Best of Bweinh! — Is Hell Eternal?

March 4, 2008, 5:30 pm; posted by
Filed under David, Debate, Job  | 2 Comments

In this corner, arguing that hell is finite, is Job!

And in this corner, arguing that hell is eternal, is Dave!

I hail from the Advent Christian denomination, the Millennium Falcon of Protestants — old and small. Two main tenets from our statement of faith create the most distance between us and the Empire.

First, we believe in “soul sleep” — a person doesn’t immediately ascend or descend to heaven or hell but remains, well, dead (1 Thessalonians 4:16) until Christ’s return and the subsequent judgment. Second, we don’t believe hell lasts forever, as some might imagine. We believe that when Matthew writes that “these (the wicked) will go away into eternal punishment,” he means eternal destruction (not necessarily torment) and separation from God.

Let me clarify that point. My opposition would seem to read that verse to mean the wicked will go away into an eternal life of punishment; I read it to say the end of their lives is the punishment. While neither of these Adventist points pertain to salvation and are best summed up as “splitting hairs,” they are, nevertheless, important for Christians to discuss because of the way the world has begun to paint our views. This point can lead to the larger and more relevant debate — how else is our faith colored by things other than Scripture?

Be it Gary Larson’s Far Side or the iconic film It’s a Wonderful Life, we — and the world — have begun to view both heaven and hell through the filter of modern fiction, lore and whimsy. The idea of the torment one might receive eternally in hell or the bliss awaiting in heaven is largely produced by our “Mind’s Eye.” Lava, steam, wailing, pitchforks? Clouds, togas, gold, pearly gates? With this as our tapestry of thought, our theology tends to coordinate itself with it. I don’t think anyone would argue accuracy has been the foremost concern of Christianity over the past few centuries.

But rather than deferring to Dante, I note instead the words of the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians (1:8-10) — “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord, and from the majesty of His power on the day He comes to be glorified in His holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.”

While I can find a duality of thought in some verses, this one is far too straightforward to be renegotiated per the notion that the damned are due the déjà  vu of recurrent scorched skin. Paul infers nothing but a totality of dismissal from consciousness. I think the word “everlasting” is employed here and elsewhere concerning the afterlife because of the pagan religious thinking that Thessalonica and other locations were prone to. The idea of a soul as a cockroach, able to scurry under the fridge of malleable consequences, was one Paul was urgent to dispel. And it’s making a comeback.

While I have already noted that our main concern should be what happens here in the fourth quarter, not in the locker room after the game, take it from Chewbacca — things are not always as you’ve always thought them to be.

“There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than [hell], if it lay in my power…”
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

In 1793 William Blake published The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Although he confessed ambiguity over Blake’s meaning, C.S. Lewis intended and entitled The Great Divorce as a response of sorts; in his view, the inhabitants of Heaven and hell could never be reconciled, for they are ever growing further apart, not closer. It’s a salient point in whether hell is eternal — if hell is temporary, we must assume that either its inhabitants are, in some fashion, being reformed, with an eye toward reuniting them with the inhabitants of Heaven — or their immortal soul has to be destroyed, allowing it to escape eternal damnation through annihilation. Is there some hint in the Bible of a place where such reconciliation could be accomplished? Is there evidence for annihilation to render Hell temporary?

First let me make clear that my belief in eternal hell is not based on Lewis’s work or personal preference, but the authority of the Bible. It is stated clearly in Matthew 25:46 that “these [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The word eternal, used twice, is the same word in the Greek and carries the same meaning in both phrases. The punishments of hell are just as eternal for the wicked as eternal life is for the righteous, whether we consider purgatory or annihilation. Other references, including Mark 9:42-48, Luke 16:19-31, 2 Thess. 1:8,9, Jude 7-13, and Rev. 14:9-11, affirm that Hell and its attendant punishments are eternal.

The only Christian doctrine to support a temporary rehabilitation arrangement after death is purgatory. This is a doctrine of the Catholic Church whereby God takes people at death and holds them in torment until someone ransoms them. Originally this could be accomplished through prayers and good deeds on their behalf, but during fundraising for St. Peter’s Basilica, the church shifted its preference to cash.

Any attempt to make hell less than permanent on the basis of reforming the wicked completely removes the belief in hell, leaving us with Heaven and purgatory. But this would be purgatory even the Catholic Church does not believe in, for in their doctrine, purgatory is purification the believer undergoes in preparation for Heaven. It’s never portrayed as a place the wicked can go. In Catholic doctrine, no one escapes Hell; only the Christian sees purgatory, then Heaven.

Annihilation is a more modern achievement that rests on two arguments. The first is that God can’t punish finite sins with an infinite Hell, for this would be unfair and disproportionate. But how then can we expect God to reward finite obedience to the Gospel with an infinite Heaven? Each position is taught in equality in Matthew 25; what applies to one certainly would apply to the other.

The second argument is that the Bible doesn’t say all men possess immortality, only God and the righteous. This would mean men would eventually perish and hell would cease to exist. There is more evidence for this, as Scripture does not seem to make any explicit statement that all men possess an immortal soul. But the enormous weight of passages presenting hell as eternal gives sufficient reason to believe it is taught by inference.



2 Comments to “Best of Bweinh! — Is Hell Eternal?”

  1. eric on March 5th, 2008 5:17 am

    Its an interesting debate. We’ll know for sure when its too late to change addresses.

    If one is “down under”, the consequences are not that much different. Just longer or shorter.

    The main thing is to watch this one play out from the safety of heaven!


  2. David on March 11th, 2008 10:45 pm

    I actually came out of this debate much closer to Job’s side. I could not find anywhere in the scriptures where eternal life is promised to anyone but the righteouss. I wasn’t completely converted but enough to say “Almost thou persuadest…”

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