When studying “hell” in the Bible, there’s an excellent book on eternal damnation titled Two Views of Hell by Edward Fudge and Robert Peterson. The view of everlasting destruction is presented by Mr. Fudge and he does a great job as his case rests totally on Scripture, which, of course, is the proper way a defense of any Christian doctrine should be conducted. Peterson, on the other hand, advocates the view of eternal conscious torture by beginning “with eleven theologians who support his view and ending with rationalistic arguments involving human creeds. Sandwiched between is his appeal to ten passages of Scripture, most of which he interprets by quoting uninspired theologians,” as Mr. Fudge points out (202). Peterson has no recourse but to resort to this approach because his position lacks any real biblical basis.
Methodology: Sola Scriptura, Literalizing and Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture
Like Mr. Fudge, I’ve focused our attention in this study almost exclusively on what the Bible itself literally teaches on the subject of hell. Even when addressing various religious theories in Chapter Six, I had us turn to the God-breathed Scriptures for verification. Isn’t this what really matters, what the Bible itself plainly teaches? This is in adherence to the principle of sola scriptura, which is Latin for “by Scripture alone.” Scripture itself must be our first and final authority when judging any Christian doctrine or practice. This doesn’t mean that sources outside the Bible cannot be considered, only that the Holy Scriptures must be our first and final authority. “Scripture above all” or “Scripture first” (prima scriptura) would perhaps be a more accurate name for this theological principle.
A commitment to sola scriptura would be useless if we did not have sound guidelines by which to properly interpret the Scriptures. There are four obvious interpretational laws for those committed to sola scriptura, which I adhere to in this study:
1. “Context is king.” This means that one’s interpretation of a passage must coincide with the meaning given it by the surrounding text, which is the context. This includes hell in the Bible.
2. Scripture interprets Scripture. This means that one’s interpretation of a passage must gel with what the rest of Scripture teaches; the more overt and detailed passages obviously override the more ambiguous and sketchy ones. The true context of a passage is the whole Bible, meaning people cannot really understand the Scriptures unless they are willing to immerse themselves in God’s word and see the whole picture. Any given subject is often dealt with in pieces. People who try to take this or that piece and make a doctrine while disregarding all the other pieces will end up off kilter. We need a LOT of exposure to God’s ideas from many angles, which is one of the reasons we need each other. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
3. Take the Bible literally. The exception of course is when you come across passages that are obviously figurative in nature, in which case you would look for the literal truth the symbolism intends to convey. Why are some passages figurative? Because the Bible is sometimes a book of deliberately hidden truths that can be gleaned from parables, types and shadows, allegories, prophetic utterances, similes and metaphors. Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). We have to be willing to sell our own ideas, our flawed indoctrinations, and “buy the truth” (Proverbs 23:23). God hides truth precisely because it is so priceless, which is why it’s unwise to try to “give dogs what is sacred” or throw our “pearls before pigs” (Matthew 7:6). The “dogs” and “pigs” are false religionists (modern-day Pharisees), the lawless and unbelieving scoffers. Jesus said not to give such people spiritual gems because they won’t respect them and they’ll naturally create havoc, bringing the “way of truth into disrepute” (2 Peter 2:1-3).
4. If the plain sense makes sense – and is in harmony with the whole of Scripture – don’t look for any other sense lest you end up with nonsense. This means every passage has an obvious meaning within its context, as well as a potential deeper meaning within the context of the entire bible, like Paul’s figurative exposition on Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-31. The plain meaning of a passage will dawn on the believer with greater insight as he or she grows in the Lord. There’s always the danger, of course, of people looking for deeper meanings to support their own agenda or their sect’s peculiar doctrines. The purpose of this rule is to prevent such selfish, unbiblical and bizarre interpretations of passages. Everyone can come up with a passage here or there that seemingly supports their view, but what does the whole of Scripture plainly say on the subject? In other words, what is the plain-sense meaning that the entire Bible conveys? What is the general impact? The overviewing thrust? This is what it means to embrace the plain sense of the Bible on any given subject. If someone comes up with an interpretation that is at odds with the overwhelming impression of God’s Word then it should be viewed with serious skepticism at best, and utterly thrown out at worst. Those who advocate homosexuality and universalism, for instance, cite a few passages to support their position, but what is the overriding (and obvious) impression you get from reading the whole of Scripture on these topics?
Bypassing the Quagmire of Religion
Although we briefly considered uninspired writings from Judeo-Christian history in Chapter Seven, we discovered that they are inconclusive. As pointed out in that chapter, it’s okay to examine uninspired writings but we must not rely on them. It was also pointed out that there were over seventy schools of Hebrew thought at the time of Jesus—seventy plus sects of Judaism. In the Scriptures Jesus plainly declared that two of the sects, the Pharisees and Sadducees, adhered to false doctrine (see Matthew 16:11-12).
My point is, why get entangled in the opinions of various past and present Judeo-Christian leaders, however godly and sincere, when we can just go straight to the God-breathed Scriptures for answers? Why needlessly get bogged down in the quagmire of human-made religion when we can go directly to the original source of all Judeo-Christian religion? Let us accept the simple fact that no man or woman of God, no organization or denomination has a patent on truth—no matter how greatly used of God (or not used of God, if such is the case). Remember, every Christian ministry specializes in various areas and is therefore ignorant in some areas. That’s why God raises up a multitude of ministries—so that the worldwide body of Christ may be well-nourished by a balanced spiritual diet from a variety of callings and anointings (not that every ministry is legitimate, of course). The same principle is common with doctors and musicians: A foot doctor likely knows very little about brain surgery and a guitarist may have little penchant for singing or playing drums. Let us never forget the fact that those who transfer knowledge are also capable of transferring error. Only Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is truth (John 1:1; 14:6). The living Word is no longer with us; he’s at the right hand of the Father, but we have the written Word of God. Let us therefore be faithful to go to God’s written Word in our search for truth. Let us seek the help of the Holy Spirit who will “guide [us] into all truth” (John 16:13). Let us make sure that our study is thorough, honest and unbiased, and let us be sure to always interpret Scripture with Scripture. When we are faithful to do this the truth will be plain to see as this very study exemplifies.
Sure, in researching for this book I was careful to expose myself to virtually every branch of Judeo-Christian religion, past and present, to find out what they believe regarding eternal damnation and why. Chapters Five, Six and Seven are devoted to presenting the very best scriptural and non-scriptural arguments of those who support eternal torture; and, as we have clearly seen, none of their contentions stand up to an unbiased study based on the principles of sola scriptura and sound hermeneutics, like literalizing rather than spiritualizing and interpreting Scripture with Scripture. Aside from the material in these chapters I see no reason to bog readers down in endless religious theorizing from time immemorial. Holy Scripture is the basis of all Judeo-Christian teachings and practices.
This is the very reason why the Protestant reformers of the 16th century decided to base their reforms on the principle of sola scriptura. The Roman church had religiously degenerated over the centuries; as a result many truths were lost sight of or perverted. Consequently, much ritual, tradition and human religion were added to the original scriptural base. It came to the point where there was little, if any, life or truth in the Roman church. By the early 16th century the time was ripe for a colossal reformation to break out. Something had to happen to provoke people to get back to the proper scriptural foundation, and that something was the Reformation. The church worldwide came out of this great Reformation with a lot of false doctrinal baggage and so the Holy Spirit has been doing quite a bit of housecleaning in the last 500 years, to say the least, and he’s by no means finished. The worldwide invisible church still needs a lot of work.
NOTE: The “worldwide invisible church” includes all true spiritually born-again believers regardless of human-made sectarian boundaries. God is concerned with the condition of a person’s heart, not with what tag he or she chooses to go by (e.g. “Baptist,” “Charismatic,” “Catholic,” “Evangelical,” “Pentecostal,” “Emergent,” etc.). After all, labels can be wrong: If I put a label of “corn” on a can of beans it wouldn’t make the beans a can of corn, would it?
The bottom line is that Scripture speaks for itself and it certainly has in this study.
There’s nothing more purifying or liberating than to simply read the God-breathed Scriptures. I believe at least 50% of our scriptural intake should be from just reading the Bible itself—the straight Word of God—with no commentary. And I think it helps to switch translations from time to time. As we do this, the truth will start to dawn in our hearts as the Holy Spirit “guides [us] into all truth.” The truth will indeed set us free as Jesus said (John 8:31-32).
When we only expose ourselves to various preferred teachers, sects and mindsets—never reading the pure Scriptures themselves—we’ll naturally become somewhat tainted, biased and sectarian, even brainwashed. Needless to say, this is a closed-minded and narrow condition, not to mention life-stifling and growth-stultifying. Some unfortunately come to the point where the plain truth of Scripture can no longer even penetrate their indoctrination. I am reminded of a Christian friend who diligently exposes himself to the various teachings of a specific Christian movement. This is all well and fine but one day he admitted to me that he never read the Bible itself, the straight Scriptures. My heart sank. He’s a serious candidate for an impenetrable brainwashing.
All I can say is thank God for the purifying and liberating power of his Word and his wondrous Holy Spirit who faithfully guides us into all truth.
I describe God’s Word as “liberating” because that’s what it does — it liberates (John 8:31-32); in fact, it’s called “the perfect law of liberty” or “The perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1:25 & 2:12 KJV and NIV). Praise God!
The Five Theological Method Traits of the Noble Bereans
One might inquire if there’s any biblical support for the methodology adhered to in this study as just described. Certainly, just turn to the book of Acts and the historical account of Paul introducing the gospel message to the people of Berea:
As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
We observe in verse 11 that the Holy Spirit commends the Bereans for being “of more noble character.” The word ‘noble’ means “having excellence and characterized by superior qualities.” What was so noble about the Bereans? This passage reveals a handful of traits that marked them as having superior character in God’s eyes.
The reason it’s important to develop these traits is because they will help you discern truth and accept it, as well as recognize error and discard it. This is of the utmost importance if the truth is to set you free because you can’t very well be set free if you’re adhering to lies or you’re limited by partial truths. The Bible instructs us to “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), which can be translated as: Eat the meat and spit out the bones. The Berean spirit will enable you to do this.
What exactly was it about the Bereans that made them so commendable in God’s eyes? Let’s go over the five general traits that made them so laudable.
1. The Bereans’ allegiance was to God’s Word first and foremost. Consequently, when Paul came to them with the message of the gospel they used the Scriptures as a gauge for determining whether or not his teaching was true. Although Paul’s message was completely biblical, it was not orthodox according to the Berean’s current theology; in fact, it was completely new and unorthodox to them. If the Bereans had consulted the Judaic orthodoxy of that time or took a popular vote they would have rejected Paul’s teaching before even looking into it. This, unfortunately, is what too many believers do today when they hear something that sounds different than the way they’ve always heard it or understood it. They throw it out before even considering its validity. While this is obviously the right thing to do when it concerns weirdo doctrines or practices that clearly have no biblical basis, it’s a foolish approach when it comes to things that can be plainly proven by Scripture, particularly if the messenger shows evidence of the fruit of the spirit and God’s anointing, like Paul.
2. The Bereans were already familiar with the Scriptures. We know this because people can only use the Scriptures as a gauge for determining truth if they are already familiar with them to some degree. The only way to get familiar with God’s Word is to set apart time regularly for systematic Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You’ll never find time to do this because the devil will make sure you won’t find time; you have to make time. This is the Berean spirit.
3. The Bereans were OPEN. These Bereans already knew the Scriptures and were no doubt comfortable with a set theology, but that didn’t hinder them from being open to what Paul had to say even though what he taught was different and unorthodox. In fact, it states that “they received the message with great eagerness” – and this was before they even determined whether or not Paul’s teaching was true. You see, as godly people dedicated to finding the truth, the Bereans were eager to hear any scriptural teaching that could possibly increase their knowledge & understanding and bring them closer to God. It takes true humility to be open like this because, by being open, you’re acknowledging that you — and your group — may not be entirely accurate in your present understanding (Proverbs 30:2-3). Proud people, by contrast, are unable to do this. It also takes daring because only the courageous dare to step outside the safe parameters of their comfort zones. Someone might argue that being open-minded will make us vulnerable to false teaching, which is perhaps why so many Christians tend to be closed-minded; but if we adhere to the first two traits above we can be open-minded without fear, just like the Bereans, because the scriptural truth will always filter out what isn’t true, that is, as long as we practice the next trait…
4. The Bereans were sure to do a thorough, unbiased examination of the Scriptures, not a superficial or biased one. Notice that the Bereans “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Why did they give so much time and effort to this? Obviously because what Paul said struck a chord in their spirits, not to mention Paul was a fruit-bearing, anointed man of God who walked in the dunamis (dynamite) power of the Holy Spirit. Even though this was so, they didn’t foolishly take him at his word. They wanted to make sure that they properly interpreted the Scriptures, which is why the Bible encourages teachers to “rightly divide” or “correctly handle” the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). If the Bible can be rightly divided it can also be un-rightly divided. The Bereans knew this. They understood that a person can “prove” just about anything through a superficial “study,” which explains the old saying: “The Bible is an old fiddle on which any tune can be played.” The only way false teachers can get away with playing any tune they want on the “old fiddle” of the Bible is by un-rightly dividing or incorrectly handling the Scriptures, which they do by breaking one or more of the four interpretational laws detailed earlier. As for the Bereans, it took them days of careful examination to draw a confident conclusion concerning Paul’s teaching. Likewise, we need to realize and be prepared that it may take us days, weeks or even months or years of careful study to draw a well-informed conclusion on a specific scriptural issue. (The only reason a study would take years is because it sometimes takes that long for the truth to penetrate the stubborn, multifold layers of religious indoctrination, i.e. brainwashing).
5. The Bereans were willing to change their view in light of the biblical truth. As shown in verse 12, many of the Bereans accepted Paul’s teaching and changed their view. This is commendable for it’s one thing to be open and realize what the Bible truly teaches, it’s quite another to actually be willing to publicly change one’s view or practice in light of that realization. Why? Because, even though God blesses everyone who boldly follows his Word, particularly in the long term, there are often immediate negative social repercussions. For instance, someone who genuinely chooses to follow God’s Word may lose his or her job, lose relationships, be excommunicated from his/her church or denomination, be branded a heretic, and, in severe cases, be harassed, imprisoned or killed. Martin Luther is a good example. When he publicly spoke out against a number of his denomination’s unbiblical 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 Hadreian VI declared him to be the antichrist. Yet Luther was incredibly blessed in the long term. Or consider people today in Islamic countries who convert to Christianity. Or, closer to home, how about people in Westernized areas who get “disfellowshipped” from churches/denominations for openly disagreeing with their pastor or the official doctrines of their church? I’m not talking about quarrelsome troublemakers here, but rather fruit-bearing believers who honestly have legitimate scriptural objections. This happens more often than you might think.
The Bereans were noble because they were not dead-set in their present understanding. They had a high respect for God’s Word. They weren’t in bondage to a certain theology like so many “fundamentalist” Christians today. They were open to new insights, spiritual growth and understanding. They were humble enough to admit that their present understanding of truth could be further honed and sharpened. They had such a high respect for God’s Word that, if someone legitimately corrected them and showed them the way more accurately, they were eagerly willing to embrace it. This is the antithesis of the sterile, stubborn religious spirit, which is rigidly sectarian and closed-minded in nature.
Speaking of which, rigid sectarianism is strongly denounced in the New Testament. When some of Jesus’ disciples tried to stop a man who was exorcizing demons in Jesus’ name merely because he wasn’t one of them Jesus rebuked them saying: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50). Paul likewise corrected believers in the Corinth church who were developing a bullheaded factional spirit (1 Corinthians 1:11-13 & 3:1-5). Such an exclusive mentally is equal parts arrogant, narrow-mined and foolish, not to mention borderline cultic. It’s spiritual tunnel vision because it naturally stifles truth, limits perception and stultifies spiritual growth. Needless to say, avoid it like the plague!
Apollos Was Humble and Open Enough to Learn “More Accurately”
Let’s briefly look at a biblical example of another believer who had the same noble attitude as that of the Bereans:
Meanwhile, a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. (25) He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. (26) He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Pricilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
Here we have a man, Apollos, who had a thorough understanding of God’s Word and taught about Jesus as accurately as he could in relation to the knowledge and understanding he had; he was faithful to what he presently knew and understood. After Pricilla and Aquila met him they explained to him the Scriptures “more adequately”; or “more accurately” according to the NASB.
Because Apollos had the same noble spirit as that of the Bereans he was receptive to being taught the way of God more accurately. Verse 28 shows how he went on to vigorously refute “the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” The fact that Apollos debated with others based on “proving from the Scriptures” shows that he adhered to the principle of sola Scriptura, which is Latin for “by Scripture alone.” As noted earlier, this is the theological principle that maintains that the Bible is the first and final authority on all judgments of Judeo-Christian doctrine and practice.
Apollos truly adhered to this principle since, not only were his teachings based upon “proving from the Scriptures,” but he himself was willing to be taught by the same principle. In other words, just as he gave, he received — he talked the talk and walked the walk. Although Apollos was a powerful individual, he wasn’t arrogant. He was therefore able to acknowledge areas where he could learn a thing or two and humbly received from others. This is great because “God opposes the proud but gives grace (favor) to the humble” (James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5). In modern vernacular, being humble means you don’t think you’re all that and a bag of chips. Knowing and embracing who you are in Christ (as detailed in this video) is vital and wonderful, but a superiority complex is not good and is, in fact, spiritually deadly. Needless to say, no matter how great you are or become in life always shun arrogance like the plague, it’s a horrible stumbling block to maturing believers.
Sadly, you’ll find too few Christians today who possess the same noble spirit as that of Apollos, Pricilla, Aquila and the Bereans. A lot of believers are too proud, stubborn, closed-minded and indoctrinated (i.e. brainwashed) to be taught “more accurately;” they seem to only be interested in touting the doctrines of their pastor/church/denomination or what they view as unquestionable “orthodoxy,” which brings us to…
The Good and Bad of Orthodoxy and Traditionalism
‘Orthodox’ literally means “correct view” and ‘orthodoxy’ refers to historically established beliefs judged to be essential to Christian truth. A couple examples of orthodox Christian beliefs for evangelicals would be the inerrancy of the God-breathed Scriptures and the necessity of spiritual rebirth for salvation.
There’s nothing wrong with this idea of orthodoxy as long as the beliefs said to be orthodox are legitimately biblical, as is the case with the above two teachings, the problem arises when what is claimed to be orthodox is not actually scriptural. A good example of this would be the doctrines of the immortal soul and eternal torture, which are supported by Augustinian tradition but not the Bible. If we teach Christian disciples that these doctrines are unquestionable orthodoxy they will naturally study the Scriptures with this in mind. Their study will then be tainted and biased by blind adherence to these supposed orthodox beliefs; in other words, they’ll read the Scriptures pre-supposing these notions to be true, not freely or at face value, as they should.
When one studies the Bible free of such presuppositions, taking it at face value, as we have in this study, it doesn’t take long to see that everlasting destruction is the true biblical view.
Another good example would be the doctrine of amillennialism, which Augustine of Hippo (354-430) formulated around 400 AD. ‘Amillennialism’ literally means “no millennium” and unsurprisingly maintains that there will be no literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth before the eternal age of the new heavens and new earth, both of which are plainly detailed in Revelation 20-21. Incredibly, this doctrine dares to suggest that we are already living in the millennium; in fact, we’ve been supposedly living in it since the resurrection of Christ! Tell me, does it seem like Jesus Christ has been reigning on earth for the last two thousand years? Does it appear like the devil has been bound up in the Abyss since Jesus’ resurrection? Of course not, the teaching is wholly unbiblical and no sound student of the Scriptures would embrace the doctrine by simply reading the Bible. The only way amillennialism can be accepted and perpetuated is by persuading Christian disciples through indoctrination in church or cemetery, I mean seminary. I repeat, believers would never see this doctrine or accept it by merely studying their Bibles. However, once disciples accept the idea that amillennialism is unquestionable orthodoxy their studies of the Scriptures will naturally be tainted and biased by their acceptance of this teaching; in other words, they’ll read the Scriptures pre-supposing amillennialism to be true, not freely or at face value, as is natural.
By contrast, when one studies the Bible free of such presuppositions, taking it simply for what it says, it isn’t difficult to see the error of amillennialism.
My point is that what we determine to be orthodox Christian beliefs must be clearly and consistently taught in Scripture. In other words, if a doctrine is truly orthodox – that is, a “correct view” essential to Christian truth – it shouldn’t be necessary to engage in bizarre theological mumbo jumbo to prove its authenticity, as is the case with the both the immortal soul and eternal torture doctrines. As we’ve seen in this study, the only way religionists can support the immortal soul and eternal torment is by trying to convince us that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it so clearly says: e.g. death doesn’t mean death, destruction doesn’t mean destruction, perish doesn’t mean perish, destroy doesn’t mean destroy, consume doesn’t mean consume, etc. The only way eternal torturists can prove their belief is by convincing us that each of these words mean the exact opposite of its literal definition.
By contrast, to prove everlasting destruction one doesn’t have to resort to such nonsensical twisting of the Scriptures. Literal destruction can be proven simply by freely reading the Bible unhindered by foreign presuppositions.
The same goes for the false doctrine of amillennialism, which requires the “spiritualizing” of plain-as-day passages in order to “prove” it. The only way amillennialists can justify their doctrine is by convincing people that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it clearly says: That there will be a 7-year tribulation period at the end of this age, which is when the devil will be bound up for a thousand years while Jesus Christ reigns on earth assisted by the resurrected saints (Revelation 20:1-6). To prove these plain truths one doesn’t have to resort to unjustified “spiritualizing” of the Scriptures, as is the case with amillennialism. These truths can be discovered or proven simply by freely reading the Bible unhindered by foreign presuppositions.
How did doctrines like the immortal soul apart from Christ, eternal roasting of the damned and amillennialism come to be considered Christian orthodoxy when they’re so clearly unscriptural? The reason is that there’s another basis besides Holy Scripture used to determine the content of orthodoxy, and that is tradition. When people speak of Christian tradition they’re usually referring to religious literature, creeds and councils from the Patristic Age, or “late antiquity,” which extended from the fourth to the eighth centuries and includes Augustine’s advocacy of the immortal soul, eternal torture and amillennialism. Augustine was the most prominent and influential “church father” of this period. Christian tradition is also derived from other eras, including the later medieval, Reformation and post-Reformation eras. The very fact that Christian tradition is historically cumulative testifies that the worldwide invisible church is in an ongoing state of reform; in other words, Christendom is not in bondage to historical tradition.
What’s the difference between tradition and traditionalism? I’ve heard it said that tradition is the living faith of the dead, whereas traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. That’s a good way to put it because there’s nothing living about traditionalism; it’s dead religiosity. What exactly is traditionalism? It is the tendency to place tradition on the same authoritative plane as Holy Scripture; actually it places tradition over Scripture since how a traditionalist simply reads God’s Word is determined by tradition. In short, traditionalism is the perverse bent to hold Holy Scripture in bondage to tradition.
Protestants, neo-protestants or post-protestants have historically regarded traditional doctrines and practices not directly supported by the Bible to be optional at best, and often flawed or erroneous. The reason for this is threefold: 1. Jesus contradicted tradition but never Scripture, 2. the Reformation experience was based on the principle of sola Scriptura, the idea that Holy Scripture must be our first and final authority, not tradition, and 3. since the church must be “reformed and always reforming,” treating extra-biblical expressions of truth as equal with Scripture naturally inhibits continuing (and necessary) reform. Yet to hear some ministers teach today you would think that tradition is the irrefutable authoritative interpretation of God’s Word. For instance, I used to listen to Hank Hanegraff on the radio years ago and he made constant references to “orthodoxy” rather than Scripture itself, so much so it was disturbing. The problem with this tendency is that 1. it stifles biblical truth by exalting human beliefs or practices to the same authoritative level as Holy Scripture, and 2. it perpetuates religious myths by preventing healthy reform in the church through simple appeal to God’s Word.
Religious tradition may be a legitimate extra-biblical source to consider when determining the authenticity of Christian doctrines and practices; in this sense it gets a minor vote but it does not hold the power of veto as does Scripture itself. Let’s be humble enough to admit that Christendom still needs a lot of work; the Holy Spirit is still at work amongst God’s people, guiding them to biblical truths that may possibly correct Augustinian, medieval, Reformation and post-Reformation beliefs and practices. Staunch traditionalists will argue that such an open-minded and adventurous attitude will unlock a Pandora’s Box of heretical new teachings and insights but Christians have nothing to fear if, as pointed out earlier, our allegiance is to the Holy Scriptures as our first and final authority. After all, God’s perfect Word is perfectly able to determine what is true and filter out what is false.
There are some other problems with orthodoxy and traditionalism that we need to consider:
For one, just because a belief is considered orthodox today in certain “mainline” denominations does not mean that it was orthodox in biblical times (the eras in which both testaments were written). As shown in Chapter Seven, literal everlasting destruction was not only the scriptural view in biblical times but also the orthodox view. Only when pagan Greek ideas, specifically the teaching of the immortal soul, infiltrated Palestine and Judeo-Christian culture did the doctrine of eternal torment emerge and gain increasing acceptance. And amillennialism wasn’t conceived by Augustine until 300 years after the last New Testament epistle was written. Before that, the early church adhered to the premillennial viewpoint.
Another problem is that Christianity is split into numerous sects and none of these groups unanimously agree on which beliefs actually constitute the content of orthodoxy, and no consensus is likely to come soon because different groups stress different beliefs as vital based on the teachings of their own spiritual fathers or mothers and which traditions these spiritual parents deem legitimate. For example, the Protestant belief of “salvation by faith alone” is indeed a part of Reformation orthodoxy but it is absent from Augustinian and medieval tradition. Likewise, John Wesley’s post-Reformation doctrine of entire sanctification in a moment is absent from the “Great Tradition.” A more modern example would be speaking in tongues or “praying in the spirit” as a form of prayer to supplement prayer in one’s own language; this belief is fundamental to pentecostal/charismatic Christians even though it is not a part of the Great Tradition, but many evangelicals claim that such spiritual gifts passed away when the biblical canon was completed circa 100 AD; this belief is, in fact, orthodox to them.
NOTE: I personally believe spiritual gifts never “passed away” and are definitely available to the body of Christ today, and obviously so. The reason they are dormant in much of Christendom today is precisely because of this unscriptural teaching that the baptism of the Holy Spirit and miracles manifested via the gifts of the Spirit stopped at the end of the first century when the last apostle died. This is a prime example of the church being robbed of God’s blessing and power due to blind adherence to religious tradition or “orthodoxy.” Thankfully, as always, the truth shall set us free.
Another problem with the idea of orthodoxy is the impression that the older a teaching is the more reliable it is. Yet, since when does the mere passage of time give greater validity to a doctrine? A lie sixteen centuries ago is still a lie today. For example, just because Augustine advocated eternal torture in 400 AD does not make it anymore true today. If we’re going to base the validity of doctrines on their age, then literal everlasting destruction is the true view of damnation because it is taught throughout the Hebraic Scriptures as this study has clearly shown; and was, in fact, the orthodox view at the time of Christ (see Appendix A Old Testament Hell Verses for additional support for literal destruction from the Old Testament). Also, just because Augustine advocated amillennialism in 400 AD, which created quite a stir in its day, does not make it anymore true today. If we’re going to base the legitimacy of doctrines on their age, then premillennialism is the true view because it is plainly taught in the Scriptures and was, in fact, the position of the early church, albeit in a slightly different form than it’s understood today.
Adherents of eternal torture apparently want to hold to that “old time religion” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, no doubt because they believe eternal torment was a fundamental part of Christianity of that era; and strict traditionalists would have us go back to that “old time religion” of the creeds and councils. I say, if we really want that “old time religion,” let’s go all the way back to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the biblical apostles and the Old Testament saints. Let’s have that real old time religion, amen? This, in fact, is the principle of sola scriptura and this entire study is based on it.
Of course the biggest problem with orthodoxy and traditionalism is that nowhere in the Bible are we encouraged to determine the veracity of doctrines (teachings) by whether or not they are considered orthodox or traditional. Rather, that which the Scriptures themselves clearly and consistently teach based on the four hermeneutical laws is to be our gauge in determining what is true and what is not true; in other words, Scripture is to be our final authority when judging the validity of Christian doctrines and practices, not what is perceived as orthodoxy or tradition. This is sola scriptura. We should certainly value and take into consideration traditional positions from all eras of church history, but traditional beliefs – no matter how imbedded in our collective psyche – must remain open to correction and revision in light of the plain teaching of Holy Scripture. Doctrinal debates should be engaged over Scripture and prayer not dismissed with a pharisaical appeal to religious tradition. As Martin Luther is believed to have said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God… Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”
Needless to say, if you’re a serious God-pursuer and truth-seeker the following questions are the wrong questions to ask when faced with a different interpretation of a biblical topic than what you’re familiar: Does this interpretation line up with my church’s doctrine? Does it make my life easier, more comfortable? Does it make me feel secure? Is it popular?
When a new teaching or idea appears, Christians should first and finally ask, “What saith the Scriptures?” not “What saith orthodoxy?” or “Is it consistent with tradition?”
Everlasting Destruction: the True Literal View
By faithfully adhering to this “by Scripture alone” principle in our study on damnation, as well as adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible in which Scripture is interpreted in context and in the light of the rest of Scripture, we have discovered that the Bible clearly, literally and thoroughly supports the view of everlasting destruction: God will justly-but-mercifully utterly destroy rebellious people who reject Him and choose sin, not subject them to never-ending existence in conscious agony.
What’s ironic is that adherents of eternal torture have long touted their position as “the literal view.” Yet, as we have seen, everlasting destruction is the true literal view regarding the second death because it takes literally all the many Greek and Hebrew words that describe the eternal fate of sinful people with such unmistakable words as “die,” “death,” “destruction,” “destroy” and “perish.” It also takes literally the imagery of Gehenna (“hell”) as a lake of fire or “fiery furnace” which consumes all the people thrown into it (e.g. Hebrews 10:27). Fire, of course, is one of the most destructive forces known to humankind. Linking all these facts together points to no other conclusion but complete and final destruction.
So adherents of eternal roasting misery can tout their view as “the literal view” all they want, but the truth is that it is not, and never was, the literal view. Anyone who rightly honors the Bible’s plain and literal teaching, will concede that the doctrine of everlasting destruction is the true literal view.
‘Traditionalist’ or ‘Eternal Torturist’?
If you read other literature on the subject of eternal damnation you’ll notice that adherents of eternal torture have dubbed themselves “traditionalists,” obviously because their position is the religious traditional view. Those who adhere to everlasting destruction are usually referred to as “conditionalists” because of their belief that immortality is conditional based upon one’s acceptance of God’s gift of eternal life. The latter label I can understand because “conditionalist” informs others of what such a person believes (although I personally prefer something more plainly descriptive like “destructionist,” “extinctionist” or something similar); but the name “traditionalist” for a person that adheres to eternal torture is completely unfitting. Allow me to explain:
I myself am a “traditionalist” in regards to many Christian doctrines; in other words, I believe many traditional teachings are biblically sound. However, because I reject the idea that ungodly people will be condemned to eternal conscious torture based on what the Scriptures literally and consistently teach, I apparently cannot be a “traditionalist.” Yet, if an adherent of eternal torture rejects every traditional belief, yet accepts the view that God will condemn ungodly people to ceaseless roasting agony, it’s okay for them to be called a “traditionalist.” Do you see the problem here?
Furthermore, “traditionalist” is just plain too generic of a label. The question is automatically raised: “Traditionalist” in what way? “Traditionalist” doesn’t tell anybody that the person embraces the view of eternal torture.
The real reason adherents of eternal torture like to be called “traditionalists” is because it sounds so noble. It gives the impression that they are righteously faithful to age-old Christian truth (actually the opposite is true, they’re perpetuators of age-old pagan-religious lies). Regardless of the legitimacy of the opposing argument, the “traditionalist” will subconsciously be perceived as a stately defender of the faith.
I suspect also that adherents of eternal torture like the name “traditionalist” because it successfully diverts people from focusing on the perverse doctrine they support. What’s the problem? Are they ashamed of their belief? If not, then why don’t they accept a fitting name that describes exactly what they believe?
Again, I have no problem being referred to as a “literal destructionist.” I don’t even mind the name “annihilationist” if that’s what people want to call me. I have no problem with these tags because they describe exactly what I believe the Scriptures teach on human damnation; they fittingly describe what I am because I believe conscious life will ultimately be annihilated when people suffer the second death. So why don’t adherents of eternal torture label themselves accordingly? Since they believe God will condemn a vast number of people to never-ending conscious torment, they should have no problem being referred to as “eternal torturists” or “eternal tormentists.” What’s wrong with this? Isn’t this what they really believe when you back them up against a wall?
You’ll notice that I don’t refer to adherents of eternal torture as “traditionalists” in this study. I simply refuse to give such a noble name to a supporter of such a perverse and unbiblical teaching. Don’t get me wrong here, because I think it’s better to teach damnation in a flawed form rather than deny its existence, like universalists do. As such, I humbly commend eternal torturists for supporting the truth of human damnation, but their unbiblical position on the nature of the second death cannot be condoned, which is why this book exists.
The bottom line is this: If it’s a spade then call it a spade. If people staunchly adhere to the doctrine of eternal torture then they should accept the fitting name of “eternal torturist” or something equally descriptive. These people need to quit hiding behind noble tags that disguise what they really believe.
My Background: I Used to Believe in Eternal Torment
I grew up in a family that was virtually non-religious. Although my mother was a church-going Episcopalian who typically attended a nearby Missionary Alliance church, I only went to church with her a handful of times and the basics of Christianity were never explained to me. Needless to say my knowledge of the Bible and Christianity was next to nothing. My only understanding of hell came from comics, books, television and movies where it was portrayed as a devil-ruled subterranean torture chamber for sinful people. I naturally assumed this was what the Bible taught on the subject as well. I got saved in March of 1984 and the Christians & churches I’ve since been involved with were mostly of the evangelical/pentecostal/charismatic variety.
NOTE: Evangelical churches emphasize the classical Protestant doctrines of salvation, the church and the authority of the Scriptures with stress on a personal experience of God’s grace, usually referred to as the new birth or conversion. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians are simply evangelicals who stress baptism in the Spirit and spiritual gifts (e.g. prophecy, glossolalia, etc.).
In fact, I belonged to a large evangelical/charismatic church for ten years from 1986-1996. Most evangelical and charismatic Christians, if you’re not aware, adhere to the doctrine of eternal torture (although this has been thankfully changing in recent years as the word continues to get out — Praise God!). My point is that all through my Christian formative years I was pastored and taught by supporters of eternal torture. I bought, read and listened to countless books and teaching tapes from this perspective. Because of what I was taught and because of religious tradition I naturally assumed the Bible taught that unrepentant sinners would be condemned to never-ending conscious torture after they die. I assumed that eternal torture was a Biblical teaching and therefore believed it and spread the word. In fact, I wrote and recorded a song called “Hell Is For Real, Hell Is Forever” on my multi-track home recorder in 1985. You can’t beat that for support of eternal torture!
So how did I come to reject the view of eternal roasting? Well, even though I engulfed countless books, tapes, CDs and sermons from the charismatic-evangelical perspective, at any given time at least 60% of my scriptural intake was from simply reading the Bible. I regularly jotted down notes on various subjects from my readings, including hell, and I started to notice a consistency from Genesis to Revelation regarding the subject of eternal damnation. I was intrigued and dug deeper. I sought the LORD diligently for knowledge and understanding on the subject. I noticed that the wages of sin was simply death, that the ungodly would die, that both their soul and body would be destroyed, that they would burn up like weeds, trees, branches and chaff, that they would be condemned to the second death and suffer everlasting destruction, etc, etc. This was all in contrast to the “life” that was to be given to those who accept and obey the gospel.
Needless to say the truth slowly started to dawn on me. The pure water of the Word of God gradually cleansed and liberated me from the misguided teachings on eternal damnation I kept hearing and reading about in my “camp.” Sure, like any studied Christian I had at some point become aware that the Adventists, Armstrongites and Jehovah’s False Witnesses adhered to everlasting destruction in some form, but as any other Christian from my perspective I didn’t give much time or credence to their teachings (they were, after all, considered false cults or, at least, borderline cults). It was the Word of God itself and the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit that set me free.
NOTE: See the brief NOTE commentaries on these groups in Chapter Six here (scroll down) if you are unfamiliar with them; as well as google them, of course.
By the early 1990s I had become absolutely convinced of what the Scriptures really taught regarding eternal damnation. I knew that I couldn’t be the only one who saw this so-obvious truth in Scripture. I knew there had to be others. So I prayed that the Lord would bring me into contact with such people. It wasn’t until 1993 that I actually read a book from the evangelical perspective that supported everlasting destruction. I’ve since acquired many more. And today, with the internet, I’ve come to realize that there are a vast number of Christians—Charismatic, Evangelical, Catholic, Mainline, Messianic Jewish, etc.—all over the world who adhere to literal everlasting destruction. There are people worldwide who see the very same truths that the Holy Spirit showed me. It’s just comforting to know you’re not alone.
I encourage readers to watch A&E’s Mysteries of the Bible segment on “Heaven and Hell” (1996). As noted in Chapter Seven (scroll down), a Catholic priest admits on the program that everlasting destruction is the most sensible view on eternal damnation (!!) and a theology professor shares the truth about Gehenna (“hell”) as disclosed in Chapter Two. (You’ll also see the staunch fundamentalist Norman Geisler, whose best arguments for eternal torment are analyzed in Chapter Six).
So, to sum this up, even though my background involves years of indoctrination by supporters of eternal torture, the scriptural truth was still able to set me free because I had “the Berean spirit”—I was open to the truth, willing to diligently dig for the truth relying on the Holy Spirit’s faithful guidance, and willing to change my beliefs in light of the truths I discovered.