On June 5, Christopher Morgan was a guest on the Stand to Reason radio show, hosted by Greg Koukl. In case you’re not in the know, Morgan is among the most vocal contemporary defenders of traditionalism, and is often consulted as an authority on the issue (for instance, here and here). As might be expected, Morgan was brought on to discuss the recent hullabaloo surrounding Rob Bell, and to more or less offer a defense of traditionalism.
There is so much to say about the entire interview, but I’ll focus my comments here to one statement in particular that elicited from me what could best be described as an incredulous guffaw. At around 1:09:30, while discussing the Old Testament evidence for future punishment, Morgan makes the following statement:
[Isaiah 66:24] talks about where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched and the permanence of the suffering of the wicked.
Now the title of this blog post is obviously tongue-in-cheek and intentionally provocative. Of course Morgan has read Isaiah 66:24. I can’t help but assume that he’s studied it in depth. If I’m correct, then Morgan has a lot of explaining to do.
It might be helpful to quote the verse in context. The following is Isaiah 66, verses 15 through 24 (emphasis mine). The ESV translators entitle this section Final Judgment and Glory of the Lord.
“For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many.
“Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.
“For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.
“For as the new heavens and the new earth
that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the Lord.
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
The text speaks for itself. There is no hint, let alone mention, of permanent suffering here. God will slay his enemies, and their strewn corpses will disgracefully be left out to be consumed by fire and maggots. So why would Morgan assert that the passage, “talks about the permanence of the suffering of the wicked”?
How could Morgan, someone who has practically made a career of studying and defending the traditional view of hell, be so obviously wrong about this? For him to say such a thing is sloppy at best and intentionally misleading at worst. I suppose he should be given the benefit of the doubt, but this sort of thing happens so often in traditionalist scholarship that it’s difficult to remain charitable.
Interestingly, in Hell Under Fire (the anthology of which Morgan was both a contributor and general editor), Old Testament scholar Daniel Block, in his chapter entitled The Old Testament on Hell, states in no uncertain terms that Isaiah 66:24 does not make reference to everlasting suffering. He asserts that, at best, such is a thing is only implied (page 62). But I think even that is going too far—the passage implies no such thing.
Now if Morgan wants to argue that Jesus borrowed the language of Isaiah 66 and used it to describe eternal torment or that the scene in Isaiah 66 typologically prefigures eternal torment, then that would be a different claim. It would be a mistaken claim, but not egregiously mistaken, like the claim that Isaiah 66 itself “talks about” permanent suffering.
I’m 100% on board with you, I see no mention of eternal suffering in those verses. In fact, even when the Bible talks about being separated from God or cut off from Him, I see nothing to imply that this separation is conscious.