The Wages of Sin
In this article, I am tackling a seriously controversial subject. For disclosure, my background has me leaning towards either annihilationism or possibly a form of universalism. I am however trying to stay as open minded as I can – understanding how difficult that can be – exigesis rather than eisegesis. This article is delving into the wages of sin and trying to understand what it is that “death” means here.
For the payoff or wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Rom 6:23 (NET)
The Traditional View
The traditional view of the wages of sin is of eternal punishment in Hell. In Matt 25:46, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus consigns the “goats” to eternal punishment instead of eternal life.
In Rev 14:11, John reports that the smoke of the torment of the rejected goes up “forever and ever”. Matt 18:8 references eternal fire as the alternative to entering into life. Jude 7 describes Sodom and Gomorrah suffering a punishment of eternal fire and Paul in 2 Thess 1:9 references eternal destruction “away from the presence of the Lord”.
Whilst not an exhaustive list, these are the primary quotations used to support the traditional view of the wages of sin. I suspect that, like me, you may find a number of holes in these “proofs” because, for the most part, their clear intention was allegorical and moral interpretation rather than a literal one.
The annihilationalist view of the wages of sin asserts that those who reject God will ultimately cease to exist. For full disclosure, this is what I have always believed and that I think is supported by scripture. This makes my analysis a little suspect and so I will attempt to be a little more rigorous in my analysis here.
In Matt 10:28, Jesus tells us not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This opens the door to the death of the soul together with the body. It lends itself to non-existence for “the wicked”. The fly in the ointment here is the end of the sentence – “in hell”. I’ll come back to that later in this article.
Another piece of scripture that implies complete destruction of the “wicked” is in Mal 4:1. A day is coming when the “arrogant” and “all evildoers” will be set ablaze until nothing remains.
Fire as a Metaphor
It’s an important consideration in the annihilation argument to understand fire as a metaphor for God’s judgement. Fire is a purifier and is used in this way in Mal 3:2-3 where God is referred to as a refiner’s fire. More relevant to this discussion is the use of fire in Scripture, such as in Heb 12:29 where it refers to God as a “consuming fire.” In 2 Pet 3:10-13, the earth is destroyed in a blaze to make way for a new heavens and a new earth.
Fire can be a metaphor for testing and trials as again a refining process for example in 1 Peter 1:7. Again, as referenced above, Rev 20 uses the lake of fire to depict an eternal consequence for the ungodly.
Therefore, the fires of hell can simply be a metaphor for God’s judgement of the wicked without involving actual fire (and pitchforks).
Difficulties with Annihilationalism
There are some difficulties with Annihilationalism.
Traditionalists can also interpret the quotes used to support annihilationism to uphold the traditional view of eternal punishment. In fact, annihilationalism relies on an allegorical interpretation of much of the scripture used to support the viewpoint. Let’s face it any theory on this subject is also likely to rely heavily on an allegorical interpretation of Scripture.
Of course, Annihilationalism is at odds with traditional and historical orthodoxy. It clearly cuts across the traditional view of the nature of God in relation to divine justice and the “wages of sin”. Certainly, it is seen by many as a nod to contemporary cultural values. This in turn is potentially a “weakening” of traditional views to meet current cultural norms.
I think that is actually quite a cogent argument. Any movement of biblical thought that panders to current thinking is suspicious and requires careful scrutiny.
There are also concerns as to how Annihilationalism fits consistently into an overall theological framework around the fate of the wicked, the nature of any afterlife and the ultimate purpose of God’s judgment. I’ll deal with this later in this article. I do think we misinterpret God’s Judgment and this will be the subject of a further article later in this series.
A Form of Universalism
I have a close friend who believes in universalism who will probably annihilate me for my interpretation of his pet belief but here goes (sorry Andy)! Universalism holds the belief that ultimately, all people will be reconciled with God and saved. That’s right, we may see Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot in a room together in the Kingdom of God!
Universalism is based around the salvation of all men in Christ. So we have in 1 Cor 15:22, “… in Christ shall all be made alive.” This is taken to mean that everyone will receive salvation through Christ. In Roms 5:18, the one act of Jesus Christ that “… leads to justification and life for all men.” 1 Tim 4:10, God is referenced as “the saviour of all people…” and in Col 1:19-20, God seeks to reconcile all things to Himself. In Ephesians (1:10), Paul talks about God’s purpose as being to “unite all things in Him” and in Phil 2:10-11, he speaks of everyone acknowledging Jesus as Lord.
The Difficulties of Universalism
The significant difficulty with Universalism is that there are numerous passages in scripture that speak directly to the wages of sin being at least death and potentially torment. There are difficulties in creating consistency with the justice of God and possibly the need for a response to God’s offer of salvation. I think that the universalist would easily be able to offer an explanation around the need for the ungodly to reject their ungodliness and embrace salvation.
The traditionalist would have difficulties with universalism because it suggests that we don’t have free choice. I would suggest that a universalist would argue that salvation would be consequent upon each individual’s acceptance of the saving name of Jesus but that none would withhold this acceptance.
Dan 12:2 speaks of resurrection to life and resurrection to contempt. This does create a difficulty for universalists. Most of the parables on this subject also suggest a dichotomous outcome where some face something other than eternal life.
Most of the other arguments, based in the Atonement, pre-suppose that the universalist believes in automatic salvation for all. Perhaps some universalists do believe this. In my experience, they tend more towards a form of hybrid universalism where all humans eventually choose salvation over eternal separation from God.
Personally, I could accept this view as indicative of the magnitude of God’s grace and love. I do suspect that some interpretations of scripture to support this framework may stray into eisegesis rather than exegesis…
Conditional Immortality and Purgatory
Conditional immortality suggests that those who do not accept salvation do not receive eternal life and eventually die. Purgatory kind of nibbles around the edges of universalism by suggesting that those who have been kind of wicked will receive some form of temporary punishment or purification before becoming reconciled to God.
The Wages of Sin are death. That’s a pretty powerful statement by Paul in Romans and I think it’s actually pretty unequivocal.
The traditional view of eternal torment seems to cut across this because it suggests that sin does not equal death but rather eternal life, just in torment. It seems disproportionate to consign someone to torment forever in exchange for roughly 70 years of rejecting God. I don’t think it aligns with the justice and mercy of God.
The argument runs that some sins are so heinous and offensive to deity that they warrant eternal punishment. The counter argument is that such punishment is not fair or ethical from a loving and merciful deity.
Degrees of Hell
For an interesting breakdown of this, I suggest you watch Mike Winger on YouTube. He has an interesting title called “About those Objections to Hell”. I don’t agree with him, but I think it’s a valuable discussion to get a better handle on this.
Fundamentally, the concept of degrees of hell addresses the issues associated with proportionality. It suggests that there are degrees of punishment based on for example, Matt 11:21-24:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you! And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!”Matt 11:21-24 (NET)
I think that interpreting quotes such as this to deal with the perception of disproportionality is really a long bow to draw. I really do think that these quotations are about highlighting the iniquity of these places as compared to those of antiquity who are a byword for iniquity. It shouldn’t focus on the degree of punishment that might be meted to one over the other. This is not literal.
Let’s face it, even a light punishment if dragged out for a long time becomes unbearable. For a moment, consider the idea of water torture, where someone straps down the subject, and continuous drops of water land on the subject’s forehead. It is a diabolocal thing to do and often drive the subject insane. This begs the questions then, is it possible to have degrees of punishment over eternity?
It also contradicts the notion of Jesus’ atoning work. Did Jesus fully and completely atone for our sins? If that’s the case, then how can God punish you for “lesser” sins that don’t consign you to hell?
Where is the grace of God in any of this? We all sin and we are all subject to the wages of sin. We all rely on God’s grace, which can only be accessed through faith in Him. Without grace in Jesus’ sacrifice, we have no hope and are dead in trespass and sin. Either His grace is enough or it is not.
Why I am an Annihilationalist
To me, it makes the most sense.
One can interpret hell as the grave quite easily. In the Greek, the word is Hades which can simply mean a place of the dead. It can be Gehenna which can be used as a place of punishment but refers to the Valley of Hinnom. In ancient times, people conducted child sacrifices in the Valley of Hinnom, but during the time of Christ and the New Testament, it became a place where they burned garbage and the remains of criminals. Whilst the location had both historical and geographical significance, it became a metaphor for the ultimate destination of ungodly.
In the Hebrew, the word is Sheol which does not actually describe a place as such. It is a concept of a final destination rather than a place of punishment. Sheol is neutral rather than negative. Conceptually, Scripture uses Sheol poetically to relate to the uncertainty of life, the inevitability of death, and mortality, even though it is a place of inactivity. The other word translated Hell, is Tophet which relates to Gehenna above.
Fundamentally, therefore, Hell is more aligned with annihilation than with punishment even though we can argue with some utility that Gehenna or Tophet is not a great destination to end up in.
Annihilation is more consistent in my view with biblical teaching than any of the other schools of thought.
The True Wages of Sin for the Evil
“But”, I hear you ask, “what about truly evil people – don’t they deserve eternal punishment?” I would argue honestly, that even a lifetime of pure evil does not equate to an eternity of punishment. Without getting into an ethics debate about the nature of evil, I suggest that evil arises out of two predominant causes.
On the one hand, I think evil may be the product of mental sickness, in which case, if you make the person well, they are distraught at the things they have done and want to die anyway.
On the other hand, an ego running rampant produces evil, and the most appropriate punishment for such an ego is for it to die and never be thought of again.
Justice and Mercy
Annihilationalism is consistent with the justice and mercy of God. It addresses some of the moral and logical inconsistencies associated with eternal conscious punishment and it reconciles neatly with the moral character of God.
So, there it is. Of all of the possible outcomes for the wicked, annihilation seems to me to be the most consistent with both Scripture and the revealed nature of God. It emphasises the balance between God’s justice and mercy. It is consistent with the concepts around “the wages of sin” in Romans.
I think a modified form of the traditional universalist approach as I describe above is a possible alternative.
Ultimately, I reject the concept of eternal punishment or some form of waypoint in purgatory as not consistent with scripture at all.
I apologise that this article is so long. It’s a big topic and I don’t think I could have done the subject justice by breaking it down into a number of smaller articles. If you have borne with me to the end, thank you so much.
I’ll be back to more brief topics shortly as I start to unpick some of the debates about life after death for the Godly.