I had the chance to dig into the subject of hell deeper than I ever had previously, reassessing my position and belief to make sure that what I believe aligns with Scripture.
Warning: This will be a 3 part series, each consisting of a very long, exhaustive study of the subject. I am doing my best here to present as much evidence as I can and explain my reasoning for believing the way I do, so that at the end there will be little to no room for misunderstanding my position, or the logic I'm using to ground it. Ultimately, my hope is that the only disagreement possible would be that of interpretation.
Total Annihilation is one of my favorite games. A futuristic real-time strategy game with robots where your goal is to (totally) annihilate your opponent. Annihilation is also an inevitable and controversial concept that pops up when discussing the subject of hell.
There is a doctrine known as
Annihilationism that states that hell is not a place of eternal punishment, as you may understand from the more prevalent or traditional church view, but rather that hell is a place of punishment where ultimately the punished being will burn up and cease to exist, or "be annihilated." I was first properly introduced to this doctrine back in 2015 through a video, which I also had previously blogged about. However, the format of my long series of posts for it was more of a debate/counter-point to the video's specific arguments. Although we'll touch upon many of those again here, it is not my intention to take the same approach. Rather, I intend to give a very in-depth look at the doctrine as a whole, rather than attempt to pick apart different arguments in isolation.
I did not agree with the doctrine then, nor do I now, moreso after having gone through this study I'll be presenting. To start things off, I decided that the best way to go about this from a fresh perspective was to start from the beginning of the Bible, and go through every verse related to hell. To the best of my ability, I put aside all my preconceived notions of it, and started a word search through the Old Testament to see what it had to say about hell.
Using any Bible software you will find that in the original Hebrew
hell was known as
sheol. Using the KJV, you will also find that of the 66 instances of this word in the OT, we have an almost even split between
hell, with a trio of instances where the word is translated to
pit. Since I want to know what the Bible has to say about hell and not a grave, I'm going to trust and assume the KJV translators had a good idea of what they were doing and focus on those specific 31 verses here.
I have, for the record, gone through all the verses and agree with the original translators' specific intent when using the word they did for
sheol. I do believe there is a clear distinction to be made between the grave/hell verses.
As an exercise, let's look at 5 verses for each word. I want you to get a feeling for the emotion and context of each verse, and then see which of the 2 words fits best (I've blanked it out so you can fill it in your mind) across the whole set:
the grave or
hell. So the first set:
Across these five verses, the same translation is used. Although I believe you can derive enough context from the verse alone, feel free to look at the surrounding verses (without spoiling the answer) if you don't feel you can tell with the single verse alone. In the following 5 verses, the other word is used. Can you guess which is used in each set?
I hope that the exercise provided useful enough in demonstrating the very distinct connotations behind each set. The second set of verses is where, as you have hopefully guessed,
sheol was translated as
hell. There is a clear duality to the word
sheol, one with the former set providing a more earthly, solemn tone while the latter carries certain weighty concepts like "wickedness" and "judgment" that are simply not present in the first set.
While reading each of the 31 (and then some — a few extras from another version got into my list while trying to compile it) verses with an instance of
hell, my wife and I also took note of any patterns or concepts that seemed attached to the verses. At the end,
depth (low, in the earth, etc.) were concepts associated in almost half of the verses. The interesting thing is the association with
sinners (wicked or evil) being another major pattern. Lower down the list is the
soul, and barely making the cut is
Up to this point, with solely an Old Testament reading of the subject, I believe the fairest definition of
hell (specifically, the spiritual half of
sheol) we can describe would be along the lines of: "low place for the dead souls, particularly the wicked."
However, there was another trio of verses that associated hell directly with
destruction as well: Job 26:5-7, Proverbs 15:11, Proverbs 27:19-21. I wanted to touch upon these separately as they would be very important in the question of the soul's final state. I want to dispel a quick assumption that can and is made by Annihilationists: destruction does not automatically equate to annihilation.
For starters, none of the verses specifically indicate that souls are ceasing to exist.
Secondly, the word used in these 3 verses is
abaddon (place of destruction), which comes from the root
abad rarely is used in a way that would equate to the English
annihilation. Rather, it usually refers to death, as in, the physical death of a person. To have a better understanding of the way the Old Testament uses this word (and by proxy, helps clarify what a "place of" that word means), here are some examples that really weaken the Annihilationist's argument:
Egypt was not annihilated, it very much still existed, but its destruction was in reference to the state it was in after some plagues.
Perish here, just means death. That is confirmed with the fact that their days (life) will not be prolonged.
abad isn't even translated as destroyed or perish, but
In summary, assuming a definition of
annihilation from the "hell and destruction" (of which, again, are only 3 of the 31) verses would be jumping to conclusions. It's not impossible that it means that, but claiming it does would require some contextual hints (which don't exist here) or some heavy grammatical weight as to be a valid interpretation.
As for the latter, I lean even further away from
annihilation understandings for this word because of the fact there are Hebrew words that are more appropriate for that concept.
shamad is a lot closer to an utter destruction. It's still not quite
annihilation, but it's certainly closer than
abad's varying definitions. As examples:
In both of these instances, God is talking about destroying idolatry, something he abhors. Deuteronomy really makes it clear with the destruction being "off the face of the earth".
Similarly here, not turning back until they were consumed implies an "every last bit" sort of destruction. Surely if hell involved some form of annihilation,
shamad would be a more accurate word to use? Or
charam, which has similar sounding verses? However,
shamad is never used in relation to hell.
In fact, it's never used with souls at all, with the exception being the Leviticus verse above (which in the KJV says "my soul shall abhor you"), but that's simply referring to God's being.
We've already been applying it so far, but I wanted to quickly mention something regarding the way we should analyze Scripture.
Exegesis is the method of interpretation where you objectively read from the text, as opposed to
eisegesis which would be reading into it. I like the way that GotQuestions lays out the process: observe what the text says, interpret its meaning, correlate it within the context of where it is, and then with the rest of the Word, and then if possible, how do you apply it.
As an example: "Brian loves to eat white rice." What can we gather from this? There's a number of possibilities, but what is the correct exegesis of the one piece of text we actually have?
In most cases, we can assume the text just means what it says. Unless context says otherwise, there is no reason to believe the text is saying anything contrary to what it does (as might be the case with sarcasm, as an example). White rice is a carb, so it's not a stretch to say Brian loves carbs, but that is only a potential possibility, not a fact that you can conclude from the text given.
The rest of the statements are examples of what are, quite simply, invalid conclusions based off the text (doesn't mean they are untrue necessarily, it just means you can't state these as fact yet). Hispanics eat rice, sure, but so do Asians, and neither ethnicity can be derived from the text at all. Pasta is a carb, but we already established that the love of carbs is only a possibility, now we're jumping to conclusions and assuming that Brian loves a different, specific carb. Lastly, Brian loving to eat food is a broad generalization that the text never said or implied.
In fact, stating the love to eat a single specific food has more potential to imply that he does not enjoy eating ALL foods, otherwise, why specify? Ultimately though, we can only truly conclude one thing, we can suspect another that we can only consider confirmed with additional context, and we need to discard anything else until we read otherwise. This is the same approach I plan on taking with all the Scripture we have/will be looking at.
Now in my research of OT verses related to hell (we've already exhausted the ones that use the exact word
hell), I came across an incredibly important verse that seems to really destabilize a core point in the Annihilationist doctrine.
The context given in verse 1 is very indicative of an end time timeframe. We have that those who
sleep in the dust, i.e. those who are physically dead, will wake up. Now, there's only 2 possible scenarios described here in Daniel for those that wake up. One is an awakening to
everlasting life, the first and only time this concept occurs in the OT. Those that don't awaken to everlasting life will instead awaken to something that sounds very different: everlasting contempt (and shame). We will talk about everlasting life again once we get further into the Bible, however the important thing to note is the word
Everlasting is translated from the word
owlam, which basically means forever, although the Hebrew word doesn't exactly mean the same. It's pretty close though, and it certainly can mean that. Regardless,
owlam is being used to describe both of our awakened scenarios.
The verse is drawing a clear parallel in that both the life, and the negative alternative of contempt, are everlasting, and the same KIND of everlasting (be it a literal forever, or a more figurative "age"). Now, the context in the verse/chapter doesn't really clarify what might be the exact definition of
owlam here, but you may already be aware (and even Annihilationists believe and agree!) that in the NT, everlasting life is precisely the gift we receive from Christ.
Not for an age, not for some vague type of eternity, just a good old fashion, 100% forever and ever and ever. If you believe that you receive eternal life for being saved, then you must also believe that the alternative mentioned in Daniel is also the same type of eternal. There is literally (in the truest sense of the word, the literature itself indicates) no reason to believe otherwise, unless you are reading something else into the text (or, believe that eternal life isn't eternal either).
Another handful of verses help tie up some things from Daniel 12:
A "perpetual reproach" and "everlasting shame" are effectively the same thing, and as we see, it's something that happens to God's enemies.
This verse does not refer to hell, but I wanted to use it as an example. We have some talk about sinners and fearful hypocrites, and then talks about some everlasting fire. Someone might think this is the perfect counter point to an Annihilationist, confirming that those previous blurbs about a fire are clearly tied to hell, but if you properly read the verse in context (particularly, the verse that follows), you find out the fire/burning comes from God's presence, and the ones who withstand it are the righteous. Only the righteous can be in the presence of God!
This verse in Isaiah does tie in an unquenchable fire with the concept of abhorrence (
contempt) like mentioned in Daniel, and even seems to have a similar time frame. It also adds the wicked who have transgressed against God. On its own it wouldn't be enough to prove anything, but in combination with all the other verses we've looked at it begins to add more weight into the concepts we've previously established for hell.
Lastly, we have both the reproach and shame, in eternal (everlasting) states, being applied to someone (in context, it is wicked prophets).
So we've almost wrapped up the OT, and so far our concept of hell can be described as "A low place for the dead, particularly the wicked" with potential concepts of "fire, destruction, and eternity" floating around, but not quite conclusive on their own just yet. I've already explained how the Job/Proverbs verses cannot be used as any sort of basis for Annihilationism, but there's a handful of other OT verses that are heavily used as well, and I think it's worth looking how each one ultimately falls flat as a supporting verse. In the end, if I were to weigh both sides of the argument solely from OT Scripture, Annihilationism has a severely underwhelming case going for it.
The final portion ("for you are dust, and to dust you will return") is what Annihilationists latch onto as a sort of proof of "ceasing to exist."
With a proper context you will see that this portion of Scripture has a very physical reality to it: Labor, sweat, bread, the ground; there is no talk about a soul anywhere around here. This verse is basically telling us that decomposition (i.e. the biological, physical process) will occur to our dead bodies.
Again the latching happens on the first portion. In this case, rather than dealing with annihilation directly, this has more to do with the soul being asleep. Although sleep is not found to ever be used in combination with the soul, and despite a pair of OT verses implying the exact opposite, since this verse says "they know nothing," the Annihilationist claim is that those souls are "clearly" sleeping. Once again, context reveals everything.
This passage in Ecclesiastes (a very poetic book, mind you, not something you should carelessly derive strict theological doctrines from) is basically trying to say that "being alive is better than being dead".
We even get a comparison of a dog (a lowly animal in Scripture, that scavenges for meat, or worse, eats its own vomit) that is alive is better than being a lion (very majestic, strong creature) that is dead. That's when it follows up with a comparison, "those who live know something, those that are dead know nothing." The dead can't enjoy anything on earth anymore because they are dead. This verse does not even mention the soul, nor implies anything regarding the state of the spiritual aspects of mankind, it is very much focused on the things
under the sun, i.e. physically on this planet.
An Annihilationist will definitely have this verse handy, as "The soul who sins shall die." sounds like irrefutable and solid proof of their position.
However, exegetical reading of this portion once more reveals that their interpretations are dependent on out of context interpretation of what is actually being said. The point of this chunk of Ezekiel is elaborated both before and after this verse sufficiently: individuals are punished for their own sins.
A father does not bear the sins of the son, nor vice versa. The one who sins, shall die for his sins, would be the more accurate reading of that verse. As in, the soul (the one) who sins shall die (for his sins). Your righteousness is your righteousness, your wickedness is your wickedness. You are accountable, before God, for yourself and only yourself. Coming to the conclusion that "the sinner's soul is annihilated" is irrefutably an eisegetical interpretation to this verse, and only possible if isolated from its original context.
Last but not least, Malachi talks about the ashes of the wicked under our feet. Now, there are many points to address here. First, something turning into ashes is simply not the same as being annihilated, or ceasing to exist. That may sound pedantic, but I'm just trying to stick with what the text actually says. It just means the state of the thing (in this case the wicked) went from whole to broken. They still exist, just in a (very) broken state (and this is assuming we're talking about anything literally since the passage has plenty of figurative speech).
Secondly, the context is of a specific day to come, wherein the Lord will judge the evil, but who said anything about souls turning into ash? If that were the case, how are we stepping on them when the soul is a non-physical entity? Will God not bring a physical judgment upon the Earth in the end times, one that is not of water but fire?
Would not the most straightforward reading of this portion and its context simply refer to this physical judgment of the wicked? There is no mention of souls here, or hell, a grave, or anything along those lines. I see no reason to believe the Annihilationistic interpretation that this has anything to do with the annihilation of a soul then.
So, in review of all the patterns and concepts that we can grab from the proper reading of the OT Scriptures:
Death is clearly connected to hell. As far as we can tell, only the dead can go there. Where is "there"? Although probably derived from the literalness of a standard, physical grave, hell is definitely connected to something
low in depth. Wherever this low place of the dead is, it seems to contain
souls. Not just any souls though, we've seen that hell seems almost exclusive to the
wicked enemies of God. Hell seems to have some form of
destruction associated with it, but we're not clear on what that form is. It also, barely, has some associations with
fire/burning. When it comes to the
eternal shame though, we see it tie in strongly to the apparent fate of the wicked.
What we apparently do not see, anywhere in the OT, is a clear and concise concept of annihilation, in particular of the soul, with (or even without) the mention of hell.
Even if we were to accept one, two, or three verses as potentially implying some sort of annihilation, the clarity and simplicity of Daniel 12 shatters any reasonable confidence to that thought.
This is my conclusion, as far as the OT goes. In the next part, we will do a similar analysis through the New Testament and see what scripture, in all its coherent entirety, says on the subject.