Matthew 25 and the difference between traditionalism and annihilationism
Traditionalists often cite Matthew 25:46 as irrefutable proof that Jesus taught that the wicked would be eternally consciously tormented. In that section of Matthew, Jesus tells us that “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory” (25:31) and all the nations will gather before him and “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left hand” (25:32-33). To those at his right hand, Jesus will say: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34). But then he will say to those at his left hand: “ You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).
No one doubts that Jesus is teaching us here regarding the final judgment day when God will reveal the grounds upon which some are welcomed into God’s kingdom and others are condemned to the “eternal fire.” In verse 46, Jesus sums up the different state of these two groups. The wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (25:46).
With this text in mind, traditionalists frequently assert that the critical distinction between the two primary evangelical understandings of hell is that traditionalists believe that the wicked will be punished with conscious suffering forever in hell, whereas annihilationists believe that the wicked will only be punished for a limited amount of time and then they will be destroyed. Put in those terms, the choice is simple, for Bible believing Christians: given a choice between the belief that hell (the final judgment) is eternal and the belief that hell has a limited duration, we must accept what Jesus said and affirm traditionalism.
The serious misrepresentation of annihilationism in common traditionalist analyses
What seemed an obvious difference between these two views concerning the nature of hell is in fact a false dichotomy. The mistake derives from a traditionalist assumption that the penalty God lays upon the wicked is conscious suffering. Since the punishment of hell is eternal, then the conscious suffering of the wicked must be endless. But annihilationists point out that the emphasis in Scripture, from the warning in Eden, through the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, to the description of final judgment is not conscious suffering but death.
Ironically, the two evangelistic texts I heard most frequently in my youth, when I had no idea that anyone but traditionalists existed within Christianity, were John 3:16 and Romans 6:23. From Jesus, I learned that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Of course, we all knew what “perishing” means, it is eternal conscious suffering. Now I think it surprising that I was never struck by the strangeness of two factors in that reading of the text. First, I don’t recall anyone asking how the wicked could be conscious of suffering endlessly if they had “perished” and, second, none of us wondered how the conscious suffering of the wicked could be endless if only believers receive eternal life. But that is the immense power of tradition. When you are a child and no one you know and respect believes that hell is anything but eternal conscious suffering, you have no context for puzzlement when you memorize a text that speaks very differently.
The same thing happened, of course, with regard to Romans 6:23. I memorized it as one of the key texts to share with unbelievers. Paul said that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In verse 21, Paul had said the “end” of the sins we commit is “death,” and he contrasts this with the advantage which comes to those who “have been freed from sin and enslaved to God. They get sanctification, and their “end is eternal life” (6:22). None of that is difficult language to understand but, of course, I knew that “death” means eternal conscious suffering and the endless life which the wicked experience cannot, therefore, really be considered “life.” Hmm! It is interesting the contortions we go through to conform the world to our preconceptions.
Traditionalists might observe that Jesus not only predicted “eternal punishment” (Mt 25:46), he identified that punishment as consignment to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). Although I am not convinced by Thomas Talbott’s case for universal salvation (much as I would like to be), I think he is correct in his comments regarding “eternal fire.” To speak of something as eternal, in the New Testament, is often a way of saying that it has its “causal source in the eternal God himself” (The Inescapable Love of God, 87). Thus, when “the letter of Jude describes that fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as ‘eternal fire,’ the point is not that the fire literally burns forever without consuming the cities; it is not that the fire continues to burn even today. The point is that the fire is a form of divine judgment upon those cities, a foreshadowing of eschatological judgment, that has its causal source in the eternal God himself” (Talbott, Inescapable Love, 87-88).
But if the wicked perish, die, and do not live endlessly, then what are we to make of Jesus‘ statement in Matthew 25:46 that they are sent into “eternal punishment?” If Scripture clearly taught elsewhere that the wicked are eternally consciously tormented, then we would know that it is not just an irrevocable, endless punishment that is the penalty for sin, it is the endless conscious experience of being punished. I suggest, however, that, were it not for the traditionalist reading of Rev 14:11 and 20:10, coupled with Mark 9:46, and for the centuries long belief in the inherent immortality or indestructibility of the soul, we would not have gone there. I don’t deny the great importance of these texts in this discussion, but that is not what we are working on here.
What I am focusing on now is that annihilationists do not believe that the punishment of the wicked is temporary, and that God destroys them after they have served their sentence. We believe that the penalty for sin is death, and that if we do not appropriate the payment of that penalty for sinners by Jesus, in his death on the cross, then we will ultimately die the second death, being destroyed in both body and soul, in hell (Mt 10:28). God raises everyone from the dead, both the righteous and wicked, but this is for the purpose of revealing his justice in the eternal sentence, whether life or death, which will be given to each person.
So the situation is not one in which death comes after punishment, death is the punishment for sin. But, if traditionalists are wrong to identify the eternal punishment with conscious suffering rather than death, then why not assert that God instantly destroys the wicked at the moment that he declares their sentence?
The purpose of the conscious suffering of the wicked after the final judgment
All annihilationists agree that the second death (Rev 2:11; 20:14), complete destruction, is the end of the wicked. This is what God warned Adam and Eve about and throughout Scripture, the predominant description of God’s punishment of the wicked is death, destruction, perishing, by contrast with the immortality and life which God graciously gives to all who die in Christ. But there are differences of opinion among annihilationists about exactly how that destruction will come about. Some have even denied that the wicked will be raised from the dead at the end of this age (a position dubbed “conditionalist uniresurrectionism” by Kendall Harmon [in Univeralism and the Doctrine of Hell, 197), but that is not a position we find asserted within evangelical conditionalism. Differences arise more often in regard to the scenario for the wicked after the judgment and before they are finally punished with death.
I am among the group of annihilationists who believe that the wicked will experience some conscious suffering after their death sentence is pronounced. About the annihilation of the wicked, I have no doubt whatever, but I am less certain about exactly how that will come about. So, I’m speaking more speculatively now, but I have reasons for picturing the scenario as I do.
My first reason is a belief in degrees of guilt which lead to degrees of divine punishment. I share with many others a biblically informed sense of justice which leads me to expect that the evil done by the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Idi Amin deserves a more extreme sentence than that of the young child who knows that he sinned when he told an occasional untruth in spite of his conscience having urged him otherwise. That young child is guilty of very minor moral infractions by comparison with these noted historical figures, and God will deal with these people appropriately, in perfect justice (cf. Mt 10:15; 11:22-24; 12:41, 42; Lk 10:13–35; 11:29–32; 12:47,48; 19:17; Rom 2:5-9; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 2:23; 22:12).
Since all unrepentant sinners must ultimately be punished with death, the degrees of their blatant rebellion against God have to be addressed in the conscious suffering of God’s holy wrath (his consuming fire [Deut 4: 24; Heb 12:29]). The difference between “deeds done in the body” is not insignificant in God’s final outpouring of wrath upon the unrighteous. Where capital punishment is the sentence for a crime like murder, the person who murdered one individual, and the person who was a serial killer who enjoyed torturing people before he put them to death, ultimately get the same sentence – death. In the human justice system, this may leave us feeling some dissatisfaction, but God avoids that problem by varying the temporal punishment that leads up to, indeed that brings about, the final one, the just sentence of death.
I suggest that there is another factor which may have a part in the difference of the post-judgment conscious experience of the wicked. In addition to the degrees of evil done by God’s moral creatures, something else may be at work here as well, degrees of the hardness of heart. I see the two of these as closely related. If you take a number of different substances and throw them into a fire, they will not all survive the flames for the same amount of time. Paper will go very quickly and plastic will melt down rather fast. Wood will last longer but nowhere near as long as metal, and different metals have different resistance levels to the fire. In the case of the wicked, there are degrees of animosity to God. Some people are aware of having violated their consciences (incurring “subjective guilt,” which is the standard by which God will judge us, cf. Rom 14:13-23), but they have little or no sense of God or of having broken his law. Others hate God and are determined to foil his purposes as much as they can. The supreme example of this, of course, is Satan, the arch-enemy of God, the Adversary who has been deliberately at war with God ever since he tempted the first human pair.
It seems highly plausible to me that the consuming fire of God’s wrath, while being justly proportionate in its response to the evil done by his creatures, will be more rapidly effective in destroying those who are meeting it for the first time that they are conscious of having been opposed to God himself, than it will be with those who have consciously hated God and fought him for many years and on many occasions. People in the first group will be like paper in fire, but those in the latter group, including the demons, will have built a strength of resistance which will make them more able to withstand the wrath of God. Ultimately, their resistance will be overcome but it will take longer and take much more intense heat to bring about their destruction. I hear this in the prophecy of Malachi: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire” (Mal 3:2). Granted, Malachi is specifically predicting the purifying effect of God’s holy fire in the case of those whom God is sanctifying, but that same holiness will destroy the unredeemed wicked who despise rather than worship God in his holiness.
Parents are familiar with this on the human level. There are children who are naturally compliant, for whom the very thought of disappointing or grieving their parents is sufficient to keep them from being disobedient. But then there are hard cases, children who seem bent on defiance and disobey openly and belligerently and in your face. Finding ways to curb the rebellion and to deter the disobedience of such children is a huge challenge for parents who encounter it, and the same pertains to governments with their citizens.
So, I envision a situation in which God’s sentence and its just grounds will be revealed on the final judgment day. For all the unrepentant wicked, the bottom line of that sentence will be death, the second death (destruction, perishing). That death will be brought about by the encounter with God’s holiness which, for the wicked, has the character of consuming (rather than refining) fire. It will take longer for some than others, and it will take more “heat” for some than for others, but eventually there will be none left in all of God’s creation who resist him and war against him. By the time all evil creatures are destroyed, every one of them will have conceded that Jesus is Lord and King, and they will have bowed their knee to him (Phil 2:9-11), even though it will be with hatred in their hearts. But finally sin will have been removed completely from God’s creation and once again God will be able to look upon everything he has made and pronounce it all “very good.” Then even death will be no more for, like hades, the place of the dead, it will have been destroyed (Rev 20:14). That is God’s last enemy (Rom 15:26). In the case of those who die at peace with God, having yielded to him in whatever way he had made himself known to them, death is overcome by the gift of immortality and eternal life. In the case of the wicked, however, sin and death are only fully defeated when their power is lost because there are none left alive who deserve to die.