On the latest Rethinking Hell podcast episode, Chris Date interviewed David Instone-Brewer. During the show, Date brought up a question that some pose against the annihilationist position. I had actually heard the argument once before back when I started telling people that I adopted the view. The question goes something like this, “If the unjust will suffer a finite punishment commensurate with their sins on earth, then after they have suffered shouldn’t they then enter the kingdom, having paid for their sins?” Something like that. Now, I know this deals with degrees of suffering, and there is debate over that topic. The Scriptures certainly seem to point to varying degrees of punishment. But I don’t want to address that now. The question stands, and for those who have faced this question, or asked this question, I think closer inspection would do us well. So, let’s do that briefly.
The foundation of the whole question is faulty because it assumes that what is happening in hell is that unregenerate men are paying God, when what is actually happening is that God is paying them what they are owed. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and it’s pay day or them. They’ve done the 9 to 5, and it’s Friday. Time to get paid. On their checks are written the word, “Death.”
Furthermore, the Scriptures are clear about what actually happened on the cross. Christ actually paid a debt for His people. Christ nailed, to the cross, the certificate of debt that was against His people (Colossians 2:14). We owed a HUGE debt that we were unable to pay (Matthew 18:27) to God that He had purposed to forgive in Christ. We were all born in Adam, children of God’s just wrath, and God took that wrath that should have befallen His people and poured it on Jesus at the cross so that this wrath could never fall upon His people.
“So, what does this have to do with anything?!” you might ask. “Get on with it, loser!” Sorry, I get carried away. Let’s look at it like a car repossession. I know, I use this example a lot. Here it is again: You have a car that you owe too much money on. In fact it is so much, that you could never possibly pay it off. You’re done. Your car is getting repoed – no question about it. Nice knowing yah, car. But wait, someone has paid off the debt of your car. What happens? No repossession. This person paid it off. He actually paid it off. It’s not a potential payment wherehe tells them, “Now, I left the money at the bank, and you have to tell them that you want it to be paid for it to be active, otherwise it’s getting repoed!” Nope. It’s paid. That’s what Jesus did. He actually cancelled the debt on the cross so that His people wouldn’t “have their cars repoed.” Work with me here.
Now, here’s my point. The repossession is the penalty for not paying the debt owed. Now I know that illustrations aren’t perfect, and I can already feel some invisible tomatoes soaring past my head. Some might say, “Yah but you could get your car back if you wanted. Some companies might give you a period where you can pay it off within a few days.” But, remember, this is a debt you could never pay. That “car” is gone. Remember that both Christ’s active (perfect life) and passive (death on the cross) obedience is imputed to believers. He fulfilled the just demands of God’s law on behalf of His people. The reason the unregenerate are cast into the lake of fire is because they couldn’t do this. I think ultimately the presuppostion of the question in question is that the just demands of the law are satisfied by suffering and death, when in reality it is satisfied by perfect obedience.
In conclusion, the second death is spoken of in two ways – 1) payment for the “work” of the unregenerate, in which the unregenerate are the object of the payment 2) The penalty for having a debt that was not paid. For someone to make a point by turning the second death into an opportunity to pay for sins would be to step outside the bounds of Scripture. That’s just not what it is. It is the sentence for those who die in Adam.
The law only demands, demands, demands and not keeping it makes you worthy of the second death. It demands obedience, not suffering. God says, “Love the Lord your God with ALL of your heart, mind, strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” and if you don’t do these perfectly, you will be cast into the lake of fire. That’s it. That’s what the law demands. Perfect obedience or you die. Simple.
The way the traditionalist argument goes is illogical if you think about it. If I can just put it in another way, it’s like saying, “God says eat ice cream or die” but if you want to eat tacos, that’s another way. I know this sounds stupid and probably like a bad analogy, but the truth is, the question basically assumes that despite the fact the law demands only one thing (perfect obedience), it can be satisfied another way (suffering).
On top of all of this, an unregenerate man can go through all the suffering in the world, and unless God changes his heart of stone, the man will only curse God for it. Let’s assume the question actually paints what will happen. At the end of the suffering, the unregenerate man will face God and only spit in His face for doing that. He would only look at God much like someone may have looked at Sadam Hussein – a dictator, a bully. Have you heard atheist arguments? The atheist, Dan Barker, for instance, said he would happily go to hell than following some arbitrary rules from a God he doesn’t even think is a moral creature. He said he wouldn’t want a “creature like that living in the same neighborhood.”