It is often asserted by annihilationists that the “example” of Sodom and Gomorrah, as seen in Jude and 2 Peter 2 are support for their position. This cannot possibly be the case, for a variety of reasons. Consider; if something is symbolic of, or is representative of something else – especially something eternal, as the fire is here – of what nature is the symbol in comparison to the actuality? Is it greater than, equal to, or lesser than? Biblically, all symbols of God’s acts and/or nature are necessarily lesser than the fulfillment, or that which is exemplified. The prefigure is less than the figure. What the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah exemplifies, obviously, is the perpetuity of destruction awaiting sinners – not the *consequences* of that destruction, as we shall see, but an active, perpetual destruction.
What, however, is meant by the term “destruction”? Our annihilationists are quite fond of using “destroyed” in certain senses. This is not to say that this is necessarily wrong, at first blush. After all, destruction is often complete, at least to some extent of completion. I mean, we aren’t talking reductio ad nihilo here. Nor, apparently, would they want us to consider the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to be annihilation in the sense of that experienced in the second death. Thus, there is neither complete annihilation of the matter which Sodom and Gomorrah (and their inhabitants) were composed of, nor was there the complete annihilation of the souls of those living in Sodom and Gomorrah – unless you’re a monist, of course, at which point I fail to see how you’d escape there being a functional differentiation between the first and second deaths – or from Jesus repeating Himself (perhaps for emphasis – verily, verily?) in Matt 10:28. But I digress.
Apparently, (again, unless you’re a monist) the “lifelessness” (to use their term) of the body which was brought about in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah is an example of the “lifelessness” of both body and soul brought about by God killing sinners in the second death. What I don’t see any particular thought being given to is why it is called “eternal” if the fire which Sodom’s destruction symbolizes is anything but? Remember, “fire” is being modified, not “ashes”, or “destruction”. Not the effects of the fire, the results of the fire, or the second causes of the fire – but fire itself. In fact, it can be argued that the fires of Sodom are more “eternal” than that which it symbolizes, in their view! Why? Gill relates that Philo the Jew, who was around decades before Christ, reported that the area of Sodom and Gomorrah’s demise was still burning. It stands to reason, therefore, that it was still burning at the time the epistles in question were written. So, arguably, you could say that that which is the symbol is greater than that which is symbolized. Further, this will also go into how you consider “eternal,” contextually. Consider the verse previous.
“And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day” – δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις ὑπὸ ζόφον. In vs. 7 it is πυρὸς αἰωνίου δίκην. It is a slightly different word – the word aidios has more of the sense of “from (or in) perpetuity” – or “from time out of mind” – the more complete philosophical idea of eternity, for instance. The only other use of aidios? Romans 1:20, where it speaks of the “eternal power” of God. My further comments on that verse are readily available. Vs. 7 is the more “standard” word for eternal; but note something important. The verse starts off with an interesting clause; “just as”. what does this tell us? It tells us 1) That it is continuing the thought from the verse prior and 2) That what is to follow is considered analogous to what preceded it. Thus, the eternal fire in view is “just as” the eternal bonds of the demons. So, should we hear any claims of “the effects of the fire go on forever, but they don’t experience that fire in perpetuity” – are we to say that this is “just as” the demons are bound – the effects continue on, but are not experienced? I hardly think that this would be congruent to the “eternal power” of God, either – the only other use of that word in Scripture. Fudge brings up Bauckham as saying that “the whole tradition, rooted in Genesis and the prophets the idea that the punishment is long-lasting or eternal refers to its finality.” Obviously, the Lord’s “word is settled in heaven” – this is indisputable. If God acts, it is final. He acts from eternity, He acts a se, and He acts omnipotently. However, and I should not need to stress this, but I will – He acts eternally. When we are speaking of bonds, or fire, it is seen to be in perpetuity – not merely the effects, but the action itself. God, in His wrath, pours it out perpetually on those who oppose Him. While they yet live on earth, it is restrained – for the sake of the elect – and is only from time to time let loose – as an example. The demons do not escape their bonds, the bonds are not loosed – nor are those bonds merely those which the effects are felt long after they are gone. They are kept in these eternal bonds, and while in darkness – in keeping for what? For the final judgment. Just as… the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are… exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. In the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah we have a symbol in multiple “layers”, so to speak. We have the visible scene of the ever-smoking, ever-burning ruination and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – the fire that is not quenched. However, even more pertinently, we have the greater symbol of eternal fire in the case of what they experience up until their final judgment. Make sure you note the use of “final” – and what that presupposes. If we are to retain “just as” in this instance, as we have in the prior instances – what do we know about this perpetual punishment? It is to keep them for the final judgment. We know their current state – they are undergoing punishment perpetually, in keeping for the final judgment. This is clear, and it is unequivocal. What does Jude discuss shortly thereafter? The final judgment that awaits them, of course.
The context determines the meaning of a word. The semantic domain delimits it somewhat as well. We see that the word used of the demon’s bonds applies to the power of God. We also see that the text demands that we consider the terms in vss. 6 and 7 analogously. Additionally, we see that it is being used of an indefinite, but rather lengthy span of time, with a particular ending, and a being kept in perpetuity – in both cases, due to the use of “just as” – the final judgment. Thus, it can be seen that not only is this not speaking of the end of their existence, it is in fact speaking of their being kept in punishment, in accordance with their deeds, for the final judgment.
But, you might ask – what about 2 Peter 2? Does this counter our exegesis above? Not at all. Note in vs. 4 – we have the demons being “reserved for judgment”. If we are to consider this a parallel – what is “just as”? Well, look at “did not spare”, “did not spare” and “condemned” in the consecutive verses 4, 5 and 6 – they are all being compared to each other. Look at “cast them” in vs. 4, “brought a” in vs. 5, and “reduced them” in vs. 6. Did casting the demons into Tarturus (the pit) relieve the need for bonds? Did the flood “destroy” men, likewise, so that they were in no state of punishment in the meantime? Did the reduction (notice the differences in the rendering at this point – Peter says that the cities were reduced to ashes – this obviously includes the bodies of the people therein – but unless you’re a monist, this hardly reduces the spirit to ashes) – and, as we’ve already noted, the fires of that destruction were still burning when this was written. Is it the case that demons do not experience the pit, the bondage, or the darkness while they are being kept? Is it the case that those judged by the flood are not being punished perpetually? Is it further the case that the city, and the bodies of the dead of Sodom and Gomorrah being reduced to ashes is the sole, or even chief point of the passage? Not at all, given that they are being paralleled with each other. Here is the kicker. Look at verse 9. What does Peter say about those who lived in Sodom and Gomorrah? The Lord knows how “to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment.” Further, note what this is compared to; “to rescue the godly from temptation.” Who were rescued from temptation? The elect angels, Noah, and Lot. Were they rescued to be then discarded? No. They were rescued in perpetuity, as those who are kept under punishment are kept in perpetuity – until when? The day of judgment, where they will all be confirmed in their respective states.
As we can see, it is simply impossible to read this passage as dealing with the final punishment of the wicked – because it has to deal with the intermediate state of the wicked awaiting the final punishment – and cannot be otherwise, or it destroys the entire meaning of the passage, every parallel therein, and makes hash out of a great many things. It is, therefore, dealing with the intermediate judgment of the wicked. Should it be used as a prooftext for eternal torment? Not as such, despite the temptation that many have succumbed to – because the intermediate state is, of course, a warning to flee the wrath to come. If Sodom and Gomorrah’s fate is representative of their state of punishment now; then the wrath to come will be even more terrible. If the intermediate state for the wicked consists of perpetual punishment, where they are “kept under punishment” – can we say, with any degree of honesty, that simple annihilation, as bad as they might imagine it might be, would be anything but a “blessed relief” for the wicked? I think not. That is the only sense in which this is an argument for eternal torment – but it remains, however, an argument for eternal torment, not against it – and necessarily so.