Responding to some of the recent posts on hell Steven Opp emailed me with a few questions. The first has to do with the motivational value of a doctrine of annihilation. If the Gehenna passages in the New Testament actually refer to temporal judgment on Israel as part of a narrative of historical crisis, and if at the personal level the final judgment on human sinfulness is death and not eternal conscious punishment, what reason do people have for believing or behaving?
I am very convinced that the church has blown up the idea of Hell because of Greek influence…. However, here is a hangup for me. If there is no Hell just annihilation, where does judgement come into play? How does annihilation act as a warning to someone who already believes that when you die you basically are annihilated anyway? The second death is just one more step to lights out. So eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die just turns into eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow you die, arise for a bit, are judged guilty, then die again?
First, I would query the assumption that the final metaphysical condition of unrighteous humanity is intended in scripture to “act as a warning”. It seems to me that we ask this question only because modern evangelical theology prioritizes personal salvation. It is tantamount to an admission that the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment has been developed, or at least maintained, as a tool for evangelism or moral control. You have to wonder, too, about the intrinsic goodness of a good news that needs to be backed up with threats of unmitigated pain.
Over the centuries, it is true, the church has effectively used the threat of eternal punishment to turn people to Jesus and ensure good behaviour, but that does not mean it is a properly biblical strategy. We have always to reckon with the fact that scripture prioritizes communities and societies over individuals in its core narrative constructions. Judgment is therefore what happens to a group of people or to a nation or to an empire. Jonah provides a simple example. The prophet warns the city of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jon. 3:4). The citizens believe the word of Jonah’s god and repent, so “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (3:5-10). There is no threat of eternal punishment, but a whole society is sufficiently shaken by the warning of catastrophe that it abandons its evil and violent ways.
The same message is preached to first century Israel by John, Jesus and then the disciples in Jerusalem, but there is no collective repentance. The prospect of national destruction and great human suffering, couched in the language of the prophets, should have led Israel to repent and recognize Jesus as God’s anointed king. But matters turned out otherwise.
The coming judgment on Israel as a consequence of rebellion against YHWH that Jesus foresaw entailed extreme human suffering—war was like that. But it ended in the destruction of a society. This is very different in all respects from the doctrine of unending torment after death.
Underlying the historical narrative of judgment against Israel and against the enemies of Israel is a simple existential reality: the wages of sin is death. The first judgment on human sinfulness was death. The final judgment on human sinfulness will be death. When Christianity became a universal religion rather than the story of a chosen people, it was natural to develop universal and individualized arguments regarding rewards and punishments.
But this constituted a departure from the biblical understanding of things. The proper motivation is not the threat of torment but the calling of God to participate in a new creation people which will take upon itself—under Christ, in the power of the Spirit, always dependent on grace—the full responsibility of living righteous, godly lives in the midst of the world, whatever the cost.
It could be argued, of course, that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes torment in Hades a matter of explicit warning for those left behind, but it is difficult to know how much of the narrative detail is meant to be taken literally. It may be that Jesus plays on essentially syncretistic folk beliefs regarding an afterlife, but I think that the story functions essentially as a metaphor for a coming judgment that will reverse the fortunes of the powerful and the “poor” in Israel.