Paul, Hell, and the Problem of Evil: An Exploratory Sketch

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Note: this paper was given at the Rethinking Hell symposium on January 26, 2019.

As someone who wound up rather circuitously in pastoral ministry, the problem of evil is not one that is lost on me, especially as a graduate of Biola University. I have seen a half dozen of my friends and acquaintances leave the faith over various issues, but I believe these issues can largely be traced back to the question of evil. It would be impossible to try and answer all of the philosophical questions concerning that question in this paper, and I believe there have been sufficient theological and philosophical responses to such questions from adept theologians like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and John C. Peckham most recently in his masterful work Theodicy of Love. As such, it is my goal to sketch out a Pauline theodicy that seeks to answer the question of evil. In essence I am taking Jerry Walls admonition for annihilationists to take seriously other various doctrines and concepts and show how they can be integrated. I hope this attempt warms his Wesleyan heart. I know it has warmed mine.

Three theses can be deduced from the Pauline literature, but more could be mentioned: first, the question of the materialization of evil. Second, the promulgation of evil. Third and finally, the end of evil as it relates to our doctrine of annihilationism. The doctrine of hell for evangelicals has been largely relegated to something that happens at the end. What we need is a worldview shift concerning that question: how does God respond to the evil in his world? Does he incarcerate it or destroy it? Those are some of the questions I will explore in this paper.

It is worth noting, simply for the sake of transparency, that I do operate from a specific side of the Christian tradition and so my commentary is intentionally reflective of my own views, not the views of Rethinking Hell as a whole. But I'm right so there is that.

1. Paul's Narrative World

First, we must consider Paul's own reality as it relates to his theodicy. The narrative of Paul the Apostle centers on a lifetime of brutality and anguish, mirroring the narrative of Israel's Scriptures. Often we focus upon the beatings sustained by Paul as depicted in 2 Cor 11:23ff: imprisonments, severe beatings, death ever present, forty lashes minus the one, beaten by a rod three times, danger from rivers, robbers, the hostility from the people of the nations, his own people, city, sea and false family members: "in toil and trouble, in sleeplessness, in hunger and thirst, often fasting, in cold and nakedness." This all occurring during a time where to assert that Jesus the Anointed One is indeed Lord of all was an affront to Caesar's reign was death. The early martyrs attest to this reality in Pliny's letter to Trajan:

An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Trajan responded to Pliny with this:

That whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.

The ancient world was an inherently political reality, a world built upon the backs of slaves. It did not pay to be a Christian during this time. Death loomed over every person. Paul gained nothing by being a "slave of Christ." At a time when the wealthiest among the Roman elite held a majority of the land and wealth, we need to be reminded that when we read Paul we are not stepping into a vacuum. Every step Paul took on his missionary journeys was on contested soil. So when one thinks about what non-Christians say about the problem of pain and evil, one can hardly find a better first century source than Paul the Apostle—a man who lived the terror and pain and wrestled through these questions. If one imagines the trial this takes on the human body, one is free to envision a broken, bloody, brutalized figure whose body was evermore being conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Perhaps that is why Paul boasted in his sufferings.

2. The Materialization of Evil

Concerning the materialization or origin of sin and evil—and I am using the two synonymously for the sake of brevity, the closest we get to a "fall" narrative in Paul's thought is Romans 1:18ff. God's wrath is being "apocalyptically unveiled" against what is considered "godless" and "human unrighteousness." What follows is what can be called a "decline of civilization narrative," where an author dictates the downfall of an empire or a specific reality or nation. Despite "knowing God," these people changed or "bartered" the glory of the immortal God for images in the image of corruptible humanity, and birds, and four-footed creatures and reptiles" (1:23). Paul is clearly echoing the creation account in Genesis 1-3 and the notion of idolatry is ever-present—the lack of the presence of the noun or verb for "sin" or "to sin" is irrelevant because we know Paul is operating with an Adamic narrative. I am also assuming that "unrighteousness" is a sin. This sin manifests itself in the mind and deeds of human beings and becomes, we might say, an organic reality. Seneca writes the following concerning the decline of civilization narrative

But the first men and those who sprang from them, still unspoiled, followed nature, having one man as both their leader and their law, entrusting themselves to the control of one better than themselves. For nature has the habit of subjecting the weaker to the stronger… It was avarice that introduced poverty and, by craving much, lost all…we once possessed the whole world! (Epistles 90)

Similarly, Paul reflects on the origin of sin in Rom 5:12 when he writes—in typical controversial and debated fashion—"For this reason, just as sin entered into the world through the one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death crept to all people because all sinned." I rendered the verb διέρχομαι ("to spread, travel") as "crept" because I believe it fits contextually—sin is a living thing, and it feeds on living things. But here we see a glimpse into the Adamic narrative, especially as it relates to Death being a ruler over us (Rom 5:14ff) and I would argue this Adamic narrative carries on into Romans 7. Sin came into being because we sinned. Here, we might say, is the beginning of what is often called the "free will" defense: even though humanity was granted all things except to eat from that pesky tree, even though they knew God, they frittered God away for things that do not even resemble God. Thus, the original sin, as it were, came into the world because of a desire for autonomy apart from God. We all worship something, and these days you can see idol worship just by turning on the news. What we can determine quite clearly is that Paul believed that sin was something organic and structural, a personification that takes a whole host of metaphors and analogies. A key verse for this is Rom 6:6:

We know that our old self was crucified along with him, so that the body of sin might be utterly destroyed, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

The slave-master analogy requires a real socio-historical grounding. Slavery was incredibly common in the ancient world, with estimates of around 300,00 of them existing in the Roman Empire during Paul's time. Hence, the presence and materialization of sin not only abounded across the Roman Empire, it manifested itself in the very bodies of the early Christians who were slaves and slave-masters. As such, the question of the emergence of evil is clear. Sin, as a cosmic oppressor, comes to birth through the sinful activity of humanity. Death feeds on life. Sin feeds on life. As such, the materialization of sin and death and evil stems from the desires of creature who have forsaken God—it is not God who created evil; that falls upon us. As Beverley Gaventa writes, "humanities refusal of God's lordship meant that God conceded humanity for a time to the lordship of another."[1]

3. The Reality and Promulgation of Evil

The second point concerns the reality and promulgation of evil. From whence evil came, we know. The reality of evil is more pressing, as it is the straw that broken many a former Christians back. The sin of racism, violence, greed, avarice, and so forth remains ever present in our world. For many, Paul is often considered to be the source of Christian anti-Semitism, slavery, and sexism. This list of Paul's alleged sins increases expansively if one consider the impact of government sanctioned violence (Rom 13:1-7). This is not the place to defend Paul on every point but a few words are needed. If we are to take Paul seriously as a theologian, we must be certain of his character. What good is a theologian if he or she ignores the things of Christ? What good is the apocalyptic vision is that vision is tainted by the worst wiles of the ancient world? First, Paul's Judaism and comments about Judaism reside within, I would argue, the prophetic tradition and I am not inclined to argue that Isaiah or Ezekiel are Anti-Semitic. Paul sees himself within this prophetic strain (c.f. Rom 1:1) and criticism and condemnation of sinful behavior is not limited exclusively to Paul. As it concerns slavery and women, one cannot find a single ancient source that advocated for the abolition of slavery. But, one can find this little Epistle addressed to a certain Philemon that—I would argue—plants the seeds of emancipation for slaves. The famous text in Galatians 3:26-29 about the abolition of hierarchy through baptism in the church, for the Jew and the Gentile, for the slave and the free person, for male and female, is a strong hindrance to the notion that Paul was intent on maintaining a hierarchical social order. If one includes the activity of early Christian women in Romans 16 for example, one would not expect to find a sexist commending such women for their work in the Gospel. That will suffice for now to assure us of Paul's good character toward 'the least of these.' As such, I would argue that Paul's moral character as it relates to the reality of evil is of use to us. Paul, as an ethical theologian, is an excellent source for understanding the reality of evil insofar as he was aware of evil and that he worked to overcome it as he was able in his time.

Moving to the reality of evil, Paul certainly believed that individuals participated in evil activities. But, I think the problem is far greater than being about individual sin. For Paul, evil has a personality to it—it seeks to subordinate and oppress us (Rom 6). It seizes opportunities to enslave and to kill (Rom 7). Although the powers were created as good (Col 1:15ff), they have since become fraught with violence and oppressive power. What was once good at least in terms of concession (recall that whole "give us a king" moment from the Old Testament) has become corrupt. For Paul, this age or this reality is symbolic of the destructive power of Satan and competing sovereignties. This is the reason Paul calls the "rulers" or "sovereignties" as being of "this age" (1 Cor 2:6-8), and not of the unfolding age to come. As Paul recognizes in Galatians 1:3-5:

Favor to you and peace from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord, who delivered himself over for our sins so that he might rescue us from this present wicked age in accordance with the will/resolve of our God and Father, to whom is glory for ages upon ages. Amen.

Several points must be noted about this fascinating little text. First, notice the distinction between ages: the apocalyptic age of God includes the liberation of humanity from bondage. Only God's glory and favor and peace can reign "for ages upon ages," with no hit to God's sovereignty. There are no other sovereignties to usurp God's power. Second, the notion of liberation includes distinct echoes of the Exodus narrative where God emancipated Israel from bondage, taking them from death into new life. Third, this age is characterized as "wicked" or "evil;" (πονηροῦ) as opposed to good or holy (Eph 2:2). Throughout the Synoptic Gospels the language of "ruler" (ἄρχων) is often linked with demonic realities and powers (Matt 9:34; 12:24) and human powers that enslave (Matt 20:25). What this tell us is that human and supernatural powers have been corrupted and in turn have become corrosive toward God's creation. And they wield immense power in our world. With the Adamic narrative and the decline of civilization narrative in mind, what is Paul's response when the person in Adam cries, "Wretched human that I am, who will liberate me from this body of Death?" (Rom 7:24).

4. The Vanishing of Evil

For many Christians, the question of the "end" of all things is ultimately a question about hell and suffering. Very little is usually said about what this "end" contains, only that there is pain and anguish and a form of torment as it relates to evil. However, it must be said that Paul did not envision the "end" in a way where people and entities are kept alive forever and ever. Paul's vision of "hell" or the "end" must be reframed in broader and more precise ways. Paul has a much bigger picture in mind. For the apostle, the question is not about whether or not God torments people forever and ever. Rather, the question should be seen as, "what is God's ultimate response to evil in the world?" How does God respond to injustice and violence and oppression and exploitation? Hence, theodicy is at the center of Paul's thought world as it relates to sanctification and God's ultimate act in response to the terrors that bind and enslave us. This reconceptualization will press us toward a more robust biblical theology that takes seriously the evils of our world and God's ultimate answer to the terrors and the trials. Apocalyptic theology or eschatology cannot be projected into the future, as if God is not at work now in our world to redeem and wage a cosmic battle against evil.

Questions, of course, arise when we consider such things. For example, one might suggest that sinners continue in sin in hell. This is the view asserted by D.A. Carson among others, and this view has found little support among New Testament scholars. Other views have softened the traditional formulation of hell as eternal brimstone, fire, and torture to something like separation or compared it to 'warm beer.' Ronnie Demler, my colleague and sometimes-cuddly curmudgeon, has documented this sort of argumentation in the Rethinking Hell anthology, so I point you to that for substantiation.

As one can see, often the apologetic impulse in much of evangelicalism deals not with a grand vision of God's sovereignty and holiness and powerful war against sin, but with the individual being consigned and incarcerated to a small corner of the cosmos. Such a framework does not work well at all with Paul's grand vision. So, allow me a few moments to offer a tentative sketch of the Pauline data as it relates to the problem of evil.

Paul's words in Romans 8:18-23 are an appropriate lens by which we begin our conversation. The text reads as follows:

[EXT] 18 For I think that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to compare to the coming glory to be apocalyptically disclosed to us. 19 Because the created order is eagerly waiting with anticipation for the revealing of the sons of God, 20 for creation was subjected with frustration, not willingly, but because of the one who subjected it in hope 21 that even creation itself would be emancipated from its enslavement of destruction for the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that all creation has joined together in groaning and suffers the pain of childbirth until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves—the ones who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit—groan amongst ourselves, anticipating adoption as sons,[2] the emancipation of our bodies. [EXT]

All of creation is subjected in turmoil and anguish and the evidence of this can be found on whatever news channel you prefer. The present reality of suffering and anguish is a prime element of early Christian thought, although the notion of escapism is to be ignored. For Paul in Rom 8:18-23 we see an active reality—the created order—responding to corruption and the process of destruction, where the cosmos is cognizant of its own status and anguish amidst corruption and degradation. Rather, creation is in need of liberation by means of humanity and our work as agents of liberation. God's own hope for a liberated cosmos (vv.20-21) is set in opposition to agents of destruction and corruption, who seek to subordinate and dominate the created realm. God's act of subordination is assumed to be for the benefit of the oppressed, with the ultimate goal of "adoption" and "emancipation." Thinking ecclesiologically and ecologically, the church is to be God's agent of redemption in a world beset by violence and horror. The church is united to this cosmic reality and we participate with it, groaning and eagerly anticipating and even suffering with the created order. The goal of glory is the final culmination of perfection in God's cosmic order, where sin and evil is ultimately removed from all reality. God's process of rectification assumes a new reality (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:16-17) where the kingly image of the eternal Son is supreme above all other orders and realities and principalities and sovereignties (Col 1:15ff). God's perfection of the cosmos is the ultimate restoration of the original design in creation and Eden.

In an often-disregarded verse, Paul outlines the specific end of a principle agent in the rebellion against God: Satan. Paul writes

[EXT] But the God of peace will crush (συντρίψει) Satan beneath your feet in swiftness. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." [EXT]

What is compelling about this verse is that it directly matches the fate of Satan that is proclaimed elsewhere in Scripture (Heb 2:14-15): as the principle evil actor in the divine drama, Satan maintains a significant presence in the New Testament. The language Paul uses in this text is fascinating on two accounts. First, the language of being placed "under your feet" suggests destruction (Psalm 109:1 LXX)[3] and the church is the agent in doing this. Second, the verb συντρίψει is used throughout Second Temple literature to denote destruction, especially as it relates to warfare. 1 Macc 4:32 and 2 Macc 12:28 are specific in their vision of the "destruction" of their enemies: "but they called upon the Sovereign who with great power shatters (συντρίβοντα) the might of his enemies" (12:28). The Book of Odes also speaks of "The Lord shattering (συντρίβων) [enemies in] wars" (1:3; 7:44)[4] a view that is also echoed in Judith 9:7 and 16:2. In Judith specifically, God is the specific agent who "crushed" or "destroys" various warriors and nations who rebel against God. This suggests linguistic and thematic continuity with Rom 16:20 and that Satan's fate is utter decimation from where there is no life, vitality, or remnant. Hence, the final end of Satan in Pauline thought coordinates best with the view that those who participate in evil against God's call to participate in sanctification and victory in Christ will ultimately be undone in death (Rom 6:23).

Paul's magnum apocalyptic opus in 1 Cor 15:24-26 reads as follows

[EXT] 24 Then the final End: when he hands over the Kingdom to God, even the Father, after he has annihilated all rulership and all sovereignty and power 25 For he will continue to reign until he has placed all of the adversaries beneath his feet. 26 The final enemy to be utterly annihilated is Death. [EXT]

These verses in the larger pericope of 1 Cor 15:20-28 represent a master vision where Paul outlines in some detail what will happen to all evil things, particularly the fate of the powers and the sovereignties. The notion of dueling sovereignties is a question that Paul has wrestled with throughout his entire surviving corpus: Jesus the Lord versus Caesar and the Empires of this world, and the problem of competing imperial ideologies in the ancient world are finally confronted here. Christ's kingship is predicated upon his sole exercise of sovereignty and the annihilation of all (πᾶσαν) of the universal realities that have shaped the cosmos; nothing evil has escaped Christ's grasp. A key Greek verb bookends our section here (v.24: καταργήσῃ in relation to the annihilation of the powers) and in the complete annihilation (v.26: καταργεῖται) of the final enemy.[5] These realities (the Powers) and the final enemy (Death) will cease to exist when Christ finally and decisively acts in response to their tyranny. Similarly, the various "rulers" will also be "destroyed" or "brought to nothing"[6] (καταργουμένων) in 1 Cor 2:6. Thiselton notes, "the present tense underlines that they are in the process of being reduced to nothing; this process remains continuous as an unstoppable process, i.e., they are doomed to come to nothing, or doomed to pass away."[7] The perfection of creation and the call for holiness means that the current world order is in direct conflict with God's desires. God's will for a world without sin is predicated upon the free actions of creatures who refuse God's gift of Christ, and all who have aligned themselves with the sovereignties will be given over finally into death. The hostility of the powers—both human and non-human—are doomed to nothingness, as sin cannot co-exist with God and God's people in New Creation. This word group (καταργέω) is also applied to the "lawless one" or the "person of lawlessness" (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας) in 2 Thess 2:7-10. In response to the evil done by this figure, Jesus will "kill" (ἀνελεῖ) him and "annihilate" (καταργήσει) him when he comes in glory (2 Thess 2:8). The discontinuity procured by Sin and Death means that Paul's vision of a triumphant God entails the annihilation of all things hostile to God: the final enemy of God is that which seeks to dominate all of creation, this ultimate adversary of Death. The removal of sin from the body of the believer (Rom 6:6) echoes the removal of sin and evil from the cosmic order here. In responding to the created powers, God renders them null and void, with utter decimation and final obliteration for the benefit of those who were oppressed by them and enslaved to them.

A few closing points:

·      To assert that God maintains old vestiges of sin and evil entities somewhere in the cosmos does not comport at all with the Pauline data. Evil cannot exist with a good and sovereign God at the helm of history. Evil and Death, as powers that enslave and corrode, cannot exist within God's creation.

·      To assert that evil and sin and death are eternally existent in the bodies of those who rejected Christ is miss out on the military language utilized by Paul. Paul's use of incarceration imagery is never used in an apocalyptic sense to refer to people being eternally existent in a state of agony or boredom. Rather, in all of Paul's apocalyptic discourses, annihilationist or destructionist language is used.

5. The Sea will be as Glass

The question, in conclusion, is how Paul's vision concerning the destruction of evil affects our theological consideration. The integration of various issues in theodicy and the apocalyptic fall of Satan and the powers are actually vital for Pauline theology. To introduce various other questions about the eternal existence of people in a state of hell is to miss out on the point of Paul's theological outlook. There are no other sovereignties or powers to press against God's sovereignty. In the chaos of this world, Paul's perspective gives us hope—especially to those of us who are pastors—in that evil and sin and death exist, and they are at war with God. As John Peckham has stated, "The suffering God of the cross himself took on death in order to destroy it, and he will indeed destroy death and the enemy who has its power (Heb 2:14). In the meantime, we can maintain faith in the goodness of this God of love while raging against the (temporary) "dying of the light."[8] One is not immune from suffering simply by privilege of being born or being a Christian. Evil is overwhelming because it is evil. Evil does that. But God did not hide himself from such evil. And Paul didn't either. Chaos reigns but it cannot reign eternally.

As John the Seer said some thirty years after Paul, "And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name" (15:2). Let us live into that.

 NQ

[1] Beverley Gaventa, "The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition," Interpretation 58.3 (2004): 229-240, 233.

[2] Here, Paul is addressing a mixed audience and hence women are included with the status of first-born sons.

[3] Specifically, the language of "corpses" (πτῶμα) and and the verb for "shattering" (συνθλάω) in vv.5-6 of the LXX denote annihilation. This victory is envisioned as a military conquest, not a passive or peaceful submission.

[4] The verb can also be used to denote metaphorical destruction; cf Sir 13:2 and 27:2. 

[5] Louw-Nida glosses this verb as "to cause to cease to exist - 'to cause to come to an end, to cause to become nothing, to put an end to.' " 13.100.

[6] Richard Hays observes the following: "this parallel [with 1:28] shows that it is God who is acting to destroy these rulers and to establish his sovereignty over the world." First Corinthians, 43.

[7] Thiselton, First Corinthians, 231-232.

[8] Peckham, Theodicy of Love, 170.

Rethinking Hell Debate 2018: Nick's Opening Statement

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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.

Thanks!

____

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[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] 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[4] 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.

3. Conclusion

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.

____

[1] ἀνελεῖ:[1] another word group that means death or destruction

[2] 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.

[3] 2 Thess 2:8 cites Isa 11:4 LXX.

[4]  C.f. 1 Macc 3:22 and 4:10; Sirach 35:22.

The Failure of the Evangelical Imagination: A Brief Rant on Hell, Method and History

Well, my quarter is nearly over. In my directed study with Tommy, Chad and Banning, we spent a lot of time reading Second Temple Jewish literature, especially 1 Enoch and various articles on "eternal punishment" in Jewish belief.

It was this week that I had a thought that wouldn't leave me alone.

It came when I was reading 1 Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other Jewish texts around the time of Paul. In reading material about the death or destruction of the wicked (particularly in the Dead Sea Scrolls), I lingered on the idea that modern Christian doctrinal formation needs to take these texts into account when conceptualizing our doctrine of hell. I'm not alone in having this thought of course, but it came to full fruition when I read the second edition of the 4 Views on Hell book edited by Preston Sprinkle.

I want to start with some positives before I get into the meat of my criticism. As the editor, Sprinkle exhibited his common attitude of grace and charity toward all three views represented. Yes, only three views are represented, as Jerry Walls and Denny Burk are warring siblings within the family of eternal conscious torment. Second, the essays are generally well written in terms of presentation and engaging (which is both positive and negative).

Thus, my criticism of the volume is not directed at Sprinkle, but to the methodological lack of imagination displayed by the contributors in their avoidance of Second Temple Jewish texts. This is not a full-scale critique of the book, but I am using the book as a springboard for a larger criticism.

That criticism is this: evangelicals, in forming doctrine, often detach the text of Scripture from the history in which it was written. This is evident, as all four contributors do not speak at all of the surrounding history that inhabits their alleged views in the New Testament. Not even a footnote.

This leads to the title of my post. For instance, Denny Burk's argumentation simply treads a well-worn path set by others before him (c.f. his adoption of Robert Peterson's "Big Ten" on p.21 n.8). At this stage, if these three (four?) are the only evangelical options, one is left wondering how history fits into our doctrine, and if there exists a latent Supersessionism regarding how we read these Jewish texts—insofar as we are permitted to ignore history and simply strip-mine a few texts to create a wall of "distinct identity." One does not need a multitude of texts in order for a doctrine to be true: that is not my point.

But the point is that there is a reductionistic hermeneutic at play in our modern discourse on hell, one that prefers certain obscure verses in the Apocalypse to the broader language of destruction in Paul, Matthew, Mark, Peter, 2 Peter and elsewhere. Why are the two texts in Revelation given more prominence?

How has evangelicalism, however broadly defined, reduced the complex narratives of Scripture down to propositional slogans? How is this acceptable?

I am not arguing that the Wisdom of Solomon or Sibylline Oracles are inerrant and equally as authoritative as Romans or John or Hebrews or Genesis or First/Second/Third Isaiah.

What I am arguing is that evangelical academics, when arguing for their position in the so-called public square, need to use these Second Temple texts, no matter which view they are espousing. To restrict one's arguments exclusively to the New Testament, or in Burk's case ten isolated texts, is to ignore the breadth of history that got us these texts in the first place.

Third-Isaiah did not write in a vacuum, and neither did Mark or Paul when they quoted Third-Isaiah (c.f. Mark 9:43-49—Third-Isaiah 66:24; 2 Thess. 1:9: Third-Isaiah 66:15-16).

Understanding the times and rumors and events surrounding the New Testament is to enhance one's knowledge of history, and may help avoid the absolute reductionistic approach we find in many of our churches and denominations.

Jewish apocalyptic history is not a footnote to the Bible.

NQ

To be with Christ: The Intermediate State and Phil. 1:21-24

In many theological circles, the doctrine of the intermediate state is often a key theological locus. For many or most evangelical Christians, the intermediate state is a comfort, drawn upon inferences from key Scriptural texts. It is not my interest to dissuade Christians from affirming this doctrine, or taking solace in it. Rather, my twofold goal is to challenge Christians to stay true to the text, and to show why I think Philippians 1:21-24 is insufficient as support for the doctrine of the intermediate state.

To lay my cards out on the table, I do not presently believe in such an intermediate state. My view of the human person does not require an intermediate state, and my view of the resurrection of the body does not either. There is of course debate about this doctrine, and I will not solve it at all in one blog post. But allow me to address a specific text in Paul that is often utilized to support the idea.

The text reads as follows:

Phil. 1:21-24: ἐμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν Χριστὸς καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος. 22 εἰ δὲ τὸ ζῆν ἐν σαρκί, τοῦτό μοι καρπὸς ἔργου— καὶ τί αἱρήσομαι οὐ γνωρίζω· 23 συνέχομαι δὲ ἐκ τῶν δύο, τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν ἔχων εἰς τὸ ἀναλῦσαι καὶ σὺν Χριστῷ εἶναι, πολλῷ γὰρ μᾶλλον κρεῖσσον, 24 τὸ δὲ ἐπιμένειν ⸀ ἐν τῇ σαρκὶ ἀναγκαιότερον δι᾽ ὑμᾶς.

My translation: “For me, to live—Christ; and to die—profit. But if to live in the body, this to me is fruitful work, and what I choose to take up I do not know. I am confined by the two, having the desire to die and be with Christ, for rather this is nobler. And to stay in the body is more important for you.”

I tried to be a bit wooden with my translation, but that is never entirely doable. But I hope the passage makes sense the way I rendered it.

As representative of the dualist perspective, I will engage with John Piper’s website, as I am too tired to grab Wayne Grudem off the shelf. The article on Desiring God was written by Matt Perman and may be accessed here (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-do-you-believe-about-the-intermediate-state). John Piper is a prominent neo-fundamentalist pastor, and I suspect his website is influential for those interested in this topic. However, since Matt Perman is the actual author of this piece, I will be referring to him in my response.

Perman writes:

First, Paul spoke of having the desire "to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better" (Philippians 1:23). Notice first of all that Paul speaks of death as a departure (from the body) not into temporary nothingness or unconsciousness but to be with Christ. If we are with Christ once we have died, then we continue existing.

I think Perman makes several leaps in logic here. First of all, the infinitive ἀναλῦσαι (“to depart”) here just means, “to die.” It’s a metaphor meaning ‘death.’ Paul is likely writing from prison here, and the threat of death immanent. He has death on the mind, so to speak. For Perman to assert, “If we are with Christ once we have died, then we continue existing” seems to go beyond the text. There are questions Paul does not answer that Perman seems to presume an answer for. For instance:

  • Does Paul believe in an immortal soul that can survive bodily death? Unlikely.
  • Does Paul believe in the resurrection of the body? Yes. Cf. 1 Cor. 15. Why then the need for an intermediate state?

To be with Christ is a relational term, and Christ is already raised in Paul’s mind. In other texts, Paul talks about the immediacy of the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-52), but this begs a question: perspectivally, did Paul believe he would be literally raised in an instant? Unlikely. More likely, he would remain dead until resurrection (that’s why it is called resurrection), but for him, time is but a “twinkling of an eye.” To die with Christ, then is both relational and soteriological.

The preposition σύν (“with”) occurs in conjunction with Christ elsewhere in Paul (Rom. 6:8 and in Col. 2:20 and 3:3-4). In Rom. 6:8, it refers to the death of the person with Christ (soteriology) and her resurrection. The death of the believer means she has participated in Christ’s life, and her resurrection is secured because of his resurrection. In Col. 2:20, ἀπεθάνετε σὺν Χριστῷ (“dying with Christ”) is also a relational term, as in being bound to Christ in death as opposed to the “elements of the world.” In 3:3-4, the life of the believer is “hidden” (κέκρυπται) with Christ and in God (σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ ἐν τῷ θεῷ). Col. 3:4 sums this up quite powerfully:

Col. 3:4: ὅταν ὁ Χριστὸς φανερωθῇ, ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν, τότε καὶ ὑμεῖς σὺν αὐτῷ φανερωθήσεσθε ἐν δόξῃ.

My translation: “whenever Christ [the Messiah] may be manifest in our lives, then also you will be manifested in glory with him.”

Paul’s basic premise is sound: to die with Christ is to participate in his life and example, in imitating the dying Messiah so that we may have eternal life in his name. For Perman to make it about continuing to exist seems to contradict the witness of Paul elsewhere, and here especially.

He writes:

Second, notice that Paul speaks of this state as "very much better" than the present state. It would be hard to say such a thing of a state of complete unconsciousness.”

This seems tenuous. Eternal life, in resurrection, is surely preferable to death. The intimacy of Christ, the fullness of his life, and the vindication of Paul’s witness remain forlorn and forsaken without resurrection. To remain dead in light of his own life and sufferings, Paul undoubtedly thought resurrection with Christ was better! To be raised is vindication (cf. Dan. 12:2-3), not abandonment.

Particularly when we consider that Paul's passion was to know Christ, it would seem that the reason the state beyond death is better than this present life is because we are with Christ and know it. If we were suddenly unconscious at death until the resurrection, wouldn't it be better to remain in this life because at least then we would have conscious fellowship with Christ?

He writes:

…notice again that [Paul] speaks of this state as his preference, which indicates (as in Philippians 1:23) that we not only continue existing between death and the resurrection, but that we are aware of our existence.

Nowhere in Paul do we have any language about “existing” between death and resurrection. As has been shown already, this looks to be a fallacious line of argumentation. Of course, resurrection is Paul’s preference! He lived and suffering and ultimately died for Christ. “Awareness” seems more like a modernistic ideal than a New Testament reality.

In essence, Paul in Philippians 1:21-24 is speaking relationally, with an eye toward future resurrection (c.f. 3:10-11). The language about being “in the body” is likely an idiomatic phrase about being alive. For instance, Rom. 8:3 uses a similar syntactical phrase κατέκρινε τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐν τῇ σαρκί (“condemned sin in the body”), that is, Jesus’ living mortal body being crucified and killed, and thus condemning sin. Elsewhere, 2 Cor. 4:11b reads as follows:

2 Cor. 4:11: ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φανερωθῇ ἐν τῇ θνητῇ σαρκὶ ἡμῶν

My translation: “so that also the life of Jesus should be manifested in our mortal bodies.”

The idea of “in the flesh/body” is not to promote a dualistic and tripartite view of the human person (that we are composed of body, soul and/or spirit). Rather, the relational idiom denotes the idea of being alive (or formerly alive). “In the body” is an idiomatic way of simply stating the obvious: you are alive, in the most basic sense of the phrase.

Paul’s language here is about participation in God’s mission in the world, not about a conscious intermediate state. If one desires to argue for such a concept, one is on far better ground in the realm of philosophy and theology rather than this text. I am mildly open to the concept of an intermediate state on philosophical grounds (although I do find it to be unnecessary and not in harmony with the witness of the New Testament), but I cannot endorse such an idea from this chief proof text.

NQ