Updated: May 29, 2021
This is a response to a response, to find the beginning you can go to my article here: A Response to Norman Geisler. You can find the Reasons with Reverence article here: A Response to Conditional Immortality
This is a first for me, responding to someone who has responded to me! I have appreciated Erin, the author of this response, and her digging into the doctrine of hell and continuing to engage graciously. There is clear disagreement between us but it is refreshing to be able to dig into the bible without insult or queries about my salvation. I hope to respond in kind and pray that is the way that this is received.
I want to begin with the points Erin has made that highlight a need for a correction or clarification on my part and then go through where I think it is worth clarifying or defending. As I state in my original article, I am not here to convince you of my view, but I do hope you are able to at least see why Conditional Immortality is scripturally defensible and not simply a desire to soften the gospel, make it more palatable or any number of accusations made against the position. In this aim, I believe I have succeeded. Erin has taken it seriously enough and I find the statement that "both camps desire to uphold biblical truth and deeply love our Lord" a massive change from her original tweet.
In my original article I emphasise Biblical Theology over Systematic Theology. I agree with Erin when she says that both are important and useful. My focus was on systematic theologies when it comes to the discussion on hell rather than Systematic Theologies in general. For example, both Wayne Grudem's and Norman Geisler's (at least in the sections I have seen) have fallen short when it comes to using scripture on the topic of hell. For example, Wayne Grudem quotes the OT twice (if I remember correctly off the top of my head) when it comes to hell and neither are even connected with Sheol, let alone final judgement. Proof texting from the NT is highly problematic if you ignore the OT.
I have found systematic theologies useful in other doctrines but my point is (and was in my article) that when you find a list of verses backing up a sentence, make sure to investigate each one. As my article showed, the vast majority of verses do not actually back up the statement made by the theologian. Erin is correct and stated it better than I did when she says,
"A solid Biblical theology should precede systematic theology, or else a topic and words can be taken out of their original objective meaning and misused. In other words, systematic theology should be based on Biblical theology."
Erin continues to critique my methodology when I state that we should start with the overarching story of scripture and then go into the book/letter and then into the passage. She states it is better to start with the book and its context, and I think she may be right as I have also been taught in this way. That said, I think it is less of a linear process. I know for a fact that the overarching story of the bible that leads from creation to new creation via Jesus and the church influences how I read each book and each book influences how I see that overarching story. I wonder if Erin admits the same. I stand by my statement that,
"Often when it comes to the doctrine of hell, words are argued over without the bigger picture being discussed."
Erin doesn't engage much with the rest of my point on the biblical story but we will discuss Revelation 21:4 in a bit and the little bit of discussion on new creation in a moment. There are other areas where I shall concede some of Erin's points but they'll be in the scriptural discussion below.
Erin helpfully starts with defining terms and she does represent CI pretty well but there is a point of clarity on the penalty for sin. Erin says,
"Following natural death, the unsaved will be raised to be judged by God and given a penalty for their sins for a period of time. Once the penalty has been paid, they will be excluded from eternal life by a final and complete death of mind/body/soul—annihilation."
The penalty for sin or rebellion against God is death. Suffering and torment is never the penalty for sin though there may be some aspect of either in the process of death which can be argued from statements that judgement day will be worse for some. All through the New Testament it is that Christ died for our sin. Yes Jesus suffered but it is in his suffering that we find comfort because he knows our pain (2 Corinthians 1:5 in context). So CI believes that the penalty for sin is paid by death. No one can pay their own wage and live and that is why we need a saviour who defeats death.
Erin uses my discussion on Mark 9 and its connection with Isaiah 66:24 as an example of how I've missed the context of each passage. I point out that Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24, a verse that talks about corpses and Erin states,
The plain meaning of the text shows Isaiah teaching of a physical punishment of the unsaved, while Jesus is teaching of their eternal existence apart from God.
This doesn't defeat my argument or show any misinterpretation on my part. It also assumes ECT without defending it. I agree that Jesus is clearly teaching about the eternal state of those who do not deal with sin but he says nothing about them being conscious forever in torment. They may even exist if you call being a corpse an existence. Jesus uses an example of physical punishment to show that the eternal punishment will be severe (loss of eternal life is a terrible thing) but there is no aspect of Mark 9 in relation to Isaiah 66:24 that promotes a concept of ongoing conscious existence.
Erin moves on to comparisons and states that those of us who hold to CI misunderstand them. I do find this section a weakness in Erin's argument on two counts.
Firstly, as a teacher I use examples all the time. I understand examples and comparisons. What I would not do is use an example that is totally opposite of what I want people to understand. If I say something vanishes away like smoke, I don't actually mean they will last forever being bodily regenerated in a fiery pit. If I say that a city was reduced to ash as an example of what eternal fire does to the wicked, I don't mean the wicked will be reduced to ash and regenerated for it to happen again forever. Anyone reading Erin's quotes from Psalm 37 and Jude 7 (see also 2 Peter 2:4-6 as he uses 'extinction') can see that it is a bit of an odd example to use if you actually mean a person is going to be resurrected bodily to experience ongoing torment forever.
Secondly, Erin goes on to say that "the human finite mind cannot fully grasp the eternal". If this is the case then Erin's understanding of eternal torment must also come into question by her own standard.
I will stand by my argument, and you the reader can decide for yourself which is a better interpretation of scripture. Did God decide to leave the eternal as too much for us to grasp or did he give us these examples and comparisons to show us what can be expected in judgement? If the latter, what makes better sense when we look at Sodom and Gomorrah (and the flood, and the rebellion of Korah and the loss of living forever in the garden of Eden etc.) as examples of God's judgement? Eternal torment or death?
As I've pointed to the OT examples above, we will move on to Erin's discussion of the OT quoting William Shedd. Erin states,
William Shedd suggests there wasn’t a need for the OT to emphasis the soul’s immortality (eternal existence) and its separation from the body at death because it was a common belief that the spirit continued after physical death.
This is an argument from silence and an appeal to authority. It is not that the OT doesn't emphasise the soul's immortality, it doesn't say anything about its immortality. In fact, the statement in Genesis 3:22 that by expulsion from the garden mankind won't live forever is explicitly against any form of human immortality - soul or body. Shedd asserts that it is a common belief that the spirit continued after physical death. While I'm inclined to agree on that point as a dualist myself, neither Shedd as quoted or Erin defends why it must be concluded from the intermediate state that all souls are immortal post resurrection and judgement. If the lake of fire, described as 'the second death' destroys Sheol/Hades (Rev 20:14), it is mere assertion to think the same lake of fire suddenly keeps resurrected humans alive forever in torment (Rev 20:15). This is even more clearly assertion when we have verses like Matthew 10:28 which states that Gehenna, the place of judgement separate from Sheol/Hades, will destroy both soul and body, a verse I defended in my original article and my video on Gehenna.
On this point, as I discuss Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and the lake of fire, I noted that Erin states that all these terms are translated 'hell' but she adds, "The Bible uses these terms to denote the place of punishment for the wicked." This isn't true. The OT authors clearly believed that they would all go to Sheol upon death. Jacob assumes he would join Joseph in Sheol (Gen 37:35) and David writes several times about the expectation of Sheol upon death (Psalm 88 and 89) and the teacher in Ecclesiastes seems convinced everyone is headed there (Ecc. 9:10). Only Gehenna is used by Jesus to reference the place of judgement and in no way can it be used to defend ECT once you look at its connections with Jeremiah 9 and 19. Erin has not responded at all to my discussion on these terms.
Erin then discusses death and for this response I'll focus on her critique of my use of Revelation 21 and Genesis 3. I argue that Revelation 21:4 stating that there will be 'no more death' puts a stumbling block in the way of ECT because ECT defines death, especially the second death, as an ongoing bodily existence in torment. This means that 'no more death' must actually mean 'continual death forever'. Erin's response to this is to focus on who 'no more death' is for. She aims to use Revelation 22:14-15 to state that the unsaved will be outside new creation and concludes,
"The unsaved will be outside of the new creation. To be somewhere means they exists, for you cannot be somewhere if you are not something. In other words, since there will be no more death in new creation for God’s people, the second death is happening outside of this place to those who are not God’s people."
As Erin would agree, context is vital for verses like this and the context for Revelation 22 includes Revelation 21. Revelation 21 shows what this "outside" means by stating that the unsaved are "in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur... which is the second death" (verse 8). I define the second death briefly above, in more detail in my original article and in my study on Revelation chapter 2. My argument remains that it makes more sense given Revelation 21:4 in context, for the "second death" to be an event that ends life of body and soul rather than an ongoing state of existence in torment. This can also harmonise well with the fact that Isaiah sees the righteous in new creation in Isaiah 66 looking on the corpses of the wicked 'outside' the city. It also harmonises with Malachi 4:3 with a similar vision of the righteous walking over the ash of the slain wicked though the 'outside the city' aspect is missing in Malachi.
My final point on Revelation is that once again Erin assumes existence means consciousness but does not prove that from the text. A corpse (or ash) can exist outside the city, but that does not necessitate ongoing torment of any kind.
Erin then critiques the definition of death as 'the return to dust' from Genesis 3. I agree with Erin when she states,
The passage does not address the eternal state of one’s soul after a return to the dust. We must be careful not to add to the text beyond what is revealed.
She then goes on to say,
Not being allowed to live forever (3:22) implies that they would have lived forever in their sinful flesh if allowed to eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it does not imply that a soul will not live forever, but God’s plan to save them forever was that they die in the flesh to be resurrected to eternal life.
I would ask any traditionalist to pause on my emphasis on the quote above. God's expulsion from the garden is a mercy "lest they live forever" (vs 22) in their sinful flesh. I responded to Erin on Twitter regarding this argument a while back and stated:
"The conclusion that God would not let [Adam and Eve] live forever in fallen flesh is exactly the conclusion we should make regarding what God's justice/judgement/mercy looks like. ECT reverses this. The wicked are bodily resurrected to then face eternity in fallen flesh."
The second half of Erin's statement here is reading into the passage far more than my definition of death. She again assumes that the soul must be immortal but does not defend it. Reading Genesis 3 highlights that humanity cannot live forever without God's intervention, be it his breath (that returns to him when we die see Eccl 12:7, see also NET notes on this usage where ESV often uses 'spirit') or the tree of life. Without either, the expectation is a return to dust. Surely this is more a 'plain reading' than discussing immortal souls.
Erin tries to defend the view that Genesis 2:7 is about an incorruptible soul but this is not in view in Genesis 2:7. There is a debatable reference to the soul let alone it being incorruptible (even in her own statements and quotes she highlights 'living being' with 'soul' as a possible interpretation). She then makes an assertion regarding God being changed if he changes his mind which is not defended nor relevant. I show repeatedly in my article that only God is immortal and if we already have an incorruptible soul it seems odd that the apostle Paul would suggest it is good news for us to seek immortality (Romans 2:7) and become incorruptible at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:50-54 uses "imperishable" which I think is fairly synonymous with incorruptibility given the relationship between death/perishing and sin). Erin has not shown why my interpretations are flawed and I would argue hers cannot be defended from scripture. The immortal/incorruptible soul is a hangover from Greek philosophy and Roman Catholic dogma as opposed to good exegesis.
Erin then throws in an extra argument,
"If the unsaved eventually were extinguished, what would be the point them being raised? CI answers this by saying there is a punishment followed by termination/annihilation..."
Firstly this question cuts harder on the ECT viewpoint - why would God raise the wicked to torment them forever? (Rhetorical questions aren't the best for this kind of discussion as I state in my original article).
Secondly, and I don't think my friend, William Tanksley Jr, will mind me copying him directly,
"the Bible says resurrection reveals secrets, shows justice publicly, and is the time when different people will experience a more or less tolerable day of judgment. In other words, we think the resurrection is necessary for all of those things (see Matt 10, Rom 2, Psa 73, Job 21)... The Bible gives purposes for the final judgment, and that all of them are compatible with conditional immortality. None of them include the claim that there has to be a resurrection so that the wicked will live forever."
Erin moves on to argue that the CI view must go beyond the plain meaning of the texts that refer to eternal punishment. I would ask Erin to define what she means by 'plain reading'. I could argue 'perish', 'destroy' and 'be no more' are fairly plain but I won't... I repeatedly respond to Geisler on his misrepresentation of the CI view's understanding of eternal. Unfortunately Erin has simply repeated Geisler's error without any response to my comments. She argues,
CI proponents claim punishment for the unsaved is eternal, not because the life of the punished one endures forever, but because the effect of the punishment lasts forever.
I don't argue this. At least I can't remember arguing this, and if I have, then I've changed! The punishment for sin is death and death is the end of life as stated already at the beginning of this article. The first death ends the body, the second death destroys body and soul. This is clear in scripture (most plainly in Matthew 10:28). I make the case for this in detail and explain why this is the case my article about sin. Therefore the eternal punishment for sin is death with no hope of resurrection. Call it eternal death for now, but we'll look at other phrases the bible uses in a moment. In sum on this point, Erin simply repeats arguments I've already responded to in my initial article without showing why my arguments fail and then quotes scripture to point to a supposed plain meaning. The issue with arguments depending on a plain reading is that our plain reading is only as plain as the assumptions we have while reading the text. Erin assumes eternal punishment means a punishing that never ends and is experienced consciously. I disagree and as seen in my original response, I point out scripture disagrees as well. I'll let you the reader make your conclusions.
I am going to skim over Philippians 2:5-11, mostly because I think I make a weak argument and Erin is right to point it out. Even if Philippians is talking about conscious humans in the realm of the dead bending the knee, it is a leap to conclude this is a state for those post judgement. My main point is that Geisler's use of Philippians to describe hell is a clear point where Geisler uses scripture out of context and said scripture does not back up his claim. 'Under the earth' is not equal to the place of final judgement and therefore should not be used in the way that he uses it.
Unfortunately Erin makes the same error that Geisler makes in repeatedly getting stuck on the definition of eternal as we move in to her response to my arguments from 2 Thessalonians 1:9. I have no quarrel with the definition of eternal. Erin argues that "if 'destruction' means annihilation, then 'eternal destruction' in the same verse is redundant. If something is destroyed completely (annihilated), it cannot be eternal. According to 2 Thess. the destruction is eternal" .
I'll be honest, I'm not sure what the argument is here. Paul isn't arguing that the thing being destroyed is eternal, that doesn't make sense of the sentence. The eternal destruction is like eternal punishment, it is death (aka not seeing life, being ash, returning to dust, being consumed) and death post-judgement is eternal. Perhaps Paul is emphasising with the use of *eternal* destruction to encompass both body and soul beyond this age as opposed to just the body... that is for further exploration.
Erin makes this conclusion,
"The conclusion made from these passages is that the location of hell is outside the new Jerusalem, under the earth, and away from the presence of God. "
This highlights why I think the location is a problem for ECT and not CI. CI shows that judgement happens in the presence of God and is a final and conclusive victory over sin with God 'consuming the adversaries' (Hebrews 10:27) leaving them dead outside the new Jerusalem. Both Geisler and Erin along with many traditionalists fail to engage with the differences between Gehenna and Hades/Sheol. Just to summarise once more: Under the earth is used in reference to Hades/Sheol and is not final judgement. Those outside new Jerusalem are in the second death meaning they are corpses/dead/ash. If you are away from the presence of God in the restoration of new creation then you are dead because God will be all in all and there will not be a place that God's presence is not. God is the sustainer of life and if you reject the sustainer of life, he will no longer sustain you!
Erin asserts (using Geisler's arguments which I responded to in my article) that God is eternal and He created mankind eternal in His image. At no point has Erin defended this assertion that mankind is created eternal.
Erin then argues against a rhetorical question I made about God being love isn't consistent with God tormenting souls forever. Erin's pointer to God being more than just all-loving while true, does not answer the rhetorical question but only adds to its edge. Why is it just, merciful, righteous and wise etc. for God to keep humans in torment forever given there is no basis for this to be a result of those qualities/attributes in scripture?
In her conclusion, Erin encourages us all to be wary of reading the text to support a specific doctrine and I wholeheartedly agree. As I read Erin's article, I don't see anything other than a reading into the text the doctrines of the immortal soul or conscious torment. They have not been defended. Neither the immortal soul or conscious torment are necessary conclusions from the 'plain reading' of any of the passages discussed. Erin then makes a subtle accusation with the claim that I've (or all CI proponents) used verses out of context to support my claims and asserts that "the reasoning against ECT is influenced by what people think is right, not what God says is right." This is a bizarre conclusion given what I've written explaining the various contexts of passages misused by Geisler. I have aimed to show God's justice and judgement never looks like tormenting people forever in the context of each passage of scripture as well as the overarching story. I also argue that CI is a better representation of what God says is right from scripture. I do think there is a strong argument from emotion and our intuitions of justice for CI but that has not been used in our interactions here. Erin argues for 'the plain meaning' which as I've argued is not as solid basis for working out what God says in scripture.
In conclusion, there is no support in scripture for sin and death (the two are intertwined) to continue for anyone forever in new creation and I believe Erin has not shown otherwise. Erin, and any traditionalist, needs to engage with the doctrine of new creation and the lack of scriptural basis for a location that is 'eternity without God' or 'away from the presence of God' (see Psalm 139 as one passage that directly opposes this idea). The best news of new creation is that there will not be any more death, no more pain, no more mourning and no stain of sin for God will be all in all. ECT says sin, death and pain will be around forever and ever and this is apparently for God's glory. I don't find that particularly good news nor a total victory.
I wish Erin the best in studying the bible and have thoroughly enjoyed our interactions. I am glad that her article is a great improvement on the initial tweet against annihilationism. I hope my response here continues to help provide a better understanding of why this view isn't built on out of context verses nor simply what people think is right but is simply a conclusion of the gospel.
"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. "