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).

1 comment:

  1. I keep reading and re-reading this, trying to add / make a comment, but I feel that you have covered the facts scripturally and accurately.

    Hell is referred to as 'endless torment', not a limited period of suffering before final, complete death.