"THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS" The Comfort Of Christ's Coming (4:13-18) by Mark Copeland

                                "THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS"

                The Comfort Of Christ's Coming (4:13-18)


1. In previous studies we've noted that Paul makes frequent mention of
   the second coming of Christ in this epistle to the Thessalonians...
   a. In every chapter there is some reference to this great event
   b. So far we have seen the following references:  1Th 1:10; 2:19; 

2. In our text for this lesson, Paul discusses "The Comfort Of Christ's
   a. How we ought to be comforted by the "fact" of His coming
   b. How we should be comforted by the "events" of His coming

[Our text is 1Th 4:13-18, a well-known passage often read at funerals. 
And rightly so, for it deals with...]


      1. The sorrow is great, the grief is so hard to bear
      2. It is the most stressful event that one can endure

      1. We experience the sorrow of separation - e.g., Ac 20:37-38
      2. But we need not experience the sorrow of desperation
         a. The despair of having no hope
         b. The despair of not ever seeing a loved one again

[What can alleviate the problem of sorrow?  It is knowledge concerning
the events of Christ's coming; and so Paul does not want them to be
ignorant concerning...]


      1. Just as He raised Jesus from the dead, so He will bring those 
         who "sleep in Jesus"!
         a. In this text, he limits his discussion to the righteous dead
         b. Elsewhere, we read of the of resurrection of the wicked 
            - e.g., Jn 5:28-29
      2. What do the terms "fallen asleep" and "sleep in Jesus" mean?
         a. The scriptures often speak of death as a "sleep"
            1) Mt 27:52 - ...bodies of the saints who had "fallen 
            2) Jn 11:11-14 - Jesus says of dead Lazarus, "our friend 
            3) Ac 7:60 - As Stephen is stoned to death, it is said "he 
               fell asleep"
         b. Some believe these passages support the doctrine of "soul
            1) That souls are unconscious between death and the 
            2) Not to be confused with the doctrine held by JW's, who 
               teach there is no consciousness until the resurrection 
               because the dead cease to exist
         c. Yet the following points should be carefully noted:
            1) Nowhere do the Scriptures say that the soul of the 
               departed one fell asleep
               a) It was the person who "fell asleep"
               b) Thus it can have reference to the body, not the soul
            2) The term "sleep" is a figurative reference, and a very
               appropriate one:
               a) For sleep implies REST...
                  1) When one sleeps literally,  there is rest from 
                     one's labor
                  2) So it is that the dead also "rest from their 
                     labors" - cf. Re 14:13
               b) For sleep implies a CEASING OF PARTICIPATION...
                  1) In literal sleep, one ceases in the activities 
                     pertaining to the sphere in which one has been busy 
                     during the hours of wakefulness
                  2) So it is with the dead, they are no longer active 
                     in the world which they left
               c) For sleep is generally a PRELUDE TO AN AWAKENING...
                  1) In literal sleep, it is followed by an "awakening"
                  2) So it is with death:
                     a/ Though the souls may be conscious during the 
                        intermediate state...
                     b/ ...at the resurrection there will be the 
                        "awakening" of the glorified and transformed 
                        bodies in which to house our souls
            3) The term "sleep" became a euphemism for death because of 
               the sleep-like appearance of the body
      3. That God will bring "them with Jesus" implies they are with 
         Jesus now!
         a. As stated later in this epistle - 1Th 5:10
         b. As stated elsewhere in the Scriptures - 2Co 5:8; Lk 23:43; 
            Php 1:21-23

      1. It seems some in Thessalonica feared those who had died would 
         miss out on the blessings of Christ's coming
      2. Paul reassures them (and us) that such is not the case...
         a. God will bring them with Jesus! - 1Th 4:14; cf. also 3:13
         b. Therefore, "by no means" will those alive precede those who 
            are dead! - 1Th 4:15
         c. This assurance we have "by the word of the Lord" - 1Th 4:15
            1) The same "word" which foretold and brought about the 
               flood - 2Pe 3:3-6
            2) The same "word" now tells of Christ's coming - 2Pe 3:
            3) This "word" lives and abides forever! - 1Pe 1:23-25

[To reinforce the promise for those asleep in Christ, Paul next


      1. Note what is said about His coming - 1Th 4:16
         a. It will be with a "shout"
         b. It will be with the "voice of an archangel"
         c. It will be with the "trumpet of God"
      2. This is not describing some silent rapture!
         a. This very passage is used to teach the premillenial concept 
            of the rapture
         b. Yet Paul ties the coming of the Lord and our gathering 
            together into one event - cf. 2Th 2:1-2
            1) In which Jesus comes for His saints - 1Th 4:13-18
            2) In which Jesus brings judgment upon the wicked - 1Th 5:
               1-3; cf. 2Th 1:7-8

      1. Their souls will be coming with Jesus - 1Th 4:14
      2. But their bodies will be raised from the grave - 1Th 4:16; cf.
         Jn 5:28-29
      -- This will happen first, so we who are alive will not precede 
         those who are dead

      1. Those alive will be transformed - cf. 1Co 15:51-53
         a. Their mortal bodies will put on immortality
         b. Their corruptible bodies will put on incorruption
      2. The righteous living will then join the righteous dead - cf. 
         1Th 4:17
      3. Together in the clouds we will meet the Lord in the air - cf. 
         Ac 1:9-11

[In this wonderful way we shall come to be with the Lord forever (1 Th
4:17)!  As Jesus said, "that where I am, there you may be also" (Jn
14:3).  What a blessed hope!  As we consider our final point, it should
be obvious what is...]


      1. The wonderful promise in our text certainly provides comfort
      2. Comfort that can sustain us in times of great loss
      -- While we may sorrow when a fellow-Christian dies, it is not the
         sorrow of those who have no hope!

      1. Comforting others in their loss of a loved one is a common 
         human trait - cf. Jn 11:19
      2. Certainly Christians are to "weep with those who weep" - Ro 12:15
      3. But for those who are fellow Christians, we can do more - we 
         can provide comfort!
         a. Comfort them with the comfort we have in Christ - 2Co 1:3-4
         b. Especially the comfort provided by the hope we have in 
            Christ - 1Th 4:18; 5:10-11


1. Paul will have more to say about the coming of Christ in the next
   a. In which he writes about the timing of Christ's coming
   b. In which he writes about the preparation for Christ's coming

2. But in a passage that addresses...
   a. The problem of sorrow
   b. The promise for those asleep
   c. The procedure for Christ's coming
   d. The purpose for these words
   -- We are reminded that death need not be "good bye", but only "good
      night" (relate the story of the father who on his death bed told 
      all his children "good night" except the one unfaithful son to 
      whom he said "good bye")

When the time comes for our loved ones pass on, will we be able to find
comfort in this passage?  Will those who survive us be comforted by its
promise when they grieve over our death?
Executable Outlines, Copyright © Mark A. Copeland, 2016

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Could There Have Been Any Death Before the Fall? by Jeff Miller, Ph.D.


Could There Have Been Any Death Before the Fall?

by Jeff Miller, Ph.D.

If the Bible is from God (and it is1), then we can know that it is accurate when discussing historical science. In order to interpret properly the natural evidence, then, one must know what the Bible teaches about the history of the Earth. There certainly are differing views about some of the particulars of the biblical Creation model, based on how one interprets certain passages. Some Scriptures are not explicit about precisely what happened at various times in Earth history (e.g., during the Creation week or during and immediately after the Flood). But the Creation scientist understands the importance of not contradicting Scripture when attempting to develop a comprehensive scientific model or framework within which all scientific disciplines must fit.
That said, the question of when death on the Earth began can have implications that affect our understanding of various questions in Creation science. It is clear, biblically, that humans would not have died had they not sinned (Genesis 3:22), but what of the rest of the Creation? If animal death could occur before the Fall (i.e., before Adam and Eve’s first sin), for example, then we would have to assume that death was a design feature of the planet from the beginning, rather than being a part of the Curse placed upon the Earth as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:17-19). And if that is the case, one cannot argue against theistic evolution by claiming that there was no pre-Fall animal death. Pre-Fall animal death could also affect creationists’ attempts to understand cases of so called “natural evil,” where, for example, various living things seem to have been designed to kill (e.g., parasitoids, pathogens, and phages). If all death was solely a result of the Fall, then we would assume that such cases of “natural evil” were not part of God’s original design, but were part of the Curse. If death could, in fact, occur prior to the Fall, then a different response to some forms of “natural evil” might be more relevant (e.g., microevolution and/or diversification, displacement from intended habitat, or degeneration), although some forms of “natural evil” still might have been directly due to the Curse.
Also, if death could occur before the Fall, there might be implications of that fact when we examine the fossil record. Creationists generally interpret the bulk of the fossils that are found at the base of the fossil record to be a result of the Flood, since it is thought to be the first major catastrophic event in Earth history. It is thought that only local catastrophes happened in the 16 centuries up to the Flood. If death could occur prior to the Fall, however, then there may be another catastrophic event of global proportions that could be relevant when studying the fossil record as well: day three.
According to Genesis chapter one, prior to day three of the Creation week, the Earth was covered with water. On day three, God created the dry land and then created grass, seed-bearing herbs, fruit trees—the plants. Swimming and flying creatures were created on day five, and finally, land life on day six. It is easy for us to read through this simplified narrative of what God did on those four days without stopping to consider the possible geologic implications of His activity. On day three, God said, “‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear’; and it was so” (Genesis 1:9). This passage may be saying that God, in essence, scraped the surface of the ocean floor, piling up a massive amount of Earth to cause some of it to be exposed from the water, forming land.2 If so, it seems likely that mudslides would have occurred over the next several hours and possibly days, due to the wet material from the ocean floor being raised in elevation and water rapidly running off the continental surface. This activity could have begun the fossilization process of some of the plants and aquatic creatures created on days three and five, respectively. There are other options that would not have caused such mudslides,3 but the point is that the Creation scientist must at least consider the possibility that the earliest fossils in the record were a result of day-three activity.
So could there have been death prior to the Fall? And if so, are there theological implications? First, we know that plants were certainly able to die before the Fall, because they were to serve as food for humans and animals throughout the Earth (Genesis 1:30). Nobody seems to dispute that truth. It is argued, however, that plants are not thought to be “alive” in the same sense as animals. Unlike animals and humans, plants are never described as being “living creatures” (nephesh chayyah).4 God seemed to be making a distinction between kinds of life in Genesis 1:30 when He said, “Also, to every beast of the Earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the Earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food” (emp. added). While that is true, it is also true that plants can die in some sense (Job 14:7-12; John 12:24),5 which tells us that not all death must necessarily be regarded in a negative light.
It is true that Adam, Eve, the flying creatures, and the land animals were told by God originally to be herbivores (Genesis 1:29-30).6 So it is clear that it was not part of God’s original design plan for there to be bloodshed by the hand of another, at least among humans, birds, creeping things, and the “beast of the Earth” (apparently the land animals created on day six, Genesis 1:24-25,29-30). But that does not mean that catastrophic activity, natural disasters, or natural death could not have still killed animals. Some argue that God’s creation could not have been “very good” (Genesis 1:31) if animals could suffer and die, since the creation was perfect.7 But this assumes (1) that animals, which are soul-less beings,8 can truly suffer in the same way humans can; and (2) that the creation could not still be “very good” and there be death. We have already seen that due to the occurrence of pre-Fall plant death, the creation could still be deemed as “very good” by God, even with death occurring simultaneously. So the question then becomes, what did God mean by calling the creation “very good,” and what kind of death, if any, would not have been considered “very good” to God? It seems logical to infer that a “very good” creation simply meant that the created order was exactly as God intended for it to be, whatever that might be—death or no death. As one Creation scientist acknowledged concerning the pre-Fall world, “Although the pre-Fall world was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31), it was not ‘perfect’ (i.e., it did not exhibit every meaning of ‘perfect’).”9 What kind of death was a part of that “very good” creation must be gleaned, if possible, from the text.
It is argued that “Death is ‘the last enemy’ (1 Corinthians 15:26) which Jesus Christ came and died to defeat. And this would include animal death.”10 In the context of 1 Corinthians 15, however, Paul is not including animals in referencing the defeat of death, but rather, humans—those capable of sin (vs. 17).
Isaiah 11:6 is sometimes quoted as evidence that there was no animal death prior to the Fall.11 “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” The claim is that in the end, God will restore on Earth the conditions that were in effect in the Garden, where animals were not violent towards one another. Once again, however, in context we see that Isaiah 11 is a Messianic prophecy (cf. vss. 1-5), discussing the coming of Jesus and His kingdom in the first century using highly figurative, not literal, terminology. As evidence, consider that in Romans 15:12, Paul quotes from Isaiah 11 and applies Isaiah’s prophecy to the first century, noting that the prophecy had already been fulfilled at that time.12 Isaiah may have simply been referring to the peace and harmony that would exist in the coming Church. In Christianity, for instance, those once viewed as predators—ferocious wolves, leopards, and young lions—are often found dwelling peaceably with those who would have once been their prey. If we understand Isaiah 11 to refer to the coming of Christ and the Christian dispensation, therefore, we could reasonably conclude that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled when the Kingdom (i.e., the Church13) was established in Acts 2.14
It is also argued that God’s Curse after the Fall included the animals according to Genesis 3, and by implication, humanity’s death curse would have applied to the animals at that point as well.15 But that assertion is an assumption—the text does not say that was the case. Second, the serpent was, indeed, “cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field” (Genesis 3:14), implying that the animals were all cursed, though not as much as the serpent. But it is also true that the plants were included in the Curse as well(vss. 17-18), and we have already seen that they were capable of death prior to the Fall.
Arguments have been made from various passages that tell us death was a result of sin (Romans 5:12-21), that shedding blood is necessary for the remission of sin, but would not have been necessary, by implication, without sin (Hebrews 9:22), and that Christ’s physical death and resurrection made it possible for physical death, initiated by Adam and Eve, to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:21,22,26).16 Such passages, however, contextually, are talking about mankind, not animals, which are not imputed with sin. It is argued that Romans 8:19-22 indicates that the “whole creation”—which is thought to include the animals—suffers, groans, labors, and is under a bondage of corruption (vss. 21-22) due to man’s sin, and therefore, that the whole creation would not have so suffered prior to man’s sin—i.e., animals would not have suffered death.17 In the end, however, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (vs. 21, ESV), apparently returning to a pre-Fall state. Understand that there is considerable argument over the meaning of the word “creation” in Romans 8—whether or not it is referring to all of the created order, or merely humans. To base an entire argument on such a disputed passage would be unwise, to say the least. It could be argued from the context, that “creation” is referring to humans—the only ones who can “eagerly wait for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). More specifically, the “wholecreation” (vs. 22) could be referring to mankind in general (which “labors with birth pangs,” referring back to the punishment which female humans would have due to Eve’s sin), while “creation” (vss. 19,20,21) could be referring to Christians—i.e., the “sons of God” whom Paul has been discussing in the preceding verses. After all, “whole creation” is used in precisely that way—to mean mankind in general—elsewhere in Scripture. In Mark 16:15 (ESV), for example, Jesus tells the apostles to go preach the gospel to the “whole creation,” which is another way of saying to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and does not include animals. Regardless, Romans 8 cannot be used as conclusive evidence that animals did not die prior to the Fall.
The hallmark passage that seems to be used to try to sustain the idea that death did not occur prior to Adam and Eve is Romans 5:12-19:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses…). Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous (emp. added).
Notice that, contextually, while this passage does discuss death as being a result of sin, it is clearly referring to humans and the effect of sin with regard to mankind, not animals. It was humans, not animals, that were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), giving them the capacity to sin.
A passage that provides weight to the viewpoint that animals could die prior to the Fall is Genesis 3:22-24. After Adam and Eve sinned and God confronted them, pronouncing their punishments and making modest clothes for them, the text says:
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden…and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the Tree of Life (emp. added).
Notice from this text that man’s ability to live forever was not a direct miraculous act by God, or something inherent in the physical body of mankind (i.e., part of God’s  original design of the human body), but rather, was coupled with his eating from the Tree of Life, which apparently possessed miraculous healing qualities (cf. Revelation 22:2). The implication is that Adam and Eve could have still lived forever, even after sinning, if they were able to access the Tree of Life and eat from it. That is the very reason why God used cherubim and a flaming sword to guard Eden and the tree. A further implication is that physical death was always possible from the beginning for anyone (and apparently, anything) that did not eat of the Tree of Life—i.e., entropy or the Second Law of Thermodynamics was in place from the beginning, governing the Earth. Adam and Eve were able to eat from the anti-entropy tree and not be subject to the effects of the Second Law; but without it, the effects of God’s natural laws would have taken their course.
With that understanding in mind, what are the implications for the rest of the living beings on the planet? A straightforward reading of the text in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22,24 leads us to believe that God made and placed in the Garden a single fruit tree that, unlike the other fruit trees throughout the Garden that humans and living creatures could eat from, had physical life-giving qualities tied to it. Any living being that did not eat from that Tree would apparently eventually suffer physical death—hence, the name given to it: “the Tree of Life.”18 If so, could the animals which were created throughout the Earth, which could not reach the Tree of Life to eat it, live forever? Could the swimming creatures that God had created on day five eat from the tree? If not, then how could they live forever? What about all of the animals that God created, surely spread out over the Earth, playing the crucial roles for the Earth for which God designed them? Were they able to access the Tree of Life and live forever? Surely not. If we suppose that perhaps animals could live forever apart from the Tree of Life prior to the Fall, we would be going beyond the clear message of the text regarding the nature of the Tree. God seemed to want to emphasize in Scripture the fact that He tied eternal life to the Tree of Life.19 One would need more biblical evidence before arguing that the animals received eternal life apart from the Tree. If humans needed the Tree to live forever and were denied access to it after the Fall, it seems logical to conclude that the animals were affected in the same way.


The implication of the text seems clear on the matter: animals throughout the Earth, not made in the image of God, were never intended to live forever. They always had the ability to die, from the beginning. They were designed to die. Like plants, they were not made in the image of God. Their deaths are not in the same category of importance as that of humans. No wonder God, Himself, killed animals in order to clothe Adam and Eve properly (Genesis 3:21), even though there is no indication that those animals did anything to deserve death. It seems that animal death, like the “death” of a plant, is not a moral evil, but rather is part of God’s plan for animals. Notice God’s words to Noah and his sons after the Flood. After sanctioning the killing of animals as food for humans, God highlighted an important distinction: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for [i.e., because] in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6, emp. added). Human death is said to be significant, because we, unlike animals, are like God.
With this understanding about life and death in place, it becomes important to consider various implications. Arguing that theistic evolution is not biblical on the grounds that it would require billions of animal deaths prior to the Fall is not a valid argument. Theistic evolution (and related old Earth options) are false for several biblical and scientific reasons, but not that one.20 Creation geologists must also consider the possibility that some of the fossils in the record could have been from day-three activity. We can also see that some cases of “natural evil” among the animals may have been in place from the beginning. Calling such cases “natural evil” is, therefore, not appropriate. It cannot be said to be “evil” at all, if it was part of God’s design for those creatures all along.
The world was designed to serve as a “vale of soul-making”21 for humans. It was intended to prepare them for the afterlife, giving them an opportunity to make their choice about where they will spend eternity. A fundamental component of that design for the Universe is life and death. As part of our studies on Earth, while preparing for the afterlife, God seems to want us to understand life and death and their ramifications. We simply cannot escape death. Everywhere we look, whether by the naked eye or when studying bacteria under a microscope, we are reminded of mortality. It is clearly important to God for humans to acknowledge the reality of death. It appears that even before their first sin, Adam and Eve were capable of observing the evidence around them that death was a real thing—that God knew what He was talking about. They could know, by His mercy, they were not being subjected to death. They could understand the concept about which God was warning them: “in the day that you eat of it, you [also—JM] shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). When they sat on an ant, it could die. When a sauropod dinosaur stepped on a snake, the snake was not protected from death by a force field. Rather, the dinosaur’s weight would most certainly crush it, in harmony with God’s natural laws.
A wise man certainly “regards the life of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10), but he also understands that humans are different from animals. According to Jesus, we are “of more value” than them (Matthew 6:26; 10:31; 12:12; Luke 12:24). Those who submit to the will of God in faith will be able to live forever, spiritually (John 3:16); but not the animals. They were never intended to live forever. They serve as a reminder that we should seek life (John 10:10).


1 Kyle Butt (2007), Behold! The Word of God (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
2 NOTE: This is, no doubt, an oversimplification of what could have actually occurred on day three if God created land from sea floor material. God could have used basaltic rock from the base of the ocean to form the granitic rock that comprises much of the land continents today. Granitic rock is less dense, causing it to float higher in the mantle (exposing land), while the basaltic rock of the ocean floor tends to float lower in the mantle, lowering the sea level.
3 It is possible that the Earth was completely made of water to this point, and God created the infrastructure of the Earth on day three, including the core, mantle, and crust, from that water (2 Peter 3:5), rather than raising material from the sea floor. There would likely be no mudslides if He chose to create land in this way.
4 Ken Ham (2014), “Was There Death Before Adam Sinned?” Answers in Genesis On-line, April 25, https://answersingenesis.org/death-before-sin/was-there-death-before-adam-sinned/.
5 Jeff Miller (2012), “Did Jesus Contradict the Law of Biogenesis in John 12:24?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=106&article=1590.
6 Kenneth Ham (1991), “Adam and Ants,” Acts & Facts, 20[9].
7 Avery Foley (2015), “Did Adam Step on an Ant Before the Fall?” Answers in Genesis On-line, December 4, https://answersingenesis.org/death-before-sin/did-adam-step-on-an-ant-before-fall/.
8 Bert Thompson (2001), The Origin, Nature, & Destiny of the Soul (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), http://www.apologeticspress.org/pdfs/e-books_pdf/onds.pdf.
9 K.P. Wise (2014), “Spectra of Perfection: A Case for Biological Imperfection before the Fall,” Journal of Creation Theology and Science Series B: Life Sciences, 4:28, emp. added.
10 Foley.
11 Ibid.
12 Bible scholar Homer Hailey highlighted that Isaiah 1l:10 is quoted by Paul “and applied to the present time under Christ in which the Gentiles hope in Him (Rom. 15:12). If the prophecy is not now fulfilled, the Gentiles have no hope. But they abound in hope at this present time (Rom. 15:13); therefore, the passage is now fulfilled.” (2006), Prayer and Providence (Las Vegas, NV: Nevada Publications), pp. 177-178.
13 Matthew 16:18-19; Daniel 2:31-44.
14 Mark 9:1; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 1:9; Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7.
15 Foley.
16 Ibid.; Ham (1991).
17 Foley.
18 Why would God give it that name if its purpose was not to sustain life? Further, if living beings could live forever without the Tree of Life, what would be the point of the Tree? 
19 Genesis 2:9; 3:22,24; Revelation 2:7; 22:2,14.
20 cf. Jeff Miller (2017), Science vs. Evolution (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), 2nd edition.
21 John Keats (1895), The Letters of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Reeves & Turner), p. 326.

Controversy About Hell Continues by Caleb Colley, Ph.D.


Controversy About Hell Continues

by Caleb Colley, Ph.D.

A 1999 Gallup poll showed that only 56% of Americans held a firm conviction in the existence of hell (1999, p. 30). When Pope Benedict XVI stressed that impenitent sinners risk “eternal damnation,” his remarks received coverage from many major media outlets (see Lyons, 2007). Perhaps modernity is so inundated by political correctness that it no longer concerns itself with the eternal consequence of sin, even though the Bible emphasizes it (Matthew 5:22; 8:12; 25:41-46; Mark 9:43; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
Now the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment is back in the news. On July 8, 2007, ABC’s Good Morning America reported that a well-known evangelical preacher, Carlton Pearson, lost his ministerial position at a large Tulsa, Oklahoma church because of his unconventional stance on hell. Pearson became convinced that hell is temporary and, in fact, not external to earthly existence. “I couldn’t reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that’s customized for unbelievers,” Pearson told ABC (quoted in “A Question...,” 2007). “You can’t be happy. And how can you really love a God who’s torturing your grandmother?” (“A Question...”).
After reaching the conclusion that the Bible is merely the work of uninspired, primitive men prone to “mistranslations” and “political agendas,” Mr. Pearson watched a news report about human suffering in the Third World and thought he heard God telling him that hell is earthly, human existence (“A Question...”; cf. Weir, 2007). Pearson summarized his newfound position: “We may go through hell, but nobody goes to hell” (quoted in Weir, 2007). “The bitter torment of the idea of an angry, visceral, distant, stoic, harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving, intolerant God is Hell,” Mr. Pearson concluded (“A Question....”). He proceeded to describe this notion to an ABC interviewer: “It’s pagan. It’s superstitious. And if you trace its history, it goes way back to where men feared the gods because something happened in life that caused frustration,” adding that people who believe in hell create it for themselves and others (“A Question...”).
Mr. Pearson’s story prompted ABC to develop a 20/20 report on various ideas about punishment in the afterlife. Bill Weir reported that when Mr. Pearson began teaching that hell is on Earth, “[i]t wasn't long before Christian magazines demonized him. The denomination that made him a bishop officially labeled him a heretic. His assistant pastors quit, and his congregation dropped from 6,000 to fewer than 300” (2007). Pearson enjoyed association with such prominent denominational ministers as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts, and a popular appeal that earned him the opportunity to counsel Presidents Clinton and Bush on faith-based initiatives (2007). However, Pearson so dedicated himself to an odd doctrinal position as to warrant his removal from an “evangelical empire built over a lifetime” (Weir, 2007).
The denial of eternal punishment certainly is unoriginal with Pearson. There always have been those who rejected the doctrine of hell by insisting that it in unreasonable. The idea that the souls of the faithful are immortal, while those of the unfaithful perish at their physical death is known as annihilationism. Gnostic groups have taken this position for hundreds of years. “There is no literal hell in the Gnostic tradition. It is a state that exists for people here” (Pierce, 2007; cf. Hoeller, n.d.). Certain Gnostics and other religionists may, like Mr. Pearson, have alleged that the traditional doctrine of hell is founded solely in the imagination of men, but their sentiments are antithetical to the plain teaching of Scripture.
In the July 1852 issue of Christian Magazine, a popular preacher from Nashville, Tennessee, Jesse B. Ferguson, asked: “Is Hell a dungeon dug by Almighty hands before man was born, into which the wicked are to be plunged? And is the salvation upon the preacher’s lips a salvation from such a Hell? For ourself [sic], we rejoice to say it, we never believed, and upon the evidence so far offered, never can believe it” (1852, p. 202). In a Christianity Todayarticle titled “Fire, Then Nothing,” 135 years later, denominational scholar Clark Pinnock suggested that the souls of the wicked are annihilated at physical death (1987). In his book, The Fire That Consumes, Edward Fudge taught the same concept when he wrote: “The wicked, following whatever degree and duration of pain that God may justly inflict, will finally and truly die, perish and become extinct for ever and ever”(1982, p. 425). John Clayton, known for his numerous compromises of the Genesis Creation account, reviewing Fudge’s work, commented:
One of the most frequent challenges of atheists during our lectures is the question of the reasonableness of the concept of hell. Why would a loving, caring, merciful God create man as he is, knowing that man would sin, reject God, and be condemned to an eternal punishment? I have had to plead ignorance in this area because I had no logical answer that was consistent with the Bible.... I have never been able to be comfortable with the position that a person who rejected God should suffer forever and ever and ever (1990, p. 20, emp. in orig.).
Fudge’s influence was felt far and wide, and continues today. Writers such as F. LaGard Smith and Homer Hailey have propagated annihilationism, and Apologetics Press has dealt directly and decisively with the false idea that the Bible teaches a temporary punishment or instantaneous annihilation of the soul (see Lyons and Butt, 2005a; Lyons and Butt 2005b). Dave Miller discussed the numerous Bible passages that clearly teach the reality of “the vengeance of eternal fire” (2003a; Jude 7).
In the process of denying the eternality of hell, however, the disenfranchised Oklahoma preacher made additional, significant allegations against Christianity. Do Pearson’s emotionally-charged, philosophic complaints against divine punishment merit our endorsement?


The Bible militates against Pearson’s doctrine about hell, so Pearson saw the need to discredit the Bible by stating that it is not from God at all, but rather from the pens of troubled men who were prone to make outlandish claims. For Pearson, a man claiming to be a minister of the Gospel, to deny the authority of the Scriptures out-of-hand is astounding, and contradictory to the mountain of evidence for the Bible’s inspiration. Among the facts about the Bible are the following.
It is a matter of historical record that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (see Lyons and Staff, 2003). Would Mr. Pearson challenge the character or ability of Moses, the historical giant of faith who led an entire nation for 40 years? Moses is far from being the only author of the Bible. It was written over the course of approximately 1,600 years by over 40 men from different places and backgrounds, and yet it flawlessly tells one epic story without once contradicting itself. Against which of these inspired men would Mr. Pearson hurl the accusation that his writings are the product of gross incompetence, frivolous emotionality, or political mindedness? Kyle Butt noted:
To say that the writers of the Bible were diverse would be an understatement. Yet, though their educational and cultural backgrounds varied extensively, and though many of them were separated by several centuries, the 66 books that compose the Bible fit together perfectly. To achieve such a feat by employing mere human ingenuity and wisdom would be impossible. In fact, it would be impossible from a human standpoint to gather the writings of 40 men from the same culture, with the same educational background, during the same time period, and get anything close to the unity that is evident in the Bible. The Bible’s unity is a piece of remarkable evidence that proves its divine origin (2007b, emp. in orig.).
For generations, men have attempted to find places in the sacred text where an inspired writer contradicted himself or another of the Bible’s writer, but they have come away empty (see Jackson, 1983; Lyons, 2003; Lyons, 2005). Unless Mr. Pearson can explain the unity of the Bible apart from divine inspiration, his allegations against the Bible crumble. Considering that no one in history has accomplished this, it seems infinitely unlikely that Mr. Pearson is up to the task.
The Bible contains scientific foreknowledge that would be absent if the men who wrote the Bible lacked divine guidance (see Butt, 2007a). One such instance of profound scientific foreknowledge centers around the administration of circumcision.
In Genesis 17:12, God specifically directed Abraham to circumcise newborn males on the eighth day. Why the eighth day?... On the eighth day, the amount of prothrombin present actually is elevated above one-hundred percent of normal—and is the only day in the male’s life in which this will be the case under normal conditions. If surgery is to be performed, day eight is the perfect day to do it. Vitamin K and prothrombin levels are at their peak (Thompson, 1993, emp. in orig.).
If the Genesis author (Moses) lacked divine revelation to inform him of the correct day on which to perform circumcision, how else could he have known it? Equally powerful examples of scientific foreknowledge abound throughout the pages of Scripture (see Thompson, 2003, pp. 48-62). Before Mr. Pearson dismisses the Bible’s inspiration, he will have to explain the scientific foreknowledge that leaps off its pages and convinces its readers. Mr. Pearson cannot. Furthermore, the Bible contains hundreds of predictive prophecies, all of which were fulfilled in every minute detail (see Butt, 2006; Thompson, 2003, pp. 42-48). Does this, or the fact that the Bible is completely accurate in its report of facts, jibe with Mr. Pearson’s contemptuous characterization of the Bible writers (see Jackson, 1991; Thompson and Lyons, 2004; Thompson, 2003, pp. 33-42)?


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), considered by many the finest poet of the middle ages, created a vivid, poetic portrait of eternal torment in The Divine Comedy. While a literary analysis of Dante’s work is beyond the scope of this article, the multitudes of Dante’s readers, from medieval times until now, have understood that Dante’s use of poetic license means that the details of his comedy are figurative approximations of what hell may be like; not definitive explanations of the nature of hell. Dante clearly advocated the reality of eternal punishment. John Ciardi, in his essay titled “How to Read Dante,” which introduces his translation of The Divine Comedy, stated: “Dante writes of Hell as a literal place of sin and punishment. The damned are there because they offended a theological system that enforces certain consequences of suffering” (Alighieri, 2003, p. xiv). Those professing Christianity in the middle ages had a general understanding that hell represented separation from God (see Russell, 1968, p. 57).
Noting that Augustine (A.D. 354-430), Dante (1265-1321), and Milton (1608-1674) all wrote in the same general theological tradition, John Hick commented:
The doctrines which lie behind these great works of art were normative within the church until recent times and broadly represent what the rest of the world, looking at Christianity as a whole over its two thousand years of existence, sees as its teaching concerning the life to come (1976, p. 198).
So, while Christian writers throughout history have commented about hell with greater or lesser degrees of adherence to the biblical description of that place, their basic notion of eternal torment was derived ultimately from the Bible. The traditional conception of hell certainly was not a novel one. No medieval writer ever sat down and thought, “Today, I’ll invent a place where God punishes people,” because the existence and characteristics of that place already had been divulged in holy writ. Medieval thinkers thought about hell largely for the same reason we write about hell today: God has revealed certain details about it. It would be interesting to learn whether Mr. Pearson did serious research concerning medieval tradition prior to making his allegation that those in the middle ages concocted a new, terrifying notion of hell. Mr. Pearson is the one who seems extremely and irresponsibly creative with his theology.


The Bible teaches that God is both loving and just. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy and truth go before Your face” (Psalm 89:14). A primary argument against the existence of the God of the Bible is that the biblical portrait of God is contradictory; an all-loving God could not punish people by condemning them to an eternal hell. Is it possible to reconcile the notion of eternal punishment with the God described in the Bible? Certainly. Consider, among others, these reasons:
Love does not require the absence of discipline. For example, a mother of a small child may punish a small child for mischievous and dangerous acts. Such correction may be painful, yet necessary. The problem of the magnitude of eternal punishment persists, however. Here, we must consider the justice of God, which Mr. Pearson has maligned and/or ignored.
While love defines God (1 John 4:8), he also is characterized by justice. Psalm 89:14 states that “righteousness and justice” are the foundation of His throne. Justice demands that each person gets what he or she deserves. Those of us who live in civilized society realize that order and peace are impossible without justice. If God had no way of carrying out spiritual consequences of disobedience, He would lack the quality of justice. Because God is a “righteous judge” (2 Timothy 4:8), and knows everyone’s heart (see Colley, 2004b), He makes no judicial errors (see Butt, 2002, pp. 129-130). Furthermore, God has given every guilty human the opportunity to avoid eternal punishment. God hopes that all humans will take advantage of the salvation He offers (2 Peter 3:9). God is infinite in love, mercy, and justice, so we may depend on His infinite capability to make righteous judgments and mete perfect punishments (see Colley, 2004a).


Mr. Pearson admits that his notion of hell existing on Earth came through what he believed to be a special, personal communication with God. It is outside the scope of this article to address whether God communicates directly and personally with people today, but we have proved elsewhere that He does not (see Miller, 2003b). Observe that Pearson offered no scriptural basis for his doctrine of a present hell. This is necessarily the case for, if Mr. Pearson studied the biblical data on this topic of hell at all, he should have realized that there is no scriptural basis for his doctrine. Furthermore, in order to tell Mr. Pearson that hell is not a real place, but rather a state of earthly frustration or disappointment, God would be forced to contradict what He already revealed (see Lyons and Butt, 2005a, Lyons and Butt 2005b).
There is, however, historical precedent for Mr. Pearson’s imaginative notion that hell exists on Earth. Unification Church members (popularly called “Moonies” due to their allegiance to Sun Myung Moon and his Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity) taught that hell exists on Earth and eventually will be transformed into the kingdom of heaven on Earth (“Building...,” n.d., Gruss, 1994, p. 196; cf. McDowell and Stewart, 1983, pp. 99-104). Hell becomes very inconsequential if it merely is mixed with the vast collections of experiences, thoughts, and emotions of which life consists, and eventually will transform into heaven. By partnering with the cult leader Moon in subscribing to this false doctrine, Mr. Pearson has opened the door even further to all manner of unscriptural approaches to fundamental theological principles.


Geisler observed: “The presupposition of this question is that we are more merciful than is God” (1999, p. 314). Christians wish damnation upon no one, but they also understand that God is perfectly merciful, desiring that everyone should be saved (2 Peter 3:9). Mr. Pearson has implied a distorted conception of Christian happiness. Christians are joyful not because souls are lost—or because of any negative circumstances such as sickness and death—but rather because Jesus has provided eternal salvation. Among other spiritual blessings, Christ offers providential care whereby even painful circumstances can be worked out for the ultimate good of His followers (Romans 8:28).
Christians certainly are not pleased by tragedies such as the eternal loss of souls. They mourn over sinful choices and consequences (Matthew 5:4). At the same time, however, their relationship to Christ brings the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Paul expressed this overriding, perpetual happiness: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). Paul suffered his share of disappointment, as he watched some of his companions forsake the Lord, and prophesied of a great apostasy (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 4:1-5). Yet, Paul maintained a joyful spirit: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). In the end, Christians will be happy in heaven, despite the fact that others, even loved ones, will be lost (see Revelation 21:4; cf. Jackson, 2003).


As Carlton Pearson’s arguments crumble before a consideration of biblical principle and historical analysis, we do not judge his motives, but rather pray that he will repent and obey the Lord (Matthew 7:21). If people such as Mr. Pearson are lost eternally it will be because they, having been warned about the danger of damnation, have chosen to live out of harmony with God’s will. Jonathan Edwards’ comment on this topic is pertinent:
It is a most unreasonable thing to suppose that there should be no future punishment, to suppose that God, who had made man a rational creature, able to know his duty, and sensible that he is deserving punishment when he does it not; should let man alone, and let him live as he will, and never punish him for his sins, and never make any difference between the good and the bad. . . . How unreasonable it is to suppose, that he who made the world, should leave things in such confusion, and never take care of the governing of his creatures, and that he should never judge his reasonable creatures (quoted in Geisler, 1999, p. 315).
Hell is devoid of grace, the saving power God extends while we live on Earth (Romans 1:16). We must encourage all to appropriate God’s grace to their souls by obeying the Gospel—the only way to avoid the vengeance of God (2 Thessalonians 1:8).


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