What will happen to your kind and generous but unredeemed grandmother after she is judged? Will she burn in hell-fires in eternal torment? Terminalists or conditionalists or annihilationists (all three terms mean the same doctrine) say no. There is another and better Scriptural option.
This post is about the unredeemed, not the saved. When someone receives Christ and maintains by the Spirit his union in Christ Jesus, hell becomes a nonissue. Further, this theory assumes that hell is real. It questions, rather, that punishment in hell will last forever with conscious, eternal torment. Time in hell will come to an end.
So please note from the outset: this theory, properly taught, does not deny that hell exists or that people will be punished there. Instead, the theory says their punishment will be terminated at the time when God sees they have been punished enough, corresponding to their sins.
Let’s look at this theory calmly, without calling it heretical or making it a test for orthodoxy. Personally, I believe that the doctrine of punishment in the afterlife is secondary in Scripture. This is clear from the fact that all three theories have some strong Scriptural support and sincere and intelligent believers hold to one or the others.
Therefore, in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity (love).
As noted in the other articles in the three-part series, the problem can be stated in this expanded version: We misunderstand God’s justice and his love when we conclude that your kindhearted grandmother, who was charitable and generous, but who never proclaimed Christ as Lord in her heart and with her words, is bobbing up and down in the lake of fire, next to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. This scenario is unjust, even if the lesser degree of punishment applies to her, because she feels less pain than they do (is there a “jacuzzi section” in the lake? Hardly.). It is still eternal and never ending and out of proportion to her crime of unbelief in her brief life on earth. God is the just Judge, yes, but he is also the loving Father.
Are there other options besides punishment that adds up to eternally conscious torment and torture in the fires of hell?
Terminalism says yes.
This term says that immortality (living forever) is conditioned only on Christ (hence its other name conditionalism). Apart from him there is no unconditional immortality. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), not endless life of misery in hell. Outside of Christ, there is no eternal life, either now or in the hereafter. The notion that the soul itself is eternal by virtue of beig a soul comes from Plato and Greek philosophy, not the Bible. Therefore the unredeemed will not live forever, but will snuffed out when God acts.
As Steve Gregg wrote in his balanced and thorough treatment of all three theories (this one, universalism and traditionalism): “Therefore, conditional immortality is the view that all who fail to obtain the gift of eternal life will eventually cease to exist” (p. 195; see John G. Stackhouse in Four Views on Hell, too).
Other terms: conditionalism, annihilationism, or extinctionism.
Terminalists say that after a time of punishment in hell fire or in some other state (outer darkness?), proportionate to the unredeemed human’s good and bad works, he will be annihilated or extinguished. So eternal, conscious punishment in hell fire for finite sins committed during a finite life no longer poses a personal or philosophical problem. And it has plenty of Scriptural support (below).
Brief overview of church history
Contrary to what its critics say, terminalism gained wide acceptance in the first five centuries of the church.
Barnabas (c. 70-130) wrote about eternal death preceded by punishment, which is the view of modern terminalists (Epistle of Barnabas, ch. 20).
The Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus (c. 125-200) speaks of eternal fire, but it will end (ch. 10).
Hermas (90-150) says sinners will be punished in hell but then extinguished because the fire will consume them, unlike the burning bush which burned and was no consumed (Exod. 3:2). He also wrote that death is eternal but only after punishment: “They who have not known God and have seen His mighty works and still continue in evil shall be chastised doubly and shall die forever” (Shepherd of Hermas, Book 3, Similitude 4, qtd. in Gregg, p. 115).
Irenaeus (flourished c. 175-c. 195), claimed by traditionalist and terminalists, said postmortem punishment consisted in being deprived of “length of days” (Against Heresies, Book 4, ch. 4.3). Damnation means God cuts the unredeemed off from life (Book 4, ch. 11.4). The wicked are like chaff, being consumed (Book 4. Ch. 4.3). He also said that sinners will be burned up as Nadab and Abihu were by the fire of the Lord (Lev. 10:1-2). Souls will be punished by everlasting death; people will “pass away” and the wicked will be “deprived of existence forever and ever” (qtd. in Gregg, p. 116).
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) wrote that sinners will have sensation during eternal punishment, and so will the devil and his angels (First Apology, ch. 18), but he also wrote that wicked angels and demons shall cease to exist (First Apology, ch. 28).
The main point in this quick survey of church history is that many people believed in terminalism (or universalism) in the first few centuries of the church. And at that time those who disagreed did not call them heretics, and neither should anyone call them this today.
Modern adherents: John R. W. Stott, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, Roger Forster, John Wenham, Michael Green, Edward William Fudge, Glenn Peoples, Ben Witherington III, F. F. Bruce (?).
Here are some basic ideas, with Scriptural support summarized in the next section:
1.. Only God is immortal
2.. Humankind must seek for it and does not have it by nature. The soul by itself is not eternal or immortal.
3.. God gives eternal life only to those who believe in Christ, so eternal life is conditional.
4.. The unredeemed are never declared immortal, but their life will end by passing into nonexistence. The key words are these: destroyed, consumed, perish and death. They speak of an end to life, not eternal punishment.
5.. Some Scriptures say that there is no conscious life in the grave.
6.. The wicked will be punished proportionately to their guilt, but not all will suffer equally, but they will not be punished eternally or infinitely.
See my post: Are All Sins Equal?
7.. The punishment of the unredeemed is irrevocable and everlasting, but the process of punishing them is not. Annihilation is eternal punishment, in a sense.
8.. God respects human freedom of choice, so when people refuse him, he suffers loss of part of his creation. But at least terminalism brings a just end and solution to the problem of sin and evil in the universe.
9.. We the living do not have to worry that millions of the unredeemed will suffer endless torment in the next life. Nonexistence, though not a happy ending, will at least be more tolerable to us than eternal, conscious punishment.
10.. The unredeemed will be resurrected along with the redeemed in order to face judgment. When they are condemned, they will either be immediately consumed in the lake of fire and cease to exist, the same condition they were in before they were born, as if they never existed …
11.. … Or they will undergo punishment in proportion to their sin. Then they will be allowed to pass into nonexistence, the same condition they were in before they were born, as if they never existed.
See my post on degrees of punishment: Are All Sins Equal?
12.. This is not as happy an ending as Evangelical universalism, but it agrees with Scriptures that talks about punishment for those who rebel against God and so forfeit eternal life with him, but not endlessly in conscious torment in the fires of hell for finite sins committed during a finite life.
13.. God will make everything new, which necessarily includes purging out or completely destroying hell, people punished there, and the devil. Only then will there be a new creation, without a small corner reserved for the lake of fire.
(Gregg, pp. 10-12).
Now let’s review a sample of Scriptural support for the doctrine. Look for the words “destruction” and “perish” and their cognates and synonyms. If readers would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, they may go to biblegateway.com, and type in the references.
Ps. 37:2, 9-10, 20, 38: the wicked will perish and vanish like smoke and will be completely destroyed.
Is. 1:28, 30-31: The transgressors and sinners will be destroyed together.
Ezek. 18:23, 32: God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. He wants them to turn from their wicked ways and live (cf. Ezek. 33:11).
Obad. 16: The wicked will be destroyed, as though they never were.
Mal. 4:1-4: All the arrogant and every evildoer will be like stubble and the day of the Lord will be like a consuming fire. Not a branch or root will be left.
Those above verses, even if about this-worldly destruction, set the stage for the New Testament.
Matt. 3:10, 12: John the Baptist said the wicked are like dry wood to be thrown into the fire, and chaff to be burned.
Matt. 10:28: God can destroy the soul.
Matt. 13:30, 42, 49-50: The wicked would be like weeds thrown into the fire, and weeds don’t burn forever.
Matt. 23:37-38: The people of Jerusalem have rejected their Messiah because they were unwilling (cf. Luke 19:41-44), so the city will be destroyed.
Matt. 25:46: The unredeemed doers of bad deeds will go to eternal punishment (which does not exclude nonexistence after burning).
John 3:16: If people do not believe in Christ, they will perish.
John 10:28: Those who have eternal life will never perish, implying that those who do not have eternal life will perish (see John 3:16).
Rom. 2:7: Humankind must seek for immortality (he does not have it automatically, but potentially and are dependent on God for it).
Rom. 2:12: Those outside the law will perish without the law.
Rom. 9:22: People who are objects of God’s wrath are prepared for destruction.
Rom. 6:23: The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, implying that those without eternal life experience death (and by extension not eternal misery).
1 Cor. 15:28 and 55-58: In the end, God is going to be all in all and even death will be conquered.
Phil. 1:28: Opponents of the gospel will be destroyed.
Phil. 3:19: Those who oppose the cross have the destiny to destruction ahead of them.
1 Thess. 5:3: Destruction will come upon those teaching bad doctrines.
2 Thess. 1:9: People who do not obey Paul’s gospel “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might.” It is the destruction that is everlasting, not the process of punishing.
2 Thess. 2:8: At Christ’s second coming, he will destroy the lawless one.
1 Tim. 6:16: God alone is immortal.
Heb. 10:39: Those who shrink back will be destroyed.
James 4:12: God the Lord and Judge is able to save and destroy.
2 Pet. 2:3: Destruction has not been sleeping but is about to come upon those who follow depraved conduct.
2 Pet. 2:6: God burned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, not eternally burning those two cities.
2 Pet. 3:7, 9: The day of judgment and destruction is coming, but he does not want any to perish.
1 John 3:8: Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil.
1 John 5:11-12: God has given us eternal life in his Son; those who do not have his Son do not have (eternal) life, implying conditionalism or cessation of life.
Rev. 21:5: God will make everything new.
Those verses vary in clarity and strength and relevance to the doctrine of terminal punishment in the afterlife, but they all point to the possibility—probability—that unredeemed humankind’s final destiny is finite and ends in destruction or annihilation, not eternal torment.
Even though those verses are summaries without analyses (or minimal analyses), readers can judge their effectiveness. If readers would like closer analyses of them, they can go to Steve Gregg’s book about hell (see Sources, below).
Additional key points
The word Greek word aiōnios does not always mean “eternal” or “everlasting” or “endless” in every context in Scripture. Its basic meaning is “without a determinate horizon” or “enduring” (without eternality necessarily) or “a long age” or “age to come,” “pertaining to an age,” or “of divine origin and character.” Even the destruction of Sodom was accomplished by aiōnios fire (Jude 7), which was actually completed in a short time. Rather, Jude 7 speaks of the intensity and everlasting results of judgment fires (Sodom and Gomorrah are no more, forever), not that the fire itself lasts forever (see 2 Pet. 2:6). It was of divine origin and character.
So hell may not be eternal—only God is and so are the redeemed who derive eternity or immortality from him. Unbelievers are not eternal or immortal, so they can be extinguished after final judgment and just punishment in hell.
See my post and a look at Hebrew and Greek lexicons: What Do Words ‘Eternity,’ ‘Eternal’ Fully Mean in the Bible?
Next, the image of fire and darkness in the context of hell could be metaphorical. Here is a long quotation from Charismatic theologian J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008), a very devout Presbyterian minister and a respectful interpreter of Scripture. He says fire and darkness are just metaphors, for separation from God and punishment. They cannot be taken literally. He writes:
These two terms, “darkness” and “fire,” that point to the final state of the lost might seem to be opposites, because darkness, even black darkness, suggests nothing like fire or the light of a blazing fire. Thus again we must guard against identifying the particular terms with literal reality, such as a place of black darkness or of blazing fire. Rather, darkness and fire are metaphors that express the profound truth, on the one hand, of terrible estrangement and isolation from God, and on the other, the pain and misery of unrelieved punishment. It is significant that Jesus in His portrayals of darkness and fire often adds the statement “There men will weep and gnash their teeth.” This weeping and gnashing … vividly suggests both suffering and despair. So whether the metaphor is darkness or fire, the picture is indeed a grim one, even beyond the ability of any figure of speech to express.
One further word: both darkness and fire refer to the basic situation of the lost after Last Judgment. However, we have already observed that there will be degrees of punishment; hence in some sense the darkness and fire will not be wholly the same. Some punishment will be more tolerable than other punishment: some people will receive a greater condemnation, while some (to change the figure) will be “beaten with few blows” [Luke 12:48]. Thus we should not understand the overall picture of the state of the lost to exclude differences in degree of punishment. Even as for the righteous in the world to come, there will be varying rewards, so for the unrighteous, the punishment will not be the same. (Renewal Theology, vol. 3, 470-71).
For the record, Williams did not believe in annihilationism (or terminalism) or universal reconciliation (or restorationism).
However, let’s say that the imagery of fire is real. Terminalists claim that it is an acceptable method of punishment, but they believe that fire and punishment will not be eternal or everlasting, but they will last an age or as long as the unredeemed need to undergo a just punishment, before they are annihilated or extinguished.
This doctrine denies the immortality of the soul. As noted, the soul is immortal only in Christ, as God’s gift. God can destroy the soul when it depends on him and only has potential immortality in and through him. Unbelievers don’t have immortality, but will eventually perish or be destroyed.
Objections and replies
First, this is nothing more than soul sleep.
Reply: No. The doctrine of soul sleep is about the intermediate state between our deaths and the final resurrection. Terminalism says the unredeemed will be in hell, suffering for what they did and rejecting Christ and his generous offer of salvation, and at the final resurrection and final judgment, they will be snuffed out. No soul sleep. The redeemed, in contrast, will go immediately into heaven after they die.
Second, annihilationism denies God’s justice and wrath and holiness.
Reply: No, the doctrine says that people will be punished, but it denies that those three attributes lead to eternal torment.
Third, annihilationism is no punishment.
Reply: Yes, it is. It does not rule out suffering through hell, but it is not eternal punishment and torment, for sins committed during a finite lifespan.
Fourth, why would God raise the dead to annihilate them?
Reply: terminalism teaches that he raises the dead to judge and sentence them, just like the traditionalism says. Trasditionalism is worse because it teaches that God will raise the dead in order to torment them for all eternity.
Fifth, doesn’t terminalism “demotivate” Christians to share the gospel and people to receive it?
Reply: No, because scaring people with hell is not the best preaching method, either. People need salvation because God is good and wants a relationship with them and to fill them with his cleansing, renewing Spirit. They need deliverance from Satan and their destructive sins, right now. And in Christ, they can be assured of escaping any form of painful punishment after judgment, whatever it entails, so a brief mention of hellish punishment may indeed be in order when preaching to the unredeemed. However, nowadays, with the worldwide web, it is difficult to imagine that numerous people will get saved with fire-and-brimstone preaching. They simply need a new life, and Christ can offer it.
Sixth, terminalism is one step away from liberal universal reconciliation.
Reply: No, it is the opposite. It teaches that lives will be extinguished after a just punishment, not redeemed in the end.
Seventh, terminalism looks like what Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists teach.
Reply: This is guilt by association. Some of the Reformers held doctrines that look like Catholicism, like baptism of infants or the Real Presence in and around the elements of communion. Let’s look at Scriptures, instead, and stop using guilt by association as our guide.
If all sins deserve infinite punishment, then no sin is greater or worse, because infinite punishment denies degrees of punishment, because all sins are equally bad—infinitely bad. As Robin Parry says in Four Views on Hell, if an employee steals a sheet of paper from work, then does he deserve infinite punishment, just like the man who tortures and kills children (p. 53)? No. God makes distinctions about sins. So there is a problem with the view of eternal, conscious punishment.
If punishment in hell-fire is endless, it is far out of proportion to a just Judge and loving Father.
See my post: Are All Sins Equal?
Terminalism solves this extreme view of God because he puts an end to suffering, like killing an animal that has an incurable, contagious, deadly disease. Putting it down is the only option to end its suffering. One does not impose lifelong torture on the poor beast. Unjust. Similarly, unredeemed people are executed (so to speak) or extinguished, after a just punishment in proportion to each individual’s sins; they are not tormented forever.
The nation of Israel spent centuries sinning against an infinitely holy God, and God did indeed punish them, but eventually the punishment ended. He even restored a remnant.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of Christ?
As I also note in Part Three in this series, one day you will meet someone who objects to Christianity because he cannot believe that his kindhearted and generous grandmother, who was not a Christian before she died, is burning (or about to be burned) in hell forever, without end, in conscious torment.
Human law courts teach him that punishment is proportional—a first degree murderer is treated humanely before he is executed; he is not tortured for twenty years while he is waiting on death row. The skeptic will not accept the claim that sinning against an infinitely majestic and just and holy God requires an infinite punishment for a finite human with a finite lifespan. He may rightly tell you that God is also infinite in love and mercy and forgiveness.
Now you can tell the concerned objector that there are options about hell. Yes, Jesus is the way to heaven, and you can’t change that, but his grandmother’s suffering will not be eternal. Another theory, universal reconciliation, says that in the end redemption is possible. These two theories are gaining in momentum among careful Bible readers. They may even be the most popular ones in the next two or three decades, especially after careful exegesis of the passages that traditionalists use (their interpretations are not strong enough to be dispositive or decisive). It seems (to me at least) that since Bible teachers don’t agree on what exactly happens in and around hell and punishment, we should not be dogmatic about it.
You can quote for the concerned skeptic from Gen. 18:25, which, fittingly, comes in the context of the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” The Judge is God and the answer is yes.
The main thing is what we do here and now about Jesus. This is more important than questions about the afterlife. He is the resurrected Lord and wants everyone who will listen and believe in him to be saved for eternal life in him, right now, and to be saved from hell—whatever it turns out to be. Faith in Jesus will free them from these questions about the afterlife that cannot be answered with perfect clarity on this side of the grave. Right now, Jesus will give them a life free from the dominion of sin in their lives, sin that destroys. And best of all, they can know God personally, as a loving Father.
Finally, let’s allow Steve Gregg, whose book on the three versions of hell and punishment is superb, to counsel us.
The fact that the Bible actually exhibits sufficient ambiguity on the subject of hell as to allow three very disparate viewpoints to be maintained by Christians of equal intelligence and sincerity raises the question whether God even thinks it is important that we reach final conclusions on the matter. It may be that God, in His wisdom, has chosen not to satisfy our curiosity about the fate of others, so that we might redirect our energies to fulfilling our own assigned tasks. When Peter, wondering about John’s destiny, asked Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “What is that to you? You follow me” (John 21:21-22). (p. 301)
Once again, in essentials, unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity (love).
ARTICLES IN THE “HELL AND PUNISHMENT” SERIES
2. Hell and Punishment: Terminal Punishment