Hell as Terminal Punishment

This post is part 2 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Eternal Conscious Torment view.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. provided the chapter in defense of the view of hell as a place of terminal punishment.

What does Terminal Punishment Teach? 

Terminal punishment – also referred to as annihilationism or conditional immortality – is an “understanding of hell as a place of limited punishment: ‘punishment’ because sins can be atoned for only by commensurate suffering and death, and ‘limited’ because the sins of any one human being, and the collective sins of all of unredeemed humanity, can and will be eventually atoned for and thus will be eliminated some time in the future” (66). Because they have deliberately rejected God, the source of life and goodness, they vanish from existence once their debt has been paid.

What is Hell?

The Bible describes hell as a destination, as fire, and as a dump.

Destination: Hell is not a destination arbitrarily assigned to the wicked, but the inevitable outcome of rejecting God. It is “simply the natural result of a moral agent choosing to separate from God” (63) and choosing a way that eventually leads to destruction.

Fire: Fire plays two roles in the Bible, both related to purification. It can either test and purify a thing by destroying anything in it that lacks value, as in dross removed from precious metal. Or, it can purify the situation of the thing, if it has no lasting value, as in the destruction of chaff, weeds, or trees that fail to produce good fruit. “Hell as fire points to God’s fixed determination to judge all things, to make plain their true character, and to purge God’s cosmos of all that is not completely good” (64).

Dump: The New Testament word for hell is Gehenna which denotes a valley outside of Jerusalem with a terrible past. While scholars recognize that during Jesus’s time it was probably not a literal dump, the generic description still fits: “hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed” (63). This view of hell highlights God’s commitment “to remove evil once and for all from his good creation” (64).

Working through the Text

Stackhouse uses the bulk of his chapter to work through Scripture, addressing many of the same texts that Burk highlighted in his chapter on eternal conscious torment. In doing so, he endeavors to show that terminal punishment “is the view of hell most fully warranted by Scripture” (62).

Eternal actions or eternal results?

While the Bible links the language of hell with the word “eternal” (Greek: aionion), we must ask what the word means in this context. Drawing on the Old Testament, Stackhouse shows that “eternal” (Hebrew: olam) can, but does not always, mean “having continual existence.” He points, for instance, to the rites and rituals performed by the priests in the temple. These are “lasting” (olam) ordinances that have been made obsolete in Christ.

Turning to the New Testament, Stackhouse shows that “eternal” does not always mean “existing forever.” “The crucial distinction here is between, on the one hand, an event or an action that occurs for only a segment of time, and on the other, the result of that event or action that is indeed ‘without end.’ Thus the event or action itself can properly be called ‘eternal’ because of its everlasting implication” (67).

Consider, for instance, Hebrews 6:1-2 which talks about “eternal judgment.” It is not as though “God could never descend from the heavenly bench” (68) and must always remain there giving his verdict. Instead, most Christians believe in a Final Judgment that takes a limited amount of time, but that has an everlasting consequence. Perhaps even more clear is Hebrews 9:11-12 which speaks of “eternal redemption.” Again, God does not go on redeeming forever. He performs a single act of redemption (“once for all” in Hebrews 10:1-14) that has an eternal result. The same logic applies to “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and “eternal sin” in Mark 3:28-29.

This line of reasoning – that the eternality of an action can refer to the result of that action – also explains Matthew 25:46 which contrasts “eternal life” with “eternal destruction.” Here “eternal punishment” “can easily be seen… to be suffering and death that has… eternal implication without eternal conscious experience” (78).

What is the meaning of destruction and death? 

Stackhouse next turns to the meanings of “death” and “destroy” in the Bible: “the Bible is replete with passages – literally dozens and dozens – that speak of the destiny of the lost as termination, end, disappearance, eradication, annihilation, and extinction” (69). Even when the word could be translated as “ruin,” it still carries the idea of destruction. In the case of the ruined wineskins (Matthew 9:17), the wineskins do not wick out of existence, but their essence has been destroyed.

This is how the Bible consistently portrays the end of the wicked. To offer a few examples: Psalm 37:9 and 22 say the evil will be destroyed. Obadiah 16 says that they will “be as if they had never been.” Jesus says that trees that bear bad fruit (false prophets) will be thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:19), a fate parallel to those who go through the wide gate that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).

Sodom and Gomorrah set the paradigm for final judgment. These cities are completely and literally destroyed. Peter draws on this story to describe the end of the wicked: “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6). Other New Testament texts draw their meaning from Old Testament imagery, such as the unquenchable fire, the undying worm, and the smoke that ascends forever. These draw on Old Testament images of literal death and destruction. These images help explain apocalyptic passages like Revelation 14:10-11. This passage borrows imagery from Isaiah 34:8-11 which describes the smoke arising forever following God’s judgment on Edom, a judgment with eternal results but that did not go on forever.

We “must be careful not to interpret phrases that sound plainly like termination (passages that speak of ‘destruction’ and ‘death’) to somehow mean not destroyed and not dead, but instead ‘kept painfully alive forever'” (75). Some may argue that only our bodies are destroyed but our souls, being immortal, go on existing forever. But the Bible does not teach that our souls are intrinsically immortal. This property only applies to God (1 Tim 1:17). “Eternal life is a gift of God’s to believers (John 3:16, 1 Cor. 15:50-54). Our ancestors were kept from eating the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22-23), and we Christians look forward to the eternal city lined with abundant trees of life (Rev. 22:2)” (76). 

The case for finite suffering for sins

Suffering and death are required to atone for sins. Stated another way, death is the just reward for rebellion against God. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “The logic of justice is basic and inescapable: Someone has to pay, and pay fully, the debt – or fill the hole, or clean the dirt, or fix the break. Atonement is required to make straight the crooked and to level the uneven” (77). Either Jesus pays the debt for us through His death, or we pay through our death.

Since our sins are finite, our debt must also be finite, and therefore our suffering will be finite. Furthermore, if the debts must go on being paid forever, as in the traditional view, then in the end things remain broken and unresolved. “God’s cosmos cannot remain entirely and forever good if remnants of Satan or Death or wicked humans persist” (78).

Traditionalists will argue that since we sin against a God of infinite value, we must pay an infinite debt and suffer an infinite amount of time. But this can only be drawn out through analogy as a creative construct, not taught directly in Scripture. One could easily argue the other point, “that finite creatures can wreak only a finite amount of damage in and on the universe, and so a finite amount of suffering must suffice to atone for it” (79) which corresponds to God’s prior revelation of proportionate justice. Furthermore, Scripture specifically tells us that “the wages of sin is death” and “death means, if nothing else, termination. The one thing death does not mean is ‘not dying'” (79).

Conclusion: Hell and the Goodness of God

God’s goodness consists of two poles that must be held together. On one side we see his holiness and on the other his benevolence. His holiness is “his relentless action to make everything right” (61). His benevolence speaks of his kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.

Terminal punishment takes both his holiness and his benevolence seriously. It frames hell in the biblical language of just punishment for the unrepentant sinner. But, it “exonerates our good God from the appalling image of a perpetual tormenter” (81). Contra Burk, “There is no joy here in the suffering of the wicked, but only sad justice” (81).

1 thought on “Hell as Terminal Punishment

  1. Pingback: Four View on Hell: Introduction | Reading in Babylon

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