Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Greg Morse, a staff writer at DesiringGod.org has written an article 'answering objections to eternal punishment'. Before I begin my response I want to honour the work that John Piper has done in bringing many people to the gospel, and the ministry that he has built. Whether you agree with Piper's theological frameworks or not, when you hear him speak about Jesus you can't deny he loves Him. Desiring God is clear in its name and its mission that they want to bring people into a loving relationship with their heavenly father.
Unfortunately I don't think this article will do that.
Firstly, its subtitle seems to suggest people disagree with Jesus' words 'eternal punishment' found in Matthew 25:46. We conditionalists don't, maybe universalists do, but this article directly engages with destruction so it doesn't really start well.
It's opening introduction is an illustration from Thomas Watson emphasising the longevity of what forever means by utilising an image of a bird taking grains of sand from a beach. It implies that it will be a very long time... forever obviously means forever...
Unfortunately Revelation 14:11 (what Thomas Watson and Greg are referring to in their discussion of 'forever') is hardly clear. It isn't clear that it is talking about all unbelievers, it isn't clear that it is connected to the second death, it isn't even clear that it is connected to hades - whatever is happening in Revelation 14:11 is happening in the presence of the lamb so is that the picture of hell Greg wants to highlight? Nope, lets just focus on the 'smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever'. Let us ignore for now that that phrase is an allusion to Isaiah 34 and the destruction of Edom, as Greg does...
Do those in hell suffer eternal conscious punishment? The church throughout its two-thousand-year history has thought so, but many today do not.
By implication, we should think that there is an unbroken chain of traditional belief in the ongoing torment of the unrepentant. Is this true? No. For one, the sermons in Acts and all of the epistles fail to mention eternal torment. Sure, Paul talks about eternal destruction but it is hardly conclusive that that means conscious torment. As for early church fathers? Here are a few snippets for thought:
Ignatius (35-108AD) – “Let us not therefore be insensible to his kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be”.
Iraeneus (120-202AD) – “this is man’s real death, that which leaves nothing behind… the last end… annihilation”
Arnobius (255-330AD) – “he who will reject [life]…deprives himself of continuance for ever and ever”
Epistle of Barnabas (70-132AD) – “…but he who chooses other things shall be destroyed with his works…for the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one]”
Athanasius (296-374AD) – “…since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption.”
2nd Temple Judaism – a mix of ideas – see Judith, Macabees and read A Consuming Fire by Edward Fudge.
Again, it is hardly conclusive that the 2000 year history of Christianity points to a hell of eternal conscious torment.
Greg then quotes John Stott, an often misquoted quote (see Hell Under Fire) but one which emphasises the patently obvious fact that the author hasn't really engaged in the best arguments from his opponents. As can be seen by his objections, he may only have read those with whom he already agrees. To the traditionalist who might read this, please do better. If Greg reads this, I mean no disrespect, but the reason I became so convinced of conditionalism is because of poor argumentation by those who try to defend the traditional view and the continual repetition of the same lines of defence that have been dismantled thoroughly.
The resources Greg recommends (Hell Under Fire, Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and chapters in Gagging of God and Let the Nations Be Glad) have been responded to by RethinkingHell.com and many others. I have also engaged with the first two in my essay that started this website off. Hell Under Fire is the best defence of the traditional view, but that isn't difficult and that isn't to say it actually does defend the view well. So then Greg goes into three objections.
1. Conditionalists/Annihilationists he suggests, object to 'eternal' meaning forever. "In proving this, they both point out that “eternal” does not always mean everlasting"
This is just not true. This is a universalist argument and one that all the conditionalists I come across argue against! Eternal punishment is a punishment with eternal consequences. It is death you eternally don't come back from. Just like eternal salvation means we are saved through the momentary death of Jesus and the consequence is eternal; just like the eternal inheritance is received once and we gain it eternally, just like eternal judgement occurs once (unless Greg and any traditionalist wants to start arguing for continual eternal judgement?) and the consequence is eternal. See Hebrews for these connections but no conditionalist, who is a conditionalist because the bible says so, would argue that eternal doesn't mean everlasting.
Greg then tries to back up his argument with Revelation 14:11 with no connection to the destruction of Edom in Isaiah 34 or the connections to what 'smoke going up forever' actually means (see Revelation 18 and then connect it with Revelation 19:3). Nor does he note the condensed allusions to the Old Testament throughout Revelation 14:9-11 because that would mean his article doesn't prove the point he is trying to make.
Finally finishing up with Revelation 20 on this point, he makes no connection with the fact that the lake of fire is said to BE the second death or that hades and death are destroyed in the lake of fire. It took Chris Date from Rethinking Hell and I about an hour to discuss why both Revelation 14 and 20 are not what traditionalists make them out to be. Our conversation shows that traditionalists like Greg, need to do more study. It isn't as obvious as they make it out to be.
2. Will the wicked cease to exist?
Greg moves on to quote both John Stott and DA Carson's response as though Carson has destroyed (pun intended) Stott's quote. The argument?
1. If my car is destroyed but still has its frame, it doesn't cease to exist.
2. Therefore, when the bible says 'destroy body and soul in Gehenna' it doesn't mean cease to exist.
Dear traditionalist, please look at the two categories displayed in the argument above. Is comparing a car wreck, where the car no longer functions as a car, really mean that it exists as a car? Does it really compare to the idea of destruction of body and soul? Does the ruin of a wineskin or the losing of a coin really compare to Herod's desire to kill Jesus or whether we gain eternal life through Christ or perish? (Words in bold all are translated from the Greek appoloumi).
What does a ruined human look like? It looks like a corpse (Isaiah 66:24) or maybe ash (Malachi 4:3) but it doesn't look like an animated forever experiencing dead person. That isn't what the Old Testament had in mind and it isn't what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of judgement directly quoting the Old Testament (see Mark 9:48 and connect to Isaiah 66:24).
3. Does the punishment fit the crime?
Greg utilises the 'crimes against the infinite God' argument. This has been debunked so frequently by the rethinkinghell.com team that I'm not going to spend much time on it. Greg frames sin as 'eternal' and uses 'eternal punishment' and 'eternal judgement' to back up his argument. This is just nonsense. The punishment for sin is death. It was in the beginning (Genesis 2-3) and it is in Jesus' teaching (see video on Gehenna) and it is in Paul's teaching and it is in Peter and Jude... basically in the entire bible the wage of sin is death. What is amazing news is that Jesus died for our sin, he was killed, so that we might have life. No need for infinities or eternals except that we now have the promise of eternal life - life, given in a moment with an eternal consequence of no death!
In answer to the original question of point 3. No, eternal conscious torment does not fit the finite life of sin one might live, the bible doesn't teach this no matter how much you point to the 'eternal' statements. God is judge but he is not an eternal tormenter.
Second, sins of the damned can be eternal in that sinners continue to sin throughout eternity.
I can't believe defenders of the traditional view can write this kind of sentence without second guessing themselves. If you know anything of the promise of the new creation (Isaiah 26:6-9 and Revelation 21) and the hope that sin and death (both are intertwined see Romans 6:23 and 1 Corinthians 15:56) will be no more, how can you defend a view that says sin will continue past judgement? It won't! God won't let it and that is biblical! To then reference Revelation 22:10-11 shows that Greg hasn't really read dug into the timeline to see that the angel in this part of Revelation isn't talking about the new creation but those who are currently alive and have access to the book! This is proof texting at its worst and those who write for others to learn from should know better.
I will end with a quote from Greg:
We shall celebrate God’s eternal triumph over evil forever: “Once more they cried out, ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever’” (Revelation 19:3). Christ Jesus our Savior is worthy of eternal praise because he endured, for us, the righteous judgment that would have been ours for eternity.
Yes, the smoke, a memorial of the total destruction of babylon, will be the memorial for the total destruction of sin, death, the devil and his angels and the new creation will be a beautiful place with no mourning or pain. God will bring his justice, but he will not keep those who do not want him alive and in pain forever.
Greg, if you read this, my tone is frustrated at the continued repetition of terrible arguments that paint God as a tormenter. It is not directed at you as a person but I do hope, if you read this, that you will look harder at scripture and rather than rallying against fellow believers who love scripture, join us, the new creation looks far better from this view.