If God endlessly torments the unsaved this raises many problems:-
1. The tormenting by God is worse then the German holocaust whose victims’ torments had an ending.
2. Many reject Christ because they cannot believe in a God who asks us to be kind, but is himself worse than Hitler.
3. Many in Bible-believing churches tell me they don’t believe in the endless tormenting of the unsaved; but many of them solve the problem by believing that the torments will cause the lost to repent, and so they will be saved. Several Baptist ministers have explained to me that the torments purge the souls. They have revived the Roman Catholic universalist purgatory heresy. Helmut Thielicke, a great Evangelical scholar, in a lecture in the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle, on the occasion of Baptist College fiftieth anniversary, peppered with questions by Baptists asking him to denounce Conditional Immortality, emphatically declared that universalism is unscriptural, and that scripture can be interpreted to support only either Everlasting Torments, or Conditional Immortality and Annihilationism. I should think that if Thielicke were still alive today he would say that he believed that Conditional Immortality is what the Bible teaches.
4. If the millions of unbelievers of past centuries are alive and not in heaven, where are they?
5. Is the Bible inconsistent in its use of the word “death”, meaning cessation of existence when it refers to animals and trees, but continued existence when it refers to mankind? The translators who produced the A.V.(KJV) were inconsistent when they translated the Hebrew “nephesh hayyim” in Gen 1:20 as “moving creatures”, and in Gen 1:21 as “living creatures” and in Gen2:7 as a “living soul”. The NIV is little better, with “living creatures” and just “creatures” in Gen 1:20,21; but a “living being”, in Gen 2:7. The point is that animals, fishes, and men are all living souls, creatures which live by breathing. When the breathing ceases, the creature is dead.
6. If the punishment of the lost began when they died, why does Rev. 20:11-15 say that it begins at the Great White Throne Judgment?
7. If the Lake of Fire doesn’t annihilate the lost, where will those countless millions or billions be confined in the new Heavens and Earth wherein dwells only righteousness? This suggests that there is no place for the accommodation of immortal sinners
8. Is the Bible inconsistent in saying the Jerusalem rubbish dump in the Valley in Hinnon ( Hebrew Gai Hinnon, Greek Gehenna) incinerated the rubbish, but the Lake of Fire doesn’t incinerate the unrighteous, nor Satan and all of his rebellious angels? And Gehenna is the word Jesus in Matt. 5:22,29;10:28;18:9 and 23:15,33, for the place to which the wicked will be consigned.
9. If the penalty for sin, Gen.2:17 is endless torment, then Jesus didn’t pay the penalty, and Atonement hasn’t been made for sinners.
Let us stop spiritualizing these Bible statements; take them literally. Thus death as the penalty for sin is lifelessness, return to dust, Gen.3:19. It is not just spiritual death. The Lake of Fire will incinerate those who reject Christ’s atonement. Jesus very fairly and compassionately warned unbelievers of the weeping and gnashing of teeth if they are thrown into the fiery furnace. That is bad enough; don’t let us assert that it is never-ending, conscious tormenting.
Regarding everlasting tormenting by God being worse than the German holocaust, I never thought that I would I would hear an evangelist say it, but hereunder I quote from a sermon by John Sweetman of Bracken Ridge Baptist Church on “Making People our Priority”
” I want to talk about our responsibility to reach for the lost for Jesus so that they may be saved from hell. Jerusalem was a stronghold built on a hill. On the South side was a deep ravine called the Valley of Hinnon. During the reign of some of the evil kings of Judah, human sacrifices to the Ammonite god, Molech, were offered there. So Josiah desecrated the valley and it became a city dump, a perpetually burning garbage tip. It was this valley which came to represent hell. The stench, the filth, the putrefying garbage, the sordid past, the constant fires, all conjured up pictures of the place where those who are not Christians will live forever.
“There have been many “hellish” places on earth. The Nazi extermination camps, the Cambodian killing fields, the streets of Rwanda during the decimation of the Tutsis, and the Serbian prison camps are just a few examples. These are places that put dread in your bones- the pain, the evil, the inhumanity, the torture, the disregard for human dignity, the animalistic behaviours. When I read of such places my spirit cries to God in horror and rage.
“But none of these places plunge the depths of hell itself. They are vague imitations of the real thing. Hell is a place completely and utterly deserted by God. Evil rules supreme. And yet our friends and family aand neighbours are happily waltzing down the road to hell.”
So believers in never-ending torment of the lost makes God out to be inhuman and devastatingly cruel, worse than Hitler and Stalin, whose victims’ suffering were relieved by Death. Couple that tragic, false view of God with Calvin’s double-predestination and denial of free will, and it seems that God’s plan in creating man was to have billions of people living eternally in torments, and one or two billion living in bliss. Those who don’t believe the lost will live in torments, but only in conditions much less congenial that the New Heavens and Earth of Revelation 21 and 22, are Universalists, but not Universal Reconciliationists . That is Billy Graham’s position, as he says that the lost will live eternally in conditions similar to the present, for he says, non-Christians in the present life don’t enjoy the blessings of born-again Christians. I have been told by people who reject Christ that they would rather live in hell with friends than in heaven without them. I promptly tell them that they won’t be alive in hell, and the choice isn’t between heaven and hell, but between Life and annihilation.
When I was in Melbourne in 1955 I met an elderly man who had been an evangelist with the Brethren and then with the Pentecostals. He said, ” I wish I had the Conditional Immortality beliefs when I was an evangelist; it would have made my addresses much more effective and compelling. Instead of unwittingly presenting God as a tyrant I would have presented him as just and all-loving, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. And instead of assuring people that they have eternal existence, albeit in hell, I would have told them that the Second Death meant annihilation, and so decision in the present life is essential. Preaching salvation or else eternal torment put more people against Christ than it brought to him.”
The following objections to Conditional Immortality are heard:
1.Annihilation is a clean, comfortable end for those who reject Christ. But Annihilationist accept the Biblical statements that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth- a most uncomfortable end, and far from clean and comfortable.
2. We must preach conscious torments in order to prompt people to accept Christ but at the same time must assure them of the love of God for them. But my belief in annihilation impelled me into evangelism, first with Open Air Campaigners, and then into the ministry with two main thrusts, namely frequent use of evangelist and a Gospel Crusade each years, and support of missionaries and Mission Societies, to seek the lost. In retirement, I write an annual Gospel tract which I post to scored of unconverted friends and relatives, and rejoice that some respond. I tell them that the love I have for them is only a shadow of God’s love for them.
3. Some say that they don’t like the idea of not going to heaven when they die. However, the Bible doesn’t say that, nor does it support the idea that there is an intermediate place where Christians can await the Second Coming. In 2 Thessalonians 4:14, regarding the resurrection of Christians, when Paul says, “We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him”, we need to note that:
a. The Thessalonians’ problem wasn’t that dead believers had gone to heaven, but that they were grieving just like unbelievers who died without hope in being raised, v13
b. Paul says that what happened to Jesus will happen to us, namely, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep”. As God brought Jesus from the sleep of death so He will bring us from the sleep of the death.
c. Paul doesn’t say that God will bring dead Christians from heaven, or from an in-between place, and this contrasts with what he says about Jesus, namely that He will come down from heaven, v16.
d. Verses 14-17 say that the sequence of events is that Jesus comes from heaven the Christian dead are raised, and together with them we who are alive will all go to heaven together. The sequence isn’t that Jesus and dead Christians come from heaven, and return there with we who are alive.
Some Evangelical scholars are now admitting that the Bible doesn’t teach the immortality of the soul, and they, wanting to retain the everlasting punishment of the unrighteous, say they are kept alive forever in hell. But this is saying that the unrighteous gain everlasting life and put on immorality at the resurrection, whereas the New Testament says that only the righteous do.
The above is a brief history of the Church’s handling of the Bible teaching on Conditional Immortality. We could tell of many more eminent ministers and theologians who taught Conditional Immortality and wrote excellent books on the subject. Were they alive today they would be pleased to see that Conditional Immorality is accepted by very many ministers and theologians as the best interpretation of Scripture.
David Green is a former pastor and lecturer (at lllawarra Bible College). He is currently ‘retired’ and living with his wife, Joy, on the North Shore of Auckland