Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fair Warning (a problem for the view of eternal conscious torment)

God tells us through the prophet Ezekiel that if we fail to give a warning to someone when danger is coming then we will be accountable if the person dies.

CSB17 Ezekiel 33:6 However, suppose the watchman sees the sword coming but doesn't blow the trumpet, so that the people aren't warned, and the sword comes and takes away their lives. Then they have been taken away because of their iniquity, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.'

God Himself followed this principle. Several biblical summaries of a large portion of Old Testament history (from Moses to the fall of Israel and Judah) basically say, “God warned you that if you kept sinning then x, y, and z would happen to you and you kept sinning and now x, y, and z have happened to you” (see 2 Kings 17:13ff; Nehemiah 9:26-29; Jeremiah 11:7-8). God described in considerable detail what the consequences of continued rebellion and idolatry would be, and He warned Israel over and over quite explicitly what was coming.

Even outside of Scripture, it is widely recognized that a part of justice is giving clear advance warning of the consequences if people break the law.

The fair warning principle creates a big problem for the doctrine of eternal torment.

Tormenting someone for billions of years, and then for billions more, and then on and on for eternity is much worse than simply killing them. God warned Adam that sin would result in death. But where is the first clear warning that all who sin will suffer eternal torment (unless God saves them)?

When people attempt to make a biblical case for eternal torment, usually the earliest verse they site is Daniel 12:2.

CSB17 Daniel 12:2 Many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to disgrace and eternal contempt.

There are two major problems with Daniel 12:2 relative to the principle of fair warning.

First, the book of Daniel was one of the last books written in the Old Testament. By the time Daniel was written more than half of human history from Adam until today had already past. Therefore, if Daniel 12:2 were the first warning of eternal torment, it would still mean that more than half of human history passed without any clear warning of this terrible fate in God’s Word.

The second problem is far more serious. Daniel 12:2 says nothing about eternal torment. It mentions “eternal contempt,” but contempt is what the righteous feel, it is not what the unrighteous are feeling. A person does not have to still be alive for us to feel contempt for them. Consider Hitler. The only other verse where the same Hebrew word for “contempt” is used is Isaiah 66:24 where the righteous are looking on dead bodies with contempt. Daniel 12:2 also mentions “eternal life.” Significantly, only the righteous have eternal life. This strongly implies that others do not live forever, and thus cannot be in torment forever.

What about the gospels? Do we find clear warnings of eternal torment there? No. The verses which are frequently cited as supporting eternal torment do not actually say anyone will be tormented forever. Perhaps the most commonly cited verses in the gospels to attempt to support the doctrine of eternal torment are Mark 9:47-48 and Matthew 25:46. I explain why Matthew 25:46 actually supports annihilationism here, and I address Mark 9:48 at the 4:30 point in this ten minute video. Even if you think these verses refer to eternal torment, they certainly do not clearly and simply state something like “the unrighteous will suffer eternal torment.” There is no clear warning of eternal torment.

Nor is any such warning found in the book of Acts where the apostles preach the good news.

Do we find warnings of eternal torment in the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, or John? No.

Finally, we come to the book of Revelation. In between the death of Christ and the writing of Revelation many people had been born and died (assuming a traditional date of writing sometime near the end of the first century). Finally, in Revelation, eternal torment is explicitly mentioned. It is mentioned in one, or possibly two passages (it is directly stated in Revelation 20:10, and many people feel it is strongly implied in Revelation 14:11). Do these passages finally contain a clear, fair warning of eternal torment? For several reasons the answer is no.

First, if the passages in Revelation are taken literally then it is only the devil, the beast, the false prophet and those who receive their infamous mark who experience eternal torment. This is hardly a clear, broad warning to you and all your friends and neighbors. But a deeper problem is that both of these passages occur in visions full of symbolic imagery. Further, John tells us what the lake of fire symbolizes. It symbolizes dying a second time (for a detailed discussion of this, with much evidence provided, read What is the Second Death? ).

There really is not a single, simple clear warning of eternal torment for all unbelievers in the entire Bible.

What About Warnings of Annihilation?

I’m convinced that the Bible teaches that the unrighteous will perish (John 3:16), have their souls and bodies both destroyed in hell (Matthew 10:28), and be burned to ashes (2 Peter 2:6). This view is called annihilationism or conditional immortality.

Are there warnings of death, perishing, and being burned to ashes in the Bible? Yes, from Genesis to Revelation we find many such warnings. Fair warnings. Here are a few examples:

Genesis 2:17
Genesis 3:19
Psalm 37
Psalm 92:6-9
Proverbs 14:12
Malachi 4:1-3
Matthew 3:11-12
Matthew 7:13-14
Matthew 10:28
John 3:16
Romans 1:32
Romans 6:23
Philippians 3:19
James 5:20
2 Peter 2:6
Revelation 20:14
(for a more comprehensive list of verses see this page on the Rethinking Hell website)

Our Responsibility

So far, I’ve presented this topic mainly terms of how it relates to two views of the final fate of the unrighteous, namely eternal conscious torment vs. conditional immortality. But let’s not forget the very urgent and practical application of the principle of fair warning.

Ezekiel, the other prophets, and the apostles all faithfully carried out their responsibility to warn the people of their day of the consequences of sin. It is our responsibility to warn our neighbors, friends, and family members today. This warning should come in the context of sharing the good news. The good news is that through faith in Jesus Christ our sins can be forgiven, and we can receive the gift of eternal life. God has graciously made a glorious way for us to be saved. We don’t have to perish!

Is there any problem if people warn of “too much”? What I mean is, does it matter if instead of warning people that they will face eternal destruction for their sins, some people warn that the unsaved will face eternal torment?

First, let me state that God graciously uses imperfect people with imperfect gospel presentations to call people to faith in Christ. I’m an example! I thank God for all my brothers and sisters who prayerfully are sharing the true gospel, even if in their presentation they include some elements that I think are incorrect, like eternal torment. An imperfect gospel presentation is far different from a false gospel.

Having said that, I think it does matter if the consequences of sin are presented as eternal torment rather than as perishing. Here are three problems:

1. A warning of eternal torment will not resonate with our God-given conscience as well as a warning of death because the unsaved “know God's just sentence-- that those who practice such things deserve to die—" (Rom. 1:32 CSB17).

2. Warning of eternal torment makes God appear to be cruel and unjust. Imagine if you hired a baby-sitter and the baby-sitter told your young children that if they misbehaved then when you came home you would cut off their fingers and toes. You would never let the baby-sitter near your children again! (I think I first heard this baby-sitter analogy from Edward Fudge.) In a similar way, we hurt God’s image when we grossly disform and exaggerate the nature of final punishment. Eternal destruction and missing out on the joys of eternal life forever is already a very severe judgment. We don’t need to add to it.

3. Because of the wrong teaching of eternal torment some people have rejected the Bible as being entirely true and embraced the errors of theological liberalism, and others have rejected the concept of God altogether and embraced atheism (I discuss this and give examples in a short article here.)


By direct teaching and by example, the Bible teaches the principle of fair warning. If eternal torment were true, the Bible would miserably fail to give fair warning. But, if conditional immortality is true, we find fair warnings given all throughout the Bible. Finally, we ourselves are responsible before God to give fair warnings to our neighbors in the context of sharing the wonderful good news that in Christ our sins can be forgiven and we can have eternal life instead of perishing.

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

If you want to read more about conditional immortality vs. eternal torment vs. universalism discussion, you may find a list of resources here.

1 comment:

  1. My past training from the Baptist teachings doesn't agree with this conclusion because they teach that the state of the dead is alive;(the teaching of immortal soul, that came from Catholic tradition). But as I've put aside my preconceived ideas to allow Scripture to define Itself, I now agree that death in Scripture means sleep, and we only will receive immortality when The Son of YHVH brings his reward with him.