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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 5

(To read the earlier posts in this series, click here:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4)

Objection #3: “Because of the New Testament’s use of the term “destruction” to describe the judgment of the ungodly (Mat 7:13; Rom 9:22; 2Th 1:9; 2Pe 2:12), doesn’t it make sense to conclude that the conscious torment of hell is not eternal?  How can someone who is “destroyed” continue to live consciously?”
This objection is one made by those who hold a view called annihilationism, which is the belief that those who die apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ will eventually and ultimately cease to exist.  To the word “destruction,” annihilationists would add “perish” and “death,” each of which are words used to describe the final state of the unbeliever. 
On the surface, this appears to be a strong objection to the idea of hell as a place of eternal, conscious suffering.  However, those who raise this objection assume a definition of “destruction” that does not accord with its usage in the New Testament.  That is, it is assumed that to suffer “destruction” must entail ceasing to exist.  But this is not the most natural understanding of the word as defined by the major Greek lexicons.  Typically, it carries the idea of ruin or loss.
Douglas Moo, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College notes that the biblical terms translated destruction usually refer to the state of a person or object that has lost the essence of its nature or function:
“The key words for ‘destroy’ and ‘destruction’ can also refer to land that has lost its fruitfulness (Ezek 6:14; 14:16); to ointment that is poured out wastefully and to no apparent purpose (Matt 26:8; Mark14:4); to wineskins that can no longer function because they have holes in them (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37); to a coin that is useless because it is ‘lost’ (Luke 15:9); or to the entire world that ‘perishes,’ as an inhabited world, in the Flood (2 Pet 3:6). In none of these cases do the objects cease to exist; they cease to be useful or to exist in their original, intended state.”[1]
Taking “destruction” to refer to annihilation not only forces us to assign a meaning not demanded by its usage elsewhere, but it also requires us to ignore all that we have already seen regarding the eternality of hell, and specifically those texts that refer to the eternal, conscious suffering of hell.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus describes the rich man in Hades as “being in torment,” a description born out by the rest of the parable.  Truly, it is the agony of the experience that gives meaning to the story.  The suffering is so intense that the rich “lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.  And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame’” (Luk 16:23-24).  When the rich man learns that no relief is possible, he begs that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers, “lest they also come into this place of torment” (v28).  The torment of hell is the point of the parable.  If judgment consists of annihilation, there is no torment, and if there is no torment the parable serves as a pointless warning.  Worse, the parable is deceptive.
Elsewhere, we read of other descriptions of the agony of hell.  “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus warned repeatedly (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Lk. 13:28).  James 5:1 warns the rich of the “miseries that are coming upon you.”  Rev 14:11 gives this description: the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.  In other words, the torment of hell endures forever and there is no relief from it.  Rev 20:9-15 describes hell as a lake of fire, the destination of all the unbelieving, where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (v10). 
Given such descriptions, it is difficult to imagine a way to justify annihilationism.  The concept of hell as “destruction” is therefore best understood as utter ruin or waste.
Some might wonder why someone would argue emphatically that hell will mean eternal, conscious suffering for those who go there.  I can’t answer for others, but I will tell you why I do.  First of all, the Bible clearly teaches it.  You and I don’t get to decide what hell is like, no matter how much of an emotional problem we have with it.  God created it and He has told us what it is like.  There should be no argument.
Second, the seriousness of hell demands that it be represented accurately.  To soften it or make it less than what it is is to remove the urgency of the Bible’s many warnings about it.  How could we possibly be regarded as loving our neighbor if we minimize the gravity of the judgment that awaits them?  Which picture provides a greater incentive to repent – an eternal nap or an eternal, physical, unrelenting torment in a lake of fire?  The irony is that the people who so boldly declare hell to be simply the end of one’s existence are actually aiding the forces of darkness so eager to usher them into the real hell.
The reality of hell makes me shudder for those who will go there.  Our Lord spent far more time warning of the horrors of hell than of the wonders of heaven.  For that reason, I also shudder for those who have gone behind Him, declaring persistently, “Don’t worry.  It won’t be that bad.”

[1] Douglas J. Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 105.

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