Hell Doctrine and the Early Christian Church
- 1 Exploring Judeo-Christian History
- 2 The Augustinian Corruption of Christendom
- 3 Augustine’s Advocacy of Eternal Torment Made It Unquestioned Orthodoxy
- 4 Why Didn’t the Protestant Reformers Reject eternal torment?
- 5 Eternal Torment Was Not Always the Orthodox View
- 6 The Writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls Adhered to Everlasting Destruction
- 7 The Orthodox Jewish View of Damnation at the Time of Christ
- 8 The Sadducees and Pharisees Beliefs Regarding Eternal Damnation
- 9 Greek Influence in the 400 Years between the Old and New Testaments
- 10 The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
- 11 God’s View is the Only View that Matters
- 12 How Could So Many be Wrong for So Long?
- 13 Many Christians are Now Rejecting eternal torment in Favor of Everlasting Destruction
- 14 Conclusion
Exploring Judeo-Christian History
Because adherents of eternal torment have a difficult time finding legitimate biblical support for their position they naturally resort to extra-biblical arguments based on religious tradition and Judeo-Christian history. This chapter is devoted to exploring Judeo-Christian history as it relates to the topic of human damnation to see if there is any validity to these contentions. Let’s start with…
The Augustinian Corruption of Christendom
NOTE: Information in this section was compiled from David Reagan’s What Happens When You Die?
At the end of the previous chapter we discovered that the popular saying “you will spend eternity in either heaven or hell” does not match the biblical descriptions of eternal life and damnation. How did Christendom lose the exciting biblical picture of a tangible new earth and new universe and replace it with the unscriptural picture of an ethereal spirit realm where we’ll float around on clouds playing harps forever? How did the church come to officially adopt the unbiblical doctrines of the immortal soul (apart from Christ) and eternal torment? These unfortunate errors can be traced to one of the most influential theologians in Christian history: Augustine of Hippo, who lived from 354-430 AD. Augustine is hailed by many Christians today as “the father of orthodoxy.”
Saint Augustine, as he is commonly referred to, was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy. According to this philosophy the physical universe, including the human body, was considered evil. This negative outlook was diametrically opposed to the Hebrew view of creation as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. According to the Bible and Hebrew thought the world and the universe were created “good” (see Genesis 1:31), and even though this goodness was corrupted by humanity’s sin (Isaiah 24:5-6) the creation still reflects God’s glory to some extent (Psalms 19:1). Ultimately, the creation will one day be redeemed and renovated by its Creator as shown in Romans 8:18-23 and Revelation 21:1-4.
The Gnostic heresy that Jesus was a spirit being who never took on human flesh and therefore never experienced physical death can be traced to Hellenistic gentiles who accepted the gospel — their Greek mindset immediately came into conflict with fundamental Judeo-Christian teachings. They naturally wondered “How could God’s divine Son be encased in a body which is evil?” Because they viewed the physical universe as evil, they could not accept the Bible’s clear teaching that Jesus Christ was embodied in flesh. They thus developed the Gnostic heresy, which is strongly denounced in Scripture. For instance, 1 John 4:1-2 instructs us to test the legitimacy of fellow Christians by whether or not they are willing to confess “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.”
Augustine was not a Gnostic, but the influence of Greek philosophy prevented him from accepting what the Bible plainly taught on the nature of eternal life. For example, the Biblical teaching that saints will spend eternity in glorified bodies on a literal new earth in a physical new universe was a blasphemous concept to his Greek mindset. He solved this problem by spiritualizing what the Bible plainly taught, suggesting that biblical references like “the new Jerusalem” and “the new earth” are merely symbolic language for heaven.
Augustine’s goal was to Hellenize what the Scriptures taught regarding the nature of eternal life and he was quite successful as his views were officially accepted by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Augustine’s teachings are thus adhered to by most professing Christians today, both Catholic and Protestant, despite what the Bible plainly teaches. This means that much of present-day Christendom teaches Greek philosophy rather than the Word of God when it comes to the subjects of human nature, eternal life and the second death. Allow me to add, however, that this is thankfully changing as more and more Christians discover the truth of God’s Word on these important issues and boldly proclaim it.
In light of Augustine’s corruptive impact on Christendom I consider him a “father of error” more than anything else. Why has the church so exalted this mere man to the point that we are willing to reject clear biblical teaching in favor of his erroneous views? If Christendom insists on hailing someone as the “father of orthodoxy” why not Jesus Christ himself or the apostle Paul? What a testimony to the formidable, blinding force of religious tradition and indoctrination!
Augustine’s Advocacy of Eternal Torment Made It Unquestioned Orthodoxy
Having a Greek mindset, Augustine also naturally adhered to the belief that the human soul is immortal and can never cease to exist; he was consequently a strong proponent of the eternal torment doctrine.
There were theologians prior to Augustine who embraced the idea of eternal torment, such as Tertullian (160-220 AD) whose support of never-ending roasting was naturally based on his zealous belief in the immortality of the soul. He was so influenced by pagan Greek philosophy that he would quote Plato in his writings. For example: “I may use, therefore, the opinion of a Plato when he declares, ‘Every soul is immortal.’ ”(Tertullian, 3).
Athenagorus (127-190 AD), a Platonic philosopher who converted to Christianity, was the first Christian writer to expressly deny the literal everlasting destruction of the ungodly. Needless to say, his conclusion was not based on Scripture but upon the pagan teaching that he learned earlier as a Greek philosopher, the idea that every human being possesses an immortal soul that can never die. This belief infiltrated Christianity soon after the time of the apostolic fathers when “the apologists” converted from Greek philosophy; converts from Hellenistic Judaism also contributed to the proliferation of this teaching.
It was Augustine, however, who systemized and popularized the view of eternal torment and caused it to become the official doctrine of the Roman church (Buis, 61). One might understandably wonder how God could allow such false doctrines as this and the immortal soul to become imbedded in the collective Christian mindset, yet God had nothing to do with “allowing” these unbiblical beliefs to infiltrate Christendom; these doctrines stem from the very first satanic lie recorded in the Bible as disclosed in Chapter Four. After the compilation of the New Testament canon, the Roman church increasingly deviated from Holy Scripture in the following generations. When people willingly disregard the authority of God’s Word in favor of the word of human religion there’s nothing God can do to stop the resulting apostasy (except inspire a reformation by the Holy Spirit, which came to pass a thousand years later).
We must realize that the body of Christ was threatened by false teachers right from the get-go. In the 1st century before all the books of the New Testament were even written the churches in Galatia had turned to a counterfeit gospel (see Galations 1:6-8) and Peter, by the Holy Spirit, plainly warned of false teachers and their destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1-2). Augustine’s unscriptural views were not officially adapted by the Roman church until the 5th century — almost 400 hundred years later. In the ensuing years eternal torment became unquestioned orthodoxy even though Augustine himself rightly implored, “Do not follow my writings as Holy Scripture. When you find in Holy Scripture anything you did not believe before, believe it without doubt; but in my writings, you should hold nothing for certain.” (Boice 22, from Augustine’s Preface to the Treatise on the Trinity as quoted by Boice).
Unfortunately Augustine’s own advice could not seriously be taken because the Church in Rome adapted the absurd view that it was dangerous for the common person to read the Scriptures without benefit of clergy. They decided that only scholars and educated clergy should have direct personal access to the God-breathed Scriptures. The Roman church thus kept the Bible from the common people by outlawing vernacular versions as the Holy Scriptures were only available in Hebrew, Greek and Latin during the medieval era, or Middle Ages.
NOTE: “Medieval” is from the Latin medium aevum, meaning “middle ages.”
This period roughly extended from 476 to 1485 AD and is known as the Dark Ages because it was an era of cultural stagnation; progression halted and truth was stifled as knowledge generally became dormant. Since the doctrines of the immortal soul and eternal torment were official teachings of the Roman church, it was a crime of heresy to disagree. It would have been hard for the common people to disagree with these doctrines regardless because they didn’t even have access to Bibles in their own language, not to mention most were illiterate. Furthermore, Bibles in any language were hard to come by since they had to be copied by hand; the printing press was not invented until the mid-15th century.
Despite all this, it’s fairly certain that there were many people throughout this long period — literate people that had access to the Scriptures — who denied the immortality of the soul and eternal torment. We can assume this because literal destruction is so blatantly taught in Scripture. Such people, however, would have been criminally charged with heresy and their writings destroyed; it would be naïve to think otherwise because the sad fact is that history is written by those who rule, and the Roman church reigned throughout the Dark Ages.
Why Didn’t the Protestant Reformers Reject eternal torment?
Augustine’s advice to follow what the Scriptures taught above all else was not taken en masse until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The Renaissance, French for “rebirth,” paved the way for this Reformation, thus ending the dark millennium of biblical dormancy. The Protestants based their reforms on the principle of sola scriptura, that all judgments of doctrine and practice must be based on the plain teachings of Holy Scripture, the blueprint for valid Christianity. Regarding the subject at hand, it’s interesting to note that Martin Luther himself, the very father of the Reformation, spoke of the philosophical arguments for the immortal soul as “monstrous fables that form part of the Roman dunghill of decretals [i.e. decrees]” (Petavel 255).
The Anabaptists were the most radical of the reformers and therefore the most severely persecuted; they looked to the Scriptures as their authority and tended to discard all that they could not find expressly stated in them. Desiring to return to the biblical Christianity of the first century, they rejected much more of what came through the Roman church than did the Lutherans and the Reformed. They believed in church gatherings involving only those who had experienced the new birth, rather than of the community at large. The Anabaptists, which included the Mennonites, the Amish and the Hutterites, contributed to the emergence or development of the Baptists, Independants and Quakers (Latourette 778-79, 785).
Many Anabaptists believed that the ungodly would ultimately perish in hell and cease to exist, but John Calvin, second only to Luther as a Reformation leader, harshly opposed the Anabaptists on this matter and advocated his support for the “traditional views” of the immortal soul and eternal torment. Luther, not wanting to cause division over doctrines he considered less than major, kept quiet in light of Calvin’s vehement stance. Thus the doctrines of the immortal soul and eternal torment crossed the pivotal point of the Reformation as part of fundamental Protestant beliefs (Fudge/Peterson 193-195). Consequently, despite the fact that both of these beliefs are clearly unbiblical, many Christians today continue to blindly regard them as unquestionable “orthodoxy.”
There is good news, however: As more and more Christians reject erroneous tradition and embrace biblical authority, everlasting destruction will naturally become the “orthodox” position. Religious tradition and denominational allegiance are indeed powerful forces, but the Christian community has slowly and increasingly opened up to the biblical view of literal destruction since the Reformation. (See Chapter Nine for an examination of orthodoxy and traditionalism).
Eternal Torment Was Not Always the Orthodox View
Adherents of eternal torment often emphasize that their belief is the “orthodox” view, that is, the historically established and generally accepted view, yet this has only been true since the beginning of the above-mentioned medieval era.
The orthodox view of both the Jews in the Old Testament period and the Christians of the New Testament period was literal everlasting destruction. This is obvious because every person used of God to write the Holy Scriptures adhered to everlasting destruction. This was the commonly accepted position of believers in these eras. Thus the view of everlasting destruction is as old as the earliest Old Testament Scriptures.
Some folks, evidently not believing that the evidence from Scripture itself is adequate, may request evidence from uninspired writings outside the Biblical canon. Aside from the Bible itself, the doctrine of literal destruction can be traced back to biblical times. It can be found, for instance, in the writings of Justin Martyr (114-165 AD) who taught that human souls are mortal and that the ungodly will suffer only as long as God wills and then pass out of existence. Literal destruction can also be found in the Didache, a 2nd century Christian handbook, which speaks of “two ways” — the way of “life” and the way of “death,” plainly stating that the ungodly will ultimately perish. Even the great Rabbi Hillel, who lived about the same time as Jesus, taught that most unrepentant sinners would be literally and eternally destroyed, though he did maintain that one extreme class of sinners would suffer “to ages of ages,” yet even this does not indicate perpetuity (Reagan 6, from The Nature of Hell).
The Writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls Adhered to Everlasting Destruction
Another good example would be the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls who lived in Qumran by the Dead Sea and were believed to be Essenes; the Essenes were a sect of Jews that left Jerusalem because they believed the priests of the temple were corrupted by Rome. They wanted to stay pure and keep Torah — God’s Law — pure, so they moved to the desolate Dead Sea area.
NOTE: The Torah is also known as the Pentateuch — the law of Moses as contained in the first five books of the Old Testament.
This is the group spoken of as the “Sons of Light” in historical writings. It has been suggested that John the Baptist lived and studied with them in preparation for his ministry and some believe that Jesus himself studied with them. Regardless, sometime between 200 BC and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD the Qumran brotherhood wrote and transcribed many documents, including the Hebrew Scriptures; these documents were discovered in the mid-20th century and are presently referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
It is clear from these scrolls that the Qumranites adhered to everlasting destruction, not eternal torment:
1 QS 4:13-14
“And all the ages of their generations they [the ungodly] shall spend in bitter weeping and harsh evils in the abysses of darkness until their destruction, without there being a remnant or survivor among them.”
The Qumran brotherhood obviously believed that eternal damnation will consist of a time of suffering — described as “bitter weeping” that would ultimately end in utter destruction. The word “until” indicates that there will be a change — destruction would bring an end to the bitter weeping. To reinforce that “destruction” literally means destruction, the passage ends by making it clear that there would be no remnant or survivor of those damned to the “abysses of darkness” (i.e. the lake of fire). The only possible way there could be no remnant or survivor is if they all eventually ceased to exist; after all, people that live forever in torment would still be surviving.
There is more evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the writers of these documents clearly believed that eternal damnation consists of temporary suffering that ends in literal death just as it is plainly taught throughout the Old Testament.
Needless to say, the fact that the Qumranites believed unrepentant sinners would ultimately cease to exist is a crushing blow to the position of eternal torment.
The Orthodox Jewish View of Damnation at the Time of Christ
In light of the above information we could safely conclude that everlasting destruction was not only the biblical view at the time of Christ, which is all that really matters, but the orthodox “Jewish view” as well. By “orthodox” I mean historically established beliefs that are generally accepted as true (‘orthodox,’ by the way, literally means “correct view”). In other words, literal everlasting destruction was the conventional Jewish view of damnation. I add this in response to the outdated argument that Jesus endorsed never-ending torment because it was supposedly “the Jewish view” at the time of his earthly ministry. The present evidence proves this theory false.
Of course Jesus was never concerned about Jewish orthodoxy during his earthly ministry. He didn’t care which doctrines were established or popular. In fact, he didn’t care that everlasting destruction was the orthodox Jewish view. He simply taught what the Hebraic Scriptures taught; and these Scriptures clearly support literal destruction. (See Appendix A Old Testament Hell Verses for additional Old Testament support for everlasting destruction not included in the main body of this study).
It should be pointed out that there were actually over seventy sects of Judaism at the time of Christ, including Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Scribes, Herodians and Samaritans, all of which are mentioned in the New Testament. In light of this, the content of proper Jewish orthodoxy becomes somewhat debatable because these different groups stressed different beliefs as vital, just as different Christian sects do today. Each group had their own version of fundamental doctrines. As such, to suggest there was a single “Jewish view” is silly and pointless. There was, however, a single scriptural view, and that is what Jesus plainly preached.
The Sadducees and Pharisees Beliefs Regarding Eternal Damnation
Besides the Qumran brotherhood, the Sadducees also adhered to literal destruction, albeit a quite different version; they believed that when people died they would be literally dead forever, with no future resurrection for either the righteous or unrighteous. This belief is known as universal extinction. They didn’t believe in angels or demons either (see Acts 23:8).
NOTE: The fact that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection of the righteous unto eternal life explains their namesake — they were “sad” — you see?” (Yes, I’m trying to be amusing, lol).
Although the Sadducees were definitely wrong in denying both the resurrection and the existence of angelic beings, their adherence to universal extinction proves that there were whole groups of organized Jews who rejected the teachings of the immortal soul and eternal conscious torment, not to mention they supported literal everlasting destruction in some form.
It’s interesting to note, as pointed out in the previous chapter, that the very words the Sadducees used to describe their belief in universal extinction (“death,” “perish,” “destruction,” “destroy,” etc.) are the same words used in the Bible to describe the second death. Why should we assume these simple words have a completely different meaning today? Because of the tangled web of religious lies, that’s why.
As for the Pharisees, a sect that emerged from obscurity after the Maccabean revolt in 164 BC, the Scriptures themselves don’t reveal anything about their official view of damnation, but it is contended that this sect advocated eternal torment because they believed in the immortality of the soul. It really doesn’t matter since nothing good is ever said about the Pharisees in the Bible. Jesus continually conflicted with this sect; he called them names, rebuked them and spoke badly of them (see, for example, Matthew 5:20 & 23:13,15,25,28,33). In fact, Jesus commanded his followers to “Leave them; they are blind guides” (Matthew 15:12-14) and plainly warned of their false teachings in Matthew 16:11-12; Jesus was talking about the Pharisees’ teachings in this particular passage, their doctrines, not their hypocrisy. The Lord no doubt agreed with the Pharisees on quite a few doctrinal issues, but eternal torment was certainly not one of them.
The apostle Paul was formerly a radical Pharisee named Saul who zealously persecuted the early church — imprisoning disciples, voicing murderous threats and approving of their executions (see Acts 7:58, 8:1 & 9:1,13-14,21). But Jesus appeared to Saul and commanded him to leave this sect of blind guides. Years after his conversion and enlightenment, Paul referred to his pharisaic past as “rubbish,” “refuse” and “dung” (see Philippians 3:4-8 KJV/Amplified). By “rubbish” Paul was referring to all the hypocrisy, lifeless tradition and false teachings of the Pharisees, including the doctrine of eternal torment.
I point out these obvious biblical facts because there are some who argue that the Pharisees adhered to proper Jewish orthodoxy and that Jesus doctrinally agreed with them on everything. Frankly, anyone who believes this doesn’t read his/her Bible. Jesus warned of the Pharisee’s false teachings, called them blind guides and commanded his hearers to leave them; seriously, what more proof do we need to understand that Jesus didn’t believe the Pharisees represented proper Hebrew theology?
Greek Influence in the 400 Years between the Old and New Testaments
Since literal everlasting destruction is plainly taught throughout the Hebraic Scriptures and was the orthodox view in Old Testament times, some may wonder where certain Jews came up with the perverse view of eternal torment.
There is a 400-year gap between the latest Old Testament books and the earliest New Testament books. This is often referred to as “the 400 silent years” because God did not speak through Scripture prophecy during this time. Within a century after Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, Alexander the Great conquered most of the world from the Greek perspective. Palestine, the home of the Jews, was among these conquered lands. Greek culture and philosophy inevitably spread to these lands and Greek became the common language linking peoples scattered since the time of the infamous tower of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9).
Thus the foreign notions of Greek philosophy were introduced to Hebrew culture, in particular the Platonic theory of the immortal soul.
FASCINATING FACT: In his youth Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, who was himself a student of Plato, the originator of the immortal soul theory.
Some Jews intermixed this belief with their theology even though God repeatedly warned them to remain separate & pure from other nations and not to be corrupted by foreign beliefs & practices (see, for example, Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 29:24-28, Psalm 106:35-42 and Ezekiel 20:18-21). Since the Hebraic Scriptures plainly teach that ungodly people would suffer eternal damnation (e.g. Daniel 12:2), the Jews who embraced the pagan theory of the immortal soul naturally concluded that such damnation must refer to eternal conscious suffering; after all, if people possess immortal souls they cannot very well die. Not all Jews accepted these pagan notions, of course; many remained faithful to God’s warnings to remain separate and pure, like the Qumranites and John the Baptist.
The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
The Apocrypha consists of fourteen books written between 300 BC and New Testament times and reveal the increasing impact of Hellenistic ideas on Judaism. These books are considered uninspired by non-Hellenistic Jews and Protestants; in other words they are not God-breathed like the Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16).
In all the works of the Apocrypha the book of Judith contains the only express reference to eternal torment (16:17). The rest of the Apocrypha overwhelmingly mirrors the clear teachings of the Hebraic Scriptures on eternal damnation as plainly shown in this study.
The Pseudepigrapha (soo-duh-PIG-ruh-fuh) consists of other uninspired works of the same approximate time period. Some passages in these books, like the Apocryphal passage in Judith, seem to support never-ending torment, but references to eternal damnation in the Pseudepigrapha overwhelmingly reflect the clear teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures — that the ungodly would ultimately perish, never to be seen again.
These uninspired works from the intertestamental period are just that, uninspired. The range of opinion in these writings is a reflection of the seventy-plus sects of Judaism at the time of Christ. As previously pointed out, it would be absurd to presume there was a single “Jewish view” at this time. We can, however, assume there was an “orthodox” Jewish view, or widely accepted view. As already determined, literal everlasting destruction was the orthodox Jewish view of damnation and only those who embraced the pagan notion of the immortal soul disagreed with it.
It goes without saying that examining uninspired historical works can be interesting and informative but it offers mixed results. The simple fact is that people disagreed in the past just as they do today. It’s fine to examine uninspired writings, but we certainly shouldn’t rely on them. Our emphasis must not be on fallible writings but on the infallible Word of God. After all, too much emphasis on what is fallible ultimately reduces the importance of what is infallible (Griesmeyer 2:4-5). Let us not make the same mistake as the Pharisees who were rebuked by Jesus because they placed tradition above Holy Scripture:
“Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
When we place tradition above the God-breathed Scriptures we strip God’s Word of its power and authority. Unfortunately many Christians today are guilty of this.
Needless to say, since both literal destruction and eternal torment can be traced back to the intertestamental period, we have no choice but to simply take the Old Testament at face value on the subject of eternal damnation and turn to the New Testament for verification.
God’s View is the Only View that Matters
The focus of this study is the God-breathed Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The obvious reason for this is because, when it comes down to it, the only view that really matters is God’s. Human viewpoints can be erroneous; that is, people can be wrong. People also tend to change their minds depending on what’s convenient. Not to mention varying people naturally have varying points of view with each individual’s view typically biased toward the official position of whatever group to which he or she belongs. This is in contrast to God’s Word and His very nature, as it is written:
Let God be true and every man a liar.
1 SAMUEL 15:29
“He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; he is not a man that he should change his mind.”
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD…(9) “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Since the Bible is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and “never had it’s origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), it’s of vital importance that we base our studies and beliefs on what God’s Word plainly and consistently teaches.
As mentioned above, there are usually many human points of view on any given subject. In regards to the nature of the second death, all the many human viewpoints can be narrowed down to three basic positions: 1. literal everlasting destruction, 2. eternal conscious torture, or 3. universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved (we’ll examine this position in the next chapter). Judeo-Christian believers throughout history have adhered to one of these three positions, yet the Bible, as God’s certain and reliable Word, can only possibly teach one of these views. There is, after all, only one truth or one ultimate reality, not three.
NOTE: Please don’t get me wrong here, all three of these positions have valid points and may, in fact, be accurate in some ways. For instance, the view of eternal torment is true in the sense that the fallen angels will evidently be condemned to living forever in a miserable fallen state, but God understandably did not want such a fate to befall humanity (see Genesis 3:22-24); and the view of universalism may be true as far as the likelihood of post-mortem evangelization or inclusivism (see next chapter). Regardless, my point is that only one of these three positions on human damnation is ultimately true.
This study has proven that God’s Word plainly and consistently supports the view of literal destruction. Thus, regardless of which position people have adhered to at any given time in history, and regardless of which view is considered the “orthodox” view (presently or at any point in history), the God-breathed scriptures of the Old and New Testaments clearly and consistently reveal what Judeo-Christian believers are supposed to believe.
How Could So Many be Wrong for So Long?
As Christian history has turned out, from at least the time of Augustine (A.D. 354-430) most Christian leaders have believed and taught that God will keep unredeemed people alive in the lake of fire (“hell”) so they can suffer eternal conscious agony in a way that somehow relates to that of pain inflicted by fire. Because of this view’s longstanding status it is often referred to today as “the traditional view.”
In light of this, some raise the question: How could so many be wrong for so long? This question has already been indirectly raised and partially answered, yet it warrants our direct attention and a more complete answer here.
The question is legitimate but it is rooted in human pride. As Norman McFarland so aptly put it, “No doctrine is proven true by the fact that many learned, devout and sincere people have believed it for many years. If it did Protestantism would never have come to be, for it was only by breaking with the ‘many, so learned, devout and sincere,’ and declaring that they had been wrong for many centuries, that Protestantism was born.” Let us remember that almost every Christian group had its beginning in a rebellion against the status quo (McFarland 31).
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, was just one person, but that didn’t make the scriptural truths that he uncovered and boldly proclaimed untrue. Luther understood that the truth is never determined by a popular vote, but rather by what the Bible plainly and consistently teaches. As long as Christians are thorough, honest, proper and unbiased with the Scriptures, the truth will always be evident.
Let’s all keep brushed up on our Christian history and keep in mind the loins from which every Protestant group and those who sprang from Protestant groups have sprung: the Dark Age, religious, unbiblical Roman church and the undeniable fact is that the medieval Roman church was in an utter state of apostasy. Only blind sectarians would argue otherwise.
Since the Reformation the Holy Spirit has been slowly and patiently purifying the body of Christ from all the false doctrinal and practical baggage that it has been carrying. With each wave of restoration the Holy Spirit would raise up a prominent leader, or leaders, who would spark a reviving movement that would ultimately give birth to a denomination (or denominations). For instance, Martin Luther and Lutheranism, John Calvin and Presbyterianism, John Wesley and Methodism, John Clarke & Roger Williams and the (American) Baptists, Charles Parham & William Seymour and the Pentecostal movement, Eudorus Bell and the Assemblies of God, E.W. Kenyon & Kenneth Hagin and the Charismatic faith movement, etc.
NOTE 1: Staunch sectarians from varying perspectives may get upset (naturally) for my inclusion here of groups they find objectionable, but I’m not necessarily endorsing any of them or suggesting that their varying teachings and practices are right. I’m just pointing out that these leaders and groups are the result of legitimate restorative waves of the Holy Spirit regardless of the flaws and lunatic fringe of these movements. I’m personally a loyal non-sectarian. I therefore consider all of these folks my Christian brothers and sisters and would be blessed and honored to fellowship, worship, pray and study God’s Word with any of them; that is, as long as they’re genuine believers and not legalists (counterfeit religionists who divert to rule-ism and mask their fleshliness by putting on quasi-Christian airs) or libertines (those who advocate and practice fleshly license or lawlessness).
Let the worldwide body of Christ not proudly think for a second that the Holy Spirit is finished purifying and restoring it; that the church has arrived to some state of perfection — flawless in doctrine and practice. Christendom still needs a lot of work; there’s much room for growth. The Reformation must continue!
In light of the uncontestable flawed nature of the church in general, it’s obvious that Christian beliefs cannot be based on what the majority of Christians believe simply because the majority believe it. As an example, consider the fact that most conservative Christians in nineteenth-century America defended slavery on the grounds that it was the biblical, traditional and popular view (!!). Although the majority believed this, they were obviously quite wrong in their interpretation of Scripture.
So, popularity is not a legitimate test in determining sound Christian teaching. Doctrinal beliefs must be based first and foremost on what Scripture plainly teaches. Uninspired writings and historical tradition are certainly legitimate secondary sources to consider, but Scripture is the first and final authority.
This has been the basis for this study on eternal punishment and what we have concluded is that the Bible clearly and literally teaches that God will justly, but mercifully execute ungodly people in the lake of fire, not subject them to eternal conscious torment. This execution or “second death” will include conscious suffering, meted out as divine justice requires for each individual, but any such suffering will not be sadistically unending.
This all explains why we should not necessarily believe what the majority believes simply because the majority believes it, but we are still left with the question: If the view of everlasting destruction is what the Bible plainly and literally teaches, why have the majority of Christians adhered to the view of eternal torment since the error of Augustine? In other words, how could so many be wrong for so long?
There are a number of reasons for this:
Foundational adherence to the immortal soul theory. We’ve already covered this reason in Chapter Three. Obviously if a person foundationally adheres to the theory of the immortal soul — the belief that human beings, once created, can never cease to exist — he or she would naturally fail to take literal the many passages that plainly state that ungodly people will “die,” experience “death,” be “destroyed,” “perish,” suffer “destruction,” be “consumed” and “burn up” like weeds, etc. We have seen in this study that this immortal soul theory is completely unbiblical and can be traced back to the first lie recorded in Scripture (Genesis 3:4). This lie entered Christian thought early on after the biblical period through contact with those who embraced Plato’s erroneous theory.
Religious tradition. The powerful, influential force of religious tradition is another reason why so many have been wrong for so long.
Though scriptural support for the traditional view of eternal torment is weak and objections to it are strong, religious tradition is indeed a formidable force in swaying people to embrace eternal torment despite what Scripture has always clearly taught on the subject. Think about it, until printing advancements enabled the common person to personally study the Scriptures from the 16th through 18th centuries, the official teachings of the church had to be blindly accepted as true. Consequently, Augustine’s Hellenistic views regarding life after death have been deeply ingrained into the Christian psyche — decade after decade, generation after generation, century after century. It’s no wonder that when people think of “hell” they automatically assume it refers to never-ending roasting in fiery torments.
Yet, the question arises again, what is to be the Christian’s final basis for determining the validity of a belief — religious tradition or what the Bible clearly teaches?
Let us remember, as mentioned in Chapter One, that Christians are clearly not opposed in principle to correcting traditional beliefs or practices based on biblical authority because they have done so regularly in the past; the doctrine of double predestination and the practice of selling indulgences are two examples. Thus we are not in a position to oppose challenging and scripturally re-evaluating the doctrine of eternal torment just because it’s an old religious tradition.
Denominational allegiance. Allegiance to one’s denomination or preferred group is another obvious reason why so many have been wrong for so long.
NOTE: My definition for “denomination” here refers to any organized ministry that has its own school of theology for training and licensing aspiring ministers. This would of course include many organizations that claim to be “non-denominational.”
Denominational allegiance naturally fosters sectarian bias, that is, partiality towards the official teachings of one’s own sect. Most church ministers and Christians in general, regardless of what denomination they hook up with, claim they submit to the Bible as the final, irrefutable authority on all doctrinal issues and Christian practices, yet usually what they really submit to is their denomination’s interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, regardless of what the Bible really teaches on any given subject, they’re likely going to adhere to and teach whatever it is that their denomination’s doctrinal handbook teaches on the topic.
The people within each denomination are pressured to adhere to the teachings of their respective founder or founders who are often idealized almost to the point of infallibility (in regards to both doctrine and character). Merely questioning an established doctrine is met with resistance, and anyone who actually takes a stand against an established doctrine — regardless of whether s/he is right or wrong — is likely to be shunned or branded a heretic. For instance, regarding the subject of this study, The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “The church expressly teaches the eternity of the pains of hell [i.e. eternal conscious torture] as a truth of faith which no one can deny or call into question without manifest heresy” (article on “Hell,” 209). Naturally no one wants to be shunned, excommunicated or branded a divisive heretic; so, whether people are conscious of it or not, there is much social pressure to be loyal to one’s denomination regardless of what the Bible truly teaches.
Job security. This reason obviously goes hand in hand with denominational allegiance. Christian ministers are naturally pressured to conform to the doctrinal parameters set by the organized ministry (denomination) with which they have credentials and position. If they fail to conform, their credentials or position are likely to be revoked. Would this not naturally hinder a minister’s honest scriptural search for truth? And, in the event that the minister was able to discover a scriptural truth that differed with his/her denomination’s official stance, would this not hinder him/her from publicly admitting the truth and teaching it? Of course it would. This was the case with an actual Saskatoon pastor who anonymously wrote to a Christian magazine that he couldn’t preach everlasting destruction because he feared losing his job.
The story of Martin Luther is a good example of the serious price that a person might have to pay for boldly disagreeing with the official positions of one’s denomination. When Luther publicly spoke out against a number of his denomination’s doctrines and practices, he lost his job and credentials, was branded a heretic and banished to live in hiding, his books were burned and Pope Hadrian VI declared him to be the antichrist.
So, as you can see, even though the Bible clearly and literally supports the view of everlasting destruction from Genesis to Revelation, most ministers feel – whether consciously or subconsciously — that they just plain have too much to lose by publicly changing their view. No one, after all, wants to jeopardize their “bread & butter.”
The indoctrination cycle. This reason goes hand in hand with the previous reasons. The beliefs of the general Christian populace are largely determined by the Christian clergy who teach them. In other words, common believers are indoctrinated by the pastors and teachers of whatever church they attend. Those who feel called to ministry will likely attend the very same (or similar) seminary that their pastors attended and receive the very same (or similar) indoctrination their pastors received years before. They will then go out into the community and teach the very same doctrines that they were taught by their pastors and seminary professors. Thus the indoctrination cycle spins ‘round and ‘round. Because of the formidable power of religious tradition, denominational allegiance and job security, lay persons aspiring to be ministers will rarely question their indoctrination.
Pride. Pride is another reason that explains why so many have been wrong for so long on the issue of human damnation. Humility is the antithesis of pride. One characteristic of humility is a teachable spirit. In other words, a humble person is teachable, open to the truth and willing to change in light of that truth. A humble person realizes that it’s impossible to ever “know it all” and is well aware of the fact that “the more you know the more you don’t know.” A proud person, on the other hand, is void of this virtuous trait. A person who is proud isn’t even open to the possibility of being wrong, let alone actually changing because he or she has been proven wrong.
Christian ministers are susceptible to pride because of their education, their position of authority and the honor that goes with such a position. They’re used to having all the answers (supposedly) and “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). As a result, they’re naturally resistant to changing their view on an issue they’ve publicly taught as gospel truth for years.
The saddest aspect of pride is that it blinds people from seeing the truth. If they’re blinded from the truth, the truth cannot set them free (John 8:31-32). This was the case with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Hebrew religious leaders at the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, whom Jesus often corrected. Jesus is the Truth, the living Word of God (John 1:1; 14:6) and, as such, he naturally gave them the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, they were so blinded by their pride and indoctrination that they couldn’t see the truth, let alone accept it. Not only so, but they also became hostile and sought to kill Jesus. This testifies to how extremely blind in their pride they had become: the very Scriptures they diligently studied and claimed to know and follow testified that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, but here the Son of God was in their very midst and they couldn’t perceive it (see John 5:39-40). One notable exception was the Pharisee Nicodemus. Despite his religious indoctrination, Nicodemus had a humble, teachable heart and was therefore open and willing to hear what Jesus had to say; and the Scriptures imply that he ultimately became a Christian (John 3:1-21, 7:50-52 & 19:38-42).
To sum this all up, despite the fact that the Bible clearly and literally teaches the doctrine of literal everlasting destruction from Genesis to Revelation, sincere Christians have been hindered from perceiving or admitting it for so long because of these six powerful reasons:
1. Foundational adherence to an unbiblical view of human nature (i.e. the immortal soul)
2. Religious tradition
3. Denominational allegiance
4. Job security
5. The indoctrination cycle
Let’s pray for the worldwide body of Christ to be liberated from these extra-biblical influences which stifle the truth and hold people in bondage to false doctrines.
Many Christians are Now Rejecting eternal torment in Favor of Everlasting Destruction
I am happy to report that more and more biblically faithful Christians are realizing and accepting the view of literal everlasting destruction. For example, early in 1996 the Anglican Church changed their official stance to everlasting destruction, describing the idea of eternal punishment in hell as “annihilation for all who reject the love of God.” Also, John Stott, popular Christian author and leader of British evangelicals, had this to say about eternal punishment in a book in which he dialogued with David Edwards on various issues:
“I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the worldwide evangelical constituency [i.e. denominational allegiance] has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to suppress, and I am grateful to you [David Edwards] for challenging me to declare my present mind. I plead for frank dialogue among evangelicals on the basis of scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, Biblically founded alternative to their theory of eternal conscious torment” (Essentials, pp. 319-320).
Simply scan the internet for further proof that an increasing number of Christians are accepting the view of everlasting destruction. More and more Christian websites are proclaiming the biblical truth of literal destruction. David Reagan of Lamb & Lion Ministries is a good example, as are Douglas Barry, Nigel Wright, Peter Grice and the folks at rethinkinghell.com. There are many more.
On A&E’s Mysteries of the Bible segment “Heaven and Hell” Thomas Rausch, a Catholic priest and theology professor, openly admitted that literal everlasting destruction is the most sensible view on eternal damnation:
“I’ve often wondered what heaven would be like. We won’t be sitting around on little white clouds with harps like the cartoons in The New Yorker. One theological way of thinking about it is to say that heaven and hell are not really parallel concepts, that God raises the just to life and those who die in their sins simply cease to exist — and that makes a lot of sense to me.”
As mentioned in the previous section, the Catholic Encyclopedia states that eternal torment in hell is an official Catholic doctrine, and anyone who disagrees with it is a guilty of heresy. When a leader in the Catholic Church is willing to publicly advocate the view of everlasting destruction, disregarding his denomination’s official stance and the charge of heresy, we can be assured that destructionism is gaining greater awareness and acceptance.
This growing support for literal destruction will no doubt inspire an increasing number of Christians from all perspectives to seriously and honestly re-evaluate the biblical evidence. Because the scriptural support for everlasting destruction is so overwhelmingly clear, consistent and colossal, I am confident that such people will be persuaded to embrace this position.
There is, of course, a price for doing so. Staunch adherents of eternal torment—that is, eternal torturists—will tend to slander those who abandon their view as heretics and liberals who rely on emotion and disregard the Bible. The obvious reason they do this is because it’s easier to resort to ad hominem tactics than to legitimately respond to the hard facts of Scripture; in other words, it’s an avoidance ploy. They resort to name-calling and insulting statements because their position lacks sufficient support. Regardless, they couldn’t be more wrong about those who advocate everlasting destruction. High respect for the God-breathed Scriptures instead of orthodox tradition is the main reason destructionism is gaining acceptance. Those who embrace this position are often so thoroughly devoted to Scripture that they are willing to make a bold stand against the comfortable majority view. After all, it’s easy to be an adherent of eternal torment since this has been the accepted doctrine of the church for centuries. By contrast, to object to eternal torment in light of the plain teaching of Scripture one must be willing to leave his or her “comfort zone” and deal with the inevitable consequences.
These last two chapters have been devoted to examining arguments for eternal torment and against literal destruction that are not based on scriptural proof texts. These arguments are the very best that eternal torturists have been able to come up with to defend their doctrine and, as we have seen, none of them legitimately prove eternal torment or disprove literal destruction.
NOTE: You can purchase a low-priced book version of Hell Know, which is freshly edited and contains additional material (12 chapters, 350 pages), here.