What is the Fate of the Wicked?
(Part 2 of 5)
by Paul Hazelden


FotW Index

Contents

4.   Old Testament Evidence for Destruction
  4a.   In the beginning
  4b.   After the fall
  4c.   Blown away like chaff
  4d.   Consumed like stubble
  4e.   Their final destiny
  4f.   Like the idols
  4g.   Death and destruction
  4h.   And others in the Old Testament
  4i.   What is missing

4.   Old Testament Evidence for Destruction

In this chapter and the next, we will look at what the Bible says about the fate of the wicked, first in the Old Testament and then in the New.

We have already seen that Jesus teaches that the unsaved will 'perish'. In this, He is simply repeating the clear teaching of the Old Testament. The destruction of the ungodly is clearly and consistently taught in both the Old Testament and the New. Let us look at a few examples.

4a.   In the beginning

Right at the beginning, when God spoke to Adam in the Garden of Eden, the consequence of sin was made clear.

but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (1)

If the consequence of sin is destruction, God's warning makes perfect sense. When you die, you cease to exist. The threat He makes communicates this penalty clearly and accurately.

On the other hand, if the consequence of sin is eternal torment, God was not being entirely straight with poor old Adam - in fact, He was really being quite economical with the truth. If eternal torment is so much worse a fate than eternal destruction, surely God should have let Adam know the full consequences of disobedience?

At this pivotal point in history, Adam is told he has two options. He can choose life, or he can choose death. It's amazingly close to John 3:16 - you can choose life or you can perish. Of course, you can, if you wish, believe that what this really means is that Adam had to choose between an eternity of pleasure and an eternity of pain - but that is not what the Bible actually says.

4b.   After the fall

This next point is not as obvious as the last one, but I think it is still worth making.

After the fall, God says that Adam must die.

"...[Adam] must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden, to work the ground from which he had been taken. (2)

The obvious question is: why?

If you believe that God is being wrathful and vengeful here, wanting Adam to suffer as much as possible as a consequence of his sin, then you can read this to say that God here is making sure that Adam will die so that he will go to Hell and suffer for all eternity. But the passage does not say this, and it is not consistent with the picture of God we see here.

On the other hand, if you believe that God still loves Adam and wants the best for him despite his sin, then this passage takes on a completely different meaning. Adam is now alienated from God, knowing what he has lost. Allowing Adam to live forever in this condition would be unnecessarily cruel, so God ensures that Adam will, one day, die, and be released from his guilt and regrets.

Of course, this picture only makes sense if death is the end of the story. To 'release' Adam from a life of regret to an eternity of unspeakable torment would not be a demonstration of love.

The basic question is: does God still love Adam, or is He wanting to get revenge on Adam and punish him as much as possible? And I am not asking about which option you or I would prefer, or which option fits our theology most neatly, but which option best fits the text. Everything in the text, including God's provision of clothing to protect Adam and Eve from the storms and thorns they now have to cope with, suggests that God still loves Adam. Nothing I can find suggests the contrary. So it seems clear from the text that God still loves Adam. Death, in this context, is a blessing and a release.

4c.   Blown away like chaff

Let us take another well-known text. The book of Psalms begins with a familiar passage.

"Blessed is the man
    who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
... He is like a tree planted by streams of water." (3)

In other words, the godly man will endure - will last, will live. By way of contrast, what is the fate of the ungodly?

"Not so the wicked!
    They are like the chaff
    that the wind blows away." (4)

The wicked will disappear. Of course, if you want to be pedantic, the chaff does not cease to exist when it is blown away - it is merely moved and spread across the countryside. But this is not a scientific paper on the conservation of mass - it is poetry. You hold chaff in your hands, and it is there; the wind blows, and it is gone.

The contrast is with the godly. The godly man will endure, will last. The wicked man will disappear - the wind will blow, and the wicked will be no more. They do not have permanence.

This sounds remarkably like the destruction of the wicked to me. The same image is used elsewhere in the Old Testament - in Isaiah, for example, we read that the many enemies of Jerusalem "will become like fine dust, the ruthless hordes like blown chaff." (5)

4d.   Consumed like stubble

Similar to the picture of chaff is the image of stubble being burnt away. In the Song of Moses, we hear about the Egyptian army:

"You unleashed your burning anger;
    it consumed them like stubble." (6)

This picture is not just used of punishment which has already been delivered. In a picture of the final judgement, we read:

"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire." (7)

4e.   Their final destiny

In Psalm 73, the Psalmist is wrestling with the problem of evil. Sin is not punished, the evil prosper - "always carefree, they increase in wealth." It is not right, the Psalmist says: things should not be this way.

The problem and the confusion remain until he receives Divine revelation. According to the Psalmist, I did not understand "till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny."

So the problem of the wicked prospering will not be solved in the here-and-now. The problem is only solved when you take into account their final destiny.

"How suddenly they are destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
As a dream when one awakes,
    so when you arise O Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies." (8)

This is presented to us as a description of what happens after death. You can read it purely as a statement of what happens in this life, but reading the passage this way throws up a number of significant problems.

Firstly, as an answer to the problem of wicked people prospering, it just does not work. You can see for yourself that many wicked people die rich and comfortable. That is why the Psalmist is unhappy in the first place! To claim that they all get destroyed in this life flies in the face of the evidence.

Secondly, it goes against the meaning of this passage. If you could see the wicked being destroyed, you would not need to ponder the problem of their success until you went into the sanctuary and had the answer revealed to you.

And thirdly, the wicked are once again paralleled with the godly. Verse 24 clearly looks at what happens to the godly person after death - "You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory" - so the parallel must be with the final destiny of the wicked after death.

4f.   Like the idols

There are several passages in the Old Testament which describe the idols that men make. A typical example can be found in Psalm 115.

"They have mouths but cannot speak,
    eyes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but they cannot smell;
they have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but they cannot walk;
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them." (9)

You can take this to mean that those who make and trust idols will have hands but be unable to feel. So you could use this to argue for the continued existence of the ungodly - but if they can feel nothing, there is not a lot of point in tormenting them!

These passages are really saying that idols are nothing. They may look like something to the eye, they may appear to be something, but in reality they feel nothing, they do nothing, they are nothing.

Everyone seems to agree that the idols will not be writhing in torment for all eternity. And we are told that those who trust them will be like them. The conclusion seems inescapable. This passage may not explicitly teach about destruction, but it is hard to see what other fate for the wicked would be consistent with the teaching here.

4g.   Death and destruction

In the Old Testament, the grave ('Sheol') is the place of the dead. It is sometimes translated as 'Hell' or 'death'. It is a shadowy place, where nothing much happens and nothing much can happen - certainly not torment.

So it is interesting to see numerous passages where Sheol is paired up with 'destruction' - either as an equivalent term, or to provide a comprehensive set of options. For example:

Death is naked before God;
    Destruction lies uncovered. (10)
Death and Destruction lie open before the Lord (11)
Death and Destruction are never satisfied (12)

You can summarise the expectation of people in the Old Testament very simply: the godly will reside in Sheol, possibly awaiting a resurrection, while the ungodly are destroyed and have no hope at all of resurrection.

4h.   And others in the Old Testament

There are many other passages in the Old Testament which give exactly the same message.

You destroy those who tell lies (13)
Kiss the son, lest he be angry
   and you be destroyed in your way (14)
Those who are far from you will perish;
   You destroy all who are unfaithful to you. (15)
For the living know that they will die,
   but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
   and even the memory of them is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
   and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
   in anything that lies under the sun. (16)

Finally, there is the famous passage in Isaiah 9, which we read every Christmas:

Every warrior's boot used in battle
   and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
   will be fuel for the fire. (17)

A few verses later, Isaiah returns to the theme of burning:

By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
   the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
   no-one will spare his brother. (18)

The boots, the garments and the people will all be fuel for the fire. Fuel is burned up: it is destroyed in the process. So what of the people? In the total absence of any suggestion to the contrary, we have to understand that they, too, will be burned up. Being burned may hurt terribly while the victim is alive, but soon they die, soon they are consumed, and all suffering ceases.

4i.   What is missing

There is one final aspect of the Old Testament record to be considered: what it doesn't say. I know an argument from silence is tricky, but in the present context this seems like a strong support for the interpretation I'm putting forward here.

My point here is not so much that the idea of people being tormented in Hell is absent from the Old Testament, but that it is absent even from the places where you would expect it to be.

Take Psalm 109 for example. Verses 6-20 contain an impressive list of curses. David seems to have spent a great deal of time crafting a comprehensive list of curses: this is not an off-the-cuff list of verbal abuse.

David curses his enemy's wife, his children, his belongings, his memory - and yet the one obvious curse is left unspoken. The one thing David does not say is: "May he burn in Hell." Is that because this would be a step too far? Read the Psalm. I really don't think that is the case. David is not holding back here.

The obvious - the only - reason is that being tormented after you die was not something which David considered to be possible. He doesn't even hope that it might happen. This essential piece of mainstream evangelical theology is totally absent from David's thinking.


Footnotes:

Note 1. Genesis 2:17

Note 2. Genesis 3:22b-23

Note 3. Psalm 1:1,3a

Note 4. Psalm 1:4

Note 5. Isaiah 29:5

Note 6. Exodus 15:7

Note 7. Malachi 4:1

Note 8. Psalm 73:19-20

Note 9. Psalm 115:5-8

Note 10. Job 26:6

Note 11. Proverbs 15:11

Note 12. Proverbs 27:20

Note 13. Psalm 5:6

Note 14. Psalm 2:12 - and remember that Psalm 2 is quoted in the New Testament as referring to Jesus.

Note 15. Psalm 73:27

Note 16. Ecclesiastes 9:5-6

Note 17. Isaiah 9:5

Note 18. Isaiah 9:19

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