Avoiding the plain meaning

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One of the traditionalist's strongest arguments is that annihilationists don't accept the plain meaning of words like "eternal" or "everlasting". And they're right. While some of the alternative readings of those verses are plausible, some are really stretching it--unacceptabily so in my opinion.

What really amuses me is that the annihilationists come back and make exactly the same argument against the traditionalists--that they don't accept the plain meaning of words like "destruction" and "perish". And they're right too. The traditionalist who demands the plain meaning of "eternal" will go out of their way to use an alternative meaning of "destroyed" and not notice at all that they're using a double-standard. Along the same vein, the annihilationist who demands a plain reading of "perish" has no problem using an odd meaning for "everlasting".

Bizzare.

One of the reasons that I've settled on my position is that I think the plain meaning of all those words is right. Which implies that both positions are right. So I had to find a way to make both positions compatible with each other.

18 Comments

Really? Is the Greek or Hebrew so different from the English?

There are a number of ways I can see "destruction" lining up with the traditional understanding of eternal punishment without avoiding the plain meaning!

In English, a house can be destroyed by a fire even though it is still standing (i.e. existing).

Eternal destruction has "destroy" modified - can it not mean something is eternally in the process of being destroyed?

And so on.

I know there are other words, etc, but I believe a plain reading can be utilised for all of them.

I have to say that I'm with Ali on this one. Destruction can be an infinite process with no endpoint and still be meant literally, e.g. if it's asymptotic.

OK. But now use "destroy" or "perish" with a person (or other living thing) as the object. Can you do it naturally in English such that the person being destroyed is still consious and alive during the entirety of the event?

One of the things that is linguistically appealing about Annihilationism is that when a person dies, is destroyed, or has perished, that person is well and truly dead. If they've suffered the second death (in addition to the first)--they're really dead. With traditionalism, you've got dead living souls, destroyed living souls, perished living souls, and living souls that have died both the first AND second deaths. It's not unpossible, but I don't like what I have to do linguistically to get there.

"Darth Vader betrayed and killed your father."

Actually, we do this all the time. We say we're going to kill someone when we don't mean anything to do with their death at all. We'll speak of someone destroying a political candidate by releasing information about a scandal. We can talk about destroying an opponent in battle by mutilating them without killing them. That seems linguistically fine in contemporary English, and I don't know of any reason why it couldn't happen in ancient Hebrew or Hellenistic Greek. I'm actually pretty sure I've seen examples in Greek at some point. It's true that this is an extended sense or perhaps metaphorical, but lots of biblical language is like that. I would still call it the plain meaning in many of these cases, just not the literal one. But Jesus isn't literally a door or a vine either. So I don't find this argument compelling, even if it has some force.

True enough. But in the verses in question, it certainly doesn't seem like destroyed is being used in any of those metaphorical senses. When God says to fear "the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell", I have a feeling he's not talking about destroying their political career.

And destruction is the easiest one for the traditionalist camp. "Death" is harder, though not impossible. "Perish" is much harder.

"Death" I find particularly interesting, since traditionalists typically think of it as spiritual death, like Adam and Eve's death in the garden after eating the fruit. However, we've already spiritually died in Adam and Eve. So if we're already spiritually dead, then what other way do we have to die? A second spiritual death is no punishment at all to those already spiritually dead.

It may not be about a political career, but it could be a devastating but not total kind of destruction like destroying a house.

If Adam and Eve spiritually died already, then what remains is physical death. Whether that's followed by a spiritually-dead conscious existence in hell or annihilation doesn't seem to me to affect whether they could have been spiritually dead already.

Some of the language about death and perishing might simply refer to dying in your sins, i.e. physical death without life in Christ following it. Those in Christ will perish in that sense too but will be raised to new life, so it won't be permanent. Annihilationists can make better sense of this, since that state after physical death can just be non-existence rather than some intermediate state before resurrection. On the other hand, annihilationists have a harder time dealing with the resurrection after annihilation for the sake of final judgment and then another annihilation, unless there's some permanence to the soul after death.

Rey - "Darth Vader betrayed and killed your father."

That felt like a huge cheat in Star Wars to me. It feels similarly like cheating in this context too.

Jeremy - If Adam and Eve spiritually died already, then what remains is physical death. Whether that's followed by a spiritually-dead conscious existence in hell or annihilation doesn't seem to me to affect whether they could have been spiritually dead already.

So you're physically dead AND spiritually dead, and yet still conscious. How can you be consious? You're not alive in ANY sense!

On the other hand, annihilationists have a harder time dealing with the resurrection after annihilation for the sake of final judgment and then another annihilation, unless there's some permanence to the soul after death.

Most annihilationists hold to some sort of intermediate state, so that isn't really a problem. I just think that God teleports us into the future when we die. I don't really have any support for that, it's just what I think for some reason.

You're assuming those are the only two senses in which someone can be alive. If spiritual death just means not having spiritual standing before God (i.e. not having the abundant life that comes from the Holy Spirit) and physical life means having a living body, then I can easily imagine someone continuing to exist and even being conscious without either.

The problem isn't whether annihilationists can believe in an intermediate state. It's just weird for annihilationists to do so. Why not get it over with at each person's death? Why resurrect them after what for many would be a long gap if they're just going to stop existing immediately afterward? If the resurrection is to a judgment that involves a body, that's a much more likely explanation for why a resurrection would occur at that point. It's not an insuperable difficulty, but it is a weird consequence of the view unless you can avoid it somehow.

Why not get it over with at each person's death? Why resurrect them after what for many would be a long gap if they're just going to stop existing immediately afterward?

Well, it isn't immediately afterward (for most annihilationists). Typically, people are resurrected bodily so that they can be judged and then undergo punishment for a finite period before being annihilated. It doesn't seem problematic to me.

I can easily imagine someone continuing to exist and even being conscious without either

That seems strange to me. Do you have a name for the sense in which a person in that state is alive?

The pure annihilation view is that people just cease to exist when they die. The Jehovah's Witnesses hold that view. A more moderate view is that there's a resurrection to judgment before the final annihilation, and that fits a lot better with scripture. You're restricting yourself now to a more moderate version than even that, with a period of conscious judgment first. I don't consider that the typical annihilationist view, but if you exclude the others than this issue is less problematic.

That seems strange to me. Do you have a name for the sense in which a person in that state is alive?

They exist and are conscious. They're of course not biologically alive, but neither is someone in exactly the same condition on the view that happens to call it being spiritually alive. The question isn't about the metaphysics, because that's the same on both view. The issue is over whether the term "spiritually dead" as used in scripture applies to such a case.

I don't consider that the typical annihilationist view

True, I'm aiming here for the typical Evangelical annihilationist view--something along the lines of Stott's view or Pinnock's view. I suppose I should have been more explicit about that.

The question isn't about the metaphysics, because that's the same on both view.

I'm not sure you're quite getting my objection. My point is that if there is no sense in which they are alive, then there is nothing to be conscious, since consciousness is usually considered to be a property only of living things. So a physically dead person who is spiritually alive could be conscious since there is still a living person to have consciousness. But a physically dead and spiritually dead person having consciousness? You say it is easy to imagine, but so far as I can tell, we've run out of ways for such a person to be alive. I would think that if this was such a common thing, we'd have a name for that kind of life.

No, I'm getting your objection. I'm just denying your premise. I'm saying that it's not true that there's no sense in which they're alive. They're mentally alive if they're conscious. Being spritually dead as I defined it doesn't preclude being mentally alive, since it isn't about existing in a spiritual form. It's about being alive to God.

It almost seems, Wink, that you are asking us to use “destroy” or “perish” as you understand them, not actually as they are clearly used in the Bible. This, of course, redefines “plain meaning” as “Wink’s plain meaning” instead of “the Bible’s plain meaning” which I thought would be more profitable in a discussion about what the Bible says. So, let me use the Bible to do as you asked way back in the third comment and illustrate examples of “destroy” and “perish” used of people such that the people still exist.

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (Genesis 6:13 ESV)

…from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Luke 11:51 ESV)

Put these examples together with:

Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years…And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:4, 13 ESV)

Even if you don’t believe that Scriptures like 1 Samuel 28, Matthew 22:32, Luke 16:19-31, and Philippians 1:21-23 teach a conscious existence after death, it is clear that there is some sense in which people, though having been destroyed or having perished, still exist. I think to avoid that conclusion is to avoid the plain meaning in the Bible.

ali - let me use the Bible to do as you asked way back in the third comment

Thank you. This is exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. These are good examples. The Genesis and Luke verses by themselves seem like they prove my point ("destroy" or "perish" when refering to a person meaning "to end the life of").

When you add it in with the Revelation passage, it becomes debateable again. In my reading of it, the sea gives up the dead *bodies* that are in it to be re-ensouled. I suppose for you, the sea gives up the conscious souls that are in it? But why are the souls being held in the sea?

At any rate, in the first two passages, "destroy" and "perish" have a pretty plain meaning of "to end the life of", we agree at least on that right?

Rereading ali's comment, I'm realizing that I haven't been clear about something. First I must note that nothing has been created ex nihilo except in the creation accounts of Genesis. Similarly, nothing (if anything at all) is annihilated except in Revelation.

So when I'm talking about the plain meaning of "destroy" or "perish", I'm not talking about annihilation. So of course, if you point out that a destroyed thing is still extant in some way, you are correct. What I'm talking about is the meaning "death", not "annihilation".

The annhilationist argument is that the references to "destruction" or "perish" should refer to a literal death of some sort (among which annhilation is a possible one), not a metaphorical one. (Just as traditionalists insist that "eternal" should refer to a literal eternity, not a metaphorical one.)

So if you take the words to mean a literal death, then it seems odd to say that a person who has died, perished, been destroyed, and has suffered the second death is still alive and conscious in some way.

Jeremy's solution of being mentally alive is possible. I don't prefer it because the Bible never talks in categories of mental life and death, but I suppose it is possible. But it seems unnessisary to me. (The speculation could be endless--an affective life, an endocrological life, etc.)

At any rate, the point is that in (what I consider to be) a plain reading, someone who is destroyed or someone who has perished has *died*. Traditionalists will say something equivalent to "someone who is destroyed or someone who has perished lives eternally in torment".

It's resolvable--the two are not necessarily contradictory. But surely you agree that the first meaning requires much less explanation to make sense of it than the second, right? Thus, the first is the plain meaning and the second, not so plain, right?

I think it depends what presuppositions you come with. To me, the two statements you make at the end of your last comment are exactly the same.

Let me see if I can express this clearly:

Death in the Bible is the cessation of life in the realm that we live in - normally described as the physical world. However, that does not preclude "living" in another realm. I mean, other than the second death, have you come across a non-figurative statement referring to the death of anyone (or anything) in the Bible that is not physically alive?

My contention is, as I try to show in my comment below your next post, is that in the same way, the second death involves the cessation of living in the new heavens and the new earth, but this does not preclude "living" forever in another realm i.e. the lake of fire.

So, death, destruction, perish and any other word holds its meaning with reference to this world, and yet does not rule out living (even eternally) some place else.

I think that is very clear once those premises are understood.

Just to be clear, I think you've got my suggestion wrong. The idea is that you are defining the term "spiritually alive" such that someone who is spiritually dead does not exist. I am not doing that, because I don't think the Bible does that. By "spiritually alive", I do not mean some state that allows us to continue to exist after death, because our spirit is alive. I mean that we (in whatever form we are in, before or after physical death) are alive to the things of the Holy Spirit. In other words, someone spiritually alive is either pre-fall or post-regeneration. That is the entirety of what it means to be spiritually alive. It says nothing about the metaphysical status one has. It's about one's standing with God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in one's life.

So someone can be spiritually alive and physically alive (the believer in this life). Someone can be spiritually dead and physically alive (the non-believer in this life). Someone can be spiritually alive but physically dead (but one's spirit continues to exist and is perhaps conscious in the intermediate state, because one's spirit is alive in your sense, even if one is spiritually dead in the biblical sense). And finally, someone can be spiritually dead and physically dead while existing in the same state. Whether one's spirit is alive has nothing to do with what the Bible refers to as being spiritually alive or dead. You're making it metaphysical when it's merely relational. That's why I don't think your argument eliminates the possibility of continuing to exist while being spiritually dead as the Bible uses that term.

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