I have been thinking about the nature of hell lately so it was interesting to come to Todd Miles’s thoughts on this subject in chapter 3 of A God of Many Understandings?
Miles suggests that the number of Christians who believe in universalism is growing and that “by the end of the late twentieth century, there was perhaps no traditional doctrine that had been so widely abandoned as that of eternal conscious torment in hell” 97). He sees two categories of universalism, Christian and pluralistic (98). Christian universalists believe that God will graciously bring about the salvation of all humans through Christ’s work. From this perspective, he sees Christianity as the “fulfillment of all the world religions” (98).
The 19th century was a high point for Christians universalists, who formed the Universalist denomination and asserted 5 central tenets: (1) the universal fatherhood of God, (2) the spiritual authority and leadership of Jesus, (3) the trustworthiness of the Bible, (4) the certainty of just retribution for sin, and (5) the final harmony of all souls with God. Among 20th century universalists, Miles sees two approaches: (1) a defense through biblical exegesis, and (2) interpretation of the Bible texts “that speak of an eternal division of the saved and the lost as though they are threats rather than true predictions” (101). More radical apologists, like John A. T. Robinson, openly disagree with the biblical authors.
Theological arguments for universal restoration typically emphasize the sovereign love of God, which eventually woos human rebels to himself. Hell is therefore “remedial and purifying, not punitive” (104). It should be preached because that is one of the means by which sinners are brought to repentance and faith. Texts used to support universal reconciliation include: (1) cosmic restoration texts (Acts 3:21; 1 Cor 15:22-29; Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:19-20), (2) universal salvific desire texts (Rom 11:32; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9), (3) unlimited atonement texts (Jn 12:32; Heb 2:9; 1 Jn 2:2), and (4) results of the atonement texts (Rom 5:12-21; 2 Cor 5:19; 1 Tim 4:10; Titus 2:11; and sometimes 1 Pet 3:18-22).
Miles offers an analysis of these texts (107-14) which I will not rehearse here, but which I commend to you for its care and helpfulness. When read in context, the passages cited by universalists do not support universalism, because their reading of them is dominated and distorted by their theological precommitments (114). It is impossible to suppress the clear biblical testimony to a permanent distinction between the fate of the redeemed and that of the unrepentant wicked, resulting from the justice and righteousness of God who is holy, without detriment to his being loving.
Conditional immortality or annihilationism
Miles is as certain about the wrongness of annihilationism as he is of universalism. So strongly does he believe this that he calls annihilationism a “challenge to the doctrine of hell,” as though it were not a variant of that doctrine rather than a rejection of it (121).
In the Old Testament teaching concerning the fate of the wicked, Miles observes that Sheol, though it is the place of the dead in general, mostly “describes the fate of the wicked.” For them, “it is a fitting destiny” (Num 16:30; 1 Kgs 2:6; Pss 9:17; 49:14; Prov 5:5; Isa 14:11), “while the righteous dread it and hope for deliverance (Pss 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 86:13; Prov 15:24; Hos 13:14)” (123). The New Testament uses Hades in much the same way as the Old Testament used Sheol, though it carries an even more clearly negative sense.
Beginning in the Gospels, Hades is the location of the unrighteous dead, while the righteous go to “paradise” or “Abraham’s side” (Lk 16:23). Further, Hades is explicitly a place of conscious torment for the unrighteous (Lk 16:23; Mt 11:23) (123).
Gehenna, comes from the Hinnom Valley, which was “infamous for its defilement by idolatry, child sacrifice, and the disposal of dead bodies (2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6; cf. 23:10).” In light of prophetic warnings that sins done in the valley would be judged (Jer 7:32; 19:6), Gehenna became associated with fire, judgment, and death and thus a “symbol of eternal judgment” (123).
In addition to those names, the New Testament speaks of hell as “the eternal fire” (Mt 18:8; Jude 7), and “eternal punishment” (Mt 25:46) (124), and Miles notes that, in the latter text, “the same adjective of duration, ai?nion, describes both the punishment of the wicked and the life of the righteous. Whatever the length of eternal life, eternal punishment lasts just as long” (124). The apostle Paul spoke of hell as “eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:8-9) and Hebrews of “eternal judgment” (Heb 6:2).
Hell is spoken of figuratively as fire (Mt 5:22; Rev 20:15) that is unquenchable (Mt 3:12; Mk 9:43; Mk 9:48 cf. Isa 66:24), from which “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever,” leaving “no rest day or night for those who worship the beast or its image” (Rev 14:11), and it is in that “lake of fire and sulfur” that the devil, the beast and the false prophet are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10). Hell is also darkness (2 Pet 2:17; Jude 6) and “outer darkness” (Mt 25:30) involving “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 25:30).
Miles posits that when the descriptions of hell are “taken as a whole,” it is “difficult to conclude that punishment in hell is anything other than eternal and conscious” (129). Consequently, he concludes that people who believe that God ultimately destroys the wicked are motivated by emotion, in demonstration of which he quotes from Clark Pinnock (126-27).
Miles finds divine endless retribution appropriate because sin “against this qualitatively different God, who is infinitely worthy of obedience, . . . merits an infinite punishment” (132), and he wonders “if conditionalists underestimate the sinfulness of human sin and rebellion” (132). Rightly, he calls upon us not to question “God’s righteous judgments or His fair and equitable punishments” (133).
Reflections on Miles’s perspective
I think that Miles offers a helpful description and critique of universalism, but his work on annihilationism is less satisfactory. He makes the common, but still frustrating, mistake of conflating references to the intermediate state (particularly Lk 16) with descriptions of the eternal state of the wicked (123).
Miles is correct to note that Mt 25:36 speaks of both eternal punishment and eternal life as ai?nion, but he is not impressed by evidence that this word is often used not in reference to endless duration but in the sense of an “age,” as when speaking of the “age to come” in contrast with “this age” (cf. Mt 12:32). Even if duration is in view, however, the annihilation of the wicked would constitute a punishment no less without end than is the blessed state of the righteous. On this critical point, annihilationists are in complete agreement with traditionalists and in disagreement with universalists: those who are consigned to hell in the final judgment of God are never redeemed. Their sentence is never ended, forever they experience irrevocable separation from life with God. Eternal punishment does indeed last “just as long,” as eternal life (124), and this is true whether the wicked are endlessly consciously tormented, or whether they are destroyed by second death. Either way they are excluded from the blessings of the life to come which are experienced only by those who die reconciled to God through Christ, and I can conceive of nothing so terrible as that prospect. We dare not underestimate the blessings of endless life with God on the new earth, when we assess the immensity of the loss of those who are excluded from that life because of their persistent rejection of God and his grace. As Miles says, “God’s judgments on the wicked will be total and final” (126), but this could as well be said of destruction as of endless torment.
There are really only two texts in Scripture which strongly indicate that God keeps the wicked alive forever so that they can be conscious of his anger and their loss. These are both found in Revelation, which is possibly the most difficult book of the Bible for Christians to understand, as is evident in the numerous alternative ways in which it has been interpreted. Having been a traditionalist all my life, I too have felt the force of Rev 14 and 20, when read in the way that traditionalists read it, but I find the strength of that position considerably weakened when the language of these texts is read in light of the Old Testament contexts from which they are drawn. John was obviously citing Isaiah 34:8-10, where the prophet described the coming judgment of God upon Edom whose “land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever” (ESV). The result of this for Edom, however, was that “from generation to generation it shall lie waste” (Is 34:10). In short, Edom will be no more, but will become overgrown with thorns and thistles and inhabited by wild creatures, for there will be “no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing” (Is 34:12-15). In the context from which John derived his words, Edom did not continue to burn literally, and no smoke continues to rise from it now. Edom is gone, so that its judgment is endless and irrevocable.
Similarly, Jesus had drawn upon Isa 66:24 in Mk 9:48, when he warns sinners that in hell “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched,” but in Isaiah this was the description of the corpses of people who had rebelled against God, who are destroyed by insatiable worms and a fire from God that no one can extinguish, but whose bodies no one reading Isaiah would ever have imagined were going to last forever in that state of being consumed.
I have read a lot of annihilationist thinking lately, and I find no reason to believe that these people “underestimate the sinfulness of human sin and rebellion” (132). This is particularly true of those who acknowledge that the gravity of people’s sins varies and that God’s punishment will justly take this into account in their punishment, whether in different durations or different intensity. Ultimately, however, that punishment will be the means of destroying God’s enemies, removing from God’s creation all evil and all evil doers. Nor are these annihilationists driven primarily by emotion. Characteristically, they have come to their conviction through being impressed with the voluminous references in Scripture to the punishment of the wicked as death (the “wages of sin”) and the second death, destruction, and perishing (cf. Jn 3:16).
They often testify to the beneficial effects of their change of understanding: that they are greatly relieved to have learned that God will not endlessly torment his enemies, many of whom, after all, will be young children, and that they find it easier to warn unbelievers of the fate that awaits them if they do not repent, when they do not have to defend the doctrine of eternal conscious torment that alienates so many from Christian teaching. But these emotional factors are not the ground of their current doctrinal conviction, which is derived from careful exegesis of Scripture. I certainly concur with Miles that “we must not question [God’s] righteous judgments” (133), but I do not find this to be what grounds the conviction of evangelical annihilationists. If Scripture clearly taught that the wicked are endlessly consciously tormented, they would know this to be just, but they do not believe that Scripture does teach this.
Like good Bereans, we must all examine the Scriptures for ourselves and seek the illumination of God’s spirit, as we endeavor to understand God’s just judgment of those who persistently rebel against him. We who know ourselves delivered from God’s judgment by God’s own gracious and merciful act in the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf can rejoice together in the greatness of God’s salvation, and together we can warn sinners of the awfulness of hell, of exclusion from the joy of God’s approval and of endless life with him. Differences regarding the precise nature of that exclusion need not disrupt our fellowship in Christ, and we should endeavor to represent one another accurately, even though we disagree in our interpretation of Scripture. Nothing will be gained toward the realization of God’s purposes in the world by disharmony on this matter, particularly where fundamental agreement exists between traditionalism and annihilationism in a way which is not true between either understanding and universalism.