What is the Fate of the Wicked?
(Part 3 of 5)
by Paul Hazelden


FotW Index

Contents

5.   NT Evidence for Destruction
  5a.   Broad is the way
  5b.   Great was the fall
  5c.   Soul and body in Hell
  5d.   Those who are thrown out
  5e.   Sowing to the flesh
  5f.   Those who refuse to follow Jesus
  5g.   Those who oppose Jesus
  5h.   'Destruction' means destruction!
  5i.   Burning in the New Testament
  5j.   Not literal fire
  5k.   The Day of the Lord
  5l.   Passing through fire
  5m.   No more tears
  5n.   Rejecting the Creator

5.   NT Evidence for Destruction

5a.   Broad is the way

If we turn to the Sermon on the Mount, we find the same message from the mouth of Jesus. In another well-known passage, we read:

"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it." (1)

Yet again, the choice is very simple, and very clear: there are two ways. One leads to life, and the other leads to destruction. Not misery, not pain, not torment, but destruction.

5b.   Great was the fall

This same theme is picked up a few verses later, right at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus summarises the consequences of following His teaching – and the consequences of ignoring His teaching.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (2)

I remember singing this story as a child: the wise man built his house upon the rock. The message is quite clear: if you hear and obey the words of Jesus, you will be like a man whose house stands when the inevitable storms come; if you do not obey His words, you will be like a man who builds a house which is doomed from the beginning.

This is not a parable. Jesus does not tell us about a man who built his house on the rock. Instead, He is talking to His followers – to you and me – and giving us a dreadful warning: this is your choice; this is what your life will be like, one way or another.

And again, we are explicitly told that the penalty for ignoring Jesus is not suffering, but destruction.

5c.   Soul and body in Hell

Jesus does not only talk about eternal life. He also talks about Hell. He seems to be quite clear about what happens in Hell.

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (3)

Of course, the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell is God. People who are familiar with images of Satan ruling a fiery kingdom need to understand this very clearly: Hell is not the kingdom where Satan reigns. Satan does not torment anyone in Hell, and he does not have the power to destroy your soul. The One with the power of destruction is God. And what does He do in Hell? What happens there? Jesus is quite clear: what happens in Hell is destruction, not endless torment.

5d.   Those who are thrown out

The New Testament does not always promise destruction as the alternative to eternal life - at least, not explicitly. Sometimes the contrast is implicit.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us that useless people will be 'thrown out'. It is another very familiar passage: "You (presumably, the Jews to whom He is speaking) are the salt of the earth..."

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (4)

What do you do with useless salt? You just throw it out, you get rid of it. You throw it onto the path or the road, and it disappears. You don't need to do anything to destroy it: it just disappears as people and animals walk over it.

It is not exactly destruction, but the end point is the same - the useless salt is gone. And, yet again, there is no hint of God wanting to torment those who refuse to participate in the life of His Kingdom.

5e.   Sowing to the flesh

Another place where destruction is implied can be found in Paul's letter to the Galatians.

"For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." (5)

Paul describes two possibilities: you can sow to your flesh, or you can sow to the Spirit. If you sow to the Spirit, you reap eternal life. The alternative is that you reap - what? Suffering? Torment? No: you reap corruption. If Paul wanted to teach that we need to avoid eternal torment, then he was an incredibly poor communicator.

Just to be clear here: the word 'corruption' refers to the process of decay which happens to a dead body. The dead body eventually returns to the soil; it disappears. Corruption is the process which turns a human being into ... nothing. The choice we face is literally eternal life, or nothing. It is the same truth that we find elsewhere in the Bible, described in slightly different words

5f.   Those who refuse to follow Jesus

So, if you refuse to follow Jesus, you face destruction. This simple message is consistently taught throughout the New Testament.

"We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved." (6)

The parallel is simple and unavoidable. There are only two options presented to us: we can shrink back, or believe. If we believe, we shall be saved; if we shrink back, we shall be destroyed. The choice is salvation or destruction. You can either live, or perish.

5g.   Those who oppose Jesus

If you refuse to follow Jesus, you face destruction. But what of those who go beyond refusing, beyond shrinking back? What of those who actively oppose Jesus? Surely they deserve a worse fate?

Yet again, we do not have to guess. Paul tells us very clearly about the fate of these people.

"[Many] live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction..." (7)

Paul is simply following the teaching of Jesus here. The same message is found in the parable of the Ten Minas. We cannot take one detail from a parable to establish doctrine, but it is valid to note yet another place in the New Testament where the punishment for opposing God is death and not torment. At the conclusion of the parable, the King (representing God) pronounces a final judgement:

"But those enemies of mine ... bring them here and kill them in front of me." (8)

5h.   'Destruction' means destruction!

We need to be clear about this: when the Biblical writers talk about destruction, these are not vague or polite references to something completely different. That sort of thing does happen in the Bible - for example, several references to 'feet' in the Old Testament are polite ways of talking about sexual organs. But there is not a shred of evidence that the word 'destruction' is used in this way. When Jesus says that Judas was "doomed to destruction" (9), that is exactly what He intended to communicate.

At this point in the discussion, I am usually asked about all those passages in the New Testament which talk about Hell fire - surely these texts teach us that sinners are tormented? Okay, let us look at Hell fire next.

5i.   Burning in the New Testament

In the Old Testament, the fate of the wicked is usually described as 'destruction'. In the New Testament, the doctrine is unchanged, but the language is slightly different. When talking about the fate of the wicked, the central image in the New Testament is that of fire. As we have already seen in the section on Consumed like stubble, this image is also used in the Old Testament.

We have to be very careful here. People are so used to the idea of 'hellfire' that it becomes very difficult to read these passages for what they say. Please excuse me if I labour this point, but it really is essential, and experience suggests that I have to go slowly here.

Imagine you have a photograph you want to get rid of - perhaps of a lover who cheated and left you. You could just throw it in the bin, but you would know it was still somewhere. No, the most satisfying option is to burn it. That way, you destroy the photograph. It cannot come back and haunt you - and hopefully, neither will the person concerned.

You burn the photograph to get rid of it - to be free, not to inflict pain on the photograph or the other person. In the Bible, fire has various functions, but it mainly cleanses, purifies and destroys. Of course, fire can hurt - but that is a side effect, not the main function.

Go back to the quote from Malachi. (10) The evildoers will be like stubble, and the day of the Lord will set the stubble on fire. You do not burn stubble in order to inflict pain on it; you don't burn it as a punishment - you burn it to get rid of it.

Fire destroys. In the absence of any other context (the "refiner's fire", for example), that is the basic meaning of all references to fire and burning. What do you burn? There are two basic options.

Firstly, you can burn something in order to produce a fire for light, heat or cooking.

Secondly, you can burn rubbish in order to get rid of it.

Those are the options. Either you make a fire to produce light or heat, or you make a fire to get rid of the objects being burned. Take, for example, this quote from John the Baptist:

"The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (11)

The fire is not a punishment: it does not teach the tree a lesson; it does not serve as a warning to the other trees. A tree that does not bear good fruit is rubbish - it has failed to fulfil its purpose - and so it is disposed of. The dreadful news is that the same fate awaits the ungodly.

John goes on to repeat the point. After telling his hearers that the Messiah will baptise them with "the Holy Spirit and fire" (12), he goes on to say that the Messiah "will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire." (13)

The point is surely clear: the chaff is not being punished or tormented. The useful stuff - the wheat - is carefully gathered and safely stored; the rubbish is disposed of - completely disposed of. The unquenchable fire will get rid of every bit of chaff. Everything that is not productive will go. It seems likely (given what we are taught elsewhere in the Bible) (14) that this includes not only the people who refuse to be a part of God's new Kingdom, but also the parts of us which are not submitted to God's will.

The same idea is found in John's gospel. We are familiar with the idea that unbelievers will be consigned to the fire; possibly even more worrying is the idea that the same fate can await the believer who does not abide in Jesus. Jesus warns us:

"If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned." (15)

Again, the meaning is quite clear. The fire is not a warning or a punishment. It is simply what you do to clear away the rubbish. The branch is already dead: it withered because it did not remain in Jesus.

If we do not abide in Jesus, we cannot bear fruit; if we do not bear fruit, we are removed to make space for a branch that will abide and be fruitful. We can argue for ages about eternal security for the believer and whether salvation can be completely lost, but that is not what Jesus is talking about in this passage. (16)

The role of fire in this passage is simple, clear and consistent with the rest of Scripture. There is no mention of punishment or suffering; fire is used to clear away the rubbish.

Turning back to Matthew, we find the same message in the parable of the weeds (17). The fate of the weeds is to be burned. Jesus goes on to explain the parable:

"As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (18)

Weeping and gnashing of teeth indicates suffering and regret, but there is no suggestion or hint that this will last for all eternity. On the contrary, the parable tells us that "all who do evil" will be burned up and disappear, just like weeds are burned to get rid of them.

In the parable of the net, a few verses later (19), Jesus gives us the same message. You burn the stuff you don't want in order to get rid of it.

5j.   Not literal fire

When I talk with people about this subject, we frequently go down an odd cul-de-sac.

I explain that the function of fire in these Biblical passages is to destroy, not to torment for eternity. In response, people often look at me with pity and explain patiently that I have completely missed the point.

The obvious point they feel I have missed is that souls are not material objects, so they cannot be consumed by fire.

The conversation often gets a bit tricky at this point. Each of us are trying to be patient with the other, making allowance for their strange inability to see the obvious.

Fire - literal fire, the thing that burns weeds and trees - is a rapid oxidation of combustible material. Rusting is a slower version of oxidation, and dynamite exploding is a faster form. Fire can only burn physical material: it is a chemical process which can only affect physical material. Physical processes act on physical objects.

It is clear that fire cannot consume a human soul, because fire is a physical process, and a soul is not a physical object. But, for the same reason, fire - literal fire - cannot cause pain to a human soul.

You cannot have it both ways: fire, as a physical process, cannot consume a human soul, but neither can it cause the soul pain. A spiritual equivalent of fire can cause pain to the soul, but then a spiritual process can also destroy a spiritual entity. At least, that is what Jesus tells us over and over again.

What believers in a traditional Hell want Jesus to have said is something like this:

"If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown into the fire and burned."

Instead, Jesus is quite clear: "If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers ..." (20). What happens in the spiritual realm is like a process we all recognise in the physical realm: just as a branch which is not connected to the vine will wither and die, so too - in the spiritual realm - anyone who is not connected to Jesus will wither and die. And as, in the physical realm, "such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned," so too in the spiritual realm, these withered, dead people will be gathered up and disposed of.

I do apologise, but experience suggests I need to be painfully clear on this point: literal, physical fire cannot either hurt or destroy a human soul; when Jesus talks about souls being consigned to the fire - as in Matthew 13, where "all who do evil" will be thrown into the blazing furnace (21) - He is not talking about a literal fire.

5k.   The Day of the Lord

Fire has the same function when the Bible talks explicitly about the Second Coming. The consistent message is that the 'day of the Lord' will come with fire. Three examples, starting with the familiar Malachi passage, spring to mind.

"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them." (22)
"their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work." (23)
"This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels." (24)

And on that day:

"He will punish those who do not know God and will not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." (25)

So, for these people, their punishment is destruction. That seems pretty clear. And, just to make it even clearer, the destruction is described as 'everlasting' - there is no hope of re-creation. No possibility of resurrection is offered. Once destroyed, forever destroyed. The message about destruction is repeated later in the letter, just in case anyone failed to get the point first time round.

"And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming." (26)

With the exception of two passages in Revelation (which we shall shortly be looking at), references in the New Testament to Hell fire are references to destruction, not to torment. So, in the New Testament, the vast majority of the passages that touch on this subject point to destruction rather than torment being the fate of the wicked.

5l.   Passing through fire

The passage in 1 Corinthians 3, mentioned above in passing, deserves to be looked at again.

The day of the Lord will come 'like fire' - but this fire will not judge us: it will test the quality of each man's (in context, each Christian's) work. If, in our lives, we have built nothing of any value, our work will be burned up. Whatever remains after the fire - whatever survives into eternity - will be our reward.

This passage clearly teaches that a Christian who does not live right will be saved, but will 'suffer loss' (27). In contrast, the local congregation (the plural 'you' of verse 16) is sacred: you are God's temple. And, we are told, "if anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him" (28) - another situation where we are explicitly told that God's punishment is destruction, not suffering.

In this passage, the fire is something the Christian passes through, not the non-Christian. But the Christian's future is totally secure - he will be saved, no matter what. The Christian's reward will depend how how he or she lived - it will be what remains, whatever has been built of gold, silver and precious stones.

And the explicit fate of some unbelievers is that they will be destroyed. We are not told of the fate of the unbelievers who do not commit the sin of destroying God's temple, but it is hard to see how the threat of eternal torment could fit in to the picture Paul is giving us here. If the doctrine of eternal torment is so important, why is it missing here?

Whatever the image or symbolism being used in any given passage, the teaching of the New Testament is simple and clear: the ungodly will perish.

5m.   No more tears

The final substantial argument that the ungodly will perish also serves a secondary purpose: it solves a problem that many evangelicals struggle with - the apparent universalism of various passages. Take this well known passage for example.

"And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment - to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ." (29)

If 'all things in heaven and on earth' will be brought together under Christ, does this not mean that everyone will eventually be saved? It violates the sense of the passage to argue that the ungodly are included here, but if that interpretation is not possible, what can the 'all things' possibly mean?

I'm sure you are ahead of me. If the ungodly will one day perish, then all those who remain can be brought together under the headship of Christ.

This interpretation is simple, straightforward and (dare I say it?) obvious. It preserves the obvious meaning of the passage, and avoids the danger of universalism. The same interpretation solves the same problem with 'all things' in Colossians:

"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (30)

This also solves the problem in Revelation that so many who believe in eternal torment fail to address:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (31)

John here describes a new creation - 'a new heaven and a new earth' (32) means that everything is new. How can it be that there is no more crying or pain? Because the ungodly are not writhing in torment: they are, quite simply, no more. They didn't make it into the new creation. They perished with the old.

5n.   Rejecting the Creator

There is one further line of thought pointing us in the direction of destruction as the fate of the wicked. I can't claim it is a major Biblical theme, but there are various passages that suggest another way of reaching the same conclusion as the ones we have looked at so far.

God is consistently revealed to us as the Creator, the source of everything. Satan can twist and pervert, but he can't create; all he can do is to damage what has been created.

God is more than just a Creator who fashions a clockwork universe and sets it going: He not only created in the past, He continues to sustain His creation (33).

Any experience of creation is, in some sense, an experience of God. God is revealed in creation - He communicates Himself through what He has made. The air you breathe is a blessing from God, the food you eat is an expression of His grace. Your own body continues to exist because He loves you.

However, you cannot presume on God's grace. The blessings He continues to pour out on you will one day come to an end if you do not choose to return His love. He requires a response from us.

And what of those who choose not to respond to His love? If, in the end, you reject God, then surely you reject His blessings. Almost every passage of the Bible teaches this, one way or another. If you receive God, you receive His blessings; if you reject Him, you reject His blessings. The good God and the good things from God, in the end, go together.

But if those who reject God - whether they realise it or not! - also reject His blessings, in the end, what will they have left? Since all things come from Him, those who reject God, reject everything. Our continued existence is an act of God's love and grace. Those who reject Him are rejecting, in the end, their very selves. You cannot exist without enjoying God's blessing, so if you reject God and all His blessings, what can possibly be left? Only the prospect of eternal destruction.


Footnotes:

Note 1. Matthew 7:13-14

Note 2. Matthew 7:24-27

Note 3. Matthew 10:28

Note 4. Matthew 5:13

Note 5. Galatians 6:8

Note 6. Hebrews 10:39

Note 7. Philippians 3:18b-19a

Note 8. Luke 19:27

Note 9. John 17:12

Note 10. Malachi 4:1

Note 11. Matthew 3:10 and Luke 3:9

Note 12. Matthew 3:11

Note 13. Matthew 3:12

Note 14. As, for example, we read in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.

Note 15. John 15:6

Note 16. If you follow my argument in the article: What Happens to Babies When They Die? then you will understand why I do not believe this passage teaches that believers can lose their salvation. But that is another subject we are not going to delve into here.

Note 17. Matthew 13:24-30

Note 18. Matthew 13:40-42

Note 19. Matthew 13:47-50

Note 20. John 15:6 again.

Note 21. Matthew 13:40-42 again.

Note 22. Malachi 4:1

Note 23. 1 Corinthians 3:13

Note 24. 2 Thessalonians 1:7b

Note 25. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9

Note 26. 2 Thessalonians 2:8

Note 27. 1 Corinthians 3:15

Note 28. 1 Corinthians 3:17

Note 29. Ephesians 1:9-10

Note 30. Colossians 1:19-20

Note 31. Revelation 21:4

Note 32. Revelation 21:1

Note 33. Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3

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