In my last post I backgrounded the arguments around the eternality of the punishment of hell, and explained the Orthodox view of it. Let me now explain why I, while not *absolutely* certain of the truth of the matter, favour the idea that hell torments the damned eternally.
Let me first state that the view that hell ends in annihilation is not necessarily unorthodox (or even unOrthodox). It’s entirely possible and plausible. An argument can be made that this is the case. But in my view, the odds favour the opposite theology – that the damned suffer eternally.
I must at this point admit that I was prepared to be convinced of the Rethinking Hell arguments. I attend an Orthodox church, so my approach is different to theirs, but I could see the logic there. However, being Orthodox, one hits a major snag, and that is the Three Holy Hierarchs of the 4th Century, who wrote in support of ECT. Now, just because a Saint has postulated a certain view does not mean that this view is infallible, or the view of the Church, or that the view is absolutely true simply by the testimony of those who put it forward. But it does carry weight. And there are few weightier Saints than John Chrysostom, who was adamant that the punishment of the damned was eternal. See his sermons here and here. Since there are fewer Christians in history more authoritative, his support for ECT institutes a high threshold by which the idea should be debunked.
What is this based on? The Rethinking Hell folk would have you believe that the rhetoric of Holy Scripture is purely existential – that the Bible, in speaking of the “destruction” of the wicked, guarantees their non-existence. In reality, this involves taking a bunch of Biblical passages and saying that they are completely literal – that when the Bible says “destroyed”, it means these people literally cease to exist. Again, I could never discount this possibility. But the reality is that there is too much Scripture that says the opposite. There are several passages, and I am not going to waste time quoting all of them, because frankly, the RH people should know the Bible well enough to know where they are, even though they have compelling excuses for all of them. But I will look at 1 Corinthians 15, because basically it makes the RH people look very foolish:
Firstly, we examine 15:22. Adam’s sin caused death in everyone, good and wicked. But this verse tells us this situation will be reversed. So if Christ resurrects the good, he must also resurrect the wicked. This is expanded upon in 15: 35-44. The passage explains that our physical bodies will be resurrected, not just our soul or our “essence”. But more than that, it tells us that our perishable bodies shall be made imperishable. No distinction is made between the saved and the damned, the good and the wicked, in this passage. It is clear that all have the same eternal fate in this instance. The clincher is 15:52: “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” It is clear that this passage does not just apply to the “righteous” but to everyone. Everyone is going to be made incorruptible and immortal.
Basically, this passage puts the RH people in a tight spot. Their only recourse is to say that the physical resurrected bodies of the damned are materially different, when resurrected, from the righteous, and therefore, their bodies are perishable, this being their judgment. But nothing in 1 Cor 15 suggests anything other than a resurrection of both righteous and wicked with the same types of bodies: The incorruptible kind. Uh oh!
The only conclusion that can be reached is that the damned get incorruptible bodies like the rest of us, then they experience the full force of the Divine Energies of God, and then, being incorruptible, they suffer eternally under the strain of God’s presence.
It’s not a nice position to be in. And as I have said, there’s no real philosophical issue of God’s justice in this, since Hell is self-inflicted in this scenario. But more than this, it says that human life is valuable. To believe in annihilation is to believe that God does not value life, and that He does not want to restore humanity to its place of communion with God. Ultimately if there is no real punishment, then there is no real restoration of communion. A soul that can disappear is also one that can never truly be saved.
UPDATE: Many of the Rethinking Hell people like to claim that, because of the words used in the Bible for hell, the way we think of hell as eternal torment is an innovation unknown to the Apostles and the early Church. It is true that the Greek and Hebrew words used (“Sheol”, for example) could simply mean “the grave” or “the pit”. It is further true that Hades – the place/situation in which disembodied souls find themselves – is not the same as hell, and is sometimes erroneously translated that way. But that does not necessarily mean that the early Christians believed in annihilation (although the Rethinking Hell folk love to quote the Early Church Fathers out of context to back up this claim). To the contrary, the book of Judith in the Deuterocanon, states:
“Woe to the nations that rise up against my kindred! the Lord Almighty will take vengeance of them in the day of judgment, in putting fire and worms in their flesh; and they shall feel them, and weep for ever.”(Judith 16:17)
It’s clear from this that the Jewish understanding at the time was one of eternal conscious torment. And as for the early Church, we see in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, the following quip to his persecutors:
But again the proconsul said to him,
I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.
But Polycarp said,
You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will. (Martyrdom of Polycarp 11:2)
This retort shows that Polycarp fears the eternal fire, rather than a temporal one. He knows the fire of this world will not hurt him for long, but that the Fire of God will eternally consume and punish those who choose to separate themselves from Him. It shows that the doctrine of ECT was in no way innovative, but was there from the beginning of the faith.