Last Sunday morning we were reminded not to wrangle about words, but last Wednesday night we did a lot of wrangling over the words “eternal punishment.” I trust our wrangling was not useless, nor did it lead to the ruin of the hearers Paul warned us about.
We actually started the wrangling with the words “eternal destruction” that we found in our study of II Thessalonians. Paul spoke of those who will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord. The obvious question is why the change of words, and does eternal destruction define the punishment, opening the door to at least the eventual annihilation of the wicked?
The traditional view is that eternal punishment is punishment that remains eternally active. And Jesus did speak of hell as a place where the worm never dies and the fire is not quenched, and in Revelation we are explicitly told the devil will be cast into lake of fire, and will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
However, while it does go on to say that those whose names are not in the book of life will also be thrown into the lake of fire, it does not say they will likewise be tormented day and night forever and ever. And John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” It says“perish”, it doesn’t say be tormented in hell for all eternity. And In Matthew 10:28 Jesus said, “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.”
While some insist that to suggest that after a time of appropriate punishment for sin those in hell will be annihilated is heretical, I believe it can be supported biblically. And while we must never assume the proper interpretation of Scripture can be determined by what we think best reflects our understanding of the nature of God, being eternally cut off from the presence of God seems to be more in keeping with the God who has revealed Himself as both just and merciful. And to be eternally cut from God is indeed eternal punishment.