Thursday, 17 March 2016

Will unbelievers be painfully executed?

Over on Preston Sprinkle’s blog (the guy who co-wrote Erasing Hell with Francis Chan) there was a great discussion/debate going on between two well qualified representatives for the traditional view of hell and that of annihilationism. Both guys have done a fantastic job representing their particular views and I highly recommend having a look at the series if you want to dig a bit into the topic. But for the purpose of my post today I have only mentioned it because I want to pick up on something that Chris Date said which didn’t sit well with me. In his first post which is otherwise excellent (imo), he says, “The risen lost will instead be annihilated: denied the gift of immortality, dispossessed of all life of any sort, and painfully executed, never to live again”.

For anyone who has read a few of my posts before you will know that I too am an advocate for the view known as Conditional Immortality but the phrase ‘painfully executed’ seems contrary to everything I believe to be true about Jesus and God as revealed in the Bible. It’s not that there are no verses in scripture which cannot be read in the way he suggests, so I can understand where he is coming from. The idea of annihilation as divine execution is actually quite common; another blog I read likened hell to be “like a parent disciplining a child”. The same post spoke of the punishment of God in hell as a necessity to fulfill God’s holy character.

While I do affirm the position of Conditional Immortality and even ‘painful death’, I don’t think that God executes people or throws people into pits of fire because His holiness requires it. In the Gospels, I see a Christ who tells us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. I see Jesus practicing what He preached when He was beaten and killed without just cause. This Jesus who hung on the cross prayed for His enemies’ forgiveness in the midst of this great injustice. John in the book of Revelation unveils to us a God who does not spill the blood of His enemies but allows His own blood to be spilled for them. As Paul would say, “The message of God is foolishness to those who are headed towards destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Or as Greg Boyd likes to say, “The cross reveals to us how God flexes His muscles”.

If holiness refers to the set-apartness of God then painful execution cannot be an expression of holiness, for pain and destruction share a likeness to the dark side of human nature and to Satan himself. Holiness (being different or set apart) is not killing and destroying, there is nothing different about that. A violent god is a god in our own likeness. Rather, holiness is Jesus giving up His life for us; holiness is a slaughtered baby Lamb victorious in its resurrection. Set apart are those who have defeated the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony, those who do not love their lives so much that they are afraid to die.

I mention Jesus’ non-violent nature (Isaiah 53:9) because scripture teaches us that He is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3) which should mean something to us. Jesus heals, He forgives, He gives life and the whole time He is revealing to us what our Father is like.      

As J. Denny Weaver said in his excellent essay, ‘The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God’, “The triumph of the reign of God depends not on God’s capacity to exercise either retributive or the greatest violence, but on the power of the reign of God to overcome in spite of and in the face of the violence of evil.” Death in the Bible is viewed as an enemy (Revelation 20:14), it is something that Christ sets us free from (Romans 8:2). It seems odd to me then to think of Him as both savior and executioner. It makes me think of a life guard who is the best of the best, a guy who can pull three drowning people out of the ocean at the same time but this same life guard also purposefully drowns people sometimes. Does God really save us from Himself? I can see how people arrive at that conclusion based on some portions of scripture but I don’t see it in the narrative of Jesus’ life which shows us what God is really like.

I believe that death is not God’s thing but Satan's, J. Denny Weaver writes elsewhere in his essay, “The ultimate weapon of the forces of evil is death, which is an act that annihilates existence. Destruction of existence - denial of the capacity to exist - is the worst the powers of evil can do to a human being.” If the wages of sin is death as Paul says it is (Romans 6:23) then what Weaver writes makes perfect sense. Weaver continues on to say, “It is this denial of existence that the reign of God overcomes through resurrection” and that, in my opinion, should be foundational to our understanding of the atonement.

Because God’s children are human beings – made of flesh and blood – the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could He die, and only by dying could He break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. – Hebrews 2:14

Jesus Christ has reduced death to inactivity, it has no eternal consequences for believers (2 Timothy 1:10). In fact, if we want to insist on attributing any destructive tendencies to Jesus, we should look at
1 Corinthians 15:26:-

And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

To bring this post full circle, I do believe that the Bible teaches a horrible fate for unbelievers, weeping, gnashing of teeth and destruction. But this is not the result of the sword in God’s hand but the sword in God’s mouth. What I mean by that is that He does not slay people literally but speaks truth and pronounces the inevitable. Those who refuse Him will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from His glorious power (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Jesus does not slay but He does say, “Depart from me you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23) and outside of Him there is no life. It is hard to execute someone who has departed from you and is no longer in your presence. This is what we were told right from the beginning, if you don’t partake of the tree of life but rather want to do it your way and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will surely die (Genesis 2:17). That is a warning, not a threat and God reacts to the fall not by waging war on Adam and Eve but by waging war on death and that old serpent who had the power of death. But praise be to God, that death has been swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus who offers life to all who eat and drink from Him.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this post, does it make sense? If not, how do you understand the apparent paradox of God as both destroyer and savior?


  1. I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I think there may be other possibilities. For example, do we know that the traditional view of a last judgment is correct? You know what I mean, a gathered multitude, I stand before God and he plays the tape of my life, I stand self-condemned, I fall on my knees and plead Jesus and God says "not guilty!" and I enter heaven, otherwise he kills me or sends me to hell?

    I'm pretty doubtful. So much of what the Jews thought about the Messiah was wrong. Many things that were once christian certainties are now much argued over, and you and I have rejected some of them.

    What if we die, our life flashes before our eyes in that last nano-second, God's judgment is passed in that nano-second, and we are either resurrected into the age to come or our life ends quite naturally? No killing by God, just a merciful end, exactly as a non-believer is expecting.

    People will want there to be more punishment for the real evil-doers, but I wonder whether the realisation that all is lost, that they could even then change their minds and plead for God's mercy, but still they refuse, will be quite a punishment for those with egos big enough to refuse God's grace?

    I don't know, but I wonder.

    1. I hear you, there is definitely way more that we don't know than we do know. It's entirely possible that we are taking some traditional readings of judgement too literally and it might not end up looking much like we envision it to but for me there seems to be enough evidence of a post mortem consciousness and judgement not to reject the idea. I admit, it makes little sense in my mind to resurrect those outside of Christ only to condemn them to a second death. Perhaps one day it will make sense or I will see things differently. Perhaps, like with annihilationism above, it's not so much the idea of judgment that needs questioning so much as our understanding of how that all unfolds that
      may be wrong.