“I remember the first time that my father told me, as a little boy, that someday I was going to die.  Somehow the thought had just never occurred to me.  But when he told me that, it filled me with terrible sadness and horror, and I just cried and cried and cried.”[i] – Dr. William Lane Craig, theologian and Christian apologist

This quote was from a man who was raised by non-believers, according to his testimony, so as a child, it was likely not the prospect of eternal Hell that grieved him so when his dad told him he was going to die.  More likely it was the thought of no longer existing.  Death is indeed horrible and sad, and I think a child’s perspective is most interesting, and probably the least tainted by multitudes of theories and ideas about the afterlife with which adults have been inundated.

I can relate to Dr. Craig’s experience.  I remember one day when I was young – I don’t know what age…maybe eight or nine, and I was staying at my grandmother’s house for the day during the Summer as I often did, and then we got the news that the next door neighbor had been killed earlier that morning when he was electrocuted while touching his back fence.  A power line had fallen on a fence a couple of houses over and there were a number of “hot” fences in the neighborhood.  I suppose I should have been most upset about the man who just lost his life, but I was a child, and I had only even seen him a few times, and didn’t actually know him at all.  And perhaps he wasn’t all that old, but to children, all grownups seem old.  In my mind, the elderly man next door who I didn’t know, and really couldn’t even picture, had died.  I did feel sad about the man, but if I’m honest, what upset and struck me most was that me and a couple of other boys had been playing right next to the same network of fences that were electrified, right at the same time the man was killed.  We literally came inches away from dying that day, and as I thought about it, I became extremely distraught.  I remember crying and crying at the thought that my life had almost ended that quickly and easily, and I finally persuaded my grandmother to let me call my mother at work so I could tell her about everything.

Unlike Dr. Craig, I was raised in a Christian home, but for whatever reason, I just don’t think I was paying attention in church for a number of years, and didn’t come to any substantial knowledge of Christ until my teen years, and I don’t consider myself to have been saved until into my 20s, although an experience with the Lord when I was 15 was highly impactful.  And when I got so upset that day, I wasn’t thinking that I may have gone to Hell, or that I should have been happy because I would have been in Heaven.  I was just thinking that I almost died.  My life, the only life that I could comprehend, my “eternal” life (as far as I was concerned) had almost ended.

Death is sad, and eternal death as a punishment is severe beyond measure.

Several years ago, early on in the writing of this book, I attended the funeral of a church friend’s mother.  I didn’t know her, yet I became saddened and emotional during the service.  By reading entries from her diaries and recounting conversations he had with her, the pastor gave us lots of reassurance that she was in fact saved.  And although I didn’t know her, I became sure of this as well – as sure as a person can be about another person.  But I was still sad – sad for the loss of her life — sad for those who knew and loved her.

It seems like God has designed us this way, even believers, such that even though we have a blessed hope, and can know that we will again see our loved ones who have put their faith in the Lord, we still feel the pain and sadness of death.  It serves a purpose.  The loss of this first life at the death of our flesh and the surrounding sadness is an object lesson to us of the much more grievous sadness that should be, and will be, felt for the ultimate death of a soul.  If we’re as sad as we are when a saved person dies, even a person that we don’t know well, or a person that we know we’ll see again, how much more grief should we have for those who will die ultimately and never be seen again?  And shouldn’t this inspire us to tell those who are headed for death about Christ?  Ezekiel 33 8-9 says:

“When I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die; if you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked one shall die in his iniquity; but I will require his blood at your hand. But, if you warn the wicked of his way, to turn from it; if he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your soul.” (LITV)

It’s an approaching death that we are to be warning people of, not eternal torment.  The Bible nowhere, Old or New Testament, tells us to warn of impending eternal torment for human souls, but we are required to rescue those who are perishing.  Death as a punishment is a dreaded and harsh one.  You wouldn’t know it to hear certain traditionalists speak of it.  Non-traditionalists like myself, who choose to believe the multitude of Bible verses that predict death as the final end of those without Christ, are often portrayed as trying to create a softer image of God and His wrath than what in reality exists.  But there’s nothing soft about a God who destroys and brings those who reject Him to nothing.

I’ll give you an idea of what I’m referring to.  I’ve heard similar statements in different forms from a number of traditionalists, but one that struck me during the writing of this book was when nationally known pastor Robert Jeffress said in a radio sermon:

“If unbelievers are simply destroyed, that takes a little bit of the sting out of Hell, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, if you’re not a Christian and you’re wrong, the worst that happens to you is, okay, you die, you cease to exist. It takes a little urgency out of sharing the gospel with your non-Christian friend or family member because after all, I mean, if they don’t accept Christ, they won’t be in heaven, but they won’t be in pain forever. They just simply cease to exist.”[ii]

Simply?  Ceasing to exist — the very loss of one’s soul and being is only a “simply”?  For Jeffress, a judgment of death for the wicked is just not severe enough.  Apparently he believes they need to be in conscious pain forever.  And he maintains that there is less urgency to share the gospel if a person’s end is only death.  With God’s most severe form of punishment being death throughout Scripture, and with the second death of the soul being the final judgment of those who reject God’s love, it’s hard to believe that a line of thinking like Jeffress’s isn’t offensive to God.  But Jeffress isn’t the only one.  There are many Bible teachers who state such things, all of whom I respect as it concerns their position on and their general promotion of the gospel, but whom I’m forced to disagree with on this issue.  Earlier in the same broadcast Jeffress stated that the doctrine of “Annihilationism simply says that an unbeliever doesn’t live forever.  After the great white throne judgment, he is cast into the Lake of Fire and he’s simply destroyed.”[iii]  Yes, that is exactly what the Bible appears to say.  There is no consciousness noted or predicted for humans after they’ve been cast into the Lake of Fire.

Also in the same broadcast, Jeffress said that the suffering which will take place in Hell defies description, but that the only way he “could possibly even describe it would be to say, it’s like having your flesh on fire forever and ever and ever.”  He can’t possibly know this since no one has come back from the Lake of Fire to report, and this is never predicted anywhere in Scripture, but Jeffress went on to say that God was too loving not to allow this kind of torment for all eternity.  Huh?  What a twisted teaching this has become in the Church.  I’m sure Robert Jeffress is a man who reveres God, as he understands Him.  But he, like many others, is not accepting the plain language of the Bible, and is instead helping to perpetuate misinformation that damages people’s understanding of who God really is.  God is a harsh judge, but not a twisted maniac who requires the everlasting feeling of being on fire for all eternity for those who failed to accept His grace.  Death is enough.  It will satisfy God’s wrath.

I recently found one author’s take on the loss of life particularly disturbing.  Dr. Clint Archer, who I’d never heard of, wrote a book entitled A Visitor’s Guide to Hell: A Manual for Temporary Entrants and Those who would prefer to avoid eternal damnation.  He implied that for the lost to experience annihilation would be blissful oblivion.[iv]  I couldn’t believe it.  Actually I could.  The entire book was filled with the same arguments that are always rehashed in these sorts of books, and in my opinion Archer offered nothing to the conversation.  And please know that I didn’t purchase it in order to criticize it; rather, I thought it might show me something I’d missed from the traditionalist position.  It didn’t.  It confirmed the non-traditional track I had been on for a number of years, and it was the last of six books I’ve purchased which attempted to prove tradition correct.  There won’t be a seventh.

May I state the obvious?  To experience bliss, one would first have to exist.  Is that fair enough?  If a lost soul is annihilated at final judgment, they won’t experience bliss, so the idea is complete nonsense.  But it also ignores that what precedes destruction and annihilation in the Lake of Fire is a conscious judgment that the lost will endure.  Where’s the bliss in that?  A faithless person who died rejecting Christ will one day stand judgment, and endure a mental torment that I can’t even imagine, as they realize that their very existence is about to end.  They’re living out their last seconds, knowing it’s all over.  It’s an absolute horror.  But for Archer …blissful oblivion.

Others have expressed similar feelings as Jeffress and Archer, regarding ceasing to exist being too light of a punishment, at least for some offenders, as if we were not all guilty before the Lord.

Sinclair Ferguson, another co-author of Hell Under Fire, seems to imply that only the reality of eternal Hell as traditionally understood would create the necessity of Christ’s crucifixion.[v]  It’s poor logic, unless there is simply no value to life itself.  Why would it require the reality of an eternal Hell to bring necessity to Christ’ sacrifice?  Death was the enemy to be conquered, according to many places in Scripture, and He accomplished that as His death now makes eternal life available for us.  The Lord is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). He did what He did so we could ultimately escape the eternal punishment of a death from which there is no return.  Ferguson is correct that it would be folly if His death on the cross was unnecessary. But His sacrifice was not made necessary because of eternal conscious suffering in Hell, but so death would be defeated (2 Timothy 1:10).

Hebrews 2:14-15 “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (ESV)

We can see from this verse that Christ took death upon Himself in order to defeat death, and the dread of impending death. And once again there is no mention that Christ saved souls from eternal suffering in Hell.  It seems strange and almost silly to have to write this chapter, essentially reminding us that death is bad, and that the ultimate death of a soul is the grimmest, most sorrowful fate.  But it becomes a necessary reminder when so many prominent Christians are claiming that the lost must be on fire for all eternity in order to bring value to what Christ did on the cross.  And this isn’t new.  This thinking has been handed down since some of the early church fathers.

And as it relates to Christ taking our punishment upon Himself on the cross, if the penalty for sin isn’t death, but rather endless torment for all eternity, then Christ in fact did not take our punishment upon himself, because He’s not still suffering nor will He for all eternity.  Now, traditionalists will come up with arguments such as, “Jesus is an infinite being, so even though His suffering was momentary, He was able to experience an eternity of suffering in those moments.”  Forgive my unprofessionalism, but that’s hogwash — just a feeble attempt at human reasoning to make sense out of something that can’t make sense.  The biblical concept of a day being like a thousand years with the Lord is a far cry from a few hours being like eternity.  If a lost human’s fate is to suffer consciously for all eternity, and if Jesus was to take our punishment for us, then the only substitute would have been for Him to literally suffer consciously for all eternity in the place of those who put their trust in His atoning sacrifice.  Fortunately for those of us who are looking forward to spending eternity with Jesus, death was the punishment He took on for us, and death is what He conquered, and eternal life with Him is what’s in front of us.

The Sanctity of Life

I realize that my having no abbreviations behind my name, and otherwise no formal credentials has probably given some readers cause to doubt if they’re finding reliable information in this book (although I hope I’m demonstrating that Scripture speaks for itself on this matter).  And I realize that not quoting many outside sources, as so many traditionalists do when addressing these topics may further give readers some apprehension.  Well now I’ll probably shred any remaining credibility I may have had when I quote a line from the 1990 film Joe Versus the Volcano, one of Tom Hanks’ lesser known movies.  It was a quirky, cartoonishly fantastic movie, that, aside from a couple of choice four-letter words, I really loved, and found to be profound in its general message.  I won’t try to give all of the background but some is necessary.

It’s the story of a man (played by Tom Hanks) who never felt well.  He had been in a boring dead-end job for a number of years, had forgotten to live life, and so was dying on the inside, and it was manifesting in physical symptoms.  During one of his many visits to the doctor, he’s told he has a rare, incurable disease and a very brief time to live.  Being a hypochondriac, he fails to get a second opinion, so believing he is at death’s door, when presented with an opportunity to be a hero, though it will cost him his life, he accepts the challenge.

On his way to his destination as he crossed the ocean on a yacht that was provided by his benefactor, a storm takes the vessel down, and only he and the young lady who was captaining the boat survive.  They were saved because of his over-sized waterproof luggage which they floated on for several days, her unconscious since the accident, and him neglecting his own needs and rationing the only bottle of water to her in capfuls periodically.  The profound moment for me comes when after several days of scorching sun, no food, and no water, and on his way to his own death through heroism, if his own terminal disease or starvation doesn’t get him first, he lifts his eyes one starry night and is struck by the beauty of an enormous moon coming up over the horizon, and speaks out with almost no strength, “Dear God, whose name I do not know, Thank you for my life.”  He pauses for a moment and then says slowly, “I forgot how big.”[vi]

And you may be wondering just exactly what my point is.  It’s that even this brief life, even when it is troubled, trying, discouraging, depressing, and sometimes just plain boring, is still a wonderful gift, and this man realized it as he was on the brink of losing it.  And not only that, but he was thankful for what he had, even though he believed it was almost over.  I’m sure this is the experience of many people near the end of their life.  Even when we’re not at the end of life, but are thinking back on the past, we get nostalgic and often see everything much sweeter in remembrance than we did while experiencing it.  Life is so much better than we realize it is while we are living it.  It’s always more attractive in retrospect.  Why is it that way?  Is it that we’re fools now for forgetting how difficult things really were in the past, or were we fools then for not appreciating every moment?  Maybe it’s a mix, but I tend to believe it’s often the latter, and I’m certainly guilty of this.  This life is a gift.  We should be joining Joe and constantly saying, “Dear God (and we do know His name if we trust Scripture), Thank You for my life.”  God didn’t have to create you or me, but He did.  That we exist at all is really quite amazing if we’ll ever just think about it.  God dreamed us up, knew every wrong thing we would ever do, created us anyway, and goes to extreme lengths to draw us to Himself so we will inherit a life that will never end.

This first life is a wonderful gift, even with its troubles.  But eternal life, and a tearless one at that, is then an infinitely more wonderful gift.  And yet, many traditionalists don’t see the eternal loss of life the unsaved face as even enough motivation for witnessing to those who are perishing.  But it’s obvious where this kind of thinking comes from.  If one has it ingrained in their mind all their life that the lost will suffer in literal fire for all eternity, then losing their being, an extreme loss, can actually seem like a non-punishment to some.  Can we see how Satan has so deluded us with the lie that “surely [we] won’t die”?

I wish I could say I go around with a positive attitude all the time, but that’s not always the case.  Life is full of problems for all of us, whether our problems are so-called “first world problems.” or if they’re more dire — whether you have poor people problems or wealthy people problems.  What I’ve noticed about problems is that they’re relative, and most people believe theirs are the worst — and for them, they are.  But Christians should be living in constant hope, no matter what difficulties we have.  Jesus said that we’d have trouble in this life, but to take heart because He overcame the world.  It’s much easier to write advice like this than to live it, but it’s so true.  If we’d just sit and reflect on the reality that we were nothingness, and now have the opportunity to live forever in painless bliss and awe of a God beyond comprehension…life is good — because regardless of our temporary trials, it’s leading somewhere good beyond compare if we persevere in faith.  Existence, our very being, is a miracle — a true gift.  If a person gets one day of conscious life, it’s a gift, and it’s one more day than we deserve by any merit of our own.

At the other end of the spectrum, but by the same token, there is nothing we can do or not do to merit an eternal existence in torment.  We’ve already covered it sufficiently, but contrary to what is commonly taught, our eternal existence is not a given.  It too is a gift, but unlike the gift of this first earthly life, it’s given only to those who place their trust in the one true living God; and for those of us who have heard the full New Testament gospel message, eternal death can only be avoided by accepting Jesus’s death as an atoning sacrifice that puts us in right standing with the Father.  There is certainly nothing one can do to earn eternal suffering.  There’s actually nothing one can do to “earn” eternal death either.  It is the natural course of all things living, including souls, to return to non-existence (death), if God does not intervene.  It’s the law of entropy.  And he only intervenes for those who respond to His calling.  Otherwise eternal death awaits, a return to the nothingness we were before God gave us this opportunity of life.

Nothingness is a horrible destiny in comparison to what’s available.  It won’t be “blissful oblivion.”  It won’t be anything.  You won’t be there for it.  One day you won’t exist if you resist the offer of salvation.  The insistence by some well-meaning Bible teachers that eternal death is not a serious enough consequence for rejecting God is a serious challenge the idea of the sanctity of life that we Christians claim to be the defenders of.  So it’s not only unbiblical to believe in eternal conscious torment, but it’s a logical fallacy and gross inconsistency when out of one side of our mouths we claim how valuable even this first life is, when arguing against, for instance, abortion, but out of the other side of our mouths say that eternal death and the loss of eternal life is virtually a non-punishment.  We need to take another look at our positions on these things and make sure we’re being biblical and consistent.

 

[i] I originally heard this quote on Ravi Zacharias’s Let My People Think program that was rebroadcast on OnePlace.com ca. 2007. As I remember, it was something said during a question and answer period that Dr. Craig and Ravi Zacharias participated in at a college.  I regret that I don’t have more accurate date information for this reference, but I stand by the accuracy of the quote itself.

[ii] Robert Jeffress Pathway to Victory radio program rebroadcast on OnePlace.com ca.2009 I regret that I don’t have more accurate date information, but I stand behind the accuracy of the quote.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Archer A Visitor’s Guide to Hell 42

[v] Ferguson Hell Under Fire 226

[vi] Joe Versus the Volcano 1990

Copyright © 2018 by Scott McAliley

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