You have to be alive to experience punishment!
A common, and possibly modern, response to the conditionalist arguments involves defining punishment as something to be experienced. Is this how the bible defines eternal punishment?
We all have cultural assumptions around death. In a British environment, even in the church, death is very rarely talked about. Concern that I might outlive my daughter who has a rare genetic condition has pushed me to consider death and my legacy a little more than most people my age. While my concern is more around how she will be cared for if she outlives me, this pondering does sometimes drift into how I will be remembered.
Many in the church have adopted a more secular view of death, the Christians of the past (and many from other cultures and religions) would balk at the idea of deliberate cremation. Many people outside of the western world still view the body as important after death and burial is a vital part of a life well lived!
I’d argue that most of us can fathom the shame felt more naturally by other cultures when one watches films like “All Quiet on the Western Front”. The brutality of war is laid out in front of us when we see the unburied corpses of soldiers left on the field of battle. While I won’t argue for all westerners, I would assume the vast majority of us wouldn’t want our body left in that state - even more so, left unknown and unmourned. The sense of shame isn’t too hard to imagine if you think your body would be left out for the carrion birds and wild animals, with no one to bury you, and no one to mourn you. Or, perhaps for the enemy who was particularly evil, you can imagine a sense of contempt - that to be left unburied and unremembered is an appropriate punishment for a life lived in such a way.
For those of us who live in the modern West, we are always slightly removed from death. We rarely see it and many who have mourned loved ones have not necessarily seen the body of the deceased - sadly this was the case particularly in the pandemic. However, for the majority of the world, and for the biblical authors, death is far more visible and a part of everyday life. For the biblical prophets, war was on the door step and the image of unburied corpses being eaten by worms, birds, and wild animals, was a present reality rather than vivid storytelling.
It is in the face of death that the bible authors make sense of God’s judgement and the hope of restoration and new creation. From the Genesis to the Prophets, the language around God’s eternal judgement isn’t one of ongoing torment. This is even more clear when you recognise that the hope throughout the OT is of the land being restored. How can a land be fully restored with ‘no more death’ as prophesied in Isaiah 25 when death is an ongoing existence as is the sin of those remaining under death’s ‘shroud’ (as some traditionalists continue to argue)?
The prophets made use of the imagery of their experiences. They’d quite likely witnessed the collecting of decomposing and chewed up corpses to then be burned. The fire that consumed said corpses, especially its smoke, probably seemed to go up forever. They’d possibly experienced walking over the ash of those who had already been burned up. They’d felt the contempt of those who lost the battle and remained unburied. All this in contrast with the honouring of the victors with proper burial and the memorialising of them in song, poetry, and collective memory. With that in mind, now read the following passage:
22 “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. 24 “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”1
Now some traditionalists have tried to argue the dead bodies are actually conscious, most notably Denny Burk in his essay for the Four Views of Hell. This is a desperate but necessary attempt to avoid what the passage says given Jesus quotes verse 24 of Isaiah 66 in Mark 9 almost verbatim. The traditionalist must make this passage NOT mean death in the sense of a corpse to make Jesus’ words mean eternal torment. However there is no reason given by Denny Burk or by any other traditionalist as to why their view is correct so an argument from implication falls very flat in the face of even the most basic exegesis.
Note that the punishment of the rebellious lost is enduring in as much as the new heavens and the new earth (vs 22). The punishment is not that they are experiencing a form of life in a different location, but that they are not experiencing life at all. The punishment is their legacy - that they are loathsome, or an ‘abhorrence’ (NRSV). I do believe this passage is partly hyperbole, I do not think that as part of the new creation, the righteous will go and look at a pile of dead bodies, just as I do not think new creation will be one continual singing session around a throne. These are images of the permanence of the destruction of evil and, in the case of the singing session, of God’s presence and goodness in the midst of humanity as it was meant to be.
There are two other passages linked to Isaiah 66. One directly by Mark calling the place of judgement ‘Gehenna’ and the other by the word translated ‘abhorrence’.
6 So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.
7 ‘“In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. 8 I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds.2
‘Gehenna’ is a shortened Greek transliteration of the Valley of Ben Hinnom. Mark connects God’s final judgement to two very similar passages about the death/slaughter of the rebellious lost who will face the contempt of the righteous and the shame of being like an unburied corpse eaten by worms, birds, and wild animals. This is not a legacy anyone hearing Jesus’ words or reading Mark’s gospel would want, and I would argue it is highly unlikely they heard eternal torment, even though it possibly was a view held by some at the time.
The second passage connected to Isaiah 66 is Daniel 12.
1bBut at that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.3
Note in verse 2, the word translated ‘contempt’ is the same word in Isaiah 66:24 translated ‘abhorrence’ and these are the only two times it is used. In Daniel 12:2 above it makes sense then of the language of legacy and the unburied that the shame is felt by the rebellious lost in the face of their death. The shame is not everlasting because they will not be receiving everlasting life to feel shame. The everlasting contempt is felt by the righteous living who look out on the dead corpses as per Isaiah 66:24.
The whole book of Matthew teaches that the judgement of God will lead to the burning up, or total destruction (body and soul) of the rebellious lost. I highlight that this means Matthew teaches that ‘eternal punishment’ as per Matthew 25:46 is eternal death. I summarise this in my video here:
The conclusion I find that follows from all that is discussed here is that the understanding of shame, contempt, legacy and the importance of burial leads to a conditionalist perspective and undermines that of eternal torment. The punishment faced by the rebellious lost is not experienced by them eternally beyond the sense of shame they face as they are judged to die. The fact they will not be remembered and they will not be honoured with burial is the punishment, even if they don’t ‘experience’ it in a modern sense.
The Old Testament passages highlighted in this article along with the many others that have not been discussed here (see Psalm 37 and Malachi 4 as two examples) are foundational to the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament authors. Rather than changing and elaborating on the ideas of death as eternal judgement found within the Old Testament to actually mean eternal torment, the New Testament reinforces and clarifies the truth that we find life and immortality through faith in God through Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Isaiah 66:22-24 (NIV)
Jeremiah 19:6-8 (NIV)
Daniel 12:1b-3 (NIV) - emphasis mine