Go ahead and sit a spell with me, this may take a minute or two.
Ever heard of the TV show “Ask a Pastor”? Neither had I until the other day. I caught an episode coming on a religiously natured channel and decided to watch it for curiosity sake. The premise of the show was rather simple: call a phone-number to ask a host and a panel of five “pastors” a Bible question and they would try to give an answer from the scriptures.
Although I’m not too fond of the show’s title (due to the confusion that most of the religious world has with the word pastor and preacher), I must admit that I liked the general basis for the show: Bible question? Get a Bible answer. Sounds fair enough to me.
But what I was curious about was the level of “ecumenical understanding” the show was going to have. The reason I say this is because the panelists, with the exception of one, were from evangelical churches with names that I had never heard of. So that left me wondering about what would happen if a question was asked that crossed the doctrinal wires of the panelists? Would there be disagreement? Would there be an attempted rebuttal? How balanced would they be in their approach to the scriptures? Surprisingly enough to me, it didn’t take long for me to see how this would play out.
Within the first few calls there was a question about God’s judgment. The call was about Hell to be more specific. The caller wanted to know what the Bible taught concerning the duration of God’s final punishment. The first panelist gave what I would consider to be a biblically balanced answer: Hell is real, it is for those who reject God’s will, and all practical indications show that it is eternal in duration. The panelist even went so far as to point out that the same Greek word used to describe the duration of Heaven in Matthew 25:46 is used to describe the duration of Hell. A valid and pertinent point I thought, but another panelist on the show didn’t think the same thought. As a matter of fact, this panelist objected rather passionately as he gave his contrarian answer.
Now I’ve listened to several people and I’ve read several writings that promote the idea of a “temporary” Hell, so this panelist’s position wasn’t anything new to me. But what was new to me was the way in which he used one particular verse to defend his position, that verse being Romans 6:23 which says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I think I was as confused as the show’s host and other panelists, but the “pastor” went on to explain why he believed Romans 6:23 taught that Hell was only a temporary, or short-lived, punishment.
So why, according to the “pastor”, does Romans 6:23 teach the existence of a temporary Hell? Because Jesus paid the price for sin and he never felt the flames of Hell. According to the panelist, death (in other words, complete annihilation) is the ultimate consequence of rebellion which is brought about by Hell’s fire. He believed that a lack of existence (which the panelist obviously must believe is what happened to Jesus upon his death – he must interpret Luke 23:43 the same way Jehovah Witnesses do; either that or he believes physical death alone is the wages of sin) is the consequence that Jesus paid for our sin. All of that, and Romans 6:23 just simply doesn’t say anything about Hell.
The other panelists made attempts to correct the erring “pastor” but to no avail. And although I believe the points that they made were valid, I also believe there was an easier way to correct the view that was being presented.
One, you can be dead and still exist according to the very scene of Eden where death is introduced in the scriptures. Adam and Eve were told that the day they ate of the fruit they would die (Genesis 2:17). Yet the very day that they ate they were still alive…physically speaking. So what died that day? It was their relationship/their open communion/their soul that died. Much like the widow of Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 5:6, Adam and Eve lived, yes they existed, while they were dead…spiritually speaking! And so they were removed from the fruit that gave them physical life, or else they could have eternally existed, physically speaking, while being dead, spiritually speaking (Genesis 3:22). Hence forth, and this is point number two, Jesus could taste a death (a separation from the Father, and not a lack of existence – Matthew 27:46) that had nothing to do with the fire of Hell. Hell is the second death that will be experienced as punishment for the first death (Revelation 20:14, 21:8); and the first death is a spiritual death which is the wage, or consequence, that we earn by sinning against God. This is why it’s so important to be resurrected from the deadness of our sins through the life that is found in Jesus, but that’s obviously for another discussion (but read these verses to get my point Revelation 20:6; Romans 6:3-23). Romans 6:23 says nothing of annihilation, and the fact that one can exist while being dead shows that death can be experienced and suffered while being completely aware of reality (Colossians 2:11-13; Ephesians 2:1-7).
If you ask me, even though I’m not a pastor, what I heard that day on the afore-mentioned TV show was the worst handling of Romans 6:23 that I’ve ever heard and it was all because of a preconceived notion that disregarded what the rest of the scriptures concerning the nature of Hell. And this reminded me once again why it is so important to allow all of scripture to speak on a subject before we make a pretext out of God’s text.