Hell and the second death

Romans 6:15-23New International Version (NIV)

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

19 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

We have arrived at our final view of hell today, and next week we will conclude this sermon series by looking at heaven. As I mentioned last week, today we will be looking at the view of hell that I favor. Notice that I did not say that this is the view of hell that I believe in, I intentionally said that I favor this one. I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of this concept of “perhaps” in this sermon series, which is to say that there is between a 1 and 99% chance of something being true in my mind. I’m not entirely convinced that I have it all figured out, so I would say I lean this way or favor this view over the others. It is totally okay if you disagree with me on this; many people do. I won’t be offended at all.

I’ve probably messed with your heads a little bit over the last few weeks because I’ve shown that all of these views are biblical. You can argue for Eternal Conscious Punishment, Purgatory, and Universal Salvation from the scriptures. Some of them make more sense than the others, we might say that they are more logical. I would say that today’s view, which is often either called Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism is the most common view of hell found in the Bible, in both primary and secondary references.

When I say that it is found in a primary reference, I mean that there are verses that directly speak of Annihilationism in the Bible, and we will consider some of those here shortly. A secondary reference means that you need to use a little logic and reason to understand a passage or biblical concept as a reference to Annihilationism. As I said last week, I don’t believe that a secondary reference alone is enough to form a doctrine, and that is what we find in the ideas of Purgatory and Post-Mortem Salvation. But before we get into all of that fun stuff, let’s first consider these terms and how I am using them.

Some people will use Conditional Immortality and Annihilationism interchangeably. I’m not one of those people. Both begin by asking the simple question, “Is the human soul immortal? Is there a part of all human beings that will live on forever by design and by default?”

Our Bibles are really quite silent on this matter. But it is often said that the idea of an immortal soul comes from Greek Philosophers, not from the Hebrew and New Testament communities. When we read the some of the early church fathers, they clearly believed in the immortality of every soul, but most of those men were converts to Christianity who came out of pagan Greek backgrounds.

Conditionalists and Annihilationists will say that the human soul only lives as long as God wills for it to live. I personally believe that God created human beings with the intension of us living forever, but the Fall of humanity put an end to that. Genesis 2:16-17 says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’”

Adam and Eve did eat the fruit, and they did not immediately die. I assume that God intended for them to live forever, but their disobedience led to their mortality. They eventually died.

A Conditionalist, in the way I’m using the word, simply believes that when a person who does not know Christ dies, they simply cease to exist. That is your punishment for sin. Adam sinned and death entered the world. When we sin and are not redeemed, we too die and that death is final.

I reject this view for the same reason I reject the view of Universalism that says everyone will simply be in heaven immediately after they die: it doesn’t take seriously the 20+ verses in the New Testament that speak about hell.

An Annihilationist, in the way I’m using the term (and know that not everyone uses them the same), says that there is a hell and those who do not accept the gift of forgiveness will be there for a period of time, and then they will cease to exist. They will die a “second death.”

I believe that most people are actually what I will call a “soft Annihilationists,” even if you aren’t aware of it. I say that because if you think about it, you probably already think that there will come a time when all the souls in hell are ultimately destroyed. And we find that story in the book of Revelation.

Revelation speaks of a “second death.” We will all die once, unless Jesus comes back before we pass away. Those who are followers of Jesus will be resurrected with new bodies, while those who have rejected him will experience a second death. Revelation 20:6 says, “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them.” Continuing in verse 14, “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”

I say that most people are soft Annihilationists even if they don’t know it because many people believe that when Jesus sets the world right, evil will be defeated. There will be no more death, no more pain, and no more tears. Does that include the pain and tears in hell? I think so.

A few weeks ago we looked at Matthew 25:41 in support of Eternal Conscious Punishment, and I said then that there is another way to read that text. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”

That can be read as saying that those who go to hell will be eternally punished. Or, it can be understood as saying that the fires are eternal and that they will not burn out. If we continue in this chapter, there is a reference to the eternality of punishment, but I would argue that there is nothing more eternal than the second death when the wicked cease to exist. Or as some have said, the punishment is eternal in consequence, not in duration.

I know that isn’t convincing, but I offer it as a starting point for our consideration. What if hell is eternal, but the experience of the damned is not? What if ultimately, the punishment of hell ends in the death, not only of the body, but also the soul? Let’s look as some scripture that supports the view that a second death is the final form of punishment in hell, not conscious punishment. And I want you to try to read these scriptures with me as if you are hearing them for the first time.

In Matthew 10:28 Jesus is telling his disciples to not be afraid of those who might want to take their lives. He says to them, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

What is Jesus talking about here? Killing the soul in hell? Let’s keep digging. There are three common words or metaphors used for the final judgment in the New Testament: death, destruction, and perish. Let’s start with death.

In our scripture for this morning from Romans 6, Paul talks about the sinfulness of the Roman Christians before they converted. He says of these sinful things in verse 21, “Those things result in death!” He goes on in verse 26, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul is setting up this binary. Sin leads to death, not eternal conscious punishment. The gift of God is eternal life.

What about destruction? Let’s turn to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Again, a binary between destruction and life.

How about one more? This time, let’s consider the word perish, and we will turn to a favorite of many of ours from John 3:16, “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.”

Perish or eternal life. The choice is yours.

I’m sure you have heard that scripture many times and not thought anything about it. All I’m asking of you today is to consider that maybe the punishment of the wicked in hell isn’t eternal and conscious. Maybe it is eternal and ends in death of the body and the soul.

So why does any of this matter? One, I think it holds God’s love and God’s justice together in one holy being. Some people will talk about eternal conscious punishment as a form of God’s justice. They will say that any sin, no matter how small, is infinitely big because we have sinned against an infinitely holy God. Therefore, eternal conscious punishment is the right and just punishment. All to the glory of God?!

I don’t see that as being justice. And I know that we are talking about God’s justice, not man’s justice. But that doesn’t really seem realistic, either. Is God’s justice really to condemn someone to suffer forever in hell if they lived right, cared for the poor, but were born in Africa in the 1st century? And how is it just for God to infinitely punish a person for a finite sin?

Part of the beauty of Annihilationism, in my mind, is that not all punishment is the same. The person who lived a good life but never heard the Gospel might be punished for a short time because of the few bad things that they did, where Hitler, Mussolini, and Jerry Sandusky might be there for hundreds or thousands of years. Hitler and your uncle who was a good person, but not a Christian might not have an equal punishment. The loving and just thing to do seems to be to punish people until they have been punished in accordance to their sins. The beautiful thing is that we can trust that God will punish appropriately, and we don’t have to decide what the right sentence is.

Finally, we must keep in mind, as Greg Boyd reminds us, “the repeated teaching of the Old Testament [is] that while God’s anger endures for a moment, his love endures forever (Ps. 30:5; e.g. 2 Chr. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ps. 100:5; 103:9; 106:1; 107:1; Ps 118;1-4, 29; 136:10-26). How is this consistent with the traditional teaching that God’s love and anger are equally eternal?” – See more at: http://reknew.org/2008/01/the-case-for-annihilationism/#sthash.eWnmySLA.dpuf

Now I need to continue to follow my pattern and offer up some critiques of Annihilationism and Conditional Immortality. But, since I lean this way, I will also critique the critiques. The first is that there are three passages that seem to speak directly of eternal conscious punishment: Revelation 14:10-11; Revelation 20:10; and Isaiah 34:9-10. There are ways around understanding those passages in such a way, but that often requires some gymnastics that I’m not entirely comfortable with. Instead, I would want to say that those passages are written in apocalyptic and prophetic language, which is hard to understand and I don’t want to rule out Annihilationism base on these three references. Especially when Bible scholar Preston Sprinkle says that there are three verses that speak directly of Eternal Conscious Punishment in the Bible and over one hundred that speak of Annihilationism, often using the language of death, destruction, and perishing.

The second critique is that if we make hell any less than Eternal Conscious Punishment people will be less likely to accept Jesus and we will remove the need for people to share Jesus with family and friends. If we make hell more palatable, it will be easier to not share the Gospel.

I am reminded of a real story from my younger days. As I’ve mentioned a time or two, I grew up in rural Ohio on a dairy farm. Just outside of my childhood home we had an old bank barn where we kept the older calves who had not yet had a baby. Then around the barn we had pasture area for these heifers to frolic, eat all the grass that they wanted, and enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors. But you can’t just let cattle run loose on a farm, they will get into everything, eat grain and seed corn, and leave…let’s say, clues that they had been there. So the most economical way to contain cattle on pasture is to use barbed-wire fencing. Barbed-wire fencing itself is not enough to keep cows in, though, because they have a thick skin. We make gloves and jackets out of leather because of its strength and durability. So something is added to these barbed-wire fences as a bit of an incentive for the cattle to stay in the pasture: they are electrified.

We’ve probably all been shocked at some point in our lives. Your standard electrical outlet produces about 110-120 volts of electricity. Cattle fencers usually produce a minimum of 3,000 volts, and up to 10,000 volts. Let’s just say that cows learn pretty quickly to not touch the fence, and some people claim that animals can smell the electric, so they don’t mess with them. We humans, however, are a little slower to learn.

These electric fencers are so powerful that they need to pulsate the electricity. So they send a wave of electricity through the fence for just a fraction on a second every couple of seconds; zap, zap, zap, zap. This is for two purposes. One, the break in pulsation allows the fencer to store up enough voltage for the next pulse. But also, it keeps you and your animals from being electrocuted to death because, I’m told, that if you grab something that is electrified with 10,000 volts, you can’t let go of it. The pulsation allows you to pull your hand, or hoof, back.

When I was a little guy, I remember a time when my younger brother and I were out doing chores and I told him that the fencer was unplugged. I knew very well that the fence was “hot,” but I thought it would be funny to see him get shocked. So I watched as he went to the fence, reached out his hand, and grabbed it.

He cried. So did I.

I haven’t told anyone to touch a fence since that day. In fact, I’ve told plenty of people not to touch a fence when I knew or even had a slight inclination that a fence might be hot.

I tell that story because when you start to even consider Annihilationism, many Christians will push back and say that if we make hell anything less than eternal conscious punishment, people will not evangelize, they will not share the gospel. If we say that hell is a temporary punishment, what incentive is there for people to tell their neighbors about Jesus and what incentive is there for them to accept the grace of God?

My friends, I do believe in punishment after death. And any length of punishment should be enough to get people out and talking about Jesus. I saw my younger brother get shocked, which lasted less than one second, and I made the decision not to do that again. Instead, I would say something to people if I truly believed that they were in danger of being shocked.

Or, to put it differently, if people aren’t talking about Jesus, it isn’t because I’m suggesting that suffering in hell is temporary. We have other reasons.

I would also argue that teaching about Annihilationism could actually prove to encourage more people to talk about Jesus. How many of us have been embarrassed by the thought of a God who punishes finite human beings who commit finite sins for all of eternity?

Within the Annihilation framework, God is both love and just. The punishment fits the crime, and people are punished according to their wickedness. But God is also love, because when sinners have paid for their wickedness, their pain ends. They die a second death. It might take 90 years or 90 seconds. That is entirely up to God, and I trust that God will do what is right.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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