Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Annihilationism's Achilles' Heel

Two terms need to be defined:

Annihilationism: This is the view that the Bible does not teach the eternal, concious torment of the wicked, but rather, the annihilation of the wicked, both body and soul.  When this occurs varies, depending on who you read.  Some Annihilationists suggest that the soul will be destroyed immediately upon death.  (Presumably the natural decay of the body and the final destruction of the elements in the Day of Judgment will destroy their bodies, but I have yet to find this discussed anywhere by defenders of this view.)  Others believe that this annihilation occurs after a period of torment of body and soul after the Day of Judgment.  When this annihilation takes place is again unclear.  

It would be unfair to accuse Annihilationists of ignoring the Bible.  Clark Pinnock has written an essay (read the essay in Four Views on Hell, ed. by William Crockett) in which he refers to numerous biblical passages which appear to defend his view (here is just a sample of the many verses he cites: Ps. 37:2, 9-10; Mal. 4:1-2; Matt. 10:28, 13:30, 42, 49-50; 2 Thess. 1:9, & Phil. 3:19).  And who would accuse John Stott of not believing the Bible?  Yet John Stott was sympathetic to the Annihilationist position.  It is not the Annihilationist's belief in the Bible that we question.  Rather, it is their interpretation of the Bible on this issue that needs to be evaluated.

Achilles' Heel: I like Wikipedia's definition (I think we can trust Wikipedia here!): "An Achilles' heel is a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength".  In my view, a careful comparison of Matthew 25:32-46 and Revelation 20:10-15 is the Achilles' heel of the Annihilationist's position.

To understand what I am talking about, you will probably find it helpful to read Matthew 25:32-46 and Revelation 20:10-15.

We must begin by considering the context of Matthew 25.  In Matthew 24 the disciples point out the Temple buildings to Jesus who then says that all of it will be torn down (24:1-2).  Curious, the disciples ask two questions: Firstly, When these things will happen?  Secondly, What will be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age?  John Murray’s careful study of this chapter cannot be ignored. Murray convincingly shows us that in this chapter, Jesus distinguishes between two events: The destruction of the Temple in AD 70; and his second coming in glory to judge the world.  Verse 34 refers to AD 70.  Verse 36 refers to his second coming, about which we still do not know the hour! 

Matthew 25, then, is the practical application of Matthew 24:36.  The three parables in this chapter teach us to be prepared for Christ’s second coming.  Those who are ready are those who have faith which results in fruitfulness, contrary to the religious leaders, the blind guides, the white-washed tombs.  These three parables teach us that works are evidence of true saving faith and that we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ by doing the good works he has prepared for every believer (cf. Eph. 2:10).  Although our works will not save us, they will provide clear evidence that we are saved.  Conversely, there will be some who call Jesus ‘Lord’, but their lack of works will be evidence that they never belonged to him.  It is to this group of people in the last parable, known as the goats on Jesus’ left side, that we now turn.

In verse 44 Jesus addresses the goats.  He says to them, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”

The verse can be broken up into three parts:

1. ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones’.  The wicked are commanded to depart from the presence of the Lord and are addressed as those on whom the curse of God rests.  When we hear Jesus address the wicked as the accursed ones, or ‘those who are cursed’, we should not think of some hex or superstitious curse.  Jesus is using Old Testament vocabulary.  In the Old Testament, those on whom God’s favour rested were blessed.  Those on whom God’s wrath rested were cursed.  Deuteronomy 28 is a prime example.  Look at only a few verses from the chapter, comparing verses 1-4 with verses 15-18:

Verses 1-4: Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.  All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the LORD your God.  Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.  Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock.

Verses 15-18: But it shall come about, if you do not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country.  Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.  Cursed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock.

In Matthew 25:41, Jesus is contrasting the cursedness of the wicked with the blessedness of the righteous in verse 34.  Whereas in Deuteronomy 28 the righteous were promised God’s blessing in the land, the righteous of verse 34 are promised the blessing of God in his eternal kingdom.  But the wicked – their curse is not a temporal curse in the land, but separation from the blessing of God for all eternity.
2. ‘into the eternal fire’ The place the 'goats' are sent to is described as the eternal fire.  This fire is as eternal as the life promised to the 'sheep' in verse 46, for the same word is used and the context surely demands this parallel as the simplest reading. 

Few dispute this parallel reading of verse 41 with verse 46, but some have argued that it is the fire that is eternal and that the wicked are consumed (or annihilated) in this eternal fire.  Although the verse speaks about an eternal fire it would seem unnatural to read this as referring to the fire alone.  Why is the fire eternal?  It is eternal because that which it burns is never consumed.

3.‘which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.’  These words remind us of Revelation 20:10 where ‘the devil is thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also…’ The verse goes on to explain that these ‘will be tormented day and night forever and ever.’  Verses 13-15 go on to explain that the dead are judged according to their deeds and that any whose names were not found written in the book of life were ‘thrown into the lake of fire’.

Revelation 20 teaches us then that God intended the lake of fire to be a place of eternal torment, day and night, forever and ever, for the devil and his angels, and a place where the wicked will also be sent after their deeds have condemned them in the Day of Judgment.  It would be unnatural to read Revelation 20 as teaching anything else.  What does torment day and night forever and ever mean?  It means torment day and night for ever and ever.  This place that has been prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:44) is a place of unending, conscious torment.

In his examination of the proof texts for the traditional view, Pinnock makes a quick reference to Revelation 20 in his discussion on Revelation 14, but makes no reference to the obvious link it has with Matthew 25. (See Four Views on Hell, pp. 155-8).  Scripture interprets Scripture and as I have shown above, Revelation 20 helps us to understand Matthew 25.  It is hard not to conclude that Pinnock is using selective exegesis when he states (note the italics and the reference to Revelation 20 at the end):

Regarding Revelation 14:11, we observe that, while the smoke goes up forever, the text does not say the wicked are tormented forever.  It says that they have no relief from their suffering as long as the suffering lasts, but it does not say how long it lasts.  As such it could fit hell as annihilation or the traditional view.  Before oblivion, there may be a period of suffering, but not unendingly.  Besides not teaching the traditional view, the text does not describe the end of history either, which is termed the second death, an image very much in agreement with annihilation (Rev 20:14). (Four Views, p. 157, italics mine).

With this Scriptural evidence in mind, comments such as these by Pinnock make no sense: ‘One receives the impression that “eternal punishment” refers to a divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed rather than to the experience of eternal endless torment (i.e., eternal punishing).’ (Four Views, p. 144).  And, ‘Similarly, the apocalypse of John speaks both of a lake of fire that will consume the wicked and of the second death.' (Four Views, p. 146, italics mine).

Monday, 23 February 2015

Sabbatical Update - Week 9

I spent a fair amount of time writing things down last week and also today.  I need to try and put it in some logical order now in preparation for my meeting with Garry Williams next week (5th March) when I will submit what I have done so far.

I thought to myself earlier this afternoon, 'If I were to preach a series of sermons on hell, how would I begin?'  This is the introduction that came to mind.  I think what is written below could be expanded into one sermon, perhaps an introductory one.

Any thoughts?

The Doctrine of Hell

Before we begin I need to ask a pastoral question.  Do you believe the Bible?  Do you believe that the Holy Scripture is “the all-sufficient, certain and infallible rule or standard of the knowledge, faith and obedience that constitute salvation?’  Do you believe that God through the Scriptures has revealed himself and made his will known for our salvation?  Before studying the doctrine of hell, you need to have come to settled conclusions about the doctrine of Scripture.

C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain: ‘There is no doctrine which I would be more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.  But it has the full support of scripture and specially of our Lord’s own words.’  C.S. Lewis may very well have said what you are presently thinking and the truth of the matter is that if you begin study the doctrine of hell without first being 100% convinced that the Scripture is the very word of God and therefore every word is to be believed – unless you are 100% convinced of this, you will abandon the doctrine of hell.  Either you will abandon it completely, as many have done.  Or you may put up with it because, "that’s what we’re supposed to believe”, but you will never allow this doctrine to shape your view of the world and your understanding of God and how he sees the world and what he is planning for the future.

So settle this matter now.  Do you trust the Scriptures?

Now, for those who know that God cannot lie and therefore trust every word he has spoken through His Son, let me offer a pastoral word.  I studied the doctrine of hell during my sabbatical, because if I am honest, I wanted to discover from the Scriptures if there was any way that the traditional view of hell which I had been taught and which I had taught might not be true.  Believing the Scriptures, I went to them and it did not take me long to see that it is impossible to escape the fact that the Bible teaches that the wicked, those who do not know God, those who reject the gospel, will suffer eternal, conscious torment in hell, away from the presence of the Lord, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What I hope to show, however, is that this doctrine does not take away from, but rather magnifies the attributes of God.  There are aspects of God’s character which we cannot fully appreciate and praise him for if we neglect the doctrine of hell.  I am thinking particularly of his holiness, his justice and indeed, even his love.  As an older and experienced gospel minster said to me when he heard I was studying hell, “When studying hell, never drift far from the cross.”  How true!  The Bible never divorces hell from the cross.  Hell is what the entire human race deserves.  Hell is what Jesus Christ came to rescue his people from and hell is what the infinite Son of God bore on the cross when he was offered up as a sacrifice for sin.

Keep these words in mind (sing them!) when wrestling through with the doctrine of hell:

GLORY be to Jesus,
who, in bitter pains,
poured for me the life-blood
from His sacred veins.

2 Grace and life eternal
in that blood I find;
blest be His compassion,
infinitely kind!

3 Blest through endless ages
be the precious stream,
which from endless torments
did the world redeem.

4 Abel’s blood for vengeance
pleaded to the skies;
but the blood of Jesus
for our pardon cries.

5 Oft as it is sprinkled
on our guilty hearts,
Satan in confusion
terror-struck departs.

6 Oft as earth exulting
wafts its praise on high,
angel-hosts rejoicing
make their glad reply.

7 Lift ye then your voices;
swell the mighty flood;
louder still and louder
praise the Lamb of God.

Italian, c. 1815;

tr. by Edward Caswall, 1814-78

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Sabbatical Update - Week 8

"Some of us will escape death, but none of us will escape Judgment."  So says Alistair Begg in a sermon entitled, "He will Judge the World."  Watch the full sermon below (after you have read my latest Sabbatical update, of course!).

I completed my reading list from the John Owen Centre last week, so this week I am planning to do some writing as this will be helpful to pin down some of my thoughts and conclusions.  I feel like I am making good progress with the Hebrew, and I am keeping up with the Greek too.  I have managed to keep the Greek going (on and off) since Bible college days, but I intended to use this Sabbatical time to do further revision and improve my grammar and vocab - and, I am pleased to say, so far so good.

The languages are proving particularly helpful when dealing with particular words relating to Judgement and Hell.  For instance, just considering the New Testament, you may be aware that the newer NT translations tend to use the word "hell" to translate a number of words in Greek, including "gehenna" and "hades".  I am intending look a little deeper into how the word "hell" came to be used in our English translations, and also whether we might be better serve ourselves and our hearers by using transliterations of the words Jesus himself used.

Thanks again for the comments.  Keep them coming.  They are encouraging.  And thank you for your continued prayers.

Here's the sermon by Alistair Begg.  This guy can preach!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Sabbatical Update - Week 7

I had some sound advice yesterday morning from a man with many years of ministry experience.  He said to me, "When you are studying hell, never drift far from the cross."  How true!  Romans 5:8 says, "God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

Matthew 8 is a powerful chapter.  For the first time in this gospel Jesus begins to expound upon the nature of hell, describing it as "outer darkness" and a place where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (v. 12).  Before this, however, he has shown compassion to a leper and healed a Gentile centurion's servant.  And having performed these amazing acts of mercy he says, "[M]any will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven..."

How will these people from the east and west come?  How will they be able to recline at the table in the kingdom of heaven?  It is all through the cross.  On the cross, Jesus endured the outer darkness for his people!  To quote Cornelis Venema, "Christ, by virtue of his life of obedience and his atoning death, met the demands and the penalties of the law on behalf and in the place of his own people." (Venema, Cornelis, P., The Promise of the Future, p. 446.)

I hope by the end of this week to have completed the reading list that was given to me.  Next week then (DV) I will start writing.  I think the best way forward will be to start by defending the biblical position on hell.  Following that I will consider the main alternative views, namely, Restorationism, Universalism and Reconciliationism.  And then, having considered the alternatives, I will show why the alternative views cannot be defended biblically.

That's where I am headed.  Thanks for your prayers.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Herman Bavinck on Eternal Punishment

"If human sentiment had the final say about the doctrine of eternal punishment, it would certainly be hard to maintain and even today find few defenders."

Bavinck later says: "Human feeling is no foundation for anything important...and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice."

This is a good place to begin when considering the doctrine of Hell. If we try to make sense of it through our feelings, we will create for ourselves all sorts of problems. So, we must begin by accepting that God is just and perfectly determines what is right and what is wrong. As Bavinck says, "Over and over our sense of justice and our our compassion clash. We are either too soft or much too severe in our judgment. But in the case of the Lord our God this is not, and cannot be, so."

Sabbatical Update - Week 6

Last week I met with Dr Garry Williams at The John Owen Centre.  This centre is part of London Theological Seminary where a good number of the pastors who preach at our church (as well as many FIEC pastors) have trained.

At this meeting, Dr Williams gave me a reading list and then he and I discussed the way forward for the next two months.  I found this discussion time extremely useful and he helped me to set some reasonable goals for the weeks ahead.

The work I will be doing will be divided into three parts:
  1. Exegetical: Looking carefully at the Scriptures dealing directly and indirectly with Judgement and Hell; Presenting a clear biblical argument for Hell and why it is eternal; Using these passages to show why teachings such as Annihilationism, Conditional Immortality, Universalism, Restorationism, etc. do not work and why they are false.
  2. Rational: Considering the logic of the doctrine of Hell, why it is just, and why it actually magnifies, rather than detracts from, the love of God.
  3. Practical, Pastoral, Preaching: Having considered the above, I will then look into the practical and pastoral questions which I have posed in an earlier post, such as how a believer deals with this doctrine when he has lost a loved one who did not believe, how and why this doctrine must be preached, etc.
Your prayers and comments would be appreciated!

I am also meeting every Monday morning with Philip Eveson, former principal of London Theological Seminary, who lives in Wrexham.  He is teaching me Hebrew.  My first lesson was this morning and it was very enjoyable.  He is pushing me hard, and wants me to complete all 28 lessons in the course he has devised.  So prayers for this too, please!