None of my speculation matters any more than Ascol’s does. What matters is what the Bible says will happen to the lost. And the Bible tells us what our sins deserve. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), even death of the soul (James 5:20). And does death just refer to separation, as opposed to what happens to a corpse? As shown in a previous post, it does not.

4. Hell is an everlasting state – (Part 1)4

Though some would like to shorten the duration of this state, Jesus’ words are very clear. He uses the same adjective to describe both punishment and life in verse 46. If hell is not eternal, neither is the new heaven and earth.

1. Alcol’s assertion is not logically sound.

First of all, this is a false dilemma. It is not logically true in the first place to say that if hell is not eternal then neither is the new heaven and earth. If for one reason or another in Matthew 25:46 Jesus did not mean eternal in the sense of for eternity, all this would mean is that in that particular sentence Jesus wasn’t saying that the life of the believer (or the punishment of the unbeliever) lasts for eternity. Is that the same as Jesus actually denying that the life of the believer lasts for eternity? Is simply not bringing up the length of the believer’s life the same as saying that the believer’s life does not last for eternity? Of course not.

Think about this in our own lives. I’m assuming we all believe that the earth is round and it is not some big NASA conspiracy. Well, when was the last time you mentioned to your friend that the earth is round? You probably don’t bring it up much. But that does not mean you somehow deny that the earth is round, does it? Just because you don’t say to every person you know, “The earth is round,” does not mean you believe that the earth is in fact not round. That’d be absurd. Yet following Ascol’s reasoning, and that used by all too many traditionalists when looking at this passage, to not say the earth is round is the same as denying the earth is round! Not saying “the earth is round” would be the same as saying “the earth is not round.” After all, if Jesus did not say that the life of the believer lasts forever in this passage, then, we are told, he would in fact be saying that life is not eternal. That, of course, is no more true than accusing me or you of being flat-earthers because when we talked to our friends recently we never said “the earth is round.”

2. Conditionalism is perfectly compatible with eternal meaning for eternity.

Secondly, as mentioned before, we don’t necessarily disagree that by qualifying both life and punishment as eternal Jesus meant to say they both last for eternity. The issue is not so much the meaning of eternal but of punishment. It is assumed right off the bat here that punishment means the ongoing process of inflicting punishment on the person, and since that requires they be conscious, if it is eternal then it goes on for eternity and so does the wicked person.

But it makes all the difference that here Jesus used a noun, kolasis, and not a verb. Simply put, eternal punishment does not necessarily mean that the act of punishing continues forever. The phrase could be referring to the result of the act of punishing. When one punishes another the result is punishment, just as the act of destroying results in destruction. I want to emphasize that I am not saying Jesus is talking about the result of the punishment. Rather, God takes the conscious living person who is unsaved and punishes him by destroying or annihilating him. The result of this is the punishment. The punishment and the result are the same thing, because when you punish someone the result is the punishment. Because God punishes the unsaved by destroying them, the punishment (i.e., the result) is that they are destroyed. Since they are never recreated, since they are gone forever and ever, it is eternal. Thus, it is eternal punishment.

Before you go accusing me of grasping at straws and messing with language, I’ll point out that this happens elsewhere in the Bible. As traditionalist Douglass Moo admits while discussing this argument (applied to a similar verse in a book where he is defending the traditional doctrine, no less):5

There is some point to this claim. In other New Testament passages where “eternal” describes a noun of action, it is sometimes the results of the action that are indicated. The “eternal sin” of Mark 3.29, for instance, means a sin whose consequences last forever (see also Heb. 5:9, 6:2, 9:12, Jude 7).

In fact, in the handful of times where we have a noun of action (like punishment is to punish), stemming from a transitive verb (i.e. an action that one does unto another object), qualified as eternal, it usually is referring to the result of the action and not the action itself. According to my count, all cases either are like this or are controversial (like Matthew 25:46). Even if I missed one somewhere, it still is normal for it to work this way. In Hebrews 6:2 we have a reference to eternal judgment. Now, is God throughout eternity in the act of judging the finite people on earth who have been born? Even going through every minute detail of their lives he would have to be done eventually! The meaning is clear: God judges and the result, judgment, is eternal. The decision stands forever. Will Jesus be saving us or redeeming us repeatedly throughout eternity (Hebrews 5.9; 9.12)? Are we still sinning in heaven? Will Jesus have to keep dying and rising from the dead over and over again forever? Of course not. Jesus redeemed us once and the results are eternal. We won’t be continually re-saved for eternity. We were saved and it has eternal consequences. The eternal sin of Mark 3:28 does not mean that at one finite point in history someone sinned continually for eternity. That wouldn’t even make sense. The sin committed once has eternal consequences. We do not continually inherit the kingdom of God, but rather we inherit it and the results—its being ours—is the eternal inheritance of Hebrews 9:15.6 Matthew 25:46 may be just like the rest of these.

3. Matthew 25:41

Since I said earlier that I would explain why Jesus’ reference to eternal fire does not prove eternal torment, I will do so now.

Although on its face eternal fire sounds like it would be describing fire that burns for eternity and so therefore those thrown in it would burn forever, this is not so clear when we look at how the term is used elsewhere. It is used in the Bible only here in Matthew 18:8 and in Jude 7. But Jude 7 sheds a lot more light on its meanings than either of the Matthew passages, which essentially just say it and leave it unexplained. “Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (emphasis added). That changes things! Eternal fire was what fell on Sodom and Gomorrah. But what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? Are they still burning? Of course not. They were cities that in Genesis 19 were destroyed when God rained burning sulfur on it, killing everyone except Lot and (most of) his family. The one time we actually get some explanation about what eternal fire is, it does not refer to a fire of eternal torment!

What did Jude mean, then? That isn’t totally clear. One possibility is that he meant it strictly in a qualitative sense. The fire was qualified as aionios because it came directly from God in heaven. It was not fire of this world. Whatever the case, it would be hard to say that the fire was not aionios in this sense, even if not to the exclusion of other uses. It could also be called eternal because of its eternal results. The cities were not only destroyed but they also have never been rebuilt, and presumably never will be. Whatever the case, that is how the inspired author Jude used it, as did some of the Dead Sea scrolls authors with the Hebrew equivalent.7 This makes it difficult to justify any insistence that it must mean something different in the other passages. Of course, I can’t say that Jesus didn’t use it differently, but we can’t say he did either. This verse is ultimately ambiguous, though it doesn’t hurt that the one time we know what eternal fire did it destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

4a. Hell is an everlasting state – (Part 2)

The first part of his fourth truth about hell focused on Matthew 25:46. The rest focused on philosophical and theological claims which I will address here.

1. Sin against an infinite God deserves infinite punishment (and therefore, eternal torment)

This argument comes up a lot, and it might be more challenging if not for the fact that the Bible never says such a thing. This is just a man-made construct that was made as an attempt to explain a philosophical difficulty, how finite men committing a finite number of sins could deserve infinite punishment. If the Bible teaches that the fate of the wicked is something different, then the fate of the wicked is something different.

Second, although the Bible doesn’t teach infinite conscious punishment, the cessation of conscious existence which awaits the lost is at least in some senses an infinite punishment. A number of traditionalists have been happy to point this fact out when some annihilationists have argued that eternal torment is unjust because it is infinite punishment for finite sinning.8 In a nutshell, by annihilating someone and depriving them of life forever, that is an infinite punishment. It is as Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Witsius wrote:9

But whether it be necessary, that God should continue for ever the sinful creature in a state of existence, I am ignorant. May it not, in its measure, be reckoned as infinite punishment, should God please to doom man, who was by nature a candidate for eternity, to annihilation, from whence he should never be suffered to return to life?…Here at least let us hesitate, and suspend our judgment.

Therefore, one need not disagree that sin against an infinite God calls for infinite punishment; ultimately, sin against God does result in just that.

2. The wicked will keep sinning for eternity.

The claim that the wicked will keep sinning for ever and ever in hell is only true if the lost can keep sinning forever in hell. And the Bible never says that the lost are forever sinning in hell and thus earning additional punishment for their additional sins—and then sinning again and earning more wrath, and so on. That’s just a theological assumption. And it’s circular reasoning. Basically it is saying the following: The lost exist forever in torment and thus they keep sinning, and since they keep sinning they exist forever in torment! But if God avenges his honor not by inflicting conscious suffering but by destroying them body and soul, then he has punished them for their continuing sins and broken the cycle.

Regarding this point I have seen a single verse, Revelation 22:11, used to say that this is the case. But in order to come to that conclusion you have to completely read your theological assumption into it. The passage reads, “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” Now, it is important to note that this is something the angel said to John after the vision was complete, not during the vision of the final realm. He wasn’t describing the eternal state; he was saying something to John in what was his here and now. There are any number of things that the angel could have meant.10 Whatever the case, it doesn’t even say that the unsaved sin after death, let alone for eternity. In order to say it means that, you have to already believe that that is true and therefore see a passage that could be consistent and assume that that’s what it means. But as evangelicals who hold the Bible as the final authority, we know better than to go about it that way—except when talking about hell, it seems. Even if the wicked do sin after death, such as cursing God at the judgment, if God’s wrath entails ultimately destroying them then how could they sin for eternity?

There also is one point to consider against such an idea. The Bible teaches that Christ came and saved us not only for us but also “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). But how can this be if the wicked keep sinning in hell? Some may say that that bowing of the knee is essentially forced, that they do it because they have been beaten, not because they choose to. But if they are forever in hell, freely choosing to flip the bird at God throughout all eternity, how can we say they are bowing their knees in any sense?

3. Hell is what Jesus experience for us.

This isn’t so much an argument for eternal torment as much as an application of it. But I think a lot can be (and has been) said on this site about how Christ’s death relates to the fate of the unsaved, and how even though neither side can say Jesus really suffered exactly what the lost will suffer his death on the cross fits the annihilationist view better.

4. The traditional view of hell spurs evangelism.

True, but so does our view. And if one says that conditionalism quenches missionary zeal, we could beg to differ. Then again, what we preach when we preach the gospel isn’t so much dependent on what makes for better evangelism as much as it is dependent on what is true. Right?

5. If we love people, we need to warn them.

Although he’s wrong about what hell is, he’s right in that you have to warn them about God’s wrath and what you think is the actual fate which could await them. If this were NotRethinkingHell.com, we too would be warning people that God’s wrath awaited them and that they would be condemned to be tormented day and night forever and ever in hell. It’s just a matter now of getting more traditionalists like Ascol to be convinced of the biblical view so that they preach to the wicked what is actually true of the wrath to come. But I guess he and others have already accepted the more important truth, that Jesus died for us and rose again, saving us from whatever hell entails and giving us the right to be called children of God. That matters more.

  1. As Ascol points out, God is not literally and completely absent from hell; rather, it is his fellowship and blessings that the unsaved are cut off from. Therefore, I can say (and Jesus can say) that God destroys them in hell. []
  2. Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 2001), 37-38 []
  3. Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Zondervan, 2000), 192. Moreland’s arguments were looked at in a recent post []
  4. Ascol did not split this portion into two parts, but I do because of a thematic shift and for the ease of the reader []
  5. Douglas Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell under Fire. Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan 2004), 106 []
  6. I realize that perhaps the object that we inherit may be what is qualified as eternal, but even then eternal inheritance is not saying that we continually commit the act of inheriting over and over for eternity []
  7. Essene Writings from Qumran, trans. A. Dupont-Sommer (Meridian Books, 1967). “Be thou cursed in all works of thy guilty ungodliness! May God make of thee an object of dread by the hand of the avengers of vengeance! May he hurl extermination after thee by the hand of all the executioners of judgment! Cursed be thou, without mercy, according to the darkness of thy deeds. Be thou damned in the night of eternal fire!” (1 QS 2:2-8). []
  8. Examples include John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Evangelical, 1993); Robert Reymond, “Dr. John Stott on Hell,” in Contending for the Faith: Lines in the Sand That Strengthen the Church (Christian Focus, 2005), 357. []
  9. Herman Witsius, The Economy of Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity: Volume 1 (Thomas Turnbull, 1803), 108. []
  10. I have more to say on this in The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section VI, Subsection C []
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