A Response to Norman Geisler

Updated: 4 days ago

I had an interesting interaction with a fellow believer on Twitter yesterday that led to being sent some images from Norman Geisler's systematic theology. I would normally write a thread on Twitter but feel that a blog post gives a bit more context and I can discuss methodology before dealing with the exegetical problems I see in the selected texts given. The initial tweets that gained my attention were a quote from London Theist who is a friend, I haven't interacted with Erin before but the very clear statements against annihiltionism caught my eye.

Before going any further, this is not a hit piece. The interaction with Erin has been a glimpse of what dialogue on Twitter should be like but often isn't - find the interaction here and here. What seems clear to me though is given the single verse proof texts and the connecting universalism and annihilationism together is that neither have been given a fair hearing. If anyone engages with this website they can see the following:

  1. I directly engage with Jesus' teaching about hell/judgement. I take them as authoritative.

  2. I emphasise the severity of sin, so much so that I find it odd that traditionalists seem keen to find ways to keep it around in new creation forever and call it a complete victory. Sin is serious and that is why it will be totally removed from creation for God to be 'all in all'. As a punishment, eternal life is an awful thing to miss out on.

  3. I started this project BECAUSE I want others to see the good news of Jesus. My witness has only been emboldened because of a better understanding of new creation and judgement as well as a better idea of how to read and understand scripture beyond a web of single verses drawn together to prove a concept not necessarily in scripture.

I am not here to convince Erin, or you the reader, to conditionalism/annihilationism, though that would be great - I do genuinely believe it is a better understanding of scripture. I simply want you to recognise the scripture foundation is solid and deserves to be treated for the strongest arguments and not straw-men set up by the gatekeepers of evangelicalism. I also want you to recognise the flaws in the traditional view of hell as it is highly dependent on a specific way of reading scripture which I will discuss next.


A note on methodology of biblical interpretation and doctrine

The more I read the bible, the more wary I am of Systematic Theologies. While I am certain there are many good things about them, when it comes to the doctrine of hell, there are often many assumptions made - at least in the limited number of Systematic Theologies I have engaged with. It generally seems that an assumed position on a doctrine is carried into the Systematic Theology and then single statements are made with single verses in brackets to 'prove' that doctrine. As we shall see, at best the verses prove very little, at worst they are totally misused or twisted to prove a point which the context of the verse does not make.


I highly recommend a Biblical Theology as a way of dealing with doctrine. By this I mean that whole passages are dealt with in the circles of context starting with the overarching story of scripture then going into the book/letter as a whole including authorship and genre, then into the passage within the book and when clarity is needed utilising the single verse and THEN wrestling with individual words. This should then lead us to define doctrines from scripture rather than assuming a doctrinal view and finding verses to back it up. Often when it comes to the doctrine of hell, words are argued over without the bigger picture being discussed and that leads me to the next point of clarification before dealing with the texts.


A note on the biblical story regarding hell and judgement

All Christians agree that Genesis 1-3 is one of the most significant passages in the bible. Not only does it teach us about who God is (the creator) it tells us about the purpose of creation and humanity in relation to God and each other. It tells us that God is both transcendent and yet 'walks' within his creation with his image bearers. We all agree that something broke in Genesis 3 and creation has fallen, death enters the world and the curse of Genesis 3:19-22 state:

19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’

20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.

22 And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’

23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.


Death is the 'return to dust' (vs 19), Adam names Eve (vs 20) in faith that she will carry the child promised in Genesis 3:15 that will defeat the power of the serpent (the power of evil), the first sacrifice (skin required the death of an animal) is made to clothe Adam and his wife as the first image of atonement (vs 21) and humanity is exiled from the garden so that they don't eat from the tree of life and live forever. It is quite clearly the mercy of God that they do NOT live in the state of sin, under the curse of death forever.


We all agree that Christ's death reconciles all who accept him both with God and each other to become a new humanity (Ephesians 2) which we gain access to in this life. Both Genesis 1 and 2 in the garden, along with the promise of reconciliation and redemption found through both testaments point to the hope of New Creation. The ultimate fulfilment of reconciliation is found in the mirror image of Genesis 1-2 in Revelation 20-22, the living and the dead are brought to judgement and the result is the removal of the causes of corruption and sin. The earth is made new, heaven comes down to the new earth and God dwells with his people in a place where there is no more pain, mourning or death (Revelation 21:4). The tree of life is in place and accessible to those within the city of God (Revelation 22:1-5). Those outside the city are in the second death.


This overarching story is important. The two views under consideration in the rest of the article are annihilationism or conditional immortality and eternal torment (or ECT as discussed in videos and essays here on this site). Already in the overarching narrative looking at Genesis and Revelation we have a clear distinction as to which holds up better while looking at the overarching narrative of scripture.

  • Under annihilationism, death means 'return to dust', humanity does not necessarily 'live forever' unless they gain access to the tree of life and sin and death will be gone forever. To be clear, the biblical view is that the second death will happen post resurrection and judgement.

  • Under eternal torment, death means a continuation of existence in pain and anguish (either directly acted out by God ala Jonathan Edwards or self-torment ala CS Lewis depending on which view of eternal torment you subscribe to), God must sustain those in torment forever and ever otherwise he is not 'all in all' (1 Cor 15:28) and those in said torment are neither in the new heaven or new earth. This then leads to all sorts of interesting twists and turns to 'locate' hell which we shall see below.

The eternal torment view does not hold up to a biblical overview without stretching the definition of death beyond Genesis 3:19 and making it overly spiritualised. Given that the bible is explicit regarding the end of death in Revelation 21 (echoing Isaiah 25:6-9), it hardly makes sense to then have a death that actually means ongoing existence.


We'll get to the finer detail in the next section as I respond to the texts sent to me by Erin which are from Norman Geisler's Systematic Theology.


The Response to Norman Geisler

While Froom may well argue against the traditional understanding of everlasting, I don't. Neither does Edward Fudge or John Stott or many other annihiliationists. Unfortunately this means that Geisler has set up a long response against a strawman.


The eternal punishment of second death is eternal. It is ongoing in duration and in consequence as it is a death you remain in forever without accessing life ever again. This makes sense of the image of 'corpse' used in Isaiah 66:24, as well as those who are in the second death in Revelation 21:8 - there is no need to read consciousness into these passages.


I answer a question regarding 'eternal' and 'forever and ever' in the video below timestamped at 1 hour 25 minutes.

The final two sentences are interesting:

"He will abide after this world is destroyed (2 Peter 3:10-12). Because God by His very nature cannot tolerate evil (Isa. 6:1f; Hab. 1:13), evil persons must be separated from Him forever."

2 Peter 3:10-12 does talk about the earth being laid bare and destroyed, but continue on and it reads in verse 13,

"But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells." 2 Peter 3:13

I want to point out that while the earth is destroyed, it will be made new. While it is a minor point, it seems odd to emphasise that God will last longer than the earth while the earth isn't going anywhere - our hope is a new earth in the sense that this one will be cleansed and restored.


The final point made about evil persons having to be separated from God forever references Isaiah 6 which if you read beyond the first verse, which doesn't seem to highlight what Geisler suggests anyway, Isaiah is cleansed by God's presence. This is the very opposite of what Geisler says must happen regarding sin. Note also that Isaiah isn't concerned about being tormented but about being destroyed by the presence of God (vs 5). You will not find concepts of torment in God's presence in the OT, however you will find plenty of examples of people being consumed by God's presence!


My point here in responding to the last two sentences is to point out the issue of using single verses to prop up a view. The verses used when viewed in their contexts do not help Geisler's statements and actually undermine them.

So Geisler continues on his attack against the use of eternal. As I've already argued, the eternal punishment is ongoing and eternal and the wicked will never see life. I do not argue that the final punishment for the wicked is temporal and neither do most annihilationists who are evangelical.


Geisler then points to Luke 16 for back up. This is a regular argument for traditionalists and shows a lack of engagement both with scripture and potentially a lack of honesty towards the reader. I don't like calling those I disagree with dishonest but scholars of the bible who teach others should know better and Luke 16 is so abused to hammer an eternal torment view it just simply does not make. Luke 16 is not set in final judgement. The parable is set in Hades (vs 23). We know Hades is not final judgement because the rich man asks for Lazarus to go see his brothers who are still alive and warn them about judgement. Whether or not torment and judgement occurs in this place, it isn't eternal because both the context does not state a duration and we know that resurrection hasn't happened yet! This should have been clear to both Geisler and anyone checking his book before publishing given he then references Daniel 12:2, one of the only resurrection passages in the OT, shortly after referencing Luke 16.


Geisler references Hebrews 9:27 and John 8:21 to back up his statement that judgement begins after death - this makes very little sense of 'the day of judgement' for one. While this is a necessary conclusion from his conclusions on Luke 16 this is hardly conclusive from the two verses he references:

"Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" Hebrews 9:27
"Once more Jesus said to them, ‘I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come." John 8:21

I don't see it any support for his statement there. What I do see in John 5:28-30 is this:

‘Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.

Given this echoes Daniel 12:2, it would be a better reading to think that judgement happens post-resurrection and Luke 16 is a parable not a passage to get our doctrine of salvation or judgement from (e.g. are poor people automatically saved and the rich damned?). The conclusion from Luke 16 is that even if someone rose from the dead for the rich man's brothers, they still would not believe - the law and the prophets already point to the one who does defeat death and they haven't believed them! So to conclude this point, Geisler has misused Luke 16 to make a point that the scripture simply does not make.


For further engagement on Luke 16 see my essays (here and here) on this or the videos below.

And so we continue to the next part of Geisler's discussion of annihilation.


Annihilation is contrary to the nature of God

This whole argument is totally confused while also cutting both ways. I can ask rhetorical questions too: is it consistent with the character of an all-loving God to keep souls (plus their resurrected bodies) in existence just so they can be tormented forever? Can you imagine an earthly father tormenting his children for not doing what he wants them to do? Can you imagine an earthly father allowing his children to torment themselves forever?


If you are going to write a systematic theology, it probably would be best to avoid rhetoric. Two points:

  1. God as father does not mean we judge his actions by earthly fathers. Universalists do this a lot and it does not make a good argument no matter how emotional it might make us feel. God is the author of life and has all authority to take it away, He is no ordinary father!

  2. God is the author of life and sustains all things, to reject life is to face death. Notice the lack of scriptural backing for Geisler's whole paragraph - though I don't know what his footnotes link to, you would think he would put a few references to scripture like he does elsewhere. He only points to Genesis 1:27 which is simply to connect to being made in God's image. Let me respond with some scripture.

Psalm 37:

Do not fret because of those who are evil

or be envious of those who do wrong;

for like the grass they will soon wither,

like green plants they will soon die away.

...

For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.

The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.

...

But the wicked will perish:

though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field,

they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke.

...

I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found.

Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked.


Chaff in a fire doesn't last long

also:


John 3:14-16 and 36:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life ... Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.

While we are God's creation it does not necessitate that he must sustain us forever. That is a philosophical view that the scripture actively teach against. What scripture does state is that it is life found in Jesus or not seeing life/perish/death without him. You can find many more verses in my essay that covers Genesis to Revelation.


Start looking into the Old Testament and ask the question, what does God's judgement look like? You will start to get a more holistic picture and it doesn't look like eternal torment. The picture from the OT is that those who reject God will face death. You will look for the wicked but they will be no more.


Is annihilation contrary to the imago dei?

Geisler then makes a very odd argument summarised below:


1. God makes humanity in his image

2. Under annihilation God destroys humans who reject him

Therefore God attacks himself


How Geisler gets from points 1 and 2 to the conclusion is illogical and a bizarre understanding of what it means to be made in his image. Being made in God's image does not make us inherently immortal (or "endowed with immortality" as other authors have suggested as though there is a difference and Genesis 3:22 states the opposite) nor does it make us intrinsically tied to God as though our destruction affects his existence. This is simply a very poor argument and to back it up with Nietzche rather than scripture adds to the bizarre logic used in this paragraph. I don't really have more to say about it other than it is silly but here is a video on the image of God by the Bible Project just to lift up the standard of scholarship:


A comment on Hell's duration

I will only note that Romans 16:26 says nothing of hell and is an odd verse to use to further critique the already flawed view that annihilationists quarrel with the term 'eternal' and 'everlasting' or Aionios in Greek.


Geisler's assumption is that hell is ongoing. I haven't disagreed that the punishment is ongoing, but the location and what hell is, is less defined and Geisler hasn't defined it here. I don't know if he does elsewhere in his systematic theology, if he does and you have a copy of it, let me know. Suffice to say Jesus doesn't ever reference the duration of Gehenna but he does say that it will be the location of the destruction of body and soul (Matthew 10:28), that it is better to lose limbs and live than lose your whole body in the 'Gehenna' where there is 'unquenchable fire' and 'undying worms'. This is a quote from Isaiah 66:24 (see Mark 9:48 - Isaiah talks about the 'corpses' of the wicked) and 'Gehenna' links to Jeremiah 7 and 19.


Gehenna is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew for The Valley of Hinnom and this is prophesied to become a valley of slaughter (see Jeremiah 7 and 19). Again this is an image of death in the sense of no longer experiencing life. It is a punishment of a legacy of shame to be unburied and left for carrion. This is not a picture of unending torment.



The Location of Hell

So once again we are back to single verse scriptures to back up certain phrases to back up an idea of a location. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 is referenced twice to emphasise the separation from God but the first point I want to get to is Philippians 2:10. Geisler, in this instance, is simply an example of how not to read scripture. Philippians 2:5-11 is an ancient hymn that Paul quotes to make his point about Jesus' 'mindset' or attitude:


5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


There is clearly a cosmic aspect to Jesus' authority. To bend the knee is to submit to one's authority and power. "Heaven and earth" is a phrase for all creation (see Genesis 1) and while "under the earth" has been traditionally thought of as 'hell' this requires a bit more digging. First off, there is no verse in scripture that says the underworld is a place filled with intelligent beings who will bend the knee. Every reference to an underworld is generally synonymous with 'the grave' or 'the pit' which is either 'Hades' in the Greek of the New Testament or 'Sheol' in the Old Testament. For example, Luke 10:15:

"And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades."

or Acts 2:26-28 quoting Psalm 16:

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;

my body also will rest in hope,

because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,

you will not let your holy one see decay.

You have made known to me the paths of life;

you will fill me with joy in your presence.


This realm of the dead, or location 'under the earth' is not the same place as Gehenna. It simply cannot be. Many blend the two places because of the historic translation in the KJV blending Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus (found only in 2 Peter 2:4) and labelling them all 'Hell'. Why can it not be the same thing? I'll make two points on this though I think there are more, you can see my videos/essays on Hades and Gehenna.

  1. Jesus is the only person in the New Testament to talk about the final judgement using the word Gehenna except for one use in James. Each time it is about judgement and NOT about a place of the dead, though the judged will be made totally dead in Gehenna. Matthew 10:28 says the body and soul will be destroyed in Gehenna and every use of destroy (apollumi) in Matthew means to kill (2:13, 12:14, 27:7, 27:20 and others) in relation to humans or totally ruin in the sense there is no function when talking about inanimate objects (9:17, 26:61 and others). While Matthew does say in Gehenna there will be 'weeping and gnashing of teeth' this does not imply duration, certainly not eternal duration, but the sorrow and anger (gnashing of teeth is never pain no matter what the eternal torment view might argue) of those facing their destruction. See the video above on Gehenna for more.

  2. Hades is emptied and destroyed. See Revelation 20:13-15 below:

The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Traditionalists like David Pawson agree that death and Hades are destroyed in this instance. Unfortunately, David Pawson in his book, The Road to Hell, totally misses verse 15. The lake of fire is the second death, death no longer continues past this point in the sense of people being in a continuous torment called death. The realm that holds the dead is destroyed so there is no more place for the dead to exist. Therefore, it makes the most sense that those who are not in the book of life do not see life (see John 3:36) and death is the 'return to dust'. My point is that Hades is not the final judgement which means it is not the same as Gehenna. Thus, Geisler using Philippians 2:10 to define 'Hell' is not a good use of scripture.


We will now discuss 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 except we will include verses 6 and 10 for extra context. We will also use a couple of translations (NET and greek in image below):

NIV:

"6 God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you

7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.

8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might

10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you."


On face value, Geisler is right - destruction is equal to being 'shut out from the presence of the Lord'. But face value is not always the best way to read scripture. Digging deeper, this makes very little sense of the context and the 'and shut out' or 'away' used in other translations is not in the Greek (see image below). This is a prime example of translations teaching an idea that is not necessarily in the scripture.

If we ignore the inserted 'shut out' and 'away' what do we get:

"They will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might"

That looks awfully like annihilation to me. It also makes better sense of the context and the use of 'apo' translated as simply 'from' twice in the immediate context but 'away' has been added by translators for no particularly good reason. Consider the flow of thought: Jesus will be revealed, he will come as judge and bring destruction, he is moving closer to people in his 'blazing fire'. This happens 'on the day' and not over an extended period of time. It coheres with other parts of the New Testament that judgement is 'in the presence of the Lamb' (Revelation 14:11) and 'the one who destroys body and soul' is God not the devil in Matthew 10:28. It also connects better to all the judgement passages of the Old Testament that destruction comes from the presence of God. After all, our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29) and will consume his adversaries (Hebrews 10:27).


Conclusion

Norman Geisler has not produced anything new in these passages. Unfortunately he has provided another example of why Systematic Theologies and single verse proof texting is a dead way of reading the bible. I'm sure Systematic Theologies have their uses but if this is how Geisler (and Grudem's is similar) props up this doctrine, you start to wonder how they have propped up other doctrines. The bible is an awesome book, filled with the good news of a God who will dwell with those who want him, a God who will bring justice to those who cause injustice and a God who will not force people to live forever in torment. What Geisler and other traditionalists unfortunately offer is a God who will allow people to remain in sin forever despite that being what the expulsion from the garden was meant to stop. If you reject the author of life, what else can there be but death?


To Erin, if you have made it this far, I said that this was to convince you that I take the bible, especially Jesus' words seriously, that I'm not undermining sin and I do this because I want the world to witness the good news of Jesus. I hope that in this essay you see that and will at least consider conditional immortality a serious contender for a scriptural view of God's judgement. If you'd like to interact further, I would be open to it.


To anyone else reading, if you have any questions please feel free to get in touch.


Further reading

Glenn Peoples wrote a response to Norman Geisler several years ago here: http://www.rightreason.org/2009/norman-geisler-on-annihilationism/

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