Have You Ever Heard of the Metaphorical View of Eternal Punishment?

Have You Ever Heard of the Metaphorical View of Eternal Punishment?


I’m J.K. McKee, editor of Messianic
Apologetics. If you are new to the channel, be sure to subscribe for future
teachings and updates. Too many are not aware that the majority view of
theologians, since the Protestant Reformation,
has been that the unrepentant wicked suffer eternally–but not by writhing in
an endless lake or pool of magma, molten lead, and sulfur. Instead, the metaphorical
view of the wicked suffering everlasting exile from God the Creator, has been what
has been affirmed. While a significant amount of attention over the issue of
death, the intermediate state, and the resurrection is necessarily given to the
destiny of the redeemed–the unredeemed too will die, experience their own
intermediate penalization, and then be resurrected. Daniel 12:2 informs us that
there will be those resurrected “to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (NASU).
Revelation 20:5, 6 explains, “The rest of the dead did not come to
life until the thousand years were completed…Blessed and holy is the one
who has a part in the first resurrection; over these
the second death has no power…” (NASU). Those who participate in the second resurrection
are those who will have to stand trial before Yeshua the Messiah, and be judged
according to the level of their deeds or works they committed (Revelation 20:12-14). It is worth being reminded of how all created beings will
have to acknowledge Yeshua the Messiah as LORD: “[A]t the name of Yeshua EVERY KNEE WILL BOW [Isaiah 45:23], of those who are in heaven and on earth, and under the
earth, and that every tongue will confess that Yeshua the Messiah is Lord, to the
glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, NASU). There will be those who
obviously acknowledge Yeshua as Lord (YHWH), because they have
recognized Him as the Messiah of Israel and their Personal Savior. They have
recognized Him as the Source of eternal redemption, and have been saved from
their sins, washed clean by His atoning sacrifice. There will be others, though,
who rejected the Messiah, who rejected His salvation, but will nonetheless be forced to recognize Him as the Supreme Deity. Yeshua Himself says in
John 5:29 that there will be “those who committed the evil deeds [brought] to a
resurrection of judgment” (NASU). Just as the redeemed who participated in the first
resurrection will be able to spend eternity in a fully embodied, immortal
state–what is to be said about the unredeemed who are similarly given
immortal bodies at the second resurrection? Those, who advocate a
traditionalist model of eternal punishment, are of the position that the
resurrection of the condemned, the second resurrection, gives the unrighteous the
nature or form of being that is needed to experiencing a never-ending form of
punishment. While the righteous are to experience everlasting life, fellowship
and communion with God–the unrighteous are to experience an everlasting death
of exile and banishment from Him. The annihilationist, however,
only views concepts like “life” and “death” and an entirely medical sense. In his
typical scenario, the unrighteous die, they fall into unconsciousness, they are
resurrected, they face final judgement, and then they suffer
individual extinction and nothingness. The annihilationist will argue
stridently against any model of eternal punishment as somehow being “eternal life
in hell-fire.” But if eventual termination is what is to be anticipated by the
unredeemed, though, what would be the actual point of a second resurrection? In
the annihilation’s schema, would it not just be best for the
unrighteous to die, decompose into nothingness, and that should be it? Messianic annihilationits commonly argue
that the Torah only permits capital punishment for those who sin against God.
Yet, it is often not recognized how capital punishment is a human-enacted
penalty issued upon other humans. Surely, the final sentencing of those who have
rejected the Creator God is to be more severe than a terrestrial-based capital
punishment (cf. Hebrews 10:28-29). There is no question that almost all annihilationists,
in expressing their position, have to attack the most hard-pressed, (overly-)literal view of eternal punishment as possible, in order to make their case.
They protest the Hell model of torture in writhing in
flames–with men, women, and children all breathing in toxic fumes, being sprayed
with poisonous acid, and having to eat hot coals and drink molten lead. Yet,
there are many interpreters and theologians, holding to a never-ending
eternal punishment for the condemned, who would actually take issue with this
interpretation of Hell. The growth of annihilationism in evangelical circles,
at least, has been directly caused by a widescale failure of preachers and
teachers, to adequately explain and address all aspects of how the condemned unrighteous are presented to us in the
Bible. There are populist views of eternal punishment that need to be put
off to the side–the views that annihilationists are able to exaggerate
for themselves, and use emotional pleas to get people to reject. The Bible does
not exclusively portray eternal punishment in terms of fire and smoke,
but also in terms of darkness and a removal from God’s presence. While the
condemned will surely suffer on some demonstrable level, how much of the
punishment actually occurs in terms of what we might consider
physical torment can be disputed. The word of Revelation 20:12-13 is that the
unrighteous will be judged “according to their deeds,” indicating that the judgment
that the Lord will issue upon them will surely fit their crimes. Not all
condemned sinners receive the same degree of punishment, as some will
receive less, and some will receive more, than others.
Advocates of a never-ending eternal punishment are right to conclude that
the unrighteous will receive various levels of torment–even if it is
ultimately a psychological recognition on behalf of a sinner that he or she
quantitatively rejected the Creator, and is to face the consequences of out
standing exclusion from His Kingdom. What kind of a judgement meted out upon the
unrighteous can actually take place, if they are to be snuffed out of existence?
Whether one has robbed a candy store and taken only a few dollars in sweets, or
has overseen a ponzi scheme and taken away billions of dollars in collective
savings–annihilationism is the same penalty for everyone who commits robbery.
The male who rapes and murders only a single
female, receives the same penalty as the brutal dictator who sends thousands or
hundreds of thousands of people to work and die in labor camps. The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics points out how, “Annihilationism would not
be a punishment but a release from all punishment. Job can suffer something
worse than annihilation in this life. The punishment of evil men in the afterlife
would have to be conscious. If not, then God is not just, since he would have
given less punishment to some wicked than to some righteous people. For not
all wicked people suffer as much as some righteous people do in this life.” Indeed,
any interpreter is on good grounds to conclude that the everlasting punishment,
that the unrighteous experience, has to be more severe than some of the Earthly
suffering experienced by the righteous. While none of us likes the topic of
suffering–whether it is contemplating people burning for all eternity or being
separate from God for all eternity–there are indeed
interpreters who have viewed the descriptions of eternal punishment more
along the lines of the latter than the former. Why has this been so important?
Because annihilationists do not typically respond, or even respect, the
metaphorical position on eternal punishment. Most annihilationist
literature response to the literal view of people really burning in a
never-ending crematory. If you have never even heard of the metaphorical view on
eternal punishment, you are not alone. One evangelical pastor, conducting a
study at his church on the subject of death and the afterlife, had this to say
about it: “I was surprised to learn in my studies
on this subject that the metaphorical view of hell is by far the most popular
among evangelicals today, and indeed, has a long and distinguished pedigree.” If
many of today’s evangelicals are totally shocked and surprised to ever hear of
the metaphorical view of eternal punishment–which focuses the attention
of Believers upon descriptions of everlasting banishment and exile from
God–how many of today’s Messianics have never heard of it? From my family’s
own Protestant background, John Wesley commented on Revelation 20:3, “How far these expressions are to be taken literally, how far figuratively,
who can tell?” Given the tenor of his Sermon #73, “Of Hell,”
there is no question that he believed eternal punishment was an everlasting
condition of total loss, saying, “All the pleasures of the imagination are at an
end. There is no grandeur in the infernal
regions; there is nothing beautiful in those dark abodes; no light but that of
livid flames. And nothing new, but one unvaried scene of horror upon horror! There
is no music but that of groans and shrieks; of weeping, wailing, and gnashing
of teeth; of curses and blasphemies against God, or cutting reproaches of one
another. Nor is there anything to gratify the sense of honour: No; they are the heirs
of shame and everlasting contempt.” Many of the other mainline Protestant
traditions can find similar statements made by their founders, in terms of Hell
being an awful place of suffering, with sinners removed from the care and
concern of God. While there are figures who held
to a much more literal Hell than a metaphorical one, the metaphorical view
of everlasting exile has had a noticeable impact on theologians’
thoughts over the past few centuries. But why has the metaphorical view of Hell
been an option? Is it because some interpreters do not like the idea of the
condemned having to suffer in literal fire and brimstone? Is it somehow a
position of compromise between annihilationism and having to “burn” or
“fry”–taking “the Hell out of Hell”? Actually, we find that the metaphorical
view of eternal punishment is most concerned with being fair to all of the
descriptions of Hell, carefully balancing them together. Noting the Lake of Fire in
Revelation 20:10, and the description of darkness in Matthew 25:30,
Bruce Milne issues “a reminder that we are dealing here with metaphors,” as
fire and darkness are contradictory. Considering these ghastly elements to
largely be symbols, most theologians today prefer instead to focus on the
length of time that eternal punishment actually lasts,
with the process of eternal punishment considered secondary. Leon Morris
observes, “It must be borne in mind that Scripture uses symbolic terms of
necessity to refer to realities beyond the grave.
We must not press statements about ‘fire,’ ‘death,’ and the like. But neither must we
yield to a sentimental demand that they be watered down. That there is a dread
reality Scripture leaves us in no doubt.” Those who adhere to a metaphorical view
of eternal punishment, definitely consider it
as taking place and being on going for eternity. Descriptions like fire, smoke,
brimstone, and darkness are to principally be taken as literary images
of its severity. Too many might be overly influenced of thinking of Divine
punishment as being locked up in a castle dungeon from the Middle Ages,
whereas what eternal punishment really involves is the unredeemed losing their
right to rule beside God as His viceroy (Psalm 8; Hebrews 2:5-8). William V.
Crockett, as a proponent of the metaphorical view of eternal punishment,
summarizes some of the descriptions that are seen in the Bible: “Fire and darkness, of course, are not the
only images we have of hell in the New Testament. The wicked are said to weep
and gnash their teeth (Matt. 8:12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:15; 25:30; Luke 13:28), their worm
never dies (Mark 9:48), and they are beaten with many
blows (Luke 12:47). No one thinks hell will involve actual beatings or is a place
where the maggots of the dead achieve immortality. Equally, no one thinks that
gnashing teeth is anything other than an image of hell’s grim reality….When we
take into account the various images that describe hell and couple them with
what seems unequivocally to be metaphorical language used for heaven, we
see that God has not given us a complete picture of the afterlife. As always, God
communicates to people in ways they can understand.” The metaphorical view of
eternal punishment is definitely a traditional model witnessed throughout a
great deal of Christian history. In the debate over whether annihilationism is
Biblically valid–it often does not receive the hearing that it surely
deserves. Those who move away from holding a
position of a never-ending eternal punishment, often move from the literal
view directly to annihilationism. They have usually not even heard about the
metaphorical view, which focuses the attention of Bible readers upon eternal
punishment as everlasting exile. Most of today’s Messianic Believers
I have personally encountered have never even heard of the metaphorical view. For
my own self, I am sad to say that I had never even heard of the metaphorical
view until I started my post-graduate seminary studies in 2005. Up to that time,
I thought that we were only given two choices:
a literal eternal fiery torture or an utter annihilation from existence.
Believing that annihilationism was a problematic doctrine, I chose the only
other option that I thought I had. Like many, I had to deal with the contours of
popular preaching, much of which views Hell as an eternal, ongoing crematory. And
like many, when I discovered that a metaphorical view of Hell–which focuses
largely upon Hell as a condition of everlasting separation
from God–has probably been the majority view among theologians since the
Reformation, I was understandably surprised! If we can all concede that
some poetic language or literary license is used in Genesis ch. 1 to
describe the Creation of the universe, and that there is even some poetic
language or prose used in Revelation chs. 21-22 to describe the New
Creation–then we should not be surprised to see some symbolic language used to
describe the punishment of the condemned. Recognizing that some descriptions have
to be held in concert with the others, should move an intelligent Bible reader
beyond the rhetoric of various fundamentalists who light themselves on
fire to prove the literal view, and the annihilationist who whines and complains that the
God who would force sinners to burn for eternity is an utter sadist. For, as J.A. Motyer carefully details, “fire” has various
components to it throughout the Scriptures: “Fire is used in the Bible to
symbolize both the holiness of God and the unsatisfied desire of man. In Ezekiel
it is the fire of God’s holiness that destroys
doomed city (Ezekiel 10:2); Paul speaks of the ‘burning’ of unfulfilled
desire (1 Corinthians 7:9). When the Bible, therefore, speaks of eternal loss
as ‘fire’ it is pictorializing a double reality: a conscious realisation both of
alienation from God and of burning, personal desires eternally deprived of
satisfaction.” A metaphorical view of Hell, with descriptions of eternal punishment
involving some poetic or artistic language, should not disturb us too much.
A metaphorical view of sinners having to “burn” or have God’s anger “kindled” against
them, sees it in terms more of punishment
being “issued,” “dispensed,” or “delivered” upon them–albeit
most seriously and severely. If we can concede that the New Jerusalem
can only be humanly conceived in terms of it being a “city”–the most
comprehensive description of eternity for the redeemed–then we should be able
to concede some less-than-literal descriptions present in Scripture
regarding Hell. What advocate,s of both the literal and metaphorical views of
eternal punishment, are agreed upon, is that the level of punishment
for the unrighteous is given to them on an evaluation of their works.
Each sinner is punished differently. Annihilationism, however, knows no such
degrees. Annihilation or a personal obliteration from existence is the same
across the board, whether a sinner is a pickpocket, a serial murderer, a
pathological liar, or a perverse sexaholic. Advocates of annihilationism
are not totally ignorant of the metaphorical view of eternal punishment,
and how it attempts to deal fairly with all of the images of the destiny of the
unrighteous. But, annihilationists do not typically address the metaphorical
position, because if eternal punishment in Scripture is ultimately everlasting
exile from God, they cannot easily make their emotional case against it, as they
do with the literal view. Still, even when descriptions of eternal punishment are
taken more in a symbolic way, one finds that the annihilation estates that
sinners suffering, in any manner, is something to be considered cruel. Samuele
Bacchiocchi thinks, “Mental anguish can be as painful as physical pain.” True, but
no one said that the metaphorical view was devoid of any kind of torment, agony,
or unpleasantness. Annihilationists believe that a conscious eternity separated from God, in
some kind of unpleasant place, is to be entirely unacceptable to the modern mind.
Even if eternal punishment, “Hell,” were to be likened unto the cosmic equivalent of
a never-ending high school detention, they would still consider it to be cruel and
unusual. Any alternative to non-existence, even one that focuses less on the
scenery of eternal punishment and more on sinners having to consider their
rejection of the Creator, is simply unacceptable to annihilationists. If you
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