To Be Or Not To Be

When Hamlet uttered his famous soliloquy, it is doubtful that he was thinking of whether his soul would be annihilated at death or would continue in some condition. He simply wondered about the advisability of "shuffling off this mortal coil." However, it is probable that Shakespeare, who had a broad knowledge of literature, including the Bible, was familiar with various theories concerning the eternal state. Since it would take more space that is normally allotted to an article just to list and explain those theories, we shall not attempt to do it.

Probably the most common view among believers of the scriptures -- sometimes called "the traditional view" -- is that the wicked suffer everlasting punishment in hell, which is interpreted to mean that the suffering goes on forever.

One alternate view is that the wicked suffer everlasting punishment in hell, interpreted to mean that the soul is annihilated forever, with no ongoing suffering.

Those who hold the second view generally use such arguments as these: 1. It is contrary to God's love to think that a loving God could cause endless suffering. 2. The Bible says in Ezekiel 18:4, "The soul that sinneth it shall die" which means that the soul no longer lives, so it ceases to exist. 3. Jesus said that both the body and soul of the wicked would be destroyed. If a thing is destroyed, it ceases to exist, and cannot continue to suffer.

It is a common practice of some (who seem more interested in using the scriptures to prove their own viewpoint) to array one scripture against another, and pick the ones that best suit their purpose. We consider that unworthy of any Christian or honest Bible student. We are primarily concerned with what the Bible teaches rather than with some theory, either orthodox or unorthodox, about what may or may not be so. Our basic concept is that we should seek for truth, wherever it may lead us. Furthermore, if one scripture seems to conflict with another, or a particular interpretation or application seems to conflict with a scripture, we think it appropriate to see if one or both scriptures can be properly understood in a different way so that no conflict ensues. Sometimes the truth is made clearer as it is taught in juxtaposition to error.

Let us illustrate this, so the reader may more fully understand our conclusions and how we reached them. The Bible says in 1 Peter 3:21 that baptism saves us. If that means that baptism is a sacramental act by which the divine grace of salvation is bestowed upon the recipient, irrespective of his condition, attitude or response, then we have too many problems and conflicts to deal with in an article like this. But if it means that baptism saves us in the sense that it is a response of faith, by which one accepts the grace of God in an effort to maintain a good conscience toward God, then all apparent conflicts disappear. For a person to simply say, "Baptism does not save us, for the Bible says in another place that we are saved by something else" is not satisfactory, for it denies a plain passage of the Bible.

When Peter says in Acts 2:40, "Save yourselves," if we misunderstand him to mean that man can save himself by his own goodness, effort or merit, we have more conflicts and problems than we can solve. But if we understand him to mean that man can save himself by accepting God's gracious offer of salvation, recognizing that he is saved by the blood of Christ as he, in faith, contacts that blood in the act of baptism (Romans 6:3-5), then we have no problem with that scripture.

When we find a scripture that says, "It is appointed unto man once to die" (Heb. 9:27) and then find Jesus saying, "He that liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (John 11:26), it is not proper to say, "You pick your scripture and I will take mine." It is proper to search for the basic meaning of the term, "death" and then find the specific meaning in the context. In this way, a passage such as 1 Timothy 5:6 which says, "She-- is dead while she liveth" will be no problem.

Let us now examine some scriptures that seem to show clearly that the suffering of the wicked will continue, and then some that seem to indicate that hell is simply the situation where the wicked are eternally punished by causing them to cease to exist. Various passages speak of the weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 8:12, 13:42,50; 22:13, Lk. 13:28). If these people simply ceased to exist, it is difficult (impossible) for me to conceive of how they could be said to be weeping and gnashing their teeth. Revelation 14:9-11 indicates it even more clearly. The torment is said to be forever and forever. Torment (basanizo) is never used to refer to ceasing to exist, but an ongoing suffering.

I find no way to interpret or understand these and other similar passages in a way that allows for a cessation of consciousness, or the extinction of the one who is suffering.

Now, let us use the same procedure with the scriptures that may suggest that a soul dying or being destroyed must mean cessation or extinction. If we discover that it must mean that, then we apparently have an unreconciliable contradiction. This is unacceptable as long as we can find from the scriptures themselves a meaning that does not involve us in that situation.

As we look at the word "destroy" in Hebrew, Greek or English, it is apparent that it does not necessarily mean cessation of existence, but simply that the proper usefulness or functioning is gone. The Navy may have a destroyer that sinks a submarine, but the submarine is still there, though no longer useful or functioning as it was designed. Space will not permit me to list all the references in the Bible that shows this to be so, but anyone with a Young's or Strong's Concordance can easily verify this.

It is thought by some that the expression, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" means that the part of man that is not material, will cease to exist at some point after death, and that this is what is meant by "the second death." We are not concerned about upholding some "traditional" or "orthodox" view, and are even less concerned about presenting some new or novel idea. We are concerned about understanding the Bible teaching about any subject.

However, even at that point, we should make clear that we firmly uphold the position that not everything the Bible teaches about any subject is of equal importance in terms of deciding the eternal destiny of a person, or whether he is to be in fellowship with faithful Christians. One of the most devout and highly respected men in the brotherhood held the position that when a Christian dies, he goes immediately into heaven, and not into some intermediate state. I think he was wrong, but I expect to meet him, wherever he is, when this life is over. So, although I may not know what is meant by the expression, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die," and thus may have more ignorance than I should have, this does not mean that I must then be consigned to the Stygian pits of darkness. Even if I should be, it is not your responsibility to do the consigning, regardless of the assumption of some brethren to the contrary.

One of the ways we discover the meaning of a passage is to know the meaning of the terms that make up the passage. This is not always sufficient, for there are colloquial expressions, the total meaning of which are not exhausted by defining the words that are used in the expression. The first time I remember hearing the expression, "He is a cool cat," I tried all the normal meanings of "cool" of which I was aware. Then I tried all the usual meanings of "cat" including the various brands of house and alley cats on up to the wild ones. None of those combinations gave any satisfactory answer to what was involved in being a "cool cat."

A careful study reveals that "soul" is used in various ways in the Bible. Sometimes it refers to the immaterial part of man that simply means his life. When he dies, his soul is gone, because his life is gone. We often say that it is synonymous with "spirit." Technically, that is not correct, although those different words may refer in general to the same thing. That is, the body without the spirit is dead, just as the body without the soul is dead. A chair may be a piece of furniture. A desk may be a piece of furniture. If you are asked to remove all furniture from the room, and you remove a chair, you are doing what was requested. If you remove the desk, you are doing what was requested. So, although "chair" and "desk" may refer to the same thing in some contexts, they do not mean the same thing, and are not synonymous. Since the basic meaning of "soul" is "life," when the Bible says, "There were many souls on board the ship," it simply means, "There were many living persons." Here are a few of the many verses that show this usage. Exodus 12:15, "Whosoever eateth unleavened bread -- that soul shall be cut off --." It is evident that the person who eats the bread and the "soul" that is cut off are the same. It is not the immaterial part of man that ate the bread. The same thing can be said of other passages where a soul is said to eat bread or touch something unclean (such as Lev. 5:2; 7:20). In various other places it is affirmed that the soul that does a certain thing shall be cut off (such as Lev. 20:6; 22:3). In all of these cases, the soul most certainly is not the immaterial part of man, but simply the man himself.

The first thing we have established is that when the Bible says, "The soul that sinneth" it does not necessarily refer to some nebulous entity in man that is not material. No place in the Bible do we find any indication that a soul may sin, and the body be innocent. When a person sins, it is the person, not merely some immaterial part. When God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul, man was a physical being, with a spirit and a life. When the spirit leaves the body, it is dead (James 2:26) and therefore has no life in it. The spirit, however, is still spoken of as being alive, or as having life, as when Jesus says, "God is not the God of the dead but of the living -- for all live unto him." Abraham, although dead from a human standpoint, because his spirit had left his body, was alive from God's standpoint, for a person, made in God's image, is never represented in the Bible as ceasing to exist whether he is righteous or wicked.

When we read of God "destroying both soul and body in hell" (Mt. 10:28) the word apollumi is used. That it does not mean "annihilate" is clearly shown by passages where the same word is translated as "lost" (such as Matthew 10:6). Luke 9:25 shows it perhaps even more clearly. To lose himself or be cast away does not involve ceasing to exist. In Luke 15:4,17,24 it is clear that the lost or perishing things or persons have not ceased to exist, yet the same word is used. We could multiply such examples many times.

With regard to passages using the word "death" we must realize that this word always refers to the absence of a certain kind of life, but never means cessation of existence, as we can clearly see by looking at those who are "dead in sin" or the Prodigal, or Abraham who was dead, but still living unto God.

What conclusion can be drawn from this? 1. There are many references indicating that the punishment of the wicked will involve continuing torment. 2. In all the passages quoted to substantiate claims that the wicked will cease to exist, the words used (such as "destroy," "cut off," "perish" and "death") do not necessarily involve a cessation of existence. 3. These passages must therefore be understood in such a way that continuing torment remains possible.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive