Everlasting Torment or Eternal Punishment?

Hey, if Dr. Robert Peterson can do it, so can I. Beg the question, that is, from my article’s outset—in its very title, “Everlasting Torment or Eternal Punishment?” By setting the traditional view of hell up against the biblical phrase “eternal punishment,” the question I ask in the title assumes that eternal torment is not the fate Jesus warned awaits the lost, and it subtly influences my readers to assume the same before they’ve had a chance to consider the case for the view I’m critiquing. But if Peterson is allowed to similarly beg the question and poison the well in his article, “Annihilation or Eternal Punishment?”, featured in the February 2014 issue of Tabletalk magazine, certainly I should be forgiven for doing it.

Perhaps, then, I could also be forgiven if I were to begin my article by misrepresenting the view I’m critiquing, saying, “The traditional view is that lost people in hell will be maliciously and capriciously abused and tortured for eternity, as payment for their sins.” After all, Peterson opens his article by similarly misrepresenting annihilationism. Our view is not that “lost people in hell will be exterminated after they have paid the penalty for their sins” (emphasis added). We believe that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23, emphasis added), not that it precedes death.1 Edward Fudge made that clear in his written debate with Peterson (who therefore knows better), Two Views of Hell. “We do not measure capital punishment,” Fudge wrote, “by the time required to carry it out but in terms of its lasting consequences.”2 Annihilationism is thus the view that lost people will be exterminated as the penalty for their sins.

I ought likewise to be forgiven if, like Peterson, I chose not to provide the strongest evidence typically offered by those I’m attempting to represent. Imagine, for example, that I were to write, “We are told that the unsaved will be resurrected to face an eternity of torment (John 5:29; Acts 24:15).” While these texts support the orthodox belief—shared by evangelical conditionalists—that the lost will one day be resurrected and judged, neither hints at a subsequent eternity of torment, and traditionalists would understandably complain that I hadn’t at least cited Daniel 12:2 which reads, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”3 Were I to do so, I’d be in good company; after all, alleging to represent annihilationists, Peterson writes, “We are told that fire consumes what is thrown into it, and so it will be for the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8),” yet none of the texts he cites explicitly mentions the consumption of the wicked—indeed, one of them records John’s having seen the devil, beast, and false prophet “tormented day and night forever and ever,” albeit in apocalyptic, symbolic imagery.4 A faithful representation of the conditionalist argument would have cited Isaiah 33:14 (“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?”), Malachi 4:3 (“you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet”), Matthew 3:12 (“he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire,” NASB, emphasis added), Hebrews 10:26-27 (“For if we go on sinning . . . [there remains] a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”), or Hebrews 12:29 (“for our God is a consuming fire”). Peterson is certainly familiar with these texts, having been challenged with them by Fudge in their book.5 The case for annihilationism is based, not merely on our consistent and uniform experience that “fire consumes what is thrown into it,” but on Scripture’s explicit testimony that the fires of hell will do precisely that.

Next, perhaps I could describe the weakest, most seemingly laughable variation of the traditional view as if it’s representative of all who believe in eternal conscious punishment. I should be forgiven for that too. “Traditionalists,” I might write, “believe that the reason the resurrected lost will be capable of eternal life in flames, never consumed, is because the fire that melts the flesh off their bones simultaneously restores it.”6 Few traditionalists today believe that, but neither do most annihilationists believe eternal “means only pertaining to ‘the age to come’ and not ‘everlasting’” (emphasis added). As Fudge explains—once again, in the book he co-authored with Peterson—many annihilationists believe “[eternal punishment] is called ‘eternal’ because it will last forever.”7 If the penalty to be paid is death, and if that death is forever, then it is an eternal punishment, not merely one pertaining to another age.

Of course, I won’t actually do any of these things. Whereas Peterson is apparently comfortable erecting a straw man easily consumed by far less than unquenchable fire, I am not. But Peterson’s paper tiger aside, what of his responses to the arguments he imagines are ours?

He responds first to the argument annihilationists make from the biblical imagery of fiery judgment. He writes, “Many passages use this language without interpreting it.” This is true in many cases, although in Matthew 13:24-43, Jesus first offers a parable in which a landowner instructs his servants to “gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up” (v. 30, NASB, emphasis added), and then interprets the parable, saying, “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (vv. 40-42).8 Peterson continues, “we do not want to read our ideas into the Bible, but to get our ideas from the Bible.” This is laudable, but he insists that when we do so, “we find that some passages preclude an annihilationist understanding of hellfire.” Yet the first passage he points to is Luke 16:28 and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, whose scene isn’t set in hell to begin with; it’s set in Hades, the so-called “intermediate state.” What’s more, the rich man and Lazarus are both dead, not resurrected, and the rich man’s brothers are still alive on this side of eternity.9 The only other text he offers as support for his claim is Revelation 14:10-11, a highly symbolic passage reusing apocalyptic imagery from the Old Testament in which ever-rising smoke communicates the utter destruction of Edom (Isaiah 34:8-10), as Peterson well knows.10

Next Peterson responds to what Dr. Glenn Peoples has called “The Biblical Language of Destruction.”11 Peterson writes concerning biblical texts promising “destruction” or “perishing” for the wicked that “some passages are impossible to reconcile with annihilationism.” His first example of such a passage is 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (incorrectly cited as verse 8), but he fails to explain how “the punishment of eternal destruction” is irreconcilable with the view that the lost will be destroyed forever.12 Next he argues that “the Beast’s ‘destruction’ is everlasting torment,” failing to distinguish between biblical symbols and their interpretation. The beast’s eternal torment takes place in the imagery (Revelation 20:10), but the destruction of that which the beast represents is foretold in the angel’s interpretation (Revelation 17:8, 11). Therefore “destruction” can’t be argued to mean “eternal torment” any more than “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” means the water atop which is seated a vampiric, blood-drunk prostitute (Revelation 17:15, cf. 17:1, 6).

Peterson moves on to respond to the straw man he has constructed in place of the annihilationist’s real arguments concerning the word translated “eternal.” Pretending our case hinges upon its meaning “pertaining to ‘the age to come,’” he argues that “the age to come lasts as long as the life of the eternal God Himself,” and that in Matthew 25:46, “The punishment of the lost in hell is coextensive to the bliss of the righteous in heaven—both are everlasting.” This is true, but as explained above (and to Peterson by Fudge), if the punishment is death, and if the lost die forever, their punishment is eternal. Peterson doesn’t explain, however, why only the saved are promised “eternal life” when in his view the risen lost will likewise live forever, having been rendered immortal.13

Responding next to the argument from justice made by many annihilationists, that the penalty of eternal torment is not proportionate to a finite lifetime of sins, Peterson is right to suggest that “We would do better to determine from [God's] Holy Word what He deems just and unjust.” He goes on, however, to cite Matthew 25:41 as if the “eternal fire” of which Jesus speaks clearly supports the traditional view, seemingly oblivious to the other two places in Scripture in which the phrase is used. Jesus himself uses the phrase earlier in Matthew 18:8, setting it in parallel to “Gehenna,” a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase, “valley of [the sons of] Hinnom.” Once a place where idol worshipers burned up children as sacrifices to their gods, Jeremiah 7:32-33 says Gehenna would become “the Valley of Slaughter” where “the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth.” In Isaiah 30:33 the valley is likened to a funeral pyre, a pile of wood for burning up corpses. The phrase “eternal fire” is used in quite a similar way in Jude 7 to refer to the fire which came down from heaven and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and which killed their inhabitants. If Jude’s words weren’t clear enough, the parallel in 2 Peter 2:6 says that “by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes [God] condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” Jesus’ reference to “eternal fire,” then, quite the opposite of supporting Peterson’s traditional view of hell, serves as powerful evidence in favor of annihilationism.

Peterson is absolutely right when he insists toward the end of his article that “We have no right to rewrite the biblical story.” Conditionalists concur, and we wish traditionalists like Peterson would simply let that story inform their understanding of the language it uses, instead of reading into the story the meanings they imagine.

  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. []
  2. Robert A. Peterson & Edward W. Fudge, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (InterVarsity, 2000), Kindle edition, p. 45. []
  3. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from Daniel 12:2. []
  4. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from Revelation 20:10-15. []
  5. Peterson & Fudge, pp. 31, 33, 38, 59. []
  6. Marcus Minucius Felix argued this very thing in the third century, writing, “The clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them.” See Marcus Minucius Felix, Octavius, chapter 35; quoted in Williams A. Jürgens, trans., The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 1:110. []
  7. Peterson & Fudge, pp. 45-46. []
  8. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from passages like this one which warn of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” []
  9. Chris Date, “Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment.” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted June 23, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/06/lazarus-and-the-rich-man-its-not-about-final-punishment (accessed August 11, 2014). []
  10. Peterson & Fudge, p. 28. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from Revelation 14:9-11. []
  11. “Episode 4: The Case for Annihilationism with Glenn Peoples,” Rethinking Hell [podcast], hosted by Glenn Peoples, September 4, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/09/episode-4-the-case-for-annihilationism-with-glenn-peoples (accessed August 11, 2014). []
  12. Visit our Explore section for a conditionalist response to the traditionalist argument from 2 Thessalonians 1:9. []
  13. Peterson & Fudge, p. 88. []
Criticisms Reformed
Bookmark the permalink.
  • “Hell on Trial” on the Ligonier site has been marked down from $18.00 to $14.40. Now is the time to get traditional on the cheap. ;)

  • Ivan A. Togers

    Pardon me, but if either the annihilationist or the conditionalist turns out to be right, it’s inevitable that God will end up the BIG loser. A better answer to the issue at hand is to recognize that none shall be lost. There is a primary reason that “all people” have been entrusted to the ultimate judgment of Christ. Why? It was for a very specific assignment that I will now quote from the words of Jesus himself, as follows: “For you [Father] granted [me] authority over ‘all people’ (Gk: sarx = “all flesh”) that [I] might give eternal life to all those you have given [me]” — John 17:2, emphasis added.

    • Chris Date

      This is just an assumption that “all people” means “every person,” which is not at all true. Universalism might be a friendlier answers, but it’s certainly far less biblical than conditionalism. I want to subject my emotions to Scripture, not the other way around.

      • skater60

        Paraphrasing Jesus: If you turkeys know how to give good things to your children, don’t you think God knows how to also? So, Jesus most definitely appealed to people to use their everyday sense of compassion to love, forgive, be merciful to, and understand even their enemies.
        I believe that “hell” is a state of mind-spirit that is fully under our control. If people finds themselves in such a situation all they have to do is ask and God comes running, so to speak. The situation of “hell” cannot withstand God, as it says somewhere. God always wins, and therefore, so do we all, eventually. I see it as a total insult to, and misunderstanding of, God’s love and abilities for anyone to condemn people to an eternity of suffering. But hey, go ahead, be my guest, what could it hurt?

    • Chris Date

      Isaiah 66:23-24 disproves the universalist argument from “all people,” in fact.

    • The whole Bible disproves the universalist argument, based on “all” and “whole world”.
      - http://hil001.blogspot.com/2010/06/defining-word-all.html
      - http://hil001.blogspot.com/2010/09/defining-world.html

  • Pingback: The Doctrine of Eternal Torment | Hillside()

  • skater60

    Jesus tells us that God is a loving father. What father among you would allow this nonsense to happen to his child? Eternal suffering, annihilation? It would be an evil thing in itself to create a child knowing this is the future for that child.

    • Peter Grice

      Jesus also tells us that the devil is a murderous, lying father—and that the Pharisees belonged to him. The Bible simply doesn’t portray all human beings as God’s “children” as you do here.

      • skater60

        Well yeah, sort of. Jesus also identified Peter as Satan (Matthew 16:23)!!! I both cases and others too, I see it as Jesus using figures of speech. He was calling people out for not understanding his message or for being willfully ignorant (the Pharisees) when in power. Jesus throughout the gospels uses language and metaphors that people could relate too and understand. So, I stand by my statement, that basically we are all God’s “children” and sooner or later we will all get “Home”, one way or another.

  • nonation self

    But how can a soul which is SPIRIT (like God who is the SUPREME all-inclusive SPIRIT) not a material entity be destroyed? And if immortality is CONDITIONAL as it concerns the pains and torments of Hell is it not also therefore conditional (according to the logic of “conditional immortality”) as it concerns the bliss of Heaven where (to the contrary i believe and i’m sure you’ll agree) one can indeed spend eternity amen?
    Hell (the place, that is) IS eternal but one does NOT have to spend eternity there…one can choose LIFE even there, that is, a return to “life” on the Earthly plane upon which one can atone for one’s “sins”, specifically, by enduring all that one did to others not wanting it done to one’s self
    If you do to others what you would not have others do to you you MUST reap that anyway OR if you will not accept that reaping you must have something worse (you cannot have better) and THAT CAN BE Hell at death IF in EARTHLY LIFE you prove yourself WORTHY of being a denizen of Satan’s KIngdom by PERPETUALLY and ENTHUSIASTICALLY and PROFITABLY “doing to others what you would not have others do to you” amen?
    If you earn in EARTHLY LIFE a place in Hell at death and you will not consent to a return to the Earthly plane in order to reap all of the evil that you sowed there not wanting to reap it there then for YOU Hell will be and MUST be eternal amen?

    • wtanksleyjr

      How did you learn this? The Bible doesn’t say anything faintly like this, and in fact contradicts it on several points; and experience can’t show you anything about eternity. Did someone tell you? Who?

      One point where you mention a logical argument: you said “if immortality is conditional in hell it must be conditional in heaven”. The Bible doesn’t teach that immortality is conditional in hell; it teaches that immortality is conditional on Earth during this age. Death is certain in hell; life is certain in heaven. (I see you don’t believe that, I’m just explaining our position more clearly.)

      • Joseph Dear

        To piggyback on what wtanksleyjr said, the idea isn’t that immortality is conditional only for those in hell. Indeed, immortality is conditional for everyone.

        When we say that it is conditional, what we mean is that it is based upon a condition. If you meet the condition, you will be immortal. If you don’t, then you won’t. The condition is being forgiven of your sins and justified and redeemed. Those in heaven meet the condition, so they are immortal. Those in hell do not meet the condition, so they are not immortal. So immortality is conditional for everyone – and some people meet the condition. That’s the whole point.

    • Joseph Dear

      As to the question of how a spirit can be destroyed, I would be quite surprised if a spirit could not be destroyed. Questions of human anthropology aside, no remotely orthodox believer would deny that all things, whether angels or demons or humans, were created by God. That would mean God created spirits as well, so I would flip that question and ask how one could believe that God couldn’t destroy a spirit if He had reason to do so?

      • nonation self

        God did not create souls which are of the same “substance” as God, that is, SPIRIT SUBSTANCE ( “The life in you is God.” i once read in Romans) – God created BODIES into which he (or for me she) entered as SOUL – when a SOUL enters a body it becomes a living being and when that body wears out in time AS IT MUST having been CREATED that soul leaves amen?
        if God created spirit(s) and can destroy them did God – being INFINITE ETERNAL SPIRIT – create him (or her) self? – and so cannot God therefore then destroy him (or her) self?
        if so then God is NOT necessarily INFINITE and ETERNAL and is therefore CONDITIONALLY IMMORTAL
        but you don’t assert that right?

        • Joseph Dear

          Are you saying that God does not create souls?

          I should add to that, does that mean that all of us have existed for as long as God Himself?

          • nonation self

            “we” existed as part of God yes but not as “we”, meaning a collection of individual bodies animated by a soul which leaves a body at death
            in BODIES we exist as INDIVIDUAL SOULS but COLLECTIVELY as a part of an infinite eternal WHOLE called “God”

          • Joseph Dear

            Okay, then how does any of this disprove conditionalism?

            Following your reasoning, the existence of the soul matter (for lack of a better term) that makes up humans existed before individual humans and apart from them. God did not create soul matter when He created us. If that is so, He would not need to destroy soul matter to destroy a person. If soul matter can exist apart from an individual person (like it did for eternity past before humans were created), then even if it is indestructible, a human being is not.

          • nonation self

            Right! The human – that which is born – will die will it not? But the soul because it is a part of God is indestructible because not CREATED amen?

          • Joseph Dear

            But my point is, the existence of soul matter does not mean a person is a living creature. After all, soul in terms of stuff that is derived from God was never created, but every person and every living creature was created. God creating them, according to your reckoning of what soul is, by taking soul matter and fashioning it into an individual person’s soul. Soul matter may be indestructible, but if you can assemble an individual soul from soul matter, from this ethereal soul that eminates from God, then you can also dissamble an individual soul, essentially returning it to its original state.

            It’s like a building made from wooden blocks. The stuff that you are saying is uncreated and eternal because it comes from God, soul (what I call soul matter) is the building blocks. But an individual person is not the blocks, but the building made from the blocks. Just as a child could destroy the building by taking it apart without harming the blocks, so God can disassemble what he build using the uncreated soul matter.

            That which is uncreated is not the person, but only a component of what makes up a person. Just as you can create a person without creating that component, so you can destroy a person without destroying that component. So even if soul matter that eminates from God is indestructible and uncreated, it does not mean that which He creates with it is indestructible. God can dissassemble what He created. Whether He chooses to or not is another story.

          • nonation self

            as for your initial question about disproving conditionalism please read again my first e-mail message on this topic and relate it to what I have said subsequently

          • Joseph Dear

            “as for your initial question about disproving conditionalism please read again my first e-mail message on this topic and relate it to what I have said subsequently”

            I think I understand. But the question hasn’t been answered anywhere in the thread. Truth be told, it was mostly rhetorical, setting the stage for my explanation of why your point about souls doesn’t disprove conditionalism.

Featured audio: Dr. Al Mohler & Chris Date debate
"Should Christians rethink Hell?" on Unbelievable?