A friend asked me to comment on J C Lamont’s recent screed, Annihilation versus Eternal Torment: What Does the Bible Really Teach? Ordinarily I wouldn’t interact with such lowbrow work; one should go after the strongest representation of an argument. But this is what he asked me to comment on, so I am.
Having assessed annihilationism in the past, my summary would be that it is linguistically incompetent. At first blush it seems plausible; but the deeper you dig the more you notice how it fumbles the use of language. There’s a woodenness, a lack of finesse, in the annihilationist exegetical arguments. Lamont’s piece certainly does nothing to overturn my impression.
It’s also ironic that annihilationists are often at pains—in my experience—to present their case as exegetically-driven, rather than emotional. But then you get people like Lamont tipping their hands (or perhaps wringing them) by breathlessly claiming that the very character of God is at stake.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise given how tendentiously she frames the debate from the beginning. Traditionalists, following the Bible, don’t view hell as a “torture chamber”. We don’t get our theology from Dante’s Inferno. Lamont should know that.
Anyway, on to her points, which I shall number as they appear in her article. For brevity, I won’t quote her.
A. Annihilation as the traditional Jewish view
Lamont ambitiously sets out to show that annihilationism is actually not a fringe heresy; indeed, its pedigree is as nothing less than the standard Jewish (and then early Christian) view. She offers the following evidence:
1. Ezekiel 18
(a) What warrant is there to say that “death” here cannot be physical? Lamont just asserts it. But Ezekiel is addressed to a people in exile who were already suffering immediate judgment from God; additional punishment via physical death was a serious possibility. Moreover, Ezekiel 18 canvases prior OT laws which frequently cite capital punishment as the penalty for sin. So it is grossly unjustified to assume that the death in view here cannot be physical.
(b) Even if physical death is not in view, Lamont flagrantly begs the question against the traditionalist by presupposing the very thing she needs to argue for: namely, that “death” with respect to the soul means annihilation! It’s not as if traditionalists haven’t heard of the second death.
(c) Apropos (b), the traditionalist understanding makes far better sense of death as described in the Bible. Annihilationists seem to start with the characteristics of physical death, and try to reason out from there that death = destruction. Traditionalists start with how the Bible first talks about death in Genesis 2:17, and follow the text straightforwardly on that point to say that Adam and Eve actually did die “on the day” they ate the fruit—because death is not primarily a physical term, but a term of separation from life, and judgment for sin. This in turn produces physical death.
2. Rosh Hashanah
(a) Let me quote Semitics scholar Michael S. Heiser on the Talmud in another context:
Basically, the Talmud and similar rabbinic material is the LAST place you’d want to go to do exegesis in the Hebrew Bible. It’s really a compendium of speculation and not much more. If you think “the rabbis” were busy doing careful exegesis of the OT in its original context, you’re sadly mistaken. They were interpreting the OT in light of their own community’s (better, communities’) religious arguments. They had no access to the comparative material so crucial today for getting back to the Hebrew Bible’s true context — the context that produced it (i.e., the ancient Near Eastern world). The Talmud is sort of like listening to celebrity Christian mega-pastors — you’ll occasionally come across a valuable insight and be entertained a bit, but most of the time you’re thinking, “What are these guys on?”
(b) The Talmud is part of the rabbinical teaching that Jesus repeatedly condemned as the tradition which had made void the word of God (Mark 7:13; Titus 1:14 etc). So as pedigrees go, that’s not a great start.
(c) Not only this, but citing Rosh Hashanah 17a immediately bites Lamont in the proverbial. Remember, she is saying that this represents a respectable, mainstream view in Judaism—one the New Testament presupposes. But does she think that wrongdoers of Israel, and Gentile sinners, upon death, physically “go down to Gehinnom [ie hell] and are punished there for twelve months”? No? Does she think that “after twelve months their body is consumed and their soul is burnt and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous”? Does she think souls can be burnt? Or that we are walking about on their ashes? No? How about that sinners like Jeroboam “will go down to Gehinnom and be punished there for all generations … Gehinnom will be consumed but they will not be consumed, as it says, and their form shall wear away the nether world”? Well she certainly doesn’t believe that because it is the traditional view of hell! So even if Rosh Hashanah 17a wasn’t about as useful as the Book of Mormon, at best it supports both views.
3. New Testament references
(a) Citing “perish” in John 3:16 is just as question-begging as citing “death” in Ezekiel 18. You don’t get to assume that dying entails complete destruction when that is the exact point in dispute. As I’ve already said, the biblical view of death is far broader and more nuanced.
(b) Jesus couldn’t do a “horrible job” of trying to get the Jews to see the error of their ways in Matthew 10:28 if, in fact, their prevailing view of hell was not annihilation. Since the only evidence Lamont has offered for this is either question-begging or equivocal, her claim is overblown to say the least.
(c) It is rather incredible to think that the Jews all believed in annihilationism when they not only had passages like Daniel 12:2 and Isaiah 66:24, which certainly seem to speak in never-ending terms; but also Second Temple literature written shortly before the time of Jesus which makes comments like these:
Woe to the nations that rise against my people! The Lord Almighty will requite them; in the day of judgment he will punish them: he will send fire and worms into their flesh, and they will weep and suffer forever. Judith 16:17, NABRE
And the Lord said unto Michael: ‘Go, bind Semjaza and his associates who have united themselves with women so as to have defiled themselves with them in all their uncleanness. And when their sons have slain one another, and they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgement and of their consummation, till the judgement that is for ever and ever is consummated. In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire: and to the torment and the prison in which they shall be confined for ever. And whosoever shall be condemned and destroyed will from thenceforth be bound together with them to the end of all generations. 1 Enoch 10:12-15 (H.R. Charles Oxford: The Clarendon Press)
B. Greek belief in the immortal soul & unending punishment
Here Lamont seems to borrow a page from the Open Theist Cookbook by implying that traditionalist doctrine actually derives from pagan mythology about Hades. This becomes clear in section D, where she asserts, without argumentation or citation, that it was this pagan influence which led an initially annihilationist church to embrace the doctrine of eternal hell. Talk about revisionism.
Needless to say, if the Bible itself teaches an immortal soul and unending punishment, and if Second Temple literature taught it, and if Jesus’ Jewish audience presupposed it when he told the parable about the rich man and Lazarus where he explicitly stated that the rich man was “in torment in Hades” (Luke 19:23), which is the Greek underworld, then this supposed wedge between Greek mythology and biblical theology disintegrates. Jesus felt quite free to draw on Greek mythological terms like Hades to express Jewish theological truths.
C. Manhandling Greek
Here we get to the main issue with annihilationism: how to understand key terms in other languages. Much of the debate revolves around the Greek term aionios, usually translated “eternal”, and this is where Lamont goes. Let’s ignore the fact that she—a supposed student of Koine Greek—grossly misspells it, and move on to assessing her arguments…
Roman emperors described as eternal
(a) Without any actual citations to back up her claims, it’s really impossible to comment about this. But in light of the Imperial cult, it strikes me as very implausible that Roman emperors would be called “eternal” only in the sense that their human reign lasted for as long as they lived. Julius Caesar was called “god and savior”, and seemed to inherit the idea of divine monarchy from his ties to Cleopatra of Egypt. Domitian demanded his subjects call him their “lord and god”. I’m not familiar enough with Roman religion, and its development after Julius Caesar, to say for certain that the emperor was viewed as an immortal deity himself, or merely as an avatar of one, or as a semi-divine but mortal descendant (or all three, depending on time period). But on the face of it, this is a pretty obvious objection that a self-styled historical apologist should anticipate.
(b) Let’s suppose Lamont is right, and that aionios can refer to something “unceasing until the end”, rather than an unending age. How does this prove anything at all about the way it is used in the Bible? To emphasize one possible meaning of a word in another context, and then to juxtapose it against the traditional translation of key biblical passages, is just a ham-fisted semantic fallacy. Aionios has a semantic range far broader than Lamont lets on, and frankly her “argumentation” here just comes across as underhanded.
(c) Let’s see how her new translation of aionios fares in Matthew 25:45-46, where the adjectival form aionion is used twice:
Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into punishment without ceasing until the end, but the righteous into life without ceasing until the end.”
Or how about Daniel 12:2 in the LXX:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to life without ceasing until the end, and some to shame and contempt without ceasing until the end.
Oh, you think that wrecks the obvious meaning of the text? You want the eternal life to actually be unending? Yeah, so do I. In which case, by parity of meaning, so must be the eternal shame, contempt, and punishment.
Dead Sea Scrolls
(a) Let’s assume 1QS 4.11-14 means what it seems to say. What does Lamont think the idiosyncratic beliefs of a fringe Jewish sect prove? Does she also think that the Sadducees denying the resurrection is significant for our belief in that? So why should the Essenes denying the eternality of hell be of any significance?
(b) You might think I’m missing the point, which is that Lamont is actually illustrating from this passage how the term “unending” is compatible in ancient thought with final destruction. But I’m not, because her argument is from the Greek word aionios. But 1QS 4 is written in Hebrew. So that argument fails immediately.
(c) I don’t have any problem acknowledging that one can speak, poetically, of “eternal” shame that nonetheless ends in destruction. The question is whether the Bible is speaking that way. And if it is, what hope do we have in our “eternal” life?
D. Combating universalism
Having constructed—unfortunately only in her fevered imagination—a clear proof that the Jews and early church were all annihilationists, Lamont goes on to explain how this got distorted into the doctrine of hell in response to universalism. I’m really not qualified to speak on this matter, since I am not a historical theologian; moreover, it is pointless to comment on how such a transition might have happened when the case for the early church believing in annihilationism to begin with is so comically weak.