Eschatological Confusion!

A Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith 

Chapter Twenty-Six – Downgrade Trends in Contemporary Evangelical Eschatology

Wrapping up a discussion of eschatology and this book we consider three rather disturbing views that have become increasingly more prominent in recent years. Specifically we are referring to the denial of a literal return of Christ, Annihilationism, and the non-necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation.

The first, the denial of a literal return of Christ view, holds that all of the references to the return of Christ in the New Testament were fulfilled by 70 A.D. As such, there will be no future, literal return of Christ and that for which the world now awaits is the emergence of the “kingdom of God” as the earth population is gradually Christianized. This view is not only contrary to explicit and implicit teachings throughout scripture, it also leaves numerous biblical questions unanswered – man’s glorification, the final overthrow of death, and others – and leaves human history with no effective conclusion.

The next position is that which understands the “eternal punishment” of the unrepentant as annihilation – “total non-being” – as opposed to eternal conscious torment. It seems the most common motive for such a construction being applied to what appears to be the clear teaching of Rev. 14:9-11 (and others) is the notion that the latter is unethical and would serve to besmirch the character of God. While this is an ostensibly noble sentiment on the one hand, on the other it violates the understanding of Scripture as “our only rule of faith for the doctrine of hell”, which clearly does not permit such a teaching. The most notable proponent of annihilationism is the esteemed John R. W. Stott who presents four arguments for this view. First, he holds that scriptural language, specifically the term “destruction”, indicates that the unrepentant are to be destroyed to non-existence. The Old and New Testaments alike affirm the divergent destinies of the faithful and the unfaithful. In the Old Testament we see the example of the mercy shown righteous Lot over against the destruction shown Sodom (Gen. 19:16), and later those cities “devoted to destruction” by Israel (Deut. 2:34; 3:3, 6). Explicit teachings in Isa. 66:22-24 and Dan. 12:2 speak of the “everlastingness” of the punishment of the ungodly. Likewise, the New Testament is also littered with this teaching. In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist proclaims that the chaff will be consumed with “unquenchable fire”. The annihilationist presses here the term “consumed”, arguing that it should be understood as destruction to non-existence. This however fails to explain why the fire would then need to be described as “unquenchable”. [Aside: This argument by the eternal torment camp does not necessarily follow. While I do not hold the annihilation position, could it not mean, a fire that cannot be extinguished once begun for the judgment and annihilation of the impenitent? In other words, once the sentence is past, it is too late to then repent and receive a stay of the sentence of execution which will inexorably be carried out.]

Jesus, more than any other in the New Testament teaches this idea of eternal torment, “where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43), “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” Mark 9: 47-48), “where there will be (conscious torment implied by) weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12) [Aside: Non-existent beings do not “weep” or “gnash”]. He also implies degrees of punishment in Matt. 10:15 when he announces that “it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” Such varying degrees of punishment seem an impossibility if the punishment of all is annihilation. He also explicitly draws the distinction between the destinies of the righteous and unrighteous, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment (kolasin) but the righteous to eternal life.” This Greek word, kolasin, no where in Scripture is understood to mean annihilation but rather punishment as translated here. Another telling implication is Jesus’ cursing of Judas – “woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). If the final state of the unrepentant is non-existence, how does that differ, much less be considered worse than, never having been born? In addition to Christ’s teaching, we see also that the demons hold to the eternal torment understanding as well (Matt. 8:29).

Likewise, the apostles take up the same teaching though annihilationists toy with some of their words to press their conclusions upon them. For example, Paul says, “Destruction will come upon them suddenly…” (1 Thess. 5:3). Here the annihilationist interprets “suddenly” as implying a swift execution of the sentence to non-existence. Rather, it seems more consistent to interpret this not as Paul attempting to describe the nature the end of the judgment but rather the rapid unexpectedness of its initiation. Then, in 2 Thess. 1:9, he announces that “They (the ungodly) will be punished with an everlasting destruction [olethron aionion]…” The phrase “everlasting destruction” is once again used by the annihilationist to press the idea of non-existence. Certainly it is not impossible to understand how this interpretation could be applied to this phrase. However, are we to assume Paul supported a contrary and less severe teaching than Christ? Further, the latter half of the verse, “…and shut out from the presence of the Lord”, is unnecessary if Paul had non-existence in view.

Summarizing the teachings of the other New Testament writers, we find that James notes “[The tongue is] a fire…” (3:6). He does not say it is annihilated by having been “set on fire by hell”, but rather that it “is a fire [which] sets the entire course of life on fire.” The author of Hebrews notes that “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (italics added). Peter teaches that the unrepentant find themselves “in chains of blackness, consigned to Tartarus” (2 Pet. 2:4), which is the classical word for the place of eternal punishment. Jude notes, “the justice of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Finally, John explicitly proclaims that “[t]he devil, who deceived [the nations], was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Rev. 20:20). Stott posits that the beast and false prophet are symbolic of worldly opposition to God and thus cannot experience pain, eternal or otherwise. This argument does nothing to explain away the lot of the devil, who is in fact a person. It also fails to satisfactorily explain all of the people hostile to God represented by the symbols of the beast and false prophet. Indeed, according to John the same fate awaits the impenitent as the devil himself (Rev. 20:12-15).

The next point in Stott’s anti-eternal torment arsenal is what he labels the scriptural imagery argument. [Aside: Just for the record, I LOVE John Stott. His “The Cross of Christ” is already a classic and has got to be one of the best books ever written on the subject.] In this argument Stott argues that the primary purpose of fire is not torment but destruction. There is some degree of logic in this position and it could be compelling save for the fact that it would cause us to undermine and contradict the plain teaching of scripture that the punishment of the impenitent is everlasting.

The third argument Stott proffers in support of annihilationism is that of his concept of scriptural divine justice. In this he insists that God’s judgments, being perfectly just, cannot exceed the evil done by sins committed in this life. There are three glaring inconsistencies with this position. First, if one argues that eternal torment would exceed in its severity the measure of evil done and thereby be unjustly harsh, then we must also consider that annihilation too is eternal. Therefore, God would be equally unjust by this means of punishment as well. Second, it is not simply the sins done in this life – the chief of which was a lifetime of rejecting God’s own Son – but also the fact that those separated from the favor of God for eternity, having not the gift of repentance, will continue, day-in day-out, to reject him for all eternity, thereby constantly, consistently, repetitively and eternally sealing there own doom in defiant disobedience. Thirdly, even the very first sin by our first parents was of such infinitely negative demerit against an infinitely holy God that had no one after out first parents ever actually sinned on their own (an impossibility) the judgment would remain the same. This idea is very well-said by Thomas Aquinas:

The magnitude of punishment matches the magnitude of sin…Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin – it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen – and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against him.

Finally is Stott’s scriptural universalism argument. He holds that the apparent universalistic texts (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20; Phil. 2:10-11; 1 Cor. 15:28) are more easily reconciled if interpreted in terms of destruction of the adjudged impenitent rather than continuing, eternal torment. While Stott is not a soteric universalist it may be said here that the Universalist does appear more consistent in his theology at this point than he. In the universalistic understanding of soteriology, “Christ remains on the Cross so long as one sinner remains in hell.” If one appeals to the supposed universalistic texts in this way there is no exegetical basis by which one may stop short of the final, universalistic salvation of all.

Understanding the gospel outside of a doctrine of eternal torment, in an earnest but misguided attempt to vindicate God’s mercy, justice and love, only serves to lessen the glory he receives in Christ’s cross work. If Christ bore my “eternal punishment” on the cross, and that being defined ultimately as annihilation, would not Christ have had to, if even for a short-time, experience non-existence? Further, if annihilation is in view in scripture and this is ultimately no worse than having “not been born”, wherein lies the urgency of the gospel message?

Another disturbing trend in modern eschatology is the notion that a conscious faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ is not necessary to effect salvation. Under this heading three positions have been taken. First, there are those such a Clark Pinnock who teach that there are people saved from all religions (or no religion) even without knowledge of Christ. Second, those who agree with Millard Erickson, assert that salvation is only through Christ as the only Savior of men but that it is not necessary that they realize this fact as they can come to an understanding of the need for salvation by the light of nature and cast themselves on God’s mercy for salvation. Finally, John Stott is a proponent of the agnostic position in this regard. While he firmly holds that those outside of Christ are indeed lost, specifically as to those who have never heard of Christ he pleads ignorance stating that on this topic scripture is silent.

The foregoing positions are soundly refuted. As for salvation by natural revelation alone, Scripture clearly teaches that while we can know something of God and his character through his creation it is insufficient for the salvation of men, hence the necessity of special revelation. Paul conclusively teaches us in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23), “[t]here is no one righteous, not even one” (3:9-10) and that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23), and that though all are made aware of God through his eternal power and divine nature (1:19-20) they are not thankful to him or glorify him as God (1:21) but continue in their sin and idolatry (1:23). John concurs with Paul in stating that the people of this world love darkness and hate the light of the gospel (John 3:19-20). It is not nature that sheds light on man’s need for salvation but rather, along with the law “written on their hearts”, their consciences are convicted (Rom. 2:14-15) by the light of scripture. Those holding to the non-necessity of conscious belief in Christ for salvation, as is the modus operandi of so much error, is an unnecessary effort to shield God from negative press. Instead, what they do is violate and destroy the gospel. The wonder of salvation is not that many are left in their sins and destined to eternal destruction but that we are not ALL, precisely as we deserve, universally destined to this same fate. Said another way, the miracle of God’s grace in salvation is not that some are saved but that ANY are saved.

In agreement with Stott, it is rightly understood that Scriptures’ teaching is that Christ is the only Savior of men (John 14:6; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 4:12; 1 John 5:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). Stott’s agnosticism in this area however is inconsistent with Paul’s clear teaching: “How, then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:13-15). Also he states that “[a]ll who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law” (Rom. 2:12). Paul here proves the idea that special revelation is not the precondition of sin – for many have sinned without the written law (recall, it is written on their hearts). That it can be a difficult consideration from our mundane perspective does not excuse a plea of ignorance in light of clear and explicit instruction.

Another argument in this vain is the notion that the salvation of the Old Testament saints was apart from a conscious faith in Christ. This is a faulty conclusion based on a false premise. As detailed in a previous chapter, while they would not have been aware of many of the details of Christ of which we are now privy, they eagerly anticipated, as pictured in their sacrificial system, the coming of the Messiah who would die in their place for their salvation. Also appealing to the Old Testament are those who claim that there were those saved who held to pagan faiths, namely, Melchizedek, Job, Jethro, Naaman, and in the New Testament, the eastern Magi and Cornelius. In each of these cases this position errs. Abraham identified Melchizedek as the priest of the “most high God, owner of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:22). Job was also a worshipper of Yahweh (Job 1:21) as was Jethro (Exod. 18:8-12) and Naaman (2 Kings 5:15-18). While it is true that the Magi in Matthew chapter 2 were likely pagan astronomers, after they observed the “special star” they devoted themselves to finding and worshiping the “king of the Jews” (2:2, 10-12). There are those then that appeal to Luke’s account of Cornelius in Acts as the “poster-pagan” of salvation apart from Christ asserting that his description as a “devout [eusebes] and God-fearing man” who “gave generously to those in need and who prayed to God regularly” (10:2), that God had made him “clean” (10:15) and that “God does not show favoritism but accepts men in every nation who fear him and do what is right” (10:34-35) as proof-positive that he was saved prior to any knowledge of Christ. There are no less than three reasons these statements should not be construed as indicating the salvation of Cornelius. First, Peter exhorts other “devout [eusebus] men” (2:5) to repent and receive forgiveness of sins (2:38; see also 3:19; 13:38-39), which is unnecessary were this phrase necessarily defined as already saved. Second, Peter explicitly explains in his recounting of the event that Cornelius was told that “he [Peter] will declare to you a message by which you will be saved” (11:14, italics added). Third, in response to Peter’s report, the Jerusalem Christians came to the understanding that the Gentiles too are called to repentance and faith in Christ unto salvation without which salvation is not possible (11:18). The “proof” texts noted are not describing Cornelius as a “saved” man prior to Peter’s proclamation of the gospel to him, rather, they simply indicate that in the sight of the Jews he (and other Gentiles) should no longer be considered ceremonially unclean and thus were eligible for evangelism (see the remaining description of Peter’s vision in chapter 11). Cornelius then is not the “pagan saint par excellence” as supposed by Pinnock, but rather evidence of God’s unsaved elect in every nation.

Finally, is the idea, also foisted upon us by such as Pinnock, that salvation is by “[f]aith in God” and not the possession of some “certain minimum information”. This understanding however is quite foreign to scripture itself. Man is not called to a blind, undirected, nebulous faith. The object of the faith must be the One True and Holy God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not faith that saves. It is not even faith in Christ that saves. Rather it is the person of Christ who saves through the instrument of faith (Eph. 2:8). [Aside: I have heard this concept explained: It is not the fork that nourishes one’s body, but rather the instrument through which one is nourished by the food. Faith is the fork, Christ the food that nourishes our souls.]

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