Saturday, November 17, 2012

Three Views on Hell: An Annihilationist Response to Universalism

Joseph Dear:

This post is my condensed response to the case for Universalism by Jason Pratt. For a more comprehensive response, please visit ReThinking Hell.

Surprised by Hell

Pratt’s overarching theme is that passages traditionally used to refute universalism actually help prove the doctrine. The exegesis of three key passages/groups of passages make up most of Pratt's essay. I will thus spend most of my response explaining why they do help to refute universalism after all.

Paying Justice (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10)

Pratt’s first two points are dependent on Isaiah 2-5 teaching universalism. But even a cursory reading of the chapters shows that this is not the case. A lot of emphasis is put on hope, but that hope is explicitly for only a remnant who survive (Isaiah 4:2-3). Chapter 5 follows suit. There is no universal reconciliation there to begin with.

Furthermore, translating the verse as ‘pay the justice” doesn’t change the meaning. Nothing inherent in the Greek or context makes it mean they value their destruction. To pay the justice to one who seeks “vengeance” is suffer a penalty (such as annihilation), which they do because Christ comes in “vengeance.”

Point #3 is more substantial, although there is ambiguity regarding the use of olethros (“destruction”) in 1 Corinthians 5:5 (only one of several uses of olethros). Paul says that the man’s “flesh” will be destroyed. If “flesh” is a metaphor for sinfulness, which is what Paul often means by “flesh,” then Paul really is talking about destroying it completely (as Paul’s ultimate aim is to destroy sinfulness, not just reduce it). If literal flesh is in view, then it really depends on what was to happen when the man was excommunicated. Ultimately, we have some ambiguity, but while that helps universalism some, it doesn’t do much for it.

The Unforgivable Sin

Even if we grant that Jesus was saying that that generation was worse than it was before in Matthew 12:43-45, that doesn’t change what Jesus said in Verse 32! It simply isn't mutually exclusive from the interpretation that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.

The whole thrust of this section is this: As evil as they were, “such a state was not beyond Jesus’ salvation--or there wouldn’t have been a controversy at all.” No explanation of how the existence of controversy proves universalism is given at all, and the rest is not exegesis, but philosophy.

Pratt also argues that Jesus says He will forgive all sins in Mark 3:28, which reads “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter;” However, the sentence continues: “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” I almost shouldn’t have to even address this. To take the first half of the sentence as being so literal that the second half, which qualifies the first, cannot mean anything like what it says, is just not how you treat language.

Once again, it comes down to this:: “Is our sin superior to God’s grace?--or does God’s grace hyper-exceed our sins?” We already know what the answer must be, so why should we even bother studying that the Bible has to say?

The Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31-46)

The reference to a shepherd and his flock is not as telling it seems. Matt 25:31-46 is not a story about a shepherd that is symbolic of what will happen at the judgment. It’s a straightforward description of future events (albeit probably with some figurative language). Jesus was just saying that he’ll separate the two sides, and appealed to a common profession where things are distinguished. It was just an analogy made in passing. There’s nothing that suggests it was meant to be a key part of what Jesus was saying.

Secondly, even if the mention of sheep and goats was some key metaphor, it wouldn’t be very fitting to Pratt’s universalist interpretation. Indeed, the goats are specifically baby goats, but that does not mean that they will grow spiritually and end up like the sheep. No matter how much a goat grows, it will never be a sheep. Sorry if that sounds pedantic, but if this is a key metaphor, than it matters what the parts are. They aren’t just separated by development and age. They are two different kinds of animals. A goat will never become a sheep.

The Positive Case

- Isaiah 25, Isaiah 45, or Hosea 13-14: I invite the reader to examine these passages and see that they don’t say what Pratt says.

- 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. So long as annihilationists include the devil among those destroyed, God is all-in-all at the end of time just as universalists believe. All that opposes Him is destroyed, so there is nothing in existence for which He is not “all-in-all.” And although there is reference to “all men” in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “all” doesn’t always mean literally every person who has ever lived. Firstly, Paul only mentions believers among the resurrected in the very next verse. Secondly, those who Paul is speaking of rise in “glory” and “power” in Verse 43. This clearly does not include the unsaved, who rise to shame and damnation (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29).

- Philippians 2:14: If God destroys all that opposed Him, all that is left will be those that bow before Him.

- “Eonion/aionios.” The readers of our essays will have to investigate the issue for themselves, which they should do, as it quite fundamental to the question of universalism.


The passages that appeared to go against universalism still do so. Pointing out elements of the context without addressing the central claim doesn’t change that. Appealing to God’s grace doesn’t change that, at least not if we are to let the Bible guide our theology. I don’t know why God saves only some when He certainly has the power to save everyone, and having so many loved ones who do not believe, this isn’t just a lofty, theoretical problem for me. Nevertheless, the Bible teaches what the Bible teaches.


  1. Thanks for the interesting points.

    However, as I understood Jason's argument, it's not a question of adult sheep and baby goats, but rather of goats in both cases - no sheep involved at all. So, not two different types of animals. But I could be wrong.

  2. I seem to recall that argument, too. But what evidence does one have for insisting that it is adult goats, rather than sheep, which are in view? πρόβατον can, indeed, refer to any four-footed, tame, grazing animal, including both goats and sheep. But what is the basis for the claim that it refers to goats here? According to Thayer it always refers to sheep in the NT; of course, Thayer's not infallible, but it does seem as though the word typically refers to sheep.

  3. No, my interpretation doesn't require that two groups of only goats are in view, and I'm sure I've never said so. My position with {probaton} has always been what Chris says: it can refer to any small herd animal, so could just as well refer to goats instead or along with sheep (where a plural is involved) unless context indicates otherwise.

    Since baby-goat is particularly used of one group and a generic plural version of probaton is used of the other, the contrast is certainly intended to be immature to mature flock animals (respectively). Whether the mature flock features only sheep is irrelevant, although I grant there's a prima facie rhetorical argument to be made in that direction (baby goats contrasted to mature sheep).

    In shepherding contexts, goats once trained (and so matured in that sense) could be relied on not only to keep themselves out of trouble but even to help lead the sheep! (The "scapegoat" being an infamous example of that.) But being naturally willful creatures, baby goats are tougher to train. I don't know that I could argue from direct context that this is intended in the judgment parable, but it does fit what I can argue on other grounds.

    As to Joseph's actual rebuttal, I'll comment on that later in the next exchange. I just wanted to clarify I'm not married to adult goats, so to speak. {g}


  4. Thus, the Good Shepherd could just as easily be the Good Goatherd, and the parable of the 100th Sheep could just as easily be the parable of the 100th Goat, since there is no context indicating otherwise: I've said that before. But that isn't the same as saying the term refers inherently to goats, adult or otherwise, instead of sheep.

    A large-scale contextual argument could be made that such soteriological references ought to be about only sheep instead of goats, based on an interpretation of Matt 25; but aside from hinging on whether that interpretation of soteriological division is principally correct, such an interpretation shouldn't contextually ignore Matt 25's own explicit indication that the goats are part of the Herdsman's flock. So any exclusive interpretation of other {probaton} usages that amount to goats not being in the flock at all should be discounted.

    (I thought I should add this to be fair, since I do see how someone could argue that other soteriological usages of {probaton} ought to be interpreted as only sheep. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Matt 25 is the main historical reason why sheep instead of goats came to be understood everywhere else.)