What are some of the difficulties found in the Traditional View of Hell?
I was recently interviewed about my book, Eternity: Heaven or Hell?, by Rethinking Hell contributor Chris Date. We discussed what has become a very controversial topic among many Christians, and that is the duration of time those in Hell will spend. Eternal or limited? I share from the Bible why I am convinced that Conditionalism is the biblical view of final punishment. Tempers can flare over this topic, so I ask you to read this interview in blog format as a good Berean, testing the Scriptures to see what God will teach us.
Prefigures of Hell
Chris Date: There’s a lot in your chapter that we could go on to discuss, so what I’m going to try to do is pick out a few points that stood out to me and then sort of play the preverbal Devil’s advocate on a few of those points. So, in listing some of the difficulties that you find in the Traditional View of Hell, you talk about how it seems to run contrary to some biblical examples, types, and pre-figures of Hell. Can you tell us about that?
Dr. Reagan: Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed suddenly and quickly. The Flood resulted in a sudden and quick destruction. God wasn’t tormenting people or torturing people. The Canaanites suffered sudden and quick destruction. There was no provision of torture in the Law of Moses as it was either retribution or death. Sacrificial animals were killed as mercifully and quickly as possible. There were definite prescribed ways of sacrificing.
I think the whole concept of eternal torment contradicts the description of a Second Death in the Bible. Going to Hell is described as the Second Death, which doesn’t sound like eternal torment to me.
Chris Date: Particularly in light of the fact that John and God used that phrase “Second Death,” what they are doing is offering their imagery of the Lake of Fire. If you look throughout Scripture, beginning with the life of Joseph who was a dreamer and interpreter of dreams, the interpretation that he would offer of very highly symbolic imagery, well the interpretation was always very straight forward. I think that alternatives to Conditional Immortality such as Traditionalism and Universalism make the Second Death more perplexing in meaning then the imagery that it is supposed to interpret, so I agree with you.
What’s interesting about the examples that you mention: Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, even the Israelites being killed in the wilderness as punishment. These are examples that New Testament authors sometimes call upon as examples, or prefigures, of Hell. Jude and Peter also do that very thing.
The Problem of Destruction
Chris Date: You go on to give a very brief version of the argument that Dr. Glen Peoples here at Rethinking Hell has called the “biblical language of destruction” and in which you call in your book the “problem of destruction.” What is that problem for Traditionalists, and why do you think that their understanding of words like “destroy” and “perish” aren’t really sufficient?
Dr. Reagan: That’s where you get into spiritualization. When they talk about perish and destroy, they begin to spiritualize those words immediately. And yet, the Bible is very precise in its language. It says the people will perish. They will be destroyed. By this we know that both body and soul can be destroyed. Jesus Himself said that. It is just as clear as it can be.
Let me say this, though, that when interpreting any literature, whether it be the Bible or any literature, context is always what determines the meaning of a word. There are places in the Bible where “destroy” does not mean “ceasing to exist.” For example, in the epistles of Peter, he mentions the fact that the earth as it was originally created was destroyed by water. Well, that doesn’t mean the earth ceased to exist. It means its nature was completely changed by the Flood. We know that by the context.
But, when you look at these Scriptures concerning destruction in context, and there’s a list of them as long as my arm, you look at them in context. Then you can see that they are clearly referring to a cessation of existence. I just don’t know how you can get around that. The only way you can is by spiritualizing those words. Saying, “It doesn’t really mean that. It just means eternal separation from God.” That is spiritualization.
Chris Date: Along the line of context, when you mentioned Matthew 10:28 where Jesus said that God will destroy both soul and body in Gehenna, Dr. Glen Peoples has done a study and written an article on it at Rethinking Hell where he demonstrates that the word translated “destroy” there, everywhere it appears is in the active voice to refer to what one personal agent does to another. In the synoptic Gospels, destroy always means something is killed or slain. Of course, that is contextually appropriate since what God is doing is contrasting what man can’t do with what God can do. I agree there are places where the word “destroy” seems to mean something like lost or ruined, but when we look at Matthew 10:28 and some other passages, it is very clear what destroy means.
In the debates that I have participated in, a couple of them my opening argument for Conditionalism was based primarily on the proof text commonly cited in favor of the Traditionalist View, including the notorious passages from Revelation. The reason for doing so is this, that I’ve become convinced of that with virtually no exception every single proof text commonly cited by Traditionalists is actually far better support for our view. So, I really appreciated how you went on in this chapter to show how the symbolism of Revelation 14:9-11 with the smoke of torment rising forever is actually very strong support for Conditionalism. Can you explain that for us?
Dr. Reagan: Yes, for example, the Bible says that in Isaiah 34:10 about the destruction of Edom, it says the smoke of Edom’s destruction will go up forever. Then you go over to the New Testament and where it talks about Sodom and Gomorrah and Jude 7, this chapter says that as the punishment of eternal fire, the smoke goes up forever. I’ve been to Edom, and I didn’t see any smoke. I’ve been to where archaeologists think Sodom and Gomorrah were pretty surely located, and I don’t see any smoke. So, this has to be symbolic language and taken as such. I think it means that the consequences of sin, what happened to Edom and what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, is an eternal illustration of the consequences of sin when it goes unrepented. You go against God. Ultimately there is going to be destruction. I think that is what these passages are talking about, that they are an eternal illustration of the consequences of sin.
In the sixth segment of Rethinking Hell’s interview of me concerning the Conditionalist View of Hell, Chris and I will discuss just what man being made in the image of God means, and if that image can be destroyed.