Hell and broken thinking

Heaven and Hell Theology / Biblical Studies

Life is worth nothing. Having eternal life is worth nothing. Nothing at all. Enjoying eternity with God is not something to be prized, so if you lose it, you have lost nothing. No big deal. It has no value. If you lost your life, or you had the chance of eternal life taken from you (when it is actually a real possibility), then you have lost nothing at all. Zip.

If you tell anybody that this is not so, then you’re not a real Christian, but a phony. If you deny these things, then you’re accursed. You must tell people that these things are true, because if you tell them anything else, you’re not being loving. You’re just letting them die in their sins. If you want to be faithful to God, then you must tell people that their lives are worthless, and that there is no value in eternal life. This is an essential part of defending the Gospel.

Of course none of that is true. It is bizarre, false, and certainly not a view that I would ever call biblical or Christian. And yet, I have just read an article by the head of a major Evangelical apologetics organisation in which he claimed all of these things. The claims look absurd when you make them explicit and state them one after the other. But they are all there. I’m not dropping names in this article, but you can go and take a look for yourselves. The article has been there since May 2013. I maintain that the above claims, bizarre though they seem, are straightforward implications of what you’ll find in that article. [EDIT 23 December 2014: The article has been taken down since this blog post appeared, as others have said that it needs to be clarified (see Amy’s comment below). I appreciate this, although I maintain that it is a good example of the kind of unfortunate thinking or railing (as the case may be) that some Evangelicals slip into when bashing annihilationism.]

We have gotten to a point where this is what many young Evangelicals look up to as useful, vital, and most unexpectedly of all, biblical teaching. This should not be. The doctrine of eternal torment inspires people to engage in some of the most awkward, contorted and damaged thinking that I have ever encountered in Evangelical culture.

The truth is that life is good. Just read through the Psalms as the writer pleads with God to give him life so that he can remain among the living and praise God. Through the Gospel God has delivered us from the fear of death by bringing life and immortality to us through Christ. Just look at what Scripture says about eternal life. It is the very gift of God to those who seek glory, honour and immortality. The biblical teaching is that we can have eternal life through Christ alone but that the alternative is death. Contrast that with this author, who says, “Even annihilationism gives false hope, because if you are annihilated, you lose nothing. You are not around to recognize the loss that you might have had as gain. You disappear. And when you disappear, there is no loss for you” [emphasis added].

Under normal circumstances of course we all see that these claims are ludicrous. Death is bad. Life has value, and eternal life with God in glory has immeasurable value. The writer of the article that prompted me here, when he is thinking about something else, knows that life is good, losing life is bad, and being denied eternal would be terrible. He must. But when defending the doctrine of eternal torment and denouncing annihilationism, suddenly ordinary reason collapses. Now we have to say, contrary to ourselves, that death is no big deal, that in losing eternal life and disappearing we are really losing nothing and so on, adding for good measure that this is about defending the Gospel.1 This is a moment where you need to listen to that little voice that says: “Wait a minute, this is nuts.” Losing life forever when God in Christ offers eternal life is not “nothing,” unless eternal life itself is worth nothing.

The matter is made worse when the writer says: “You want criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the foolishness and nonsense? This issue is it. … I think this metaphor of separating the wheat from the chaff is a good one because it helps us to separate the real Christians from the phonies, the truth from the error. In this period of time, when the Gospel and the Great Commission are under attack heavily from the outside, there are a lot of people on the inside who are starting to bend, they’re giving in, and they’re letting go of something foundational and essential, that is the existence of the place where God does eternal justice: Hell.” He literally claims that if you don’t hold to his view on hell, you are a phony Christian. Embrace this view of eternal life as something that you can completely lose, while still losing “nothing,” if you are a real Christian at all!

That some Evangelicals are prepared to descend into this sort of thinking for the sake of defending a doctrine of eternal torment should be a red flag. When your theology forces you to virtually abandon reason in its defence is a warning that you may be defending the wrong thing.

Glenn Peoples

(Hat tip to Ronnie Demler who linked me to the article that prompted this.)

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  1. This is to say nothing of the author’s unawareness of what conditional immortality / annihilationism actually teaches. For example, he writes: “So when someone argues there is no final reckoning and there is no Hell, either because of annihilationism (nonbelievers cease to exist when they die)…” Even a cursory glance through the literature would have corrected this obvious error. Annihilationists certainly believe in the resurrection of the dead and the final judgement, after which people receive their fate. []
{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Kenneth December 21, 2014, 12:46 am

    I could hardly believe my eyes, to be honest. Not just at the flippant attitude he took to losing life forever (!), but the ease with which he declared that the way one thinks on this issue separates real Christians from “phonies.” Phonies? As in, not actually Christians?

    So John Stott died and is in the chute to hell?

    John Stackhouse is going to hell unless he changes his view?

    Richard Bauckham is on the list of the damned?

    These are phony Christians, not genuine ones? Because they are swayed by the biblical evidence for annihilationism? This man is surely on some sort of trip. “Broken thinking” indeed!

  • Kurt Kirkpatrick December 21, 2014, 2:18 am

    Gen 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.”–Someone believes that the unredeemed have found their own tree of life it seems. If so, who needs Christ?

  • Jeffrey Long December 21, 2014, 9:59 am

    Although I agree with most of what Greg Koukl teaches, I believe he’s way off on this issue. Koukl claims to be motivated by a desire to see Christians stay strong in their convictions and not be swayed away from Biblical truth; a noble goal. Yet, when he writes shallow nonsensical comments like “if you are annihilated, you lose nothing” and then says you have to believe him or your not a Christian, that’s like saying 2+2 is 5 and you have to believe that it is or your going to burn for all eternity. In other words, his article is manipulative as hell (pun intended). I don’t want to psychoanalyze his intentions, but it seems to me like he may be purposefully ignorant on the hell question as he is such a careful thinker in most other areas of doctrine. At the very least, the article works to reinforce my belief that Conditionalism is the correct view and those who reject it don’t understand the perspective.

  • Glenn December 21, 2014, 3:13 pm

    This really is an issue where a lot of people who might normally be lucid thinkers just fall to pieces. I mean just look at this gem from the article:

    Some might say, Well, He’s burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. See, He’s burning it up. He’s destroying them. That’s annihilationism. This can’t be the case because the fire is “unquenchable.” It keeps burning and burning and burning.

    So if you take chaff (the worthless straw) and burn it up with ordinary fire, it gets burned up. But if you take chaff and burn it up with fire that cannot be quenched, it doesn’t burn up, the chaff somehow survives forever. Unquenchable fire is weaker!

    It’s a catastrophe of thought.

  • Amy December 23, 2014, 11:06 am

    Hi, Glenn. I emailed you but thought I should probably also post a comment here saying that that we took the article down pending editing, because while in some ways I disagree with the way you characterized the article in your paraphrase at the beginning of the post (which I won’t argue here since people can’t see the article anymore), I agree the article was unclear, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s actually Greg’s position that annihilationists aren’t really Christians (by virtue of their being annihilationists). I checked with Melinda, and she says the same.

    Part of the problem is that the article is a transcript of something he said on the show, which means he was speaking off the cuff and wasn’t as careful as he would be when writing and editing an article. I also don’t know how long ago it was posted, since every article we imported into the new website in 2013 took on the date it was moved to the website. So for various reasons, I don’t think it’s representative of his view, so we’ve removed it until we get a chance to update it.

  • Glenn December 23, 2014, 3:29 pm

    Thanks Amy, I appreciate that!

    And I actually think that a lot of what the writer explicitly said in the article is stuff that he really wouldn’t wish to communicate if he thought about it, but in a way that’s the problem. People take license and are careless with this issue more than most, relying, I think, on the fact that most of their peers agree with them overall and won’t object.

  • Dan January 7, 2015, 5:24 am

    I’ve been dealing with a similar phenomenon from supporters of the Ken Ham, Institute for Creation Research, creation in 6 literal 24 hour days or you are (a) a stumbling block for real Christians who know better, or (b) are not a real Christian and therefore are going to hell.

    Frustrating and impossible to argue against in a lay context, even from the position that the Genesis account is susceptible to multiple interpretations consistent with core doctrine, because at the end of the day someone always seems to go for “well, the Holy Spirit led me to this conclusion” and further debate is impossible. I am currently in good faith trying to follow the ICR reasoning suggesting that a 6 day 24 hour literal creation is a necessary and exclusive implication from the core doctrines.

    Similarly, from the ECT perspective, what core doctrines can be used as examples from which ECT is a necessary and exclusive implication?

  • Glenn January 7, 2015, 5:16 pm

    Dan, we’re told that the seriousness of sin and the holiness of God require eternal torment. Just because they do.

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