Below is my transcript of John Rankin’s’ 15-minute opening presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?” (for George Sarris’ opening presentation see Sarris & Rankin Debate—part 1).
John Rankin: So will hell eventually be abolished? The question covers much territory and I will look at it through the proactive lens of freedom. The entire Bible is understood through the storyline of creation, sin, and redemption. In Genesis 1-2, in the order of creation, we have the foundation for, and the gift of, human freedom. In Genesis 3 we have the brokenness of human freedom and then the promise of this restoration through the coming Messiah. Now, the very word “redemption” means to buy back out of slavery, and thus the formal doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption can be spoken of as freedom, slavery, and return to freedom.
Our first concern is to understand the nature and name of the one true creator. In Genesis 1, the Hebrew word for the Creator is Elohim and in its grammatical usage, it simply means that the one true God of the Bible is greater than all the so-called gods of pagan religions. Elohim is greater than the human concept of number. In Genesis 2, the name Yahweh Elohim is introduced and at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14-15, Elohim defines his name for Moses. He calls himself ehyeh, the first person singular imperfect tense (don’t worry about the grammar) of the verb “to be”—the “I AM”. This means that he who is, always was, and always will be. The grammar that he is greater than space and time. And thus he tells Moses to call him Yahweh Elohim, where Yahweh in the Hebrew is the third-person singular imperfect for the verb “to be”—”he is”. In other words, “I am” azegna (sp?) “he is” as Yahweh. It’s the same: first person, third person, “he is”. “He is eternal existence”, “he is the creator”. Then Yahweh tells Moses that his name is forever—where the word forever is olam—and the sons of Israel are to remember his name from generation to generation. And when Jesus calls himself “I am”, he is calling himself ehyeh. Therefore he’s calling himself God. Thus the one true creator, Yahweh Elohim, is he who is greater than space, time, and number, and Jesus—as the incarnation of Yahweh Elohim—is the one who in being greater than time, space, and number, comes inside time, space, and number to save us. Only by starting here can we grasp the question of the duration of heaven and hell. Time is defined by Yahweh Elohim in the biblical revelation, not by us.
Our second concern leads us to the question “what is the nature of salvation?” in Genesis 1-2. Well, there is none, for there’s nothing yet to be saved from. Only after the introduction of sin does the need for salvation arise. And the purpose of salvation is to restore us to the original promises in creation. In Genesis 2:7, human nature is defined by the Hebrew term nephesh, which means soul or personhood. It is the word that refers to the throat and neck region—and indicates the nature of being needful of Yahweh’s breath and the ecosphere in order to live. Indeed, before the advent of human sin, when trust in Yahweh and one another is in place, with every breath we take we are grateful—the dependency of nephesh is our strength.
So let me take a quick survey: How many people here do not like a good back rub? It looks like we have unity so far… Let me give you two choices:
- Give yourself the back rub? Any takers? Unity continues.
- Have someone you love and trust give you the back rub?
But who among us would receive a back rub from someone who has a contract on our life? In other words, when we’re in a position of need and trust we are strengthened and we thrive. But if we are in a position of need and distrust is the norm, we are weakened and life can be in danger.
In the first case we have nephesh in the order of creation and the second we have its violation in the sin nature. Salvation restores us to the freedom of nephesh and, if you please, the freedom to receive the best possible back rubs.
The living and preaching of the gospel in a broken world seeks to touch the nephesh of the image of God and all people—and to show how Jesus alone fulfills it. The many who seek the mercy of God will find it in him and a few who love bitterness will not. And for those who have not heard the name of Jesus lived and/or preached, when they see Jesus on the final day they will either love or hate him. As Jesus speaks of those who love the light because of their pursuit of the good versus those who love darkness due to their evil deeds—nephesh honored or nephesh rejected—gratefulness for every breath given or disdain for the giver.
The first introduction of freedom is found in Genesis 1:2 and 2:1. In Genesis 1:2 the earth is formless and empty and the Spirit of Elohim hovers over the abyss, theum. This is the Hebrew word describing that which is outside of the creation, a bottomless pit of no boundaries, no life, no light, no heat, no identity, no hope—that is nothing.
There’s a foundation for the use of the abyss (abusan in the Greek) in the New Testament, which interfaces greatly with the language and images of Hell—of final judgment. Thus we note the language of the abyss before the creation and after creation but it does not exist within the good creation itself.
In Genesis 2:1, the text speaks of the creation of the heavens and the earth being completed in their armies. This means that in Genesis 1:2 these armies are already in place. It is a reference to the holy angels and a view of the fallen angels led by Satan. Essentially Genesis 1:2 assumes the freedom that all angels were originally given to accept the goodness of Yahweh Elohim or to reject it. Genesis 1:1 equals the first words in scripture, “in the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth.” Yahweh Elohim is sovereign and he has all power. And then in verse 2, we see that the angels have freedom from before the creation—sovereignty and choice, the great debate. Thus we have set the stage for human freedom.
As the first words of the Bible start with God’s sovereignty, his first words to Adam start with freedom. In Genesis 2:15, Yahweh Elohim calls Adam to work and quote unquote, “Guard the garden.” The Hebrew word for guard is Shamar, a crucial word across the entire Hebrew Bible. Adam is being called to guard the garden from the intrusion of the devil. He had already violated freedom and wants Adam and Eve to do likewise.
Then we read in verses 16 through 17 (when I quote the Bible I’m quoting translations straight from the Hebrew or the Greek), “And Yahweh Elohim commanded the man, ‘In feasting you shall continually feast from any tree in the garden but you must not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, for the moment you eat of it in dying you shall continually die.'” Now a common translation of verse 16 is, “you are free to eat”, but the Hebrews is far more dynamic, acalltocael. This is the infinitive absolute and an imperfect tense for the verb “to eat”. And what it means is a feast that is always full in the moment and never ends. The grammar is clear, “in feasting we shall continually feast”, is a metaphor for freedom and it means a feast that is always full in the moment and never ends. This is the only positive definition of freedom in all human history—a freedom for the good. Whereas, in all pagan religions and secular constructs, the best hope is a freedom from a violation of evil. Adam and Eve had an unlimited menu of good choices, the metaphor of freedom, and this includes the Tree of Life, which, as they eat of it, they will never die.
Does anyone here who does not enjoy a feast with family and friends? The biblical metaphor of freedom is attractive to all people and the mission of the gospel is accordingly to bring true freedom into an enslaved world.
Now Genesis 2:7-17 is a whole unit where three realities are profiled: good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, and life versus death. In verse 9, in the middle of all the good fruit of the garden, we learn of the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The second tree refers to:
- The knowledge of everything that only Yahweh Elohim can possess, and also not be tempted or poisoned by evil.
- For man or woman to eat of it is to say Yahweh is not good.
- Thus it is to play God in redefining good and evil, calling Yahweh evil.
- It is to consume evil and be destroyed by it—only Yahweh Elohim can understand everything, including good and evil.
And so he is telling us that, “Don’t eat this fruit because you can’t understand everything and especially evil because if you try to digest evil you will die”—that’s the prohibition.
Now as we look at verse 17, which we’ve already quoted, “In dying you shall continually die.” And here we get to the nexus, to the crucial point about the debate over hell. The grammar is the same as in verse 16 but with opposite purpose, “a death that is full in the moment and is never ending.” So to disobey God is to have the fullness of death and it never ends—this is the grammar in Genesis 2:17.
As the forbidden food is eaten, the Tree of Life is forsaken, and thus death gradually wears down the human soul. Hell is the biblical language introduced later, used especially by Jesus in referring to final judgment. And all biblical language of freedom versus judgment starts in Genesis 2:16-17. Life, the good, and freedom never end. For those who say yes to Yahweh Elohim—to Jesus. Death, evil, and slavery never end for those who say no and refuse to repent. Life multiplies in the presence of King Jesus. Death ever shrinks humanity in the presence of the devil and his demonic horde in the abyss.
Thus what we have here is a level playing field to choose between heaven and hell. We have the freedom to choose hell if we so please. The choice is either to feast or die. But why would the good Creator allow us such proactive freedom?
First, being made in the image of God as finite creatures, we are made in the image of the infinite one who is fully free in his sovereign power.
Second, Yahweh Elohim as the Creator only does the good. For if he were to do the evil he would be a destroyer, which is one of the names of Satan (and the reality of all pagan deities). If Yahweh Elohim were to do evil he could not be the creator and could neither make nor sustain the universe and human life.
Third, and therefore, freedom is the power to do the good since it is creative but if freedom and goodness were forced on us it cannot be freedom, it cannot be good, it is slavery and evil, and Yahweh Elohim is neither a slave master nor evil. He will not force the good on us.
Thus unless we are free to say no to the good creator, we are not free to say yes. If we believe that Yahweh Elohim were to restrict anyone’s freedom to say an ultimate no to his love, and thus to cajole them into heaven one way or another, this equals:
- An unbiblical view of love, and
- It makes Yahweh Elohim into a pagan deity.
In this debate, there are those who, like George, see a dichotomy in the possibility that hell can be chosen forever. It goes like this: God either has all power and doesn’t want people to be saved or God is weak and does not have the power to save all people (George mentioned this earlier). But this dichotomy fails to understand the goodness of Genesis 1 through 2, where Yahweh Elohim is all-powerful, he is free, we are free, and he honors our freedom—this is biblically radical love. Thus as Adam and Eve choose death and as we all follow suit in the sin nature, Yahweh comes to us in Jesus the Messiah to rescue us but the good gift of freedom to say no remains in place.
Will hell ever be abolished or empty as George believes? No, to do so would violate the very goodness of Yahweh Elohim and his gift of human freedom.
We can conclude with two simple observations:
- Yahweh Elohim desire is for us to choose his freedom, which is the power to do the good and in His goodness, he does not manipulate our freedom.
- Heaven is for the many who love mercy, hell is for the few who guard bitterness.
There are very many outstanding questions I’m sure. Questions are intrinsic to biblical freedom so let them fly and let’s enjoy ourselves in the presence of King Jesus.
I know very little Hebrew but a Thomas Nicholson helpfully suggested:
Regarding Rankin’s main point about the Hebrew grammar in Gen. 2:16+17, I have my doubts. But I would love you and others to chip in on what I now write.
In these two verses, he refers to the two instances of infinitive absolute plus cognate verb in the imperfect:
VERSE 16 in feasting you shall (continuously) feast from any tree in the garden
VERSE 17 but when you eat the forbidden fruit: in dying you shall (continuously) die.
Certainly, the Hebrew imperfect can be “continuous” in the way that the Hebrew perfect cannot. But surely he’s wrong to imply that with the addition of the infinitive absolute, the phrase must now mean “continuing on throughout all eternity”.
All the main translations take this “infinitive absolute + verb” phrase in its usual emphatic or intensive sense — using words like “surely” feast or “certainly” die.
According to the Grammarians, if the cognate verb had come first, followed by the infinitive absolute, it could possibly mean “continuity” — but this is not the case here.
AFTER THOUGHT: Or is he saying that within the theological context of the Eden account, this grammatical phrase can be stretched to include a concept of going on for ever? And yet he kept referring to the grammar being right, so I’m not sure. In any case, I don’t think he has the grammar right — I think he’s miss-reading the meaning of the Hebrew “infinitive absolute + cognate verb”. But I would really like other opinions on this. Thanks!
Rankin’s argument seems to end up being similar to C. S. Lewis’—the type of freedom God gives humanity means He can’t save/draw/win-the-hearts-of at least some people. I think Reitan and Kronen comprehensively refute this in God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (see also Talbott’s approach that I discussed in Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?).