The book of Malachi is not only one of the last (if not the last) books of the Old Testament written, but it is also the last book most of see in our Old Testaments.1 Therefore, it is all the more appropriate that the final chapter speaks of the final end of history. As far as the fate of the finally unrepentant goes, Malachi’s God-breathed prediction leaves little to the imagination.
For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day (Malachi 4.1-3, NASB).
You can see why annihilationists might point to this passage. God will destroy the wicked. He will set them on fire like chaff, and no remnant of them will remain. Then He says that they will be like ashes under the feet of the wicked. Whether plain and literal or highly symbolic, how much clearer could the picture of final destruction (i.e. annihilation) possibly be?2
Traditionalist Response – The Passage Is Figurative
The first of the main traditionalist responses to the conditionalist case (besides just ignoring it) is that the passage is figurative either for eternal torment, or perhaps, a vague, generic fate that isn’t specific and therefore could be consistent with eternal torment. Jeff Spencer writes:
This passage also uses figurative language to refer to the wicked. It claims that because of divine punishment they will be left with ‘neither root nor branch.’ This means that none of the wicked will escape the judgment of God. Certainly, the wicked are not literal roots or branches, neither is their punishment a literal burning down to ‘stubble’ or nothingness. Furthermore, this passage is another comparison between the wicked and the righteous, showing that the same ‘Sun’ which punishes the wicked also makes the righteous glad.3
What’s missing is any reason why we should see the imagery as being consistent with eternal conscious existence (i.e. eternal life).4 It’s not enough to just say that an element of a prophecy is figurative and that therefore everything is symbolic of whatever you want it to be symbolic of. That a passage is symbolic may be relevant starting point, but it is only a starting point. And Malachi is not nearly as figurative as, say, the book of Revelation.
Even if the passage is figurative (which is not a given), what else would Malachi have in mind but fiery annihilation? Not only are the wicked burned up, not only are they said to be like ashes, but Malachi goes the extra mile to indicate that when the wicked are burned up and reduced to ash, there is neither “root nor branch” of them left. Yes, the statement about roots and branches isn’t literal, since people are not trees. But the use of one idiom does not make everything else equally figurative. Whatever the case, the meaning of that idiom is that the wicked are gone. They have been eliminated. Yes, they aren’t literally roots or branches, but figures and symbols mean something. What is lacking in Spencer’s response is any reason why the image of being burned up like chaff, reduced to ashes, and being left like a tree with neither root nor branch (i.e. completely uprooted and removed) should be taken as anything other than what it would sounds like: utter destruction.
Traditionalist Response – The Passage is Not About Final Judgment: Part 1
The other main argument against the annihilationist interpretation is that this passage does not refer to the final damnation of the wicked in the first place. It has been claimed that, since Verse 5 God speaks of sending Elijah beforehand, it is speaking only of Jesus’s first coming.5 This is because of Matthew 11:14, where the Lord said, “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come” (NASB). But was the day that Malachi spoke of fulfilled then? Is this referring in unusually vivid and metaphorical detail to what happened when Jesus came 2000 years ago?
Similarly, one could argue that it is speaking generically of some earthly judgment, such as the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, not the judgment of all mankind at the end of the world.6 But is this first century fulfillment interpretation correct?
Jesus’s First Coming
The answer is “no,” as both arguments have key weaknesses. First, and most importantly, the argument that Malachi 4 was entirely fulfilled in Jesus’s coming should give us pause because it basically makes no sense. The reference to Elijah is a difficulty that must be overcome by those who say that this passage describes the end of the world. But it is a gently sloping hill in the meadow compared to the mountain that must be climbed by those who claim this passage is about something else.
How exactly did Jesus’s first coming eliminate the wicked completely, as the imagery suggests? How are they left with neither root nor branch? What event on earth, either that has happened or could happen, would be anything like the imagery suggests? Now, one could say that Jesus began the process by his first coming. I would agree. But the events of Malachi 4:1-3 still have not happened.
The Preterist View and AD 70
The preterist interpretation is more reasonable, although I will explain in a moment why it still fails. If the passage is predicting the fall of Jerusalem, it can make sense of some of the fiery, cataclysmic language. I myself am a preterist, so I can appreciate how the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and all that came with it could be described with extreme, hyperbolic language. However, any orthodox, non-heretical form of preterism holds that some events predicted in scripture did not occur in AD 70 but still await us today. The context of Malachi 4‘s fiery judgment language shows that it is one of those events.
First of all, the fall of Jerusalem may be worthy of cataclysmic language. But this passage is so forceful that even the fall of the entire Jewish religious system seems insufficient. We are not merely speaking of the sun and moon going dark or other prophetic image regularly associated with military conquest.7 Unbelievers, including unbelieving Jews, still existed in large numbers after the fall of Jerusalem. There was certainly root and branch remaining. And the fall of Jerusalem was hardly a time of healing and leaping for joy for Christians. They were spared death, as they followed what I believe to have been Jesus’ warnings (Matthew 24:15, Luke 21:20-21). But they still had to flee as refugees. Furthermore, some of the greatest persecutions of believers in the first century came after the fall of Jerusalem. Where was the great time of healing and joy? This should give us pause as to whether Malachi 4 was meant this way,
Furthermore, unlike for those alive New Testament times, the fall of Jerusalem would have been centuries and generations away from Malachi’s readers. It makes sense that Jesus would describe the fall of the city and the permanent destruction of the temple to his followers when they would soon enter into the new covenant and some would live to see AD 70. It makes sense that those who had seen the risen Lord would have reason to care about the end of the old system and the vengeance against the generation that persecuted many of them. None of this would have anywhere near the significance for people in Malachi’s time, who had not seen the Lord and were themselves still bound to the old covenant system and all that came with it.
The Problem with Any Event Other Than Final Judgment
The latter half of Malachi chapter 3 sets the stage for the judgment vision by assuring Malachi’s readers that it will ultimately be to their benefit to serve God. God tells his people that if profits them to serve him instead of sinning, and then he tells them of a day of fiery judgment for his enemies and joy and salvation for those who serve him. What event could be described in chapter 4 that would be of any relevance to the people alive in Malachi’s time?
Unless something happened in the lives of those Malachi was speaking to, the only event that would fulfill the promise to them would be the final judgment. Any event that was future to Malachi’s audience but that happened apart from final judgment would be meaningless to Malachi’s readers. Whether they served God or rebelled, their actions would have no effect on their fate in any future, earthly judgment. They would be dead. The fall of Jerusalem, for example, may have been cataclysmic from a cultural and religious standpoint, but how would anyone who lived and died centuries prior be rewarded or punished by what happened there? For those who lived in Malachi’s time, there would be no distinction between the righteous and the wicked – directly contradicting Malachi 3:20.
Only the final judgment could be in view, because only then could those of Malachi’s time be rewarded for serving God. Only then would they stand beside the wicked and, as gruesome as it sounds, trample on their ashes. All would be resurrected, and their actions in this life would matter – something that would not have been true during the fall of Jerusalem, the first coming of Christ, or any other earthly event.
Any theory that says that Malachi 4 speaks of an earthly judgment, such as the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, essentially makes the latter half of Malachi 3 say the following: “You think that serving God is of no profit to you, but you are wrong. Be righteous so that in the future, other people will be spared God’s judgment if they are righteous, not being in any way affected by what you do. So be righteous.” It is absurd.
The only way this is not so is if I am wrong in my assessment of the latter half of Malachi 3. But the passage speaks for itself pretty well:
You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the Lord of hosts? So now we call the arrogant blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up but they also test God and escape.’
Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name. “They will be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.” So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him (Malachi 3:14-20, NASB).
That all seems pretty clear cut. The people complain that serving God doesn’t benefit them. God responds that it does, that he remember who serves him, and that a day will come when they will be rewarded and that they will be able to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. It is immediately after this that Chapter 4 starts and God tells them about the fiery judgment that they will be spared from – because they served him and are written in his book.
So then, how could anything but final judgment be in view?
Traditionalist Response – The Passage is Not About Final Judgment: Part 2
What About Elijah?
What about the reference to Elijah in Malachi 4:5? Doesn’t this refer to John the Baptist and Jesus’ first coming? Shouldn’t we then interpret this passage as something around that time frame (such as Jesus’ first coming or the fall of Jerusalem)?
Aside from the reasons above to not take it that way, there are two additional points to be taken into account about Elijah and John the Baptist.
The first point is that there is a school of thought that there will in fact be the actual prophet Elijah coming in the future. The authors of the Matthew portion of the Pulpit Commentary series, for example, hold to this view.8 This comes not only from Malachi 4:5, but from Matthew 17:11. Given in its greater context, we learn the following from Jesus:
As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.’ And His disciples asked Him, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ And He answered and said, ‘Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist (Matthew 17:10-13, NASB; Verse 11 in bold).
I am undecided on this interpretation myself, as the passage in Matthew could seem to go either way based on the specifics of a given translation. But it is worth considering.
Secondly, even if Matthew 4:5 was not meant literally, and it was referring entirely to John the Baptist, that still does not limit all of the passage to just the first coming of Christ and surrounding events.
Jesus, after all, does not have only one coming, but two. The first coming commences the kingdom of God to come, but it is not completed until after Jesus returns. How else could the Messiah be a suffering servant who dies rejected (Isaiah 53:9) yet also one restores peace, slays the wicked, and rules over all people (Isaiah 11)? Jesus came and was the suffering servant, as it is written: “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, NASB). We know from 1 Peter 2:23 that this is about Jesus. However, the story isn’t finished yet.
We also know from passages such as Psalm 110 and 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 that Jesus putting everything under his feet is an ongoing process. Jesus reigns not after the enemies of God are defeated, but amongst them (Psalm 110:2). He is already at God’s right hand, but the battle is still ongoing. He has already defeated death in the sense that he died and rose again and made death’s defeat a sure thing. And yet, God has not yet pulled the trigger to actually end it yet. We are in that awkward but also beautiful age of “now/not yet.”
Jesus’s first coming was definitely the catalyst for everything that would happen in Malachi 4. That much I think we would all agree on. But Malachi never said everything happens immediately after the Lord comes. He doesn’t give many specifics about how fast things happen. In light of the biblical paradigm of Jesus coming and starting the new age long before it is completed, it makes sense that Malachi would talk about the end of the world, followed by an explanation of what has to happen first. John the Baptist (i.e. “Elijah”) comes leading the way for the Messiah whose first coming leads ultimately to the events in first half of the chapter. I’m not talking about complex and seemingly contrived switching back and forth of time and topics with no indicators in the text. It would simply be God saying “this is what will happen at the end of the world. Prior to that, something else will happen to get the ball rolling.” Simple.
I should note also that those who hold to the AD 70 interpretation already implicitly understand this point, broadly speaking. Four decades separated the death of Jesus (and the end of the preceding ministry of John the Baptist) from the actual judgment they believe is spoken of in Malachi 4:1-3. This view already holds that the events spoken of in verses 4-6 are the catalyst of the judgment in verses 1-3, a judgment that only comes a long time after the events believed to be spoken of in Verse 5.
Even if Malachi 4:5 is only describing John the Baptist, a view that this verse follows a description of the end of the world is reasonable. Given how unreasonable any view is that limits the judgment in Malachi 4 to anything but the end of the world, it seems an easy choice to make.
And so with that in mind, this passage that initially sounds like it is describing the end of the world with fiery annihilation of the wicked does just that.
- This is true for both Protestant and Catholic Bibles, as typically arranged. [↩]
- Portions of this article are adapted from The Bible Teaches Annihilationism by Joseph Dear, Section XXXIX. [↩]
- Jeff Spencer, “The Destruction of Hell: Annihilationism Examined” Christian Apologetics Journal, 1, no. 2 (Spring 1998): n.p., http://www.gospelanswers1.com/HellandAnnihilationismSP.pdf (accessed April 29, 2017). [↩]
- It isn’t just snarky conditionalists who take things out of context who call the fate of the unsaved “eternal life.” For examples of this, and for more on traditionalists using normal, every day language that contradicts what the Bible says, see Episode 58 of the Rethinking Hell Podcast. [↩]
- “Eternal Torment Proved…Annihilation Refuted,” The Interactive Bible. n.d., http://www.bible.ca/su-annihilation-refuted.htm (accessed June 7, 2017). [↩]
- John Gill, “Malachi 4,” John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible, reproduced at studylight.org, n.d., (accessed June 7, 2017). [↩]
- For example, see Isaiah 13:10 cf. Matthew 24:29. [↩]
- “Matthew 17,” The Pulpit Commentaries, ed. Joseph S. Exell and Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones, reproduced at Studylight.org, n.d., https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/matthew-17.html (accessed June 7, 2017). [↩]