Updated: Dec 30, 2020
A guest blog from Mark Corbett.
I’m writing this blog post in response to a short video that Alisa Childers made on misconceptions about hell. In her video, Alisa corrects some misconceptions, yet still speaks of hell as consisting of eternal conscious torment. I have become convinced that the unrighteous will not be tormented forever in hell, but instead will have their bodies and souls destroyed by God there (Matthew 10:28), will perish (John 3:16), and will be burned to ashes (2 Peter 2:6). My view is sometimes called annihilationism and sometimes called conditional immortality. Throughout this post, when I quote Alisa from the video, I will include a time marker with the minutes and seconds showing the approximate point in the video where you may listen to her words in context.
Before I address Alisa’s video, there is something else I want to state clearly about Alisa Childers:
I thank God for Alisa and her ministry! Alisa is on the front line of a very important battle to help guard hearts and minds from the errors of progressive Christianity. I believe that overall God is effectively and powerfully using her in this important ministry to God’s people. While I disagree with Alisa’s view on hell, nothing that I write here is intended to distract from the good work she is doing.
In fact, I sincerely believe that if she were to shift towards what I see as the biblical teaching that supports conditional immortality, this would aide and strengthen her in the good fight she is fighting for God’s truth.
3 Misconceptions about Hell that Alisa (partly) Corrects
In the first five minutes of her 8 minute video, Alisa explains and corrects three common misconceptions of hell that she herself had as a child and that some people still hold today. The three misconceptions are:
People in hell are repentant
The devil is in charge of hell
Everyone gets the same punishment
I agree with Alisa that those are three misconceptions about hell, yet I do not agree with some of her explanations because she believes hell involves eternal torment. Let’s take the misconceptions one by one.
1. People in hell are repentant.
Alisa is correct that people do not repent in hell. She is also correct that when the Bible speaks of people gnashing their teeth, this “refers to something that enemies do when they are raging against their foes” (0:52). Where Alisa goes wrong is that she imagines this gnashing of teeth and raging against God will go on forever. She speaks of “the ongoing rebellion that hell will be” (2:02). Just as Alisa was wrong as a child to imagine poor souls in hell who wish they had heard the gospel, she is wrong now to imagine people living in hell forever as rebels who hate God and thus gnash their teeth at Him. Here are some reasons I say she is wrong:
A. In one of the passages that mentions the unrighteous weeping and gnashing their teeth, we are also told that they will be burned up like weeds in a furnace (Matthew 13:40-42). Weeds are turned to ashes, not tormented. It makes sense that people about to be thrown into a fiery furnace, or even during the first seconds after they are thrown in, would be full of anger and hate towards God (although God’s judgment is just and their anger does them no good and does God no harm). Being burned to ashes is precisely what the Bible teaches will happen to the unrighteous in other places as well. You may read more about that here: Downburned and Ashified, the Annihilation of the Unrighteous.
B. In Alisa’s scenario, God has enemies who continue to exist forever. However, the Bible teaches that “the last enemy to be abolished is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Bible never speaks of eternal rebellion in hell. It speaks instead of God destroying the bodies and souls of the unsaved in hell (Matthew 10:28).
C. Alisa correctly quotes Psalm 37:12 as evidence that in the Bible the gnashing of teeth is something angry enemies do. However, she fails to notice that Psalm 37 gives strong evidence that the enemies of God will not continue gnashing their teeth at Him forever, but instead says they will “be destroyed,” “be no more,” “not be there,” “perish,” “fade away like smoke,” “not be found,” and “be eliminated.” That sounds like annihilation, not eternal torment. (You may read a more in depth discussion of how Psalm 37 supports annihilationism here: Psalm 37, A Song of Annihilation.)
2. The Devil is in charge of hell
Alisa is correct to dispel the unbiblical, but popular, image of the devil and his demons torturing people in hell. She is correct that the devil is not in charge of hell and does not rule there. She quotes Jesus speaking of “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). “Eternal fire” does not support Alisa’s view of hell consisting of eternal torment. The fire that consumes God’s adversaries (see Hebrews 10:27) is eternal because God, the source of the fire, is eternal, not because those consumed by it are eternal (you may read more on this here: Why eternal fire does not mean eternal torment).
Alisa also quotes from Revelation 20:10 in this section (at 3:10 in the video), which states that the devil, the false prophet, and the beast “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). This verse is one of two passages in Revelation which, if taken literally, would seem to support eternal torment. Of course, it only mentions eternal torment for the devil, the beast, and the false prophet and the other passage (Revelation 14:11) only speaks of torment for those who received the mark of the beast. More importantly, these passages occur in the highly symbolic visions John shares with us in the book of Revelation. These visions use shocking and even bizarre imagery to communicate to us. But the imagery often is not literal. For example, there will be no literal seven-headed monster. There also will be no literal eternal torment. We are explicitly told twice that the lake of fire stands for the second death. It is where the unrighteous die a second time. (You may read more about this here: What is the Second Death?). I should also point out that because conditional immortality is a doctrine about what will happen to unrighteous people, it is possible to believe that the devil and his demons will be tormented forever while still believing the consistent biblical teaching that unrighteous people will perish and not live forever (John 3:16). I myself think it is more likely that even the devil and demons will eventually perish, but the evidence for that view is beyond the scope of this blog post.
3. Everyone gets the same punishment
I agree with Alisa that there will be degrees of punishment for the unrighteous. It’s true that annihilationism states that all the unrighteous will eventually perish. Yet, annihilationism allows for degrees of punishment in at least two ways:
there may be conscious punishment of limited duration before the unrighteous are finally destroyed, and
just as people suffer different amounts when they die here on earth, people may suffer different amounts as they experience the final, second death.
Alisa’s view also allows for degrees of punishment. While in her view all the unrighteous suffer eternal torment, surely some types of torment (being lonely and sad) are not as terrible as others (literally being burned in fire and feeling it without relief). Alisa and I agree that there will be degrees of punishment, and our different views each allow for this, albeit in different ways.
In discussing the fact that there will be degrees of punishment, Alisa says,
“God is not unfair” (4:35).
I certainly agree with that! Yet, eternal torment would be grossly unfair for at least two reasons:
A. God Himself gave us the principle of proportional punishment. He limited punishment to “an eye for an eye” (see Exodus 21:23-25). He also tells us that He “ will repay each person according to what they have done” (Romans 2:6, NIV). No person has ever inflicted eternal torment on any other person, and certainly no one has done this to God. Some argue that sins against God deserve infinite punishment because God has infinite worth. This might be true if someone had actually robbed God of His infinite worth. But no one has. (You may read more on this here: An Eye for an Eye and also here: Lessons from a Tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo )
B. God also teaches us that we should give a fair warning to people who are about to suffer a terrible fate (see Ezekiel 33:6). God Himself gave many warnings to Israel that their sins would result in exile before they were, in fact, exiled. Exile is a fate far less terrible than eternal torment. I do not believe that any verse in the Bible warns of eternal torment. However, even if we accept the interpretation of traditionalists, the earliest warning of eternal torment comes in Daniel (and it is not a clear warning of eternal torment, since people can be held in contempt after they are dead). By that time several thousand years of human history had already passed and many people had lived and died without a fair warning. (You may read more on this here: Fair Warning, a Problem for the View of Eternal Conscious Torment)
The direct biblical evidence that eternal torment would be unjust is the most important type of evidence. But in addition to this, God has also given all people a conscience and our conscience warns us of what we deserve. According to Romans, our conscience does not warn us of eternal torment but instead it warns us that due to our sins we “deserve to die” (Romans 1:32).
"What actually is hell?" - Alisa Childers (4:50)
After dispelling three common misconceptions about hell in the first 4 minutes and 50 seconds of her video, Alisa asks and attempts to answer the question “What actually is hell?” One way she does this is by listing some biblical words and phrases that describe the final fate of those not saved by faith in Jesus. Here is her list:
lake of fire
the wine of God’s wrath
torment with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb
a blazing furnace
a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched
I’ve already addressed some of those phrases, but will briefly explain again why none of them, interpreted in their biblical context, point towards eternal conscious torment. But first I want to point out something more basic. Alisa left some important words and phrases off her list. For example, the Greek word group that is used most often to describe the fate of the unrighteous in the New Testament is apollumi (a verb) and apoleia (the noun with the same root). Here are some of the verses that use these words:
ESV Matthew 7:13 "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction (apoleia), and those who enter by it are many.
ESV Matthew 10:28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy (apollumi) both soul and body in hell.
ESV John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish (apollumi) but have eternal life.
ESV Romans 2:12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish (apollumi) without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
ESV Romans 9:22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (apoleia)
ESV Philippians 3:19 Their end is destruction (apoleia), their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
ESV Hebrews 10:39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed (apoleia), but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
ESV James 4:12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy (apollumi). But who are you to judge your neighbor?
ESV 2 Peter 3:7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction (apoleia) of the ungodly.
ESV 2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish (apollumi), but that all should reach repentance.
Not only does the apollumi/apoleia word group contain the words used most often in the New Testament to refer to the fate of the unrighteous, it is also one of the best choices in the ancient Greek language to refer to annihilationism. We know this because Greek authors like Plato, Plutarch, and Athenagoras used apollumi/apoleia to refer to what we call annihilationism (the complete, total, and permanent destruction of all parts of a person, including their soul). I have documented this in these two blog posts:
In addition to words translated by apollumi/apoleia, there are other words and phrases that the Bible uses to refer to the final fate of the unrighteous that also did not make Alisa’s list: “burn up” (Matthew 3:12), “burning them to ashes” (2 Peter 2:6), “raging fire that will consume” (Hebrews 10:26), “death” (Romans 6:21, 23), “eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), and “the second death” (Revelation 2:11, 20:6, 20:14, 21:8). This does not include words and phrases from the Psalms, some of which were listed earlier in this blog post. All these words and phrases fit with annihilation much better than they do with eternal torment. I encourage you to look them up and read them in context in your Bible. The exact wording will vary slightly depending on your translation, but the basic truth remains the same.
What about the words and phrases Alisa did list? Some of these we have already discussed above, but I’ll list them all here with a brief comment on each word or phrase:
“punishment” – by itself, this could fit either eternal torment or annihilation.
“eternal fire” – although one might assume this points towards eternal torment, a study of this topic shows that the fire is eternal because it is associated with God and that while the fire is eternal, those who are consumed by it and turned to ashes certainly are not.
“lake of fire” – aside from the fact that we would normally expect anyone thrown into something resembling a lava pit not to survive in torment but to be turned to ashes, the Bible explicitly tells us twice that this image found in the most symbolic book in the Bible should be interpreted as referring to dying a second time (see Revelation 20:14 and 21:8).
“the wine of God’s wrath” – by itself this phrase could refer to any expression of wrath, but the Bible also refers to “the day of wrath” (Romans 2:5). This indicates that His wrath does not continue forever. (For more information, see my blog post, The Day of Wrath)
“torment with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb” – this phrase, if it were literal, could support eternal torment, but unlike many of the phrases that point to perishing, this phrase is found in the very symbolic visions of Revelation. These visions also include a woman standing on the moon and a dragon trying to eat a baby. These images are intended to be shocking and powerful, but they must not be interpreted literally when to do so makes them contradict many other passages in the Bible.
“eternal punishment” – this phrase could refer to either torment that lasts forever or death that lasts forever. I give evidence for this and explain why in the context of Matthew 25:46, death that lasts forever (after being raised to faced judgment) is a much better fit. You may read more about this here: Matthew 25:46 refutes eternal conscious torment and universalism and supports annihilationism)
“a blazing furnace” – the blazing furnace burns people up. It does not torment them forever, although a limited time of torment before perishing is certainly possible.
“a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” – when Jesus says these words He is quoting from the last verse in Isaiah, Isaiah 66:24. Isaiah specifically says that the fire and worms are consuming dead bodies. They are not tormenting living people. That makes sense because all throughout history and all around the world the two methods of disposing of the dead is for worms to turn them to dust or fire to turn them to ashes. The bodies are dead, so no torment is involved (I address this along with other biblical evidence for conditional immortality in a short ten minute video here:
Death, not Life
Throughout the Bible, choosing to follow God (and starting in the New Testament this always includes believing in Jesus) is consistently presented as a life or death issue. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The Bible never says that all people will live forever or that the unrighteous will have eternal life. The Bible consistently teaches that only those saved by faith in Jesus will live forever. This is why it should set off alarms when Christians (even ones who are doing really good work for the sake of the gospel, like Alisa) speak of the unsaved in ways that picture them living forever, albeit in torment.
Alisa, quoting J. I. Packer with approval, says “the heart of the doctrine of hell: it’s life apart from the love and goodness of God and under the complete control and domination of sin” (6:15). For those who are not saved, the Bible says their end is death (Romans 6:21). Those who believe in eternal torment, like Alisa Childers and J. I. Packer, frequently say that the unsaved will live forever in hell. Do you see the contradiction?
Her Good Work could be Made Even Better
I believe Alisa is doing very good work in helping to expose the deception and danger of progressive Christianity. I’m also deeply convinced that the biblical evidence strongly supports the doctrine of conditional immortality. Progressive Christians and others who reject an evangelical faith frequently bring up hell (by which they mean eternal torment) as one of the main reasons to reject the Bible as being completely true and trustworthy (I document and explain this fact in this blog post: Al Mohler Reveals One of the Reasons that Correcting the Error of Eternal Torment is Important). I believe Alisa and others are likely to continue to encounter the issue of hell. It makes sense that she included a chapter on hell in her book about progressive Christianity. She has corrected some misconceptions about hell. Her good work will be even better if she corrects one more misconception about hell; namely if she stops believing in eternal torment and comes to see that the Bible teaches conditional immortality.
Mark Corbett is a husband to Hope and a father to Joy and serves as the pastor of Severn Baptist Church in Severn, NC. Mark is also a member and moderator of the Rethinking Hell Facebook group and contributor to RethinkingHell.com.
I asked Mark to share this post as he excels in modelling graciousness in disagreement while making excellent arguments from scripture.
To read more from Mark, go to his blog here: Mark’s Resources on Hell