Ben Witherington on Hell: “Love doesn’t always win”

With a combination of scholarly and pastoral touch, Professor Ben Witherington has offered an intriguing piece on Hell, though he has not read Rob Bell’s Love Wins: “I have not read the book yet, but I do know the testimony of the President of Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw, who says the book is all about Jesus and within the bounds of what could be called generous orthodoxy as opposed to stingy orthodoxy.”

Professor Witherington touches on the meaning of “Sheol” and “eternal” in the OT and then of course “Hades,” “Hell/Gehenna” and “eternal” in the New.

Some of his conclusions you would find intriguing.  For example, “In 1 Cor. 15,  Paul says quite literally that  Jesus is raised on Easter “from out of the dead ones”, not merely raised from death, though that is true, but raised from out of the realm of dead persons.  This suggests that the dead are still out there, and have not yet been consigned to Hell” (bold added).

But it’s this:

Annihilation or destruction of Satan, Hell and its inhabitants is a possible interpretation of the eschatological endgame, but it is also possible Hell will go on ‘olam wu olam wu olam‘.  If the former is true, then the last persons standing are all followers of Christ according to Revelation.  Revelation 21.8 seems pretty clear — “But as for the cowardly, the faithless…[etc.], their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death”.  Even more telling is the statement in Rev 22.15 which states that after the new heaven has landed on the new earth and the new Jerusalem  has been set up,  “outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”   It would appear from these last two text,  that Hell still has a future, even after the new heaven and new earth show up at a theater near you.  What this suggests is that love, even divine love, does not always win with everyone, not even in the end, and it breaks the heart of God as it should break ours. read entire post here, bold added

I’ve read the post.  But it appears to me that not even Ben Witherington is conclusive at every turn on the matter of hell: annihilationism is still a possibility.

Perhaps I missed something.

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32 Responses to Ben Witherington on Hell: “Love doesn’t always win”

  1. Tyson says:

    I’d love to believe in annihilation as much as anyone. However, as Noel Meyers points out in response #23, the NT does seem consistent in using /aionos/ in the plural to mean eternal. So far, no one on that thread has answered his objection.

    Here’s the link to Noel’s comment: http://www.patheos.com/community/bibleandculture/2011/03/16/hell-no/#comment-955

    • Andrew G says:

      I am an annihilationist and do believe aionios means eternal. I don’t see what the problem is? If the punishment for sin is death, and if that will be permanent and unstoppable and irreversible, then that punishment is rightly described as an eternal punishment. It’s eternal in its effects, and eternal in it’s permanence after final judgement. As an example, similar language is used elsewhere where aionios is used, such as “eternal redemption”; Jesus is not continually dying on the cross for our sins, instead we believe it was a one-time act that had eternal consequences, right?

      It’s also worth remembering that there is not one verse in the entire Bible specifically says the lost will be tormented forever! So why believe it? Yet there are dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds, that say that only the saved get eternal life, and the lost will miss out on eternal life and will instead die, perish, be killed, be destroyed, be burnt to ashes like weeds in a fire, be sent to the second death etc etc.

  2. T.C. R says:

    Tyson,

    Thanks for the link. But I find it interesting that BW3 replied that others but not to Noel’s comment. Perhaps Noel doesn’t really have a case? 😉

    • Tyson says:

      I was looking for BW3’s rebuttal or explanation, also, but was disappointed not to see one yet. Maybe he’s waiting on it.

      As for whether Noel has a case, you can judge for yourself. I think he does. In short, he points out that aionos in plural form (translated “forever and ever”) refers to God’s eternal glory, Jesus’ eternal reign, and believers’ eternal reign. Surely those are eternal and not finite? Why should we have a different reading for “aionos in plural” punishment?

  3. Todd Beal says:

    T.C.

    We sometimes fail to realize that the Lake of Fire is a very real place that God originally created for Lucifer and his fallen angels. It is not a concept; it is not an end-time once all do all annihilation of those who choose to go there.

    Matthew 13:41-42 [ESV] says, [41] “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, [42] and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This is a place in which Lucifer, his angels, and humans who choose to go there, will die a continuous and conscious living death for all eternity. Annihilation means extinction, no more existence. These two verses talk about an eternal existential death that continually destroys because eternity is forever. Death as we know it is final, an end to existence, but eternal death as spoken of in prophetic scriptures is just that, eternal.

    It is important that we first understand the difference between the finite death that occurs within this creation and eternal death that occurs outside this creation. They are two completely different deaths. Until we understand the difference between these two and stop thinking of them in human terms, we will go on quibbling about this theory and that theory, serving our own humanly feeble, self-gratifying intellect.

    • T.C. R says:

      |Until we understand the difference between these two and stop thinking of them in human terms, we will go on quibbling about this theory and that theory, serving our own humanly feeble, self-gratifying intellect.|

      Todd,

      You’ve cut right to the heart of the matter. However, as you know, these discussion are much older than you and I. It’s still a matter of interpretation.

      • Todd Beal says:

        I understand, T.C., but I ask the question, is it possible for someone to weep and wail and gnash his or her teeth after being once and for all annihilated? This is not a matter of interpretation; something that does not exist cannot behave as if it does. That is a fact.

    • Ronnie says:

      Todd:

      Where, exactly, does Matthew 13:41-42 say, or even imply, that the wicked will endure “eternal existential death that continually destroys”? The passage says nothing of the sort.

      In fact, in verse 40, Jesus says: Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. Here, Jesus explicitly compares what will happen to the wicked to what happens to weeds thrown in a fire. And as we all know, when weeds are thrown in a fire, they burn forever 🙂

      There are a few passages that can reasonably used to argue for traditionalism. This isn’t one of them.

      Oh, and the lake of fire is not a “very real place”. The lake of fire is a symbol, and John interprets the symbol for us in Rev 21:8: their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. This follows the established formula in biblical apocalypic literature of [symbol] IS [reality]:

      Rev 5:8- “golden bowls of incense which are the prayers of the saints.”
      Rev 19:8- “the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”
      Dan 7:17- “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth.”

      Most traditionalists get the formula backwards for Revelation 21:8 and acts as if it says “The second death (an abstract thing) is the Lake of Fire (a clear reality). This is an interpretive error.

      • Todd Beal says:

        Ronnie,

        Revelation 20:10 says, “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” If this doesn’t prove it to you nothing will. I’ve said what I have to say. It is clear that your mind is made up on this issue. I suggest you set your view aside for awhile, then thoroughly study Genesis through Revelation with no preconceived ideas. Once you do that, I will be more than happy to resume our discussion.

      • Ronnie says:

        This sort of proof-texting just isn’t helpful. I’m always blown away when someone thinks that they can end a debate by simply quoting a verse.

        I can do that too: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

        Look! It says right there that the punishment for sin is death–it doesn’t say eternal torment! If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will!

        The rest is just ad homimen commentary about me, which I find uninteresting–and as far as I’m aware, is against the posted rules here.

        I just participated in a stimulating discussion of this nature on Alex Pruss’s blog. Despite strong disagreement, nobody resorted to personal attacks, and everyone left edified with something new to consider. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible on online forums.

  4. T.C. R says:

    |As for whether Noel has a case, you can judge for yourself. I think he does. In short, he points out that aionos in plural form (translated “forever and ever”) refers to God’s eternal glory, Jesus’ eternal reign, and believers’ eternal reign. Surely those are eternal and not finite? Why should we have a different reading for “aionos in plural” punishment?|

    Tyson,

    Yes, I too was a bit disappointed that such a seasoned scholar as BW3 didn’t commit.

    On second thought, yes, Noel has a solid case. 😉

    Todd,

    Perhaps we’re looking at a manner of speaking with “weep…” This is a strong possibility – one I’m inclined to – so we’re back to interpretation. 😉

    • Todd Beal says:

      T.C.,

      Just as we Christians will instantly receive immortal bodies that resemble Christ’s post-resurrection, pre-ascension, body, so too will non-Christians shed their mortal body, thus losing their mortality and gaining immortality. This scripture is simply making the point; whoever is thrown into the Lake of Fire will experience extreme agony. Someone who is annihilated does not experience anything, let alone extreme agony.

      Before Jesus cast out the demons in Matthew 8:29, they asked him, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” They did not ask Jesus if he was there to annihilate their existence. Revelation 20:10 says, “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Once again, eternal torment, an impossibility for a being that does not exist.

      • T.C. R says:

        Todd,

        I too hold to the traditional view on hell. 😉

      • Ronnie says:

        Todd,

        Just as we Christians will instantly receive immortal bodies that resemble Christ’s post-resurrection, pre-ascension, body, so too will non-Christians shed their mortal body, thus losing their mortality and gaining immortality.

        Scripture makes it clear that immortality is a gift for the saved only. Paul, in 2 Timothy 1:10, tells us that immortality is gained only though the gospel. The tree of life, which would have conferred endless life to Adam and Eve, was put beyond reach, and is only made accessible to those who enter the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).

        The claim of conditionalists (short for conditional immortality, and roughly equivalent to what you call annihilationism) is that the primary theological motivation for the traditional view of Hell is this belief that all humans either are, or will be made, immortal. While traditionalists often deny this, in my personal conversations on this issue (and I’ve had many), traditionalists frequently come back to this notion of universal immortality in defense of their view.

        Someone who is annihilated does not experience anything, let alone extreme agony.

        Why would anyone think that being burned to death would not be agonizing? I’ve never understood this argument. My guess is that it is an inference from the expression “annihilationism”, which is just one reason why I shy away from that term. My most recent blog post goes into some detail on this issue (and I think it’s back up– freaking GoDaddy!). I hope that mild plug doesn’t violate your self-promotion rule, T.C. 🙂

      • Todd Beal says:

        Ronnie,
        The devil and his demons are immortal, so are they saved? You must stop thinking of life/death in terms of physical life/death. Christians will go into the eternal joy of eternal life; non-Christians will go into the eternal torment of eternal death.

      • Ronnie says:

        The devil and his demons are immortal, so are they saved?

        I can’t say I see how this addresses anything I wrote. Feel free to interact with the passages I presented which strongly militate against your understanding of human immortality. Whether or not purely spiritual beings like demons are immortal or not (and I’d say not) is immaterial to our discussion.

        You must stop thinking of life/death in terms of physical life/death.

        No. The second death is just a permanent form of the first death. In the first death, we return to dust–but that is only a temporary death and a temporary punishment due to the general resurrection. The second death will be an eternal death and an eternal punishment that will never be reversed. The wicked will turn to dust and stay dust forever. “Death” doesn’t all of a sudden mean “being tormented forever” when referring to final punishment.

        And to respond to something you said earlier:

        It is important that we first understand the difference between the finite death that occurs within this creation and eternal death that occurs outside this creation.

        This is not a biblical cosmology. Nothing will happen “outside creation”. Humans are physical creatures and will always be physical creatures. The “new heavens and new Earth” is just the restored and perfected physical universe.

        The problem, I think, is that you’re using Revelation 20:10 as a controlling passage by which you interpret any other passage related to final punishment.

        non-Christians will go into the eternal torment of eternal death.

        Can you show me one passage that says humans will experience eternal torment?

  5. Maybe love does win, but it’s a sad victory.

    What’s the old saying? “If love something, let it go. If it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and kill it.”

    Oops. Channeling Nigel Bennett from “Forever Knight” there for a minute.

    “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

    Paul, that pesky apostle, seems to affirm both that God shapes our choices yet also allows us enough freedom to hold us responsible for them. Don’t you just hate when he does that?

  6. T.C. R says:

    “Maybe love does win, but it’s a sad victory.”

    Chuck,

    According to Ben, and now you. Hmm…

    Well, I have a love-hate relationship with St. Paul. I sure wish he was clearer. I’ll have to ask him about that on the other side.

  7. Bobby Grow says:

    I read the article from With. awhile ago. I haven’t read the comments here. But I find it problematic to hold to annihilation, and at the same time hold to substitutionary atonement. If Jesus truly enters into what humanity is destined to (hell, non-being, privatio, concupiscence, separation from God’s life etc.), and annihilation is the case; then how would it be possible for Jesus to ever come back? He would’ve had to be truly annihilated. And if He did come back (and we know He did) under those constraints, then in what sense would His resurrected body correlate to the body that he died in on the cross? It seems like, at the least, in order for annihilation to be true, that we would have to hold to some form of adoptionist christology (or Word Flesh).

    I don’t buy annihilation on either exegetical or theo-logical grounds.

    • T.C. R says:

      |It seems like, at the least, in order for annihilation to be true, that we would have to hold to some form of adoptionist christology (or Word Flesh).|

      Bobby,

      You’re making quite some charge here that adherence to annihilationism leads to a low Christology and so on.

      I really don’t see how annihilationism should have affected Jesus in his death. Remember, to use BW3 words, annihilationism has to do with the End Game. So how could this possibly affect Jesus death and resurrection, in time?

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Of course it’s heavy handed, TCR. But I think we all tend to make christological heretical moves more often than any of us realize; which is why we need to be continually rigorous.

        The “End Game?” You don’t think what Jesus did at the cross had anything to do with the “end game?” That doesn’t really make sense to me, TCR. And how are you conceiving of “time” relative to “super-time” or eternity? I just know that Witherington is a bib studies guy, an exegete; not a theologian, per se. And so I think this thinking on “End Game” becomes artificial. And I think this because to try and abstract the “End Game” from what Jesus did in time gets even worse, more like Nestorian-like thinking.

        I don’t know, TCR . . .

  8. T.C. R says:

    Bobby,

    I do agree that we need to continue to engage rigorously. But often our conclusions must be suspended with respect to others.

    No undercutting to effects of the cross/death and resurrection of Jesus in their reach, extending not only to humanity but the physical creation as well.

    And even the Scriptures speak of time in terms of “the age to come” and so on. So I don’t follow your counterargument here.

    I don’t know what you mean to say that Ben is a biblical exegete as opposed to a theologian. But I’ll take a biblical exegete any day over a theologian – but of course, I’m not comfortable with this distinction of yours.

    |And so I think this thinking on “End Game” becomes artificial. And I think this because to try and abstract the “End Game” from what Jesus did in time gets even worse, more like Nestorian-like thinking.|

    In reference to “End Game,” Ben was commenting on Rev 20-21. This is “End Game” language here, but of course, not if you’re a full-preterist.

    I maintain that a high Christology can still be in tact. 😉

    • Bobby Grow says:

      TCR,

      I’m not obviously interested in being a diplomat, but we can still be respectful. I don’t see using christological heresies as “controls” as being disrespectful though. Calvinists are known to border on nestorianism with the ‘extra calvinisticum’ Lutherans to border on monophystism with their’ communicato idomatum’ etc.

      I don’t understand your point on the “age to come.” What are you getting at with that point? You brought up “time”, and I’m not even sure how that originally applied to my point on adoptionism (and I’ll admit that adoptionism doesn’t really apply to my point — my bad 🙂 — as I rethink it ) and the depths that Jesus went through in our place. You didn’t even deal with my original point on ‘substitution’. What did Jesus do in the atonement? Was it just a transaction between Him and the Father, or did He actually penetrate into the depths of our sin and go where we were supposed to go?

      Are you saying you don’t see a distinction between someone like Ben Witherington and Wayne Grudem (or Torrance)? My only point with that, is that his theological conclusions aren’t that strong on the point of annihilation, theologically. And that maybe he could also find the help of a theologian helpful in thinking out the implications (“inner-logic”) of his “outer-logic” exegetical work.

      My original point was: If Jesus substituted His life for ours, ii) if He took our place and endured our “end”, iii) and if that end is annihilation, iv) then if He truly took our place He would have been annihilated, v) and there would be no Jesus to resurrect.

      So since Jesus resurrected, annihilation is not what the “end game” entails.

      Let’s forget the adoptionist point, since in reality it really is not an issue under the conditions I’m highlighting above.

      • T.C. R says:

        |What did Jesus do in the atonement? Was it just a transaction between Him and the Father, or did He actually penetrate into the depths of our sin and go where we were supposed to go?|

        Bobby,

        Christ bore our sins, taking away the wrath of God. This however is never described in terms of going to some place. I don’t see your point being supported from Scripture.

        What you see as bordering on this or that heresy, I don’t. Remember, I’m not theologically wired as you are. 😉

        Yes, I see a distinction between a Grudem and a Witherington. But I’m convinced that this “inner-logic” stuff could be part of the problem – you know, making a point where there is really none.

        |My original point was: If Jesus substituted His life for ours, ii) if He took our place and endured our “end”, iii) and if that end is annihilation, iv) then if He truly took our place He would have been annihilated, v) and there would be no Jesus to resurrect.|

        Equally, he should have been eternally separated from the Father, since he took our place – Isn’t that where this reasoning leads to as well?

  9. Bobby Grow says:

    Not eternally, relationally. That’s what an “ontological” atonement is all about. It’s not about Christ going some “place” it’s about Him standing in the gap, the chasm that hell (or relational separation from God’s life) represents for those who reject Christ. What does II Cor 5.21 assume? Never mind, I’ve already read NTW on that 😉 . We are really, it seems, worlds apart on this stuff, TCR. That’s okay, you’re still a good brother in Christ; love ya 🙂 !

    It’s interesting, TCR, “inner-logic” or “theo-logic” is what has been used to give us the Trinity and hypostatic union, etc. But somehow people aren’t willing to be consistent with that “kind” of hermeneutic in re. to their interpretation of Scripture in general. For the likes of me, I don’t know why.

  10. T.C. R says:

    Bobby,

    Then if it’s “ontological/relational,” then how does this counter annihilationism?

    Yes, I’m with Wright on 2 Cor. 5:21. 😉

    Well, the “inner-logic” surfaces naturally from Scripture. It demands recognition, if you will, as in the airtight formulation of the Trinity.

    • Bobby Grow says:

      @TCR,

      Because it’s NOT annihilationism. That seems like it should be a quite self-evident explanation in itself. In other words, the relationship between the Father and Son was not ultimately snuffed out through the Son’s sin-bearing. If the penalty was annihilation then the relationship would have had to ceased to exist into non-being forever.

      The ‘inner-logic’ might appear to be “natural”, now; but it took several hundred years for it to be seen for what it is back in the day. So the point is, is that there is still “inner-logic” that needs to be thought about; indeed, inner-logic that is bound to and is inextricably attached to the inner logic of Trinity, Incarnation, etc. If you like better, the “implications” of the inner-logic. semper reformanda sola scriptura!

      • T.C. R says:

        Bobby,

        If we’re talking the penalty that Jesus bore for sins, then what this penalty is seems to be the difficulty of defining here.

      • Bobby Grow says:

        TCR,

        It doesn’t seem to be that difficult to me. Of course I’m assuming a priori that the “plain” reading of Scripture on hell (eternal conscious torment) is literal, and thus by inference that Jesus entered into that gap of separation of relationship from the Father in-our-stead; and that in so doing “paid the penalty” that w/o Him we would have to pay ourselves.

        It seems like you’re making this harder than it is, TCR.

  11. T.C. R says:

    Bobby,

    Yes, working from your a priori stance is the key here. Good. I’m just asking some questions here, leaving no stones unturned, if you get my drift. And neither does TFT’ “all-humanity-election-in Christ-so-Christ-died-for-all really helps here, if eternal hell does exists. It seems like TFT’s approach lends itself too easily for a universalist approach. But TFT is no universalist.

  12. K. W. Christian says:

    Check any and all of the passages you cite to buttress your view of Hell being eternal with the Young’s Literal Translation. You’ll find some very interesting things.

    “Aionos” does not mean “forever.” It means “age-during.”

    Take a look:

    Rev 11:15 And the seventh messenger did sound, and there came great voices in the heaven, saying, `The kingdoms of the world did become those of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign to the ages of the ages!’

    Mat 25:46 And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.’

    Rom 11:36 because of Him, and through Him, and to Him are the all things; to Him is the glory–to the ages. Amen.

  13. K. W. Christian says:

    Here’s some more renderings of Aionos from YLT for your consideration:

    Mat 6:13 And mayest Thou not lead us to temptation, but deliver us from the evil, because Thine is the reign, and the power, and the glory–to the ages. Amen.

    Joh 6:51 `I am the living bread that came down out of the heaven; if any one may eat of this bread he shall live–to the age; and the bread also that I will give is my flesh, that I will give for the life of the world.’

    Rom 1:25 who did change the truth of God into a falsehood, and did honour and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed to the ages. Amen.

    Also the Weymouth New Testament, The Holy Bible in Modern English, and some other out–of-print translations give a similar reading to these examples. A modern translation that reads very similar to these can be found at: http://www.2001translation.com/

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