Welp. I finally did my first debate. Chris and I will probably be doing a podcast episode or two on the Rethinking Hell Podcast to talk about our impressions of the debate, but here is my scripted opening from that debate (finished on time too), including the LINK to the three hour debate on youtube.
Alright, thank you Chris Ray for hosting, and the other Chris, Damon and Elce for this chance to discuss what Scripture says.
The question we are discussing today is, "does the Bible teach eternal conscious torment?" (hereafter ECT) I will be arguing that Scripture does not teach this perspective. I will demonstrate this via two central pillars.
· Pillar One: Paul's language of destruction makes ECT an untenable exegetical conclusion.
· Pillar two: the New Testament vision of the destruction of Satan and the Powers similarly makes ECT indefensible hermeneutically and exegetically.
1. Paul and the Lexemes of Destruction
First, we consider Paul's use of the verb καταργέω: Louw-Nida, a New Testament lexicon, notes this verb means 'to cause to cease to exist - 'to cause to come to an end, to cause to become nothing' (13.100). When applied to human agents or secular powers, this is the standard meaning of the verb.
· Paul writes in Rom 6:6: "knowing this, that our old self was crucified along with him for the purpose of destroying the body of Sin (καταργηθῇ), so that we would no longer be enslaved to Sin."
We are not bound by Sin anymore because Sin is utterly undone. Paul also uses this verb to refer to the final eradication of the "things that are" (1 Cor 1:28), which includes the "rulers of this age which will be destroyed" (2:6), and this culminates in 15:24-26 where Christ destroys all of the sovereignties and powers, including Death in 2 Tim 1:10.
· Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:8 we have Paul saying that "the lawless One will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill by the breath of his mouth and annihilate him (καταργήσει) by the appearance of his coming."
So this word group is decisive in showing that Paul has in mind the final destruction of the rulers and powers, not their external conscious existence.
We also have the ἀπόλλυμι/ ἀπώλεια word group. Louw-Nida (20.31) offers this definition: "to destroy or to cause the destruction of persons, objects, or institutions.'
1 Cor 1:18 contrasts the word with "deliverance": "for the message of the cross is indeed folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being delivered it is the power of God." This parallel language occurs in 2 Cor 2:15 and 4:3 and Phil 1:28. To say people "perish" or are "destroyed" is not the language one might consider when contending for ECT. Paul goes further in invoking the Exodus narrative when he writes in 1 Cor 10:9-10:
"Neither should we put the Messiah to the test, just as some of them did and were killed (ἀπώλλυντο) by the serpent, nor grumble as some of them did and were killed (ἀπώλοντο) by the Destroyer."
The recipients of divine wrath are not "ruined" or "tormented" forever. Rather, they were killed, and this serves as a typology for how we should understand Paul's vision of divine judgment.
Similarly, Paul speaks about "the ones being destroyed" in 2 Thess 2:10 "because they did not welcome the truth so as to be saved." Paul's strongest use of this word group occurs in Phil 3:19 where the "enemies of the cross of Christ" have their "end in destruction" (ἀπώλεια). Here, Paul's use of "end" (τέλος) refers to a final termination of one's life, which ends in shameful destruction. Paul, when applying the ἀπόλλυμι/ ἀπώλεια word group to human agents or secular political powers (or both) uses it in the sense of eschatological annihilation.
Paul's use of the word "corrupt" or "destroy" (Φθορά and the verbal cognate) refers to an aspect of destruction: Louw-Nida defines this noun as a "state of ruin or destruction, with the implication of disintegration," and the definition of the verb is even more stark: "ruin or destroy something, with the implication of causing something to be corrupt and thus to cease to exist."
For instance, in 1 Cor 3:17, "if anyone destroys (φθείρει) God's temple [that is, the human body], God will destroy that person." This same language is used in Gal 6:8: "for the one who sows to their own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." The pervasive contrast between "death/destruction/ corruption" and "eternal life" denotes the cessation of life and the gift of eternal life with God.
Paul's use of ὄλεθρος (defined by Louw-Nida as a 'state of utter ruin or destruction - 'ruin, destruction') is used to refer to "sudden destruction" in 1 Thess 5:3 and also in 1 Tim 6:9 where the words strongly suggest utter annihilation. Paul's final use of ὄλεθρος in 2 Thess 1:9 requires some unpacking. Here is v.9:
These will pay the price of eternal destruction (ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον) from (ἀπὸ) the presence of the Lord and from (ἀπὸ) the glory of his strength."
Two things need to be noted. First, any English translation that inserts phrases like "away from" like the ESV is simply incorrect. The preposition ἀπὸ simply means "from." This is "eternal destruction" that comes "from" the presence of the Lord like in Isaiah 2:10-21 LXX, where the immanence of the coming God is inescapable. Almost every instance of ὄλεθρος in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament—Paul's Bible) refers to the destruction of a nation or a person, with no hint of torment. This word when used in the LXX text of, for example, 1 Kings 13:34 refers to the utter destruction of the "house of Jereboam," even "vanishing from the face of the land." The cessation is stark and intentionally so. Hence, to say that the word here—like all the other words Paul uses—means torment would make it the first time any of these words actually mean that. The use of the adjective "eternal" here strongly suggests that "destruction" is an eternal result or consequence, from which there is no final resurrection, glory, honor or immortality.
In summation of my first pillar, Paul's language is focused not on the "torment" or "pain" of people or evil empires. Lexically and contextually, especially if we take the LXX into account, this does not favor the doctrine of ECT. Paul gives us no reason to affirm ECT and every reason to reject it.
2. As Chaos Falls: The Annihilation of Satan and the Powers
In speaking about the final destruction of Satan and the Powers, Paul could not have been clearer: "the God of peace will utterly crush (συντρίψει) Satan under your feet in swiftness" in Romans 16:20. This word in Second Temple Jewish literature is used in the context of warfare and death is usually something that happens in war—so I'm told. Paul also speaks of God's final victory through Christ in 1 Cor 15:24-26, when the "end" occurs: where the Son hands over the kingdom to God the Father, "when he has annihilated all rulership and all sovereignty and power," and finally "the last enemy to be annihilated is Death." We also perhaps have an allusion to the destruction of Satan or at least some spiritual being in 2 Thess 2:8 as "the lawless one." Whatever the case, you cannot have dueling sovereignties in new creation. Similarly, the author of Hebrews (2:14) writes Jesus "might destroy the one holding the power of Death, that is, the Devil." The final fate of Death, the Powers and Satan are bound together in Paul's theology, and all of them will be removed entirely from God's creation. There is no hint of them surviving God's final apocalyptic assault. When all of this is taken together, ECT becomes an unsustainable option.
With all this in mind, we come to the sole ECT prooftext: Rev 20:10:
"And the devil who had deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet lie, and they will be tormented day and night into the ages of the ages."
So we can see we have a problem here: on the one hand, our friends who affirm ECT can go at least two interpretive routes. They can say Rev 20:10 is clearer than what the rest of the New Testament has consistently said, or they can say Rev 20:10 somehow has hermeneutical priority over the rest of the New Testament. I trust neither option is satisfying. Allow me to offer my own reading that makes best sense of both dueling images of destruction and "so-called" torment.
No one disputes what John the Seer sees in Rev 20:10ff: he sees three beings in torment. The question is, what does this mean? John the Seer sees a universal resurrection in v.13, and Death and Hades are cast into the Lake of Fire, and the other's follow in v.15. However, John the Seer immediately explains what this "torment" language means in v.14: this is all described as the "second death." To interpret the symbolic nature of the "torment" in Rev 20:10 as literal is the exact opposite of how we read Revelation and Apocalyptic literature. We know this because in Revelation a highly symbolic phrase is almost immediately clarified in plain language: for example, in Rev 1:20 we read that "the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven assemblies, and the seven lampstands are the seven assemblies."
Add to this the blatant literary echo of Isaiah 34:10 where the smoke from a destroyed city ascends "forever and ever" (see also Rev 17:7-11ff where the city of Babylon falls into destruction and her destruction is characterized with "smoke [that] ascends forever and ever" in 19:3) and the ECT reading of Rev 20:10 becomes quite untenable when we read Revelation with the tools given to us by the author: when John writes in symbolic language and then tells you what that symbolic language means, we are on good ground to discern what that author intended to communicate: hence, the "torment" of the Unholy Trinity plus Death and Hades and the rest of humanity who has willfully aligned with them in Rev 20 are handed into the "second death," which is their cataclysmic cessation of existence and life. This does not require us to posit contradictory images within Scripture. When all of this taken together, the New Testament points to the utter termination of all evil things, not to their immortalization. In the tradition view, New Creation looks an awful lot like Old Creation. In my view, New Creation reigns and Old Creation falls entirely.
In conclusion, the reasons I offered above—among many others—are why I and Chris and many others do not believe the Bible teaches the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Thank you.
 ἀνελεῖ: another word group that means death or destruction
 In Rom 9:22 we have "vessels of wrath made fit/ who have made themselves fit for destruction (ἀπώλειαν)." Note the contrast between salvation and destruction/ perishing.
 2 Thess 2:8 cites Isa 11:4 LXX.
 C.f. 1 Macc 3:22 and 4:10; Sirach 35:22.