A Discussion of Individual Eschatology – Part 1 of 4

This is part one of a series on the various Christian doctrines of the afterlife. You can find this in video form (with PowerPoint slides) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOKE70TxluM&list=PL9Ul79w-MZ05tfZiHYSkW9inwEiwTin_1

I grew up from about age 5 in an evangelical church environment, and I don’t think it’s possible for any good evangelical to not know all about heaven versus hell, and streets of gold versus fire and brimstone, and to vigorously defend those concepts and then use them to convince people to repent and believe to avoid eternal punishment. But those views are not universal to Christianity, and I just began to realize this in the last couple years. So I’m writing these posts to provide some awareness of the alternatives, and to discuss the doctrinal positions which I believe are probably more correct.

A central feature to Christian soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, among other things addresses the existence and nature of “hell.” The most important feature is probably what happens to a human soul upon the death of the body.

The three primary doctrines describing the fate of man after death are

  1. Annihilationism or “conditional immortality” or “conditionalism” – such that the wicked will be annihilated and fully cease to exist – or, that they won’t be given eternal life like the faithful;
  2. Eternal conscious torment (ECT) – all souls are immortal, but the wicked will remain forever conscious while being punished in hell in a form of eternal “living death;” this is sometimes called “Infernalism;”
  3. Universal salvation or universal reconciliation (“universal reconciliation”) – there are several variants of this belief, but all essentially understand that every soul is eternal and will be eventually saved over the course of eternity, even if they do not make such a choice before physical death.

So let’s start with

1) Annihilationism

From the Theology In The Raw website https://theologyintheraw.com/biblical-support-for-annihilation/

There are many passages in the NT that talk about the fate of the wicked, and use language that suggests finality, such as:

  • “Destruction” or “perish” (Greek: apoleia or olethros): Matt 7:13 / John 3:16 / John 17:12 / Acts 8:20 / Rom 9:22-23 / Phil 1:28 / Phil 3:19 / 2 Thessalonians 2:3 / 1 Tim 6:9 / Heb 10:39 / 2 Pet 2:1 / 1 Thessalonians 5:3 / 2 Thessalonians 1:9 / 1 Tim 6:9
  • “Death” (Greek: thanatos or apothnesko): Rom 1:32 / Rom 6:21 / Rom 7:5 / Rom 8:6 / 1 Cor 15:21-22 / 1 Cor 15:56 / 2 Cor 2:16 / 2 Cor 7:10 / James 1:15 / James 5:20 / 1 John 5:16 / Rev 2:11 / Rev 20:6 / Rev 20:14 / Rev 21:8
  • “End” (Greek: telos): Rom 6:21-22 / 2 Cor 11:15 / Phil 3:19 / 1 Pet 4:17
  • “Disintegration/corruption” (Greek: phthora): Gal 6:8 / 2 Pet 1:4 / 2 Pet 2:12

There are also many other images that would also suggest the cessation of life for the wicked, such as:

  • burned up chaff, trees, weeds, branches: Matt 3:12 / Matt 7:19 / Matt 13:40 / John 15:6
  • a destroyed house, discarded fish, uprooted plant, chopped down tree: Matt 7:27 / Matt 13:48 / Matt 15:13 / Luke 13:7
  • the Day of Judgment is compared to OT examples of the flood, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife turned into salt: Luke 17:27-32
  • wicked compared to ground up powder or cut to pieces: Matt 21:41 / Matt 21:44 / Matt 24:51

From the Never Thirsty website, https://www.neverthirsty.org/bible-qa/qa-archives/question/what-does-bible-say-about-annihilationism/

Wayne Grudem summarizes annihilationism as follows: “Arguments advanced in favor of annihilationism are:

  • the biblical references to the destruction of the wicked, which, some say, implies that they will no longer exist after they are destroyed (Phil. 3:19 / 1 Thess. 5:3 / 2 Thess. 1:9 / 2 Peter 3:7)
  • the apparent inconsistency of eternal conscious punishment with the love of God;
  • the apparent injustice involved in the disproportion between sins committed in time and punishment that is eternal; and
  • the fact that the continuing presence of evil creatures in God’s universe will eternally mar the perfection of a universe that God created to reflect His glory.”

Malachi 4:1 says:

For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

This language is annihilationist; chaff does not persist in a fire forever, or even for very long, and the verse talks of the destruction of root and branch, not an eternal presence in the fire. The fire is persistent, but the things that enter the fire are necessarily consumed. So it is the FIRE that is permanent, not the things (or the people) who enter the fire. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) – and if God is eternal, so is that fire. But that does not imply that those who enter the fire are there f orever – for things are only consumed if they do not continue to exist.

Malachi 4:1, by the way, is also used to support universalism, from the perspective that anything burnable will be burned away by the fire, but the things that are good (including the image of God in every human) will be purified, not destroyed. Thus the fire becomes a purifying agent to the soul, not a destructive agent.

John 3:16 itself could support the idea of annihilationism, in that it says that “whosoever believes” in Jesus will inherit eternal life – which is not necessarily the opposite of eternal torment. Early interpreters may have understood this to mean that they would not have any eternal form unless they believed in Jesus. The idea that the opposite would be eternal conscious torment would have been an odd idea to first century believers who did not generally believe that a person would exist in any meaningfully conscious state after death.

My response to annihilationism

Aside from my preferred position of universal salvation/reconciliation, this is perhaps the most closely aligned with the clear (even in the Greek) language in the Bible. Many verses imply that eternal life is a gift (which does NOT say that eternal living tormented death is the absolutely necessary alternative), and this also implies that failure to trust in God results in a failure to become immortal. This is a nearly-compelling line of thinking.

However, the fundamental problem I see with the annihilationism perspective is the number of verses that describe God as unwilling that ANY should perish, and that just as in Adam ALL sinned, ALL will be saved by Jesus’ work on the cross. Not “all who agree with a certain doctrine;” ALL, period.

As an aside, if an evangelical inerrantist (who would also traditionally insist that annihilationism is heretical) is willing to assert a level of omnipotence such that God was capable of either (a) engineering human thinking, or (b) setting up circumstances such that humans would arrive at exactly the right words, such that the Bible was perfectly written, then it’s hardly a stretch to also allow that God would be able to do the same for not losing any of the “all” that Christ saved. So I see opposition to that concept as dogmatic, not necessary from the Biblical principles.

2) Eternal Conscious Torment

Or ECT, The Gospel Coalition website has a good summary of the ECT arguments.


ECT apologists point to the phrase “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43 and 9:48) as justification for believing that “hell” is eternal.

However, taking that verse in isolation, the fact that a fire is unquenchable does not mean that any soul will remain in that fire for eternity. Many universalist apologists assert that God, being eternal, and being identified many times in the Bible as a holy fire, especially a purifying fire, is naturally unquenchable, and that nature will never change. But something that is purified is affected only until the purification is complete, even if the fire continues after that purification. This reasoning is similar to annihilationism, in that the eternal fire has temporal consequences; the difference is seeing the fire as consuming versus purifying.

Mark 9:48 includes Jesus quoting Isa 66:24 and includes this section of God talking: “Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.

However, the problem with an ECT interpretation of this verse in isolation is that it ignores the preceding verse, Isa 66:23, which specifically says that “all mankind” will come and bow down before God, and THEN they will go forth and look on the corpses. If all mankind is looking on, how are some men not part of the “all flesh” (which is a very unambiguous “all” in the Hebrew)? Also, it’s identifying in verse 48 that the BODIES will be eaten by worms and burned by fire – not the eternal souls of those men. Thus, it seems to be a choice of interpretation.

The majority of the points raised in that Gospel Coalition article collapse back to this pair of ideas: the fire is unquenchable, and God uses fire to destroy or punish the wicked. The “destroy” part has been addressed above, and an ECT apologist would reject the annihilationist interpretation that “destroy” means that unbelievers stop suffering after being destroyed. Thus they inherently argue against a complete acceptance of the scriptures.

Also important to ECT is Matt 25:31-46, the idea of “final separation” at the last judgement. This asserts finality based on the concept of “eternal,” which hinges on the Greek word aionion, the origin of the English word “eon.”

However, this Greek word has been firmly established by numerous trustworthy scholars as clearly having a wide range of meanings, from simply “the period of time that is assigned” to “ages” to “age upon age.” It can mean “world” or “the length of a man’s life” or “for a very long time of unknown length” or “permanently.” From what I understand, choosing the interpretation “eternal” or “forever” as it applies to ECT in our modern understanding is a recent change to doctrine on the 2000-year time frame of Christian thinking.

The Eclectic Orthodoxy blog presents a VERY thorough analysis of the meaning of the Greek word usually translated “eternity” and its understanding during Christian history:


The Tentmaker website also has a good discussion of aionion:


Many other such resources exist.

ECT apologists also assert that the annihilationist concept of destruction is overapplied – one does not assert that a crashed automobile ceases to exist, but it is nonetheless called “destroyed.” Rather, it means ruined or lost.

I personally find this to be a weak argument; it asserts a dogmatic position that the soul is not destroyed but is punished forever.

My response to ECT

The majority of the ECT apologism hinges on a strictly literal reading OF A PARTICULAR DOCTRINAL CHOICE OF TRANSLATION. If you don’t dig into what Greek/Jewish thinking lies behind the word often translated “forever” or “eternal” and how the original languages were used and meant by those who wrote the scriptures, it’s easy to get “eternal” as the simple and easy translation of anything to do with hell.

There’s actually a large overlap in those who believe in ECT and those who would assert that the King James Version is the only entirely correct Bible. All the doctrinal questions were, in their mind, settled hundreds of years ago. But this view ignores the scholarship that looks at the cultural context, including extrabiblical writings where the same words are used, and the vastly larger body of literature from antiquity and even older copies of the various scriptures that are available today. It also ignores the simple fact that the people closest to the time of writing held very different views than the traditional Evangelical idea of ECT. Presumably, those closer to the writing understood the language far better than us, and their doctrinal assertions ought to strongly inform ours.

An Aside: The concept of Hell

Furthermore, I find that the place targeted by ECT apologists for that eternal punishment incorrectly conflates four dramatically different Greek and Hebrew concepts: Tartarus, Sheol, Hades, Gehinnom/Gehenna, and together with a misreading of “aionion” as “forever and ever and eternally without end,” tries to fuse them into a single concept. It assumes that the uses of those four words describe the same location, while in truth those who used them would be utterly shocked by such an assertion. The words are used for specific meanings, and conflating them not only abuses the scripture, but conceals much of the intended meaning.

  • Tartarus is taken directly from Greek mythology and is an entirely extra-Biblical concept, coming from a polytheistic understanding of a realm managed by the gods for punishing their enemies. And in fact, its only Biblical use in 2 Peter 2:4 identifies Tartarus as a place for rebellious angels, saying nothing at all about punishing men. The conflation with human punishment comes from other verses, especially in Revelation’s description of angels and humans being cast into a fiery pit.
  • Sheol is the Hebrew shadowy abode of the dead – not at all a place of punishment, but merely one of grey uneventful afterlife where nothing ever happened, and both good and evil humans ended up. It was neither punishment nor reward. This concept persisted until shortly before Jesus’ time, when Jewish thinkers began to wonder about the lack of any post-life punishment of evil.
  • Hades is simply a Greek version of Sheol; the concepts were very similar between the two cultures. The underworld referred to by the Greeks as Hades was a concept directly from their mythology, an abode of the dead ruled by (naturally) the god Hades himself. As with Sheol, it was a place for both good and evil dead, there being no distinction in their fates. As with Sheol, those in Hades were barely aware, and were called “shades” in the sense of being mere shadows, longing aimlessly for any return to sensation, with no corporeality and certainly unable to be punished by fire or torture. The Odyssey story of Odysseus’ descent into the underworld and much other period literature often discusses those languishing in Hades, and in most cases sounds very little like the evangelical concept of hell. The Hebrew New Testament writers, speaking and writing mostly in Greek, used this comparable term instead of Sheol, as the two concepts were similar enough to convey the same understanding in their readers.
  • Gehenna or Ge Hinnom (Hebrew for the Valley of Hinnom) was a real geographical location that was known to Jewish people as a place of both fire and decay and was associated with idol worship and child sacrifice, thus very distasteful. There are legends, which appear to be unsubstantiated, that in the valley was a long-burning refuse dump (due to the cursed nature, being a natural place to dump trash). There is little sense of torture in the word – instead, it conveys a highly distasteful and impure, contaminated place.

When Jesus was referring to the punishment for evil, 12 times He referred to the actual location Gehenna as an example of a place of shame and curse containing fire, to Hades as an opposition to heaven (Matt 11:23, Luke 10:15) (but only for the entire city of Capernum, not for an individual) and as a stronghold of power against the church (which does not at all correspond to concepts of Hades or Sheol in period thinking).

  1. Jesus never referred to Tartarus (as noted above, which only appears in 2 Peter) or Sheol (at least, because all the translations use the Greek form Hades instead).
  2. In one place where Jesus refers to Gehenna  (Matt 10:28) it’s noteworthy that He says that God is able to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. This directly opposes the late Christian evangelical concept of ECT, that souls are eternal and thus eternally punished. Interestingly, the Luke version of this story (Luke 12:5) omits a mention of the possibility of the soul’s destruction.
  3. In Matt 18:9 and Matt 5:22, and similarly in Mark, the Greek talks about being cast into “the Gehenna of the fire.” This notably does not say “the fire of hell,” but the opposite: it is about being cast into the shameful cursed Gehenna-like fire. It seems that the concept got flipped around in the evangelical model because of the dogma of hell.
  4. When Gehenna is mentioned by James, he describes the tongue being set on fire by Gehenna. This metaphor is perhaps even more compelling and distasteful when we read it in the original sense, of “the tongue being set on fire by cursed refuse dumps forever tainted by the ugly history of child sacrifice,” rather than simply “set on fire by hell.”

Other biblical references commonly translated as “hell” simply refer to fire or punishment. In the King James Version, in the New Testament, the only other occurrences than noted above include four times in Revelation, which all use “Hades” in conjunction with the word “death” (thanatou in Greek). This makes perfect sense given that the glorified Jesus is assigned authority over the realms of ALL the dead, not just the wicked dead, and thus should probably not be used to form any doctrine regarding a place of eternal punishment.

The Old Testament is naturally full of references to Sheol. It’s most interesting that many of the descriptions involve righteous people praising God for delivering them from Sheol. If righteous, why were they there (or headed there)? For example, Ezekiel 31 and 32 describe even the innocent and good people going down into Sheol with the rulers and terrorists that God opposes.

In short, Sheol is hardly a place only for the unrighteous: in early Jewish culture, until a couple hundred years before Jesus, it was understood that literally every human’s destiny was Sheol. It was only once humans began seeking some way to understand how evil men often prospered in life that a doctrine began to form whereby the particularly evil would be punished after death.

As described in the Hebrew Word Lessons website, a Messianic Jewish site, the broader Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures at the time mostly believed that “salvation” included making a good honorable name for oneself so that one would be remembered after death, thus keeping the dead less abandoned in Sheol or Hades. The worst fate imaginable was the shade being forgotten in the grave, and fading away to nothingness.


Also, in the Hebrew Bible, Sheol is very often paired with death in the typical Hebrew verse form of parallelism (where key concepts are repeated with a different but similar word). A better way to read it than “death and hell” would be “death and the realm of the dead.”

In Rev 19, 20, and 21, John describes the lake of fire, which many Christians conflate with hell. However, it’s worth noting that death and Hades (again, death and the realm of the dead) are cast into that lake. This makes it very hard to assert that Hades and hell can be the same thing.

Also regarding the lake of fire, into which the sinners and those whose names are not found in the Book of Life are thrown: fire as a Bible metaphor is just as often purifying as it is destructive and punitive, so asserting that this destination for the wicked is eternal punishment is questionable. Furthermore, not many verses after all the wicked are thrown into the lake of fire, Rev 22:15 describes all the wicked outside the gates of the city. How are wicked still there, if they were all confined to be punished eternally? In short, I find the description of the lake of fire in Revelation to be a warning about righteous living more than a doctrinal statement about hell after death.

In summary regarding hell, I cannot find any serious support for the four words being properly translated “hell” and describing the evangelical concept, because it seems simply dogmatic more than biblical.

This does not in any way deny that the Bible does often speak of punishment for sin. It simply denies that there is a singular specific place or post-life existence called “hell” that will be used by God to eternally punish sinners.

Early Church Fathers and ECT

Generally, (from what I read) the early church fathers did not support ECT; they were more inclined to believe in annihilationism. Some standouts would be Tatian (100s CE), Clement of Alexandria (200s CE), and Felix (200s CE), but they were outliers. The cultural Jewish expectation was of death, not eternal life. There was only greyness, or worse greyness for the particularly unrighteous.

It’s noteworthy that several Bible verses speak to Christ giving immortality to believers (like Eph 17) – which implies that those who were not in Christ did not “live” forever. (The dogmatic position of ECT apologists is that this means that Christ gave eternal life, as a contrast to eternal “living death” in the fire of hell. But that’s not STATED, that’s a dogmatic position.)

ECT seems to have taken hold significantly once Augustine wrote about it in the 400s CE, along with the idea that every human is born in original sin, and thus deserves hell from the moment of birth. (Interestingly, quite a few people assert that Augustine was a gnostic heretic, basing many of his thoughts on pagan and Platonic thinking, and was the father of a number of other problematic theologies.)

An article in the Afterlife website carefully discusses these complexities and the history of the understanding of hell. It goes into some significant detail about how early church fathers addressed these matters (with numerous direct quotes from their writings). https://www.afterlife.co.nz/articles/history-of-hell/

(The comments on that website are also very instructive, with a number of counterpoints raised.)

Based on all my reading about ECT, I conclude that the doctrine of eternal hellfire and torment is driven by the dogma, not by the actual text.

3) Universal Reconciliation or Universal Salvation

This article on the Exploring The Faith blog presents a solid assessment of the claims of universal reconciliation. I’ll address some of them here, but of course you can do your own research.


Some of the arguments I find most compelling about universal reconciliation include:

  • God self-identifies AS love personified, although God also claims the attribute of being just. As such, the love is primary, and the justice submits to the love.
  • God is our heavenly father. God’s living examples in our earthly fathers are meant to tell us truths about God.
  • Punishment by a truly loving father, and thus by God as our heavenly father who identifies as love, is never retributive, but restorative. Otherwise it would not be loving.
  • Justice is identified in the Bible as being commensurate with the sin. Eternal punishment for a temporal matter can neither be loving nor just.
  • Some punishment may be preventative, to maintain order and discipline, but that is certainly not the norm (as would be the case if the vast majority of humans, aside from a small remnant, are punished eternally).

If an eternal punishment were meant to scare people into compliance during their earthly life, it makes no sense to wait to apply that punishment until after every human has finally died and the entire human race is gathered at the Judgement Seat. By that point, the finally-undeniable truth of eternal judgement has zero value in restraining behavior on earth. Punishment as deterrent only works if that punishment is undeniably seen when time remains to make a choice.

The idea that only a remnant will be saved conflicts directly with a great crowd around the throne from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. The idea of that crowd is much richer and more glorifying to God’s power and ability, if it is understood to be composed of literally every human who ever lived.

God’s victory over death and Sheol/Hades cannot be considered complete in any reasonable way if the vast majority of the souls God breathes into humans are destroyed or punished eternally.

If God simply sends the evil to hell for eternity, God has not won over the evil; rather, God has surrendered to its permanent opposition to himself, and simply shunted it aside out of His concern. That doesn’t sound much like eternal glory and victory for God.

Many ECT apologists assert that God’s eternal punishment of the wicked will be seen, gloated over, and rejoiced at, by the faithful humans and angels in heaven. It is appalling to believe that believers will watch their unsaved loved ones suffer for eternity, and praise God for His justice.

Even more than that, the idea that believers would be subjected to hearing the cursing and mocking of God coming from the fiery pit for eternity runs against any reasonable sense of a glorious heaven. Imagine building your dream home right next to a smelly unsightly garbage dump, and yet calling it perfect because that dump constantly reminds you of the better glory of your new home. The better answer is to build the dream home AND clean out the dump permanently, and reclaim that land for yet more beautiful new homes.

We who believe in God have hope in God’s victory over death, as stated in 1 Thess 4:13. In that passage, a couple of the verses reference those “in Christ,” and ECT or annihilationists typically assert that this means God’s victory only applies to those who profess Christ as savior, or somehow are otherwise not the wicked. However, the balance of the passage can also easily be read from a universalist position. “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death.” And “the dead in Christ will rise first.After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” That is typically asserted to only refer to the saved. But “those who are left” could just as readily be understood to apply to all others, who died in Christ regardless of their trust or belief before death. After all, it says “you are all one in Christ Jesus,” which says nothing about only those who are believers. Even though it was written to a church in Galatia, it is a dogmatic position to assert this does not apply to ALL, not just that church. Certainly “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” etc. does not only apply to Christians. From my perspective, as a Christian who believes that universal reconciliation is a better reading, I have great hope that ALL who I love (and who God also loves far more than I do) will not sleep forever in death, but will be raised again to life in Christ. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to be refined from sin, but I do have perfect hope even for those who choose against God in this present life.

Philippians 2:10-11 says that at the end of time, “at the name of Jesus EVERY knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and EVERY tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” “Every” is pretty clear here. It’s hard to imagine how this can glorify God if the vast majority of those are in eternal punishment and therefore cursing God and continuing to reject His authority.

Eph 1:9-10 says “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” As with other verses, the “all” here is pretty straightforward, and it requires dogmatic gymnastics to limit “all” to “all who choose to believe in Christ before death.”

Many other cases can be made for universal reconciliation; I don’t have time to address them all here. You can find a good list on the Tentmaker website, from a book written in the mid 1800s.


That’s about as far as we can go in this episode. I hope this has been helpful to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, and I’ll entertain any polite and honest discussion on the matter. We’ll pick it up next time with some discussion of post-death salvation, and the fruit of these various doctrines.

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