Another aspect of hell that's especially troubling to people is that its duration is eternal. But what if hell didn't last forever? Instead, what if God annihilated people that is, snuffed them out of existence-instead of forcing them to be consciously separated from him forever and ever?
"Surely," I said to Moreland, "that would be more humane than an eternity of regret and remorse."
"Believe it or not, everlasting separation from God is morally superior to annihilation," he replied. "Why would God be morally justified in annihilating somebody? The only way that's a good thing would be the end result, which would be to keep people from experiencing the conscious separation from God forever. Well, then you're treating people as a means to an end.
"It's like forcing people to go to heaven. What you're saying is, 'The thing that really matters is that people no longer suffer consciously, so I'm going to snuff this person out of existence in order to achieve that end.' Do you see? That's treating the person as a means to an end.
"What hell does is recognize that people have intrinsic value. If God loves intrinsic value, then he has got to be a sustainer of persons, because that means he is a sustainer of intrinsic value. He refuses to snuff out a creature that was made in his own image. So in the final analysis, hell is the only morally legitimate option.
"God doesn't like it, but he quarantines them. This honors their freedom of choice. He just will not override that. In fact, God considers people so intrinsically valuable that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die so that they can, if they choose, spend eternity in heaven with him."
But some theologians claim that annihilation is what's taught by the Scriptures. They say the Bible teaches that while the punishment of hell is eternal, the punishing isn't eternal.
Annihilationists like to cite Psalm 37, which says the wicked "will be no more," "like smoke they [will] vanish away," and "transgressors shall be altogether destroyed." And they point to Psalm 145:20, where David said, "The Lord preserves all who love him; but all the wicked he will destroy." And Isaiah 1:28: "Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed." They also contend that the metaphors used by Jesus are evidence of annihilationism: the wicked are "bound in bundles to be burned," the bad fish are thrown away, and the harmful plants are rooted up.9
I asked Moreland: "Doesn't this mean that annihilationism is consistent with Scripture and therefore a reasonable way to harmonize God's fairness with the doctrine of hell?"
Moreland stood firm. "No, it's not the biblical teaching," he insisted. "Whenever you're trying to understand what an author is teaching, you begin with clear passages that were intended by the author to speak on the question, and then move to unclear passages that may not be intended to teach on the subject.
"Let me illustrate this. There are passages in the Bible that say Jesus Christ died for everyone. There's also Galatians 2:20, where the apostle Paul says, 'Christ died for me.' Now, am I to assume from that passage that Christ only died for Paul? No, but why not? Because there are clear passages that teach that Christ died for everybody, so when we come to Paul's statement we say that it's obvious he didn't mean Jesus died only for Paul, because we interpret the unclear in light of the clear.
"Now, how about these passages concerning hell? The Old Testament has clear passages on hell being everlasting. Daniel 12:2 says at the end of the age, the just are raised to everlasting life, the unjust to everlasting punishment.10 The identical Hebrew word for everlasting is used in both instances. If we're going to say that people are annihilated in hell, we should say they're annihilated in heaven. You can't have your cake and eat it too. And that passage is clearly meant to be teaching on this question.
"In the New Testament, in Matthew 25, Jesus offers a clear teaching where he's intending to address the question of the eternal state of heaven and hell, and he uses the same word everlasting to refer to both.
"So we go from these clear passages to the ambiguous teaching about being 'cut off.' All that talk about being destroyed and being cut off in the Old Testament is usually meant to mean people being cut off from Israel and the land. Most of those passages have little or nothing to do with everlasting life; they have to do with being cut off in this life to the promises Abraham gave to the people in the land."
But, I pointed out, the annihilationists also cite the biblical language of fire as evidence that people are destroyed rather than languish forever in hell. As well respected British pastor John R. W. Stott put it: "The fire itself is termed 'eternal' and 'unquenchable,' but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed for ever, not tormented for ever."n
Moreland, however, was adamant. "The flame language is figurative," he said. "In Revelation, we are told that hell and death are cast into the lake of fire. Now, hell is not something that can burn. It's a realm. That's like saying heaven could be burned. Heaven's not the kind of thing that burns. And how can you burn death? Death isn't something you can set a torch to and ignite it.
"So it's obvious that the lake of fire is meant to stand for judgment. When it says an end is placed to hell, the word 'hell' is meant to refer to the temporary state of those between their death and the final resurrection. At that point, they're given their bodies again and they will be located away from God. Death is put to an end because there's not going to be any more death. So the flame language of the lake of fire is clearly meant to be a figure of speech for judgment, not a literal burning."
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