Thursday, March 2, 2017

What is the Second Death? Part 6, Harmony





God’s Word is so beautiful.  Part of the Bible’s beauty is that it is harmonious.  Every part fits in perfectly with every other part.

This is why one of the most important principles in hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret the Bible) is that we interpret the Bible with the Bible.

Most of the time this is fairly easy.  Yet, some of the parts of the Bible are hard to understand and interpret, like the book of Revelation.  This is why it is so important to interpret the visions and symbols throughout Revelation in ways which harmonize with the rest of the Bible.

This principle of Biblical harmony leads to strong reasons to interpret the phrase “the second death”, found four times in Revelation, as meaning to literally die a second time in such a way that a person’s entire body and soul is permanently and completely destroyed.  This interpretation is often called “annihilationism”.  Throughout the whole Bible there is a lot of teaching which supports the doctrine of annihilationism.  Whole books have been written on this topic, so it may seem a bit foolish to try to present this evidence in one relatively short blog post.  I will not be able to go into detail, but it is my intention to give you a taste and feel for the large amount of Biblical evidence supporting annihilationism.

I have divided this evidence into three categories:  1) clear and simple passages, 2) one important word study, and 3) four theological themes.

Twelve Clear and Simple Passages

Throughout the Bible we find passages where a plain and simple reading of the passage gives strong support to the view that the unrighteous will eventually perish.  I have chosen twelve passages to share here. Many more could have been included. (The Rethinking Hell website has a list of over forty Bible passages which support conditionalism.  This list may be found by clicking here: http://rethinkinghell.com/explore/ and then looking under the “Scriptures” tab and the “Conditionalism” sub-tab.)

1.  Genesis 3:22

Genesis 3:22 And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."

This verse reveals that there was one terrible possibility which God wanted to avoid.  That terrible possibility was fallen, unredeemed, untransformed people living forever.  It is easy to see how God’s concern fits in very well with belief in conditional immortality, including annihilationism.  The support for annihilationism becomes even clearer if you also consider God’s warning that sin would result in death (Genesis 2:17). Then, after they ate from the tree, God described their death in terms of returning to dust (Genesis 3:19), which sounds a whole lot more like annihilationism than eternal torment.

2.  Psalm 37

Due to its length, I will not copy all of Psalm 37 here, but I encourage you to read it.

            In this Psalm, David says the wicked will wither and die away like grass (Psalm 37:2), be destroyed (Psalm 37:9), “be no more” (Psalm 37:10) so that even if you go looking for them you cannot find them, will perish (Psalm 37:20), will go up in smoke like grass consumed in a fire (Psalm 37:20), will be “completely destroyed” (Psalm 37:28), will pass away and be no more (Psalm 37:36), and will have no future (Psalm 37:38).  That sure sounds like annihilation!

The whole point of the Psalm is that while here on earth the wicked sometimes appear to succeed and prosper, in the end, they will be punished while those who patiently trust God will be rewarded.  So all the talk of passing away and being destroyed cannot simply refer to what happens in this present age, since in this age both the righteous and unrighteous die. 

3.   Psalm 49:12

Psalm 49:12 People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish. 13 This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings.

Those who trust in themselves do not endure.  They perish in the same way that wild animals perish.  That’s pretty clear.  As with Psalm 37, if this passage is merely describing the first death then it would make no sense to state, “This is the fate of those who trust in themselves . . .”, since even the righteous experience the first death.

4.   Isaiah 66:24

Isaiah 66:24 "And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."

I include Isaiah 66:24 because it shows that God uses worms that will not die and fire that cannot be quenched to destroy dead bodies, not to torture living ones.  This actually makes a lot of sense in light of what has happened to dead bodies all throughout history all around the world.  The vast majority of dead bodies are either turned to dust by worms or turned to ashes by fire.  This fits annihilation “to a T”!

5.  Matthew 7:13-14

Matthew 7: 13 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.
 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Here, Jesus reveals the two possible destinies which await all people.  One destiny is life.  But, only a few find it.  That implies (really strongly implies!) that everyone will NOT live forever.  The other destiny is “destruction”.  Again, a simple, straightforward reading of Jesus’ words supports the doctrine of conditionalimmortality, which includes annihilationism.

6.  Matthew 10:28

Matthew 10:28 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.

This verse is so clear, so explicit, and so direct. The phrase “destroy both soul and body in hell” is an excellent definition of “the second death” and is precisely what is meant by “annihilationism”.

7.  Matthew 13:30

Matthew 13:30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'"

Jesus teaches that the unsaved with be burned like weeds are burned.  The word translated “burned” in Matthew 13:30 is consistently used to refer to things being completely burned up, burned to ashes.  John the Baptist is recorded using the same word to describe the fate of the unrighteous in both Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17.

8.  John 3:16

NIV 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.

It’s wonderful that the most famous verse in the Bible gives unambiguous support to annihilationism!  If someone had a relative who was captured and was being held and tortured by ISIS they would never say their relative had “perished”.  If their relative was blown to bits by a mine, they would say their relative “perished”.  I have done a very long, in depth, careful word study of the Greek word translated “perish” and discovered that when applied to people it means “perish” (really, see below!).  This is even clearer when we consider that ONLY “whoever believes in him” will have eternal life.

9.  Romans 6:23

NIV Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is no good reason to interpret “death” in this verse non-literally.  This is especially true since the verse also teaches that ONLY those who receive God’s gift in Christ Jesus will life forever.

10.  Philippians 3:19

Philippians 3:19 Their destiny is destruction (apoleia), their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

Paul states explicitly that the end of the ungodly is destruction, using the noun form of the same word which is translated “perish” in John 3:16.  Paul uses either the verb or noun form of this same word to describe the fate on the unrighteous in the following verses:  Romans 2:12, Romans 9:2, 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15, 2 Corinthians 4:3, Romans 9:22, 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10.

Since we have listed the times Paul uses “perish” and “destruction” to describe the fate of the ungodly, you may wonder how many times Paul speaks of eternal torment.  The answer:  zero! 

In fact, the ONLY two places where the eternal torment is mentioned is in John’s visions recorded in Revelation.  These visions are full of many types of symbols, including hyperbolic metaphors (as explained in part1 and part4 of this blog series).  Why should we treat statements about the destiny of the unsaved in Paul’s straightforward teaching epistles as non-literal (no one literally perishes or dies according to the traditional view) and treat the most shocking parts of John’s visions as entirely literal?

11.  2 Peter 2:6

NIV 2 Peter 2:6 if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

Peter tells us what is going to happen to the ungodly.  They will be burned to ashes like Sodom and Gomorrah.  I believe Sodom and Gomorrah were literally burned to ashes.  The same fate awaits the unrighteous at final judgment.


12.  Revelation 21:8

NIV Revelation 21:8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars-- they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

John does not leave us to guess what the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” symbolizes.  It symbolizes dying a second time.  In saying that the lake of fire symbolizes something, I do not deny that there may be a very literal lake of fire, just as we may literally wear white robes.  But the main point of the robes in John’s vision is to serve as a symbol that the saints are righteous (Revelation 19:8), and the main point of the lake of fire is that the unrighteous will die a second time.

We’ve looked at twelve passages which support interpreting “second death” to mean the annihilation of the body and soul of the unrighteous.  Now let’s zero in on one specific word.


One Important Word Study

In a great symphony each note played by each instrument contributes to the whole.  In the same way, each word of each verse in the Bible harmoniously reveals God’s truth to us.

As I have studied the topic of the eternal fate of the unsaved more and more, I have seen more and more details which all support the truth that unbelievers will eventually utterly perish and be no more.  Studies of some of the key words related to this topic have strengthened my confidence in this view.

For me, the most important word study has been the study of the Greek words apollumi, a verb, and apoleia, a noun based on the same root. All words have a range of meaning depending on their context. If you wanted to choose a single English verb and noun to translate apollumi and apoleia, good choices would probably be “destroy” and “destruction”.

Apollumi/apoleia is probably the word used most often in the New Testament to describe the fate of the unrighteous.  In Matthew 10:28 it is translated “destroy” (also see Philippians 1:28, Hebrews 10:39, and James 4:12), in Matthew 21:41 it is translated “put . . . to . . . death”, in John 3:16 and other verses it is translated “perish” (see Luke 13:3, 5; Romans 2:12, and 2 Peter 3:9), and in Philippians 3:18 it is translated “destruction” (see also Matthew 7:13, Romans 9:22, 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 2 Peter 3:7, Revelation 17:11).  More examples could be given.

As one who used to believe in eternal conscious torment, and even teach it, I know the usual explanation for verses like Matthew 10:28 and John 3:16.  It is pointed out that apollumi can also mean “ruin” (see Matthew 9:17) or “lost” (Luke 15:9).  That’s true.  But this fact fails to recognize that when speaking about people, apollumi/apoleia very consistently refers to death, usually a violent death.  When speaking about inanimate objects like a wineskin or coins, it can indeed simply mean “ruined” or “lost”, but not when speaking about what happens to people, and especially not when speaking about what one person does to another person.

There are in fact quite a few verses where apollumi is not referring to the eternal fate of people but simply to people killing, or wanting to kill, other people in this world.  Here are some examples:

Matthew 2:13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill (apollumi) him."

Matthew 27:20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed (apollumi).

Acts 5:37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed (apollumi), and all his followers were scattered.

If you want to see more examples, look at:  Matthew 12:14, Matthew 21:41, Matthew 22:7, and Luke 13:33.

While all this information is useful, I found (I was not the first to find this!) even more amazing information about apollumi/apoleia.  You might wonder if the Greeks had a word which was used to refer to the whole person, soul and body, being completely extinguished after death?  This is what we mean by “annihilationism”.  It turns out they did!

The Greeks had a Word for It!
(Warning:  This part is powerful, but a bit technical.)
           
The Greek philosopher Plato was widely read throughout the Greek speaking world for centuries after he died.  In one of his works, Phaedo, Plato discussed rather extensively his thoughts and opinions about what happens to human souls after death.  One of the options he discussed (but did not agree with) was the possibility that a person’s soul would entirely cease to exist, which is what we mean by annihilationism.  When he described this possibility he used the word apollumi:

[from Phaedo, 70a]. They fear that when the soul leaves the body it no longer exists anywhere, and that on the day when the man dies it is destroyed (apollumi) and perishes, and when it leaves the body and departs from it, straightway it flies away and is no longer anywhere, scattering like a breath or smoke.

This is just one example.  If you want to research this, you may also find apollumi used to mean what we mean by “annihilation” in Phaedo, 80d, 86d, 91d, 95d, and 106b.

In Plato’s Republic he also uses apollumi to refer to annihilation of the human soul:

“Have you never perceived,” said I, “that our soul is immortal and never perishes (apollumi)?” (Republic, 10.608d)

Far more (way more, incredibly more) important than seeing that Plato used apollumi to mean what I am saying “second death” means, there is a clear example of the Apostle Paul using apollumi in the same way.

Whatever apollumi means in John 3:16, we all agree that it happens after the resurrection and judgment and that it only happens to the unrighteous.  But Paul discussed a terrible hypothetical situation where Jesus did not rise from the dead (he did this to show how important the resurrection is to our faith).  In this terrible hypothetical situation Paul said that there would be no resurrection for anyone if Jesus did not rise. In this terrible hypothetical situation, Paul explained that even Christians would have apollumi-ed:

ESV 1 Corinthians 15:18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (apollumi).

Further, Paul cannot have meant merely that the bodies of Christians were destroyed while their souls suffered for their sin, because Paul goes on to say:

ESV 1 Corinthians 15:32b If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

If there is any type of just judgment and punishment after death, it would not make sense to live only for pleasure in this world.  So when Paul says that if Christ did not rise from the dead then dead Christians have perished (apollumi) he is saying exactly what I have been claiming “second death” means, namely the complete destruction of body and soul.  The word Paul uses to describe this “annihilation” is the very same word which the New Testament authors, including Paul, most frequently used to describe the final fate of the unrighteous!

This is truth is worth highlighting:





The word “appolumi” and it’s noun form, “apoleia” are often used to refer to the fate of the unrighteous:





Remember, the purpose of this admittedly somewhat technical Greek word study of apollumi has not been to convince you that the words in your English Bible have some strange, unexpected meaning, but rather to demonstrate that “perish” means “perish” and “destroy” means “destroy”.

A member of the Rethinking Hell Facebook community found this clip from an advertisement for “A Series of Unfortunate Events” to illustrate the point that we know what “perish” means:




Theological Harmony

The Bible is harmonious at many levels.  A well written symphony has not only specific harmony at any given point, it also has a type of unity even between the movements, although each movement may have its own feel.  When it comes to any specific doctrine in the Bible, we find not only agreement among the specific words used to express it and the specific passages where it is stated, but we also find a type of agreement with the broad theological themes of the whole Bible.  I found this type of theological harmony between the related doctrines of conditional immortality and annihilation (annihilation really being a part of the broader doctrine of conditional immortality) and other major Bible themes.  Here are four examples:

1.  Conditional Immortality.

The Bible is very consistent in its teaching on mankind’s mortality and immortality.  The Bible never, from Genesis to Revelation, says that the unrighteous will live or exist forever.  In many places and in many ways the Bible pronounces the doom of mortality for unredeemed people.  On the other hand, wherever the Bible speaks of immortality and eternal life for people, it always does so on the condition that these people are in a saving relationship with God which comes through Jesus Christ.  The idea that “second death” means to simply and literally (non-metaphorically) die a second time in such a way that the entire soul and body is permanently and completely destroyed is entirely harmonious with the doctrine of conditional immortality.


2.  A Final State of Perfect Unity in Christ

ESV  Ephesians 1:9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

            God’s Word presents us with a picture of a future time when God’s plan will be completely achieved.  That plan involves having everything which exists united in Christ.  Annihilationism is not only consistent with such a plan, it is a necessary element of it.  All those who would not be redeemed are burned up, and all evil is completely destroyed so that only good exists.  The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment, on the other hand, leaves us with people who are never united with Christ and do not love Him continuing to exist forever.  What’s the point of that?


3.  God’s Justice

NIV Revelation 16:7 And I heard the altar respond: "Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments."

Throughout the Bible God is worshiped for His great power, for His gracious love, and for His justice.  As argued in-depth in part5 of this blog series, eternal torment is terribly out of tune with God’s justice.

4.  God’s Complete Holiness, Goodness, and Grace

            God is merciful.  He is kind.  He is full of grace.  God is love.  He is entirely good.  Many people have thought about the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment and have felt that it just does not fit with a God who is so good.  In fact, it seems to (unintentionally) make God appear to be cruel and unjust.  Tragically, some people who have thought about this have fled to either atheism or theological liberalism.  I wonder how many who have slipped into these gospel denying errors might have been helped if they had been taught the doctrines of conditional immortality and annihilationism?
            The doctrine of annihilationism and conditional immortality shows God to be entirely just with regard to those who do not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior without making God appear to be some kind of cruel tormentor.  I know that those who believe in eternal conscious punishment also believe that God is loving, kind, merciful, and good and they believe that there must not be a contradiction because they think the Bible teaches both things.  I once thought that way.  But others just cannot bear the contradiction. And now that I see that the Bible teaches annihilationism, I see that there is not merely an apparent contradiction, but a very real one, between God’s holy character and the belief that He would torment people forever. Thus, I believe that the teaching of eternal conscious punishment unintentionally, but nevertheless significantly, hurts God’s name in the eyes of many people.

Conclusion





Whether at the level of Bible passages, individual word studies, or broad theological themes, the doctrines of conditional immortality and annihilationism harmonize beautifully with all of God’s Word.  More specifically, defining “second death” in a literal way also harmonizes with God’s Word.  But if the only two phrases in the Bible which contain the concept of eternal torment are taken literally to apply to unrighteous people, it produces a doctrine which is terribly out of tune with a vast number of other phrases, words, and theological truths throughout Scripture. Eternal conscious torment is like a very enthusiastic, but untrained, tuba player with strong lungs ruining an otherwise harmonious symphony of truth, goodness, and beauty.  It’s time for the tuba player to learn the proper notes and rhythm for the final fate of the ungodly: namely, annihilation.

Throughout this blog series I have shared the Biblical evidence which has led me to my understanding of the second death.  Along the way I have tried to show how it is important to keep in mind that John’s visions in Revelation are highly symbolic (part1).  We looked at how some of the symbols in Revelation are explicitly defined for John and for all of us, and that this includes defining the lake of fire as the “second death”.  Having previously held the traditional view supporting eternal torment myself, I have tried to take their arguments seriously.  So I spent one entire post (part2) responding to the traditionalist argument that “second death” should be interpreted metaphorically.  Next, we looked at examples, prophecies, and teachings about judgment by fire throughout the Bible and concluded that fire is used to destroy and consume, not eternally torment (part3).  In part4 I addressed directly the only two phrases in the entire Bible where the concept of eternal torment is found and I attempted to explain why these phrases should be understood as hyperbolic metaphor.  In part5 I looked at the Biblical basis for our gut feeling that eternal torment is absurd because it is not proportional to the sins people commit in one short lifetime on earth.  And in this post (part 6), I have briefly (briefly, compared to Edward Fudge’s book length treatment of the same topic) looked at evidence that the rest of the Bible teaches annihilationism and have concluded that we should interpret the “second death” in harmony with the rest of the Bible.

There is still one more part to come.  It is a type of epilogue.  I do not intend to focus on additional evidence for the meaning of “second death”.  Rather, I want to share my heart about why this truth is so important and why I thank God that He seems to be calling an increasing number of His people to spend time and energy correcting a long standing traditional belief in eternal torment and replacing it with Biblical truth.  It has to do with the first request of the Lord’s Prayer, “hallowed be Thy Name”.




Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

2 comments:

  1. Mark, that is an outstanding article. Well done. Even the technical section is articulate, concise, and easy-to-read. I appreciate the work you've put into this, and know that many will be encouraged by it to rethink that possibly what they've been taught is not the same thing as what the Bible teaches.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your encouraging words! I pray that God will indeed use this post for His good purposes.

      Delete