“Hell” in the “Other” Epistles

If you are one of the few people who continue to read what I write (and the stats page on my wordpress dashboard indicates that you guys continue to diminish in number with every post), then I want to say thank you for giving this amateur theologian a fair hearing. I hope that what I have written has been helpful and/or challenging to you, and I welcome your feedback, whether good or bad. I am about 2/3rds of the way through this experiment of presenting the case for Conditional Immortality in as few of words and with least amount of technical arguing as I can muster without losing the depth of the arguments. After this post, I intend to discuss hell in Revelation (a daunting task to accomplish within a humble blog post lol) and hell in the early church. Should be fun. For those of you (if there are any of you out there) who are seriously considering the Annihilationist view of hell but find my arguments lacking and/or deficient, I invite you to check out rethinking hell.com. The website features articles written by actual scholars (who often interact with other actual scholars), and the resources have helped me tremendously in sorting out my own thinking.

I have previously covered hell in the OT, Jesus, and Paul. This post will cover hell in the other letters (sans Revelation).

Hebrews (The Consuming Fire)

  • 6:1-2: “Therefore let us go on toward perfection,[a] leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” The resurrection and the final judgment are among the basic foundations of the Christian faith. Every man will rise from their graves to face the creator of the universe and his perfect judgment. “Eternal judgment” (judgment) need not mean the eternal torment of those who are judged unfavorably, at least not without further questioning. As with eternal punishment in Matthew 25:46, the adjective aiónios modifies a noun of action (judgment). What is unique about this arrangement of words is that eternal may refer either to the process of judging or to the result of judging. In other words, God may judge people for all eternity, or God may judge once and the result of this judgment will be eternal. This is a phenomenon recognized by linguists and grammarians, and Hebrews 9:12 (“eternal redemption”), as an example of an eternal result, shows that this grammatical rule holds true even in Koine Greek. Additionally, the writer of Hebrews may have intended eternal to mean that the judgment will be “divine in nature” or “divine in origin,” as the New Testament authors sometimes apply the word. If you desire more information, I have written about this subject in “How Eternal is Eternal?”. Also, this article at rethinking hell further explains and defends this reading of aiónios: http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2015/10/why-j-i-packer-is-still-wrong-a-response-to-tgc-part-1
  • 6:7-8: “Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.” Chapter 6 continues with a warning to believers who are perhaps considering walking away from the faith and turning back to their old ways of life. This warning expands into a metaphor in which those disciples who claim to know Christ, but produce no fruit, are compared to ground that “produces thorns and thistles.” Thorns and thistles hark back to the original curse resulting from sin entering the world in the creation narrative (Gen 3:18). These prickly plants serve as symbols for land made desolate by God (Isaiah 34:13) as well as representing related concepts such as the consequences of sin. Like the many instances where thorns and thistles are said to be destined for fire (Ps. 58:9, Ecc. 7:6, Is. 9:18, Is. 10:17, Is. 27:4, Is. 33:12), those who will not heed Hebrew’s warning will meet their end by being burned by fire. This is reminiscent of the many warnings in which Jesus used the imagery of weeds consumed by fire to describe the fate of those who reject him. There is not any thing here that suggests that we should take the imagery of ground that produces thorns or thistles being burned as though it means anything other than the consuming fire that the Bible so often describes.
  • 10:27-31: “26 For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 29 How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” Those who willfully persist in sin will one day face “a fury of fire that will consume” them. This is most likely an allusion to the fate of Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10:2, when “fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” This is the same consuming fire that is found within the pages of the OT and taught by Jesus and Paul to be the final fate of the wicked. To say that the fire of God’s presence will ultimately destroy whatever is unholy yet torment unbelievers for eternity, as many promoters of the “traditional” view of hell have done, is to ignore the vast amount of evidence that speaks of this fire as having the same properties that normal fires have, not some strange fire that acts in direct contrast to ancient caveman physics. As the writer of Hebrews goes on to later write, “for indeed our God is a consuming fire”.
  • 10:39: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” The writer of Hebrews uses the same word (apollymi) that Paul so often used to say that sinners will eventually “perish”. Though apollymiis used for ruined wineskins (Matt. 9:17) and spoiled food (John 6:12), it most often is used to indicate death. See my notes under the subtitle “Romans 2:12, Philippians 1:28, 3:19 (apollymi—perish, destruction)” in The Case for Annihilationism in the Teachings of Paul for more information.
  • 12:25, 29: “25 See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! […] 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” The writer of Hebrews continues with the imagery of a consuming fire, and, in accordance with the overarching theme of the letter, contrasts the old and new covenants. If those who were warned by Moses were held accountable for refusing God, then those who refuse the warnings of Jesus in heaven will surely not escape. The punishment for these people is reserved for the moment they come face to face with God Himself and meet their end in His consuming fire. As previously mentioned in 6:7-8 and 10:27-31, the imagery of a consuming fire (sometimes described as an unquenchable or inexhaustible fire) is expressed in numerous places in the OT as a fire that utterly consumes whatever is thrown into it. By writing “our God is a consuming fire,” Hebrews wants us to acknowledge that it is God’s own holy presence that will result in the wicked being reduced to “ashes” (Malachi 4:3).

James (Death)

  • 1:15: “sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” From what we can gather from this letter, James knew people who thought God Himself was the one who tempted them to sin. James responds by stating that no man or woman should say God is tempting him or her, “for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” (v. 13) Instead, these people should recognize that it is their own desires that tempt them. Furthermore, when this desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it fully matures, gives birth to death. Death is then the offspring of evil desires, not God, and it is the end destination and consequence reserved for those who follow in its footsteps. Death does not communicate much about the final fate of he wicked by itself. Instead, we should notice that the rest of James helps define “death” by the use of “slaughter” and “destruction.” James also never goes beyond this bare description of the sinner’s fate into the apocalyptic language of eternal torment. The most likely reason for this is that James, like Paul and Jesus, does not hold to the view of eternal conscious torment. It would hardly take any effort on James’s part to write “sin gives birth to an eternity in hell” in place of “sin…gives birth to death.”
  • 4:12: “12 There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy.” Following a warning to not judge one’s neighbor, James writes verse 12, essentially saying that God is the only one who can truly judge and thereby the only one who can truly “save” and “destroy.” These are the two contrasting fates available to mankind. Once again, the word for destroy is apollymi, Paul’s word of choice to describe the fate of the wicked in Romans 2:12, Philippians 1:28, and 3:19. Its most natural meaning and most common usage is death. James may have this particular teaching by Jesus in mind: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body…” (Matt. 10:28). For James, “destroy” most likely means a permanent death after which a person will never rise again.
  • 5:3-5: “Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” The wicked rich will one day be judged, says James. Their riches, built up from corrupt business practices, will “eat” their “flesh like fire.” They have fattened themselves for slaughter. Like death and destruction, the wicked are reserved for “slaughter”. Amos 4:1-3, Jude 10, and 2 Peter 2:12 all share James’s imagery of humans as animals going to be slaughtered due to their injustice.
  • 5:19-20: “19 My brothers and sisters,[g] if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s[h] soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” “Death” neither adds nor subtracts from what James has previously said regarding the eventual fate of the wicked. The unfortunate translation choice of “soul” implies a bunch of dualistic stuff that would have been foreign to James, but, even if we do have “a soul,” James says this too will suffer death. Either way, death, or a fate comparable to/similar to death, is the outcome.

2 Peter (Destruction, OT Prototypes, Ashes, Extinction, Death)

  • 2:1-13: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers[a] the way of truth will be maligned. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell[b] and committed them to chains[c] of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment; and if he did not spare the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly; and if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction[d] and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly;[e] and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by their lawless deeds that he saw and heard), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment 10 —especially those who indulge their flesh in depraved lust, and who despise authority.
Bold and willful, they are not afraid to slander the glorious ones,[f] 11 whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not bring against them a slanderous judgment from the Lord.[g] 12 These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand, and when those creatures are destroyed,[h] they also will be destroyed, 13 suffering[i] the penalty for doing wrong.” This section of 2 Peter offers us plenty of gold to mine:
  • First off, the false teachers of verse 1 will eventually bring destruction (apōleia) on themselves (v. 1,3). This is the same word that Paul makes use of regarding sinners suffering the just penalty of death, and it is the same word we have seen used previously in this post. The most natural meaning of this word is death, as I mentioned when discussing Hebrews 10:39.
  • Second, translators frustratingly render Tartarus as “hell,” which often conjures up images in the minds of readers of brimstone and hellfire and anything pertaining to one’s own predetermined view of hell. (If you have read my post on Gehenna, or really anything that ventures into the depths of hell, you will recognize that translators make the same translation decision when it comes to translating Gehenna as hell whenever Jesus invokes the symbolism of the valley outside of Jerusalem!) This Tartarus, borrowed from Greek mythology, is the place where fallen angels are held as prisoners until the final judgment. This says nothing about the fate of humans post-judgment and therefore adds little to the discussion of defining hell.
  • Third, the writer of 2 Peter gives two examples of the condemnation (v. 3) these false teachers will one day face. The first is the Flood account from the creation narrative, and the second is the “extinction” of Sodom and Gomorrah, both of which I note in Judgment OT serve as prototypes of the final judgment. One can hardly fail to notice that the end results of both of these acts of judgment were death. In verse 6, 2 Peter goes further by explicitly stating that, “by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly.” The language here is unmistakably in favor of annihilationism. God reducing these cities to ashes, and consequently the inhabitants of these cities, serves as an example of the condemnation of “extinction” that the false teachers will one day face.
  • Fourth, Paul compares these false teachers to wild animals, “born to be caught and killed,” to be “destroyed,” to meet the same fate. By the act of perishing and of being destroyed, these teachers will suffer “the penalty for doing wrong.” These words are strangely reminiscent of Paul’s words in Romans 6:23, where he writes, “the wages of sin is death.” Like Paul, 2 Peter does not promote eternal conscious torment as the penalty for sin.
  • 3:5-10: “…by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[b] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire…” Scoffers (v. 3-4) may ridicule the beliefs of the church, saying that the world will continue on as it has before. 2 Peter reminds these people that those who perished in the Flood were of the same mind. One day, the world will be destroyed once again, but this time by fire. In response, some people accuse The Lord of being “slow about his promise,” yet 2 Peter says that this slowness should rather be regarded as patience. God is patient regarding the destruction of the world by fire, for He does not desire that any person perish, but that all come to repentance. The implication then, is that the same fire that will consume the heavens and the earth will also cause the ungodly to “perish.”

Jude (Sodom, Darkness, Fire)

  • 4-7: “For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.[f] 5 Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved[g] a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust,[h] serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Jude here responds to a group of people who pervert the grace of God into permission for immorality and lawlessness. These people are already destined for condemnation (v. 4), and Jude reminds them of the punishment that will eventually come their way. Jude uses three examples of God punishing immoral sinners in the past. The first example is of God destroying unbelievers following the exodus of Israel from Egypt (1 Cor. 10:5-11; Heb. 3:16-19). The second example is of disobedient angels imprisoned until the Day of Judgment. The third example is of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire,” the same eternal fire that the grace-perverters will one day be subject to. The word for “example,” deigma, means exactly what we think it means in English. “Though the precise word appears only here in the New Testament, several other forms of it are used elsewhere. Yet deigmatizō (Col. 2:15), paradeigmatizō (Matt. 1:19; Heb. 9:9) and hypodeigma (John 13:15; Heb. 4:11; 8:5; 9:23; James 5:10; 2 Pet. 2:6) all speak of “examples,” whether of good or bad. Nor does Jude say that Sodomites are a vague and general example of those who actually will suffer the punishment of eternal life, but that they themselves exemplify that very punishment.”[1]
  • 13: “…for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.” What darkness is darker than the darkness of non-existence? Darkness, as a Biblical symbol and theme, can yield several possible meanings and nuances depending on its context. Here, we see the context of darkness is an eschatological darkness, a darkness that will be experienced by the same people who suffer the punishment of an eternal fire that consumes totally and completely (v. 7). Using darkness as a symbol of nonexistence has a biblical basis. In Job 3:3-10, Job wishes he were never born. He wishes darkness would consume the day, so that he would have never had to exist.
  • 23: “23 save others by snatching them out of the fire…” This expression is rooted in the OT prophets. In Amos 4:11, Amos tells a remnant that they “were like a brand snatched from the fire,” “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.” In Zechariah 3:2, God rebukes Satan, “Is not this man [Joshua the high priest] a brand plucked from the fire?” In this instance, the fire was the Babylonian Exile, a perilous event that resulted in the death of many Jews. Joshua, by being “plucked from the fire,” was therefore saved from death. Taking all of this into account, death is the fate Jude has in mind that those in Christ should labor to save others from.

Conclusion

These sections of Scripture pertaining to the final judgment are largely among the least controversial (though still controversial) and debated (though still debated) descriptions of the fate of the wicked. Unlike the more disputed passages in the synoptic gospels and the rather un-detailed passages in Paul, these NT letters set out death and destruction and consummation by fire as the judgment reserved for sinners. Furthermore, sinners are like animals to be slaughtered, and their end will be like those who lived in Sodom and feasted in Gomorrah. Like the OT, Jesus, and Paul before, all of these words point to Annhilationism.

 

 

[1] Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. 2e, pg. 286

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