A few weeks ago, when I was reading my Bible at Coffee Time, a man came up to me expressing his joy to see me reading the Scriptures. I instantly asked him, “What church are you from?” He told me that he was a former Catholic who converted to become a Jehovah’s Witness. He gave me a tract and used my open Bible to point me to some passages in the Psalms. I invited him to sit down and he proceeded to share more.
He told me about the wicked and the righteous and asked, “But who are the righteous?” I quickly interjected, “That is a very good question. One of the clearest descriptions of what it means to be righteous is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.” I showed him Matthew 5:48, in which Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How to become righteous became our topic of conversation. He kept wanting to talk about the end times and the evil of this world, but, by the grace if God, I kept bringing us back to this topic: “how can a sinner become righteous?” We must be careful not to jump from trail to trail without ever making progress on any one of them. Sometimes this calls for a boldness to say something like, “Actually, I don’t mind talking about Y, but before we move on, can we spend some more time talking about X? I think we left that issue unresolved.”
I opened up Ephesians 2:8-9 and we studied these verses. We spent quite a bit of time on how to be made acceptable to God. He insisted that we are not only saved by our faith in the work of Christ, but that our works contribute to gaining a right standing with God. I argued from the Scriptures that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. Though agreeing with me at first, he soon learned that he does NOT really believe that.
Before he left, I took him to the place Jesus claims to be Jehovah when he says, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He did not agree that this was a claim to Diety, but our time had run out. We exchanged numbers to meet again. Accordingly. we met this morning for about two and a half hours. Much was said so I will limit this post to a summary of the first main topic we discussed: the resurrection and eternal punishment. I plan to do part two and three of this talk in two separate posts (on Watch Tower literature and the Divinity of Jesus).
The Resurrection and Punishment: Would a Loving God Punish People Forever?
Upon arriving he started talking about God’s plan to be with man. I agreed with him (furthermore, I endorse his approach as a great starting point for sharing the Gospel). He explained much of Genesis 3 with precision. He taught accurately about death, that is, until I heard him say, “death is like sleep.” Before our meeting, I had just read a Watch Tower tract that said “the dead are not conscious” so I was curious to know his stance on the resurrection of the dead and the eternal condition of those who are NOT righteous.
He took me to Ecclesiastes 9:5, which says, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no knowledge, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” The dead have no knowledge – point taken. The OT description of Sheol is the place of the dead.
Be that as it may, the Scriptures also teach that there is a point at which dead are raised. I took him to John 5:28-29, where Jesus teaches that, “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” I argued that all people will be resurrected – some to life, others to judgment. He eventually agreed, but what does the “resurrection of judgment” mean?
We went to Daniel 12:2. It is written, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” I argued that at the resurrection the dead awake, and are not put to death, but to everlasting shame (they do not arise from sleep to go back to sleep). Whatever else can be said, it is an eternal condition of conscious shame. He would not agree, but argued that dying is “punishment enough.” He then stepped away from the text and asked me pointedly, “When disciplining your child, would you take you child’s hand and put it on the burner of an oven to be burned?” I responded, “No.” He replied, “Would a loving God make someone burn forever? I said, “A Holy God would punish people eternally for sin. For they are sinning against God and He is Holy. In fact, He is infinitely Holy, so the punishment of those who sin against Him will be infinite.” I qualified this and talked about fire as a metaphor for real punishment. I also talked about the infinite nature of God’s holiness and our need to perceive God not only as a parent, but as a Judge.
He continued to tell me that it is impossible for a loving God to punish people forever. I told him, “I don’t want to believe in the doctrine of eternal punishment . . . it is a sad doctrine. It does not tickle me. I do not find pleasure in it. It is hard; but it is true, therefore I must believe it. Jesus taught it. I must subject myself to the Scriptures.”
I took him to Matthew 25:41-46. Verse 46 says, “And [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The New World Translation says, “eternal cutting off.” This is a terrible translation that should be cut off itself (and replaced with “punishment”). Whatever the case, unless you play hermeneutical gymnastics you cannot escape the doctrine of eternal punishment in this passage. Even if you did call it “cutting off,” it keeps happening and it is an unpleasant experience to say the least. The punishment is as eternal as the life. The life is as eternal as the punishment. Both are unending. If the punishment is not conscious, why would the life be? interpreters need to be consistent here.
I asked him about the devil and his angels that enter into the eternal fire in Matthew 25:41. He responded, “That means they are consumed by the fire – destroyed. They are no more.” He continued to argue that fire completely destroys things. I responded by reminding him that this is not always the case. I referred him to the burning bush (Ex. 4) which, though it kept burning, was not consumed. My example did not satisfy him. I tried telling him that literal fire is not necessarily Jesus’ main point – his main point is that hell is a bad unending condition (to say the least).
He would not agree. I showed him Revelation 14:10-11 which teaches that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image.” He wanted to talk about the beast, but I would not let the conversation go that way for long. I asked him, “how can they have NO REST if they are destroyed?” He was silent. I said, “they have no rest day or night because they are awake and being tormented continually.” Again, he could not believe this because of his twisted concept concerning how it is that “God is love.”
Ironically, he took me to Revelation 20:10 which actually says that the devil, the beast and the false prophet will be “tormented day and night forever and ever.” When he read it, he stopped in his tracks and said, “Oh, yes, you will see this one the same way.” I said, “Tim (fake name), it says ‘forever and ever,’ how else can you interpret that? It is clear. I don’t know what else to say to you? I just don’t know what to say?” He said, “I don’t know what to say either.”
We simply could not agree on this doctrine. I realized that his view of God and Scripture is totally dominated by the systemic theology and teachings of the Watch Tower society rather than a natural reading of Scriptures. (The Watch Tower organization became our next topic of conversation.) Even when confronted with the truth that the punishment of the devil, the beast and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10), he refused to believe that “forever and ever” really meant forever and ever.
One explanation for his unbelief is the very passage he read aloud to me in our conversation: “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). Oh that he would see the light and live!
May the Lord remove his blindfold. And may the Lord forever remind us that salvation is all of grace.