What follows is a point-by-point response to my esteemed debate opponent, T. Kurt Jaros, whose essay affirmed the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal, conscious separation from God. Each text or issue responded to appears in bold.
A more comprehensive response can be found here at Rethinking Hell.
Jaros cites John 10:26-30 as a metaphorical use of fire, but fire and burning are not mentioned. The text indicates that only those who follow Jesus will be granted eternal life, and that those who do not will perish. Traditionalists, contrary to this text, teach that unbelievers will live forever and never die.
A REAL HELL
Numbers 16:30 is irrelevant. The ground opened up and the men fell alive into Sheol—the grave, the pit, or perhaps the conscious intermediate state of the dead. All mankind will one day come out of Sheol (or Hades), and Revelation 20:13-15 says it will be thrown empty into hell.
In Matthew 3:12 “unquenchable fire” means what it always does in the Bible: a fire which cannot be extinguished, and hence will irresistibly and completely consume (Eze. 20:47; Jer. 17:27). Jesus uses the word katakaiō, translated “burn up” by the NASB, which means to burn down completely. He says that unbelievers will be completely destroyed by a fire which cannot be prematurely put out.
Matthew 13:41-42 and 50 also use katakaiō, and Jesus says that as the chaff is burned down completely in a furnace of fire—hearkening to Malachi 4:1-3 in which the wicked are reduced to ashes—so, too, will the wicked.
Matthew 5:22 and 29-30 use the word Gehenna to refer to hell, which referred to the valley of the sons of Hinnom, otherwise known as Topheth, which was “the valley of slaughter” where scavenging creatures cannot be prevented from fully consuming dead corpses (Jer. 7:32). Isaiah 30:33 likens it to a funeral pyre. This in stark contrast with Jaros’ position which is that the bodies of the risen wicked will never die.
Matthew 18:8-9 refers to the place of “eternal fire” as Gehenna, and Jude 7 uses “eternal fire” to refer to the fire which came down from heaven and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying them. Hence the parallel in 2 Peter 2:6 says Sodom and Gomorrah were reduced to ashes. Though perhaps a type or prefigure of hell, in Jaros’ metaphorical view, the anti-type that is hell, being neither brief nor involving fire, is in no way like the type. Eternal fire, therefore, refers to the fire of the eternal God which destroys, not to fire in which the wicked will consciously burn forever.
Matthew 25:41-46 says that “eternal punishment” is punishment by “eternal fire,” so we know what eternal punishment is: being destroyed, never to live again. The duration of capital punishment is measured, not in the time it takes to die, but in the time during which a criminal is no longer part of the living. Annihilation—the ultimate capital punishment—qualifies as an eternal punishment, as even Jonathan Edwards admitted.
Matthew 8:12 does not tell us how long the unredeemed will weep and gnash. Matthew 13 does, which, as we’ve seen, says the wicked will be completely destroyed. Weeping and gnashing will last only until the unsaved die in hell.
Revelation 14:9-11 is symbolic, apocalyptic imagery. It hearkens to Isaiah 34:8-10 which prophesies the destruction of Edom, whose buildings no one expects to burn forever. Though the harlot of Revelation 18 is tormented (vs. 7, 10, 15), and smoke rises forever from her torment (Rev. 19:3), the interpreting angel says in Revelation 18:21 that the city she represents will be destroyed. Smoke rising forever, then, hearkening to the smoke Abraham saw rising from the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:28), symbolizes permanent destruction.
Revelation 20:10-15 is, again, imagery which symbolizes permanent destruction. Like the beast of Daniel 7, the fate of the beast in Revelation symbolizes the destruction of the city it represents. Death and Hades, despite being abstractions incapable of torment, are thrown into the fire, representing their permanent end. John interprets the imagery for us in Revelation 20:14, telling us plainly that it symbolizes the second death of the wicked. In Revelation 21:8, God also tells us that the lake of fire symbolizes the second death.
Finally, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is virtually irrelevant. It doesn’t speak of hell at all, but of Hades, the intermediate state.
2 Peter 2:6 likens the destruction of the wicked to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; 2 Peter 3:7 likens the destruction of ungodly men to the destruction of the ungodly by Noah’s flood. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and those who perished in the flood, were all killed.
In the verses leading up to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul refers back to Isaiah 66:15, whose chapter ends with the lifeless, stinking, rotting corpses of the wicked. This is the “eternal destruction” Paul says awaits the unsaved: being destroyed and rendered completely lifeless, never to live again.
Capital punishment is the penalty reserved for the most heinous of crimes, and therefore annihilation accounts for the severity of sin. Degrees of punishment can be accounted for either by degrees of shame in the wake of one’s annihilation, or in varying degrees of suffering during it.
Jaros introduced his essay by pointing to a passage which strongly implies that the wicked will not receive eternal life, and will instead perish. All but two of the texts he cites proved to be far better support for the final annihilation of the wicked, and the two which remain have nothing to do with final punishment in the first place. Jaros claimed that annihilationism is inconsistent with the character of God, and doesn’t account for the severity of sin or for degrees of punishment, none of which hold up to scrutiny. And when he very briefly addresses passages indicating that the risen wicked face destruction, he dismisses them by arbitrarily selecting one of a Greek’s words meanings from its semantic range and applying it where it doesn’t fit the context.