Rethinking Conditionalism (Part 2a) – Eternal Fire

Rethinking Conditionalism (Part 2a) – Eternal Fire

(Notice: the blog series has moved to Rethinking Conditionalism on Our Common Salvation)

It can be difficult for some people to digest large chucks of complex information. It is even harder for people to pick up on subtle nuances that certain teachers use in order to make their case. What’s even more difficult is the fact that not many Christians read the New Testament with a systematic and linguistic lens that is trained to detect and digest all these subtle nuances that certain teachers use to deceive them. But I have good news! You do not need to know all of how Greek works to understand what I am about to show you. As hopefully some of my readers already know, I like getting to the point. So in this particular article, I will challenge the idea from certain conditionalists that believe hell’s fires are only temporary. Or, to be accurate, the fire is only eternal in the fact that the effect of the punishment they provide the wicked endures forever. If you haven’t picked up on that subtle nuance already, some who believe in conditional immortality believe that the fires of hell are meant to eventually “consume” the person. They contend that this is what Jesus meant by “unquenchable.” That is, the fire cannot be “put out” rather than “die out,” and that it will not stop until the adversaries are totally consumed (or in their case annihilated).

Before I show from Scripture why this isn’t the case, here is the only difficulty I have, or anyone has, who wishes to make a case in writing. This isn’t conversation. In conversation you can investigate and probe in ways that writing cannot. In live debate and cross-examination, you can publically show why a person’s position in a particular area is in error. In blog posts, all people do is write in response to opposing blog posts, and will carefully pick and choose what they will or will not respond to, or write something in such a way that seems like a legitimate response, but it is not. Of course, anyone can use my previous sentence against me, and I should expect that. But the reason I went through all the trouble to write this paragraph is so that the reader is aware that what I am about to deal with in this article is so specific and easy to understand, it would take a linguistic twisting so incredible, that it would have to deny how certain grammars of Greek work. And while some opponents of eternal conscious torment believe this is “insignificant” in comparison to the stacks of evidence that seems to support conditional immortality (CI) or annihilationism, this is just one of the many semantic proofs that will be the proverbial snow ball that rolls down the mountain.

One of the text used by CI folks is Matthew 25:46 when Jesus says:

“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I will deal with how the words “eternal punishment” does not mean that the results of the punishment lasts forever as CI presents it. But for now, let’s look at this Scripture in context. The first thing we have to see is that this whole chapter deals with Jesus and His judgment on the wicked at His return. Starting in verse 31 of chapter 25, He begins a discourse about those who will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and those that are wicked will be cast into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Other than the fact that some CI and annihilationists think that Satan and his angels will also be “consumed” by this fire, some others insist that this “eternal fire” is eternal in the sense that it is from God (because He is eternal), or that its punishment upon the wicked has eternal consequence, but not the fire itself. Don’t run, here comes the easy-to-understand-Greek-grammar that I mentioned earlier.

In Greek, you will sometimes have an article-noun-article-adjective construction. Don’t run. If I lost you, you will get it in a second. It would like literally writing, in Matt 25:41,  “the fire, the eternal one.” Adjectives describe or limit nouns. If I say I have a house. That’s the noun. If I have a yellow house. That adjective describes the noun. If I further mention that my house is eternal, then I have added another element to the noun, but it still describes or limits the noun in some way. If I say, “Hey, look at that house.” And you ask “which one?” It is probably because there is more than one house around and you seek to know which one I am looking at. If I reply, “The yellow one” I am implying that not only is the yellow house significantly different than all the other houses around it, but I am also saying that this one is a certain kind of house in context of all the other houses. In this Scripture, starting in verse 41, Jesus turns to the wicked and says:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

This is what it looks like in Greek. I will highlight the words you need to pay attention to in order to understand my illustration above.

ότε ἐρεῖ καὶ τοῖς ἐξ εὐωνύμων πορεύεσθε ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ οἱ κατηραμένοι εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον τὸ ἡτοιμασμένον τῷ διαβόλῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ

Notice that εἰς  means “into” and τὸ (article) πῦρ (noun), which means “the fire.” But not just any fire, but τὸ (article) αἰώνιον (adjective) – “the eternal one.” In essence, what this Scripture is making clear is that unlike all the fires that die out and/or are eventually put out, this fire that the wicked will be cast into, with the Devil and his angels, is itself eternal. This is not dealing with the consequences or results. The fire itself is of an eternal nature meant to burn for eternity. Despite what some opponents may say about this, this carries huge implications. Because what Jesus is saying that we will be cast into the fire, the eternal one, when we are judged. And here is the kicker. The eternal punishment mentioned in verse 46 sits within the context of this eternal fire that awaits us. This means that the fire that burns forever dictates how eternal punishment in this context is to be understood. No linguistic tricks attached. Even though the word “punishment” by itself can ambiguously represent the result of it dished out, in this particular text, it clearly illustrates that the punishment will be itself eternal. And that the fire, which burns eternally, will be the instrument used to carry out the sentence.

But wait there’s more!

In Matthew 18:8, Jesus uses this same Greek construction (article-noun-article-adjective) to illustrate our reaction toward sin. He says:

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”

This is what it looks like in the Greek.

εἰ δὲ χείρ σου πούς σου σκανδαλίζει σε ἔκκοψον αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ καλόν σοί ἐστιν εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν ζωὴν κυλλὸν χωλόν δύο χεῖρας δύο πόδας ἔχοντα βληθῆναι εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον

Look familiar? It should. It is as Matthew 25 says, “the fire, the eternal one.” And Jesus not only says that the fire is itself eternal, but he parallels this with the next verse by saying:

“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Another way to put this verse is fiery hell. The word hell used here is “Gehenna” which is the book of Revelation equivalent to the lake of fire. And Jesus spoke about Gehenna differently throughout the gospels then He did about Hades, which just generally meant the place of the dead. But CI and annihilationists want you to believe that this fire is not going to burn those in it forever, but that they will eventually be consumed. However, in this Scripture, Jesus semantically links the two – Gehenna and “the fire, the eternal one” – equally to make His point about what will happen to those who don’t take sin seriously and are not born again.

Hang in there, although I can go on, there is only one more thing I want to show you.

Just like in Matthew 18 where Jesus parabolically encourages you to slice your hand off in comparison to being thrown in hell, Mark 9:43 provides a parallel passage that describes the same teaching. But notice how the eternal fire is mentioned here.

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

Here is how it looks in the Greek:

kαὶ ἐὰν σκανδαλίζῃ σε χείρ σου ἀπόκοψον αὐτήν καλόν ἐστίν σε κυλλὸν εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν ζωὴν τὰς δύο χεῖρας ἔχοντα ἀπελθεῖν εἰς τὴν γέενναν εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ ἄσβεστον

Do you notice something familiar about this verse? I bolded it for you so you can recognize it. Do you recognize the grammar/construction? You should. It is the art-noun-art-adj construction we’ve been talking about. Except we have a new word introduced. It is ἄσβεστον (asbeston) which means to be “unquenchable” in English. And it is only used three times in the New Testament (Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:17). It literally means that it cannot be extinguished, put out, or die out. In essence, what this verse is saying is people will go “into Gehenna, into the fire, the unquenchable (inextinguishable) one.” It’s a bit awkward sounding in English, but Gehenna, fire, and eternal burning are all interconnected ideas.

The proponents of CI like to say that unquenchable means that the fire can’t be “put out,” not that it won’t “die out.” This is a subtle nuance, and I find it manipulative and trite. But it is a nuance nevertheless. The difference is illustrated by knowing when I light a fire, it will either die out on its own, or I can snuff it out, extinguish it, or quench it with my fingers, water, blowing it out, etc. This isn’t an entirely bad case to make, because God’s eternal wrath cannot be quenched against those who are His enemies (except by atonement). The difference is that conditionalists believe that this only means that the fire will not be quenched until it has entirely consumed the wicked. In other words, it can’t be put out until it has finished consuming. But as we already learned from these other passages above, the fire itself is indeed eternal. So whether it cannot be extinguished or put out or die out, really makes no difference seeing that the fire will burn perpetually. Even if it meant that it can’t be “put out,” the point is the fire will not stop burning, ever! But perhaps the Scripture means what it has always meant for the majority who read it, and the Greek scholars who interpret it. That is, the fire burns forever because those in that place of punishment, as Matthew 25 implies, are there forever. Unquenchable means it can’t be put out, extinguished, or die out because God is the only one who can do it! And even if it is taken from Isaiah 66, and various other passages in the Old Testament that have similar semantic value, it does not negate Jesus’ exegesis that the fire will remain and so will those who are in it.

Although more could be said, for the sake of brevity, I will close with this. In a future article, I will deal with “unquenchable” fire and arguments that proponents of CI and annihilationists make to justify their reasoning as to why the fire is a “consuming” fire and not an eternal one. But for now, ponder the grammatical construction and think about how the fire could burn for eternity, and yet there will be nothing left to burn? A predictable rebuttal will be that God Himself is a (or The) consuming fire. I agree. But that is not what the Greek is implying. This fire resides within the “place” where the Devil, his angels, and all those who are wicked will go. It is its own fire. It is categorically different than other fires that burn. That is what the grammar reveals. Of course, it is a fire that comes from God, is kindled by God, and can only be put out by God. And, It is God administering the punishment, and it is God who is present within the fire. But if the persons are eventually consumed, why would the wrathful anger of God burn forever against an enemy that no longer remains? Therefore, the fire cannot be simply from God, because the implications are not as simple to deal with, and the grammar doesn’t point in that direction.

-Until we go home

*For more information on Greek grammar, I recommend getting a copy of Dan Wallace’s book “Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics” which verifies this grammar and many other constructions.