Maxey - Thrasher Debate

Eternal Destiny of the Wicked
Perpetual Torment or Ultimate Extinction
(An In-Depth Biblical Discussion)

Saturday, February 16, 2002

Comments by Al Maxey
on Death and Aionios

TROUBLING PASSAGES AND "FUDGISM"

Thomas referred to my observation that after years of "intense and extensive research and study" into the nature of man and the nature of final punishment I still have not arrived at perfection of perception with regard to this matter. My only defense, I suppose, is that God has chosen to create me finite, and thus I shall likely always struggle in my attempt to grasp the realities of the Infinite. In the course of these years, and through this intensive inquiry, I have come to a very firm conviction of what I believe God's Truth to be. Do I still have questions? Absolutely. Do I at times find myself puzzling over some passage in Scripture or some challenge posed to me by a fellow disciple? Yes, I do. By engaging in further study, though, I generally come to an acceptable and rational understanding of those issues, but in a few cases the research and reflection continue. I don't profess to have "arrived!" Frankly, I would be highly skeptical of anyone who had any other experience with their quest to perceive the eternal Truths of our God. None of us have yet attained perfect knowledge or understanding; thus, we all continue to face challenges, from without and within, to our beliefs and practices. I doubt Thomas is any different.

Thomas has seemingly implied, at least that was my perception of his comments, that years of intense study should have produced within me an absolute certainty with no further doubts. I do indeed know some people who feel, and don't hesitate to assert, that they have arrived at perfect perception of virtually every eternal truth. I do not arrogantly claim such infallible insight, however. I am merely a finite, fallible student of the Word who often has far more questions than answers. The more I study, the stronger my convictions become. That is true. However, I shall never attain to that state of absolute perfection of perception that some of my fellow disciples seem to believe they themselves have already acquired. Thus, I shall continue to admit to Thomas and others that my inquiries continue, as does my quest for better understanding of some things that occasionally puzzle me.

Thomas asked, "My brother, you have aroused my curiosity (and, no doubt, the curiosity of many of our readers). What are these 'few troubling passages'? Please do not keep us in suspense!" My worthy opponent, by his own admission, has been in numerous debates on a great many different topics and thus is well aware that such a question is not about to be answered early on in the course of an ongoing debate!! I have to assume, therefore, that it was asked somewhat "tongue-in-cheek," and I shall approach it on that basis. No debater worth his "salt" would ever provide his opponent with a list of what that opponent might perceive to be "weak points." That would be ludicrous. Thus, neither shall I. Are there matters about which I continue to seek clarification as I research God's Word? Yes. And I shall leave it right there for the moment. In the course of this debate we will have the opportunity to discuss some of these together. Who knows? --- Thomas may even be able to enlighten me on a few of them, as I hope to enlighten him on several points of doctrine.

Let me stress this, however ... and I'm sure that Thomas will agree: This discussion between us is not about one man "winning" and the other "losing." This is about a mutual quest for ultimate Truth in the matter of the nature of man and the final disposition of the wicked. In the course of this exchange I will readily acknowledge those areas, as we come to them, where I may still struggle with a lack of perfect comprehension of God's purpose. I would hope Thomas would do the same (unless he perceives himself to be beyond such personal struggle). We shall progress from point to point logically, with weaknesses and strengths of both positions becoming evident to the readers of this debate. Our purpose, I pray, is simply to present both perspectives to the public, as fully and honestly as we can, and allow them to determine for themselves, in light of the Word, which position, if either, better conveys ultimate Truth!!

I expect to take a somewhat light-hearted approach at times with my brother, as he has seemingly taken in the above "don't keep me in suspense" query (if I have perceived it correctly)! We are brethren, after all, and our common purpose is to glorify our God and more perfectly perceive His will for our lives. Thus, I shall avoid, as I hope Thomas will, anything that might lead us into a tense, less than civil and Christian exchange with one another.

It is obvious that Thomas and I differ over the subject matter of our debate. We differ greatly, and we are both passionate about our convictions. We also are unlikely, realistically, to convert the other to our own point of view, although both of us are likely hopeful. The reality, therefore, is that in the course of this debate we will need, at times, to simply acknowledge we are unable to come to agreement on some point and move on to the next logical point in our exchange. To expect one of us to concede to the other on each point before progressing to the next is unrealistic and will only succeed in bringing this debate to an untimely demise. Again, we shall each present our position to the best of our individual abilities, and then we shall need to leave the matter in the hands of the readers.

Thomas has pointed out that I quoted from Edward Fudge's book on several occasions in my previous posts. That is true. In the course of this debate I shall quote from a great many sources. Thomas will likely do the same. This has led my brother to make the following observation: "It is obvious that Al relies heavily on The Fire That Consumes in the defense of his position."

As this discussion between us progresses it will become obvious that this is simply not the case. Yes, Edward's book was my first introduction to God's Truth on this matter, however I do not consider his book to be the "final word" on this subject. Far from it! To be sure, in the library of materials I have accumulated over the years, his work is a valued addition ... but, it is one of the LESSER pieces. In these early posts I have indeed quoted from him perhaps more than others. That will change dramatically as we move along. Thus, I would urge my brother Thomas not to read too much into a few quotes at this early stage of the debate.

Thomas has also read far too much into my statement about perceiving Fudge's conclusions to be "basically right." Bro. Thrasher asks, "If Ed's conclusions are 'basically right,' then they are evidently WRONG on some points. In fairness to the readers of Ed's book, Al should inform us of those wrong conclusions so that we can avoid being misled or confused by them, especially since Al relies so heavily on The Fire That Consumes."

Again, I do not rely heavily on The Fire That Consumes, as will become increasingly apparent during the course of this debate. Further, Thomas once again seeks to entice an opponent in a public debate into "revealing his cards." Sorry, but that just ain't done, as you well know. Thus, again, I choose to take this as somewhat "tongue in cheek," since I think Thomas knows better than to request such a thing.

But, even more importantly, and more to the point, Thomas has simply misinterpreted my use of a figure of speech (at least this is how it is employed by ME); one which I frequently employ. Let me explain. I doubt that I have ever encountered a single person with whom I agreed 100% on everything. Indeed, I'm not sure such is even possible. Thus, it is rare that I will declare absolute agreement with any particular author or book. About the best I will do is to declare I "basically agree" with the overall conclusions of a specific work. That does not necessarily imply that I am aware of specific errors, it's just that I personally do not proclaim unequivocal or unreserved agreement with anyone ... and that includes brother Fudge. I am not a "Fudgite," nor am I a disciple of "Fudgism."

Edward and I are in basic agreement on this position (with regard to the major tenets), and I appreciate his scholarship, but I follow no man. My personal convictions are based on a personal study of God's Word. The Fire That Consumes challenged me to greater study of this topic, and I thank Edward (he does not like being called "Ed," by the way) for that incentive to begin my quest, but I do not rely upon it heavily. Indeed, I haven't read it in many years, and consider some of his arguments on certain passages to be less fully developed than what I find in other studies and what I have done in my own research. His work was a starting point --- nothing more. Thus, I would urge my brother Thomas not to read more into my statement than is warranted. Assumptions can be a dangerous thing!

THE CONCEPT OF "DEATH"

Thomas stated, "When people misunderstand or incorrectly define words, they usually reach false conclusions. This is a fundamental problem of those who teach error." I agree with this observation. It is even sometimes a problem among those who teach Truth! The two of us, therefore, need to define "death." Thomas provided us with his reasoning from several passages of Scripture, and then stated: "My conclusion is that 'death' is a SEPARATION, not an EXTINCTION." My opponent has admittedly assumed that my own definition of "death" is: "extinction" or "annihilation" or "cessation of existence."

Actually, I would agree with Thomas' view that "death" is a "separation." What is essential for us to determine in each context, however, is: (1) What is being separated from what/whom, and (2) what is the ultimate effect of that separation? The full impact of "death" cannot truly be perceived without this larger perspective. In other words, merely acknowledging that a "separation" exists does not truly define "death." One must further seek to determine what happens to that which has experienced this separation. What is the RESULT, or resultant state? Only then will one truly grasp the biblical concept of "death."

Let me just plainly state the problem at the beginning of this discussion. There is a perception among many who embrace the so-called "Traditionalist" position that "death" does not truly exist. No person (the actual "person" himself) ever truly dies, but is just released from one state to live more fully than before in another. That is one of the major differences between Thomas and me. I believe that when a person is DEAD, then that person (body and being/soul) has been completely separated/severed from LIFE. Death, therefore, is a cessation of life for the entire person, not just a part of him (more about this as we examine the nature of man).

The opposing view was dramatically displayed in the December 2001 issue of "The Banner of Truth" (a publication of some within the churches of Christ) in a lengthy poem entitled "There Is No Death" by J. L. McCreery. The title really says it all. In this poem the author states (and this is just a small snippet):

We bear their senseless dust to rest,
And say that they are "dead."
They are not dead! They have but passed
Beyond the mists that blind us here
Into the new and larger life
Of that serener sphere.

And ever near us, though unseen
The dear, immortal spirits tread --
For all the boundless universe
Is Life -- there are no dead!

Throughout the poem the author speaks of these "dead" ones being "transplanted into Paradise," and he declares, "they still are here and love us yet." Thus, "death" has merely separated these persons from us; they are not really dead, but actually more alive than ever before. Death is not cessation or extinction of life, according to this view, but an enhancement of it ... at least for the righteous "dead." For the wicked "dead," it would be perceived more as a "life of loss" than a "loss of life." I disagree completely with this view.

Yes, the concept of "death" appears many times in Scripture, and it is used several different ways. In each a separation takes place of one thing from another, and the dramatic effect in each is a loss of life, not an enhancement of life. The three types of "death" that are of primary concern to humans are often characterized as: physical, spiritual and eternal. "Theological distinctions are usually made between physical death, spiritual death, and eternal death and in general these are vital; but ... it appears that death in its totality is the result of sin. One must remember also that in the Biblical view, man is a psychosomatic unity. The whole man is the subject of death" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 2, p. 70). This latter is an important distinction. Thomas embraces a dualistic view of the nature of man --- man being made up of distinct living parts, one of which is subject to death, the other of which is not (and which survives the death of the other ... indeed is freed to fuller life by the death of the other). We shall examine this doctrine of "immortal soulism" more as we study the nature of man in subsequent posts.

Let us examine the three biblical concepts of death in greater depth:

  1. PHYSICAL DEATH. This is perhaps the best-known type of death. In Genesis 2:7 we are taught that God formed man from the dust of the ground (the common elements of the physical universe around us), and He "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being/soul." In future posts on the nature of man we will examine each of these elements: body, breath/spirit and being/soul. The important point to note here, however, is that an animated physical body is a LIVING body. The person is a living BEING. "Living soul" is what a person IS, not what a person HAS. When the breath of life is withdrawn from man, then what is left is no longer a living body, but a dead body. That body then returns to the elements from which it was drawn. "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). Solomon describes this withdrawal of "breath/spirit" this way: "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the breath/spirit will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). In Psalm 104:29 (which is actually speaking of animals) we read, "Thou dost take away their breath/spirit, they expire, and return to their dust."

    Physical death is a LOSS of the breath of life, and the effect is the return of the body to the earth. A separation takes place. The body is separated from the breath, and a LOSS OF LIFE results. I don't think anyone would suggest that this separation should be perceived as a physical enhancement of life. When body and breath are separated, the result is a DEAD body, not a LIVING one! Life is not enriched physically, but rather terminated. Life for this person is extinguished. This is an appointment each of us must keep (unless privileged to be alive at the Parousia) --- "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).

    "Although variously interpreted throughout the OT and NT, death is basically understood as the termination of life on earth. Most frequently it indicates the end of an individual's existence" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1, p. 898).

  2. SPIRITUAL DEATH. The Bible often refers to that condition of being separated from one's God (during this present life on earth) as a type of "death." This is commonly characterized among men as a "spiritual" death so as to distinguish it from physical loss of life. Thus, in many ways it constitutes a loss of the "abundant life" one has in an intimate relationship with one's God. "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear" (Isaiah 59:2). This "separation" is viewed as a type of "death," although the person continues to remain alive physically. It is a "death" in the sense that it is a LOSS OF LIFE that abundant life that comes from intimacy with Deity. That blessed union is severed with the life GIVER, and the result is: one is cut off from the very source of life Himself. That is indeed a separation best characterized as a "death;" a loss of life.

    Jesus likens Himself to a vine on one occasion, and He declares that we who are IN HIM are all branches. However, if we should be "separated" from this vine (severed from Christ), the result is "death" -- we wither and die (John 15:1-6). This is a separation resulting in LOSS OF LIFE. Jesus declares that He is the LIFE (John 14:6), thus to be separated from HIM is to be separated from the abundant LIFE He came to bring.

    Thomas alluded to this "spiritual death" in his reference to 1 Timothy 5:6 --- "But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives." Although physically still a living, breathing body, nevertheless in relationship to the LIFE GIVER HIMSELF she is separated by her sins. And to be separated from Him, and that abundant life IN HIM, is truly a loss of life; a "death." Living in sin is not an "enhancement" of that abundant life, but truly a repudiation and negation of it. The ultimate result of such a willful severing of one's being/soul from Him in this physical existence will be a judgment one day of unfitness for everlasting existence with Him in the new heavens and earth. To willfully separate from Him HERE will result in an everlasting separation from Him HEREAFTER!!

    All of us, at some point in our physical lives, are "dead in our sins" and thus "separate" from our God. This is the concept of "spiritual death," and it is seen often in Scripture. Yes, it IS a "loss of life" in the sense we are not in a relationship with the life-Giver, and if we hope to put on immortality at the resurrection, then we must come to Him who is the way, the truth, and the LIFE. "He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (1 John 5:12). Thus, being separate from HIM is truly a LOSS OF LIFE; a "spiritual death." We are DEAD in our trespasses and sins, and as such are fit only for ultimate destruction in the lake of fire, which is the second death.

    "All men are by nature spiritually dead, that is, alienated from God the Source of life by sin, insensible to divine things, unresponsive to His laws" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 71). " and therefore, although they still live in this world, their attitude to sin, the law and the world is to be that of dead men" (ibid, p. 72). Jesus told the church in Sardis, "You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead" (Revelation 3:1). They had separated themselves from a relationship with and service to their Lord, and that is truly a "death" experience, a loss of life. Notice carefully the following passages:

    • "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world" (Ephesians 2:1-2).

    • "And when you were dead in your transgressions ... He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions" (Colossians 2:13).

    • "For this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found" (Luke 15:24 ... the words of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

    • "But Jesus said to him, 'Follow Me; and allow the dead to bury their own dead'" (Matthew 8:22). Here we see both the physical and "spiritual" usages of this concept of death.

    Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this wanton widow, refers to such persons as being "dead in trespasses and sins; they are in the world to no purpose, buried alive as to the great ends of living." To become separated from one's purpose in life, and from one's God, is truly to be "dead" even though still physically animated. Thayer, in his lexicon, describes this "death" as "the loss of a life consecrated to God and blessed in Him on earth" (p. 283). It is a LOSS of life's purpose and focus; indeed, it is a LOSS of relationship with the life-Giver Himself. It is truly a "death," a cessation of union with Him. Such carries only one ultimate prospect: eternal death.

  3. ETERNAL DEATH. "Those who remain in spiritual death throughout their lives and do not believe on the Son of God, die in their sins (John 8:21, 24) ... and in the Day of Judgment will be consigned to a state of eternal separation from God, called in Scripture the second death (Revelation 21:8)" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 2, p. 71).

    There is obviously a vital connection between #2 and #3. These meanings "cannot always be clearly distinguished ... since spiritual death merges into eternal death" (Arndt, Gingrich, Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 351).

    It is this "eternal" death, the "second death" to be experienced in the lake of fire, that is the ultimate destiny of the wicked. It is this death that is, in part, the focus of this debate. What is the nature of this second death? Is it just a continuation of life? Is it a life of loss as opposed to a loss of life? Is it the cessation of life or the preservation of life? Is it termination of life or perpetuation of life? This will be examined in some depth in the course of this debate. However, for the record, I will declare that I believe the biblical view is that the second death is a termination of life itself. It is not only an everlasting separation from the Giver of life; it is also an everlasting separation from the gift of life itself. In the lake of fire the raised unredeemed will be ultimately and completely destroyed, deprived of life, and will cease to be. This will not be a pleasant experience; no death is. It will be agonizing. But the process of dying will result in a death, and that death (that separation from life and the life-Giver) will be forever!!

Yes, Thomas, I believe "death" is a SEPARATION. But the result -- the effect -- of such a separation is not an enhanced life, it is a forfeited life! Whether it is physical, spiritual or eternal, the Bible portrays "death" as a severing of one from life itself, not a preservation or continuation of life. It is a LOSS of life, and in the final reckoning it is a forever loss!!

THE GREEK WORD AIONIOS

I appreciate the fact that Thomas has listed each of the occurrences of "aionios" in the New Testament documents. Not everyone has access to a good Greek concordance, thus this is a valuable resource for our readers. Yes, most translations do indeed translate this word "eternal." As I pointed out in my last post, this term has both qualitative and quantitative significance and application, and one must carefully examine the context, and the object being described, to determine which applies, or if both may apply. It is simply inaccurate to suggest or assume, as some do, that this term exclusively refers to the notion: "without end." I am not saying this is what Thomas has done, but merely point this out to the reader so that they will not be misled by those who DO make such assertions.

It is equally essential, when interpreting passages of Scripture in which "aionios" is employed, to understand the vital distinction between a process and a result, and to perceive unto which the term is being applied. For example, in Matthew 25:46 Jesus speaks of some going away into "eternal punishment." It is critical to determine if He is referring to an everlasting PUNISHING (process) or an everlasting PUNISHMENT (result). If "eternal" in this passage has a quantitative application (and I believe it does, as well as a qualitative one), then one must seek to determine what exactly endures "without end." Is it the punishing or the resultant punishment? At an execution, for example, when a person is placed within the gas chamber, the dying process will be most unpleasant; it will be torment! This punishing process, however, does bring about the desired result: death. The punishment prescribed is DEATH, not DYING. The latter is the process that brings about the result, and although it is truly a factor in the overall punishment, it in no way constitutes the punishment itself. Thus, when one is sentenced to death, the punishment is death, not dying; it is result, not process.

Our God has declared that the "wages of sin is DEATH" (Romans 6:23). He didn't say DYING, He said DEATH. Thus, the punishment prescribed by our God is perceived as an achievable RESULT. The wages of sin is not a never-ending process of torturous dying, but an admittedly fearful execution of justice that RESULTS in a DEATH. And that death is everlasting. Once the death sentence has been carried out, and the result that was promised achieved, it is permanent. There is no future reversal, no future resurrection to life from the second death. It is forever!!

What Thomas has done is essentially to declare the PROCESS to be everlasting, rather than the RESULT. According to his view it is not DEATH that is eternal, it is DYING! In other words, the result promised by God is never actually achieved. To make this view more palatable, its proponents have insisted that death is not truly a loss of life, but rather a life of loss. It is simply a "separation" from God, but immortal life nevertheless. Thus, the unredeemed also experience an everlasting LIFE, it is just life apart from the Sustainer of life.

This poses an interesting dilemma, however. If one is cut off from the Sustainer of life, then how is one's life sustained? There are only a couple of possibilities, it seems to me: (1) God Himself preserves the life of the wicked for the purpose of torturing them endlessly, or (2) man is inherently immortal and thus incapable of having his life extinguished. Which of these views Thomas embraces is not clear to me, but I suspect the latter. Thus, we will need to examine the nature of man in the course of this debate.

I believe man is not inherently immortal, thus God can and will destroy both body and being/soul in the lake of fire (Matthew 10:28). I further believe that it is a RESULT that will ultimately and finally be achieved with regard to the fate of the wicked, not a ceaseless process leading nowhere. Thus, eternal punishment is a result that is forever, and that specified result is DEATH. This "death" is not a preservation of life, but an extinction of it. The result of being cut off/separated from God is death, not life; cessation of existence, not continuation of it.

Let's look at another example: Hebrews 9:12 in which mention is made of an "eternal redemption." Is this a result or a process? Is the author seeking to convey the idea of a never-ending process of redeeming; one that never actually results in a final redemption? Of course not! The context makes it very clear that it is the RESULT (redemption itself) that is both quantitatively and qualitatively "eternal." It would be of no comfort to us whatsoever if our Lord was continually and forever in the process of seeking to redeem us, but the resultant redemption was unattainable. It is thus redemption itself, not the redeeming process, that continues without end.

I point this distinction out now as it will become evident in future posts that this distinction is a vital one. By not perceiving it, one can and will formulate fallacious doctrines with respect to the final destiny of the wicked.

I completely agree with Thomas when he declares "the Bible makes very clear the meaning of 'aionios' with respect to" God, redemption, salvation, inheritance, kingdom, life, fire, punishment, damnation, destruction, and judgment. I believe the Bible is clear on this, as well. I believe the Bible is also clear on the distinction between process and result, and which is being characterized as "eternal." It is judgment, not judging. It is destruction, not destroying. It is death, not dying. It is punishment, not punishing. A failure to distinguish this vital fact will not serve one well in his quest for Truth with regard to the final disposition of the wicked.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I would like to conclude this rather lengthy post with a couple of observations about a couple of statements made by Thomas near the end of his last submission to this debate.

  1. Thomas wrote: "Apart from reliance upon a multitude of denominational authors (who have scarcely a notion of the true scheme of redemption or of God's kingdom) and a few brethren to whom such writers offer some sort of attractive appeal, the Bible makes it very clear the meaning of 'aionios' with respect to..."

    I personally believe such statements are inflammatory and serve no real purpose in the context of our debate. They are prejudicial, biased and frankly too often designed to cast a shadow on the motivations and character of one's opponent. Thomas and I both undoubtedly have in our possession, and make reference to on occasion, the writings of individuals who are not members of our own religious heritage (churches of Christ). It is rather arrogant, and blatantly false, to characterize any and all outside our heritage as persons "who have scarcely a notion of the true scheme of redemption or of God's kingdom." To the contrary. Some probably perceive it better than we do! But that is neither here nor there. Just because a scholar isn't within the "church of Christ" church does not thereby invalidate anything he may say with respect to the subject matter currently under consideration. I would hope that we could rise above such casting of aspersions and implied "guilt by association" in future posts.

  2. Thomas concluded with this remark: "Let us persevere in warning the unregenerate and unfaithful about their existence throughout eternity, rather than proclaiming a false hope of their eventual EXTINCTION!"

    I could see this as being perhaps the final statement of Thomas in his closing remarks to this debate. However, we have just begun this exchange, and Thomas has yet to establish in the minds of our readers his own perception as constituting TRUTH and my interpretation of the biblical evidence as "a false hope." Therefore, such a plea seems a bit premature at best, and, again, somewhat prejudicial. After all, at the end of this debate the reader just may be convicted that Thomas' position is the "false hope," and not mine! Thus, until the "evidence is in," I would caution against "closing remarks" to the jury!!

May I again take this opportunity to thank my brother-in-Christ for what has thus far been a marvelous journey toward greater understanding of God's eternal purpose for the unredeemed. I look forward to delving even deeper into the Word with you, Thomas. May God richly bless you, brother!

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