Recently I found myself reading a short historical survey of Hell. It wasn’t a topic that particularly interested me, but when it comes to throne room reading, if something is there on the shelf I’ll find myself invariably picking it up and reading it. Like most of my other throne room reading I have no particular process, I just pick a page, a story, or a chapter and begin reading. When it came to this particular piece of adequate literature, I started at the back. For some reason, when it comes to periodical type pieces, starting at the back seems to hold the most interest for me. As I found myself making my way toward the front I realized that the people I had been reading about – Thomas Erskine, Charles Wesley, Johnathan Edwards, Calvin, Locke and some early church fathers, held a smattering of different opinions when it came to the idea of hell – a.k.a. eternal punishment.
Like camp kids sitting around the fire listening to the guest speaker talk about his favorite topic, there was always a hint that whatever the topic was, it’s credibility came from the many proof texts cited and the conviction in the speaker’s voice. Of course, the next year at the same camp and perhaps even a comparable fire, another speaker could espouse a similar, yet dissimilar view of the same topic and have his own arsenal of proof text and self-assured tone in his voice. So was one right and the other wrong. Perhaps not.
After having read the “The history of Hell, a brief survey and resource guide”, I stumbled across several blog postings that were sharing the same subject – hell. As I read the various posts and followed the comments it was clear – there’s another camp fire going on here. Whether it was the original poster or those commenting, each had their arsenal of proof texts and confidence of voice.
It seems the not so vast topic of hell, settles on three particular concerns: 1) Eternal Conscious Torment – God (some will say man himself) chooses to subject unbelievers to an everlasting life of torment and anguish. 2) Annihilationism – whether at death or sometime at the “Judgement” the unbeliever’s soul is destroyed, that is, annihilated, no more, poof gone forever. And 3) Universalism – because it’s God’s will that all men come to repentance, that will indeed be the case. One has to admit, the third choice is the most inviting and seems most fitting with those who say “God is love.” But, and it’s a big but, it seems there is less evidence for this particular view in the corpus of scripture then the other two. Having said that, the thought of the first option, eternal conscious torment, just seems reprehensible to me. Therefore, as you may have already suspected, I’m standing with at least one foot solidly planted in the annihilation camp.
Yes, I’ve read the texts for those who fan the flame of whatever position they hold. But there just seems to me to be one overriding text that gives me pause. It’s most likely everyone’s first learned verse and one we still hear regular sermons on – John 3:16. In my red-letter Bible, the words are attributed to Jesus so we’ll assume that to be the case. In that verse we read “….whoever believes in him shall not perish…” He does not say whoever believes in him shall not undergo eternal conscious torment. He says we shall not perish. I could give you the lexical definition of “perish” and go through the hoops of the original language (that’s not disparaging its value) but it seems the translators did a pretty decent job when they used the word “perish.” In a couple other verses, Matt. 10:28 and Luke’s 12:5 version, Jesus admonishes his listeners to “…fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” For me, these biased selection of verses are fairly clear. They involve no parable, no apocalyptic language, just simple words in a pretty basic context.
Does that settle the issue? Probably not for many folks, but it comes very close to settling it for me. Then again, I may find myself around a campfire with some guest speaker armed with proof text to the gills that may give me pause, but until then I’m going to keep one foot planted here for now.