Friday, February 24, 2017

What is the Second Death? Part 5, Eye for Eye

Throughout this series I have been arguing that the term “second death” should be taken in a literal way meaning “to die a second time in such a way that the body and soul are both completely destroyed” (see Matthew 10:28).  Conversely, I argue that we should take the phrase “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” to be a case of hyperbolic symbolism. 

One of the reasons that I believe the reference to eternal torment is a hyperbolic metaphor for terrifying judgment is that eternal torment taken literally would be absurd.  This is a normal way we identify metaphors and hyperbole.  It would be absurd to think Jesus wants us to literally pluck out our eye (Matthew 5:29) or that Jesus wants all Christians to literally hate their mom and dad (Luke 14:26).  We easily identify such statements as metaphors which use hyperbole.  We should also easily see that the idea of our good, holy, just, loving, gracious God keeping people alive forever for the purpose of continually torturing them without rest is absurd and a case of metaphoric hyperbole.

Before I became convinced of annihilationism, I believed in the traditional view of eternal conscious torment.  I would have replied to the above argument by saying that even though eternal torment may feel wrong and may even feel absurd, that as humans our feelings on such subjects are not reliable. I would have argued that instead of using our feelings, we should base our view on God’s Word.  And I still believe that we should base our view on God’s Word, and not on our feelings!  But, what I have come to see is that in this case God’s Word actually supports our feeling that eternal torment is absurd and should be interpreted as hyperbole. 

The Principle of Proportional Punishment Was Given to Men by God

We have a deep feeling that punishment should always be proportional to the crime.  We may argue over exactly how to apply this principle, but the basic principle is one we all agree on.  In this case, our feeling lines up with a principle which God gave to Israel:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
(Exod. 21:23-25 NIV)

This principle is repeated in other passages (see Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21).

Jesus later taught that when we ourselves are injured we should not seek “eye for eye” revenge, but should turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39).  Notice that there are many cases where grace may allow for LESS than “an eye for an eye”, but there is never a call for MORE than “an eye for an eye”.

God Uses the Same Principle When Judging Us

Throughout the Bible, we see God using the principle of proportional punishment to judge people.  When people sincerely repent, God graciously gives us less than proportional punishment, but He never gives more.

This truth is expressed in many ways and with different phrases such as “according to your conduct”, “repay”, and “avenge”.  Here are some of the many passages where this principle may be seen (hold your cursor over a verse to see it):

Deuteronomy 7:10, 32:35, 32:41
2 Samuel 3:39
1 Kings 2:44
Psalm 28:4, 94:23
Proverbs 24:12
Isaiah 59:18
Jeremiah 25:14, 50:29, 51:6, 51:24, 51:56
Ezekiel 7:3, 7:4, 7:8, 7:9, 7:27, 18:30, 24:14, 33:20, 36:19, 39:24
Hosea 4:9, 12:2, 12:14
Matthew 16:27
Romans 2:6, 12:19
2 Thessalonians 1:6-7
2 Timothy 4:14
Hebrews 10:30

All these verses teach that God’s punishment is proportional to our sins. The purpose of providing a long list of verses is to show that God shapes our minds through Scripture to think in terms of proportional punishment.  This concept can also be seen by considering some of the phrases used throughout the Bible (taken from the verses in the list above):

And it’s not just phrases and verses which teach this concept.  God’s just and proportional punishment is seen in the story of Esther.  Remember how Haman sets up a large pole on which he plans to impale the innocent Mordecai? By God’s providence the king has Haman himself impaled on the very same pole (see Esther 7:10)!  Notice that the punishment, while severe, is also just and proportional to the sin. Once the punishment is completed the king’s anger subsides.  Should we believe the King of Kings will be less just or that His anger will NEVER subside for all eternity (see Psalm 30:5)?

Proportional punishment is taught throughout Scripture. In addition, God has given
even unbelievers a basic knowledge that our sins deserve death.

In Romans Paul Explains that All People (Should) Know Our Sins Deserve Death

Paul’s teaching on general revelation in Romans 1 is well known.  He explains that through creation, all people should see God’s greatness and this should lead them to worship Him.  Paul also explains that all of us have a God given conscious.  Our conscious, while it may be hardened, twisted, and confused, is not completely erased.  This is why Paul writes:

Romans 1:32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Paul is writing about all people, especially focusing on unbelievers here.  Unbelievers have a basic, correct, God given knowledge of what their sins deserve.  Their God given conscious does NOT tell them they deserve to be tortured forever.  It tells them they deserve death.  This is not detailed, just as their understanding of God through creation is not detailed.  They may not (and probably do not) realize that they will be resurrected, judged, and likely suffer consciously preceding or during the process of dying a second time.  But the fact that they do not know all the details does not change the accuracy of their basic feeling that they deserve death.

Just six verses later, Paul goes on to write:

Romans 2:5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
 6 God "will repay each person according to what they have done."
 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.

Notice that only some people live forever. The others get what they deserve, which is death.  This same truth is emphasized later in Romans (see Romans 6:23).  ONLY those who receive Jesus Christ receive the gift of eternal life.  The others receive the wages of sin, which is death.

The Theme of Proportional Punishment is Clearly Seen in Revelation

This theme of proportional punishment which is seen throughout the Bible is also prominent in the book of Revelation itself.  Below I share four passages in Revelation which affirm and demonstrate the principle of proportional punishment.  After each passage I have included one or more quotes from two widely used, evangelical, theologically conservative commentaries on Revelation.  The authors of these commentaries hold to eternal conscious torment, so they have no ulterior motive to emphasize the principle of proportional punishment.

#1:  Revelation 11:18

Revelation 11:18 The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small-- and for destroying those who destroy the earth."

Two of the most widely used evangelical commentaries on Revelation both see this passage as affirming the principle of proportional punishment:

God will destroy the oppressors because they are those who destroy the earth (i.e., His people). The use of the same verb in describing both God’s judgment and the oppression of the godless is to emphasize once again the OT principle of the punishment fitting the crime. (Beale, Revelation, a Shorter Commentary, 237, bold type emphasis is from Beale)

There is an appropriateness in God’s tailoring the punishment to fit the crime. (Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised, 227, commenting on Revelation 11:18)

#2  Revelation 16:4-7

(ESV) Revelation 16:4 The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood.
 5 And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, "Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments.
 6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!"
 7 And I heard the altar saying, "Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!"

In this passage, an angel turns waters into blood.  The justice of this punishment is explained in terms of proportional punishment.

Commenting on this passage, Beale writes:

Those who have oppressed Israel will be dealt with in the manner that Israel has been treated, which includes various forms of suffering up to and including death.  This eye-for-eye punishment is indicated by Isa 49:25, “I will contend with the one who contends with you.”  Drinking blood is thus not a limited reference to death, but to all kinds of suffering, including death.  The precise reason people suffer under the judgment of this bowl is that they have caused God’s people to suffer. (Beale, 334)

Mounce also sees this principle, and writes concerning Revelation 16:6, “The punishment is tailored to fit the crime” (Mounce, 295).

#3  Revelation 18:6-7

ESV Revelation 18:6 Pay her back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed.
 7 As she glorified herself and lived in luxury, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning, since in her heart she says, 'I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.'

Concerning Revelation 18:6-7 Mounce writes:

“With yet another triplet, the judgment is expressed in terms of repayment in kind.” (Mounce, 328)

“John follows the prophetic traditions – ‘Repay her for her deeds; do to her as she had done’ (Jer 50:29)” (Mounce,328).

“Rome is to receive misery in exact proportion to the self-glorification and luxurious lifestyle she has chosen” (Mounce, 328).

#4  Revelation 20:13-14

ESV Revelation 20:12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Here is an extended quote from Mounce on the above passage:

The great white throne judgment is not arbitrary but based on the evidence written by the life of every person.  Books are opened, and the dead are judged on the basis of what they have done as recorded therein.  The teaching of judgment by works runs throughout both the OT and the NT.  Ps 62:12 gives expression to the commonly accepted principle that God requites a person according to his work.  In Jer 17:10 God says, “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” The same principle is taught in the NT. Paul writes that God “will give to each person according to what he has done” ((Rom 2:6), and Peter reminds his readers that God “judges each man’s work impartially” (1 Pet 1:17). (Mounce, 376)

The Traditional Counterarguments

I’m well aware of the counterarguments some traditionalists will likely use to reply to the massive evidence throughout the Bible that God’s punishment of sinners is directly proportional to their sins.  They will claim that eternal torment actually is a just, proportional punishment.  This is so extremely counterintuitive that additional explanations are needed.  I am familiar with two such explanations often given by traditionalists.

1.  Traditionalist sometimes claim that the unsaved will continue to sin in Hell, and since they continue to sin for all of eternity they deserve punishment for all of eternity.

On the surface, this argument seems plausible.  After all, since the unsaved are never born again and never receive the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to think they would stop sinning.  However, there are several strong objections to this argument.

First, the Bible doesn’t say anywhere that God will judge people for sins they commit in Hell.  It is an idea people came up with to try to prop up a doctrine which isn’t even true.

Second, there is no reason for God to allow the unrighteous to continue to sin forever.  The reason God allows people to continue to sin temporarily in this age is that God is being patient and giving people a chance to repent and be saved (see 2 Peter 3:9).  Since there will be no opportunities to repent in Hell, why allow people to continue to sin there?

Third, the Bible very specifically says that we will be judged “for things done while in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:10).  The whole description of books being opened on judgment day and of a final judgment day all support the truth that what people are judged for is what people do during their lives on earth, not  what they might do in Hell.

2.  Some traditionalists say that sins committed against an infinite God deserve infinite punishment

Another attempt to justify the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is to say that because God has infinite value, worth, honor, and glory, any sin committed against Him deserves infinite punishment.  Of course, sinning against God is VERY serious.  And annihilation is a VERY serious punishment.  Missing out on an eternity of pure joy, deep pleasure, amazing love, and rewards beyond our ability to imagine is indeed a very heavy punishment.  But nowhere does the Bible say that because God is infinite those who sin against Him deserve infinite conscious punishment.  In fact, far from providing reasons that the conscious portion of punishment might be greatly extended, the Bible gives reasons why in some cases it will be significantly reduced . . .

Luke 12:48a But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

            Far from providing a rationale for tormenting people for endless billions of years, our Lord actually provides a rationale for a relatively light conscious punishment for those who were ignorant of God’s will and sinned. I absolutely cannot fathom how this teaching of our Lord can be reconciled with the concept of eternal conscious punishment.  Are the “few blows” spread out over billions of years? Even one blow every billion years would add up to a million blows after the first quadrillion years, and there would still be many more to come!  And do we really think that a fifteen year old who grew up at a time and place where there was no gospel witness and no teaching of God’s true Word and was surrounded by the worst examples of fallen human nature and was herself the victim of many cruelties and injustices and who died young deserves to be punished with eternal conscious punishment? Aren’t a “few blows” for those sins which even her young and darkened conscious warned against followed by irreversible, eternal, extinction enough?   The words of our Lord are just!

Here’s something else to consider before we reach our conclusion:

“I will repay”:  Eternal Torment Results in a Mathematical Absurdity

Praise God, for those of us who are saved He does not “treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).  But repayment according to iniquities is precisely what awaits the unbeliever:

ESV Hebrews 10:30a For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay."

A careful study of the Greek word translated “repay” above shows that it means “repay”.

This is important because God promises that He will repay.  Now, if a bank loaned you $100,000 to improve your home and after twenty years you had paid them back $1, would they be satisfied?

Yet, if the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is correct, than after 100 billion years of being tormented in Hell, the unrighteous will have paid far less than 1/1000th of 1% of the penalty they apparently owe.  In fact, if this doctrine of eternal tormenting is true, God will NEVER complete the repayment He promised to give to the wicked.


The phrases “second death” and “tormented day and night forever and ever”, if they apply to the same people, cannot both be literally (non-figuratively, non-metaphorically) true at the same time.  Parts 1 through 4 of this series have given various types of evidence which indicates we should interpret “second death” literally and interpret “tormented day and night forever and ever” metaphorically.  This 5th part has sought to add to that evidence by showing that the whole Bible teaches that God’s punishment is proportional to our sins, that our God given conscious knows that we deserve death, and that therefore literal eternal torment is absurd.  Just as we easily recognize the command of Jesus to hate our mother and father as hyperbolic metaphor, we should recognize that eternal torment, which is ONLY explicitly mentioned in the highly symbolic visions of John recorded in Revelation, is also hyperbolic metaphor.

While I find the type of evidence shared so far in the first five parts of this series to be important and weighty, I have saved what is, for me, the strongest evidence for the next post.

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


  1. Thanks Mark for these studies. I followed the thread through from your comments on the Revelant article about John Eldredge's new book. I have wrestled a lot with all the differing views on hell and judgment and whilst our human perspectives will always fall short, I see the character of God, as revealed in Scripture, upheld in the concept of fair punishment followed by eternal death. It still makes me feel sick, and I'm pretty sure that's the reaction our loving Father wants us to have. Too many times we see brothers going round glorifying in practically dishing out God's judgement themselves with too little respect for quite how terrible it is even to the One who will one day put it in play!

    1. Benjamin, thanks for your reply. I really appreciate your words. We should indeed "feel sick" when we think of neighbors, family members, and coworkers who may miss out on an eternity of joy and who also may experience a terrible, albeit just and fair, judgment. This should motivate us to use our gifts, time, and resources as part of God's team (local churches, ministries, and even informal networks of Christians) to do all we can to reach people and build up the Church and share Christ's love and the truth of God. Thank you for sharing your heart!

  2. Hi Mark, emailed you on a separate issue. I am open to this view but what about the apostles and earlier Christians getting crucified, sawn in two, beheaded, boiled alive and all kinds of unimaginable horrors. These are who God loves and they had to go through this. What about the ones who don't choose God? Seems like the punishment would have to be worse than all of those combined and for a longer duration. I am hoping for total death though after. Just thinking out loud here.

    1. Conditional immortality allows for whatever finite amount of conscious suffering God's deems just prior to each unsaved person finally, permanently, and completely perishing. So it is possible that those who tortured Christians (and did other really terrible things) will suffer a lot consciously either prior to or in the process of perishing. But even if they suffered intensely for a hundred years while in the process of perishing, that would be FAR different from eternal torment.