Eternal torment and torture, annihilation or death-row and execution?


This post is on a controversial issue. I will declare from the outset that, due to my understanding of the function of the two trees in the Garden of Eden within the Adamic Covenant, I hold to the view that Hell/Hades/Sheol is an intermediate state equivalent to death row, where those who die apart from Christ consciously await judgement and execution by divine decree. My basis for this is explained in this post but readers will benefit from reviewing the background work on the Garden of Eden and the distinction between natural death and judicial death at the fall.

There are broadly three Christian views on the sentence handed to the wicked on judgement day.

The first is eternal conscious torment and physical torture. The resurrected bodies of the damned are thrown into a lake of fire (Rev 20:14) where their bodies are not destroyed but tortured by fire and worms (Isa 66:24) and where their consciences are tormented eternally.

The second is annihilationism which, in its simplest form, states that mortal death is judgement and that the person simply ceases to exist.

The third, which has been confused with simple annihilationism, is death-row executionism. The wicked die and are held in a place of conscious torment where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth as they await judgement and sentencing. The sentence they know and expect from Genesis 2:17 is to miss out on the promise of eternal life by being summarily executed by royal decree.

The second view is unbiblical as man is destined to die once and after that face judgement (Hebrews 9:27).

The first and third views are hotly debated with respect to the nature of the sentence. I have considered arguments for and against both views. I am yet to come across an argument which properly takes into account the initial conditions in the Garden of Eden. Most arguments start with proof texts or philosophical constructs about the nature of God or the nature of man. I believe two initial conditions at creation support the death-row executionism view.

First, Adam and Eve were not created with immortality. God had not promised that they would live forever. The promise of immortality would be sealed as they ate by faith in God’s word from the tree of life. Eternal conscious torment assumes either that:

  1. the human soul is created with immortality and so must suffer eternally as it cannot be destroyed.
  2. God will raise the bodies of the dead and impose immortality on them in order to torment and torture them eternally.

Plato and Aristotle, who have arguably influenced biblical scholars, taught that the soul is immortal but there are no texts in the bible which explicitly support this anthropology. Indeed, the bible clearly states that God alone is immortal (1 Tim 6:16) and that God will destroy the body and soul in hell (Matt 10:28). Unless explicitly stated we should not assume that immortality is a communicable attribute.

Second, and more importantly, the sentence for rebellion announced by God in Genesis 2:17 was execution by royal decree. Adam and Eve knew explicitly that should they eat from the prohibited tree God would summarily execute them. There was no sentence of eternal conscious torment and physical torture for disobedience in the Garden. If we change the nature of the sentence we make God out to be a liar. God does not lie (Heb 6:18). If he says “I will summarily execute you for rebellion” then that is what God will do. Put simply, “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

I am yet to find a defence of eternal conscious torment and torture which deals satisfactorily with either of these initial creation conditions. The executionist view of the sentence at judgement on the wicked and their conscious torment on death-row (the intermediate state) makes best sense to me of the controversial passages in scripture, both the apollumi (destruction) and waling/gnashing passages. More on these passages will follow later.

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7 Responses to Eternal torment and torture, annihilation or death-row and execution?

  1. Tim Oglesby says:

    Hi Neil,

    Interesting theory – I haven’t come across this one before (which isn’t saying much!).
    Any idea how many theologians of the past held this view as opposed to the ‘traditional’ view of eternal punishment?

    Thanks and keep up the great work

    Tim Oglesby

  2. Mark Hopkins says:

    Hi Neil,

    I realise your argument is not based upon proof texting and so doesn’t directly address Revelation 14:10-12 or Revelation 20:10. Not sure how you might reconcile the beast being “tormented day and night for ever and ever” without it being eternal torment.

    However this is only said of the beast in Revelation 20:10. In Revelation 14, they are tormented with “burning sulphur” and “the smoke of their torment goes up for ever”. What is interesting is that the images of “eternal smoke” and “sulphur” are also in Isaiah 34, when they refer to a land made desolate by God, totally destroyed and uninhabited, yet still smoking as a mark of judgement:

    8 For the LORD has a day of vengeance,
    a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause.

    9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch,
    her dust into burning sulfur;
    her land will become blazing pitch!

    10 It will not be quenched night and day;
    its smoke will rise forever.
    From generation to generation it will lie desolate;
    no one will ever pass through it again.

    11 The desert owl [b] and screech owl [c] will possess it;
    the great owl [d] and the raven will nest there.
    God will stretch out over Edom
    the measuring line of chaos
    and the plumb line of desolation.

    12 Her nobles will have nothing there to be called a kingdom,
    all her princes will vanish away.

    13 Thorns will overrun her citadels,
    nettles and brambles her strongholds.
    She will become a haunt for jackals,
    a home for owls.

    14 Desert creatures will meet with hyenas,
    and wild goats will bleat to each other;
    there the night creatures will also repose
    and find for themselves places of rest.

    15 The owl will nest there and lay eggs,
    she will hatch them, and care for her young under the shadow of her wings;
    there also the falcons will gather,
    each with its mate.

    16 Look in the scroll of the LORD and read:
    None of these will be missing,
    not one will lack her mate.
    For it is his mouth that has given the order,
    and his Spirit will gather them together.

    17 He allots their portions;
    his hand distributes them by measure.
    They will possess it forever
    and dwell there from generation to generation.

    There is, however, the more direct reference in the second half of Revelation 14v.11 to the beast-worshippers being given “no rest day or night”, which seems to point towards eternal torment. This is set in contrast to the saints who are asked to exercise “patient endurance” (presumably because John’s readers are suffering great hardship and need reassurance that the wicked will not enjoy eternal rest). Perhaps “no rest day or night” is intended to refer more to the fact that the wicked do not enjoy eternal rest rather than being in a state of permanent discomfort, but this might be stretching things a bit.

    Just some random thoughts – they may be somewhat far fetched!

    Mark

  3. neilrobbie says:

    Thanks Mark, it seems Pierced for our Transgressions chapter 3 has given us lots to think about.

    The hermeneutic of death-row and execution is admittedly a weaker fit on these two passages than eternal conscious torment. But then applying both hermeneutics to a passage like Matt 10:28, where the destruction of body and soul in hell are clearly taught (cf Matt 2:13, Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34; 6:9; 19:47, James 4:12 where the use of apolaysai in each makes a strong case for the execution view), proves the point you make concerning proof texting.

    Then there’s passages like Isaiah 10:

    Isaiah 10:12-18 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.

    13 For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.

    16 Therefore the Lord GOD of hosts will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire.

    17 The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame, and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day.

    18 The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the LORD will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.

    The initial conditions of Genesis 2 and 3 need to be applied to the whole of scripture to find if the death threatened by God was simply “execution by royal decree” or whether, as Ovey, Sach and Jeffery wrote, what God really meant by “death” was to include the categories of mortal death, spiritual death and eternal conscious torment as punishment.

  4. joe sullivan says:

    Hi Neil,
    Thanks for your exhaustive research on the subject. I recently began to doubt the idea of eternal torment for any but the devil & his angles for whom the lake of fire was created. I hadn’t had time though to research much on the topic so I’m glad to read your stuff. I agree totally that the idea of a complete execution / annihilation after a time of torment is most consistent with not only the scriptures you sited, but the character of God as He has revealed it to us. As a minister to mainland Chinese, I have often answered the question of why do some suffer in this life and others seem to have relative comfort here regardless of their misdeeds, with – that this life is so short in view of eternity, that God is not unjust to allow what seems unfair here, but justice will someday follow. To then teach that God will punish a moment of (the time of our earthly lives relatively speaking) rebellion against Him with eternal torment seems incredibly harsh & inconsistant.
    Blessings, Joe

  5. James Oakley says:

    Joe,

    Neil has given me a lot to think about. I’m grateful to him for these arguments, as they have given me healthy pause. He may be right: – I’m still thinking!

    But let me come back on that last sentence.

    “To then teach that God will punish a moment of (the time of our earthly lives relatively speaking) rebellion against Him with eternal torment seems incredibly harsh & inconsistant.”

    That presupposes that rebellion ceases once hell begins. I haven’t got time to chase the references up, but I’m persuaded that those in hell remain defiant, and continue to seek out ways to express that defiance. So, we can (I think) rescue eternal torment from theories of injustice on this count at leaset by saying that it’s eternal punishment to match sin that goes on for eternity.

    (That is, of course, not to deny that there may be other reasons why justice and eternal torment don’t sit easy. As I say, I’m still thinking.)

  6. These Scriptures might shed some light:

    Psa 37:10 For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be.

    Psa 37:20 But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the LORD shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away.

    Psa 92:7 When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever:

    Satan himself has already been sentenced to eternal death :

    Eze 28:18 Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffick; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee.

    Eze 28:19 All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.

    Go bless!

    Luis Alberto

  7. James Berry says:

    good info on this topic at http://www.tentmaker.org. God bless. “The end of the Lord is Mercy”!

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