Jim Wallace, host of the PleaseConvinceMe.com Podcast, recently devoted a number of episodes to the doctrine of hell. Of special interest to me is his May 9 episode, particularly a lengthy portion (from around 28:00 to 54:00) where he discusses conditionalism (which he refers to as annihilationism).
Wallace’s basic argument for traditionalism, over and against annihilationism, is that while most of the biblical passages about future punishment can be interpreted either way, there is one verse that unequivocally teaches the traditional view. Not surprisingly, that one verse is Matthew 25:46 (And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life). “It doesn’t give us any wiggle,” he says. “That’s firm. I can’t bend that one; I cant find a way to bring that into the camp of annihilationists.”
There is so much that could be said about Wallace’s presentation, but I’ll restrict my commentary to his discussion of Matthew 25:46. The relevant portion starts at about 46:40, where he responds to the argument that Matthew 25:46 poses no threat to annihilationism because annihilation (permanent death) is a legitimate example of punishment that is everlasting. He raises three objections to this assertion.
Wallace’s first response is that the word translated “punishment” (kolasis) simply means torment, and therefore could not refer to death or annihilation: “You can’t be tormented if you’re annihilated. You might say that annihilation is punishment for something; you could say ‘well annihilation is a form of punishment,’ OK, is it a form of torment?”
He asserts that kolasis means “a kind of penal infliction that’s ongoing.” Twice he claims, without substantiation, that kolasis is “often” translated as torment. He can’t mean often in Scripture, because the word is found only twice in the New Testament, and in all modern translations is rendered as “punishment” in both instances.
I know of no translation that renders kolasis in Matthew 25:46 as “torment.” It is true that, in some older translations (notably the AV), kolasis, when used in 1 John 4:18 is erroneously translated as “torment,” but this has been corrected in every modern translation that I’m aware of. While kolasis may be used to refer to torment (in the same way that “punishment” might refer to torment in a certain context), it simply need not mean torment in every context. This is borne out in contemporary, scholarly lexicons, but I think can conclusively be demonstrated by the fact that 2 Maccabees 4:38 uses the word to describe a person being slain:
Inflamed with anger, he immediately stripped Andronicus of his purple robe, tore off his other garments, and had him led through the whole city to the very place where he had committed the outrage against Onias; and there he put the murderer to death. Thus the Lord rendered him the punishment [kolasis] he deserved.
The problem, I think, is that Wallace is relying exclusively on New Strong’s Concordance. While undoubtedly helpful for some applications, Strong’s is not a scholarly lexicon, and should not be used as one. It’s probably the case that Strong defined kolasis as “torment” simply because the AV translators rendered kolasis as “torment” in 1 John 4:18.
Wallace’s second objection is that if Matthew (or Jesus) believed that everlasting punishment would consist of death or annihilation, he would not have chosen a word like “punishment,” but rather would have used “death” or “destruction.” He avers, “It’s not as though Matthew is unfamiliar with the word.” Later he says, “Matthew could have used the word ‘death,’ but chose not to” and “Matthew has used that word before, he certainly could have used it here.”
Unfortunately for Wallace, this argument cuts with equal force against traditionalism: Matthew could have used the word “torment” (basanizo), but chose not to. After all, it is not as though Matthew was unfamiliar with the word; he used it in Matthew 8:29. Why is it that, for such a weighty issue, Scripture overwhelmingly uses expressions such as death, die, perish, slay, destroy, destruction, consume, burn up, pass away, fade away, be no more, and so forth to describe the fate of the unsaved? Why didn’t Paul, in Romans 6:23, just say that the wages of sin is eternal torment? Why didn’t John, in John 3:16, just say that whoever believes in him should not be tormented forever, but have everlasting life? Examples could be multiplied for pages. I really don’t think this is a game that any traditionalist wants to play.
Wallace’s final response is to say that the notion of eternal death is “nonsensical” (although he probably means something like “redundant”):
That is nonsensical; it’d be like saying “dark blackness.” You wouldn’t use the adjective “dark” in front of “blackness” because you know that blackness assumes darkness . . . there is no reason to put the word “eternal” in front of “death”; we all get that that is inherent in the idea of death—that it’s forever [laughs]. So that you would never use the adjective “eternal” in front of “death”.
This is simply false. The first century Jewish understanding of death was not that it was eternal, but rather temporary. Martha, in John 11:24 echoes the predominant Jewish view by affirming that her brother Lazarus would rise again at the resurrection.
So eternality is not inherent in the idea of death. Biblically, the first death is a temporary sleep that God will reverse at the resurrection. By contrast, the second death is an everlasting death that will never be reversed.
Matthew 25:46 is not the magic bullet verse that Wallace and others take it to be. Both traditionalists and conditionalists affirm what it teaches: that whatever form future punishment takes, it will certainly last forever (thus ruling out universalism). The nature of that everlasting punishment must then be ascertained from other passages. It fascinates me that Matthew 25:46 is so frequently touted as the strongest verse in support of everlasting torment, even though it doesn’t actually mention torment. In a strange way, however, I agree. Matthew 25:46 is one of the strongest passages used to support everlasting torment; that’s exactly why I’m not a traditionalist!
As an aside, I do appreciate the fact that Wallace recognizes that the “soul” spoken of in Matthew 10:28 does not refer to some immortal, immaterial “spirit”. There goes one of the most frequently cited proof-texts used in support of dualism!