It is easy to imagine the possible motivation for preaching everlasting punishment by Christian institutions (denominations). The image, being one of existence not ending, strikes tremendous fear in anyone and its escape, unlimited value. For sure the wicked will be punished as warned in the bible, but the termination of being is itself an everlasting punishment, and, in some sense, more drastic since it removes all future hope of possible change of fortune. If humans possessed native immortality, then why did God, in His mercy, take away access to the Tree of Life and expel Adam and Eve from The Garden of Eden? It seems to prevent a state of eternal and fallen existence of humans created in God’s image separate from Him who is wholly loving and good.
Overwhelmingly, in the bible, the end of the wicked is spoken of in terms of destruction. It is mainly a few verses in the N.T. that some derive the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). There are many very good refutations of ECT, such as Edward Fudge’s “The Fire that Consumes” to mention one. Also, it should be noted that several Early Church Fathers seemed to indicate the view of the eventual annihilation of the wicked after death. In this post, I focus on what many conclude to be the strongest defense of ECT, namely the philosophical formulations of Anselm picked up by Aquinas. Additionally, problematic verses which sound like affirmations of ECT, are addressed.
I. Infinitely Holy God
A. Aquinas’ idea goes something along these lines: “Since God is infinite, then all sins against Him are infinite.”
Refutation: This cannot be the case and has zero support from scripture being almost purely philosophically derived.
B. Some would say slapping a king is more severe than slapping an ordinary person and so deserves the greater punishment. Sinning against such an exulted God deserves infinite punishment.
Rufutation: This merely ‘sounds good’ but nowhere in scripture is there a parallel, at least not to the extent that the subscribers to ECT can use as support. God, I believe, uses the concept of a “write off” such as is common in the field of accounting. The image of God as an eternal torturer of fallen individuals is not reflected in the bible, instead, ‘a write off.’ For sure the wicked will be punished commensurate with their sin while they were on earth, but afterward, ashes and other non-existent states are referred.
II. Sinners Continue to Sin After Death
Some claim that after death the wicked are still sinning and so deserve everlasting torment.
1. Is. 40.2 states “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” It is quite obvious that the sins were finite even though doubled.
The Double Sin
The reason that the punishment was doubled was the well attested “double sin.” The O.T. prophets told Israel that departure from the Lord was a sin as well as the overt sin itself usually in the form of idolatry. They had left the fountain of water to dig out for themselves cisterns which could hold no water. So, both leaving The Fountain and digging the cisterns, metaphorically speaking, were sins.
2. The wicked are not accountable after death. They are certainly not righteous in any sense, but the accounting stops as shown by several verses: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2Cor.5.10) The time on earth in the body is the designated probationary scope. Otherwise, the righteous just keep getting more righteous after death!
Rev. 20.12 sets the judgment scene and limits it to the record while on earth: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” Again, a running record doesn’t seem to be spoken of and therefore the judging pertains only to actions (whether good or bad), omissions, words, etc., done during the earthly life.
III Specific Verses Which Seem to Indicate ECT
A. Rev. 14.11: And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night, along with anyone who receives the mark of his name (NET)
This verse does not explicitly say persons will be tormented forever, but that the smoke goes up forever. It is probably best to view the metaphorical clause as the end result of the individual (the last thing they experience). Also, the day and night speak of no respite until the torment is finished. Notice how Malachi speaks of this time of destruction: For indeed the day is coming, burning like a furnace, and all the arrogant evildoers will be chaff. The coming day will burn them up,” says the Lord who rules over all. “It will not leave even a root or branch. But for you who respect my name, the sun of vindication will rise with healing wings, and you will skip about like calves released from the stall. You will trample on the wicked, for they will be like ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord who rules over all (4.1-3 NET). They are like burned chaff without anything left except ashes.
Further this same conception was previously written in an earlier prophet. Notice Is.33.12: The nations will be burned to ashes; like thorn bushes that have been cut down, they will be set on fire (NET). Also Jude says that the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah was a prototype (example) of what awaits the unregenerate. Sodom and the other cities were destroyed in fiery retribution from heaven: So also Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring towns, since they indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire in a way similar to these angels, are now displayed as an example by suffering the punishment of eternal fire (vs. 7 NET). Since these cities were annihilated in fire, this must be the eventual outcome of those unconverted humans after death.
B. Rev. 20.10: And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are too, and they will be tormented there day and night forever and ever (NET)
Notice this verse speaks of non-human beings who probably possess immortality. Since the bible speaks of only the redeemed human persons as immortal, then the fate of other resurrected humans at the final judgment will not be everlasting existence. Yes, Rev. 20.14-15 speaks of Death and Hades being cast into the Lake of Fire along with everyone whose name is not in the Book of Life. Though the fate is the same, the duration is not of the individual human persons. It will be a judgment of degrees of punishment of humans until eventual destruction. This seems the best view to achieve agreement with the totality of scripture.