Various Issues of Interest to the Debate

As I noted in my post “The Central Verses for the Doctrine of Hell,” there is a typical list of verses that are appealed to by the annihilationist. What this means in terms of the debate’s actual focus is still up in the air, of course, given that I have not yet heard what he intends to present, and likely will not, prior to the day. This is not problematic, of course, it just isn’t my typical modus operandi. If he sticks with a similar opener to that which he used with Diaz, I believe that he would even then have to make significant changes to his argumentation – first, because he is arguing the positive, not the negative, and second, because I have addressed the verses he says we tend not to address, and addressed most, if not all of the major points he uses there, and probably shouldn’t attempt to use here. This, however, is all secondary. My primary concern with this post is methodological.

As we have been arguing throughout this time of preparation, it must be the case that in order to make a Reformed defense of the doctrine of Hell, it must be from a uniquely Reformed theology of eschatology – as a systematic presentation. However, my opponent must also, since he claims to be a Calvinist, do the same, if he wishes to be consistent. However, as we pointed out in the recent podcast, he has a significantly flawed concept of systematic, and evidences a singular lack of attention to his own presuppositional commitments. When I speak of death, I speak of death in the context of the curse, and the Fall of man, wherein death came in through sin. Death, similarly, is not considered to be a mere cessation of bodily function which has unlimited duration, nor is it considered to be proleptic in it’s effects on man. It is death that the curse brought, in all of it’s complexity. I “lay all my cards out on the table” whenever I speak of these subjects. How does this relate? Well, it relates as follows:

Exegesis takes the Scriptures and analyzes each part of it in detail. Biblical theology takes the fruits of the exegesis and organizes them into various units and traces the revelation of God in Scripture in its historical development. It brings out the theology of each part of God’s Word as it has been brought to us at different stages, by means of various authors. Systematic theology then uses the fruits of the labors of exegetical and biblical theology and brings them together into a concatenated system. Apologetics seeks to defend this system of biblical truth against false philosophy and false science. Practical theology seeks to show how to preach and teach this system of biblical truth, while church history traces the reception of this system of truth in the course of centuries.[1]

Not only this – but perhaps even more strongly, and to our specific point;

It is but natural to expect that, if the church is strong because its ministry understands and preaches the whole counsel of God, then the church will be able to protect itself best against false teaching of every sort. Non-indoctrinated Christians will easily fall prey to the peddlers of Russellism, spiritualism, and all of the other fifty-seven varieties of heresies with which our country abounds. One-text Christians simply have no weapons of defense against these people. They may be able to quote many texts of Scripture which speak, for instance, of eternal punishment, but the Russellite will be able to quote texts which, by the sound of them and taken individually, seem to teach annihilation. The net result is, at best, a loss of spiritual power because of loss of conviction. Many times, such one-text Christians themselves fall prey to the seducer’s voice.

We have already indicated that the best apologetic defense will invariably be made by him who knows the system of truth of Scripture best. The fight between Christianity and non-Christianity is, in modern times, no piece-meal affair. It is the life-and-death struggle between two mutually opposed life-and-world views. The non-Christian attack often comes to us on matters of historical, or other, detail. it comes to us in the form of objections to certain teachings of Scripture, say, with respect to creation, etc. It may seem to be simply a matter of asking what the facts have been. Back of this detailed attack, however, is the constant assumption of the non-Christian metaphysics of the correlativity of God and man. He who has not been trained in systematic theology will often be at a loss as to how to meet these attacks. He may be quite proficient in warding off the attacks as far as details are concerned, but he will forever have to be afraid of new attacks as long as he has never removed the foundation from the enemy’s position.[2]

Look familiar? It should – because this is the blueprint for the presuppositionalist. It should be no surprise that the subject of our upcoming debate is specifically mentioned, either – as so many of the common errors in the American evangelical church today are directly traceable to Russell. Also applicable to the subject are his comments to follow on pgs 24-25, but I will leave you to that study, and recommend it to you. To move on, however, I’d also point you to the extensive discussion Van Til devotes to the “complications” posed by the wrath of God that rests on sinful men. This wrath is restrained wrath, but it rests on man in the curse, nonetheless. “There where the water was deepest, it has also been troubled most deeply by the lash of the wrath of God.”[3] As Edgar notes on Van Til’s comments there, “Many think of nature as the most glorious theater of God’s revelation, but in fact the human soul is. And what was the most glorious is now the most accursed.”[4] In the text to follow, there is a quite lengthy explanation and exposition of the various ways in which the curse has, indeed, made the discussion more complicated. As we have already noted, the curse is to be seen in all aspects of human life and action – and cannot be escaped in any endeavor of man.

Since this is the case, why, we wonder, are the annihilationists we have examined so motivated to “simplify” the discussion of death to the mere event experienced? This approach is surely not Biblical, nor can it be supported by the text of Scripture. It is quite evident that when sinners are spoken of as “no more,” to use one example, and the context is that of a passage such as Psalm 37, that this is speaking of promises, or of abiding vs. temporary success, or “prosperity”. It is referenced as if the context is that of some empirical process, or a laboratory experiment. In reality, it is addressing the very complaint made by the Jews in Malachi, that the Lord dealt so harshly with! When they complain that the Lord is “unjust”, they are not remembering God’s promises, from passages such as Psalm 37. I’m not going to provide a full exegesis of the text, but when you look at the passage as a cohesive whole, you note that it is introduced as an exhortation to refrain from envy of evildoers. The people of God are told that these evildoers will wither, fade, be cut off, be no more, not be there; that the sword will enter his own heart, that his bow will be broken; that they will perish, vanish away, pass away. We are told; “will the language ever be strong enough?” Indeed, it will. Here is the language.

The righteous will; be given the desires of their heart, have righteousness and justice brought forth, inherit the land, delight in abundant prosperity, be sustained, inherit forever, not be ashamed, have abundance even in times of famine, be blessed, have his steps established by the Lord; the Lord will hold his hand. They will not be forsaken, will not beg bread, will abide forever; they will be preserved and dwell forever, utter justice and wisdom, will not slip, will be exalted, see the wicked cut off, have a posterity, salvation, strength, help, deliverance, and refuge. In short, they will have the blessing of God in this life.

Note all of the comparisons throughout. The “be no more” verses are in the context of their prosperity, their inheritance – their “glory” is a temporary glory – it will pass, and it will fade away. These are assumptions of systematic theology – in one case, that of a theological system which assumes that death is an event; in the other, where death is a multifaceted thing, and has many levels of application, which affect all of that which is the life of a man. A metaphysic which does not account for the life of man as corrupt, fallen, depraved, and, in the sense the Scripture speaks, as dead, cannot account for what Scripture is speaking of when it speaks of the end of the wicked. It must pull language such as “no more” out of the Psalms to interpret the Prophets and elsewhere, instead of seeing them as complementary. It must speak of a “furnace of fire” as if they were all that of Nebuchadnezzar in an empirical sense, and demands of us a solely physical consuming fire, with _x_ many cups of ashes remaining of the corpses. It must speak of the supposed “absurdity” of “symbols perishing in fire” – when the controlling presupposition seems to be that the lake of fire is a physical entity which consumes the mortal remains, not as it is seen in Scripture – as a symbol in itself.

We should, however, speak of the presuppositions of the orthodox exegetes who likewise seem to assume that the fire is a physical manifestation, and the depictions which owe more to Dante’s Divine Comedy than to Daniel or Isaiah. In these authors, too, there seems to be a problematic tendency to want every possible reference to punishment, judgment, fire, or Hell to be a materialistic one. The descriptions we have seen throughout the Old and New Testament are descriptive not of the physical or empirical torments of a woodenly literal fire, complete with the odor of sulfur; but instead, seen to be descriptive of the unbridled wrath of God, being poured out upon the heads of those who cannot stand on that day, or on any day yet to come. What they seem to likewise lose track of is the substitutionary basis of the atonement, and the necessity for that which Christ experienced to be that experienced by unbelievers. In their admirable passion to defend the truth of eternal punishment they seem to lose track of the fact that Christ experienced the same punishment on behalf of His people. Hell’s fire is neither empirical flame nor empirical darkness – and the bodies of unbelievers are not forever chewed by empirical worms. Instead, these are descriptive of the type of punishment that the unbeliever will suffer – as are abhorrence, rage, despair, and weeping.

We must be careful, as Reformed believers, not to read metaphysical empiricism and/or monism into the text any more than we can allow our opponents to do so. We must not fall into the same trap we criticize them of, lest we too, fall. So, how do we resolve this dilemma of hermeneutics? We read the text literally, of course. Not with the wooden literalism which levels all types and anti-types into continuous irrelevance; but also not with the excess of symbology, which turns everything into an endless round of symbols, with never an explanation, either. The balance is to recognize that the depictions all have their particular context. We must recognize what depicts what, by reading the passages in question in their own context, and in the context of Scripture as a whole. It does not suffice to rhetorically ask “will the language ever be strong enough” as if we are talking about uninterpreted, or brute facts. It is quite simple to throw “facts” of Scripture at each other all the day long – apart from a cohesive, overarching, systematic theology of all the facts of Scripture, the response of your opponent will be to throw them over their shoulder into the bottomless pit[5], never to see the light of day again. We cannot merely argue whether our position is “more likely”, or “better fits the facts” in some nebulous sense – but we must show that only our position can account for all of what our subject is said to be in Scripture, in it’s entirety – sola scriptura, en tota scriptura.

Since I do not have the positive argument to offer in this debate, you won’t hear it except in summary form; however, I do plan to write something which would set it out at some point. Let me summarize how I would do so here, were I arguing positively.

The scriptural definition of death is seen to be a corruption of the perfect life granted Adam, and as a result of the Fall, and God’s curse of Adam and his progeny, under his federal headship. In the sin-cursed world, there is no aspect of life untouched by the fall; there is corruption in and of every level of every life. As such, we see that all death is a corruption of life, as sin, through which death came, is a corruption of righteousness. Since this is the case, every aspect of life is touched by death. It is not merely an event, any more than life is an event. If death is affirmed to be only an event, the frequent parallels with life must likewise affirm life to be an event as well. Not only that, but exegetically, the references to the granting of life can only be seen as having the same effect as the granting of death – a temporary event with lasting consequences which that which is granted refers to, without respect to the one receiving what is granted. In contrast, the orthodox position is that the lasting effects are identical to that which they are ordained to; death, which is a corruption of life, is that to which the unbeliever is confirmed to. Not merely in the sense of “event”, and certainly not temporary, but in true analogy to that which it is likened to – an eternal, active state of abhorrence, separation, ruin, corruption, darkness, wrath, and justice. Just as the believer’s eternal status is that which is glorious, righteous, exalted, united, blissful, and worshipful, the unbeliever’s eternal status is that which is ignominious, sinful, abject, separated, sorrowful, and hateful. As God’s love is eternal, and is exercised eternally on the vessels of mercy, his hatred is likewise eternal, and exercised eternally on the vessels of wrath. As the believer is sanctified and glorified, communing with and worshiping God eternally, the unbeliever is depraved and abased, apart from and judged by God eternally. Death is the corruption of an eternal life; it is that eternal corruption which is confirmed, condemned, and conquered, serving ever to glorify God’s justice, as the redeemed continually glorify God’s mercy.

In the atonement of Christ, we have the only possible account for Christ actually substituting for the elect. Only if the God-man comes to die for His people, and only if death is the full-orbed doctrine explaining as a corruption of life can Christ’s atonement be actually substitutionary, and preserve the historical doctrines of Christology, as taken from the Scripture. As only the God-man could take the fulness of God’s wrath in all of it’s power and fury, we have an account for the substitution of Christ in taking the wrath of God which no one else could withstand without continual wrath-bearing, and not be forever consumed, but take it upon Himself. In this, we have an answer to the continual question asked in Scripture; who can stand the wrath of the Lord? Christ our Lord! He hung in our place, took on Himself the fulness of God’s wrath, and did so in entirety, for the sake of all of the people of God. He did so, further, without separation of nature, and truly in our stead, as the second Adam, and the true High Priest, and fulfillment of all of the promises of God throughout history, of Himself – and laid down His own mortal life in obedience, and of His own volition, for our sake. The wrath of God was poured out upon Him, the justice of God was satisfied in Him, and by Him we were justified, in his propitiatory death. Similarly, He lived His life in obedience in all things, thus earning for us the perfect righteousness in which we are clothed, and accomplishing all that Adam, or any of His line, were unable to accomplish.

With this full-orbed doctrine of life, righteousness, sin and death, we have the only account there is to be had for all of what Scripture teaches. We have the only answer which can be given the atheist who scoffs at both eternal life and death in the sense Scripture explains it, and expects eternal life and death in the fashion consistent with how the annihilationist describes death, but inconsistently with how they describe life. We have the only answer for how sin, and death is meaningful – as a corruption of the righteousness and life granted by God. We have the only meaningful explanation for the nature of regeneration, predestination, justification, sanctification, and of glorification. Only under our view can we be “raised to newness of life” meaningfully. Only under our view can we be elected meaningfully, as election is unto life in sanctification – being conformed to the image of Christ. We cannot be justified, as we can’t be considered “alive in Christ”, as neither union nor election is possible until regeneration occurs. If, however, we are not considered dead now, then we cannot be considered raised now. If we are not raised, we cannot hear the call, as we have no ears to hear. The only meaningful account for the golden chain is that which is offered by the Reformed doctrine of life, and death.

The only meaningful account of the final judgment is that of Reformed doctrine. It is the only thing which preserves all of the doctrines of Scripture, and which accounts for all of what Scripture teaches. Annihilationism as espoused by Mr. Date fails to account for the nature of death, and due to that failure, for the system of doctrine which Scripture teaches; only by borrowing from the Reformed system can it preserve it even partially; by the impossibility of the contrary, Reformed doctrine is true.

  1. [1]Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 17
  2. [2]Ibid., 23-24
  3. [3]Ibid., 163
  4. [4]Ibid., 163
  5. [5]Van Til, Defense of the Faith, (4th Ed), 327

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