Neither Conditionalists Nor Traditionalists (Nor Universalists) Can Claim That They Rely on the “Plain Meaning” of Scripture

I. Introduction

I am an annihilationist. I believe that the Bible teaches that the unsaved will be destroyed at the end of time, not subject to eternal torment as Christians have traditionally believed (though I do have some of the early church on my side).

One thing that comes up way too often is the claim that annihilationists have to twist clear passages of scripture, and have to rely on way to complex interpretations while traditionalists can take what the scripture says at face value, and therefore they are right.

I should note that annihilationists also make the claim that they are the ones who rely on the simple and apparent meanings of scripture (though they tend to emphasize it a lot less). Edward Fudge, in his otherwise very apt and helpful review of Robert Morey’s Death and the Afterlife, does this. Ultimately, however…

II. Neither Side Reads the Face Value of Every Passage

No doctrine of Heaven and Hell can rely on the simple and apparent meaning of scripture. People on all sides know this. Nobody really is so intellectually immature that they can’t understand that sometimes, the actual meaning of scripture, what God actually meant to convey to us, is not always what it first appears to say. Everyone at some point knows that they need to look more in-depth, that they need to know relevant background information and know the controversies and subtleties behind certain Greek and Hebrew words that might explain why an apparent “contradiction” is by no means a contradiction. Both sides have passages that, when taken as ‘face value,” when read “simply,” are not consistent with their view:

Trouble Passage For Annihilationists

Revelation 20.10 – “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

There’s no way an annihilationist can take this passage at face value and deny eternal torment. So how do I justify my claims that the Bible teaches annihilationism? In “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism,” I explain how other elements of the very vision (such as how death, an intangible entity that is destroyed in real life, is shown as being thrown into the same fire) demonstrate that the vision can reasonably be seen as symbolic for destruction. More importantly, I explain how any traditionalist interpretation has many problems when such elements are looked at, and how ultimately, neither side can give a simple explanatation that is consistent with their view.

Annihilationists are not alone…

Trouble Passage For Traditionalists

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28)

You can see why annihilationists would point to this verse. What is Hell? It is where God destroys people, not only their bodies, but also their souls, which I guess are not immortal after all…

How does the traditionalist respond? By looking at the face value, by which I mean appealing to the original Greek. They argue that the word for “destroy” never really refers to literal destruction, but is metaphorical for ruin. Aside from being a very unsuccessful argument (as explained in “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism”), it hardly relies on the plain meaning or face value. They have to argue from Greek, which most of their readers do not know, and have to explain how the Greek doesn’t actually mean destroy in any literal sense . Is that legitimate? Of course. It is kind of important to know what the Bible says, ya know, in the language in which its authors actually wrote their God-breathed words. But that’s not exactly reading it at face value.

Trouble Passage For Annihilationists

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41)

How do I, as a conditionalist, explain how the lost can be thrown into an eternal fire yet not be there for eternity? Well, aside from the fact that the fire, not the people, is what is said to be eternal, I explain how in one biblical instance, the term is used for a fire that did NOT burn for eternity. That instance is Jude 7. I also explain how the Hebrew equivalent is used in literature from before Jesus’ time to speak of a fire that consumes and destroys. Lastly, I explain how it appears to have been used by early church fathers who were clearly annihilationists, in the same works where they espoused annihilationist views (in the same Greek as the New Testament). It looks like it speaks of a fire that burns forever, but I explain that that need not be the case.

Trouble Passage For Traditionalists

For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.’ ‘But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,’ says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 4:1-3).

How does the traditionalist respond? How can saying that the wicked will be set ablaze like chaff, left without remnant, and made into ashes that the righteous will stomp on possibly fit with eternal torment? One argument is that the passage is really just speaking of Jesus’ first coming (“Eternal Torment”). The above is essentially an incredibly vivid metaphor for it. Right or wrong (it’s absolutely wrong, as I explain in “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism”), that’s not reading the “plain meaning” of scripture at all…

Trouble Passage For Annihilationists

If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED (Mark 9:47-48)

How does this not teach eternal torment? After all, a worm does not die, so it must always be eating the unsaved. The fire is not quenched, so it must burn forever. The annihilationsist has to make several points. First of all, a fire that is not quenched means a fire that is not extinguished, not necessarily a fire that burns for eternity. The Bible elsewhere speaks of fire that is not quenched that does not burn forever (e.g. Ezekiel 20:47). Secondly, Jesus’ words come directly from the Old Testament, from Isaiah 66.24, which, in context, is describing dead bodies being destroyed by fire and worms. In other words, it means something very different from what it literally appears to mean. I go more in depth in my paper, but as you see, the annihilationist must argue that what the passage appears to literally mean is not actually what it means.

Trouble Passage For Traditionalists

When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

How can people be eternally existent in Hell if God is all, in all? It sure looks like it is saying that God is everything to everyone, filling everything so that nothing is apart from Him or against Him. This would not be the case if people are still around who are in Hell. Either all must be saved, or all that opposes God must be destroyed, if this is true. The “plain meaning” clearly is against traditionalism. How do traditionalists respond? It cannot mean what it appears to say, because, well…eternal torment is true, gosh darn it! (That really is the extent of rebuttals that I have seen, as I discuss in my paper).

III. Universalism

Universalists have to read against what pretty much all passages that seem to speak of destruction or eternal torment say at face value. However, annihilationists and traditionalists must do the same with universalist prooftexts (I will just use one to make my point).

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18).

How does this not say that all men are saved? Aside from the common but inadequate response that “elsewhere the Bible teaches different, so it can’ be true,” it can also be pointed that in the previous verse, it speaks of life specifically being applied to those who receive the gift of grace. This comes into play because “all” can mean all sorts of things, depending on context. Perhaps when it speaks of “all” in Verse 18, it doesn’t mean literally all men, but simply all who are in Adam or Christ. In both cases, “all” would mean the same thing, being “all who are connected to him.” Literally all men are initially connected to Adam. All men are sinful because of Him, and sin as he did, so the death spoken of applies to every single human. For him, “all who are connected to him” happens to be “literally all men.” However, for Christ, “all who are connected to Him” includes only those in Verse 17, those who receive the gift. “In the same way as Adam directly affects all those connected to him (i.e., all humanity), so also Christ directly affects all those connected to him (i.e., all those who receive his grace)” (Herrick). Admittedly, this passage fits universalism better, but the alternative annihilationist/traditionalist interpretation is reasonable and valid.

IV. My Point

We all know better than to assume that the Bible’s meaning must always be simple and apparent to everyone (in their own language to boot). What matters is what it really says, so enough with all this business about the “plain meaning” and importance of reading everything at face value. Which side is ultimately right? Whichever side agrees with God.

(Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission).

Works Cited

Fudge, Edward. “’The Plain Meaning’ – A Review Essay.” Henceforth, 14:1 (1985): 18-31. Web. 9 Dec.    2009. <>.

Herrick, Greg. “Study and Exposition of Romans 5:12-21.”, n.d. Web. 7
Feb. 2011. <>.

New American Standard Bible (NASB). N.p.: Lockman Foundation, 1995. Web. 6 Jun. 2011. <>.

(Originally published 10/01/2011: Immaterial changes have been made).


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