The Duration of Hell

© Dave Bovenmyer, February 2017

The ultimate destiny of the wicked has become a subject of increasing controversy among Evangelical churches. The controversy became a virtual firestorm in 2011 when Rob Bell wrote Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell’s book, although not formally endorsing universalism, favored the view that God will ultimately reconcile all things to himself, including all men who have ever lived. Bell’s book has inspiring hundreds of articles and blog post and several books. Pastors, Theologians and interested Christians are reading and studying the nature of hell and the doctrine of eternal, conscious torment, a doctrine that until recently was virtually unchallenged amongst evangelicals in the United States. Opinions are often fluid as demonstrated by Preston Sprinkle, who, along with Francis Chan, wrote Erasing Hell, a book written in response to Bell and defending the traditional view of hell. Yet since researching and co-authoring the book, Sprinkle now states that he is leaning toward the view that the wicked will eventually be annihilated.

In light of the increased controversy regarding the nature of hell, my relatively short paper, written in 2002 for the Great Commission Leadership Institute, seems grossly inadequate. After further study, I will attempt in this paper to lay out a more thorough survey of the Bible’s teaching regarding the ultimate destiny of the wicked.

Three Views: Throughout church history, Christians have basically held to three views regarding the ultimate destiny of the wicked.

They will live forever in hell in conscious suffering. We will call this Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT).

They will be punished in hell and then cease to exist. We will call this Conditional Immortality (CI).

They will be punished in hell and eventually be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. We will call this Universal Reconciliation (UR).[1]

In the first two views, the punishment is retributive; it is vengeance for sins against God and man.  In the third view the punishment is not only retributive, but also corrective.  Bible-centered Christians who argue for these three views today are in is essential agreement on the following seven Biblical truths

Seven points of agreement

1.      Judgment: In a future day, God will judge the living and the dead through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:42, 2 Timothy 4:1, 1 Peter 4:5). This judgment will result in vindication and blessing for those who have loved and believed in God, but will bring condemnation and punishment to those who have refused to repent and have continued in rebellion (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

2.      Resurrection: God will resurrect the bodies of all the righteous and the wicked who have ever lived. The blessings and punishment of the coming age will involve the physical body (John 5:28-29, Daniel 12:2, Revelation 20:12)

3.      Wrath: God is storing up wrath against unrepentant sinners and will unleash it on the judgment day (Romans 2:5). God will avenge His enemies and take vengeance on behalf of the righteous. Vengeance is God’s, He will repay (Romans 12:19).

4.      Hell’s Existence: The wicked will be punished in a place called hell, also called Gehenna and the lake of fire. It is a place of suffering so horrible that Jesus says that it would be better to cut off your hand or gouge out your eye than go there (Matthew 5:29-30). It would be better to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42). Avoiding hell calls for the most extreme measures imaginable. Since all three views believe in conscious suffering in hell, all three harmonize with these warning and with the frightening descriptions of hell given in the New Testament, such as being “delivered to the torturers” until the debt is fully paid (Matthew 18:34-35), experiencing “unquenchable fire,” and undying “worms” (Mark 9:43-49), and ending up in a state of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, & 25:30).

5.      Justice: God’s judgment will be perfectly just, precisely fitting the nature of the crimes committed. Punishment will vary according to the severity of the crimes. For example, Jesus said that it would be more bearable for the pagans of Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for the Jews who saw the miracles He was doing and refused to repent. Similarly, it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for the unrepentant villages to which He preached (Matt 11:21-24).

6.      Banishment: The punishment of the wicked will include exclusion from the kingdom of God and its blessings. While watching others enter the kingdom, some will be thrown into the “outer darkness,” or, as many translations say, “outside into the darkness” (Matthew 8:10-13).

7.      Salvation Only in Christ: All three views teach that salvation and eternal life are only found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ and not good works is the only means of salvation from God’s wrath and from hell. With some exceptions for children and those mentally incapable of believing, the Eternal Conscious Torment view and the Conditional Immortality view both generally believe that people must exercise faith in this life to be saved. The Universal Reconciliation view believes that people will repent and believe in Christ in Hell and thus be reconciled to God.

Since these seven statements are generally accepted in all three views, it is clear that the major issue under debate is hell’s duration.  All agree that there will be conscious torment; the issue is whether it will be everlasting or not.  And among those who believe that the wicked will not suffer everlastingly, the issue is “how will the wicked get out of hell?” Will they be destroyed or will they be reconciled to God?

Having looked at the points of agreement, I would like to look at eight Biblical arguments against the idea that suffering in hell will be everlasting. I will approach the subject this way because the Eternal Conscious Torment view has historically been the predominate teaching of the church and has been the exclusive view of Great Commission Churches. So examining the arguments against the ECT view might expose us to perspectives that we are unfamiliar with and thus increase objectivity. As I go, I will include some of the weaknesses and objections to each argument.

Argument 1: The Old Testament teaches that the wicked will perish

The Old Testament has much to say about the future of the wicked. Their future is universally described as ending in destruction. A few of many, many examples are: The wicked will: be slain (Ps. 34:21), be cut off (Ps. 34:16), not be found (37:10) whither like the grass (Ps 37:2), be pierced by their own swords (Ps 37:15), perish like flowers and vanish like smoke (Ps 37:20), be destroyed (Ps 37:38), be torn to pieces (Ps 50:22), vanish like water that flows away (Ps 58:6), melt like a slug as it moves along (Ps 58:8), be blotted out of the book of the living (Ps 69:28).

The Old Testament also describes historical events where God destroyed the wicked. As a judgment upon the extreme wickedness and violence of mankind, God sent a flood to “blot out” man from the face of the earth (Gen 6:7) and “destroy” all flesh. Every creature on the earth would “perish” (6:17).  Later in the scripture, the flood serves as an example of what God will do to ungodly people in the future.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is another example of God’s judgment upon the wicked, an example that also became legendary in Biblical history. God rained burning sulfur (brimstone) on these cities, completely overthrowing them. Afterwards, all that was left was dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace (Gen 19:28)

The prophets also proclaimed future destruction. Zephaniah proclaimed a coming day when all the earth will be consumed, it will be a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, and devastation. Blood will be poured out like dust and flesh like dung  (Zeph 1:14-18).

It is clear that many Old Testament passages teach that the wicked will perish and be destroyed. Yet the Old Testament speaks relatively little of eternal life or of resurrection or of judgment after death and seems to largely talk about judgment within the present age, often in the life-time of the reader. Many of these passages can be explained this way. Some passages might refer to future generations—that the posterity of the wicked will be cut off while the posterity of the righteous endure forever.

Yet a few passages speak of the perishing of the wicked in contrast to the righteous—who live on forever. For example in Psalm 37:18-20, the heritage of the blameless will remain forever while the enemies of the Lord will vanish like smoke. The Lord’s saints will be preserved forever and dwell in the land forever, while the wicked will be cut off (28-29). Psalm 49 is perhaps an even clearer example. The graves of the wicked “are their homes forever, their dwelling placed to all generations” (11). They are like the “beasts that perish” (12 & 20). “Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell” (14). “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (15). The Psalmist’s confidence that his soul will be ransomed from the grave is in direct contrast with those “without understanding” (20) who are like the beasts that perish.

Several Messianic passages contrast the blessings of those who enter the kingdom with the destruction of the wicked. Psalm 2 warns that those who do not kiss the Son will perish. Psalm 110 speaks of the Messiah filling the world with corpses.  Isaiah, in a Messianic prophecy pertaining to the end of the age says that the Messiah will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and kill the wicked with the breath of his lips (Is 11:4). In another Messianic passage, the people will be as if burned to lime, like thorns cut down that are burned in the fire. None will be able to dwell with the consuming fire or dwell with everlasting burnings, except the one who walks righteously and speaks what is right. He will endure the fire and dwell on the heights (Is 33:12-16).

We see the contrast between the kingdom blessing of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked particularly strongly in Isaiah 66. Jerusalem will enjoy peace like a river and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream (12). God will comfort the righteous, but show indignation against his enemies (13-14). He will “come in fire and his chariots like a whirlwind to render his anger in fury and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (15-16). After they are slain, the righteous will go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against God. “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (24). Isaiah presents a picture of utter destruction similar to the aftermath of a great battle in which the maggots consume unburied corpses while others are burned up with fire. The destruction will be unstoppable as the worms will not die and the fire will not be quenched. Those who look on will be filled with disgust at the sight of the rotting corpses.

Nothing in the passage envisions living people tormented with fire. Rather it pictures slain and rotting corpses being consumed by worms and fire that cannot be stopped. Both will accomplish their destroying and consuming purpose.

It is abundantly clear that the Old Testament teaches that the wicked will perish. Yet the Old Testament doesn’t say all that much about life after death or about a resurrection, and many, if not most, of these passages may be envisioning the perishing of physical death and not the perishing of the soul. Yet overall we must grant an advantage to the idea that the wicked perish rather than live on forever or are eventually reconciled to God.

Argument 2: First Century Jewish beliefs regarding the fate of the wicked were mixed and we must not assume that Jesus’ and the apostles’ hearers believed or favored the eternal conscious torment view.

Proponents of Eternal Conscious Torment acknowledge that the OT doesn’t teach eternal torment, but some argue that during the intertestamental period, Hellenization influenced Jewish thought to the point that by the time of Jesus most Jews believed in eternal punishment in hell. The theory is that this Greek way of thinking had become widespread, so that when Jesus used words like “perish” or “destroy” both he and his audience understood him to mean “live on eternally in horrible conditions” rather than the usual meanings of these words. But does the evidence back up this claim?

The intertestamental literature can be divided between the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essene community, and the Pseudepigrapha. I will concentrate on the Apocryphal books since these are likely to have been the most influential.

The Apocryphal books, mostly written around 150 BC or earlier, are not included in the Hebrew Old Testament cannon. But they are present in the Septuagint, the 70 BC Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was widely read in New Testament times. The apocrypha is also included in today’s Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. It is difficult to know how much influence the apocrypha had in Jesus day, since it was not regarded as inspired. It is likely that some of the apocryphal books, particularly first and second Maccabees, were fairly well known, since they give an account of historical events that occurred between the testaments.

The apocryphal books view the end of the wicked almost entirely in line with the teaching of the Old Testament, from which their descriptions are usually taken. The wicked will be destroyed, perish, be devoured by fire and consumed. The sole exception is a passage from Judith:

Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever. (Judith 16:17, NRSV)

The book of 2 Maccabees, chapter 7 gives the heart-rending story of a mother and her seven sons who encourage each other to stay true to God as they are tortured and killed for refusing to eat pork in violation of the Law. As he dies, one brother says, “the King of the Universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life” (9). Another brother, who also expressed the hope of eternal life said, “But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” (13). Another said, “See how His mighty power will torture you and your descendants!” (17). And another said, “Do not think that you will go unpunished?” (19). The final brother said, “You . . . will certainly not escape the hands of God . . . you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance.” (31-36).

So, we see in 2 Maccabees a very clear hope of a physical resurrection and a confidence that God will judge most severely the cruel and blood-thirsty king who was slaying this family. The passage may imply that the wicked king’s judgment would extend beyond this life, as justice would seem to require it, but there is no actual statement to that effect and certainly no indication that his punishment would be everlasting.

The Wisdom of Solomon also has a passage that speaks of the eternal life of the righteous, “But the righteous live forever, and their reward is with the Lord” (5:15). But that the wicked will, “cease to be” and be “consumed” in their wickedness” (5:13-14).

The Pseudoepigrapha are spurious or pseudonymous writings ascribed to various biblical patriarchs and prophets but composed within approximately 200 years of the birth of Jesus. These, along with the writings of the Essene community preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls, have a variety of views of the final end of the wicked, ranging from eternal conscious punishment, to a period of punishment followed by annihilation, to perishing at death with no additional judgment in view.

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote of the history of his people to a Roman audience. He described three major Jewish sects: Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. According to Josephus, Essenes believed that “bodies are corruptible . . . but that the souls are immortal, and continue forever” (Wars of the Jews 2.154). Pharisees believed that “all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment (Wars 2.162). Sadducees “take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. (Wars 2.165). Yet some scholars question the accuracy of Josephus’ statements that Essenes and Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul. They find in his writings a tendency to depict the Jewish people in an overly-favorable way to his readers, who largely believed in the immortality of the soul.

From my somewhat limited study of the intertestamental literature, I would concur with the many scholars who say that no uniform opinion on the final state of the wicked existed during the first century when Jesus and the apostles were on earth.

It also seems clear that the intertestamental literature was of minor significance to Jesus and His followers compared to the Old Testament itself. Jesus affirms the Old Testament cannon, not including the apocrypha (Matthew 23:35). Except for one possible exception,[2] the New Testament never quotes the intertestamental literature. And even if some of the intertestamental literature did have influence, it certainly had much less than the Old Testament itself. Finally, the apocrypha, which undoubtedly had the most influence of the non-canonical literature, largely agrees with the Old Testament view.

The evidence does not prove or even suggest that the eternal conscious torment view had become predominate in Jewish thought by the first century and, therefore, we cannot presume that view when we interpret the words of Jesus and the apostles.[3]

Argument 3: Many New Testament verses indicate that the wicked will perish and be destroyed.

Matt 3:12: “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (NASB). This image points to destruction, just as chaff is burned up. Note that “unquenchable” does not mean eternal, but unstoppable.

Matt 7:13: “the gate is wide . . . that leads to destruction[4] . . . the gate is narrow . . . that leads to life.”

Matt 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus could have used the word “torture,” but instead He chose the words “kill” and “destroy.” What happens to the soul in its death is apparently similar to what happens to the body in its death.

In Matthew 13:40-42: “Just as weeds are gathered and burned with fire,” so the angels will “throw them into the fiery furnace.”

John 3:16: “whoever believes in him should not perish[5] but have eternal life.”

John 8:51: “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Clearly Jesus is not referring to death in this age, for all the disciples saw that death. Evidently he has in mind a later, more permanent death that they would not experience.

John 10:28: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law. . . (Romans 2:12, ESV)

Galatians 6:8: Those who sow to the flesh “reap destruction;[6] the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:8, NIV84)

Philippians 3:19: “Their end is destruction.”

2 Thessalonians 1:7-9: “These shall be punished with everlasting[7] destruction from[8] the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, (2 Thessalonians 1:9, NKJV)

Hebrews 10:26: “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

James 5:20: “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death . . . .”

2 Peter 2:5-6: if he did not spare the ancient world. . . . when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; “if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.”

2 Peter 2:12: “But these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish (NIV84).”[9]

2 Peter 3:7: “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”

Revelation 11:18: The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants . . . and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”

At face value these verses describe the ultimate destruction of the wicked. Few would argue that they are describing events in this age, although it is not impossible that some of them may. Proponents of Eternal Conscious Torment and Universal Salvation point out that in some cases, the Greek word translated “perish” can mean “be lost.” But the contrast with “eternal life” in John 3:16 makes “perishing” or “death” the more likely meaning. And the “destruction” words have no other alternate meaning. Furthermore, the context of the words strongly point to destruction and perishing. Yes, fire can torment, but ultimately, it consumes. This image of being consumed is almost unmistakable when the fire of judgment is depicted by images of chaff and weeds being burned up.  Finally, Peter, in depicting what will happen to the wicked, uses the examples of what happened in the flood and in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (even using the word “extinction”).

These verse argue quite strongly for the Conditional Immortality view and against the Eternal Conscious Torment and Universal Reconciliation views.

Argument 4: The belief that the soul is innately immortal infiltrated the church from Greek philosophy and has tainted the church’s interpretation of scripture

Western thinkers tend to assume the immortality of the soul, a belief that most likely stems from Plato and other Greek philosophers. Early Christian apologists rejected Plato’s belief in the eternal pre-existence of the soul, believing that the soul is created at conception or birth. Yet many believed that the soul created a birth is immortal.

Ultimately, the issue of the immortality of the soul may be inconsequential to the debate, since all would agree that God could cause a soul that is not innately immortal to live on forever and He could also destroy a soul that is innately immortal. Yet the issue of the natural immorality of the soul is relevant, since it could indicate what we should expect. Which one is God most likely to do based on how He created the soul?

Here are some verses regarding the immortality of the soul.

Genesis 3:2 seems to indicate that Adam and Eve were not innately immortal, since God drove them out of the Garden of Eden, “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22, ESV).

1 Timothy 6:15 says that God “alone has immortality.” However, this may be saying that God is the only one who intrinsically possesses immortality, since it appears that the angels “cannot die,” nor can those who partake in the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 20:36).

Several verses promise eternal life to those who believe and contrast this with death, which otherwise would have been their presumably natural end.

John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Unbelievers will not attain the eternal life that is characteristic of the eternal age.

John 6:50–51: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. . . . If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”

John 11:25–26:“Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.

Luke 20:35–36: “but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”

Paul also uses the words “imperishable” and “immortal” to refer to a future quality yet to be obtained.  Additionally, he never says that the wicked obtain these qualities, only those who are righteous in Christ.

Romans 2:7: “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”

1 Corinthians 15:53: “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

2 Timothy 1:10 “. . . our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Other scriptures indicate that the soul lives on after the death of the body and this may suggest that the soul is immortal.

In Luke 16:20-31, Luke tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Here Jesus gives a description of “hades” the place of the dead. Hades is depicted as a place of fiery torment separated by a chasm from a place of comfort at Abraham’s side. Both Lazarus and the rich man are conscious. Although the rich man’s body was “buried” his soul was very much alive, receiving recompense for the way he had lived.

Although the parable indicates that the soul lives on after death, nothing indicates the duration of time in comfort or torment. Perhaps these conditions might continue until the resurrection of the body at the judgment day.

It is important to note from this parable that the purpose of fire can sometimes be for punishment and not necessarily always consumption.

In Revelation 6:9, John sees “under the alter the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God.” They were crying out to God for vengeance.  Then in Revelation 20:4 he again sees “the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus . . . They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” These souls were conscious, though apart from their earthly or resurrection bodies.

In summary, the scriptures seem to teach that the soul does live on after the death of the body and can be conscious apart from the body. This ability to live on after death suggests, but does not prove, that the soul is immortal. And there are verses that suggest (but in my opinion do not prove) that the soul is naturally mortal and must be given immortality. The scripture’s teaching seems to be ambiguous enough so as not to give advantage to any of the views.

Argument 5: “Eternal” does not always mean “everlasting” or that an action goes on eternally.

It is clear that the word “eternal” does not always depict everlasting action, but can refer to the everlasting effects of the action.

Mark 3:29: Jesus says that those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit are “guilty of an eternal sin.” He isn’t saying that they will keep on sinning forever, but that the results of the sin, the guilt of the sin, will last forever. It will never be forgiven, as stated earlier in the verse.

Jude 7: “Just as Sodom and Gomorrah . . . serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Clearly, Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning today.  The fire and brimstone that destroyed these cities was not eternal, but the effect of the fire was. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are gone forever.

Hebrews 9:12: By means of his own blood, Jesus secured “eternal redemption.” This does not mean that Jesus will be redeeming forever[10] but that the effects of His one act of redemption will last forever.

Hebrews 5:9: Jesus became “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” This does not mean that Jesus will be saving His people forever (since there will eventually be no enemies to be saved from—1 Corinthians 15:58), but the effects of His work of salvation will endure forever.

Hebrews 6:2: “Instructions about . . . eternal judgment” surely does not mean that God will be judging forever, but that this judgment will have effects that endure forever.

2 Thessalonians 1:9: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” The meaning of the phrase “eternal destruction” need not mean that God will be destroying forever, but that this destruction will have an eternal effect. The meaning of the word “destroy,” (to corrupt or destroy) would favor this.[11] When something is corrupted or destroyed it no longer exists as an entity.[12]

Matthew 25:46: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Could it be that this phrase is similar to the other verses­­—the punishing does not go on forever, but the effects of the punishment (destruction) are eternal?

As the above uses of “eternal” show, this is possible, but it may not be probable in Matthew 25. With each of the other verses, there are reasons within the context or in the meaning of the noun modified that make it clear that the effect of the action is in view rather than the action itself. But it would seem likely that “eternal” would typically describe an action unless the context or the word’s meaning shows otherwise. Eternal life means living forever; eternal kingdom (2 Pet 1:11) and eternal dominion (1 Tim 6:16) involve reigning forever; eternal comfort (2 Thessalonians 2:16) means being comforted forever; eternal glory (1 Pet 5:10) means being glorified forever.

So it seems that “eternal punishment” could go either way—a punishment (destruction) that has an eternal effect or a punishment that involves being punished forever—but arguably more naturally the latter, particularly since “punishment” is parallel with “life,” which unquestionably means living forever.

What about verses that refer to “eternal fire”? Why would fire need to burn forever if no one was being punished or destroyed by it?

It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. (Matthew 18:8, ESV)

Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41, ESV)

One possible answer is that the “eternal” fire refers to the results of the fire, not that the fire actually burns forever, as we saw that this phrase did when referring to Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 7.[13]

Another possibility is that word “eternal” does not always or only have a quantitative meaning (everlasting) but can sometimes have a qualitative meaning (of the coming age), as some scholars argue.  The New Testament views time as a division of ages—the present age and the age to come.  So perhaps “eternal” can mean “characteristic of the age to come.” So, “eternal fire” does not necessarily mean fire that burns forever but could mean the fire characteristic of the coming age, the fire of judgment.

Conclusion: It seems that the use of the word “eternal” in relation to the duration of hell can be harmonized with the Eternal Conscious Torment view and with the Conditional Immortality view, arguably more naturally with the former. But these phrases present major problems for the Ultimate Salvation view. At the least, eternal destruction would seem to be destruction that lasts forever. Eternal punishment would seem to be punishment that lasts forever, either in action or in effect. Eternal fire would at least seem to be fire that consumes forever. Proponents of Universal Salvation would have to argue that the word “eternal” carries no quantitative sense (everlasting) and only qualitative (of the age to come), an argument that is highly unlikely.

Argument 6: The word “Gehenna,” translated “hell” in English translations, implies a place of destruction, not a place of everlasting torment.

In the first century, Gehenna was a name only understandable to Jews.[14] It is the Aramaic word for the Valley of Hinnom (also named Topheth) on the south side of Jerusalem. In Jeremiah’s day, idolatrous Israelites burned their children alive in this valley (Jeremiah 7:31). The name Topheth might have been derived either from the Hebrew word for “burn” or from the word “drum,” referring to the drums that were used to drown out the screams of the children being burned. It may have been the place where Hezekiah burned 185,000 dead Assyrian bodies (Is 30:33-33; 37:36). King Josiah, in his campaign to eradicate idolatry, defiled Topheth. Jeremiah prophesied that in a future day, the entire city would become as defiled as Topheth and that the valley would be renamed the “Valley of Slaughter” because so many Israelites would be buried there (Jeremiah 19:2-13). It is commonly accepted that in Jesus day, the valley served as Jerusalem’s garbage dump, although this idea seems to come solely from the writings of a Jewish Rabbi who wrote around 1200 AD with no supporting information.

Whether or not Gehenna was still a garbage dump at the time of Jesus’ ministry, the name would, from the Old Testament alone, have brought to mind defilement, slaughter, and desecration. Although the valley was still there, south of Jerusalem, Jesus’ use of the word shows that it had taken on a symbolic meaning as well, probably having become a more-or-less standard term for the fiery pit in which the godless will face God’s justice. Jesus referred to it not only as a place of destruction of the body, but also of the soul (Matthew 10:28)

Jesus speaks of Gehenna in Mark 9:43 as a place of unquenchable fire, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (9:48). This is undoubtedly a reference to the last verse in the last chapter of Isaiah, where, with the coming of the kingdom, the righteous go out and “look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me [God]. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

Jesus’ reference to Isaiah’s description of the desolation and total destruction of the wicked could imply that Gehenna is a place of destruction rather than eternal torment.

Unquenchable fire is fire that is not able to be quenched—irresistible. Nothing will be able to stop the fire from accomplishing its work, which would normally be to destroy. Unquenchable does not mean everlasting.

It is difficult to know for sure what images the word “Gehenna” evoked to Jesus’ hearers. But as we saw earlier, the evidence does not support the idea that Jesus’ hearers commonly held preconceptions that “Gehenna” involved eternal punishment as modern day readers do. And Jesus’ use of imagery from Isaiah 66 would suggest destruction more than eternal torment for those who are in Gehenna. In summary, it seems that Jesus’ use of the word “Gehenna” could fit all three views with a slight advantage to the Conditional Immortality view.

Argument 7: Several verses state that all people and all things will be reconciled to God or justified by Him.

Romans 5:18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”

In chapter 5, Paul compares Adam and Christ. It is argued that in the same way that all men were made sinners by Adam’s sin, so “all men” will be justified by Jesus’ act of righteousness on the cross.

As always, context helps. Verse 17 says that death reigned through the one man (Adam) but “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Not all will reign in life through Christ, but only those who receive the gift of righteousness. Paul goes on in chapter six to explain that we are placed “in Christ” in our conversion/baptism, and this is how we are united with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection. So the context shows that although all men are naturally “in Adam,” only those who believe and are converted/baptized are “in Christ.” Evidently when Paul speaks of “all men” at the end of verse 18, he is saying that God has provided the way of justification for all men. Yet they must receive this free gift (17) and be converted/baptized (6:3).

1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Again, this verse must be understood in view of Paul’s overall theological perspective. All men start out “in Adam” and are either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” All who are “in Adam” (the whole human race) died. All who are in Christ (God’s redeemed people) will be make alive at the resurrection. Verse 23 confirms this when it talks about the resurrection of “those who belong to Christ” at His coming. All who are not in Christ, His enemies, will be forcefully put under his feet (24-25).

Romans 11:32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

Again the context helps.  In Romans 11 we see an historical progression 1) the Gentiles were disobedient, 2) the Jews were disobedient (and killed their Messiah), 3) the Gentiles received mercy because of the Jew’s disobedience, 4) the goal is that the Jews will also receive mercy. Even though the Jews have been partially and temporarily hardened by God, His purpose is to dash their pretentions of self-righteousness and make them see their need of a suffering Messiah so that they will believe and receive mercy. The passage is not saying that God will ultimately have mercy on all men, but that He is working to humble all men so that He can have mercy on all who believe in Jesus.

Philippians 2:10-11: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Traditionally, this passage has been understood to mean joyful confession on the part of those who love Christ and reluctant confession from those who are forced by His appearing to acknowledge His lordship.

One advocate of Universal Reconciliation argues that the word “confess” as used in the New Testament always refers to voluntary confession and therefore all must be reconciled to God.[15] However Paul is quoting from Isaiah 45:23 and in that context the offspring of Israel are vindicated and shall glory (25), whereas “all who were incensed against God “shall come and be ashamed (24). Also, a confession could be “voluntary” once His lordship is unmistakable to all, yet still be in dismay with the realization that this confession means their doom.

Colossians 1:19-20: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

These verses show God’s intention in Christ to reconcile the entire cosmos to Himself, including fallen creation. How can this verse harmonize with the Eternal Conscious Torment view, where men are still in rebellion to God and continue to sin against Him forever[16] and be at odds with Him forever?

One approach is to adopt an unusual meaning for “reconcile,” which normally means restoration of fellowship between God and sinners. Douglas Moo sees “reconciliation” as “restoration” or “renewal” or “pacification.”[17] Vaughan thinks “reconcile” might mean “decisively subdued to God’s will and made to serve his purposes.”[18]  Yet that would mean that it is somehow God’s purpose for sinners to continue sinning in hell, perhaps even cursing Him. This hardly sounds like reconciliation. If Paul meant “pacify” or “subdue” he certainly could have chosen words that say that.

Another approach is not to include hell in “all things,” since Paul only mentions things on earth and in heaven and doesn’t mention “under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). Things under the earth are not reconciled.[19] This seems unsatisfactory in view of the context, which states that in Christ, all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (1:16). There is no mention of “under the earth in this verse either, but it is clear that Paul intends to include the entire universe, material and immaterial.

In my opinion, these are the strongest verses that are used to argue for Universal Reconciliation, Colossians 1:19-20 being the strongest. Interestingly, this passage presents few problems for Conditional Immortality advocates who believe that ultimately, after justice has been fully served in hell, all the wicked, both men and angels, will cease to exist. At that point all things that still exist in heaven and earth will have been reconciled to God through Christ.

Argument 8: The book of Revelation is highly allegorical and should not be determinative concerning the eternality of human torment.

The book of Revelation arguably contains the Bible’s most comprehensive description of the end of all things and the nature of life in the coming ages.  Yet the book is written in apocalyptic genre with its abundance of symbolism. Revelation relies heavily on antecedent Biblical themes, vocabulary, metaphors, and stories. Approaches to the book vary considerably with very different results in interpretation. Some take an historical approach to the book, believing that it was speaking to events that are now past, events concerning the Roman Empire or the Catholic church. Others view the book as futuristic—it is speaking of events yet to come. This is the view I find most compelling. Proponents of either approach tend to view the last several chapters of the book as futuristic.

Particularly with the futuristic view, Revelation 20:10, combined with Revelation 14:9-11 present perhaps the strongest Biblical argument for the eternal torment of the wicked.

In his apocalyptic vision, John saw three angels giving three pronouncements—warnings to the inhabitants of the earth. The third pronouncement says:

“If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9–11, ESV)

Revelation 19 describes a Rider on a white horse who comes out of heaven to slay the wicked in the winepress of God’s wrath. The beast, most likely the Antichrist (a Satanically inspired world ruler), and the kings of the earth have gathered to make war against the rider, who represents Jesus Christ.

And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet . . . These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Revelation 19:20–21, ESV)

It seems likely that the “lake of fire that burns with sulfur” is the place warned about in Revelation 14, the place where those who worship the beast will be tormented and have no rest day or night.

Revelation 20 then speaks of a resurrection of those who have not worshiped the beast who reign with Christ for a thousand years. When the thousand years are over, a final Satanically-inspired rebellion occurs.

“. . . but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:9–10, ESV)

Finally, John saw a great white throne from which God judged the dead according to their deeds and according to whether their name was written in the book of life.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14–15, ESV)

In summary, it appears that the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire where they are tormented for a thousand years, after which Satan is also thrown in, where all three will be tormented day and night forever and ever. This last phrase (through the ages of the ages) is perhaps the strongest possible way of expressing “everlasting” in the Greek language. Finally, on the judgment day, all whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the fiery lake. Presumably they also will be tormented there, the angel in Revelation 14 having warned that this will happen to those who worship the beast. Since the beast, false prophet and Satan will be tormented forever and ever it would seem that the torment of all who are thrown into the lake of fire will also be everlasting.

Proponents of Conditional Mortality or Universal Reconciliation have argued as follows:

The phrase “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” does not necessarily mean that the fire and smoke actually continue forever and ever, but that there effect does. John is using judgment language from Isaiah 34:10, which says that the smoke of Edom’s judgment “shall go up forever,” even though Edom is obviously still not smoking today.

“Fire and sulfur,” which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah had become Biblical language depicting absolute destruction.

“No rest day or night” does not mean eternal, but unrelenting suffering during the time of punishment in hell.

Revelation 14:9-11 parallels the judgment on Babylon the Great described in chapters 17-19, which is a judgment of utter destruction.

The beast and the false prophet may refer to governmental or religious entities rather than to men. If so, it seems clear that an institution could not suffer conscious, sensible pain. Also, death and hades are thrown into the lake of fire. Death and Hades are abstractions and not personal beings and could not suffer conscious pain. The implication is that death and hades are destroyed and are no more. Since not everything thrown into the Lake of Fire suffers eternal, conscious, torment, this may suggest that the language depicting such torment was intended to be symbolic for utter destruction rather than eternal torment.

Revelation 20:14 says, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (NIV84). As in other such couplings in Revelation, the second phrase (second death) explains the first (lake of fire). John is not clarifying that the second death is the lake of fire, but clarifying that the lake of fire is the second death. John chooses the word “death” for a reason—to signify destruction and non-existence. The first death is the death and destruction of the body. The second death is the death and destruction of the entire person.

Finally, when John says that the beast and false prophet will be “tormented forever and ever” (through the ages of ages), even this very strong statement may not require the meaning “everlasting.” If their punishment was a million, billion years, what language would John have used to describe this length of time?

These verses in Revelation 14 and 20 make a very strong case for the Eternal Conscious Torment view. If taken straightforwardly, these verses show that at least one being, the devil,[20] will be tormented forever.  And if the beast and false prophet depict men, which is likely,[21] then three beings will be tormented forever and ever. And if the lake of fire accomplishes the same thing with those whose names are not written in the book of life, which would be a logical assumption, then all the wicked will be tormented forever and ever. Yet the above counterarguments from the other two views keep this from being a slam dunk. Revelation is highly metaphorical by design. And in Revelation there are concepts and phrases, such as the second death, that point toward destruction rather than eternal torment. Finally, some of the images, such as smoke going up forever and ever, may be metaphorical language depicting utter destruction that is taken from the Old Testament, as is so prevalent in the book of Revelation.

Argument 9: God is love and therefore it would be against His nature to torment people eternally. Furthermore, it would be against His nature to allow anyone to be eternally lost.

The Bible speaks abundantly about the love of God. God is love (1 John 4:8). Love is an essential and eternal element of who God is. Our triune God has been loving for all eternity—giving and receiving and interacting within Himself in perfect relationship. At first glance this glorious view of God would seem to demand that He love all His creation eternally.

Yet it must be pointed out that love must appropriately relate to value. For one member of the Trinity to fail to love another would be unthinkable, because a loving being could not fail to love another who has infinite value.

Yet is it a failure of love for God not to love an ant, to allow an ant to perish? As a part of God’s creation, an ant has value, but that value is finite and limited. So it would make sense that God loves ants, but that His love for ants is appropriately finite compared to His love for a fellow member of the Trinity, which must be infinite.

As the pinnacle of God’s physical creation, man has incomparably more value than an ant, yet that value is not infinite. Therefore, for God to destroy a man, particularly a ruined man, would not necessarily be a violation of His intrinsic nature of love. Certainly man’s value is such that God has a sense of loss, preferring that men repent and believe (Ezekiel 18:23). Yet to allow a rebellious and perhaps unredeemable man to perish is not a failure of love.

The truth of the gospel amazes us because it shows the incredible value that God places on man. Mankind is so valuable that God endured agonizing suffering and death on our behalf. God was willing to endure a momentary disruption in the eternal peace and harmony within the Trinity as He poured out His wrath on His own Son in our place. Unquestionably enduring that agony compounded God’s glory and promoted even greater love and honor within the Trinity (if that is possible).

Yet the nearly unfathomable love of God for mankind does not obligate God to love men infinitely or eternally. The cross shows how valuable man is to God, but that value is still not infinite. Neither does the cross guarantee that all men will respond and be redeemed. And the love of the cross, as great as it is, does not prove that God must or will ultimately redeem every man.

In addition, it seems clear that man’s choice to rebel against God has at least the potential to reduce man’s value. A man who has given in to the perversion of hatred and has become a serial killer has lost his value to society and must be executed or locked in prison. So it would seem that those who have twisted and perverted themselves, refusing to love God or man, could lose their value to God.

Additionally, since God is love, He demands that His morally-enabled creatures love. It would be unloving for God to allow some creatures to push and shove and kill and rape other creatures with impunity. As the loving ruler of the universe, God has the duty of judging between His moral creatures. Not to do so would be unloving.

Finally, God has the duty of upholding His own honor. Any creature that would spit in his creator’s face and attempt to break free from his creator’s rule can obviously not be trusted. No such free-wheeling creature can be allowed in the kingdom where love must reign. Additionally, each member of the Trinity has the duty of protecting the other members honor from the abuse of men. God’s love and duty to rule demands that He execute justice on those who refuse to love.

Similarly, since God’s love does not obligate Him to love morally ruined and unrepentant men, then vengeance and retribution on God’s part are also not a failure to love. Rather they are His duty—to love and vindicate and avenge those who have been injured by the unrepentant wicked. Since it is not a failure of love for God to cease to love the incorrigible, then punishment and retribution for their own sake can be a loving purpose of God, vindicating the victims. Therefore in order for punishment to be loving, it does not always have to be for the purpose of eventual rehabilitation and redemption.

But is it loving or just for God to forever torment those who have sinned against Him? Oddly, this scenario seems to place a higher value on man than the perishing view. Man retains value to God not for fellowship or interaction with Himself or any of His redeemed creation, but simply to demonstrate forever the horrible consequences of rebellion against Him. Although God’s honor is certainly valuable enough to merit such a fate, perhaps such a fate would not be required to adequately maintain His honor. It could be that the wicked perishing forever after a period of just retribution in hell could also adequately maintain His honor.

It’s interesting to note how different traditional theological perspectives treat the love of God, the sovereignty of God, and the eternality of hell. Does God love everyone? Does God always achieve His purposes? Will the majority of people be forever damned to hell?

Calvinists stress that God will always achieve His purposes and therefore He will save everyone that He desires and intends to save. They also affirm that many, if not most, people will spend eternity in hell. This means that God does not love all people in the sense of desiring that they flourish eternally. He passes over some that He could save.

Arminians affirm that God desires and intends that all men be eternally blessed. Yet many, if not most, will spend eternity in hell. This means that not all of God’s intentions and desires come to pass.[22]

Universalists agree with Calvinists that God’s desire to save is never thwarted and agree with Arminians that God loves all people and desires their salvation. This means that God will ultimately save everyone.

Without a doubt, our philosophical leanings in regard to God’s love, justice, and duty to maintain His own honor can powerfully influence our interpretation of the scripture. We should redouble our efforts to come to our philosophical conclusions as a result of careful and honest interpretation of the scripture rather than the other way around.  That is why I have centered the preponderance of this paper on the scripture and its interpretation.

Conclusion: Has the Eternal Conscious Torment view withstood the challenge that has been raised against it? I would say yes and no. Yes in the sense that I don’t find overwhelming evidence requiring us to abandon it. No in the sense that the Biblical support for ECT is weaker than most assume and its challenges stronger than typically assumed.

There seem to be strong scriptural arguments on both sides of the issue. In the end, it may come down to whether a strong argument from two passages in highly symbolic Revelation and a fairly convincing verse in at the end of Matthew 25 outweigh dozens[23] of verses and metaphors that seem to show that the wicked will be destroyed and cease to exist. In addition there is a passage in Colossians that clearly talks about the reconciliation of all things to God, visible and inviable (a problem for the Eternal Conscious Torment view but not for the other two).

One conclusion from our study is that the Universal Reconciliation view is highly unlikely, in my opinion, having little scriptural support. Not only does this view have to overcome the exegetical strengths of the ETC view, it also has to overcome the exegetical strengths of the CI view. Its strongest argument is its philosophical appeal to the all-overcoming love of God. This is a very appealing view in current American culture; but I find the scriptural support for this view to be weak.

Perhaps we should be content to let the answer remain a mystery. Perhaps God has not fully and clearly revealed whether or not those in hell will be there for eternity.

How might our understanding of the eternality of hell affect our motivations and our preaching?

If the initial seven agreed-upon statements are true, then hell is a very real place of torment and suffering. Jesus strongly warned people about hell and admonished them to do all within their power to avoid it. Whether hell is eternal or not, scripture is unmistakably clear that it is terrifyingly horrible. All three of the views we have examined believe that there will be a time of conscious torment.  Even if that time is not eternal, it could be millions of billions of years. Little solace should be taken that hell might someday end. First of all there is a strong possibility, or probability, that Hell is eternal.  Secondly, even if it results in eventual annihilation, that, in itself, is a terrible loss. Thirdly, even if there might be a remote possibility that there could be universal reconciliation, yet the terror of being in hell for a time is still there.

Like, Jesus, we must warn people of the reality of hell. We should strongly preach about the coming judgment and the coming wrath of God.  Even though we do not know every detail about how God’s wrath will unfold, the scripture is filled with warnings that it is coming, that a day of judgment is coming, and that we must be prepared and clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

We should be humble and cautious in our preaching about hell. We should stick to what we believe the scriptures unambiguously teach. We should not cling to the traditional view just because it is the most accepted or even because it has been the traditional view of the church. We must do our best not to misrepresent what God has revealed in the scripture. Our goal is to be faithful ambassadors of God, accurately proclaiming His power, holiness, love, justice, and wrath.

We should not get into fights with fellow Christians regarding the eternality of hell or condemn those who take a different position based on their honest understanding of scripture. We should engage with one another and learn from one another, but avoid heated debates about an issue that does not seem to be essential to the core of the gospel message.

We should preach the cross of Jesus Christ as God’s provision to take away the guilt of our sin so that God’s wrath can be taken away. We should also see in the cross the terrifying nature of the wrath of God against sin and not underestimate the forcefulness of His wrath and especially against those who reject His Son’s provision of eternal redemption.

Bibliography:

God is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True, A Review of Love Wins, by Rob Bell, By Kevin De Young, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/files/2011/03/LoveWinsReview.pdf

The Fire that Consumes, A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Editions, Edward William Fudge, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon

The Importance of Hell, by Timothy Keller, August 1, 2008, http://www.timothykeller.com/blog/2008/8/1/the-importance-of-hell

Toward a Better Understanding of Hell, Collin Hansen, The Gospel Coalition, March 18, 2011, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/toward-a-better-understanding-of-hell

A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism, Robert A. Peteson, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1994.

Universal Salvation, The Current debate, Edited by Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.

A Conditionalist Website can be found at http://rethinkinghell.com

[1] The Evangelical Universal Reconciliation view sees salvation only through faith in the substitutionary death of Christ, believing that people in Hell will eventually come to saving faith. This differs from the broader universalism that believes that God will forgive and accept every person of every religion whether or not they believe in Christ.

[2] The book of Enoch is evidently quoted in Jude 14-15, although it has not been proven that Jude quoted from Enoch. Perhaps Enoch borrowed from Jude, who relied on another written or oral source.

[3] In my 2002 paper on hell, I quoted two sources that, to me, strongly indicated that the eternal conscious torment view had become predominate in Jesus’ day. With more careful research, I discovered that neither source is at all persuasive. One that was attributed to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, was actually written by a 9th century monk. The other, 4 Maccabees, is a commentary on 2 Maccabees, and is considered one of the best ancient examples of an attempt to blend Hebrew thought with Greek philosophical thought. It was most likely written shortly before or even after Jesus lived and thus would have had no wide influence on Jewish opinions of the time.

[4] The Greek word translated ‘destruction” is translated “destruction” 15 times and “waste” twice.

[5] The Greek word translated “perish” can, in some contexts have the meaning “lose” or “be lost.” Yet its more common meaning is “perish” or “be destroyed.” Contrasted here with “eternal life” it seems most likely that “perish” is the best translation. Twenty out of twenty one translations that I consulted translate it “perish,” “die,” or “be destroyed.” Only one translated it “be lost.”

[6] This word can mean “corruption,” “perishing,” or “destruction” as in the NIV. Here “destruction” is probably the preferred meaning, since it is contrasted with “life.”

[7] See argument 5 for a discussion of the word “everlasting.”

[8] Most translations translate “from” as “away from,” but it is just as natural to translate it “from.” The identical construction appears in Acts 3:19 (times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord). The context supports the idea that Paul is predicting destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord, as it continues the thought of verse 8, which speaks of God inflicting vengeance with flaming fire. The idea that men are destroyed by being excluded from the Lord’s presence is nowhere supported in the context. God will destroy the wicked with His coming, His presence, and with His glorious might. Finally, it is highly likely that Paul is directly quoting Isaiah 2 from the Greek Septuagint where the phrase appears three times (with one additional word “fear”) in the context of men hiding from the presence of the Lord.

[9] An alternate rendering says that they will be destroyed along with the “glorious ones” that they are slandering.

[10] Hebrews 10:11-14 says that by a single offering Jesus took away our sin, perfecting His people for all time.

[11] It would be possible that God might partially corrupt or destroy and then leave a person in that state forever, but the verse doesn’t say anything about partial destruction or corruption. The idea that a gradual destruction or corruption of a finite being over an infinite period of time doesn’t make sense. Eventually there would be nothing left to corrupt or destroy.

[12] When you destroy a house, the materials may still exist, but the house no longer exists as an entity. When you destroy a person’s body, the body still exists for a time, but no longer as a person. When food is corrupted or ruined, it no longer exists as food.

[13] “Fire” is not a noun indicating a result, but neither is “sin” in Mark 3:29. Yet in that case “eternal” refers to the result of sin, not to sin itself.

[14] “Gehenna” does not appear in pagan Greek literature, the Septuagint, or in Josephus. (Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, third edition, p 116

[15] Robin A. Parry;Christopher H. Partridge. Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate (Kindle Location 1462). Kindle Edition

[16] Many ETC advocates justify the justice of eternal punishment by suggesting that people will continue to sin eternally, and therefore deserve to be punished eternally.

[17] Pillar New Testament Commentary

[18] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

[19] William McDonald, Bible Knowledge Commentary.

[20] Even if the devil and presumably his angels are tormented forever and ever in the Lake of fire, the scriptures seem to say that the angels are immortal. If humans are not immortal, their end may be different from the fallen angels.

[21] Especially if we compare this apocalyptic vision with that of Daniel 7

[22] Arminians also believe that God could save all men, but has purposed only to save those who freely repent and believe. In other words, God’s decision to grant man freedom of choice trumps His desire to save all.

[23] Hundreds if the Old Testament verses depicting destruction apply

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Is Edge Venture Biblical?

Is Edge Venture Biblical?

My name is David Bovenmyer and I am a co-pastor of Stonebrook Community Church in Ames Iowa. I have been a pastor for over 40 years, serving churches in Iowa and Maryland and planting Riverbend Church in East Lansing Michigan. I also serve on the Executive Committee and the Doctrinal Committee of Great Commission Churches, helping to lead an association of approximately 70 churches and ministries in the United States.

In the fall of 2011, a close friend of mine invited me to attend Edge Venture, a men’s retreat in the Detroit area. I was greatly impressed by the weekend but, Michigan being so far away, did not return to staff until the fall of 2013 at the tail end of a trip to Michigan for another reason. It was at this weekend that I began to get a vision of how Edge Venture could help fulfill my passion to make disciples and build them into Christ likeness. I saw how powerfully the Holy Spirit affected men through the Edge ministry, touching their hearts at a depth that rarely happened at other Christian retreats. I thought “I need to bring my boys to this.”  So, in the spring of 2014, I went back, bringing my youngest son and a couple men from our church to help check out the potential value of the weekend. My son had a tremendous breakthrough as a hurtful, shame-producing event came to light that he had kept hidden from his parents and everyone. He now sees his Edge weekend as a turning point in his life and is enthusiastically supporting Edge and inviting others. The men from my church who went with me were also impacted by the weekend and wanted to bring others.

Over the next couple years, I returned to Michigan, bringing two more of my sons, who also found the weekend to be liberating in areas where they had felt “stuck” in their growth as believers.  Word spread to several churches in Iowa, and during this time over 25 men traveled from Iowa to Michigan to experience the weekend. A decision was made to attempt a weekend in Iowa, and in May 2016 the first weekend had 33 participants, followed by a second in September with 37 participants. One of the participants was my fourth son to attend. Edge was extremely helpful to him and has given him relationship with Christian men that he respects and enjoys.

Edge Venture calls itself an “experiential” weekend and as such is quite different from the typical intensive-teaching men’s weekend that I was used to. From my first weekend on it was obvious that the gospel of the grace of God and the cross and resurrection of Christ were at the very center of the weekend. Yet I knew that a few of the processes used at Edge originated with non-Christian men’s retreats and the question arose in my mind as to whether Edge Venture is Biblical. This is a very important question to me as studying theology is one of my passions.  I don’t want to have anything to do with things that undermine the Bible or undercut the gospel.  Having thought long and hard and having evaluated each process, I have concluded that what happens at Edge is strongly Biblical, which I will detail below. I have not found anything to be unbiblical—contradicting Biblical truth or practice.

What is the goal of Edge Venture?

In my perception the goal of Edge Venture is to make and build disciples by helping men connect more deeply with their own hearts, with other men, and with the Lord. In our first Iowa Edge weekend two men gave their lives to the Lord, one the father-in-law of a staff man who had prayed for him for many, many years. And on our second Iowa weekend I was able to lead a man to Christ. We have had over thirty men from our church attend Edge and almost all of them will testify that the weekend moved them significantly forward in their efforts to follow the Lord.

What are some of the clearly biblical elements at Edge?

  1. Confession: The weekend is designed to bring a man face to face with what is not working in his life and face to face with his failures and sins. I am always amazed at how consistently this happens, yet in a way that is not overly shaming or humiliating (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9).
  2. Claiming forgiveness in Christ: The gospel is at the center of the weekend and nothing thrills my soul on these retreats more than seeing men come clean in ways they never have before and seeing them find the tremendous release that comes with understanding and accepting the forgiveness of Christ (1 John 2:1-2, Romans 5:1, 8:1).
  3. Repentance: Not only do men confess their sins and find forgiveness in Christ, but consistently they also come away from the retreat with hope and resolution to turn away from evil and follow Christ more strongly (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).
  4. Humility: I have found the men who lead and staff Edge Venture to be humble servants, dedicating their time and energy and prayers to the men who attend. All staff men serve without pay.  Their humble, servant attitude is obvious and contagious, modeling a form of manliness that some men have never seen before (Luke 6:40).
  5. Letting go of anger and bitterness: Several processes give men the chance to address anger and bitterness and encourage them to let it go and to let God be the judge and avenger. The Bible teaches that anger and bitterness can be a hidden root that affects the entire plant. Bitterness can spread throughout the church and the world, defiling many. I’ve seen men come to Edge whose anger and bitterness has defiled their wife, their kids, their church, and their community. Often such men have tried over and over again to forgive and let go of their anger, yet the anger remains and keeps erupting. Several Edge processes can powerfully help a man reach down into his heart, find the hidden root of bitterness, and pull it out at the roots by forgiving at a deeper level than ever before (Hebrews 12:15).
  6. Mourning losses: Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:40). None of us like to mourn, yet mourning is necessary if we are to get past our losses and return to joy. Edge gives men an opportunity to do this. A man on my first weekend was having great difficulty connecting emotionally with his wife and children. This was so distressing to his wife that she was thinking of separating. He had made genuine efforts to connect more deeply, but it seemed that something inside was blocking or hindering this. During an Edge process, a memory came to mind; in my perspective this was Spirit-led.  He remembered the death of his younger brother, who had died when this man was ten. During the process, he was able to mourn the loss of his brother, say goodbye, receive comfort from God and his Edge brothers, and gain a perspective of his brother’s death that was much closer to God’s perspective than before.  He went back to his wife and family, an emotionally freer man, able to better connect because the inner pain that his heart had been hiding had been comforted.
  7. Receiving God’s comfort: Paul said that God comforted him in all his affliction so that he would be able to comfort those in any affliction with the comfort he himself had received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).  Men often receive great comfort from the Lord and from other Edge men during the weekends, which deepens their appreciation for the love of God and fills them with compassion for others who are hurting.
  8. Weeping with those who weep: Paul commands us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). The openness and authenticity of the Edge environment provides great stimulus for this to happen. Doing this is often powerfully encouraging, comforting, and affirming.
  9. Encouraging and providing accountability: Men are challenged to choose a goal that would be a “stretch” for them and report back to a man of their choice for encouragement and accountability. In our church we have found that the openness and honesty fostered at Edge has, at least to a degree, carried over into our small groups[1] (Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25).
  10. Bonding with other men: Many men have had difficulty bonding to their fathers or other male role models either because of an absent father or other factors. Edge has proven to be one step in some men’s journey as they step out of their comfort zone and attempt to truly connect with other men (1 Peter 5:1-7).
  11. Avoiding partiality: One of the rules at Edge is that men do not share their occupation with each other during the weekend. This has the wonderful effect of putting the men on the same level, encouraging oneness (James 2:1).
  12. Experiencing what is learned: In many of our churches, believers hear hundreds of teachings from the Bible, which is wonderful and vital. It is easy however, for men to hear the truth and not do it. During an Edge weekend, men are encouraged (never required) to step out and do the things they are learning (James 1:22-25).
  13. Exposing idolatry: Countless times at Edge weekends I have watched as the Spirit of God exposes either a low or unworthy conception of God or a heart that is wrapped around created things rather than the Creator. Some of the processes are designed to give the Spirit of God opportunity to do this and it very often happens (1 John 5:21).
  14. Learning from the Bible: Throughout the weekend the story of David’s life is presented, a story that includes many lessons for our lives. And a Christ-centered, gospel-centered message is given on Sunday morning (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
  15. Remembering the Lord: An opportunity is given for men to remember the Lord as we share bread and grape juice in communion on Sunday morning (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26).
  16. Worshiping the Lord in song: This also happens on Sunday morning, and often many eyes are filled with tears of gratefulness for what God has done for us in Christ and for what He has done during the weekend (Colossians 3:16).
  17. Changing from the inside out: Jesus said that man’s problems with sin are not primarily external, but stem from the heart (Matthew 5:17-20). He rebuked the Pharisees because they cleaned the outside of the cup and dish, but did nothing to clean up the inside (Matthew 23:25). In Romans 8, Paul rejoices that God has sent the Holy Spirit to indwell our hearts so that the fruit of the Spirit can flow out through us (Romans 1:-11, Galatians 5: 22-23). These scriptures make it clear that God wants to transform men and women from the inside out. It is my experience that greater authenticity, more honest confession, and greater attention to emotion[2] can be extremely helpful, in fact sometimes necessary, for change from the inside out to occur. How can we correct that which we have never fully acknowledged? It’s impossible.
  18. Using symbolism, imagery, and surprise: The scriptures tell the story of God creating a world and working to redeem that world after it rebelled against Him. That story is often communicated with striking images, symbols, and surprises. The climax of the story, the death and resurrection of the Savior Himself, was a surprise to all. We see that the prophets were often commanded to do things in symbolic ways to vividly communicate the message of God. This went to lengths that to us would seem extreme, such as going naked and barefoot (Isaiah 20:2-4), lying for months on one side (Ezekiel 4:4-6), and marrying a prostitute (Hosea 1:2-4).  Perhaps God knows that we sometimes need striking images and surprises to get our attention. Edge Venture uses imagery (thoroughly wholesome) and the element of anticipation and surprise to get men’s attention and turn it to the Lord.  Maintaining this element of suspense and surprise is the sole reason for not fully informing participants regarding all aspects of the weekend. Nothing is kept secret for any other reason.
  19. Using story: God has revealed Himself in history and we have that revelation primarily in the form of story. God could have given a systematic theology, but in His great wisdom He chose to use story. Edge Venture also teaches using story, the story of David’s life and the grand story of God—creation, the fall, redemption, and future restoration—climaxing in the story of Jesus. During the weekend, men are given the opportunity to reflect on the story of their own lives in order to better understand how their life story fits in to the grand story of God as He works all things together for His glory and for the good of those He loves (Romans 8:28-30).
  20. Challenging men toward Christlikeness: All these elements work together to create an extremely challenging retreat. Consistently I receive feedback from men who attend Edge Venture that this retreat challenged them more than any other men’s retreat they have attended, calling them to be the man of God that He created and redeemed them to be (Colossians 1:28-29).

These are some of the biblical goals and practices of Edge Venture. The way these goals are achieved is somewhat different from what happens at many men’s retreats, but God allows diversity in the methods and forms that we choose. All that we do must be firmly founded on the scriptures and the gospel of Christ, yet the scriptures are largely silent regarding forms and methods. Perhaps this is because God knew that the most effective forms and methods would vary from culture to culture and generation to generation. So we have freedom to use forms and methods that are most effective in our culture, as long as they do not undermine or circumvent scriptural commands or principles.[3] In reality, this is a difficult line to walk, but Jesus said that one way we can judge is by the fruit. After an Edge weekend, I see such things as men breaking free from pornography addictions, men spending time with their wives and children rather than obsessing over sports, men bonding with one another and with their families at deeper levels, men who were once secretly angry at God now truly excited to serve Him, men who have grown in confidence in their position in Christ, men who are better leaders and connectors and lovers.

One challenge I experience as a pastor is that it is often hard for men to really engage as active participants in their church and in the discipleship process. Edge Venture challenges each man to go back to his local church and actively participate and to be the man that God wants him to be as a leader of his family, an active participant in the church, and an involved member of his community.

Not every man who attends a weekend has a breakthrough, but I’ve seen so much good fruit that I am sold on the weekend’s effectiveness to greatly help in making and building disciples. Edge venture is designed to invite a man to look within, to discover what is not working, what is broken inside, and to seek the Lord for healing and transformation. There is really nothing magical about the weekend. It’s simply putting into practice Biblical principles that are sometimes ignored or practiced at a shallow, comfortable level. The weekend challenges men to go deeper with God and to give Him all of their hearts and lives.

These are my perspectives of Edge Venture and its Biblical elements and are my opinions alone. I am not been authorized to officially represent Edge Venture. Neither do my opinions necessarily represent those of Stonebrook Community Church or of Great Commission Churches.

If you have any questions or concerns feel free to call me; I would love to talk. I could also refer you to other pastors who have seen the power of applying these Biblical principles on an Edge weekend. You are always welcome to come check out Edge in person.

David Bovenmyer

2611 Woodview Drive

Ames, IA 50014

dave@stonebrook.org

[1] In our church we have chosen to limit our Edge small group to once a month in order not to undermine our existing small groups, which we see as a priority.

[2] I have written on the subject of emotion for Great Commission Church’s leadership training in Emotions and the Heart. This paper does not reflect the position of Edge Venture in any way, but only my own.

[3] I have written a paper that is used in Great Commission Church’s leadership training entitled The Bible and Psychology, Sociology, Science, and Business Principles which states my views on the integration of the Bible and other disciplines. This paper does not reflect the positon of Edge Venture in any way, but only my own.

Just Stop It!

Subtitle: Transformation from the Inside Out

Faithwalkers 2016 Seminar

Slide Presentation and Message Notes

Presented by Dave & Dawn Bovenmyer

When it comes to changing hurtful habits, we’ve all wished that we could “Just Stop It.” But, sadly, we too-often find that our sinful behavior continues despite our ardent resolutions.  In this seminar we will learn a way to inject the truth that we know cognitively deeper into our hearts and to dislodge falsehoods that have been experientially planted in our lives. Dave and Dawn will share insights from their own personal journey that have helped them find transformation from the inside out.

Slide Presentation:

faithwalkers-2016-just-stop-it

Message Notes:

faithwalkers-2016-just-stop-it

Bob Newhart, Stop It:

Romans 9 and Unconditional Election

David Bovenmyer’s seminar notes, GCC Pastor’s Conference—June 19, 2012

In the time I have allotted, I won’t be able to go through the chapter verse by verse, but must confine myself to giving three overall assumptions and then some observations on the passage. So I’ll dive right in.

Assumption #1: Paul’s purpose in this passage was not to address the questions and issues that surfaced in the church during the middle ages.

This may seem too obvious to mention, but, frankly, it’s all too easy for us to have our minds filled with the issues of our day or to have our thinking colored by our theological tradition or by the debates throughout the history of the church, and never really discern the issues and questions that the writers of scripture were addressing. Continue reading

Romans 7 Refers to a Man Under the Law, Not a Man Under Grace

Here are some thoughts on the identity of the “wretched man” of  Romans 7:14-ff. These verses refer to a man attempting to serve God under the law of Moses (Torah), not a man under grace and serving in the “way of the Spirit.” These are preliminary thoughts and I would appreciate any feedback that you may have for me.

Continue reading

What is the Flesh?

This morning I wrote this definition of the “flesh.” The word is used very broadly in the New Testament.  This definition is an attempt to define a narrow usage of the word by Paul in Galatians 5, 1 Corinthians 3, Romans 7, and a few other places.  These are my preliminary thoughts and I would love any feedback that you have for me.

The flesh, as spoken of by Paul in Galatians 5, is an orientation of life consistent with that of the natural man attempting to live apart from God, Christ and redemption. At the core of this orientation is a tendency toward the indiscriminate satisfaction of human desire without proper regard for God, other humans, or eventual consequences. Living in the flesh is consistent with living in the world, since the world largely lives by this orientation. Living in the flesh becomes addictive and ingrained in habits of the body and of the mind.  Since many indiscriminately indulged desires are physical in origin and since the mind is contained in a physical organ which becomes shaped and programmed toward indiscriminate indulgence, the word “flesh,” when describing this orientation, is often associated with the body.  Yet no bodily desire is, in itself, evil.

The flesh is not a sub-part of the human personality that must be suppressed, as I used to think and as many Christians think. Every part of the human personality and all human desires are God-given and good, when oriented properly. Human desires often must be suppressed for the attainment of the greater good, or must be tempered by the truth of reality, but are not evil in themselves. Thus pride is a good desire for significance and honor that is not tempered by the reality of our true position and power compared to God and others. Lust is good sexual desire toward an improper object. Impatience can be an unwillingness to suppress good desire for a greater good, perhaps not recognizing the existence of the greater good.

In contrast, walking in the Spirit, is an orientation of life consistent with the truths of reality, including God’s person, love, plans, and rights. God indwells every believer in Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit and walking in the Spirit involves dependence upon the Spirit and yielding to the Spirit’s lead in the light of the truths, plans, and purposes of God.

Is Faith a Work?

© David Bovenmyer, 2012

The Bible teaches that all people receive justification from God by grace through faith in Christ, apart from any good works.  Salvation is monergistic—worked by God alone.  God does the saving through Christ and we add not even one good work to it.  Yet the Bible also teaches that people must place their faith in Christ in order to be justified.  God doesn’t believe for us; we must believe.  However, none of us would believe without God’s drawing and calling.  Therefore faith is synergistic—people believe with the influence and help of God.  Continue reading