What is the Final Destination of the Wicked? (And What are they Doing In that Handbasket?)
This is the text of a paper I wrote last week for a theology class:
Just before this fall semester started, I sent an email to Dr. Netland on campus for help in dealing with some key theological issues that make it difficult for me to remain a Christian. One of those issues was the doctrine of hell. How can a just God condemn anyone to eternal punishment for temporal crimes? This paper is an important point for me in my own spiritual walk. In some ways, my very faith rests upon the outcome.
Of course many others have expressed similar disgust at the doctrine. Lee Strobel reveals, “For a long time as a spiritual seeker, I found my sense of justice outraged by the Christian teaching about hell… The doctrine seemed like cosmic overkill to me, an automatic and unappealable sentence to an eternity of torture and torment.” Or as atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell, said, “I do not myself feel that anyone who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment… It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture.” Russell’s assault on the doctrine of hell was like a time bomb for me – it had no effect when I first heard it, but exploded some time later with shrapnel of implications for my theology should I continue to hold the traditional doctrine.
In wrestling with the nature of hell, theologians have come up with several ways to address the philosophical problems. At one end of the scale, some have embraced a Biblical fideism, taking cover behind the doctrine of inerrancy and announcing that the Bible trumps all philosophical problems. This is the approach Walvoord takes when he declares that unbelievers will burn eternally in literal hellfire (Matt 5.22, 18.8-9, 25.41; Mark 9.43,48; Luke 16.24; James 3.6; Jude 7; Revelation20.14-15). He writes, “[S]ome openly say that if the Bible teaches eternal punishment, they do not believe it even though it is in the Bible.”
Several evangelicals have attempted to reinterpret the nature of hell to make it more comprehensible. Among the more prominent is Billy Graham. Graham asks, “Could it be that the fire Jesus talked about is an eternal search for God that is never quenched? That, indeed, would be hell. To be away from God forever, separated from His presence.” Others argue that it is not logically possible for humans to have the opportunity for eternity with God unless there is a corresponding possibility of eternal punishment.
Murray offers two possible defenses for the doctrine of eternal punishment. First, perhaps those in hell continue to sin, and thus continually increase their punishment for eternity. Alternately, he argues that finite sin against an infinite God may warrant eternal punishment, “not because of the greatness of the person being offended, but because of the greatness of the type of being offended.” Thus killing deer is sport, but killing humans is murder.
Yet Murray moves beyond the view of hell as merely punishment for sin. He suggests that a second line of reasoning may assist to reveal the nature of hell: it is the natural consequence of those who have chosen to live life apart from God. Those who have chosen a life of sin become more and more formed by those choices, culminating in an eternity of narcissism and self-absorbtion. “As C.S. Lewis has put it, sin is the human being saying to God throughout life, ‘Go away and leave me alone.’ Hell is God’s finally saying to the human, ‘You may have your wish.’ It is God’s leaving the person to himself of herself, as that individual has chosen.” J.P. Moreland concurs, “…if we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made – a purpose, by the way, which would allow us to flourish more than living any other way – then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from him.”
N.T. Wright gives the natural consequence view a different twist. Humans will reflect the image of whatever they worship; if God, they reflect the One in whose image they were made; if idols (literally or figuratively), they reject their right to be God’s image bearers and their true human natures begin to atrophy. Those who continually turn from God will no longer be human in any sense that matters. This danger is not simply for individuals, Wright warns, but for all human institutions as well. “As Christians we look for the marriage of heaven and earth, not their separation; and in that light we must look with Christian realism at the possibility of a different, and disastrous, marriage, which has become all too real a possibility in our own day: a marriage of hell and earth. That is what Jesus warned about in his own day. We can do no less in our own.”
Yet, drawing on his major work on the historical Jesus, Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright argues that most of the passages that have traditionally been taken to refer to hell in fact refer to the judgments of God within history. Jesus’ teaching about gehenna is best understood in the paradigm of earlier biblical prophets like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, as prophecies of God’s judgment upon the nation of Israel.
Finally, a small but vocal minority of evangelical theologians have become adherents to the conditional immortality (or annihilationist) view. On this view, punishment in hell is not endless but is eventually terminated and the condemned individual will no longer exist. In 1988, John Stott articulated this position in response to liberal historian/theologian, David Edwards, presenting four grounds for holding to annihilationism.
1. Hell is most often spoken of in the language of destruction. Jesus instructs us to fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10.28; Luke 12.5). While believers are those who are being saved, unbelievers are those who are perishing (1 Cor 1.18; 2 Cor 2.15, 4.3; 2 Thess 2.10). The narrow road leads to life, but the wide road to destruction (Matt 7.13; cf. Rom 9.22; Phil 1.28, 3.19; Heb 10.39; 2 Peter 3.7 Rev 17.8,11).
2. The imagery of fire suggests total consumption rather than endless pain (Matt 5.22, 18.8-9, 25.41; Rev 20.14-15). Note John the Baptizer’s parable, where the chaff is utterly consumed in eternal fire (Matt 3.12; Luke 3.17).
3. God’s justice demands that the punishment for finite sin cannot be infinite, eternal suffering. God will judge in proportion to people’s actions (Rev 20.12; cf. Matt 7.2, Mark 4.24; Luke 6.38), just as He commanded earthly judges (Ex 21.23-25).
4. The eternal existence of rebellious people is difficult to reconcile with verses that promise that God will be victorious over evil and will be “everything to everyone” (1 Cor 15.28; John 12.32; Eph 1.10; Col 1.20; Phil 2.10-11).
In analyzing the various evangelical options available, I suggest two starting points. First, there is a consensus that the Bible speaks of God’s judgment. “The Lord… is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness.” (Ps 96.13; cf. Pss 9.8, 58.11, 67.4, 98.9) Paul warns, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Cor 5.10; cf. Rom 2.6, 14.12; Eph 2.3, 6.8; Col 3.6) Peter writes, “[Those who sin] are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” (1 Peter 4.6; cf. 2 Peter 3.7) The message of God’s wrath was central to the preaching of the gospel, as demonstrated in Paul’s message to the Athenians, “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17.31; cf. 10.42)
These verses make it clear that God judges the wicked. Yet not every judgment passage is necessarily referring to the final judgment. The Bible makes it clear that God also manifests His justice in the midst of history. He brought judgment on the Canaanites through Joshua and the Israelites; He brought judgment on Israel through Assyria, on Judah through Babylon. He brought judgment upon Saul, David, Manassah, Nebuchadnezer, and countless other individuals. In the New Testament, He brought judgment on Ananias and Saphira, Herod, Judas, and Simon the Sorcerer. God’s wrath, whether manifested in history or at the end of time, should fill us with the fear of the Lord regardless of the form it takes. “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” (2 Cor 5.11)
A second starting point is to note that the gospel is not a plan for how to avoid going to hell and be forgiven so you can get into heaven. Rather the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Messiah, the Lord (Acts 2.36; Rom 1.1-6). In light of the Old Testament, the term gospel echoes Is 61.1-3, the programmatic statement of the Messiah’s mission. Pagans, however, used the term to describe the declaration heralds would make to the Roman empire when a new emperor ascended to the throne or won a great victory. Each usage of the term points us in the same direction: the pronouncement of Jesus’ authority.
The biblical motive for evangelism was to exult the name of Jesus. It was not a request to “accept the Lord Jesus as your personal savior,” but a command to repent and follow the King. The modern motive to save people from hell is strikingly missing from scripture. The fact that saving people from hell is such a powerful motivator is an implicit acknowledgement that hell is unjust and no one should have to go there.
From this perspective, Wright’s argument concerning the nature of Jesus’ warnings seems compelling. It makes sense out of Jesus’ choice of the term gehenna for judgment, consciously echoing Jeremiah’s prophecy against the abominable practice of infant sacrifice (7.30-33). This image would have been particularly vivid to those remembering it from within Jerusalem’s walls as it was surrounded by a hostile Roman army in AD70. Accepting this reading of the scriptures does not rob them of their meaning any more than Galatians is robbed of its meaning when we understand the historical situation behind the book.
Yet a handful of verses remain which cannot be explained in terms of Jesus’ historical situation. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) presents an application of spiritual reciprocity (as you did to others, so shall it be done to you) in the afterlife. Revelation 14.10-11 and 20.10-15 both speak of eternal suffering for the wicked. Finally, the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25.31-46), with its judgment on all nations and the final destiny being eternal punishment or eternal life seems to point beyond its first century context.
We must acknowledge the possibility that the eternal punishment in Matthew 25 is not the same as eternal punishing. Similarly, we must be exceptionally careful in our interpretation of the apocalyptic book of Revelation, where everything is symbolic. Yet it would be going too far to say that we must interpret them this way. Perhaps the solution is to be found in the mystery of God’s eternity – classical theists affirm that God transcends time. We are incapable of comprehending how anything could exist outside of time, but that may be the very “location” of hell. In view of the difficulties, it seems best to affirm the certainty of an end-time judgment, as well as the complete just-ness of that judgment, but an agnosticism regarding the duration or form of that judgment. “The fact that hell, as often understood, seems to be incompatible with God’s love, as revealed in Scripture, may be an indication that we have misunderstood hell.”
A few practical applications may be drawn from this position. First, We must not shy away from talking about future judgment, for it is one of the major themes of scripture. Similarly, we should not attempt to soften that judgment by referring to it with euphemisms like, “a Christless eternity.” Even if theologically true, it is a meaningless term to anyone who is destined for it. It is preferable to retain the Biblical language of judgment. Finally, though we seek the answer to the question, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” we can expect not an answer but rather a command: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Luke 13.23-24).
 Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000),170.
 Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1957), 17-18.
 John F. Walvoord, “The Literal View” in Four Views on Hell, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).
 Ibid., 11. Walvoord does make a short philosophical defense, but he is clearly not concerned if the doctrine is deemed to be philosophically untenable.
 Quoted in William Crockett, “The Metaphorical View” in Four Views on Hell, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 45.
 Millard Erickson, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 1247.
 Michael J. Murray, “Heaven and Hell” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1999), 287-317.
 D.A. Carson thinks this view likely though difficult to prove, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 533.
 Murray, 294.
 Erickson, 1247.
 Strobel, 173.
 N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 91-98.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid. He sets out his detailed argument in Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 320-369.
 David Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: a Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove: InterVarsityPress, 1988), chapter 6, especially pp. 312-319.
 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 43.
 Of course this avenue is not available to Conditionalists who are also Open Theists such as Pinnock.
 Erickson, 1246-7.