The Unfaithful Suffer
Another harmful doctrine among some conditionalists is the belief that death is instant. Since traditionalists can easily show some suffering, many claim they refute our whole case. This also keeps people from honestly examining conditionalism.
A more important reason this belief is harmful is because some do not take the threat seriously. Hell is a horrible fate, so we must warn nonbelievers about it. Many writers in the Bible make it clear that nonbelievers will suffer. Jesus left no doubt that the unjust would suffer, so we will examine what He says about torment for those who turn away.
More Profitable that One of Your Members Perish than Your Whole Body
"If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell." Matthew 5:29-30
Jesus plainly says hell will be worse than losing an eye or a hand. He also says it is better to be crippled in this life and spend eternity in heaven than to miss out on heaven. While this shows the seriousness of judgment, it does not prove everlasting torment. A more important Scripture is Mark 9:43-48, which we analyze in the next chapter.
Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
Jesus also warns many times about weeping and gnashing of teeth. Although this suggests nonbelievers will suffer, Jesus never says weeping and gnashing of teeth last throughout eternity, nor does anyone else. In fact, Psalm 112:10 says, "He will gnash his teeth and melt away . . ."
Better if He Had Not Been Born (Matthew 26:24)
Jesus said this when Judas was about to betray Him. This shows Judas will stand before God at the judgment. Since even temporary torment is worse than never being born, this does not prove everlasting torment.
Degrees of Punishment
Some passages show different levels of punishment. For example, Jesus says the day of judgment will be more tolerable for some than for others (Matthew 11:21-24).
Another example is Luke 12:47-48, where Jesus says, "And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few."
Traditionalists use passages like Luke 12:47-48 to support everlasting torment. If their belief is correct, both servants in Luke 12:47-48 should be beaten endlessly. The words many and few are not specific, though both are limited. The important message is that the punishment is worse for some than for others. While they all suffer, their fate is death.
As we saw in the previous chapter, Jesus already paid the penalty for those who accept His free gift. If this punishment is endless torment, then Jesus should still be in torment. While sinners only pay the penalty for their own sins (Ezekiel 18:20), Jesus paid the penalty for many, and His suffering ended.
Satan should get the worst penalty. Ezekiel 28:13-19 foretells the end of him. Although this passage addresses Tyre, it also refers to Satan. He was the serpent in Eden that tempted Eve (verse 13). (Compare Genesis 3 to Revelation 20:2.)
Ezekiel 28:17-19 says, "Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; You corrupted your wisdom . . . Therefore I brought fire from your midst; It devoured you, And I turned you to ashes upon the earth . . . you have become a horror, And shall be no more forever." Since Satan will be wiped out of existence, his followers will not receive worse punishment. We will now examine the final state for nonbelievers.
They will Perish
The Bible repeatedly says nonbelievers will perish. According to 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, this means to die without hope of resurrection. This is the fate of nonbelievers who die the second death, since there will not be a resurrection from the second death. Some warnings about perishing also say they die like beasts:
Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish . . . A man who is in honor, yet does not understand, Is like the beasts that perish. Psalm 49:12, 20
But these, like natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed, speak evil of the things they do not understand, and will utterly perish in their own corruption . . . 2 Peter 2:12
Some would say this is only talking about the first death for nonbelievers. This does not make sense because many Christian martyrs die horrible deaths. In these cases, their death is worse than the death of nonbelievers.
The crucial difference between humans dying and beasts dying is that humans will live again. The above warnings cannot refer to the first death, since everyone will be resurrected. When God warns that nonbelievers will perish like beasts, this must refer to the judgment. The most logical interpretation is that consciousness ends when sinners die the second death, the same way consciousness ends for beasts.
Consumed, Devoured and Burned Up
The Bible uses many terms to express the utter destruction of the wicked. When we take the Bible literally, it does not imply everlasting consciousness. Here are a few examples of the many Scriptures supporting an end of existence:
May sinners be consumed from the earth, And the wicked be no more. Psalm 104:35
Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors. Psalm 73:18-19
For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up . . . That will leave them neither root nor branch. Malachi 4:1
But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men . . . But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. 2 Peter 3:7, 10
But the whole land shall be devoured By the fire of His jealousy, For he will make a speedy riddance Of all those who dwell in the land. Zephaniah 1:18
Destroyed and Forgotten
As we saw above, Scriptures show the unrepentant will pass away. The Bible also says they will be forgotten:
You have rebuked the nations, You have destroyed the wicked; You have blotted out their name forever and ever. O enemy, destructions are finished forever! And you have destroyed cities; even their memory has perished. But the Lord shall endure forever; . . . Psalm 9:5-7
Because the former troubles are forgotten, And because they are hidden from My eyes. For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Isaiah 65:16-17
They are dead, they will not live; They are deceased, they will not rise. Therefore You have punished and destroyed them, And made all their memory to perish. Isaiah 26:14
Yes, they shall drink, and swallow, And they shall be as though they had never been. Obadiah 16
And He will destroy on this mountain The surface of the covered cast over all people, And the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever, And the Lord will wipe away tears from all faces; The rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken. Isaiah 25:7-8
Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea . . . And God will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away . . . Behold, I make all things new. Revelation 21:1, 4, 5
According to 1 Corinthians 15:26, the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Isaiah 25:8 and Revelation 21:4 also say there will be no more death. If nonbelievers were still conscious and spiritually dead, there would still be death. Since the lake of fire is the second death (Revelation 20:14), then the lake of fire will no longer exist, nor will anyone who is thrown into it. If there is no more death, then the dead are no more.
There will also be an end to sin (Daniel 9:24). One of the commandments is not to take the Lord's name in vain (Exodus 20:7), and people blaspheme God when they suffer wrath (Revelation 16:9, 11, 21). If people suffer throughout eternity, they will continue to blaspheme God and there will be no end to sin, contradicting Daniel 9:24. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and there will be no more death.
Revelation 21:4 also says there will be no more sorrow, or crying, or pain. If nonbelievers were still alive in the lake of fire, there would be sorrow, crying, and pain. While many say this verse only refers to believers, they have family and friends who would suffer, and believers could not be happy while their loved ones continue to suffer.
Extinct or Still Suffering?
The Bible repeatedly says the righteous will forget about the unrighteous. According to traditionalists, this means believers will be happy because they will be unaware that nonbelievers are still suffering. The Bible also says God will reveal everything to us (Matthew 10:26, Luke 12:2, 1 Corinthians 4:5, etc.).
These passages strongly suggest they will be no more:
For evildoers shall be cut off; But those who wait on the Lord, They shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; Indeed you look carefully for his place, But it shall be no more . . . But the wicked shall perish; And the enemies of the Lord, Like the splendor of the meadows, shall vanish. Into smoke they shall vanish away . . . When the wicked are cut off you shall see it. I have seen the wicked in great power, And spreading himself like a native green tree. Yet he passed away, and behold, he was no more; Indeed I sought him, but he could not be found . . . But the transgressors shall be destroyed together; The future of the wicked shall be cut off. Psalm 37:9-10, 20, 34-36, 38
Behold, all those who were incensed against you Shall be ashamed and disgraced; They shall be as nothing, And those who strive with you shall perish. You shall seek them and not find them -- Those who contend with you. Those who war against you Shall be as nothing, As a nonexistent thing. Isaiah 41:11-12
While some scholars insist nonbelievers will be suffering somewhere unknown to the faithful, this is not a reasonable interpretation of Psalm 37. Verse 10 says the wicked shall be no more, then says you will look carefully for his place, then says his place shall be no more. Verse 36 says he passed away and was no more, then says I sought him and he could not be found; verse 38 says they are destroyed together and their future will be cut off.
Psalm 37 does not say believers already forgot about them; it says the faithful will look for them, yet not find them. Statements saying they could not be found are surrounded by statements that they will be no more. The reason they cannot be found is because they no longer exist.
Isaiah 41:11-12 follows the same pattern. Verse 11 says they shall be as nothing; verse 12 says you will seek them and not find them, then says they shall be as nothing and as a nonexistent thing. We can only conclude that these passages mean total extinction.
The Bible Compared to Other Writings
While numerous passages imply the dead will cease to exist, traditionalists do not agree. They claim words like destruction meant everlasting torment to the culture, tradition, and historical setting of the time they were written.
It is easy to show that traditionalists are very selective about which Bible verses they choose to discuss, since Bibles are available. On the other hand, it takes more effort to show how selective they are about other ancient writings. Even this is easier today, since more writings are available to the public.
One example is the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in Hebrew and Aramaic by the Essenes. They show many did not believe in everlasting torment. This passage clearly distinguishes between torment and destruction:
. . . And all the ages of their generations they shall spend in bitter weeping and harsh evils in the abysses of darkness until their destruction, without there being a remnant or a survivor among them. 1QS 4.13-14
If destruction and bitter weeping are the same, then this passage does not make sense. The word until implies there will be a change. The writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls believed destruction meant an end to bitter weeping. They believed the unfaithful would cease to exist, just as the Old Testament says so many times and so many different ways.
This also holds when we compare the New Testament to other Greek writings. Evangelical author Edward Fudge wrote a compelling case for conditional immortality. He cites two well-known books published over 100 years ago showing strong arguments for conditional immortality.1
They compare the New Testament to earlier well-known Greek writings. One example was Plato's Phaedo, which spoke of the death of Socrates. Socrates welcomed death because he believed his immortal soul would be released from the imprisonment of his body.
Socrates' friend, Cebes, disagreed and said the soul would no longer exist after death. When we examine Paulís writings, we see that he uses the same Greek words to describe the second death that Cebes uses to describe physical death.
Plato stated many times that everyone has an immortal soul. He believed some souls would suffer endlessly because they possess immortality and are indestructible. None of the words he uses to describe the soul are in the New Testament to describe the present or future condition of the lost.
Plato and the Bible say the exact opposite things. Plato says the soul would never perish, die or be destroyed; Paul uses the same Greek words to describe the destiny of those who resist God. Plato says the soul [psuche] cannot see death [thanatos]; James 5:19-20 says when we turn a sinner from error, we save a soul [psuche] from death [thanatos].
Although the New Testament contradicts traditionalism, it agrees with those who did not believe in any conscious life after death. The Sadducees were Jews with this belief, while the Epicureans were Greeks with the same belief. The Sadducees and the Epicureans use the same Greek words to describe the first death that the New Testament uses to describe the second death.
The language of the New Testament clearly disagrees with the philosophers who believe the soul is always conscious (Socrates and Plato), and agrees with those who believe consciousness ends at death (Cebes, the Sadducees, and the Epicureans). This powerful correlation strongly supports conditionalism. The fact that traditionalists have never responded to these arguments only strengthens the case.
Arguments Against Annihilation
According to laws of science, annihilation is impossible. Things do not disintegrate; they only change form. One example is something burning up. Rather than disappear, it changes to ashes, heat and smoke. Traditionalists claim words like destroy and perish never mean annihilation in the strict sense of the word.
This is either a clever deception, or further proof that they do not understand conditionalism. They are correct when they say the Bible does not support annihilation; they are wrong to imply that Scripture does not support conditional immortality. Conditionalism is not the belief that physical remains disintegrate; it is the belief that consciousness will end for the unfaithful. Extinction is a better word than annihilation.
When something burns up, are the remaining ashes in conscious torment? Broken vessels (Psalm 31:12), ruined wineskins (Matthew 9:17), moth-eaten cloth (Luke 12:33), and spoiled meat (John 6:27) are not in conscious torment, yet traditionalists claim nonbelievers are conscious throughout eternity because these materials are not annihilated.
A better example is a beast dying. Using the logic of traditionalists, we would conclude that the beast is still conscious because the physical body remains. Unless traditionalists believe this, they must acknowledge that warnings about nonbelievers perishing like beasts (Psalm 49:12, 20; 2 Peter 2:12) support conditionalism.
The language in the Bible for utter destruction is extensive. R. F. Weymouth, Greek scholar and translator of the New Testament, clearly expresses how irrational the traditional viewpoint is:
My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying 'destroy', or 'destruction', are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this.
In the next chapter, we discuss how God will destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
1Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, 1994, p. 166-167. He refers to two books: Edward White, Life in Christ (1878); and Henry Constable, Duration and Nature of Future Punishment (1886).
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