By Gregory L. Sharp
The Ecclesiastical writer pointedly states “there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). This truth is evidenced in numerous fields, but perhaps none more poignant than in religious beliefs. There is a definite tendency for certain fallacious beliefs to be rekindled from generation to generation. One such erroneous belief is that the eternal punishment of evil doers is irreconcilable with the justice of God. This belief has led man to conclude that final punishment will not be eternal, but will eventually end.
Despite biblical teaching to the contrary, the belief in limited punishment has been advanced in denominational circles by both the universalists and the annihilationists. The universalist advocates that all men will ultimately become pure and happy after being cleansed from their sins in Hell fire; the annihilationist believes that the wicked will simply cease to exist or, at the most, only suffer a moment of pain at the destruction of being cast into Hell.
Variations of these beliefs have occasionally entered into the Lord’s Church, both in modern times and historically. There is a false comfort in denying the biblical teachings of everlasting punishment, for it lessens the severity of sin and the consequences of choosing to serve Satan in this life. Although the false teaching of limited punishment is again finding favor and growing in prominence among those within the Lord’s church, their arguments and doctrine are not new; nor is their reasoning the result of “great study and insight” into the Scriptures. Error is still error, even when clothed in the guise of “enlightened understanding.”
Within the churches of Christ, the traditional positions of limited punishment are best stated by Moses E. Lard, who advanced the premise that Hell is limited in duration when he penned an 1879 article entitled: Do The Holy Scriptures Teach the Endlessness of Future Punishment? (Transylvania Printing and Publishing Company: Lexington, KY.) While brother Lard clearly denied the conclusions drawn by the universalists and the annihilationists, he nevertheless reasoned from the same premises. Lard states that the question of endless punishment “is not settled in the New Testament; that the New Testament pronounces no decision on it; and, consequently, that no uninspired human mind will ever, in this life, be able to say whether that punishment is, beyond the ages into which it runs, endless or endable” (p. 41).
Three basic arguments were advanced by Lard, and now, over one hundred years later, held forth by the current breed. First is an attempt to expand the definition of the Greek words aion and aionion, and the Hebrew word olam. Second, is a hermeneutical discussion centering on God’s sense of “Justice” and how the concept of justice must modify the contextual definitions of the above words to prohibit endless punishment. Last, is a negative argument that endless punishment somehow denies God’s Omnipotence by preventing adequate punishment for sin. Without claiming an exhaustive study of any of these points, let us examine these arguments regarding limited punishment in the light of Scripture.
Does Eternal Mean Endless?
Three words are primarily used in the Bible to denote eternal”: the Hebrew word olam, and the Greek words aion and aionion. Thayer defines the two Greek words alternately to mean: “age, perpetuity of time, eternity; without beginning or end, that which always has been and always will be,” (pp. 19-20). Gesenius defines the Hebrew word to mean: “forever, continuous existence, perpetuity, indefinite” (pp. 761-762). There is little dispute as to these words commonly meaning “endless.” Instead, effort is made to demonstrate that any of these words do not necessarily have to mean endless, but can mean “just to the end of that age.” Frankly, we will readily admit that certain passages, particularly Old Testament land promises and laws, must be defined by context to the expanded definitions that limit duration. The above words can, and often do, have a definition limited to a particular age or time frame. But the key is context. Any word can be “twisted and wrestled” so as to distort any clear cut, 100 percent sure meaning. Just look at the abuse heaped on “baptize” and “church” or Jehovah Witness’ arguments on “soul” or “spirit.”
In the New Testament, the words aion and aionion are almost exclusively used to denote endlessness or eternal. Because occasional exceptions may be found in the word’s usage (as with church, ekklesia, to denote a town council in Acts 19:39), does not alter its normal usage. Clouding the issue with extensive etiological data does not change the fact that the same word is used to refer to Heaven as is used to refer to Hell in Matthew 25:46 and other passages. Jesus used the same word, in the same sentence, to describe eternal life as he did to describe eternal punishment. Brother Lard and others contend that Heaven’s endlessness is implied by contorting other Scriptures. Yet there is no direct promise of an endless reward in the Bible without somehow falling back on the Lord’s inspired use of the term aionion for eternal. There was no plainer way available in that language for Jesus to describe endlessness than by the use of the word eternal. The longevity of Heaven stands or falls alongside the longevity of Hell; if one will eventually end, so will the other. Yet who is willing to accept a limited longevity in Heaven?
The Justice of God
Two premises are advanced by Lard, and current preachers, to deny endless punishment based upon the concept of God being a God of Justice: “First Proposition No man, if left to himself, no man uninfluenced from on high, should want the punishment to be endless . . . . No living man can, if he have a heart at all, want one of these, his fellow creatures, punished endlessly” (p. 4). Brother Lard, et al., fail to realize that there are many things we do not want, but that justice nevertheless demands. 2 Peter 3:9 says the Lord is not willing that any should perish but verse 10 says many will perish! Punishment reinforces the justice of God, it does not violate his justice. Such reasoning is designed to comfort those who willfully rebel against their Lord. Note brother Lard’s comments: “Last of all, if the dark future now looks out upon you more enchantingly; and if, in addition to this, the ultimate doom of our poor lost kindred looks less overwhelming and shocking than in the past, it is enough. My achievement is complete” (p. 50). Emotional reasoning from what our human heart “feels” to be right is not providing a “thus saith the Lord,” but rather treading on God’s territory by legislating where he has not.
The second rationale is, again, based upon human reasoning, this time upon intellectualism: “There is a large class of thoughtful men of the day, men of high morality and judicial fairness of mind who, on the question of future punishment, reason thus: God cannot, in justice, be the author of endless future punishment. The Bible teaches that he is. Therefore the Bible is not from God” (p. 48). Lard continues to argue that we can reach these men by showing that the Bible does actually “fit” their own preconceived notions, and they will be lead to the Truth! This argument hardly deserves attention, if it were not for the emotional persuasiveness of its appeal. What authority do we have to alter the Bible in order to convert the humanistic skeptic? And if a man will reject the Bible because it does not fit his own conceits on one point, will he not reject it again when it eventually becomes inconvenient or goes against his own thoughts on some other point?
The Omnipotence of God
A difficult puzzle is presented, not unlike the ones the Sadducees were fond of presenting to Christ. Lard says: “The real question, therefore, is – Can God adequately punish human sin, committed under these circumstances? God is infinite in power, infinite in resources, and all eternity lies before him. Now, it is positively shocking to say that he cannot adequately punish human sin. Yet this is precisely what we must say, provided future punishment be endless. Endless punishment is punishment still running; and punishment still running is not adequate punishment. Whenever punishment becomes adequate, it must end. Therefore, if future punishment be endless, it is so because God cannot adequately punish sin” (pp. 31-32). Let us approach this puzzle in the same manner Jesus often approached “trick” questions: from the reverse. Rephrase the question to be: “Can God adequately reward righteousness? Endless reward is reward still running; and reward still running is not adequate reward. Therefore if future reward be endless, it is so because God cannot adequately reward righteousness” (Isaac Errett, 1879:26).
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). It is not up to man to lessen direct, inspired, statements just because they do not agree with his own contorted logic. What Jesus and the Bible say about eternal reward is precisely what they say about eternal punishment. Both are without any end. This does not negate God~s Justice, nor does it limit his power. The extent of either extends beyond man’s finite grasp.
Brethren who purport this strange doctrine of denying an endless punishment claim to also reject the universalist position of eventual purification and restoration to Heaven, and to also reject the annihilationist position of a ceasing to exist. Yet to reject endless punishment requires the assumption of one of those positions. What will happen when their “limited punishment” ends? Will the sinner be restored to God’s favor, since he has now been adequately punished and is, in a sense, righteous? Or will the former sinner simply cease to exist when his punishment is concluded? The only alternative is to simply accept the biblical statements of the certainty of endless punishment for the wicked and endless reward for the righteous. Let us be content with what the Lord has revealed in Scripture, and not modify Scripture with our own emotionalism and fanciful conjecturing.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 19, pp. 582-583
October 3, 1991