Saturday, September 3, 2011

"As Traditionalists Do": Annihilationists and Their Doctrine

“Dr. Yarbrough [Robert] also claims that my statement that Gehenna ‘does not belong to time but to eternity’ manifests ‘a timeless view of eternity, a Platonic understanding,’ putting me in the same category with traditionalists who adopt a Platonic view of the immortality of the soul. I thank Brother Yarbrough for the reminder that Plato did not view eternity as time extended endlessly, but as timelessness that is qualitatively different from time-bound. However, I do not build a doctrine on Platonism, as traditionalists do, and if Yarbrough will agree to leave off using the phrase ‘immortality of the soul,’ I will stop contrasting time and eternity” (Edward William Fudge, “Interaction of Salted With Fire,” from The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011).

Before I get started, I desire to say two things. First, let me commend Edward Fudge for producing a massive work on conditional immortality. I usually enjoy studying unique theological positions...and studying this doctrine has been a rather unique experience. I think it is studying unique theological views that makes theology such an exciting field of study. To study God’s Word and see the various interpretations that have been given regarding the Scriptures is a sight to behold.

My respect for Edward Fudge is the same as for all theologians. Edward Fudge has been very cordial to me in his disagreement, and I am honored that we have been able to dialogue. He has shown me what it means to dialogue in humility, yet to do so in a way that humility does not require backing down from one’s theological convictions. His charity here at The Center for Theological Studies is one of many reasons why you should buy his book and allow him to have a voice.

My respect for Edward Fudge, though it is great, does not come without criticism of his theological views. To critically assess the work of theologians is a sign of intense respect. Most theologians I know would not dare assess the work of individuals whom they do not respect. Therefore, it is in the highest respect that I critique Edward Fudge. And I hope that my readership would understand this point. All of the critical assessments here at the center are not done in the spirit of ad hominem attacks, intended cruelty, malevolence, hatred, or any other ill-willed intentions. Rather, the work done here is to be done in the spirit of honest assessment. I desire to give every writer a voice while still providing my own reasons for why I agree or disagree with his or her view. I think that great respect can coincide with strong critique in a way that glorifies God and edifies the saints...and perhaps brings dying men and women to the knowledge of the truth for salvation.

The task for this post is to equip the saints of God to defend their faith. Apologetics, then, aids theology. The two (apologetics and theology) work together.
In the quote above, Fudge accuses traditionalists of holding to Platonic philosophy. This argument is called the genetic argument, where someone attempts to prove that something is wrong because of its origin. Because the traditional view argues the immortality of the soul (Fudge reasons), and traditionalists give the concept a philosophical name (immortality of the soul is a philosophical concept, though a theological one as well), traditionalists must argue from Plato’s views on the subject.

Unfortunately, I do not find this to be the case. While “the soul is immortal” is a philosophical claim, it is not one that is merely assumed. When you read the works of traditionalists on the doctrine of hell, you will often find them quoting Scripture and arguing from Revelation (amongst other texts) that when the text says that the ungodly will be tormented “day and night, forever and ever,” that “they will not rest” in the lake of fire and that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (see Revelation 14), traditionalists believe they are representing the biblical text faithfully to claim that the self will not annihilate but will experience conscious, eternal torment. And let’s face it: if someone were writing an article about the torture innocent people are facing around the world due to dictators, everyone would naturally assume that the innocent people are consciously experiencing such torture. No one would assume that these people were dead before facing the torture. No one assumes that a prisoner is dead before facing lethal injection for his mass murders (if lethal injection is the capital punishment administered). When people think of torture, consciousness is assumed. Never do we think torture is administered where someone is unconscious or already dead.

Why then is it, when it comes to reading the biblical text in everyday language, “their torment is forever and ever” refers to either “no torment at all” or “temporary torment followed by annihilation”? The text is assumed to yield an annihilationist interpretation only if we read annihilationism into the text.

Having said this, let’s place Fudge’s quote into perspective: if Fudge can see the philosophical presupposition (Platonic philosophy) of traditionalists, can he not see his own philosophical presupposition? This is what Fudge has to say about his own system versus the traditionalist view of hell:

“These details, and scores of others from both Testaments, provide a clearer view of the biblical hell than does the majority tradition of unending conscious torment. They represent an understanding of the divine character more fully in accord with the revelation of God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, including both his goodness and his severity. They furnish a place to stand with confidence, a position grounded firmly in Scripture, an incentive to forego timidity based on uncertainty, a boldness to declare the whole counsel of God on this important subject” (Fudge, “Some Biblical Details That Inspire Change,” from The Fire That Consumes).

It is understandable that Fudge would desire that he be seen as one who is following Scripture on this subject; however, where is the proof of temporary torment? There is no direct proof to make the annihilationist case in Scripture. He even calls annihilationism “a position grounded firmly in Scripture.” But where is the proof that should be firmly grounded in Scripture before we believe it? Should we forego the interpretation of Revelation 14 and 20 in favor of a position that has no trace of Scriptural support for itself? In a post titled “Lost in the Fall: The Image of God in the Book of Genesis” (see this page), I showed that, contra annihilationism, the image of God still exists within man. How do we know? James mentions it some decades after the death and resurrection of Christ! How then could the image have been lost in Genesis? This is an annihilationist presupposition that the Bible itself contradicts.

And what about the annihilationist assertion that the soul dies at death?

“It is deliberately said both that the soul dies (Judg. 16:30; Num. 23:10; et al), that it is destroyed or consumed (Ezek. 22:25, 27), and that it is extinguished (Job 11:20)” (Fudge, “Some Key Biblical Words,” from The Fire That Consumes).

Let’s take Numbers 23:10, for example. Balaam (the false prophet who ends up blessing Israel and not cursing them), says,

“Let my soul die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (NASB)

But the words “my soul” here refer to the self, the person. Balaam was saying, “Let me die the death of the upright.” The soul here refers to the person. This is the same way the soul is used in the New Testament when Jesus says (to use the KJV), “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”. When the King James translators write “soul” in Luke 9:25, they were not meaning that his soul would be annihilated. Rather, in the context of eternal consequence, Jesus was saying that the one who invests in the world will gain the world but lose his own life (and what can he give in exchange for his own life?). This, however, does not mean that his soul literally dies and is annihilated.

Let’s approach another text, Ezekiel 22:25, 27.

“There is a conspiracy of her prophets in her midst like a roaring lion tearing the prey. They have devoured lives...” (Ezek. 22:25, NASB)

The words the Lord God uses here present a metaphor: the prophets are having their way with the people, manipulating them, similar to the way a lion tears its prey. The people are “prey” for the prophets because the people do whatever the prophets tell them to do. The prophets, then, are manipulating God’s people and using the people for their own selfish gain. But when the Lord says, “They have devoured lives,” He is not talking about the issue of annihilation or of conscious torment. Instead, the Lord is using “devoured lives” in a metaphorical way: the lion eating his prey is an analogy for what the prophets are doing with the people. They are not literally eating the souls (or lives) of the Jews. They are simply scheming, tricking, deceiving, and manipulating them. The analogy of the lion tearing his food is used to poetically demonstrate the immorality over God’s people the prophets are executing.

How about Ezekiel 22:27?

“Her princes within her are like wolves tearing the prey, by shedding blood and destroying lives in order to get dishonest gain.”

Notice that the topic of Ezekiel 22:27 is “dishonest gain.” What the Lord God is talking about here is manipulation, trickery, deception, political corruption, etc. Once again, another analogy is being paired up with the evil work of the prophets in the land---that is, the analogy of wolves tearing their food. “Destroying lives,” in this context, refers to political and spiritual corruption, not annihilation of the soul. How one can find annihilation in these verses is extremely puzzling to me...

Job 11:20 is another text that discusses the wicked:

“But the eyes of the wicked will fail, and there will be no escape for them; and their hope is to breathe their last.”
Here in Job 11, the words “breathe their last” are literally translated as “the expiring of the soul.” In other words, the lives of the wicked come to an end. Does this text refer to annihilation? Once again, there is no proof for such an interpretation. Why can’t Job 11 discuss the annihilation of the soul? It cannot do so because the same chapter discusses “Sheol,” which is not referring to the place called Hell (prepared for Satan and his angels) but the grave. Sheol refers to the grave, the same place that everyone went when they died (whether godly or wicked). If Christ brought immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10), then what is seen in the Old Testament is a great deal of discussion regarding mortality (with a tinge of hopefulness regarding life beyond the grave; see Job 14:14).

The purpose of this post was to look at annihilationism’s philosophical presupposition and prooftexts of support. After our investigation, it should now become clear that annihilationists are guilty of holding to certain philosophical presuppositions as well. While they claim to be more “above water” than traditionalists, they too, employ philosophy regarding the annihilation of the wicked. Annihilation has no support within Scripture, not so much as a hint of an inference to support it. In the end, we are either left to choose the endurance of the immortal soul of both godly and wicked (who were made in the image of God) or the annihilation of the wicked and the immortality of the righteous (who lost the image of God in the fall of Genesis 3). Which view do you think has firmer biblical grounds?

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