You are hereA short analysis of John Stott's position on Hell

A short analysis of John Stott's position on Hell

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By Virgil - Posted on 20 January 2003

With Ed Stevens' recent article on annihilationism, I decided to bring to light this article written about a year ago for a school project. It is an analysis of John Stott's position on annihilationism, which he presented initially in a short magazine article, and later, in his book Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (InterVarsity, 1988), co-authored with David L. Edwards and published only in England as far as I know.Introduction

I have been studying the two positions on the final state of the wicked for some time now, and without question, I realize that it is a topic that Christians debate with much fervor and emotion. Supporters of the eternal conscious punishment (eternal torment) view, often hold a callous, even uncaring position towards the wicked, while supporters of the annihilation of the wicked base a large number of their arguments on emotion alone. Both callousness and emotion are hurting everyone involved in the argument. We know very well that our God is not a hateful God, but He is in fact a just and loving God. We also know that He delivers justice even-handedly, and that He does not have in motion some mischievous or sadistic plan to torture the souls of the unsaved for an eternity. It is my experience that when one encounters two biblical positions, opposed in such a radical way, one has to step back, abandon all paradigms, creeds and so called “doctrinal statements”, and get back to the basics, rebuilding a sound doctrine, on a “scripture alone” foundation. Many times, even sound argument, together with solid scriptural evidence will not convince anyone in particular of any doctrinal point in particular, so we should not be surprised that emotion alone will not do much convincing. I do admire Stott’s plea for frank dialogue, plea that has been mostly rejected:

“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 [eternal punishment in hell], and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the worldwide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me . . . I do 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 eternal conscious torment” (1)

Regardless of one’s theology, we should all agree that some credit has to be given to Stott for his courage and determination in making his article public. Unfortunately, Christians ridicule promoters of fresh and new ideas, very often based on ecumenical creeds and doctrinal statements only, ignoring scriptural evidence and allowing creeds and doctrine to override scripture. Stott’s goals are noble, and his emotions to be respected. The evidence brought forth in his article is weak at best, but that does not go to say that his argument should be tossed out entirely. In my personal research alone I was able to find more solid evidence for his position than what he presented. Stott’s position is not as far-fetched as many would think and with extensive research, time and dedication, his position could very well reach into the mainstream within some period of time, just as the doctrine of original sin (hereditary sin), dispensationalism, and other un-scriptural positions have managed to do so far.
So far, Stott has failed to clarify his position on hell, despite his highly publicized articles and books. He has been skirting a definite clarification of his position, and as Bryan Chapell, the President of Covenant Theological Seminary said, “Dr. Stott continues unhesitatingly to say that he believes in 'eternal punishment”, but he “'tentatively' holds to an annihilationist view” (2). So which is it? There is a story about C.S. Lewis listening to a young preacher’s sermon on sin, and judgment. After the sermon, the preacher said: “If you do not receive Christ as Savior, you will suffer grave eschatological ramifications!” After the church service, Lewis asked him the question “Do you mean that a person who doesn't believe in Christ will go to hell?" "Precisely," was his response. "Then say so," Lewis replied. (3). It appears that Stott is either hesitant to make a final declaration on what he believes, or he simply does not know what he believes. For the sake of this paper, I will assume that he is an annihilationist.

I do not find it surprising at all that futurists in general are the first to attack Stott’s position. After all, futurists, dispensationalists, and other “fire-fascinated” theologians could not exist without painting the picture of a large lake of fire somewhere (nobody knows where), where all the wicked and evil people that made our lives miserable here on earth would suffer unbearable pain for an eternity. Sure, dispensationalism has been going through several face-lifts within the last twenty years or so, but the idea is the same. Tommy Ice, Charles Ryrie and John Walvoord may no longer believe that this lake of fire is of physical nature, but the ignorant masses have been left in nothing more than utter confusion. The large majority of believers today simply do not know what they believe about the book of Revelation, eternal punishment, annihilation, or hell. This is mostly due to the chameleonic attributes of what the fundamentalist leaders present to their constituents as “eschatology”. Without question, eschatology is the silver lining in God’s universal plan for humanity and its importance cannot be diminished in order to simply accommodate our personal preconceived notions, regardless of what those notions may be. That is why, a proper understanding of eschatology will prompt a proper understanding of God’s plan for humanity, while an incorrect view on eschatology will create confusion and ignorance, impersonated in this instance by John Stott’s article on the annihilation of the wicked.

In order to arrive at a proper and sound conclusion, based on God’s Word, we should begin Stott’s analysis by examining the eschatological picture portrayed in the book of Revelation. Both Stott and his opponents would clearly agree on one thing: all things which are thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation 20 would suffer the same fate. The disagreement is however, in what that fate is. There are a few verses in Revelation 19 and 20 that we should analyze in order to have a clear understanding of the nature of the lake of fire: the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20), the devil is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10), death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14), finally the ones judged according to their deeds and were not found in the book of life were thrown in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15).

With the already established fact that all things which are thrown into the lake of fire at least appear to have the same fate, it is clear just from Rev. 20:10 that Satan, the beast and the false prophet will be tormented “day and night, forever and ever”. The question that Stott needs to answer is, why would the wicked from Rev. 20:15 suffer any other fate? In a rare occasion in which I agree with John Walvoord, he writes: “The doctrine of eternal punishment has always been a problem to Christians who enjoy the grace of God and salvation in Christ. The Bible is clear, however, that the punishment of the wicked is eternal. This is confirmed in verse 10, where the beast and the false prophet are still in the lake of fire after the thousand years of Christ’s millennial reign.” (3) If consistency is to be respected, then Stott’s position should be able to survive on something more than plain emotion: “Well, emotionally I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” (5)

The four arguments that Stott is using to support his position are based on language, imagery, justice and universalism.

The Language Argument

In order to support his point, Stott goes to great lengths to show that the original Greek language of the New Testament indicates the annihilation of the wicked. His reasoning is that since the words being used are “destruction, perish, ruin” and other similar words, that would indicate the annihilation and cessation of existence of the wicked. His logic is purely deductive and not necessarily sound. Not only are these words not used in the immediate context of Revelation 19 and 20, but also they simply do not imply utter annihilation of a subject. As an example, one could say, “the German army was destroyed in World War II and it was in ruin at the end of the war”. This phrase would not indicate that the German military ceased to exist at the end of the war, but that it was defeated by the allied forces, and it was in utter disarray. The army itself was still there, but it was defeated, powerless, defenseless, and submitted to the allied forces entirely. Failing to prove that language supports his position, he continues by saying “…the immortality – and therefore indestructibility – of the soul is a Greek not a biblical concept”. According to him, 1 Tim. 6:16 says that God is the only immortal being. Would Stott read 1 Tim. 6:16 in its context, he would realize that the verse quoted does not say that God is the only immortal being, but that God alone has the ability to give immortality. By reading verse 12, we see that Paul is encouraging Timothy to “take hold of eternal life” and explains to him in verse 13 that “God gives life to all things”. Later, in verse 16, which is the verse quoted by Stott, Paul says that God possesses immortality, implying it not as an attribute only, but as something that He freely gives to those that are “taking hold of it” (verse 12). Ignoring the historical and literal context of 1 Tim. 6:16, Stott is creating confusion for his readers.

Furthermore, his claim that the immortality of the human soul is a Greek concept is again not accurate. In the early church, many church fathers shared the same views about the immortality of the soul, views that did not originate in the Greek mythology. In his Epistle to Diognetus , Mathetes writes: “The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.” (6). Tertullian, also held the same views, without the influence of outside sources: “In this respect will the image be less than the reality, and the afflatus inferior to the spirit, in that, while it possesses beyond doubt the true lineaments of divinity, such as an immortal soul, freedom and its own mastery over itself, foreknowledge in a great degree, reasonableness, capacity of understanding and knowledge, it is even in these respects an image still, and never amounts to the actual power of Deity, nor to absolute exemption from fault” (7). Indeed, speaking from a God-centered perspective, we would all admit that without God everything is “not alive”, thus dead. The question I would like to pose to John Stott is “When will the people that are not thrown into the lake of fire die”? Evidently, according to Stott’s logic, if the soul is not immortal, then it has to be mortal, which means that sooner or later it will die! If both the souls of the faithful and the souls of the wicked are in the same state before they are judged, and if it takes the lake of fire for the wicked’s soul to be destroyed, then what will it take for the believer’s soul to gain immortality or death? There is no indication anywhere in the book of Revelation that the people whose names were found in the book of life had to go through extra steps in order to gain immortality for their souls. They obviously already had immortality, and they will spend the rest of the eternity in God’s presence as opposed to the lake of fire.

The Imagery Argument

It is evident from various Scripture passages that imagery is abundant and it is used often in apocalyptic and prophetic language to illustrate God’s plan for nations, cities and individuals. In fact imagery is used so much in apocalyptic language that the vast majority of the book of Revelation is nothing but an illustration of events that took place before Christ’s coming. Throughout Revelation, we see symbolism that has clear equivalents to the physical world. Such images are being used so that the reader would gain a better understanding of the context of the passage, and of what God is trying to communicate. The image of hell is therefore not to be taken literally. Being aware of the fact that beings and things without physical properties are thrown into hell (Hades, Satan, Death…etc), we should understand that the lake of fire is not a literal lake of fire, but a symbolism for the ultimate destruction and defeat of sin. Speaking even from a physical perspective, fire does not destroy things, but simply changes the nature of things. In my book Hurdling Towards Irrelevance, while arguing against the idea of “the end of time” I wrote: “The Law of Conservation of Energy states that if we would add up all the energy in a system, for example the Universe and quantify it in a measurable form (we can describe energy quantitatively with units such as Joules or kilowatt-hours), the total amount or quantity of energy would never change, just the form in which energy exists. In other words, energy is neither created nor destroyed or lost. For example, energy exists in many forms, such as heat (the heat generated by burning gas in your car’s engine) or kinetic energy (the motion of your car). Fire does not destroy energy, but simply changes its form. Also a light bulb transforms electric energy into light, which is another form of energy. Einstein discovered that even objects that do not move have energy caused by their mass (m). This energy is called “rest energy”. This is where the famous E=mc2 came from. Because the speed of light (c) is such a large number, the rest energy of any object (E) is much larger than any other type of energy that object may have. This is however irrelevant since most rest energy will remain just that throughout the entire existence of that particular matter. To sum up this argument, for time to end, all energy in the entire Universe would have to cease to exist. This does not involve physical fire, or nuclear weapons, since the fire would simply just change the state of energy, but not the amount or quantity of it. The Law of Conservation of Energy simply does not allow time to end. In order for time to end, God would simply have to speak the Universe out of existence, just like He spoke it into existence. Nowhere does the Bible claim that God will ever speak the Universe out of existence, so not only is the argument for “the end of time” non-scientific, but also non-biblical.” (8). The same argument can easily be applied in this instance as well; the fire does not by any means indicate that it in fact destroys something to the point of annihilation, but it simply changes the form in which that “something” exists. Stott is correct when stating that there is no physical fire in hell, however the lack of physical fire does not imply exclusion of pain, sorrow or regret. Jesus said in Luke 13:28: “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out.” Physical pain will obviously not exist since this is taking place on a spiritual level and there is no evidence to suggest that red devils, equipped with fiery red forks will “poke” the souls of the people destined to hell in order to induce pain and torture. That is not the image Jesus depicts. The image depicted throughout the Bible is that the “gnashing of teeth” and “weeping” will occur simply because of regret and the awareness that God is not present there and that these people have been shut out of God’s presence for eternity. Sin simply cannot exist in God’s presence; therefore, the unclean souls of the ones judged in Revelation 20 will spend eternity in a place other than God’s presence.
Making things even worse under this point, Stott quotes another passage out of context. He sets out to discuss the parable of the wheat and the tares from Matthew 13. Even with the detailed explanation offered by Jesus after the parable, Stott (and many others) still misunderstand this parable. The parable does not refer to some future destruction of the “the sons of the evil one” (the tares), but past. The harvest depicted in Matthew 13 is clearly identified by Christ as “the end of the age”, not “end of the world”, or “end of time”, or any other doomsday scenario. The end of the age can be easily identified in Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Mark 13. The end of age in all three passages should not be equated with an end of the physical planet. In fact, Matthew 24 is very clear as to what the end of the age really is and when it will take place. In the beginning of Matthew 24, the disciples ask Jesus the following question: “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the and of the age?” (NASB). Jesus telling His disciples that the Jewish temple will be utterly destroyed prompted this question. It is evident from the grammar of the text and the form of their question, that the disciples immediately associated the destruction of the temple with the end of the age, and the coming of Christ. Jesus answers in a plain and forward manner concluding that the end of the age will take place before “this generation will pass away”, which is roughly forty years according to Hal Lindsey: "A generation in the Bible is something like forty years." (9). Many respected scholars agree that the end of the age was not to take place thousands of years later, but within the same generation of Jesus’ contemporaries. Even if the many respected scholars would not agree, self-conscious Christians should. After all, “Quod non est biblicum, non est theologicum” (11). If we are sincerely interested in finding out God’s plan for the humankind, we should accept the fact that “what is not biblical, is not theological” and we should no longer let our theology dictate our understanding of the bible, but we should let theology flow from God’s word. And the actual fact is, that the Bible does not ever discuss an end of the physical planet like Stott and others claim. The parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13 refers to the very same end of the age that Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24. They are not two separate events, but in fact they are the same event. Furthermore, as a result of the harvest that takes place in Matthew 13, the tares are burned in fire at the end of the age, and the field (the world) remains. I submit that the tares, the sons of the evil one are in fact nobody other than the Jews that prostituted their religion and relationship with God to the point where Jerusalem was in fact called Sodom and Egypt. (Rev. 11:8) and Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). This wicked system of worship which kept us out of God’s presence was destroyed: “The Holy Spirit is signifying that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time” (Heb. 9:8-9, NASB), so that the way into the holy place is now freely open and available to everyone. Clearly, as long as the Jewish temple was standing, nobody could be in heaven, in God’s presence. The wheat could not be processed together with the tares and produce a good crop. The fact that Stott confuses the burning of the tares in Matthew 13 with the throwing of the wicked into the lake of fire in Revelation 20 speaks volumes of the level of ignorance that exists today in the conservative theological circles, especially on the topic of eschatology. Matthew 13 is a parallel to Revelation 14:14-20, not Revelation 20, and should be treated as such. The tares, the unfaithful Jews are burned in fire (Jerusalem was literally burned to the ground in A.D. 70), and Christ returned exactly like He said He would, and exactly 40 years after He started His ministry (one generation). With the events unfolded, animal sacrifices stopped, and the physical Jewish temple destroyed, people from Hades were judged in Revelation 20, and the ones not found worthy were thrown into the lake of fire for eternal torment.

The Biblical Justice Argument

To continue my line of reasoning from the previous argument, Stott is again misrepresenting the judgment scene in Revelation 20:12 as a future judgment when every person will be judged according to their deeds. Apparently, Stott believes that the Mosaic Law will be applied at this judgment in order to give “exact retribution” to each person such as an eye for an eye, life for life…etc. This mistaken position is again caused by mistaken eschatology. As I already mentioned, the scene in Revelation 20 already took place, about 2,000 years ago, and it is not an event that will take place in our future. Furthermore, even if this judgment scene will take place thousands of years from today, we would have to reconcile with the fact that Jesus plainly said in John 5:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life”. This verse places Stott and others in a very interesting position. Major questions arise, and they need to be answered: Was Jesus wrong? If Revelation 20 will take place sometime in our future, why does it appear that Christians will be judged? Why a judgment based on deeds if Christ’s blood is enough? Are we really saved by grace? If we are going to be judged based on our works, then are we even sure of our salvation?

The verse in John 5 has major implications. Unlike other passages in Matthew 24, it would be extremely hard to bend it and twist it to make it mean something other than the obvious, which is that believers in Christ will simply not be judged, ever! This provides even further evidence for my position and supports the idea that the judgment scene in Revelation 20 does not refer to a future universal judgment, but to a judgment that took place in A.D. 70, at the destruction of the Jewish temple, when only people that died before Christ were judged based on their deeds only because no other criteria existed, invalidating Stott’s argument for a future annihilation of the wicked. In Romans 2:14 Paul sets a clear standard for the judgment that was to take place soon (in the first century): “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves” (NASB). Evidently, God had in place a system under which Jews were to be judged according to the Law, and Gentiles according to a moral law of deeds (good vs. bad). This criteria of judgment would in no case apply to us Christians, just like Peter said in 1 Peter 4:17 “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those, who do not obey the gospel of God?” (NASB). The judgment was to begin with the Jews themselves, and end with the judgment scene in Revelation 20. Peter was looking forward to new heavens and a new earth, a new world in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13) The last hour before the judgment was already there, and the world was being transformed before the eyes of the apostles: “The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now, many antichrists have appeared; from this we know, that it is the last hour”. (1 John 17-18) It is now very evident that Stott built the foundation of his doctrine on sand, and when confronted with scripture, it cannot withstand. His argument is removing scripture out of its historical context, and is confusing the judgment of the pre-Christ souls with some future judgment of all humanity.

The Universalism Argument

The doctrine of universal salvation is nothing more than poison for the Church. It goes against everything and anything that God did for us. I would go as far to say that it is against the very nature of God. It nullifies the sacrifice of Christ, and it negates the need for God. While Stott admits that he is not an universalist, I cannot help but remain puzzled by his use of certain “universalist texts” to support his total annihilation argument. The central point of this idea is that if God would allow the wicked to continue to exist in hell, then God would not accomplish ultimate victory over evil. What Stott fails to understand is that God already accomplished utter and complete victory over evil 2,000 years ago. Through Christ’s sacrifice, sin was defeated, Satan was bound forever, and salvation for humanity was insured for eternity. In fact, Christ’s sacrifice is so powerful that John writes in 1 John 1:7 “…but if we walk in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” The Greek in this verse is “autos katharizō” implying an action of automatic, and continuous cleansing of our sins. In fact, the English verb “cauterize” comes from the Greek katharizō indicating that the action is of burning away, deadening or searing of sin. Praise God, His victory over sin, evil and Satan is already final, complete and in full! Sin has been cauterized, “deadened” and finished with! Anyone that awaits another future deliverance should ask himself what more could God offer us than Christ Himself? Would an urban utopia with no drive-by-shootings solve the humanity’s problems? Surely not! The spiritual problem of sin was resolved through the sacrifice of Christ. Evil, which is the result of sin, was defeated at once, and through Christ, we should expect that the world would in fact get better, and that drive-by-shooters may get to know Christ and have their hearts “seared” by Christ’s blood. Stott’s claim that evil cannot be defeated unless the wicked are annihilated is nullified by 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” The death that Paul is talking about is not physical death, but the death that comes from sin, spiritual death, and separation from God. Stott fails to understand that evil has been already and completely defeated through Christ abolishing of spiritual death, regardless of people being annihilated in hell or not. Although the wicked and Satan will continue to exist, their existence is more or less irrelevant since they will be outside God’s presence. Satan’s influence of Christians is nullified through Christ’s blood, and by the continual cleansing of His blood Satan is today powerless, like Paul wrote a long time ago: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20, NASB)

Those who are so eager to criticize Stott on his position should in fact look further, past Stott and try to understand the root of the problem. As mentioned before, the fact that Stott quotes passages out of literal and historical context, mistakenly parallels Matthew 13 to Revelation 20, and assigns mortality to the human soul, speaks for itself to the level of dullness in the fundamentalist, conservative theological circles. Many theologians today are doing nothing more than burying their heads in the sand when confronted with doctrinal inconsistencies, hoping that the problems will eventually go away. Assumptions are made about the level of complexity of the Bible, and some even believe that we are never meant to understand God’s plan entirety. The phrase “it is not for us to understand God’s plan” has become the battle cry of theologians on the defense. This attitude is unacceptable. Should we believe that God is communicating His plan to us through His word using the most difficult and complicated ways possible or the easiest and most obvious ways?

When Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of his church, he proudly stated: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (9). How far have we come today to ignore this basic principle? How can we put doctrine, church creed, theology, and personal comfort before the holy gospel of God? We casually ignore Peter’s warning: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21, NASB)

Stott’s problem is not just a problem of being right or wrong. The problem is much deeper, rooted in the abandonment of scripture as primary focus by the Church. False eschatology, the idea of the “non-return” of Christ when He said He would, and the rising of dispensationalism, put the Church in shark-infested waters. Slowly, but surely, liberalism seeped into our theology. Theologians today casually assign errors to the scriptures by claiming that Jesus, and the inspired apostles were wrong in expecting a first century return of Christ. The impotence of the Church is perpetuated from generation to generation by the continual teaching of a future return of Christ, and the increasingly wicked world overcoming the Church with its evil. The Church has simply abandoned its mission of being the salt and light of the world, by adopting the position that regardless of our actions, the world will get worse and worse, and only Christ’s return will deliver us. How easily has the physical defeated us before we even started the fight! We are so concerned today with Christ coming back to stop crime and poverty, that by our actions, we diminish His sacrifice entirely, claiming that the resolution to our physical problems is the ultimate eschatological consummation of God’s plan. What will it take for us Christians to understand that God’s plan is beyond anything that we can imagine, beyond urban utopias, beyond crime, poverty and nuclear wars? Origen properly understood the kind of change that takes place when Christ reigns: “For if the heavens are to be changed, assuredly that which is changed does not perish, and if the fashion of the world passes away, it is by no means an annihilation or destruction of their material substance that is shown to take place, but a kind of change of quality and transformation of appearance. Isaiah also, in declaring prophetically that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, undoubtedly suggests a similar view” (12).

Emil Cioran (1911-1995) was one of the greatest European philosophers in the 20th century. While he was never a Christian, I still feel national pride when talking about him. He was born in Romania and later, he moved to France in 1937, and with friends such as Samuel Beckett and William Gass, Cioran wrote and researched many topics, including Christianity. Throughout his writings, one can easily see the despair and pain of an individual confused by a never-ending puzzle of misunderstandings of God's word and prophecy. In one of his never-ending diatribes against Christianity, Cioran wrote: "If we would be to listen to Christianity, down here, everything is already lost. Why is Christianity compromising the only place in the Universe, which we cannot leave without a regret? The entire New Testament is nothing more than a divine pamphlet against this world." (13). Is this the way we want to relate the Bible to the world around us, as a “divine pamphlet” against it? If that is the case, we are definitely doing a great job so far; just pick up the Left Behind series! Cioran continues with even more insightful comments: "Christianity did not manage to change man. Mercy, a Christian sentiment, makes me defend it against itself. As long as man will be haunted by the obsessive idea and concept of sin, mankind will remain condemned. The feeling of sin is the most profound, wicked feelings. Christianity should no longer make us unhappier than we already are in exchange for a greater illusion of a greater fall. It is not pleasant to be a Christian" (ibid, p. 144). If one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century managed to get this mistaken idea about what Christianity is all about, then Christians are very much failing at doing their job. If we do not relate to the World that sin, evil and Satan have not already been utterly destroyed and defeated, we will never be able to relay God’s plan properly to people around us, giving them the feeling that “it is not pleasant to be a Christian”. The reality is that because of Christ’s blood, the “feeling of sin” is irrelevant, that mankind is no longer condemned, and that happiness is available now, at this very moment, not when Christ “will return”, or when we will stand in front of the judgment throne wondering what the setting will be on the eternity’s thermostat.

Let us all, including Stott, as believers that are truly in search of understanding of God’s realized plan, stop and analyze why we believe what we believe. If the answer to this honest self-examination is not “because the Bible’s obvious message says so”, then we all have a serious problem to resolve, a problem much greater than Stott’s position on eternal punishment. When we wonder about the ineffectiveness of the Church in the world today, we should stop and ponder if we truly understand our role as Christians, or if we’ve missed the mark. Jelly Falwell is the clearest example of the “messed-up” modern Christian caught in the trap of his own eschatological schizophrenia. The ministry that he runs is secretly raising funds to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, in order to usher the “Second Coming of Christ”. Clearly Falwell does not understand that the rebuilding of a physical temple in Jerusalem will nullify the sacrifice of Christ, and that the Bible nowhere mentions another temple being rebuilt. Just last month, CDR-Radio proudly hosted a broadcast, promoting a ministry called “Haverim, Friends of Israel”, a ministry that focuses on chartering airplanes and busses to transplant Jews from the Diaspora back to the home land. When asked why they are doing this, Nancy Montgomery, the founder of Haverim, said that fulfillment of the regathering of Jews back to Israel will prompt the “Second Coming of Christ”, so she is just “helping” fulfill prophecy. How blind have we become? Instead of saving the souls of the people that will be either suffering forever or be annihilated in hell, we raise funds to rebuild a temple, charter planes, transplant Jews across the world, and sell nuclear technology to a country that sends its soldiers to kill pregnant Palestinian women and children in cold-blood? A good friend of mine, Don Preston, an author, writer and public speaker wrote after the recent Passover suicide-bomber attack in Israel: “Instead of being a proof that Israel remains as God’s chosen people, the attack in 1967, and the attack on Passover, this last Wednesday, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israel is not in covenant relationship with Jehovah!” (13). He continues to prove his point by saying: “Further, the attacks on Yom Kippur, and now Passover, also prove something else, a direct corollary to everything else. Either the Covenant promise of Exodus 34 is no longer valid, or, the people claiming to be Israel today are not the people of the Covenant of Exodus 34. If the Covenant of Exodus is still valid, but the people in Israel today were attacked in violation of Exodus 34, then what does it say about the identity of the people in Israel today? It says that they cannot be the people of the Covenant of Exodus 34! Every time, and any time, that the Palestinians attack Israel during any of her three feast days, Bible students everywhere should be trumpeting the Biblical fact, that this proves, emphatically, and unequivocally, that Israel is no longer the chosen people of God.“ (ibid). By focusing on the physical, ironically like Israel did over 2,000 years ago, we’ve missed the mark, and yet we are surprised that we are becoming irrelevant? Dr. John R. Rice wrote: “...thank God that Temple is gone and we have far better! The sacrifices there had no meaning after Jesus was crucified. No wonder “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom” (Matt. 27:51); and Jesus said, “O Jerusalem…your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23:37-38)” (14)

May God enlighten all of us with His marvelous wisdom, so that we may understand the true revelation of His sacrificial Lamb, Jesus Christ, and save as many souls as we can from eternal punishment! May us all accept God as the present King of this world, and serve, worship, and thank our King for His limitless love, for resurrecting us from the dead, for continually cleansing us of our sins, and for giving us the best gift that He could ever give us: Himself.

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15, NASB)


1. John Stott and David L. Edwards , A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, p. 319-20

2. Presbyterian & Reformed News, Vol. 5 No.4. December 1999

3. Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News, Wheaton, 1992. p. 13

4. John F. Walvoord, Commentary on Revelation

5. John Stott, Taking a closer look at Eternal Torture

6. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, Chapter VI. The Relation of Christians to the World

7. Tertullian, Contra Marcion, Book II

8. Virgil Vaduva, Hurdling Towards Irrelevance, An argument against the end of the age and a thesis on the relevance of the Church in our society

9. Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth

10. The Reformation Slogan

11. Martin Luther, Thesis 62

1. Origen, De Principiis, Book II.VI.IV

12. Emil Cioran, Pain Revelations, p. 142

13. Don Preston, The Significance of This Passover Attack,, March 28, 2002

14. Dr. John R. Rice, Why Our Churches Do No Win Souls, 1966, p. 101

large-hammer's picture

I am exploring:

Yes...emotion should be restrained in this argument. What is traditional, should not be held as unquestionable. Also, what is reprehensible to some (i.e. that God would torment the wicked forever) should not be rejected automatically. Solid grammatical analysis and consistency is also key to this discussion.

On this question of annihilation there is no easy answer. The logic used by futurists and their arguments based upon poor grammatical analysis falls apart (or is not convincing of itself). It is true that ECT cannot be "proved" based on language like "unquenchable" or "forever." There is precedent that affirms this language is applicable to limited, time-restricted judgments (that ended). Yet explorations on this issue must take all Scriptural data into account. Of course, there are also grammatical uses of forever/eternal type language that is applicable to God himself and in such contexts means FOREVER (i.e. without any end whatsoever).

Also, it must be mentioned that "eternal" judgment is juxtaposed with "eternal" salvation and "eternal" life.

For consistency's sake, these two "eternals" must correspond. If the afterlife remains without end for the righteous, then the judgment and shame must also remain without end (at least in some sense). If annihilationists are correct, then they must be consistent. They must be willing to limit the timespan of the afterlife (for the righteous). For my part, I am unwilling to accept this conclusion based on other parts of the Scriptures.

Yet there are many aspects to this discussion. Christ's "eternal life" corresponds to the long life in the land of promise, which is called "life age-lasting" in Psalm 133. Christ's "eternal life" ensures long life in the better fatherland. This life pervades our physical life on earth and our afterlife (In other words, eternal life doesn't merely start at the afterlife. But neither does it end at the afterlife).

Also, the a.d. 70 aspect cannot be emphasized enough. It is true that much language that is used by futurists to speak of a future final judgment actually refers to a past fulfilled event. Yet, as Jonathan has said, the transition from Adam to Christ occurred *nationally* in the first-century. Yet, in a way, that same transition is relived *individually* in the life of believers who put off the old self and put on the new. These believers also face judgment, for "after death comes judgment." They either enter the heavens (i.e. God's presence) after they sleep or face condemnation (as had the Pharisees in the first-century).

My current assessment is that the case for ECT is stronger than the case for annihilation. Nevertheless, ECT proponents cannot use the same faulty, tired arguments that might work on futurists. Indeed, annihilationists have some good points that must not be ignored. In any case, I'll be following this debate.

Marcus Booker

MiddleKnowledge's picture


I agree with you that the parallelism (eternal life and eternal punishment) in passages like Matt 25:46 must be recognized by those who reject ECT. The conditional immortality view in fact does recognize that the punishment (death) has no end in that the unbelievers will never be brought back upon being judged. They are eternally punished by death just as eternal life is enjoyed without end by believers.

The problem is that when traditionalists (following the lead of Augustine) argue for ECT on these grounds, they have assumed something that first must be proved. They have assumed that punishment requires conciousness. In other words, ECT is arbitrarily smuggled into the term "eternal punishment." Conditionalists agree that the punishment lasts forever. They disagree that it requires consciousness to, in fact, be punishment.

This is an unnecessary conclusion in that we are not told consciousness is required of punishment. Captital punishment in the Law of Moses is instructive. The punishment was not ultimately the pain involved in stoning, but the termination of life. The death penalty is typological of the "second" death by God's own hand for those who reject Christ. As also was the ultimate annihilation of the pagan cannaanite populations. Is pain involved in these things? Yes, undoubtably. Is pain the ultimate essence of these punishment? No, it is the result (death) that is the essence of the punishment.

The wages of sin is death. And the clear anti-thesis of Scripture between life and death compells us to recognize those two states are in all realms, in the end, opposites. In order to defend their system, traditionalists have to re-define eternal death as actual "conscious life in separation from God." What makes the position strange is that life and death are really both differing forms of life. Living forever in the torments of hell or in God's presence. I maintain this makes nonsense the biblical antithesis of life and death. It also fails to recognize the typical nature of death manifested in Scriptural penal codes, destruction of the ungodly, etc. Again, these things all came with pain, but it is not the pain that is the punishment, as per traditionalist views - it is the death. And the second death does last forever.

Tim Martin

large-hammer's picture

Good distinctions.

The issue then is the C and not the E in ECT.

So it's ET phone home.

I'm still on the ECT side at the present time, but I am definitely sensitive to the grammatical issues involved in this debate.

At any rate, I must insist that if the C part is true, the Scriptures doesn't seem to dwell much on it or express it beyond dispute. The gospel doesn't seem to be presented as an ultimatum (Jesus or ECT!). Of course, there are exceptions. The Pharisees are threatened with hell-fire.


MiddleKnowledge's picture


The whole debate relies on definitions of both life and death.

Traditionalists maintain consciousness always remains one aspect of death, and therefore hell since souls are naturally immortal by their creation in God's image. (Death = separation from God)

Conditionalists grant there is a finite period of consciousness of both body and soul in the pains of hell - as determined by God's justice for different levels of guilt. But the end result of hell-fire is exinction. (Death = final cessation of existence).

I only wish both sides of the debate would accurately portray the differences rather than use scare-tactics as Ed Stevens did in his latest article. I think traditionalists intuitively understand that without perjorative communication and distorted rhetoric many more would exit their camp. The word's getting out, though which will force more responses like Stevens'.

But it makes little difference anyway. The traditional view of hell, although mentally assented to by many Christians, has virtually been annihilated from the pulpits and everyday teaching of evangelical churches. When was the last time you heard a sermon like Jonathon Edward's "SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD"? Conditionalism actually offers new life to the crucial Christian doctrine of hell. It also clears up the gospel. If you follow Jesus Christ, you will live forever. If you reject him you will perish with all his enemies. Life and Death. It simplifies preaching by returning to a basic biblical (and natural)contrast unencumbered by Hellenic philosophy, particularly Platonic thought.

Tim Martin

large-hammer's picture


You do have a good point in mentioning Platonic philosophy. The immortality of the soul and Plato go hand in hand. Historically, much of Platonic or Aristotelian doctrine (through the church fathers and doctors) has been confounded with Scriptural teaching.

This tendency is certainly something of which we should be aware.

Also, another aspect of this debate (which is in favor of the annihilationist side) is that Christ's penalty for the sake of many was finite. Christ, in bearing our punishment and in becoming a curse for us, did not suffer ECT. His anguish after death was finite (no more than 3 days). It might be surmised that an eternity was crammed into that time, but that would involve unwarranted speculation and twisting.


MiddleKnowledge's picture

You can also see how the Passover Feast typified a consumption view of Hell. The Passover lamb or goat was roasted whole over the fire - with eyes, limbs and entrails.

Few people imagine what that lamb would have looked like since we generally eat meat in non-descript cuts. It is quite a gory scene.

Now notice what the regulation is concerning any Passover meal that is left over! Hmmm.

We don't generally connect the physical typology with the spiritual realities embodied in the shadows of Moses, but a Hebrew was taught to do that. The Passover was a burnt-to-a-crisp carcass, picturing the fate of those who approached God without a sacrifice. Or to put it another way, the sacrifice bore upon itself the punishment due to all those who trespass against God. If it was not eaten, it was to be burned to ashes. (The law is exceedingly specific - "let nothing be left") We don't see the importance of these things from our Greek mindset, yet to a Hebrew they are all instructive of the ways of God.

My conclusion: the recovery of a Hebrew mindset - which preterism aids - will eventually annihilate the traditional view of hell! Indeed, a preterist understanding of the biblical language and description of hell already refutes the view.

Tim Martin

Virgil's picture

"Indeed, annihilationists have some good points that must not be ignored."

Marcus, I don't see any quality arguments...I am sorry. Many of these "good arguments" come from people manifesting their feelings about non-believers ending up in the lake of fire. How can an all-loving God punish people for eternity?

When people get tired of feeling bad, they fall in the universalist camp (like Max King and other folks at Living Presence did). Before you know it, we are sliding further down towards liberal theology than liberals like Stott...and others. Then we are surprised when we can't sell covenant eschatology to mainstream christians. Why are we surprised of the Church reaction when in the same breath we imply that salvation means nothing?

Ed's picture

Why are we surprised of the Church reaction when in the same breath we imply that salvation means nothing?

Salvation means nothing? Just because someone questions whether God eternally punishes sinners means that they think salvation means nothing? That's a stretch Virgil.

The problem I have with your non-calvinist position is that in essence you claim that Jesus died for everone's sins, and yet just because someone does not "accept Christ", they must burn FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER AND EVER, whether Hitler or Joe my next door neighbor. At least in the Calvinist position, Jesus didn't die for the sins of those who end up in hell.

When you take the preterist position, as Tim Martin pointed out, you MUST re-evaluate all of the scriptures in light of it. All of a sudden, hell-fire and brimstone mean something different. With that in mind, there is absolutely no reason that someone can't use logic, reason, emotion, etc. to reach conclusions about the afterlife.

And finally, as I pointed out before, since I do not use hell-fire, annihilation or universalism in my witnessing, it doesn't matter to me. I talk about the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Of course, many times the question comes up, "why would this loving sovereign God create people that he is just going to torture for eternity?" Got an answer?



Papa is especially fond of us

Reformer's picture


Allow me to present a simple syllogistic argument for your consideration on this "mysterious" topic under discussion:

Premise #1 - God's revealed will and desire is that no one should perish but rather that every person be saved and come to the knowledge of truth
(1 Ti. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Premise #2 - God has also said that "My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please" (Isa. 46:10). He also "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Eph. 1:11, 5; 2:7).

Conclusion - God's revealed will and desire will be achieved -- i.e. none will perish, etc.

Is this divine revelation not more substantive than our human speculations (so far) on this topic?


Virgil's picture

Oh, so universalism is the answer?

large-hammer's picture

Virgil, John,

What is often neglected in the passages referenced by John Noe is that when God speaks of an unwillingness for any to perish, he refers to his own sheep (not the totality of all people).

Some have supposed that God's will is divided into what he commands (or desires) and what he effects. Based upon this distinction, the statement that God is unwilling for any to perish is said to be God's desire (but not what he actually accomplishes).

To be sure, I acknowledge that this division does exist. [As per Rom 9: "who resists his will" in making a vessel for dishonor and "here is my mother and brothers--the one who does God's will."] Nevertheless, it seems that the statement that God is unwilling that any should perish is actually more than just his unfulfilled desire (but what he actually accomplishes). It may be compared to John 6. It says, "and this is the will of he who sent me, that of all he has given me I shall lose nothing, and I shall raise him up on the last day." Notice that God's will of losing nothing is bound by the context "of all he has given me."

The context of these statements isn't universal, but national. It is for the chosen nation, God's sheep. Similar statements may be found in the prophets, which were nation-bound (not universal).

Marcus Booker

Reformer's picture


Because you chose to compromise/violate my desire anonymity -- for what reason I do not know -- I will withdraw from this controversial and potentially destructive discussion, sad to say.


large-hammer's picture


Faux pas on my part. I didn't mean to blow your cover, nor did I realize that your identity was secretive. If you're so concerned, you might want to make more systematic and careful efforts toward anonymity. Your real name is attached to your nickname. This is public information on the site (so the choice to compromise/violate your desired anonymity was yours and not mine). Some people (like me) make the effort to check. I guess that it never entered into my mind that someone would be afraid to contribute with their real identity known. That makes no sense to me and seems to be cowardly. I guess I should have known better since there was another case like this before.


Virgil's picture


I think Marcus "guessed" who you were based on the web address in your profile. We don't share or give out anyone's private information, name or e-mail address. I would be interested in this discussion if you want to continue. There are some good arguments on boths sides.

- virgil

MiddleKnowledge's picture


I appreciate your willingness and openmindedness on the subject, since few are even willing to grant the possibility for the conditional immortality view. Your work is beneficial in that regard. The debate is not over the existence of hell, it is over the nature of hell. Many do not extend the common courtesy of recognizing that fact.

The one thing I would say as one coming from the other side of the debate is that there are many other rescources which already give a good defense for conditional immortality, besides Stott's material. None of the arguments are overthrown based on a preterist or futurist view of Rev. 20 since we are discussing the nature of God's punishment upon the wicked. For those who want to examine the biblical evidence, I'd recommend Edward Fudge's classic work, "The Fire That Consumes." I also believe Phillip E. Hughes argues convincingly for the view in "The True Image."

Ironically enough, it was coming to a preterism which led me to personally reconsider the ECT view. Preterism actually convinced me of conditional immortality. Once I learned how apocalyptic language works in the Bible it was easy for me to see the problem with over-literalizing texts such as Rev. 14. Also, language such as "unquenchable fire" is used frequently in the prophets to describe judgments which had an end. All you have to do is look up those phrases and terms in the prophets and see if they prove ECT. I found their common use in Scripture proved just the opposite. If we familiarize ourselves with these common Hebrew usages in the prophets, many of the biblical arguments for ECT disappear. It is actually the ignorance of the way the Bible uses these styles of language that perpetuates dogmatic allegiance to ECT in my humble opinion.

The one thing I did think strange in your article is where you said, "Speaking even from a physical perspective, fire does not destroy things, but simply changes the nature of things." If we wish to speak in terms of scientific elements, you are correct. However, I don't get the sense the warnings concerning the fiery destruction of the wicked are meant to be taken "scientifically." If my house burnt down would I say, "Fire didn't destroy anything, it just changed the nature of things"? No, I would say that my house, which no longer exists, was destroyed. The same is true of the branches which are cut off and thrown into the fire. The same is true of Sodom & Gomorrah which God burnt "to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly." Thanks for your openminded article,

Tim Martin
Covenant Community Church

Virgil's picture

It would be interesting to consult the resources you suggested, but so far, annihilationism has failed to prove itself (at least to me). Now, anyone can prove anything based on deductive logic only, but that's not good enough. :)

Ed's picture

The reality of the eternal conscious torment (ECT) position is that it is THEORY. None of us knows for certain. As Virgil has pointed out, scripture can be debated, twisted, systematized, etc. and we still come up with a variety of opinions on the subject (eternal punishment, conditional immortality, universalism, comprehensive grace, etc.). This can be true of virtually every doctrine of the Christian faith. But to actually know what exactly happens to the wicked after death remains somewhat of a mystery.

It is often pointed out by ECT advocates that Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven. Two problems present themselves here: 1) many words translated "hell" in scripture are in fact "hades" and represent the state of the soul PRIOR to the Parousia; 2) Jesus pronouncements were directed against first century Jews (remember audience relevance?). When speaking of God's judgment on apostate Israel in the book of Hebrews, it is stated that "our God is a consuming fire". Language of judgment, right? But what kind of judgment? Temporal judgment on the wicked, or eternal?

What of the Lake of Fire in Revelation? Who is the Dragon? Who is the Beast and False Prophet? Who are those whose names are not written in the Book of Life? Remembering audience relevance, were these not first century figures, even apostate Jews (and their spiritual father, the accuser of the brothers)?

Also, for all the fuss about eternal fire, what of when Jesus speaks of "darkness"? Is this a different punishment for different people than go to "hell"? Who are these people thrown into "outer darkness"? If they are the same, then is the Fire symbolic? If so, must we be so dogmatic about the position of ECT?

One of the struggles that I have had with ECT for some time is does my unbelieving uncle receive the same eternal torment that Stalin or Hitler does? Most say "no". They claim that there are degrees of punishment. Yet, how would my uncle know that his punishment is less than someone else's, not having experienced anything but his own?

Does preaching hell-fire and brimstone convert anyone? Or is it the Love that God has shown that leads us to repentance? When I weep over what God has done for me and my brothers, do I weep out of relief that I am not going to burn forever in a lake of fire, or do I weep because of how KIND God has been to me in spite of how horribly I have offended Him?

Dogmatism is the poison that destroys the body of Christ. It is dogmatism that declares that preterists are heretics and should not even be debated, just refuted. It is dogmatism that keeps Baptists on one side of the River, and paedobaptists on the other. I ask that all Christians consider each other more highly than themselves. If someone holds a position different from yours, love him. If someone says something with which you disagree, love him. If he offends you, forgive him. That is what God has done for us.



Papa is especially fond of us

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