How Can God Allow Eternal Punishment?

How Can God Allow Eternal Punishment?

Hell is a difficult topic: for many, the most difficult in Christian Theology. Indeed, the doctrine of hell is one of the main reasons many reject Christianity. It is therefore the point at which it is most clear we must speak with utmost sensitivity, but also with loving honesty. As part of my medical training, I’ve come face to face with those who know that they are in the last few months of their lives, and who are faced with this stark reality. Similarly, I’ve met those who would be in that situation if they didn’t start taking some course of action, whether that’s a drug, a lifestyle change, or surgery of some sort. Now, in order to properly love them and do what’s best for them, I have to be plainly honest about their condition and about what will probably happen to them. Some diagnoses are crippling: no one wants to hear that they have a terminal illness, or that they don’t have very long left. And, of course, there are right and wrong ways to be honest: honesty does not necessarily imply insensitivity or tactlessness. But nevertheless, I would be doing people a disservice if I wasn’t honest with them about their condition or their fate. Love requires honesty, and especially so when honesty has the potential for healing.

But when it comes to hell, we seem to have adopted an attitude where it has become, in some sense, socially unacceptable to say that people are ‘going to hell’, even more so to say it about someone in particular. It is not often clear what the objection is, exactly, but it seems to suggest that saying people are going to hell violates some sort of social law, that it is ‘bad etiquette’, that it is offensive. Of course, there are right and wrong ways to advocate a position on hell (e.g. someone going to hell is never something to take pleasure in, nor is it something to say out of spite, or as an insult in an argument), but it is important that we are allowed to speak honestly, whether that is politically correct or not – there is no reason why we should not adopt similar principles to when talking to someone who is severely ill. None of this is to say that I think we CAN speak definitively about the fate of other individuals – as it happens, I don’t think we have good reason or authority to do that. But what is most important is that we object to this for the right reasons – because it is rationally, philosophically and theologically unconvincing and unwarranted, not just because it’s politically incorrect to do so.

And so we must make every effort to have a rational discussion about hell – there is inevitably an emotional element, and we should not let reason disguise that, but in order that we might have appropriate emotions about hell, it is important to UNDERSTAND it. This includes understanding our own view of it (whether or not we think it exists) and understanding other views of it. Caricatures of other people’s views based on emotional dissonance, anger, or plain ignorance are particularly easy to come by when discussing hell, and that’s why it is so important to recognise them for what they are – caricatures.

And so in this article, I am going to do something slightly unusual. I do not personally believe in the traditional understanding of hell (I will soon offer an introduction to the different views of hell) – nor do I disbelieve it. Those who have been in dialogue with me will know that I haven’t come to a conclusion about what I believe hell is, and that I often sway towards and away from particular positions at different times. But I’m here going to defend the traditional understanding (that hell is eternal punishment), or at least offer some considerations which might make it more palatable. These would not take away from the horror and tragedy of the traditional (or any) understanding of hell, but I think they go some way in explaining how such a doctrine might be compatible with a loving God. They are considerations which make me think that the traditional understanding is at least compatible with the God of the Bible (and a loving God, if you think that the God of the Bible isn’t), and which allow me to see it as, at least, a possibility.

1) One of the problems is a confusion between the type of hell one believes in and what one believes about who goes there – if I said, for example, that I believe in eternal torture, most people would assume that I would therefore be taking a conservative approach on all issues and so would believe that only consciously-affirming Christians avoid hell. But this does not logically follow – nor is it what I personally believe, even if I accept traditionalist hell. No matter whether hell is temporary or eternal, I don’t think we have good reason to believe that only Christians will avoid it, or that the amount of people there is particularly large.

2) There is nothing to suggest that those who are in hell are pity-evoking humans in any recognisable sense; that is, they may have diminished their humanity so much that they cease to be human at all, and so to have pity or empathy for them would not be apropos – it would be as nonsensical as feeling pity for a stone being crushed, or for some snow being melted. This is not to say that, if some humans were horrible enough, then it would be wrong to feel pity for them. The point is that these creatures have themselves rejected their humanity entirely, and so cannot even be considered as similar to the most cruel humans we now know. It must be emphasised, of course, that this would not be the case for anyone we know on earth now, since there is no reason to think that anyone has fully and irreversibly chosen not to be human in their current life.

3) Nor is the Christian scripturally compelled to believe that those who are in hell have realised their folly or evil, or that they recognise their punishment as punishment. In particular, if one takes a view of hell that has historical elements, e.g. that people are in some sense ‘in hell’ now, in that they are separated from God and living in a self-destructive way already (cf. Matt 23:15; Jas 3:6), then this is made particularly important. For if people are currently living separate from God, and living in ways which are destructive to others and to themselves and enjoy it, and we do not have any reason to believe that this will change qualitatively, then the ‘punishment’ of hell will only come as the fulfilment of this way of living, and will allow their wallowing in and love for their own destruction to flourish. It’s not a case of them suddenly changing their mind about how rewarding living selfishly is – to the contrary, it would be a natural progression, confirmation and intensification of the pleasure they get from selfishness. It is, of course, a complete perversion of pleasure and joy, and a terrible one at that, but that mustn’t force us to conclude that it will be perceived as terrible for them.

4) Nor must we assume that the people in hell have the potential for good in them in the same way that anyone on earth does: these people may have shaped their characters to such an extent that they absolutely hate love and hate all that is good, and instead delight in selfishness, abuse, mistreatment, hatred, and so on. They may enjoy (in a perverse and caricaturistic way) their isolation and hatred, and the abuse of others. Again, our appropriate pity and hope for redemption of those on earth must not fool us into thinking that those who are no longer living are necessarily redeemable or with a tiny bit of good in them. For all we know, they may be incorrigibly, passionately evil and inhumane.

5) Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we do not need to believe that the ‘punishment’ of hell is administered by God in any direct, vengeant sense. Indeed, we have no good reason to believe that the punishment of hell is significantly different from that which is the self-destructive nature of sin as we know it. Sin is already self-destructive and self-punishing; it is just usually not recognised as such. But there seems a fairly good Biblical attestation to the idea that punishment or ‘wrath’ is received welcomingly on earth (cf. Romans 1 where God’s wrath is the “giving over to their own desires“, and results in things which presumably are perceived as pleasurable or rewarding). If this is the case, then it may just be that hell is continuous self-punishment (in that rejecting God is a punishment in itself), manifest in things which many today consider pleasurable.

And so even a traditionalist view of hell (that of eternal punishment) can make these allowances: I am not saying that these possibilities are necessarily true, but that they are perfectly consistent with an evangelical Christian framework. It may be that hell is a ‘place’ for those who have irreversibly, explicitly and knowingly rejected God, who no longer evoke pity because they have given up their humanity, who to continue to love hatred and selfishness, and who enjoy their punishment. A bolder apologist might even argue that this idea of hell is in some way more palatable than the state of the world today: at least those in hell have knowingly decided not to be proper objects of pity – contrast this with some humans today, who have the potential for redemption and for whom we do appropriately pity for their selfishness and self-destruction, and yet who still decide to delight in hatred.

Of course, this cannot be interpreted as an attempt to make hell seem less terrible – hell is the most terrible possible fate for a human being, and only the most crude of emotionalists would think that eternity without God is any ‘better’ than the hell in medieval art. The issue is not about whether hell is a terrible fate or not – it categorically is. The issue is about whether the existence of a traditional understanding of hell is compatible with the God of the Bible, and with a loving God. And the reason I think that these clarifications are helpful is this: I do not think that the moral objection behind most of our opposition to hell is to do with the principle of eternal separation from God – that is the only possible consequence unless God compels people to love him and come into relationship with him. Rather, I think the problem we have is with seeing the ‘punishment’ of hell as something that God inflicts directly in petty revenge, and in which he takes pleasure. Separation from God is understandable, we think, even if not desirable. But the idea that God goes beyond that to happily torturing the damned in revenge is where we rightly take issue. Once we see then, that this latter picture of hell is in no way warranted scripturally, then I think that we can at least understand how a loving God might allow some sort of ‘eternal punishment’, as Christians have traditionally (though not universally or consensually) believed.

Though I am not personally convinced that the traditional understanding of hell is correct, I hope to have made some defence of it here so that it is not mischaracterised in future. I do not think that Christians are compelled to believe in this understanding, let alone any of the features we find particularly insulting (e.g. that God directly punishes), but nevertheless I felt that this might be useful material for those who do want to defend traditionalism, as well as offering some clarifications for a more fruitful discussion of hell in future.

Responses

  1. The problem with Christians telling people that others are going to hell is the same problem with Muslims telling Christians they are going to hell for worshiping Jesus as a god (There is no god but Allah).

    What you imagine happens in some purported afterlife is irrelevant given the fact that there is no evidence that any part of one’s consciousness lives after that person dies and lots of evidence that a brain is require to think, feel, remember, perceive etc.

    Just because a person believes that someone is damned to hell for not worshiping a (loving– ha!) god as they do is not a socially acceptable reason for inflicting one’s superstitions on others.

    It is shameful for religions to claim to know what happens after death– and even more shameful to frighten people into belief with the idea that their eternal souls are being held hostage based on what they believe!

  2. articulett, this post does not say that anyone is going to hell. This post is specifically addressing the objection that a loving God would not send anyone to eternal punishment, rather than actually making the case that God does indeed do this. Indeed, as I state in the article, I do not believe that God does this.

  3. and I don;t beleive it either (eternal punsihment) but yet traditional Christian teaching does in fact beleive this. Even though they do not want to discuss it for the most part in the pulpit, not preach it. It is still a steadfast belief of Christian fundamentalism. And if I am honest with myself I have dificulty in discounting it based on the teachings of the new testament. It leaves me in a paradox of confusion. the bible tells me that God loves my children more than I do. But yet how can a God who makes such a statement alloow his children to suffer this type of punishment for eternity? I cannot reconcile this doctrine to my beleifs. I have struggled with it for years. I chose at one time to ignore it. Now I just outright reject it. It is reprehensible to me. Nobody is evil enough or bad enough to suffer eternal punishment. I can not reconcile a loving God to this beleif.

  4. This question is not a criticism but a genuine enquiry: How do you make your viewpoint correlate with certain scriptures if you believe that the person who is in hell does not know that they are being punished – the rich man and Lazarus – the rich man “whose tongue was on fire” (or something very similar) certainly knew he was in punishment because of this.
    Another curiosity:- the rich man begged that his brothers would not “come to this place”. This shows he must have had concern, compassion and unselfishness towards his brothers. Concern, compassion and unselfishness still in him even in the afterlife. Why, therefore, could he not be redeemed with such human qualities still within him, unlike what you have suggested that all human traits totally gone.
    Or do you think that even after death, he was still full of guile and cunning, pretending to have such qualities perhaps hoping that Abraham would pity him and therefore take him into paradise?

  5. Thanks for your post, Lacey. I don’t think the parable of Lazarus was intended to convey truths about the nature of the afterlife: to me, it seems more probable that Jesus was taking stock Jewish imagery as the setting for his parable (as he did in other parables without necessarily believing them to be true) to insist on his intended point – namely, that we are to act rightly and justly in this life.

  6. Thanks for replying so promptly, Calum. God bless you. Calum, please would you give me some other examples of Jesus taking stock Jewish imagery as the setting for the “other parables without necessarily believing them to be true”.

  7. Dear Dean,
    I believe there is some confusion about God’s children in your outlook.
    All human beings are God’s creation, not all human beings are God’s children.
    Not all human beings believe God exists.
    He cannot whilst they believe this even have the potential to become their father.
    Then there are the human beings who do not want God to be their father.
    But whoever wishes to can come to God through Jesus and God will willingly be their heavenly Father – the Scriptures say “whoever comes to me, I will in no way cast out” and “everyone on the side of truth will come to me”.
    The bible refers to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Possibly likewise there are some “demons” walking about among us in “human” clothing.
    They look just like the rest of us humans, but inwardly have the nature of the devil and his demons. It makes sense from this perspective that those with such natures who have no remorse about their nature would not be in paradise as nothing devilish or demonic is or will be there as it wouldn’t then be paradise. It would be life on earth all over again. No thanks!
    I hope this goes some way to alleviating your concerns over what can be a VERY troubling subject to many people.
    With much Christian love,
    Lacey

  8. I’m not entirely certain that the notion of hell you defend here is the “traditional” one. It at least doesn’t look very compatible with the views of very conservative Christians I’ve known or heard preaching.

    And, I’m not sure what sort of voluntarily non-human human we could hope to remove beyond the scope of pity. If we can empathize at least in our imagination with conscious experiences of joy or suffering, then to me it would seem that any entity who was outside the scope of identification, empathy, or pity could not experience anything remotely like “punishment” – even as one confusing the punishment with reward.

    That said, I appreciate your seeming unwillingness to put forth the wholly unsatisfactory and often morally bankrupt defenses of hell common among the more staunch among conservative Christians. This (and your derivation of Bayes, which was the post that landed me on your web-site) identify you as one who takes reason and ethical morality at least as seriously as religion, and no less seriously than they deserve. For that, you have my kudos. I’m going to go browse around more of your site.

  9. Thank you for your comment, smijer. I aimed to define traditionalism as “eternal punishment” – obviously there will be a variety of views which fall under that umbrella, but that is the basic thesis I am aiming to defend (though, again, I would add that I do not actually hold to it), rather than any particular elaboration or interpretation of it. Certainly, even this picture will be seen as too liberal or non-traditional for many conservatives, but I am content that any form of eternal punishment can reasonably be described as a traditional view.

    I think your point is a fair one. I have not really thought about this issue too much – this article was more a way of getting some current thoughts and very hesitant considerations down, rather than defending anything in detail. So it may well be that everything conscious deserves pity; in that case, a traditionalist (as I’ve described the term) could reject that they are conscious, or they could simply agree that they deserve pity, but that this is not morally problematic – the more important point might be that their moral value has disintegrated, rather than that they are not pitiable, per se. I have not thought much about how that might be worked out in detail, nor am I overwhelmingly persuaded that it is a possibility.

    And many thanks for your kind words – I hope you enjoy the rest of the site!

  10. THE SOUL AND THE UNSEEN
    In approaching the question of the scriptural meaning of the Hebrew sheol and the Greek hadês, it is necessary first of all to establish the scriptural significance of “soul.” This is because, in Scripture, man, who is said both to be a soul and to have a soul, returns in death to the “unseen,” which is sheol or hades.
    Since man is a corporeal being which, both by association with and as the representation thereof, is a living “soul,” it is evident that when he returns to the unseen, his soul returns there as well. Since in death, man, who “is” a “soul,” does indeed return to the unseen (e.g., Psa.9:17), it is correct to say of any certain man who dies, not only that that “soul” has returned to the unseen, with reference to the man himself, but that his soul has returned there as well, with respect to his sensations or experiences.

    UNTENABLE TRADITIONS
    From a realization of this fact alone, it becomes evident that orthodoxy is mistaken, at least in part. For while the soul’s pre-existence is repudiated, its post-existence is insisted upon, its survival after death, prior to resurrection. Yet whatever the lot of the human soul after this life (prior to resurrection), it is that which obtained unto it as well prior to this life. Therefore the orthodox view cannot be correct in both of its claims.
    Orthodoxy is mistaken as well in conceiving the human soul to be not the human experience itself, but to be instead, an intangible, immortal entity, a spirit (or “ghost”) which, while possessing personal traits and partaking of personal experience, is nonetheless not a person or corporeal being at all.
    Wherever the Scriptures declare that a certain man “died,” or wherever they speak of his “death,” the orthodox insist that we are not to understand that that man died, but only that his present lifetime ended and that his body died. It is not that these traditionalists do not know what death is, but that they insist that it does not appertain to man. Indeed, like the spiritualist, they assure us that they are correct in their claim that, in death, man does not die because he cannot die.

    SENSATION OR EXPERIENCE
    Nevertheless, scripturally speaking, the human “soul” is simply the human experience. Soul is the sensation which results from the combination of an organic body with breath or spirit (Gen.2:7; cp 1:21). Soul is connected with the blood (Lev.17:14; “life” AV), and is possessed not only by man but by all living creatures that move or “roam” (Lev.11:46).
    The expression “living souls” speaks of the entire animate creation generally, “every animal of the field and every flyer of the heavens” (Gen.2:19; cp 1:24,30), even “the great sea monsters and all the moving living souls with which the waters swarm” (Gen.1:20,21).
    Soul is a phenomenon; it is the perception of the senses. It encompasses all sensation, all that is experienced by means of the sentient faculties. By association, soul is the capacity for seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. In itself, soul consists in the sensation of these things themselves. Man, like the animals, is a “living soul” (Gen.1:21; 2:7). While both are living creatures, they are termed (by association) living “souls.” This is because they are not only living creatures but are living creatures which possess soul, that is, sentient capacity. Both man and beast are termed living souls because they are living creatures which, through sentient faculties, are capable of experience.
    “Soul” (Hebrew, nephesh, Greek, psuchê) does not mean “life,” though it is often incorrectly translated “life” in the Authorized Version. Soul is not life itself, though it is intimately connected with it. A man’s “soul,” speaks of a man’s sensations or experiences. A man who is termed a “soul,” speaks of a man from the standpoint of his sensations or experiences.
    In Scripture, it is common to speak of men as “souls.” Through this means man comes before us not simply as an organic entity such as a tree, but as a sentient creature partaking of experience. Literally, soul is not something that man is, but something that he partakes of.
    When a man is spoken of as a “soul,” the word is a figure of speech (metaphor [representation] and metonymy [association]). And, even when man is spoken of as possessing a soul, technically, this too is a figure of speech (ellipsis [omission]).
    When man is spoken of as being a soul, he thus becomes representative of that with which he is closely associated. Yet when man is spoken of as possessing a soul, the evident thought in view, while understood, is not expressed. This is because it would be both tedious and needless to do so.
    The inherent idea which is present though not expressed when man is spoken of as possessing “a” soul is, capacity of or means of experiencing. The full thought is that man has “a (capacity of) soul,” or sensation. Strictly speaking, man does not have “a” soul but a capacity of soul, a means by which he engages in sentient activity, a facility by which he experiences life.

    DEFINITIVE TEXTS
    “The connection of soul with the senses is evidenced by a selection of interesting passages. ‘My soul is disgusted with my life; I shall give free rein to myself and my concern; Let me speak in the bitterness of my soul’ (Job.10:1). The taste is especially intended in such scriptures as, ‘with all the yearning of your soul you may sacrifice and eat flesh’ (Deut.12:15; cp vss. 20,21); ‘you may eat grapes to your soul’s desire, to your satisfaction’ (Deut.23:24); ‘their soul abhorred all food’ (Psa.107:18);‘ . . . a thief when he steals, in order to fill his soul’s needs when he is famishing’ (Prov.6:30); ‘The just man knows the soul’s needs of even his domestic beast, yet the compassions of the wicked are cruel’ (Prov.12:10); ‘eating to his soul’s satisfaction’ (Prov.13:25); ‘ . . . honey of the comb, [is] sweet to the soul and healing to the bones’ (Prov.20:24); ‘if you are a person of soulish appetite’ (Prov.23:2); ‘The soul that is surfeited tramples on honeycomb, yet to the famished soul, any bitter thing is sweet’ (Prov.27:7); ‘cause his soul to see good from his toil’ (Ecc.2:24); ‘All of a man’s toil is for his mouth, yet even then the soul is never filled’ (Ecc.6: 7); ‘ . . . to make the soul of the famished empty’ (Isa.32:6). In all of these cases, the point lies in the sensation accompanying the use of food, the physical satisfaction which the soul furnishes when we partake of its products.
    “This is amply confirmed by our Lord’s words: ‘Do not worry about your soul, what you may be eating, or what you may be drinking . . . Is not the soul more than nourishment?’ (Matt.6:25). These creature needs are what the soul craves, yet true satisfaction is not to be found in them. Even as He said on another occasion: ‘For what will a man be benefited, if he should ever be gaining the whole world, yet be forfeiting his soul? Or what will a man be giving in exchange for his soul?’ (Matt. 16: 26). This is the evil which the wise man saw: ‘A man to whom the One, Elohim, gives riches and substance and glory, and he has no lack to his soul of all that he yearns for, yet the One, Elohim, does not give him power to eat of it’ (Ecc.6:2). . . .
    “How luminous does our Lord’s invitation become in the light of a true understanding of the soul! ‘Hither to Me, all who are toiling and laden, . . . and you shall be finding rest in your souls’ (Matt.11:28,29). It is the soul that feels the pressure and distress of life’s burdens and responsibilities, and it is the soul that finds its rest in His yoke.”

    DEATH IS A RETURN
    Having established the meaning of soul, that it is a phenomenon or that which pertains to the senses, we must emphasize that, in death, the human soul undergoes a return. It returns to that concerning which, apart from revelation, we can only inquire. Yet we do so because we are interested in the whence and whither of things, especially in the whence and whither of man. From where did he come, and to where does he go?
    Now if we should ask, What are we, where did we come from and where are we going? the answer is, From the ground you were taken, For soil you are, And to the soil you shall return (cf Gen.3:19). But if we should ask, Yet what of the human soul; what becomes of it? the answer is, The soul returns to the unseen.
    That is, the human soul, man’s experience, has the same status subsequent to this life that it had prior to this life. If it had life before this present, corporeal lifetime, then, when that which we term “death” ensues, it returns to its previous life. Alternatively, if it did not have life prior to this present, corporeal lifetime, then, when that which we term “death” ensues, human experience returns to its previous status, that of non-existence.
    Job knew that God would return him to death. “I know that You are turning me back to death, to that house appointed for all the living” (Job.30:23). “If He places it in His heart concerning him, He can gather back His spirit to Himself; all flesh would expire together, and humanity would return to the soil” (Job 34: 15). “You conceal Your face; they are flustered. You gather away their spirit; they expire and return to their soil” (Psa.104:29). “All are going to one place; all have come from the soil, and all return to the soil” (Ecc.3:20).
    It is thus, through such passages of Scripture as these, that we become aware that, essentially, death itself is a return. Man is soil and returns to the soil (Gen.3:19). The spirit—the imperceptible power of life, action, and intelligence in death, returns to God Who gave it (Ecc.12:7). “Death,” then, is simply the specialized term signifying the absence of life which follows mortality as contrasted with the absence of life which precedes it.
    We may speak of our soul even as we speak of our body. Even as the elements, however, which compose our body are entirely decomposed in death, the experiences which comprise our soul are entirely terminated in death. This is because “soul” is that which is produced when an organic body is endowed with spirit or breath, that is, with life-giving, soul-enabling power (Gen.2:7).

    SHEOL AND HADES
    The Hebrew for that to which, in death, man returns (the unseen, CV; grave, hell, or pit, AV), is sheol, which signifies “ASK,” and corresponds to the Greek hadês, meaning “unseen” (cp Psa.16:10; Acts 2:27,31). Thus, in death, the soul returns to the “ask”; that is, it returns to that which must be asked about in order to be known, being unseen. Since it is imperceptible, that to which the soul returns is naturally the subject of inquiry. How appropriate, then, that the Hebrew should speak of it as the “ask” and that the Greek should speak of it as the “unseen.”
    It is true that sheol is ordinarily concerned with the state of those who are in “the tombs” (John 5:28), or as we would say, according to our own burial customs, that it is ordinarily concerned with those who are in their graves. Nevertheless, sheol does not mean “grave.” it means “ask,” and is used in reference to something that is unseen, which is an object of inquiry. In Matthew 16:18, the Greek equivalent of sheol, which is hadês, is used in reference to the unseen domain of the Adversary. Yet in Matthew 11:23, it is used in reference to the unseen state (as a consequence of its destruction and desolation) to which the city of Capernaum would one day subside.
    In Genesis 37:35, Jacob declared, “I shall go down mourning to my son, to the unseen.” These words, however, do not refer to being lowered into a grave, but to that which he claimed as his portion for the remainder of his lifetime (i.e., mourning for his son). We use a similar idiom when we say, “having traveled down the road of life and come to the end of our journey.” The sense of “go down mourning” is parallel to the modern idiom, “go down fighting,” namely, to continue on, unintermittingly, until the end. It should also be noted that Jacob’s words, “to my son,” are elliptical; they are not complete in themselves. Since it would be a neutral expression, the objective ellipsis must be, “to [the status of] my son” —regardless of what that status may be. To say the least, it is begging the question to insist upon some sort of extraordinary, double ellipsis such as, “to [the dwelling place of] my son [where he is still alive, even though not in a body].”

    THE SOUL IN SHEOL
    “We have learned that the soul is not substance; nor is it immaterial spirit. It is only the result of a combination of the spirit with the body . . . .
    “A point which seems to have been entirely overlooked, and which will help us much at this juncture, is the fact that the soul only is coupled with the unseen. The spirit must never be associated with sheol or hades. The body is never connected with the unseen, except in such extraordinary cases as the sons of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who ‘descended . . . alive toward the unseen’ [i.e., into the unseen substratum, below the earth’s surface], when ‘the ground which was under them was rent, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up’ (Num.16:31-33), or Jonah, who found his sheol in the fish’s belly (Jonah 2:2). In contrast to this, the soul is definitely spoken of as in sheol in at least six passages (Psa.16:10; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13; 89:48; Prov.23:14), as well as in hades in two (Acts 2:27,31). Besides this, the thought latent in the context of these two words is always concerned with sensation when the reference is to humanity.”

    SCRIPTURAL USAGE DETERMINES MEANING
    It does not follow from the fact that the Greek word hadês signifies “unseen,” that, when speaking of the human soul in death, hadês therefore speaks of an unseen place, much less that it speaks of an unseen place where “disembodied spirits” abide. An “abode” is the place where one remains or dwells; it is the place where one lives or resides. Our inquiry is that of the nature of the unseen. It will not do simply to make the bald claim that hadês is “the abode of disembodied spirits.” We are aware that such were the notions of certain intertestamental Jews and of many ancient Greeks. We also realize that many modern scholars are of the same opinion. Tales, however, about disembodied spirits in the unseen world of Greek mythology even as historical records concerning ancient Jews who, under the influence of such myths, claimed that similar doctrines are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, are no basis for truth. What we are interested in is what the Scriptures actually reveal concerning the unseen. If it is a sufficient revelation, God granting us eyes to see, we will then know from the Scriptures themselves whether such sources as those to which so many appeal are right or wrong.

    CONSOLATION ACCORDING TO TRUTH
    The Scriptures always speak of the death and resurrection of man himself; they never speak of either the death or resurrection merely of the body. It is the dead who are in their tombs (John 5:28); and, the dead are in their tombs, not in “the abode of disembodied spirits.” Indeed, why should we deem it unbelievable that God is rousing the dead? (Acts 26:8).
    Concerning believers who are reposing (not, believers’ bodies which are merely lying in the grave; 1 Thess.4:13), we are told to console one another with the words that the dead in Christ shall be rising first, and thereupon the living shall at the same time be snatched away together with them, to meet the Lord in the air and always to be together with Him (1 Thess.4:16, 17). It is remarkable indeed, then, if the dead in Christ are not really dead but are instead in the joy of heaven, that, in a context in which the theme is the consolation of the bereaved, we are only told to console one another with these words (1 Thess.4:18), the words of the apostle Paul concerning resurrection, and are not at all told to console one another as well with some testimony to the effect that our loved ones are not really dead at all but are gloriously alive, even in the presence of Christ Himself.
    Howbeit, resolute claims seeking to justify the immortality of the soul are the order of the day. Such claims are regularly set forth, even in the face of the most explicit, scriptural declarations to the contrary. For example, the testimony of Ecclesiastes concerning the dead is viewed as utterly mistaken, and is appraised as but “humanistic thought,” the “perspective of autonomous man.” Such claims are freely set forth by many, notwithstanding the fact that Ecclesiastes’ own author, concerning this same testimony, under divine inspiration, insists that “what was written is uprightness and words of truth” (Ecc.12:10).
    Similarly, it is claimed that what the psalmist meant when declaring, “The dead cannot praise Yah, nor all those descending into stillness” (Psa.115:17), was that, in death, one can no longer praise God before men, in this life: “in the church militant, as is done by saints in the land of the living.” This, however, we hardly need to be told. Besides, since the dead descend into “stillness,” it is evident that they do not praise God at all.

    DEATH PRECLUDES LIFE
    The Scriptures make it clear that the dead are not alive and that soul (sensation or experience) is impossible in death. The fact is that the dead do not live . . .” (cf Rev.20:5).
    The unseen is not only commonly set in parallel to death as its practical equivalent (e.g., 1 Sam.2:6; Psa.6:5,6; 89:48; Hos. 13:14), but, the apostle Paul, in a close adaptation of Hosea 13: 14, even substitutes the Greek word for “death” (thanate) where the prophet had used the Hebrew sheol (1 Cor.15:55).
    Similarly, earlier in the same chapter, in reply to the claim of some of the Corinthians “that there is no resurrection of the dead” (v. 12), the apostle argues that if the dead are not being roused, (1) neither has Christ been roused; (2) vain is your faith; (3) you are still in your sins! and (4) “Consequently those also, who are put to repose in Christ, perished. “The apostle does not say that if there is no resurrection, that those no longer having bodies will just have to continue to make do without them, but, that if there is no resurrection, that the dead in Christ perished.
    In many places, the Scriptures speak of the dead as destitute of knowledge or speech, and as knowing nothing until resurrection. These scriptures are to be believed, not twisted. They make it clear that death is truly death, not life in some other form. The following are a selection of notable passages concerning sheol and the state of the dead. May God give us grace to believe them.
    “Do return Yahweh! Do extricate my soul! Save me on account of Your benignity. For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the unseen, who shall acclaim You?” (Psa.6:4,5). “What gain is there in my blood poured out, in my descending to the grave? Does soil acclaim You? Does it tell Your faithfulness?” (Psa.30:9). “O Yahweh, let me not be ashamed, for I have called out to You. Let the wicked be ashamed; let them be silent in the unseen” (Psa.31:17). “The dead cannot praise Yah, nor all those descending into stillness” (Psa.115:17). “Let me praise Yahweh throughout my life; let me make melody to my Elohim through all my future. Do not trust in patrons, in a son of humanity with whom there is no salvation. His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return to his ground; in that day his reflections perish” (Psa. 146:2-4).
    “This is the evil in all that is done under the sun: That one destiny is for all; moreover, the heart of the sons of humanity is full of evil, and ravings are in their heart throughout their life, yet after it, they are joined to the dead. Indeed for anyone who is joined with all the living there is trust; for it is better for a living cur than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing whatsoever” (Ecc. 9:3-5). “All that your hand finds to do, do with your vigor, for there is no doing or devising or knowledge or wisdom in the unseen where you are going” (Ecc.9:10). “Indeed the unseen cannot acclaim You, nor can death praise You; and those who descend into a crypt cannot look forward to Your faithfulness. The living! the living one! he is acclaiming You as I do today; the father makes known to his sons Your faithfulness” (Isa.38:18,19).

    THE LAST ENEMY
    From the scriptural facts set forth in this present exposition, we may be certain that, with reference to the human soul after death, the “unseen” is not a place (i.e., a realm or locale) at all, but a status. In death, the status of the human soul is that of post-existence. Except for the fact that it follows rather than precedes the time of the soul’s existence, the post-death status of a man’s soul is the same as that of its pre-generative status, namely, that of non-existence. Therefore, we may be certain that any and all who claim otherwise—be they ancient Jews or Greeks or modern scholars—are mistaken in their beliefs.
    Let us rejoice that the day will come when Christ will have gloriously placed all His enemies “under His feet” (1 Cor.15: 25). “Under His feet,” is a figure of speech signifying subjection. The secret of God’s will is to head up all in the Christ (Eph.1:10). Thus all will become “in Christ,” their Head, to Whom all will be subject. This will come to pass in a way that accords with God’s delight, and as the achievement of that which He purposed in Christ (Eph.1:9).
    Let us rejoice that after all other enemies have been subjected, that even the very last of all Christ’s enemies will also be subjected. But while we await that day, let us recognize what that last enemy is. “The last enemy is being abolished: death” (1 Cor.15:26).


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