Eschatology: End Times
The term “eschatology” comes from two Greek terms e[scato" and lovgo" meaning (roughly speaking) “last, end, or final” and “study of,” respectively. Theologically speaking, then, the term eschatology refers to “the study of final things” in the Bible. It concerns both personal eschatological issues such as death and the intermediate state as well as themes with a more general or corporate focus. The latter would include such ideas as the return of Christ, resurrection, judgment, tribulation, the millennial kingdom, and the eternal state.
There are both personal and corporate aspects to the Biblical portrait of eschatology. On the personal side, all people will experience physical death and the intermediate state. There have been a few exceptions to this rule, however, in the Biblical record (e.g., Enoch; in the future, Christians alive at the Lord’s return do not seem to pass through physical death, but instantaneously receive their resurrection bodies), but by and large all people can “count on” going through the experience of physical death (Heb 9:27), followed by conscious existence throughout an interim period until the resurrection of the body.
Physical death is described in scripture as the separation of the soul or spirit from the body; this seems to be the immediate result of the decay and termination of the physical body. James says that the body without the spirit is dead and the writer of Ecclesiastes, speaking of physical death in general, says that the body returns to the dust from which it came and the spirit to God who gave it (Eccl 12:7; cf. Gen 2:7; 3:19).
But the use of the term death in scripture is not confined simply to physical death. Rather, it is also used to describe the spiritual state of all people (except Christ) born into this world. The apostle Paul says that we are “spiritually dead in sin” until we are made alive with Christ (Eph 2:1-6). As a result of being spiritually dead, we produce works consistent with death, darkness, and profound ignorance of God (Eph 4:17-19).
But those who die in this condition of spiritual death face yet another death. This one, however, is permanent, without hope of change or deliverance. It is referred to as the second death and results in a permanent state of separation from the gracious presence of God. It is eternal punishment for sin and rejecting God’s presence in Christ. It is referred to in Revelation 21:8 as the second death.56 Here is what John says:
Revelation 21:8 But to the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.”
John says earlier in Revelation 20:6 that believers in Christ will not have to endure the second death.
Revelation 20:6 Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
Physical and spiritual death are a result of Adam’s sin (1 Cor 15:21).57 Adam as the representative man was commanded not to eat of the fruit of the tree on payment of certain death (Gen 2:17). This penalty of “death” involved more than spiritual death, for man was banned from re-entering the garden, taking from the tree of life, and living forever in a sinful state (Gen 3:23-24). Thus the penalty of death for sin included physical death as well as spiritual death (see the refrain “and he died” in Gen 5).58
The existential problem of death is so grievous that many lose hope and any desire to go on in life. But for the Christian, death does not have the final say in the matter; “loss” is not the final outcome. As sad, fearful, and troublesome as the expectation and experience of death is (Acts 8:2; Phil 2:27), the Christian has the assurance, based on the resurrection of Christ and the ministry of the indwelling Spirit, that resurrection and life with God will be his/her final destiny (1 Thess 4:13). While we grieve for our deceased loved ones now, we grieve not for them—insofar as they are believers in Christ, they are with the Lord—but we grieve for ourselves, in our deep and profound sense of loss. In our time of need let us come to the throne of grace to find mercy and receive grace upon grace (Heb 4:15). The Lord Jesus Christ is no stranger to the suffering of death (1 Cor 15:55-57).
There is the question, however, of what happens to people after they die, but before they are resurrected. This is often referred to by theologians as the “intermediate state” (Zwischenzustand). Several answers have been given to this question. First, there are those who suggest that the soul enters an unconscious state of limbo until the resurrection of the body.59 Generally those who argue for “soul sleep,” as it is often referred to, claim that this is the significance of the many references to Christians “falling asleep” in the Lord (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-15). But it is highly unlikely that “sleep” is anything more than a metaphor (euphemism)—viewed from the perspective of grieving Christians who are still alive—to refer to deceased Christian loved-ones who will one day “awake” to be with Christ (and family and friends) in resurrection life. Thus, the point of the metaphor is not that they are now in an unconscious state, but rather that death is not their final destiny, resurrection life with Christ is (see John 11:11-14)! The metaphor indicates that death is only temporary for the Christian. Further, the story of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 demonstrates conscious existence after death, not “sleep” in the way advocates of “soul sleep” often argue.
Second, Roman Catholic theology customarily argues that the souls of believers are not yet completely purified; hence they go to purgatory to experience cleansing and preparation for heaven and God’s presence. Catholics often base this doctrine on elements of church tradition and certain texts, including, but not limited to 2 Maccabees 12:42-45 where Judas Maccabeus is said to have taken up a monetary collection to be sent to Jerusalem as a sin offering; he is thus said to have “made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sins” (NRSV). Other NT passages used to support the doctrine of purgatory include Matthew 5:26; 12:32; 1 Corinthians 3:15, and 2 Timothy 1:18. Even a quick glance at these passages, however, reveals that the doctrine of purgatory cannot be legitimately read out of them. Further, the tenor of NT theology and the necessity of present faith in Christ for salvation makes such a claim patently false. The apostles held out hope only for those who personally trusted in Christ in this life.
Third, another view of the intermediate state is “instantaneous resurrection.” In this view, propounded in various ways by F. F. Bruce, W. D. Davies and others, Paul had no room for the intermediate state of disembodied existence, but rather taught in 2 Cor 5 that upon death the Christian immediately receives a resurrection body which is presently hidden in the eternal order. But this interpretation of 2 Cor 5 is dubious at best (cf. 5:9) and the presupposition that man must have a body or he ceases to exist—often associated with a strict monistic anthropology—must be rejected on clear scriptural grounds (as we indicated above).
Fourth, a better view of the intermediate state is that the disembodied souls of believers go to be “with Christ” (2 Cor 5:8-9) and will from there await a resurrection body at his return. The apostle Paul said that the dead in Christ will return with the Lord at the rapture and then all will rise (i.e., receive resurrection bodies; 1 Cor 15:22-23; 1 Thess 4:14, 16). Those who die apart from Christ go immediately to hell (Luke 16:23-24) and from there await a resurrection to judgment (John 5:28-29; Matt 25:46).60 There seems to be very little indication in scripture that we are given resurrection bodies immediately after death. Rather, the emphasis seems to fall on a future resurrection of believers and unbelievers coordinate with the Lord’s return.
Now, regarding the resurrection, certain questions have emerged. But before we entertain them, let us say first of all, that believers will most certainly be glorified in resurrected bodies. This is a doctrine clearly taught in scripture and throughout the history of the church (cf. John 5:28-29; Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:12-58; 2 Cor 5:1-10).
But some have asked about the nature of the resurrection body. Regarding the first question, some argue that since Paul said that “flesh and blood” cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:50), our bodies will not have corporeality. But there are several weaknesses in this view. First, it is unlikely that by “flesh and blood” Paul means to contrast non-material with material. Rather, as the next phrase in 1 Cor 15:50 indicates, he is contrasting that which is perishable (our bodies in their present existence under Adam and sin) with that which is imperishable (our glorified bodies). Second, it seems fairly clear in scripture that Jesus’ resurrection body was physical (Luke 24:39; John 20:27; 1 Cor 15:49), and since ours is patterned after his, we may expect ours to be physical as well (Phil 3:21). This does not mean that in our resurrected bodies we will have all the limitations we now labor under, but that we will actually have bodies (they may be capable, as was the resurrected Jesus, of much more than we can now imagine).
There is also the question of the identity of the person who dies and the person who is resurrected. Some philosophers and theologians, who maintain a monistic view of man, cannot even begin to entertain the idea that a person exists apart from their body, i.e., that there is an immaterial soul. For them, then, there is either no life after death, or in the case of some Christian theologians, God must recreate the person at the resurrection; the point is: disembodied existence is impossible. This raises the question of personal identity and who really gets raised from the dead when a person dies. But while this poses a problem for substance monists and others, scripture speaks quite clearly on the identity of the deceased person and the subsequently resurrected person: As to identity, he/she is the same person. Corporeality or physicality is not essential to personhood as the personhood of God himself and angels teach us. Again, despite widespread monism among Christian philosophers and theologians, scripture affirms an anthropology of substance dualism (complex material united intimately with complex immaterial). The soul/person continues after death and as such awaits the resurrection when he/she will receive a glorified body.
There is also the question of the nature of the resurrection body, but we will have to leave that topic until the next update.
The Return of Christ: Areas of General Agreement
It Is Certain, Though Day Unknown
The triumphant hope living through the pages of the New Testament rests on the facts that Christ rose from the dead, ascended to heaven (where he is currently reigning in fulfillment of Davidic promise), and will certainly someday return. As the apostles were standing, watching Jesus go into heaven, Luke tells us that two men dressed in white appeared and queried them: “Why are you standing here looking into the sky?” Perhaps the disciples were worshipping and struck with awe or perhaps they thought Jesus might immediately return to be with them. In any case, Jesus continued into heaven, but the men told the disciples that in the same way (tropos) that Jesus went into heaven he would most certainly return (Acts 1:11). This, of course, was the firm and widespread belief of the early Christians. Paul taught that “the Lord himself would come down from heaven…” (1 Thess 4:16) and John mentions it frequently as the hope of the saints in the book of Revelation. In 22:12 Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon…” and in 22:20 he repeats the same idea. Further, Revelation 22:20 demonstrates that it is and should be the prayer of every Christian’s heart, that is, for Christ to return quickly (see also Phil 4:5; Heb 9:28; James 5:8; 2 Peter 3:10; 1 John 3:2-3).
There are perhaps many reasons for the early church’s strong belief in the personal return of Christ, but none can be more central than that Jesus himself taught the doctrine. In his great Olivet discourse, Christ announced, in keeping with Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man, that he would most certainly return (Matt 24:3; 24:30; John 14:3; Rev 1:7).
Another important aspect that all Evangelical writers agree upon is the fact that the precise date of the second coming is not known and cannot be known. Even Jesus did not know the date of his return; only the Father knows that (Matt 24:36). Therefore, while we can recognize certain signs (which, incidentally, have been occurring since the beginning), we cannot know the hour in which the Son of Man will return. Indeed, “date-setting”—as it has come to be known in certain circles—is an effective distraction, taking our eyes off what we are clearly commanded to be doing in his absence, namely, serving him with wisdom and diligence, in the expectation of his certain return (Matt 24:36-25:30). Such a fascination with nailing down the date comes from hearts who either know Christ very little or not at all; they lead unsuspecting people down theological “rabbit trails” only to find both themselves and their followers ensnared in the end. Many a cult and wayward Christian group are testimony to that truth.
I am not saying that eschatological teaching is unimportant; not at all. I am talking about those who give 88 reasons for the rapture in ‘88. They are misguided and no person (Christian or otherwise) need listen to them. In fact, the teaching of Jesus would suggest we ignore them. Thus, the Bible’s eschatological focus should be ours and we definitely ought not contradict such clear teachings in scripture (e.g., Jesus says he does not know the time of his return) in favor of our deluded attempts to know the inscrutable.
It Will Be Personal, Bodily, and Visible to All
The idea, stemming in part from many liberal circles, that Jesus would return spiritually, as opposed to bodily, is difficult to square with many passages in Scripture and has more to do with certain antisupernatural presuppositions brought to the text. Again, Acts 1:11 is most certainly envisioning a personal, bodily return. The fact that “every eye will see him” is given its most natural meaning if Jesus’ return is thought of as bodily (Matt 24:30). Again, Paul said the Lord himself will return (1 Thess 4:16).
It Will Be Magnificent
The return of Christ will not be in obscurity and a “stable” in a small town in the land of Judah. While the world was largely ignorant of his first coming (though in John’s view, it too was glorious), they will not be ignorant of his second coming. Jesus warns his disciples not to run after every individual who claims: “Look! Here is the Christ” or “Look! There is the Christ” (Matt 24:23). According to Jesus there is a two-fold reason why we should not bother which such idle speculation. First, many false Christs will appear to deceive many. Second, there will be no mistaking his coming. In other words, there will be no need to run here and there claiming “Here he is,” for just as “lightening that flashes in the east is visible as far away as the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt 24:27). Indeed, there will be signs of cosmic proportions associated with his coming (Matt 24:28).61
He Will Come As Judge and Savior
The twin themes associated with the coming of the Son of Man in the Evangelists’ presentation are the judgment of unbelievers and the salvation/reward of the elect. Thus Jesus is returning initially as both Judge and Savior (Mark 13; Luke 21).62
Jesus says that in the period preceding his coming many will be persecuted and put to death because of him (Matt 24:9-12), but the one who stands firm to the end will be delivered (i.e., “saved”). Thus, after the period of great tribulation—a period which Christ said will be shortened for the sake of the elect (24:22)—he will return and gather his own from the four winds. But, he will also judge his enemies and all those who have despised his coming. These are those of whom it is said: they “mourn” (24:30); they will be “cut to pieces and assigned a place with the wicked” (Matt 24:51); they are “foolish” and banned from the “banquet “(25:3, 10-12); “wicked, lazy servant(s)” and “worthless servant(s)” who will not share in their “master’s happiness,” but instead will be “thrown outside into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:23, 26, 30). The King will separate them as goats and consign them to the eternal fire with the Devil and his angels (25:41). They will receive “eternal punishment” for their sin (25:46).
The righteous, on the other hand, have an entirely different fate in the hands of the sovereign Lord. He is their Deliverer (1 Thess 1:10) and he will—at his coming—gather them from the four winds (24:31), for they have watched for his coming (24:42); they were wise servants who will be entrusted with a great deal more (24:47). They are the wise virgins who were prepared for his arrival and the banquet, and thus they went in (25:10). Again, they gave proper stewardship to their God-given talents and were entrusted with much, much more (25:29). In the end, the righteous will receive their inheritance, i.e., the kingdom that has been prepared for them since the foundation of the world (25:34). They will inherit eternal life (25:46).
The Return of Christ: Areas of Difference among Evangelicals
The “Imminent” Return of Christ
No evangelical denies the scriptural fact that Christ will return bodily at some point in history. But the precise manner in which this will occur and the immediate results of his return have been variously debated. The questions surrounding the manner of his return have arisen in light of two groups of texts, one which talks about an imminent return (i.e., Christ could return at any moment)63 and one which appears to teach that certain events must be fulfilled (i.e., occur) before Christ could return. Passages such as Matthew 24:42-40 and Luke 12:40 seems to teach that the Lord could come at any moment whereas other passages seem to affirm that before Christ returns the gospel must be preached in all the world (Matt 24:14), the great tribulation must occur (Matt 24:21), the man of lawlessness must appear (2 Thess 2:3) and “all Israel” must be saved (Rom 11:25-32). Others also talk about “signs” that must appear (Matt 24:4-14). In any case, it is these latter passages which seem to indicate that in reality his coming cannot be imminent, for certain signs must precede it. Several solutions have been offered to synthesize these data.
Now it has been typical of many liberal theologians—concerned as they are with stressing the ethical and universal aspects of the kingdom of God within societal structures—to solve this tension by simply affirming that both Jesus and Paul were wrong about the second advent. They were trapped in an outmoded and unscientific Jewish apocalypticism and were simply wrong about a bodily return, and therefore incorrect in their claim that any so-called return would be imminent.
First, it goes without saying that the worldview of the Biblical writers is quite different than the liberal interpreters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The former allows for divine intervention and miracle, whereas the latter has reduced Christianity to a nice (nave?) ethic and permitted little or no room for the supernatural. In short, because of the modern liberal’s commitment to the so-called scientific paradigm he must speak over Scripture at this point in hope of straightening Jesus and Paul out. But, what is left is not Christianity at all, but a powerless religion of some sort. Be that as it may, the bodily return of Christ is clearly taught in Scripture (e.g., Acts 1:11), and so the informed Christian simply regards the liberal to be in error on this point (and many other related points as well) and unhealthily married to the outmoded and untenable worldview of modernism.
We might also note too that the way in which the Biblical writers viewed prophecy is important as well. Just because they use terms such as “soon” (Rev 22:12) and expressions such as “in a little while” (Heb 10:17), in connection with the coming of Christ, does not mean they thought the events were going to come to pass immediately, but only that they viewed the future as an imminent reality. In this way, i.e., through prophetic foreshortening, their message has benefit and application to every generation. In summary, there are better and more scripturally sensitive solutions to this problem than those offered by various strands within Liberalism.
Some evangelical scholars have attempted to resolve the tension in these two groups of texts by claiming that the coming of Christ is not an imminent event, but must be preceded by certain other events. Thus they have given preeminence to texts which stress “delay” and regard the first group of “imminence” texts in this light. For example, Louis Berkhof argues that on certain occasions when Jesus referred to his coming he was referring to “his coming in spiritual power at the Pentecost; sometimes to his coming in judgment in the destruction of Jerusalem.” Berkhof also points out that the parable of the pounds was spoken to correct the notion that the kingdom of God should immediately appear (Luke 19:11) and in many other situations Jesus and Paul argued that there would be a delay before the kingdom would come (Matt 25:5; 2 Thess 2:2). In short, Berkhof argues that all the texts that speak of an imminent return should be read in light of the passages that speak about delay. For him, predictions concerning the “calling of the Gentiles,” the “pleroma of Israel,” “the great apostasy and tribulation,” “the coming revelation of Antichrist,” and all sorts of “signs and wonders” are the locus around which the other texts must be aligned.64 The long and short of this method is that the Bible does not teach imminence, but only delay concerning the return of Christ. Not all, however, have agreed with him.
Grudem respectfully disagrees with Berkhof on this point, arguing that Berkhof’s solution is too one-sided and suffers from two related problems: (1) it nullifies the warnings to watch and be ready for Christ’s coming because it essentially teaches that Christ cannot come at any moment, and (2) it uses the “signs” of Christ’s appearing in a way not intended by Scripture, i.e., as indications that his coming is not for a long time. But surely such signs were given to teach us that his coming is right at the door!65
Some dispensationalists have argued that the reason for the tension is because the first set of passages (i.e., texts which speak of an imminent return) refers to a secret coming of Christ for his saints at the rapture, while the second set of passages relate to Christ’s second coming with the saints to reign on the earth. Thus the rapture of the church is imminent while the second coming—a different event—will be preceded by many signs and follow the rapture by seven years (in many schemes). This view has the strength of allowing both sets of passages to speak clearly with no contradiction. But some have criticized it on the basis that it is hard to derive two comings out of the passages that speak of the Lord’s return, and the portrait of the “rapture” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 seems to be anything but secret or private (cf. “a loud command,” “the voice of the archangel,” “the trumpet call of God”).
Another solution is to argue that the imminency passages are not speaking objectively about the timing of his coming, but rather subjectively about our experience of his coming. The focus in the warning passages is not on Christ’s return per se, but rather on our experience of his return. So, even if his return cannot occur until after certain events, there will nonetheless be certain people who are not ready and who will experience his coming as a thief in the night. Thus these passages are not saying anything directly about the timing of his return, but only how we should live in light of his return.
This solution obviously stresses a very important element in the passages, viz., our need to be ready for his return, but in the end it must be judged unsatisfactory. Texts arguing for imminency—such as “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7) and “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12)—are speaking about objective realities and not just our subjective state when he returns.
Another solution argues that all the signs have occurred and Christ could come back at any moment. In this way, the passages which view Christ’s return only after a series of events have taken place are given full credence. This runs into two problems, however. First, the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ—if taught in Scripture (and this view supposes that it is)—was being taught at the same basic time as the doctrine of delay. This means that imminency was not correct until the events were fulfilled; it was incorrect when it was first taught. But this brings the inspiration of Scripture into question Second, many of the events such as the preaching of the gospel and the great tribulation seem to have not yet been fulfilled yet.
A final view argues that his return can be understood as imminent, if we realize that while it is unlikely, the events preceding his return, i.e., the universal preaching of the gospel, the great tribulation, and conversion of the Jews have already been fulfilled. The strength of this view is that both groups of texts are allowed to speak and it does admit a degree of healthy uncertainty in our interpretation of many of the relevant passages. The admitted weakness in this position is that, as we stated above, it is difficult to imagine that the great tribulation and the kind of Jewish response envisioned in (AD 56-57 when Paul wrote) Romans have occurred.66
The Nature and Timing of the Rapture
The Nature of the Rapture
Among those who claim that the Bible teaches a “rapture” of the church, there are differences of opinion regarding its nature. The term “rapture” comes from the Latin term rapio meaning “caught up” and is thus an attempt in English to capture the meaning of the Greek term aJrpavzw (harpazo) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. There, the apostle says that saints who are alive at the coming of the Lord “will be suddenly caught up” together with saints who have previously died and together they will join the Lord in the air. The precise nature of this “meeting” in the air and the events that follow are questioned by some scholars.
Some argue that the saints, together with the Lord, immediately return to the earth. Among many things, they cite as evidence the technical meaning of the term ajpavnthsi" (apantesis “meet”) in 1 Thess 4:17. They say that the term was often used in reference to a special delegation going outside the city gates in order to escort an approaching dignitary back into the city. This, they infer, suggests that Christ and his saints will immediately return to earth.67 Others, such as most dispensationalists, argue that after the rapture takes place, the church is taken away to heaven where she experiences the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10) and the marriage of the Lamb (Rev 19:7). These interpreters argue that the technical force of the term apantesis does not obtain in this instance since the saints are not going out to meet the Lord on their own, but are rather “snatched away,” as it were. Further, the technical force of the term, if indeed it is present, does not require that the Lord return immediately to earth, only that he do so at some point. This, they point out, will occur after the seven year tribulation.
So then, the contemporary questions about the nature of the rapture are not so much about what the event itself will be like, subjectively speaking, but rather what will happen immediately after “we meet in the air.” Will we return immediately or will be go to heaven until the end of the Great Tribulation. Obviously, these questions are closely linked with further questions about the timing of the rapture—questions to which we now turn.
The Timing of the Rapture
The purpose of this section is not to argue for one position over another, but simply to present the various positions and comment on them briefly. Each position mounts exegetical and theological support and is held by devout and informed lay people and scholars within evangelicalism. These are not positions which in any way reveal or test a person’s orthodoxy and they should not be viewed as such. Further, the use of a label to identify one group in distinction to another is the bane of summarization and generalization, but which remains helpful as long as readers understand that within each camp there are major and minor differences among various proponents and between camps there are many other important areas of agreement.
First, there are certain scholars who argue that the rapture will occur before the Great Tribulation begins; thus they are referred to as pretribulationalists. Dispensational, pretribulational scholars such as Walvoord, Pentecost, Ryrie, et al. attempt to demonstrate that while God’s people have always suffered trials and tribulations, there is yet coming on the earth a definite period (7 years) of unparalleled tribulation in fulfillment of Daniel’s seventieth week (Dan 9:24-27; Jer 30:7). The church, however, will be raptured before this period begins (Rev 3:10) and will then return from heaven with the Lord at his second coming seven years later.
A minor offshoot of the pretribulational rapture argument is the partial rapture position. In this scheme, proponents argue that only the faithful in Christ will experience the rapture before the Great Tribulation; the rest will be raptured during the Tribulation. So the rapture is viewed more as a reward for the faithful than as deliverance for the church, per se.
Second, other scholars have argued that the rapture of the church will occur after the Great Tribulation; thus they are referred to as posttribulationalists. Among the various theologians who advocate this position there is difference of opinion over whether there is a definite period of Great Tribulation (though all admit that the church has been in tribulation since her beginning). J. Barton Payne argued that there would be no definite time of tribulation while George Eldon Ladd argued for a period of three and one- half or 7 years of tribulation before Christ returned. Both were in agreement, however, that the rapture would occur only after tribulation (whether general tribulation or the Great Tribulation).
The third major interpretive position regarding the rapture of the church is the midtribulational position; those who hold this view are thus referred to as midtribulationalists. In this position the rapture will take place in the middle of the seven year tribulation before the wrath of God is truly poured out in the last three and one-half years (before the battle of Armageddon). Proponents argue that the events of Matt 24:10-27 and other tribulational events predicted in Daniel 7:25, the Olivet discourse, and Revelation 12:14 are best synthesized in this understanding.68
The Nature of the Millennium
Postmillennialism is the doctrine which affirms that through the work of the Spirit in Christian preaching and teaching in the present time of the church (before the second advent) the world at large will eventually be evangelized and won to Christ. This will turn out in a world characterized by universal peace instead of strife, universal prosperity instead of inequality, godliness instead of evil, and so on, though the time period may be more or less than a thousand years (since, according to some postmill interpreters, the 1000 years of Revelation 20:4-7 can be taken symbolically for an indefinite period of time) and evil will still be present to some limited degree. Thus there is a focus in postmillennarian thought on the present aspects of the kingdom of God with the result that through Christian influence many economic, educational and social ills will be resolved. Kenneth L. Gentry summarizes the postmillennial position well:
Postmillennialism expects the proclaiming of the Spirit-blessed gospel of Jesus Christ to win the vast majority of human beings to salvation in the present age. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and nations. After an extensive era of such conditions the Lord will return visibly, bodily, and in great glory, ending history with a general resurrection and the great judgment of all humankind.69
Postmillennialism (or postmillennial kind of statements) in one form or another, it is argued, can be found as early as Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260-340) and Origen.70 Postmillennial thought also gained ascendancy in the thinking of certain early Reformers such as Theodore Beza (1519-1605) and later in Puritans such as John Owen (1616-1683), Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and in that brilliant mind Jonathon Edwards (1703-1758). A. H. Strong (1836-1921), president of Rochester Theological Seminary (1872-1912) was also an able American exponent of a postmillennial reading of scripture.
In my opinion there are many good and helpful emphases in postmillennial thought. First, theologically speaking, there is a stress in much postmillennial thought on God’s sovereign power (to bring about his ends), provision (Christ’s presence, the Spirit, the gospel), and purpose in the world. This is good and commendable (and to be found in varying degrees in other eschatological systems of thought as well). Second, though it has been questioned in the past, there is, among most postmillennialists, a genuine desire to read postmillennial doctrine out of scripture rather than into it.71 The authority of Christ to commission the church to take the gospel to the end of the earth (Matt 28:16-20), the gradual growth of the kingdom as evidenced in Christ’s parables (e.g., mustard seed and leaven), and the growth of the church in spite of severe opposition all seem to testify to a postmillennial understanding of scripture.
But there are weaknesses with this view. Indeed, so great are the problems that it is difficult to maintain a postmillennial reading of Scripture. The most damaging criticism offered by opponents, is the fact that the system as a whole is not able to come to grips with all of scriptural teaching regarding the eschaton and none of its exegetical points seem to lead explicitly to postmillennialism. I, for one, could not find a single exegetical argument in Gentry’s exposition of postmillennialism that was specific enough to establish postmillennialism as opposed to pre- or a-millennialism. Further, the passages that are often used to argue for postmillennialism, some of which Gentry uses, can be easily and more profitably read in another light.72 Again, the system’s inability to deal with certain important texts (and themes) which characterize the age of the church as one of suffering and which also demonstrate that the church’s hope is not in an age of righteousness coming apart from the literal presence of Christ, raises serious doubts about the correctness of the view as a whole.73 Further, as Blaising rightly implies, since the church has come 2000 years and still sees no evidence of a postmillennial movement in history, one has cause to wonder about this interpretation of Scripture.74
2. Historic Premillennialism
Modern Premillennial theologians strongly disagree with their postmillennial brothers and sisters over the issue of the millennium, what it will look like, and how it will come about. For them, the idea that the church will bring a golden age of righteousness and peace through its Spirit-inspired preaching is scripturally unfounded. According to the premillennialists this will only happen in connection with the second coming of Christ, when the King is visibly and bodily present. To this extent they would also disagree with amillennial interpreters.
But this does not mean that historic premillennialism does not see any of the kingdom existing in the present fulfillment of God’s purposes through Christ in the church. It does. But, again, this is not to be equated with the millennial kingdom when Christ will reign personally and bodily on the earth.
Many premillennialists have a special place for the Jewish people in the eschaton, based in several cases on passages like Romans 9-11 where it seems, especially in 11:25-32, that Jewish people will be saved in large numbers at that time. Dispensational premillennialists argue for a much more pronounced role for national (not just ethnic) Israel in the end (see below).
Premillennial readings of scripture stem back to the early church which was for the first three centuries largely premillennial. Christian leaders such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus75 were premillennialists, believing that a golden age of blessing and the renewal of Jerusalem would occur at the second coming. But the Alexandrian school, led by such men as Clement and Origen, were opposed to such Jewish, materialistic views of the future. Also, under the weight of Augustine’s amillennialism, premillennialism was increasingly abandoned throughout the medieval period and was in short supply throughout the Reformation, and the post-Enlightenment periods of the church. It was really not until the nineteenth century that premillennialism began to make a comeback, especially within British and American expressions of Christianity.
A key passage for all premillennialists is Revelation 20:4-6. They argue that it teaches a literal reign of Christ upon the earth, though not all are in agreement that it must be exactly one-thousand years. Detractors have pointed out that premillennialists have only this one passage upon which to base their system, but this is simply misleading (e.g., 1 Cor 15:22-24).76 However, even if there were only one passage correctly interpreted, this should be enough for any of us to believe the doctrine.77
One of the key points in the interpretation of the passage involves the repeated use of the verb “live” (e[zhsan) in 20:4, 5. Amillennialists generally argue that the first resurrection (20:4) is spiritual and the second is physical (20:5). But it is difficult to see how the two uses of the term in the same context, without any apparent contrary indication, can mean two different things. Further, a less strained reading of Revelation 20:4-6 suggests that physical resurrection is in view in v. 4 and therefore also in v. 5 (and the aorist is ingressive, i.e., “came to life”). To see both uses of e[zhsan as referring to “spiritual resurrections” seems to beg the question. These are not the souls of the dead reigning with Christ in heaven, but dead saints physically resurrected to reign with him on the earth (see Rev 5:10).
3. Dispensational Premillennialism
In terms of eschatology, Dispensational premillennialism differs from historic premillennialism primarily in its insistence that Israel as a nation will be regathered at the end times, converted, and the land promises made with her fulfilled in the millennial kingdom (e.g., Gen 12:1-3; 15:18-21). Thus, the point is not that many Jews will be saved in the end, but that the nation of Israel will exist and will inherit the promises made to national Israel in the Old Testament.
Previous forms of dispensationalism made these kinds of distinctions in keeping with the insistence that God had two peoples: the church was his heavenly people and Israel was his earthly people. This tenant cannot be maintained in light of NT evidence to the contrary (cf. Eph 2:11-22); there is only one people of God. But, some progressive dispensationalists have argued that this does not mean that the nation of Israel cannot be regarded as “in Christ” (in some eschatological future) and still a political entity. It seems that even in the eternal state “nations” will be understood to be nations (Rev 21:24). So then, within an overarching soteriological equality and unity joining the people of God, there remains the possibility of structural differences (not inequalities in any sense of access to God) in the millennium. It is not unreasonable, then, that God should deal with Israel in this way and such an interpretation appears to reflect a reasonable reading of OT texts as well as NT passages such as Romans 9-11, especially 11:25-32.
Generally speaking, the term “amillennial” refers to the conviction, held by many godly and informed Christian scholars down through the ages, that there will be no future, earthly millennial period after Christ’s return. This, however, is to view the system from a purely negative point of view. Positively stated, amillennialism believes that the church is the expression of the millennial reign of Christ now, where “millennial” is understood to refer not to a literal thousand year period—though some reformers understood it this way78—but to the reign of Christ as experienced between his exaltation and parousia. This reign is over the new people of God, the church, which replaces Israel in the outworking of God’s eternal plan.
The amillennial scheme of end time events is really quite simple and straightforward. Lewis and Demarest summarize it well:
The amillennial order of events is: Christ’s present, spiritual reign over the church; increasing apostasy on earth; the Great Tribulation; Christ’s second coming with deceased saints; the destruction of evil powers; the general resurrection of believers and unbelievers; the Last Judgment; and the eternal state. Amillennialism thus affirms that at the end of the age there will be one return of Christ, one resurrection and one judgment.79
Thus it (i.e., in its varied forms) has simplicity as a commendable feature and has been held down through the ages but such notable theologians as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and present day thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper, Hermann Bavinck, and Louis Berkhof.
Amillennialists give several reasons to support their eschatological views. First—and these are in no particular order—there is apparently only one passage in all of the Bible that can possibly be adduced to demonstrate an earthly thousand year reign of Christ, i.e., Revelation 20. No other text in the Old Testament or New Testament affirms such an idea, so it is best not to understand Revelation 20:4-6 in this way. Second, the entire book of Revelation is symbolic and we ought not, therefore, regard the “thousand years” in Revelation 20 as referring to literal years. Third, the binding of Satan referred to in Revelation 20 is consistent with what Jesus said would happen during the period of the church (e.g., Luke 10:18) so there is no need to place this in the eschatological future. Fourth, the “first resurrection” in Revelation 20:4-5 is not literal, but a spiritual resurrection into the presence of God in heaven. Besides, scripture teaches only one literal resurrection (e.g., John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15), not three or more as advanced by many premillennialists. Fifth, against many premillennialists, amillennialists generally affirm that there is no place for Israel in the future. The church has replaced her in God’s plan.
Several things can be said in response to these arguments. First, even if Revelation 20 were the only passage in the Bible that taught an earthly, thousand year reign of Christ, that should be enough to convince us. The Bible need only affirm a doctrine in one place, so that when properly understood, it should be regarded as authoritative. Further, there are many OT passages that can be better viewed as referring to an earthly reign of Messiah before the eternal state rather than as a reference to his eternal reign in heaven (Isa 11:2-9; 65:20; Zech 14:6-21). There are also other New Testament passages that can be reasonably read in this light (1 Cor 15:24; Rev 2:27; 5:10; 12:5; 19:15).
Second, it is true that the genre of Revelation is apocalyptic—though this is not the only form of literature in the book—and contains much symbolism. But this fact does not preclude an earthly kingdom in Revelation 20 and a straightforward reading of this text. Though genre is always an indispensable tool for interpreting, informed opinion on all sides of this debate demonstrates that appeals to genre are inconclusive. What is more important in this case is the immediate context and the actual words that are used in Revelation 20:4-6. And, it is here, that the premillennial position is simpler, less strained and therefore more probable.
The context describes, albeit in apocalyptic language, several important historical facts. The description of Christ’s bodily return and the destruction of the beast and false prophet are historical descriptions of future events. Thus, the context describes what will occur in history at Christ’s return.
Is the binding of Satan literal? Actually, many amillennialists argue that it is, but that it happened at the first advent with Messiah’s ministry.80 Appeal is often made to texts such as Matthew 12:28-29 and Luke 10:18 and correspondences are forged between Rev 20 and these gospel passages. But it can be reasonably asked whether these texts should be regarded as referring to the same event. It has been debated, but a straightforward reading of the context of Revelation 20 would argue that what happens in Revelation 20 follows chronologically what happened in Revelation 19, i.e., the return of Christ. Therefore, if this is true, the binding of Satan in Revelation 20 cannot be the same event as that referred to in the gospels during the earthly reign of the messiah.
But there are other more cogent arguments to demonstrate that the binding in the gospels is not the same as that in Revelation. First, it is said in Revelation 20:1 that an angel did the binding, not Christ himself. Thus the portrait in the gospels is quite different, too disparate it would seem to be the same. Second, the purpose for Satan being bound in Revelation 20 is so that he will not “deceive the nations anymore.” But in what sense are we to understand this if it is the same as the binding that took place in the ministry of Christ and now occurs through the ministry of the church? According to 2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 6:10-18, and 1 John 4:4, Satan is quite free to roam and tempt whom he wills (cf. also 1 Pet 5:8). But the binding in Revelation is much more absolute than the gospels or epistles will grant. So it is more reasonable to conclude that Matthew 12 and Luke 10 do not refer to the same event as Revelation 20:2-3. This does not mean they are not related, however. The earlier and “inaugural” binding during Christ’s ministry and the church age anticipates the later binding in Revelation 20:2-3, which itself sets the stage for Satan’s final overthrow and destruction in Revelation 20:10. This is all in keeping with the progressive realization of God’s kingdom on earth.
We must also reiterate what we said above regarding typical amillennial exegesis of the “resurrections” in Revelation 20:4-5. Amillennialists generally argue that the first resurrection (20:4) is spiritual and the second is physical (20:5). One of the reasons they do this is to avoid bracketing the 1000 period off with two bodily resurrections (which would seem to point to an earthly reign after the return of Christ). But it is difficult to see how the two uses of the term in the same context, without any apparent contrary indication, can mean two different things. Further, a less strained reading of Revelation 20:4-6 suggests that physical resurrection is in view in v. 4 and therefore also in v. 5 (and the aorist is ingressive, i.e., “came to life”). Again, these are not the souls of the dead reigning with Christ in heaven, but dead saints physically resurrected to reign with him on the earth (see the promise in Rev 5:10).
Third, the idea that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan has certain merit, but, as we implied above, needs refinement in light of Romans 11:25-32. The church presently participates in Abrahamic and therefore Davidic and New covenant blessings, as amillennialists affirm, but she has not utterly eclipsed God’s promises made to the nation of Israel or at least ethnic Jews. In Romans 11:26 it is not likely that “all Israel” refers to the elect number of Gentiles and/or Jews during the church age, but refers to an eschatological ingathering of Jews coordinate with Messiah’s return and reign. If this is so, then an earthly millennium—of the sort envisioned in premillennial thinking—may well be the time and place for the fulfillment of Israel’s OT hope (a hope, I might add, that also involves all nations).
So where is the strength of amillennialism’s replacement theology? It is ultimately in the Biblical recognition that there is only one people of God for all time with a soteriological equality binding them together. But it has an inherent weakness in that it does not recognize structural (political) differences present in eschatological texts. Indeed, at face value, nations are still regarded as nations in certain texts referring to the eternal state (cf. 21:24).81 Romans 11:25-32 does speak of a future restoration of Jews (probably national Israel) as Jews. Of course, they will not be saved apart from faith in Christ, but the salvation of “all Israel” will represent God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises to the nation, which promises are taken up with earthly, political and spiritual realities.
Resurrection, Judgment, and The Eternal State
The Resurrection of All People
The Bible teaches that there will be a resurrection of all people and that all will be judged (John 5:28-29).
The Final Judgment of All People
Though some liberal theologians have often denied the fact, it is quite certain that the Bible teaches a final judgment, after which individuals will go to their allotted destinies, i.e., heaven and eternal bliss or hell and eternal punishment. Biblically speaking, this “day of judgment” is most certain and will be the culmination and fulfillment of numerous judgments of God against sin and evil throughout history.
Examples of God’s judgment against wickedness and his rewarding of righteousness abound in the Old Testament. He judged man for his sin in the Garden (Gen 3) and he later judged him in the Flood, though he rewarded Noah’s faith and righteous behavior (Gen 6:8-9). He judged Abimelech (Gen 20), Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Exod 7-11), the Amorites and those living in Canaan at the time of Israel’s conquest (Gen 15:16; Joshua 10-12) as well as unbelievers among the Israelites (Joshua 7). The Lord judged king Saul and rejected him as king over Israel (15:26). He also judged David for his sin with Bathsheba; David’s son died (2 Sam 11-12; cf. 12:18) and his kingdom fell into turmoil (2 Sam 13-20). God repeatedly judged the nation of Israel for their sin (e.g., Judges) and threatened to send both the northern and southern kingdoms into captivity. This eventually occurred in 722 BCE (Israel in the north) and 586 BCE (Judah in the south; Lamentations). He also judges the nations of the earth for their continuous sin and rebellion (Isa 13-23; Jer 46-51; Ezek 25-32; Dan 2-7). Though his ways in judgment are not always easy to discern or accept (Hab 1-3), he is nonetheless the just judge of all the earth (Gen 18:25).
In the New Testament, Paul makes it clear that God still judges today. In Romans 1:18—a verse that heads up a rather long section on God’s judgment in 1:18-3:20—the apostle says:
For82 the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness…
Notice that Paul does not say that the wrath of God “was revealed,” but rather “is revealed” or “is being revealed.” The wrath of God (ojrghV qeou`, orge theou) refers not to some irrational passion within the Godhead, but to his settled hatred for sin expressed or continually revealed (ajpokaluvptetai, apokaluptetai; cf. 1:17) in his giving people over to debilitating entrenchment in their sinful folly (vv. 24, 26, 28).83
People and nations today continually suppress the knowledge of God, deliberately turning from knowledge of the true God to idolatry (the worship of money, sex, power in its various forms, etc.). As a result, just as the Israelites demanded that God give them a king, so people today demand that they be left to their own devices; they demand autonomy. Therefore God gives them over to their sin (cf. 1:24, 26, 28; Eph 4:17-19). The fallout involves escalating wickedness, sorrow, grief, pain, and misery. Man is by nature as incurably religious as he is morally and spiritually foolish.
2 Peter 2:9 also talks about God’s present, ongoing punishment of certain people: “if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.”
So God has been and continues to judge individuals and nations for their sin. He does it retributively as well as therapeutically (i.e., so that people might “wake up” and turn from their sin). But all these judgments will find their culmination and vindication at the final judgment. There will come a day when God will finally judge all men (and angels) and in the process all sin will finally be condemned and all God’s acts of judgment will be shown to have been necessary, just, and holy. At that time every mouth will be silenced (Rom 3:20) and every knee will bow (Phil 2:9-11). Again, the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that there is coming a “day” when there will be a final judgment.
In Matthew 25:32-33 our Lord compared the final judgment to the separation of sheep and goats. The sheep will go into eternal life and the goats will go into eternal punishment (25:46). The point is, there will come a day when there will be an irreversible and final reckoning. This is often referred to variously as “the day of the Lord” (Isa 13:6, 9; Jer 46:10; Joel 3:1 Eng; Amos 5:18-20) or in light of NT revelation, “the last day” (John 6:39), “the day of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; Phil 1:6, 10; 2:16) or “the day of God’s righteous wrath” (Rom 2:5) and “the day of God’s visitation” (1 Peter 2:12; cf. 2 Pet 3:12; 1 John 4:17). To be sure, that “day” does include vindication and reward for God’s people, but it involves only judgment and loss for the world apart from Christ.84
Again, Romans 2:5 speaks to this final day of judgment: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” 2 Peter 2:9 says that God is holding the unrighteous for the day of judgment. Jude 6 speaks rather vividly about God’s final act of judging: “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.”
Acts 17:31 also speaks about the final day of God’s judgment:
For he has set a day (hJmevra, hemera) when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Perhaps the passage that speaks most clearly to the certainty of final and irrevocable judgment is Revelation 20:11-15:
20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 20:12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 20:13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 20:15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
There are many indications that John is speaking about the final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15: (1) it occurs after the second coming of Christ (19:11-21), the completion of the millennial kingdom and the final judgment of Satan (Rev 20:1-10); (2) no further judgments are mentioned in Revelation before the final state begins (21-22); (3) the vision as a whole is predicated on Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days who comes to judge every human being at the end of history (Dan 7:14); (4) John refers to a great white throne which suggests not only a just judgment, but also a climactic or final reckoning; (5) the outcome of the judgment involves eternal consequences; thus no further judgment is necessary (20:10, 15); (6) earth and sky have fled suggesting the end of human history as we know it under Adam and sin; and (7) all the dead will be there, both great and small.
Though virtually every evangelical commentator on scripture agrees with the doctrine of a final judgment, some would argue that it actually involves three different judgments: (1) a judgment of believers after the rapture (i.e., the judgment seat of Christ; 2 Cor 5:10); (2) a judgment of the nations at the second coming to determine who will enter the millennium (cf. Matt 25:31-46); and (3) a judgment of all the wicked dead at the Great White Throne judgment after the millennial reign of Christ (Rev 20:11-15). Others would argue that all these judgments are really just one judgment, i.e., they all take place at the Great White throne judgment. We do not have space to develop the differences and the strengths and weaknesses of each view, but what is more important than whether the “final judgment” is at one time or spread out over three times is that (1) all men will most certainly be judged; (2) the outcome cannot be changed; there is no further appeal.
But there is more to the final judgment than just its facticity. First, although it is obvious that God will be the judge, within the councils of the trinity, the Father has determined to give all judgment to the Son (John 5:22-23, 27; Acts 17:31). Jesus Christ, Daniel’s Son of Man, will be the judge of all humanity, including the living and the dead (Matt 25:31-33; John 8:26, 50 [the Father is the judge]; John 9:39; 12:47-50; 2 Tim 4:1, 8). Further, the Son will judge wisely and justly (2 Tim 4:8).
Second, both men and angels will be judged (Acts 17:31; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6), but there is an interesting twist to this idea; saints will also be involved in carrying out judgment (1 Cor 6:2-3) The idea that God will use his redeemed people in the execution of judgment has antecedents in the Synoptic tradition (Matt 19:28; Luke 12:29-32; 16:25) and may ultimately go back to the Old Testament where we see God using certain individuals to judge his people (cf. Judges) and the Israelite nation as a whole to judge other nations (e.g., the conquests in Joshua).
The fact that God has used his people to judge other people in the past and will do so again at the future, final judgment, may be connected to man’s charge to rule in light of the imago dei (Gen 1:26-28; 9:6-7; Psalm 8:4-6). If this is so, it is understandable that glorified Christians, as those who have been completely restored in God’s image, will judge angels and people in the final judgment. Thus, the saints will judge angels and people in the final judgment because this is a function of the restored image. In another way of speaking, believers will judge the living and the dead because of their inseparable connection to Christ the Judge, their personal share in his kingdom with its power and authority (cf. Rev 5:10), and the fact that they love what He loves and hate what he hates. In an important sense, and to an important degree, we will be just like him in our glorified states and will know his mind on these issues in a way only faintly grasped now (cf. 1 Cor 2:15-16).
Third, we said that all men will be judged. Therefore, Christians will be judged as well. Paul, speaking of believers in Romans 14:10, 12, says that “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” and “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” He says basically the same thing in 2 Cor 5:10 although this time he refers to the judgment seat of Christ:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or bad.
The judgment of Christians, however, seems to contradict Paul’s teaching about justification by faith. If we are justified, why then are we judged? It seems that the idea of justification precludes entering into judgment. After all, didn’t Paul say, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1)? But the problem is not as insurmountable as first appears. It is true that the doctrine of justification includes both the idea of eternal forgiveness as well as the eternal possession of the righteousness of Christ. But Christ’s judgment of the believer is not to determine eternal destiny, per se, but to determine degree of reward. Though some evangelicals have spurned the doctrine of rewards for believers it seems fairly certain that the Bible does indeed teach it:
1 Cor 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 3:12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—3:13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 3:14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 3:15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
Again, Jesus talks about reward for faithful service (Luke 19:11-27) and Paul talks about receiving what is due according to our deeds (2 Cor 5:10). Again, the point about degree of reward seems to be clearly taught in Colossians 3:23-25:
3:23 Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 3:24 since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward (antapovdosin, antapodosin); you serve the Lord Christ. 3:25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no favoritism.
Thus, according to these texts Christians will be judged to determine their degree of reward or the measure of their inheritance (e.g., ten cites, five cities, etc.[Luke 19:16-19]). This does not mean that throughout eternity men will suffer pangs of conscience for what they should have done with the grace of God given them while on earth. In the eternal state there will be neither death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21:4) and each man who enters, enters into the joy of his master (Matt 25:21, 23).
Therefore, the problem with the doctrine of rewards is not that the scripture does not teach it.85 The problem involves coming up with a model that satisfactorily integrates ideas of justification, reward, and the absence of shame/presence of joy in the eternal state (though many will experience shame at Christ’s second coming [1 John 2:28]). This is a similar kind of struggle we face with other clearly biblical doctrines, e.g., the trinity, the incarnation, the imputation of sin, the concursive inspiration of scripture, etc. Some have suggested that the degree of reward is known only to God and the person who receives it. Perhaps it involves nearness to God and/or greater roles of service in the eternal state. But the bottom line is that we will each be rewarded for our service, though we know very little about the precise nature of these rewards. Finally, the idea of judgment is actually consistent with the doctrine of justification, since one aspect of justification is vindication and the final judgment of the Christian will vindicate God’s righteousness in their lives (cf. James 2:21).
Nonetheless, rewards are a source of motivation to holiness and godly living. This, of course, is the way in which they are used throughout Scripture (Luke 19:11-27; Rom 14:10, 12; 2 Cor 5:10). They are not the only source of motivation for the Christian (cf. 2 Cor 7:1; 1 John 3:2-3; 4:11), however, nor does motivation for reward necessarily entail selfishness, as some suppose. They are one of several means of grace the Lord uses to sanctify us and move us along in the Christian life (cf. Rev 22:12).
The Doctrine of Hell
Arguments for Universalism
There are a number of different views regarding the fate of the finally impenitent.86 Universalists argue, in one form or another, that all men and angels, including the devil, will some day be brought back to God as personal recipients of his eternal love. Many universalists argue there will be no punishment at all, while others argue that some really obdurate sinners will experience some suffering until they come to their senses and respond to God’s love (cf. Origen). Thus, in the apokatastasis (“restoration,” cf. Acts 3:21) of all things, all sentient beings will be restored to God. There are a number of passages in scripture that appear to suggest universalism. Some include: Rom 5:18; 11:32; 1 Cor 15:22; Phil 2:10-11; Col 1:19-20; 1 Tim 4:10; Heb 2:9.
Three important and valid hermeneutical considerations must be mentioned at this point. First, any system of theology that rests primarily and almost exclusively on one attribute of God—as many universalists do in their reliance upon their understanding of God’s love87—is going to misinterpret God’s overall revelation to us in scripture; it is inevitable. Many universalists seem to neglect the countless texts in scripture that speak about God’s utter holiness, hatred for sin, and eternal judgment. But others, who recognize the significance of these texts in scripture, tend to either completely eclipse their meaning in favor of a sentimental view of God’s love (primarily from a modernized reading of Jesus’ ministry and teaching) or they severely restrict their meaning by relating it only to the present age, not the future. It is true that we all come to scripture, bringing along with us our presuppositions and preunderstandings. But it is not true that we all allow our presuppositions to influence us to the same degree. In many universalist interpretations of Scripture, it seems that a priori concerns have reached the level of agenda to the point of smothering texts which contradict such agendas.88
Second, any text cited to substantiate any one particular doctrine must be read in a way consistent with its immediate linguistic and historical setting, as well as its broader biblical context. For example, Col 1:19-20 and Phil 2:10-11 actually refer to the subjugation of all things to Christ, not that every person will be saved (cf. 2 Thess 1:8-9). The two ideas are related, but they are not the same thing. In terms of 1 Tim 4:10, the fact that Christ is the only savior of all men does not mean that all will be saved, for some may determine not to accept his offer of salvation. Most universalists want to protect the freedom of the human will, but if they’re going to do this, they must accept the likely consequences that some will be lost. Also, Heb 2:9 states that Christ tasted death for all men, but the relevant question is, will all therefore necessarily accept this? According to Hebrews 10:26-31, apparently not! Again, the love of God is not a bulldozer that disregards human decisions and indiscriminately piles people up on the side of His grace. The fact that many do not ultimately or ever accept his love is repeatedly and clearly taught in scripture and it is simply wishful thinking, not to mention an irresponsible, handling of scripture, to argue otherwise; Jesus’ discussion of hell as eternal should settle the issue for all concerned Christians (Matt 25:46).
Texts like Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 require a closer look. Romans 5:18 says:
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
It is often argued that if the first “all” means literally all men without exception, then certainly the parallelism between the two clauses here would require that the second “all” mean all men without exception, i.e., every human being that has ever lived. Therefore, it would seem that Paul is espousing universalism in 5:12-21 when he compares the universal effects of Adam’s sin with the effects of Christ’s righteous act? To argue for universalism in this text, however, is to neglect other key Pauline texts (2 Thess 1:8-9), including the previous verse in Romans 5:17. This passage plainly states that justification/salvation is for “those who receive” the abundant provision of grace. It is sufficient for all men, but only those who receive it by faith, reign in life! Paul has simply chosen the expression “all people” so as to keep the parallel between Adam and Christ going throughout the passage. Also, universalism requires the questionable premise that Paul is arguing in 5:15-19 that the group in Adam has now become the group in Christ. But this is certainly not his point. He is arguing, rather, that in the same way as Adam directly affects all those connected to him (i.e., all humanity), so also Christ directly affects all those connected to him (i.e., all those who receive his grace).
1 Cor 15:22 is another text which on the surface appears to support universalism. Before we look at it, however, it must be noted that as far as supporting universalism goes, it suffers from the same fate as Rom 5:18. That is, it was written by Paul and, therefore, has to be legitimately reconciled with texts like 2 Thess 1:8-9, which cannot on any sensitive hermeneutic be forced to allow universalism.
That being said, the text of 1 Corinthians is as follows:
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
We note two things about this passage and it’s context. First, though the passage does say “all will be made alive,” it says so only to those who are “in Christ.” That is, all who are in Christ, both those who are living (v. 17) and those who are now dead (v. 18) will be resurrected, i.e., have hope for the next life (v. 20). Second, to further substantiate that “in Christ” delimits the “all,” we see that Paul’s entire argument in 15:1-34 is really about the certainty of Christ’s resurrection taken in light of its benefits for those who have faith in him. He makes this clear when in vv. 17-19 he refers to the faith of the Corinthians and their future hope in Christ. Paul is not holding out a universalistic hope here, but rather the hope proper to those who trust in God concerning the preaching about the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:1).
Third, there are many texts which speak of judgment and hell as being eternal.89 In Matthew 25:46, it is quite clear that hell will be eternal.90 Every other argument for the doctrine of universalism falls in light of this and similar texts (2 Thess 1:8-9; Rev 14:10-11; 20:10-15).
Two Views Current within Evangelicalism
At the present time, two primary views regarding the nature of the punishment of hell are being advanced within Evangelicalism, that is, among those who have a very high regard for scripture and the necessity of personal faith and the new birth. The first view is called “conditional immortality” or “annihilationism,” though strictly speaking, the two are not precisely the same (as we outline below). The second view is often referred to as the “traditional” view.
Several things are important to note in this discussion. First, this is not, as some have erroneously argued, a debate directly related to inerrancy.91 The best evangelical theologians on both sides of this issue are committed to the Bible as God’s inspired and trustworthy Word. It is rather a question about the best exegesis of that Word and the resultant theology. Second, this debate is not about whether the wicked will be judged or not. Both sides agree that this will be the case. The debate is about the nature of that judgment. Conditionalists argue that the conscious suffering component is temporary and that God’s judgment will ultimately result in the non-being of the wicked. Traditionalists argue that conscious suffering component of God’s judgment is never-ending and at no point will the wicked cease to exist.92 Third, inflammatory rhetoric has no place in this debate, nor in any debate for that matter, for it only serves to alienate and to distort and retard understanding of others’ views. This does not mean, however, that a person cannot roundly criticize another’s views, but this should be done with Christian civility and with the goal of furthering all God’s people in the truth on this or any issue. Fourth, let us take to heart that this is a discussion about hell and the awful judgment to come upon those apart from Christ, i.e., upon many whom we know and love. As Stott has reminded us, let us mourn with Jeremiah and weep with Paul over the ultimate destiny of those who refuse to know and love Christ.93 This is a very sobering doctrine, no matter what side of the issue one comes down on.
Before we discuss the relative merits of conditional immortality and the traditional view, let’s take a minute to clearly distinguish conditional immortality from other annihilationist perspectives.
B. B. Warfield has outlined annihilationism in three major groups: (1) pure mortality; (2) conditional immortality; and (3) annihilationism proper.94 Pure mortality, based as it often is on a rather strict materialism, sees no hope for the person beyond death. In other words, the life of the person is impossible without the body since the life-principle is inextricably connected to the physical organism. At death all people simply pass out of existence. Conditional mortality, generally speaking, argues that people do not naturally possess immortality, but must receive it from God. God, for his part, gives it only to those who are “in Christ” and eternally connected to the savior and his resurrection by faith. All other people, i.e., unbelievers, simply pass out of existence, either at death and/or after a general resurrection, or after a general resurrection and a period of suffering. Annihilationism proper, in contrast to conditional immortality, builds on the idea of the person as naturally immortal. Thus at some point—whether immediately at death, the judgment after a general resurrection, or after some determined period of suffering—those apart from Christ, will be annihilated; God himself will bring their very existence to an end.
Arguments for Conditional Immortality
We are now ready to discuss arguments for and against conditional immortality (hereafter, CI) and traditionalism. CI has received increasing support among certain evangelicals in recent years, including: Edward William Fudge,95 John W. Wenham,96 Stephen H. Travis,97 Philip Edgecumbe Hughes,98 Clark Pinnock,99 and Michael Green.100 One notable evangelical who tentatively holds the position is John Stott.101 The question before us is this: Is CI able to stand on exegetical and theological grounds superior to the traditional view and is it thus to be preferred? The following is an interaction with some of the most popular and strongest arguments in favor of CI.
The Meaning of “Destruction” Language
Proponents of CI argue that the Greek verb ajpovllumi, apollumi,102 means “to kill” in the active voice and “to perish” or “be destroyed” when in the middle voice and intransitive.103 For example, when Herod sought Jesus, he did so “in order to kill him” (Matt 2:13). Also, Jesus told people to be afraid of the one who could destroy, that is, “kill both body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28). From such evidence Stott concludes that “if to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being.”104 Further, in the middle voice, and while intransitive, the verb means “to perish” as in the case of unbelievers who are said “to be perishing” (1 Cor 1:18; cf. also 2 Cor 2:15; 4:3).
Stott also argues that the nouns apwleiva, apoleia (e.g., Phil 1:28; 3:19; Heb 10:39), and ojleqro", olethros (e.g., 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9), also mean “destruction,” or “ruin,” as defined by an “extinction of being.” He concludes that “it would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed.”105
First, it is true that the verb apollumi can mean “to kill,” or “put to death.” But it is a non-sequitur to suggest that “killing” necessarily entails “extinction of being,” even if the killing is done in hell. This is true for at least three reasons: (1) the language of “killing” is phenomenological and is not, therefore, necessarily making any metaphysical claims about being or non-being; (2) to regard physical “killing” as “extinction of being” implies a certain underlying view of man which has been subtly imported into the definition , but which has not been established. I refer to a monistic view of man or certain Christian versions wherein life cannot exist apart from embodiment; (3) apollumi carries many other meanings other than “to kill.” It can mean: “to be lost” spiritually (Matt 10:6; 15:24); “to lose a reward” (Matt 10:42); “to lose one’s life” (Matt 16:25); “to destroy demons” (Mark 1:24); “to ruin a wineskin” (Mark 2:22); “to drown” (Mark 4:38); “to deprive someone of needed healing” (Luke 6:9); “to lack a relationship with God” (Luke 9:24); as a reference to “lost sheep,” (Luke 15:4-5); “a lost coin” (Luke 15:8); “a lost son” (Luke 15:24, 32); “lost people” (Luke 19:10—i.e., apart from Jesus and salvation); “to perish” as opposed to receiving eternal life (John 3:16); “to destroy your brother for the sake of food (Rom 14:15); “to destroy a weak person by knowledge” (1 Cor 8:11).
Several of these instances are important and require brief comment. First, if Jesus is going “to destroy” demons (Mark 1:24) and their ultimate fate is the lake of fire, then on the analogia fidei/scripturae apollumi here probably does not mean “extinction of being,” since these demons (including the Devil) are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (cf. Rev 20:10). Second, “to ruin” a wineskin certainly does not mean that it ceases to exist, but only that for all practical purposes it ceases to exist with respect to the purpose for which it was made, i.e., it is no longer any good for holding wine. Third, apollumi can mean “to lack a relationship with God” (Luke 9:24) and in this sense the person is ruined or destroyed, that is, they are no good for the purpose for which they were created. This is evident in the lost (apollumi) son of Luke 15:24, 32. The son was destroyed or ruined, if you will, in that he was no longer in right relationship with his father, as evidenced by his lifestyle. However, he certainly did not pass out of existence, as his return to the father clearly indicates. Fourth, a Christian can be said to have been destroyed and yet be in perfect physical health and still have a relationship with God! This is true in both Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11. In both cases people are said to have been destroyed (apollumi) by another’s freedom and knowledge. Those offended certainly did not cease to exist, but were rather harmed in their relationship with God which develops according to one’s faith and commitment to holiness.
So we see that the term most often means to ruin something/someone by damaging it/them to the point where it/they can no longer function according to its/their design.106 The term by itself says nothing about the non-existence of a thing or person. This is probably the point behind Matthew 10:28 as well. In this text Jesus is not making a comment about existence vs. non-existence, but about different kinds of existence, either with God or apart from God, the latter of the two being described as “ruin” or “destruction” in Hell.107 Man can never personally and actively glorify God in Hell. We also see that in some cases, like Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11, the ruin is reversible. So also in the case of the “ruin” of the prodigal son. A return to God begins the process of undoing the destruction that was incurred. This opportunity to begin the process of “reversing ruin” or “undoing destruction,” however, is never said to extend past this life.
The Greek term olethros (“destruction”) occurs in 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:9, and 1 Timothy 6:9. Each of these cases is religiously colored and refers either to the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor 5:5; which cannot be completed in this life) and to the result of God’s punishment of those who are unprepared for his coming (1 Thess 5:3), disobey his gospel (2 Thess 2:9), and/or pursue riches as an end in themselves (1 Tim 6:9). In none of these examples does olethros necessarily mean “extinction of being.”
In the end, even if a person does not agree with everything we’ve said here, he/she needs to recognize that it is quite clear that apollumi does not necessarily mean or even entail the “cessation of being.” The same can be said for the 18 occurrences of apoleia108 and the 4 occurrences of olethros. The term kolasis occurs in Matthew 25:46 and 1 John 4:18. By itself, it refers to severe punishment without any necessary implication as to the length of time and certainly has no inherent connections to the idea of “extinction.” We will discuss Matthew 25:46 below.
Thus in terms of the available linguistic evidence it is disconcerting to see Clark Pinnock simply list the verses in which the Greek term appears and then conclude from the English translation that “destruction” means “annihilation.” All the passages he cites require interpretation and—in light of our word study of the relevant terms—a defense of the view he only claims. For example, in reference to Matthew 10:28 he simply asserts, “our Lord spoke plainly of God’s judgment as the annihilation of the wicked when he warned about God’s ability to destroy body and soul in hell.”109 As to the rest of the passages he cites, virtually all evangelicals agree that the impenitent wicked will be destroyed by the wrath of God. The question that needs to be answered by further investigation is, “What does “destroyed” mean?
The Meaning of the Imagery of “Fire”
The Bible speaks of “the fire” (Matt 3:10; 7:19; 13:50), “fire of hell” (5:22; 18:9), “eternal fire” (18:8; 25:41), and the “lake of fire” (Rev 20:14-15). But how are we to understand this metaphorical language involving fire? Some begin by claiming that “fire” is not a metaphor at all, but rather a literal description of hell.110 But how can hell be described as literal “fire” (Matt 25:41; Jude 7) and at the same time “blackest darkness” (Matt 8:12; Jude 13)? Either hell changes over time from one to the other or there are parts of hell that have fire and parts that are pure darkness. Despite the fact that such interpretations seem ridiculous, they: (1) are not necessitated by the texts themselves; (2) represent a failure to recognize the apocalyptic/metaphorical nature of the descriptions, and (3) are therefore the most strained, synthetic readings of the passages. The simplest and best explanation is to see the language as metaphorical, pointing to horrible realities, much of which probably lies beyond comprehension.
But what is fire a symbol of? What does it represent? Stott says that
the main function of fire is not to cause pain, but to secure destruction, as all the world’s incinerators bear witness…The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable’, but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed for ever, not tormented for ever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises for ever and ever’ (Revelation 14:11; cf. 19:3).111
Again, quite apart from the problematic analogy with garbage (which is not thrown into incinerators on account of guilt for sin), there are at least four major problems with Stott’s reading of Revelation 14:11. First, it suppresses contrary evidence; it is not warranted by the immediate context. The rest of Revelation 14:11 needs to be cited: “There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image….” Surely the most exegetically sensitive way in which to read “there is no rest day or night” is as “never-ending rest” for those who worship the beast. If that is true, then eternal, conscious suffering and not “non-being” is the point of the punishment and the passage. Thus, the imagery of fire suggests agony and torment, not extinction of being as Stott argues. This coheres well with Jesus’ own warnings of the fire being “unquenchable,” “eternal,” and hell being a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12; 24:51; 25:30). Second, it agrees, not just formally, but materially with Revelation 20:10 (and 19:3) where John says again that the torment will be “day and night forever and ever.” Third, if the fire does consume completely, one wonders how the smoke can rise eternally if there is nothing left to burn? Or, if “their worm” does not die, how is this possible if what they eat has been completely devoured? These seem like silly questions, but perhaps warranted by Stott’s handling of the passage.112 Fourth, in Mark 9:48 the idea of “unquenchable fire” is placed in parallel with “their worm does not die.” If “their worm does not die,”113 then why does the “unquenchable” fire all of a sudden become “quenchable”? Mark 9:48 seems to suggest prima facie that “unquenchable” means eternal in quality (i.e., it characterizes the age to come for the wicked) and duration (that age is never-ending); there is a “never-ending-ness” to God’s punishment of the wicked.114
The Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul and Greek Philosophy
Advocates of CI often point out that many exegetes have unconsciously imported into their reading of relevant texts an unbiblical anthropology stemming from Plato and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Thus Clark Pinnock argues:
If a biblical reader approached the text with the assumption that souls are naturally immortal, would they not be compelled to interpret texts that speak of the wicked being destroyed to mean that they are tortured forever, since according to that presupposition souls cannot go out of existence (italics mine)?
Pinnock goes on to argue, as Fudge115 and others have done,116 that immortality is something only God possesses (1 Tim 6:16). God can, however, bestow immortality upon his people (1 Cor 15:21, 50, 54; 2 Tim 1:10). But all the rest of humanity, that is, those outside a saving relationship with Christ, are by nature mortal and cannot exist forever. Therefore, if they cannot exist forever, they cannot suffer consciously forever. The traditional view is thus predicated upon an erroneous view of man which itself has been unconsciously and consistently “read into” the biblical material.
But this argument, as presented by Pinnock, is fallacious for at least two reasons: (1) just because there is similarity in the two views of the immortality of the soul, i.e., between Platonic and Christian views, this does not mean that the latter was derived from and is, therefore, necessarily indebted to the former.117 That the Christian view is not directly dependent on the Platonic view is indeed the case, according to Erickson. This is confirmed when we consider two important differences between the two.118 First, the Greek view presents the immortality of the soul in both directions, i.e., eternally before embodied existence and eternally after physical death. But no Christian view holds to the immortality of the soul before the existence of creation (neither the traducian nor creationist view). Second, the Greek view often looks as if it entails the idea that the soul is naturally or inherently immortal, but no informed Christian view argues that either. Rather, what is argued is that God, by his free decision, has decided to render all people immortal and to uphold their being by his word (cf. Heb 1:3). These two differences are important and render Pinnock’s (and others’) claim groundless; (2) yet even if one could establish certain causal links between the Platonic view and the view of many Christian theologians, this would in itself not answer the question of the truthfulness of the Christian theologians’ view; that would be to commit the genetic fallacy. That debate must be adjudicated on scriptural grounds, something Pinnock does not do.
Another important consideration is this regard is the issue of resurrection. Jesus states in John 5:29 that there will indeed be a resurrection of the unrighteous to judgment. It seems strange and, though not absolutely logically impossible, that this leads to their annihilation or their simply passing out of existence. The resurrection would seem to guarantee their eternal existence. This seems especially appropriate because of the parallel with the resurrection of the righteous which has eternal life in view (which in the minimum involves never-ending existence).
The Doctrine of God’s Love
God is boundlessly merciful, loving and forgiving. Every Christian, whether a week old in the faith, or a veteran, knows this to be true. Indeed, the longer a person is in the faith, the more they ought to realize this truth. But the traditional view of hell pictures a God who tortures people endlessly, with no hope of restitution. This is cruel and sadistic according to at least one evangelical writer.119 How then can we square the fact of God’s love with such a view of eternal damnation and torment? The bottom line, or so it is urged, is that “we cannot.” We are sure of the first premise (God’s love) and unsure of the second (eternal conscious punishment), therefore the second must go lest we lose the first as well.
Several things need to be said in response to this. First, it is admittedly difficult to reconcile the love of God with eternal, conscious punishment. This is especially true when one thinks of the love of God as expressed in the cross. I think that all sides recognize this. Second, even though God is love, he is also holy. It seems that on many occasions when conditionalists argue against eternal, conscious punishment, their reliance on the doctrine of God’s love precludes a strong sense of his holiness. Third, it would seem that the way in which conditionalists talk of the incompatibility of eternal, conscious punishment with divine love, God should not be permitted to judge anyone at all. The conditionalist who argues so vehemently from God’s love, as Pinnock does, must realize that he may have proven too much, for it is hard to see how CI as a form of annihilationism protects or at least salvages the doctrine of God’s love. If God shouldn’t judge the wicked with eternal, conscious punishment, it is hard to see how such a loving God could possibly subject any person to prolonged agony and torment only to see them annihilated at the end. In other words, conditionalism is not insulated from the problem nor is it any less impaled on the horns of the dilemma. Pinnock’s oft repeated adjectives, namely, “bloodthirsty monster” and “saddist” seem to apply to his God as well.120 Fourth, conditionalists constantly seek to diminish the harsh realities of the traditional view. But we may ask whether much of Jesus’ teaching fits with their idea of God’s love. After all, it was he who said, “Cut him (i.e., the wicked servant) into pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51). This is extremely harsh language and, under Pinnock’s view of divine love, one wonders what happened to Jesus’ view of God’s love. Thus, in light of Jesus’ brutally harsh words, we may ask if Packer and Erickson aren’t correct in referring to Pinnock’s and Stott’s view as influenced by secular sentimentality, despite protestations to the contrary.121 Fifth, we do not have any substantive idea how great the offense is of those who repeatedly spurn, distort, and suppress the love of God in Christ. While we may have an inkling, we are in no place to suggest that such a great love spurned will not result in eternal, conscious punishment. After all, it was committed against an eternal and infinite love. Sixth, proponents of CI often refer to the love of God as if it were a blind, overpowering force with no will and choice behind it. But, both God’s “providential kindnesses” and his special, redeeming grace are not automatic and uncontrollable; they involve the decisions of a free person to engage a fallen world in various ways and to a greater or lesser extent with different individuals.
So the bottom-line is: appeals to the apparent contradiction between God’s love and eternal, conscious punishment are inconsistent and just as lethal for conditionalism. In condemning the other view, it would seem that CI has unwittingly disqualified itself. But, in the end, we simply cannot answer this question with appeals to God’s love. Finally, when the Bible talks about the fact of hell, it does so in connection with God’s judgment and therefore his holiness. The love of God has often been brought into the discussion under the pretense of analogia fides, but we must be reminded that the proper context in which to reflect on hell is firstly and ultimately God’s holiness and true justice. Let us not blur that reality. If we are going to talk about the love of God in connection with the nature of hell, let us talk about that love, spurned.
The Doctrine of God’s Justice
But the eternal, conscious suffering of the wicked raises not only questions in connection with God’s love, but also in connection with his holiness and, in particular, his justice. Do sins, no matter how egregious, require the punishment of eternal suffering? To make it more explicit, for sins committed in time and therefore finite, is eternal suffering, in which case billions of years is only a drop in the bucket, really fair and just; is there not a “serious disproportion” here?122
First, as creatures hopelessly polluted by sin—a fact which both sides agree upon for the most part—is it really possible for us to determine what God’s justice requires and the limits he ought to put on his retribution? Sin is ultimately against God himself, an attack on his holiness, an attempted coup d’tat, a rebellion of the most heinous kind. Therefore, even as reconciled rebels, we are in no position to argue that his justice does not necessarily demand eternal, conscious punishment.
Second, the CI argument from the justice of God may impale itself on the horns of a dilemma. If the wicked are punished until their sins are paid for, why then are they annihilated? Surely, justice has been served and they should be free to go (into heaven). But, if their sins have not been paid for, why are they annihilated? Justice would require that their sins be paid for, so they must remain until that is accomplished. It is precisely at this point that one hears the tip-to of “secular sentimentality” in the basement below the main floor.
This raises another interesting question: Can people experience punishment when they are extinct? Does punishment, then, for one’s own sins, require consciousness? Could God punish people who never existed? The CI’s will undoubtedly say “no” to this last question since they argue that extinction is the last element of the punishment. But they betray the opposite in their critique of the traditional view when they say that God keeps people alive forever just to punish them endlessly. Thus they believe that consciousness is necessary for the experience of punishment to exist. We may ask, then, whether “extinction of being” is really punishment at all. Punishment requires that the person so punished experience pain, loss, etc. If that pain is not experienced, then there is no punishment experienced and none being executed.
Third, the issue of the justice of hell is often broached in scripture in terms of degrees of punishment. Not everyone will experience the same degree of pain and suffering in hell. Some will be beaten with few blows, relatively speaking, and some with many (Luke 12:47-48).
Fourth, even Stott admits that if people were to continue in sin in the eternal state, then eternal, conscious punishment would be just.123 But he cites no scriptural evidence to the point. However, there is some evidence that this will indeed be the case. First, hell is a place where there is pain (weeping) and violent anger (gnashing of teeth). This would seem to indicate sinful behavior. Second, people will continue to rebel against God even while they are experiencing enormous judgment, pain, and suffering. This, of course, has occurred in the past, but will occur again during the great tribulation.
20 The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. 21 Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.
9They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. 10The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony 11and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.
These two passages illustrate that men do not always repent when they are under divine judgment—even when that judgment is of the severest nature. Thus, we are not surprised to find scriptural evidence that unrepentant attitudes will probably persist into the eternal state. This seems to be the point John makes in the last chapter of the Bible:
10 Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. 11 Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.”
This text says in v. 10 that “the time is near,” referring to God’s final judgment. A person may wonder, then, how Rev 22:10-11 could provide evidence of attitudes and practices in the eternal state since it describes attitudes and behaviors up to that point. Carson comments:
Of course, the primary emphasis here is on the time from “now” until judgment: there is a kind of realized judgment, within time, that sometimes takes place. Nevertheless the parallel is telling. If the holy and those who do right continue to be holy and to do right, in anticipation of the perfect holiness and rightness to be lived and practiced throughout all eternity, should we not also conclude that the vile continue their vileness in anticipation of the vileness they will live and practice throughout all eternity?124
The inference Carson draws from this passage is substantiated, not only by the parallel in the passage, but also by the reference to Jesus’ coming in the next verse and the allotment of the righteous (v. 14) and the wicked (v. 15). The righteous live out their righteousness and the wicked continue in their wickedness, outside the gate of the city, of course.
So we conclude from this that God is just when he punishes the wicked forever, with everlasting, conscious punishment, since it seems likely that they continue in their rebellion, magic, murders, idolatries, and immoralities.
The Doctrine of God’s Universal Reign
Some advocates of CI argue that if hell is to persist throughout eternity, then God’s universal and unmitigated reign will be threatened for there is still “quadrants in the galaxy,” i.e., “a corner of the kingdom” that is not under his complete dominion. They argue that hell contradicts the universal reign of God. Hughes says,
The renewal of creation demands the elimination of sin and suffering and death…The conception of the endlessness of the suffering of torment and of the endurance of ‘living’ death in hell stands in contradiction to this teaching. It leaves a part of creation which, unrenewed, everlastingly exists in alienation from the new heaven and the new earth.125
This argument suffers from at least two important flaws. First, it adds a step in the outworking of God’s plan that is not there in the Biblical materials. It argues that hell and the glorified eternal state cannot coexist. Then it says, at some point after the final judgment (e.g., 2 years, 10,000 years, who knows), God will annihilate hell and all who are in it. The problem is, however, that the Bible knows nothing of this second move after the final judgment. The only thing it recognizes after the final judgment is a city which only the righteous can enter and the wicked remain outside (Rev 22:14-15). Revelation 22:14-15 is a clear indication that wickedness and righteousness can coexist in the eternal state. Second, why is it so difficult to conceive of the pure, unmitigated, and just expression of God’s judgment in the eternal state? God is no longer tolerating any rebellion, or allowing sins to go unpunished (cf. Acts 17:30), but is instead exercising continual judgment on sin and the finally impenitent. In this scenario, nothing is a threat, either in theory or practice, to his glorious rule. In fact, in such a scenario, eternity becomes the stage for the endless pure expression of the holiness of God.
The Marred Condition of the Eternal State
Some advocates of CI have argued that the presence of people suffering in hell will mar the joy of heaven.
Packer points out that “this cannot be said of God, as if the expressing of his holiness in retribution hurts him more than it hurts the offenders; and since in heaven Christians will be like God in character, loving what he loves and taking joy in all his self manifestation, including his justice, there is no reason to think that their joy will be impaired in this way.”126
The Process of Condemnation
We hinted at this problem above. Concerning God’s dealing with the finally impenitent, proponents of CI argue that first God will judge with “fire that annihilates.” Then he will bring eternal punishment which is in fact a statement about the non-reversing of the annihilation.127 Thus, the advocate of CI serializes the final judgment. But is this how the Bible deals with it?
There is no serialization of the final judgment in the way envisioned in CI. The two verses of Matthew 25:41, 46 are critical in this regard. They read as follows:
25:41 Then he [Jesus] will also say to those on his left: “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels…25:46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
It is clear that eternal fire is to be read in parallel with eternal punishment as a reference to the same thing. They are not meant, on any plain reading of the text, to be understood as referring to two different judgments, one before the other (i.e., in serial). Thus a major premise in the doctrine of CI is without support. Further, if the fire is said to be eternal, involving endless time (though it may connote severity as well), why isn’t the punishment endless as well? The parallel with eternal life seems to further put the matter beyond dispute.
The Doctrine of Heaven
The Desire for Heaven
To know God deeply and to be without hindrance in the pursuit and experience of his love, is the unending desire of every sanctified heart. This, of course, only happens on a certain level and to a certain degree in this life. As both Jesus and Paul taught, we live in the “now, not-yet” of salvation, so that while we love God now, we do so only imperfectly and with great difficulty and struggle at times. We serve him with joy, but a joy often mixed with tears of sadness. There are times when our hearts get weary of serving him and through the deceitfulness of sin and the distractions in the world we are hardened and for a time led astray from our sincere devotion. Nonetheless, our deepest longings, implanted and renewed daily by the Spirit of grace, are to be free of indwelling sin and to worship and serve the Lord in a manner thoroughly pleasing to him. The good news is, Christ has prepared a place in which pure worship and bliss will be ours.
Concerning that place, often referred to as “heaven” in scripture, Paul says that “no eye has seen, no hear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9-10). Through the indwelling Spirit—who continuously mediates the presence of Christ to us—we taste that future day now, but it is only a taste (no matter how intense). In the future we shall actually “see him face to face” (1 John 3:2-3). Who can really imagine what great things God has in store for those who love him? To meditate upon the Biblical doctrine of heaven is one of the most encouraging and stimulating of all the spiritual disciplines. The goal of this section is to give you some thoughts, however terribly inadequate they may be, to bring before the Lord in worship and praise. In short, they are thoughts about our future with God—thoughts that hopefully teach us how to live for God now. In this way the future will not seem so strange when we get there.
The Term "Heaven"
In the Bible the term “heaven” (shamayim in the OT and ouranos in the NT) is the first element in a merism which itself refers to all of creation, as in the expression "the heavens and the earth" (Gen 1:1). The term is also used as a partial synonym for God, though more is entailed than just a reference to his person, per se. It is used this way, for example, in John 3:27, where Jesus says that "no person can receive anything expect what is given him from heaven." But there is also a third way in which the term is used, namely, as a reference to a special place where God dwells in the fullness of his person and blessing.
The Nature of Heaven
As we said above, heaven seems to be a real place. Jesus repeatedly claimed to have come "from heaven" (John 6:41, 52; cf. 7:28-29) and after his resurrection, he ascended "into heaven" and someday he will be revealed "out of heaven" (Acts 1:11; 1 Thess 4:16). He is currently "in heaven" preparing a place for his own (John 14:3; cf. Heb 9:24). Thus, whether we can, by our senses, detect heaven or not, it is likely somewhere within our space-time universe since Jesus is there in his real, resurrected corporeal body. Our ultimate destiny, as those who have been eternally joined to the savior, is to dwell in heaven forever, in the presence of Christ, serving his Father day and night (Eph 2:6-7; Rev 22:5).
But there is some question over whether heaven is really more a state than a place. But, depending on how we understand these terms, the answer is probably both/and. If by a state we exclude physical realities, then we are certainly in error. Heaven is not described in scripture as some amorphous, platonized, spiritual existence. For we will reign in heaven in our resurrected bodies (Rom 8:17). Second, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, which implies location in space and time (cf. Rev 21:1). But just to focus on the physical features of eternal life with God is to miss the "new" state of things into which God is bringing us. In heaven, God will be present to bless us in ways unheard of or hitherto experienced. There will be no sin, but only perfect desire to worship, love, and serve him. There will be joy, continual revelation (for God's being and knowledge are infinite), extreme bliss, and grateful service. This is both qualitatively and quantitatively different than anything we have ever experienced.
Other questions have been surfaced in discussions about heaven as well. Some folk worry whether their sins and the remembrance of them will follow them into heaven. This is not likely, for God will deal with that at the final judgment and "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21:4). This is not a license to live however one pleases, since it must be kept in mind—even if we are unable to understand it—that there will be degrees of reward in heaven for faithful service here on earth. We must always make it our aim to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it (2 Cor 5:9).
Some people wonder whether there will be physical pleasures in heaven such as sex, eating, and drinking, etc. It seems that since there appears to be no marriage in heaven, there will be no sexual relations. Jesus' statement in Matthew 22:30 seems to suggest that insofar as the angels are not married and do not have sexual union, neither will glorified human beings. Perhaps, there will be no need for procreation in heaven; we are not given the specific rationale.128 Regarding "eating and drinking," all that we can perhaps say, is that while we may be able to do so, there does not appear to be any reason why we must do so.129
The New Heavens and the New Earth
The Lord explicitly promises to create “a new heavens and a new earth” where He will be present to bless His people with unimaginable glory and unfathomable riches (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). This is where all those who have loved God will dwell forever, in unbroken fellowship with Him. The Father longs to bless us with His presence and has indeed saved us for this very reason (cf. Eph 2:6-7).
Thus, there will be no more crying or mourning or death or pain for the old order under sin will be finally dealt with. In fulfillment of God’s deepest desires, “He will be our God and we will be His people.” Through the cross of Christ the Father has won the victory, secured us for his courts, and ushered in the kingdom without limit or opposition. We will reign with him in the new heavens and earth forever (rev 5:10).
Now it seems fairly clear in scripture that the new heavens and the new earth will be a physical place and we will love and serve God in it. The fact that Jesus is now there in his resurrection body and that we too will someday receive resurrection bodies to make us fit for God’s presence, seems to indicate that “the new heavens and new earth” refer not simply to spiritual realities or spiritual modes of existence (though it certainly includes them), but also to physical realities. The glorified Jesus now dwells in heaven at God’s right hand (Acts 1:11; 7:55-56).
That the physical creation will be renewed is taught in several passages. The apostle Peter speaks of a new heaven and earth:
3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare. 3:11 Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, 3:12 while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze! 3:13 But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides.
Paul also speaks generally of the same hope in Romans 8:18-25
8:18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 8:19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 8:21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 8:23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 8:24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.
Notice in Romans 8 that although “the whole creation groans” right now (that is, between the inauguration of the kingdom at Christ’s first coming and the consummation at His second) it will be liberated from its decay (through sin) in the future—an event connected closely with the redemption of our bodies.
There is some debate in Christian circles as to whether the present creation will be entirely done away with (followed by a new creation) or whether it will be renewed and made perfect by God. There are passages that seem to indicate a complete removal of what presently exists (e.g., 2 Peter 3:10, Rev 20:11; 21:1) and others that seem to speak of a renewal of what presently exists (e.g., Matt 19:28). But the answer to this question is not entirely important. One can hold to either view and still maintain a high view of creation at the present time. What is important, however, is that in one way or another creation will be changed, made new, and fit for eternity. It will be a place entirely suited for righteousness; redeemed human beings will faithfully, loving, and intelligently worship and serve the King of Kings!
This is perhaps a fitting place to end, that is, with our eyes focused on eternal realities and the joy of loving God. It is my conviction that we’re actually attracted to God because of his magnificent beauty. We gaze forward into eternity through the lens of a city whose brilliance is that of jasper, whose doors are glorious pearls, and whose foundation consists of all sorts of multi-colored, precious stones. And, of course, the light for that city is not the light of the sun or moon, but that of the Lord and his lamb! The fundamental reality that characterizes this city is God’s presence, and therefore, life. And that life is represented by the river that flows endlessly from the throne of God and the two trees of life that provide eternal healing for the nations. This description, as the angel says, is “trustworthy and true.” It is the great hope of every Christian and the certain victory of God (cf. Rev 21-22)!
56 Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 3:455.
57 This does not mean that man was necessarily immortal vis vis his nature, but rather that he could have lived forever through partaking in the tree of life. Disobedience and the entrance of sin, however, made that impossible, that is, without the atonement of Christ.
58 See Erickson, Christian Theology, 1170-72.
59 Luther taught that the believer was not in purgatory but safely asleep in the arms of Christ until the last day. Generally, however, soul sleep has been associated with such groups as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
60 See Lewis and Demarest, Integrative Theology, 3:473-74. On the interpretation of the story of Luke 16 see Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 203-8.
61 This is true whether 24:29 is taken literally, which is quite probable, or metaphorically.
62 It appears that Luke has a focus on AD 70 (21:20-24), but it also appears quite reasonable that verses 21:27, 35 are looking to the grand eschaton as well. Thus, what happened in AD 70 could be repeated again, on a much grander scale.
63 We are not saying here that the Bible teaches that he will return at any moment. The teaching that claims that Christ will return at any moment is false, not taught in Scripture, and an error that many in Evangelicalism have fallen into.
64 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 695-703.
65 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1095-1105.
66 This is Wayne Grudem’s position in Systematic Theology, 1101.
67 So, e.g., George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 91. See also Matt 25:6 and Acts 28:15-16.
68 Some fine resources to consult for a better understanding of this topic include R. G. Clouse, “Rapture of the Church,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 908-10; Three Views of the Rapture; Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational? Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996); Lewis and Demarest, Integrative Theology, 369-442.
69 Kenneth L. Gentry, “Postmillennialism,” Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 13-14. Gentry holds to a theonomic postmillennialism.
70 Gentry, “Postmillennialism,” 15. He cites the work of Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology: Vol. 2: Life, Ministry, and Hope (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 192 and Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 5th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rep. n.d. ), 2:591, cf. 122.
71 Robert Gentry’s work cited above is just such an example of this.
72 See Craig L. Blaising, “A Premillennial Response to Kenneth L. Gentry,” in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 76-80; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1122-27.
73 See Robert Strimple, “An Amillennial Response to Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.,” in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 63-66.
74 Blaising, “Premillennial Response,” 75.
75 See Berkhov, Systematic Theology, 709, for a discussion of Irenaeus’ eschatological views.
76 See Donald K. Campbell and Jeffrey L. Townsend, eds. The Case for Premillennialism: A New Consensus (Chicago: Moody, 1992).
77 I realize that some will undoubtedly say that I have blunted the force of their argument; they would argue that if only one passage teaches a doctrine, we might want to rethink whether even that passage teaches it! This point is well taken, but the problem remains, that no consistent and plain reading of Rev 20:4-6 has been advanced by amillennialists or postmillennialists to the contrary, though there have been many good and ardent attempts.
78 But they saw the thousand year period as having already been completed before their time and the rise of the papacy as a sure sign of the end.
79 Lewis and Demarest, Integrative Theology, 372.
80 No one argues that Satan will literally be bound with a chain, as if he were corporeal, but what scholars mean is that Satan will be prevented from tempting people for a period of time.
81 It is possible to regard “nations” and “kings” in Revelation 21:24 as metaphorical descriptions, but no good reason seems to present itself for doing so. And if they are, are they simply representations of the regal aspects of the eternal state? If so, why the reference to “nations”?
82 With the introductory word “for” Paul tightly connects 1:18-32 (and 1:18-3:20) with 1:17: The section 1:18-3:20 will demonstrate the truth of 1:17, namely, that all men need the righteousness of God and that they can only obtain it through faith not works.
83 There is no reason, however, to necessarily assume that the “giving over” is permanent. There is ample biblical evidence to suggest that often times the goal of God’s wrath is therapeutic (cf. Judges). In other words, God gives people over so that they will experience the ruin of their sin and call out to him for salvation. In the Gospels, it often seems that those who lived the worst kind of lives were the first to come to Christ (cf. John 4), while those who appeared to live moral lives were not interested in his offer of salvation.
84 On the basis of certain elements in Matthew 25:31-46 some scholars (e.g., Karl Rahner) have argued for a so-called “anonymous Christian,” i.e., someone who while disavowing Christianity does good works and is therefore possibly an unconscious Christian. Not only can this doctrine not be read out of Matthew 25, it also throws the rest of related biblical doctrine into confusion. The “stranger” of v. 35 is not Christ as a stranger to the person doing the good deeds, but rather another person, “a brother of Christ,” who happens to be unknown to the one feeding, clothing, and taking him in. In short, “the righteous” (v. 37) know Christ, but not necessarily that they had been directly serving him by serving strangers. It is only after the King has revealed this to them that they realize it to be true (vv. 37-40).
85 Some writers have tried to deny this, but in my judgment have cearly failed. See, for example, Craig Blomberg, “Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven?” JETS 35 (June 1992): 159-72. Blomberg does a good job of raising the ethical issues involved in the idea of rewards, but he is quite unconvincing in his treatment of several important texts, espcially 1 Cor 3:12-15.
86 In this section we will deal with the Biblical doctrine of hell including the universalist position as well as two conservative positions, namely, conditional immortality and traditionalism. We will not discuss the Catholic concept(s) of purgatory.
87 It may be reasonably inquired, however, if they have even understood this properly from scripture, for they often speak of God’s love as if it were an impersonal force, indiscriminately overtaking its objects, regardless of human freedom. As far as this is the case, their view is certainly unscriptural.
88 See N. F. S. Ferr, The Christian Understanding of God (New York: Harper, 1951), 228-29.
89 We will treat the issue of whether this involves eternal annihilation or eternal conscious punishment below. Suffice it to say here that these texts prohibit a universalist understanding of scripture.
90 We will take up the issue of the nature of hell and eternal punishment below.
91 For example, John Walvoord, “Response to Clark H. Pinnock,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 167-68, argues that “ conditional immortality raises the question whether the Bible was actually ever inspired by the Holy Spirit and is verbally inerrant…the common assumption that the Bible bends to the wrong conceptions of punishment that existed in the first century implies that the Holy Spirit was not sovereign in guiding the scriptures and that the writers were not kept from error. The great majority of those who hold to conditional immortality of the wicked do not subscribe to the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy.” But surely Walvoord’s criticism is misguided an founded on a confusion of inerrancy and exegesis. First, this is a question about exegesis, not inerrancy, and nethier Pinnock nor Corckett has downgraded God’s word to mere human opinion, ruled out any passage ahead of the game, or tried to “bend” scripture to conceptions of hell prevalent in the first century. We might as well accuse Jesus of the same thing since his view seems at times to be in line with much in Pharisaic Judaism.
Walvoord’s comments serve only to muddy the waters, poison the well, as it were. Most in the debate realize this. See Robert A Peterson’s response to Edward William Fudge, in Fudge and Peterson, Two Views on Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 83-113, in which Peterson, a tradtionalist, roundly criticizes Fudge, conditionalist, on several grounds, but never in respect to inerrancy. Why? For at least two reasons. First, Fudge is an evangelical and committed to inspired scripture. Second, the issue is irrelavent. The only way it becomes relavent is when certain texts are downgraded from the status of God’s word to an expression of mere human opinion. But, insofar as this debate has taken palce among leading evangelicals—and this is who Walvoord is criticising—such has not been the case. In other words, if it were possible for Peterson, Fudge, Pinnock, and Crockett to all hold a higher view of Scripture, say the one that Jesus himself espoused, the issue would still not be any closer to resolution.
92 This important distinction can be seen in Stott’s words: “You [David Edwards] rightly say that I have never declared publicly whether I think hell, in addition to being real, terrible and eternal, will involve the experience of everlasting suffering” (italics mine). Stott’s point is to the point and gets at the heart of the debate between traditionalists and conditionalists. See David L Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 314.
93 David L Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 313.
94 “Annihilationism,” in Studies in Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932), 447-57.
95 The Fire that Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment (Fallbrook, CA: Verdict, 1982); Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 19-82; 182-208.
96 The Goodness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974), 34-41; idem., The Enigma of Evil: Can We Believe in the Goodness of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 27-41.
97 I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 198.
98 The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 398-407; reprinted in “Conditional Immortality,” Evangel 10/2 (Summer 1992): 10-12.
99 “The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 135-66; idem., “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” CTR 4.2 (1990): 243-59.
100 Evangelism through the Local Church (Nashville, TN: Oliver Nelson, 1992), 72-73.
101 David L Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 312-29.
102 Cf. Matthew 2:13; 10:28. Here apollumi means “to kill” or “put to death.”
103 For a brief discussion of the relationship of voice to transitiveness, see Wallace, Exegetical Syntax, 409.
104 Stott, Essentials, 315.
105 Stott, Essentials, 315-16.
106 In fact, it is seriously questionable whether the term—in its 90 NT uses—ever means cessation of being, though in a few cases (e.g., John 6:12—the loaves that were broken) it might be implied. But even they are by no means clear.
107 Cf. Roger Nicole, “Annihilationism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 50, who says, “Spiritual death, or the “second death” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8), does not mean that the soul or personality lapses into nonbeing, but rather that it is ultimately and finally deprived of that presence of God and fellowship with him which is the chief end of man and the essential condition of worthwhile existence. To be bereft of it is to perish, to be reduced to utter insignificance, to sink into abysmal futility” (italics mine).
108 The reader is encouraged to look at the NT uses of apoleia: Matt 7:13; 26:8; Mark 14:4; John 17:12; Acts 8:20; Rom 9:22; Phil 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess 2:3; 1 Tim 6:9; Heb 10:39; 2 Pet 2:1, 3; 3:7, 16; Rev 17:8, 11. There is nothing is these uses that forces us to conlcude that apoleia means “cessation of existence.” Again, passages like Matt 26:8, Mark 14:4, Rev 17:8, 11 underscore the fact that cessation of existence is not the most basic meaning.
109 Pinnock, Four Views, 146.
110 So Walvoord, “The Literal View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 28.
111 Stott, Essentials, 316.
112 Cf. D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996),
113 Again, my argument rests on the never-ending nature of “their worm does not die.” This, of course, is contested, but it is nonetheless the simpelst and most striaghtforward reading of the passage and Mark’s use of Isaiah 66:24. We will deal with this issue below.
114 Cf. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 349, f.n., 81.
115 Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, 51-64. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” 147, n. 25 refers to this argument as the central piece to Philip Hughes work, The True Image, ch. 37. Pinnock also says in the same footnote that F. F. Bruce, who forwarded Edward Fudge’s book, “admits to conditionalism in the preface.” But this does not mean that Bruce admits to CI. In fact, he explicitly denies adherence to either of the views, refusing to systematize his thoughts on the issue. Again, the reader must note that innate immortality is not entailed in the traditional view.
116 See Stott, Essentials, 316.
117 We have seen this fallacy committed over and over again with the history of religions approach to gospel material, that we as evangeicals ought to know better by now.
118 See Millard J. Erickson, How Shall They Be Saved: The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 226-227, for his discussion of this philosophical issue.
119 Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” 149-51.
120 D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 529-30, rightly points out that “it takes considerable grace to listen sympatheically to Pinnock’s pleas that his view be granted legitimacy, when his own purple prose condemns as sadists devoid of the milk of human kindness all those who disagree with him.” Surely Pinnock realizes that he speaks against many of God’s saints when he argues like this, for many godly people in the past have held to the traditional view. And, if the traditional view is correct, then has essentially leveled these epithets at God. By contrast, it is more wise to be cautious about CI, as John Stott himself is.
121 See Ercikson, How Shall They Be Saved, 227. Erickson also says that “Pinnock, Stott, and others depict a sentimentalized version [of God’s love], in which God would not do anything that would cause anyone pain, displeasure, or discomfort.” While Erickson is probably correct in seeing a soft and non-biblical view of God’s love at work in Stott and Pinnock—though Pinnock admantly denies any such thing—he goes too far when he implies that their God would not do anything to “cause anyone pain, displeasure, or discomfort.” This is not true, for both Stott and Pinnock would argue for at least some conscious punishment (at least in the interim state; cf. Luke 16:23-24), just not everlasting, conscious torment. See also Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation: New Challenges to the Gospel—Universalism and Justification by Faith,” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 126.
122 See Stott, Essentials, 318.
123 Stott, Essentials, 319.
124 Carson, Gagging of God, 533.
125 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “Conditional Immortality,” Evangel 10/2 (Summer 1992): 11.
126 Packer, “The Problem of Eternal Punishment,” 18.
127 See Kendall S. Harmon, “The Case against Conditionalism,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 113-15.
128 We must be careful of taking Jesus' statement about our likeness to the angels too far. We should keep it to the issue under discussion, namely, marriage, with the implications that this apparently has for sexual union.
129 Although it is true that Jesus himself ate after his resurrection, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that he needed to, but only that he did it to fellowship with the disciples at that time (cf. Luke 24:43). On the other hand, if the leaves on the tree of life in Revelation 22:2 are to be taken literally, and they are to be eaten, then it would seem that eating must be a continual feature of heaven since such eating maintains the healing of the nations. But this involves a crass literalism, not warranted by the text. The best way to regard this verse is symbolically (so most commentators) as a reference to the ongoing health and blessing of all people in the New Jerusalem. See Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1161-1162, who takes the reference to our eating and drinking at the marriage supper of the lamb as literal (Rev 19:9). Erickson, Christian Theology, 1232, takes a much more symbolic view of these things. Given the limits of language and the sparseness of the details, it seems best not to be too dogmatic about these kinds of details.
Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)