What Is Pelagianism?

Pelagianism, named after the heretic Pelagius, is the belief that Adam’s sin was his alone and his descendants are born into the world innocent as Adam was before his fall in contrast to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. Because we are not by nature fallen or depraved, we have the ability to merit salvation. God’s saving grace and the cross of Christ are not absolutely necessary for salvation. Pelagius argued that it would be unjust for God to give commands that we are unable to carry out. Since God demands of us perfection, we must be able to live without sin in this life. What lawgiver gives laws that are impossible to keep? Therefore, he argued that we have the natural ability to live in sinless perfection and be admitted into God’s presence on the basis of our obedience to the law.

It is true that we are called to be holy as God is holy because God demands of us perfection (Lev 19:2). Because he does not change, the righteous standard we are held to cannot change. But it does not logically follow that because God demands of us something we are able to carry it out. God calls upon us to circumcise our heart, yet he alone can bring about regeneration (Deut 10:6; 30:6; Jer 4:4; Col 2:11). God commands people to make for themselves a new heart, yet he alone can take out the heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezek 18:31; 36:26). He tells us to be sinlessly perfect as he is perfect, yet the Bible knows nothing of sinless perfection in this life (Matt 5:48; Jas 3:2). We are called to love God with all our heart, yet our heart often condemns us (Matt 22:37; 1 John 3:20). He calls us to repent, yet he must grant repentance (Acts 17:30; 2 Tim 2:25). We are called to believe in Christ, yet our faith must be granted as well (Acts 16:31; Phil 1:29). Unbelievers are rebuked for their hard and impenitent hearts, yet God must open their heart (Acts 16:14; Rom 2:5). Jesus called upon the man with a withered hand to stretch it out even though he had no natural ability to do so (Matt 12:13). The power from God to stretch it out came with the command. So likewise, the power to repent and believe comes from the Holy Spirit in the call to salvation.

Pelagianism errs in not recognizing that our fallen state does not change God’s righteous character. Because God is perfectly righteous and holy, he demands of us the same thing. Our inability to not sin does not negate our responsibility and guilt toward God as his creatures. Pelagianism wrongly assumes that responsibility implies ability and constructs a theology based around libertarian free will that is not affected by the fall. But the Bible teaches that God supplies the ability for his people to believe during the preaching of the gospel and gives them the Holy Spirit to cause them to follow him and not turn away from him (Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31-34; 32:39-40; Ezek 36:26-27; John 6:44; 8:36; Acts 16:14; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 1:29; 2 Thess 2:13-14; Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:3, 23; 2 Pet 1:3; 1 John 5:1). God supplies what he demands. We work because God works in us (Phil 2:13). For those who do not believe, God holds them responsible for their sin on the basis of the evil intentions of their heart. They have no desire to please or honor God and are rebels against him (Rom 3:10-19). They are willing slaves to sin who need to be rescued by Christ (John 8:34).

Are All Sins the Same?

There is a misconception among many people that God sees all sin the same. It is true that all sin is deserving of the wrath of God, but some sins are more heinous in his eyes than others. Jesus declared to Pontius Pilate that, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). If all sin is the same, then how could Jesus speak of their sin as being greater than his? Jesus also speaks of “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23). Some laws are more important than others and therefore breaking them is a greater crime in comparison. We also see this principle in the application of punishments for sin. Not all sins are punished with the death penalty and not all sins are criminalized. The more sinful the sin, the more serious the consequences.

This misunderstanding is partially the result of a wrong interpretation of Matthew 5:28 where Jesus says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It is then argued that looking at a woman lustfully is the same as committing adultery with her. But this argument overlooks the key phrase in his heart. Jesus is not saying that looking at a woman with lustful intent is the same as actually committing adultery with her, but that the desire to commit adultery is the sinful root of the act of adultery. Every lustful thought would lead to adultery if taken to its logical conclusion. Likewise, when Jesus says that, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,” he is not saying that anger is the same as murder, but that anger is the root cause of murder. While anger is not as sinful as murder, it is still sin in God’s eyes.

If all sin is the same, then a person could reason to himself that because he has already had lustful thoughts about a woman he is not married to, he had might as well go all the way and have an affair since an affair is no more sinful than what he has already been doing. But this is the devil’s logic that is based on a twisted view of God’s law. The truth that all sin is not the same does not mean we should think lightly of acceptable sins. Rather, acceptable sins are evil because they result in even greater sins. And once you accustom yourself to sin, it is difficult to stop. The longer you go on in sin, the more difficult it is to repent.

Why Did God Order Sinners to Be Burned to Death?

In Leviticus 20:14 we read: “If a man takes a woman and her mother also, it is depravity; he and they shall be burned with fire, that there may be no depravity among you.” Leviticus 21:9 gives the same punishment for sexual immorality: “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” Critics of the Bible argue that these verses prove that the God of Scripture is a cruel tyrant who is unworthy of worship. If any nation today prescribed being burned to death for prostitution, we would say that nation is barbaric and levy sanctions against it. The Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment and no politician living today would ever advocate that we should burn criminals to death. Theological liberals evade the force of this argument by denying that these words come from God. They instead believe that these words reflect the beliefs of sinful Israel instead of Jesus. But Paul taught that all Scripture is breathed out by God, even if not all of it is binding on us today (2 Tim 3:16).

God gave this law to Israel for two reasons: as a deterrent so that no one would ever commit these sins and to paint a picture of hell which is what every sin deserves. The harsh laws of the ancient Near East were designed to keep people from ever thinking about breaking them. If the penalty is death for these sexual sins, then that severely limits the number of people who would dare break them. The law terrifies us because it shows us the penalty for breaking God’s law. The law of God is a reflection of his holiness and righteousness which cannot change. The law exposes us as sinners who stand under the sentence of God’s wrath (Rom 3:19-20). God’s law shows us our need of salvation. As Christians, we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. These civil laws were designed specifically for national Israel living in their historical context as God’s chosen people. America is not God’s chosen people Israel. Because we are not Israel, the civil laws of Israel are not binding on us.

This command would be unjust if there is no future hell awaiting unrepentant sinners. A temporary fire which lasts for a moment is nothing compared to the eternal fire of hell. If a person has a moral objection to God’s command that certain heinous sins be punished with fire, then they certainly will have a problem with hell which is a fire that never ends. Liberals who do not believe that these commands come from God have no basis upon which to believe that the verses which teach on hell come from God either since hell is much worse than being burned to death. God commanded this penalty for certain types of sexual immorality because those who are sexually immoral will have their part in the lake of fire (Rev 21:8; 22:15).

But in an atheist universe, on what basis is it wrong to burn someone to death? There is no objective moral law binding on all people apart from God. Murder is wrong from a Christian perspective because murder is the taking of innocent human life and only God has the authority to take life. In order for life to be taken by the government, God must entrust the government with this authority and no government today is the same as Old Testament Israel. In order to say that it is wrong to burn someone to death, the atheist must borrow from the Christian worldview. It is only because people are made in the image of God that they have dignity and are distinct from animals. God’s Word alone provides an unchangeable basis for treating others the way we would want to be treated. Where God’s existence is denied, the government replaces God.

Hell Is Not Locked from the Inside

C. S. Lewis once said, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). Lewis was heavily influenced by the universalist George MacDonald but wrote that he could not agree with him on universal salvation: “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority – the Dominical utterances themselves – seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism” (David Mills, The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, 253). While Lewis was not a universalist himself, his idea that hell is locked from the inside has been used by universalists to argue for a kind of purgatorial hell that people can choose to leave of their own free will. This has become the standard response of universalists to those passages in the Bible which mention hell. But hell is not locked from the inside.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus teaches that no one can leave hell to enter heaven: “And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’” (Luke 16:23-26). There is a great gulf fixed between heaven and hell. Universalism is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and the rest of Scripture (Matt 16:26; 18:8-9; 25:30, 41-46; 26:24; Mark 9:47-48; 2 Thess 1:9; Jude 1:7, 13; Rev 14:9-11; 20:10-15; 21:8; 22:15).

The belief that hell is locked from the inside undermines how horrible hell is. The Bible uses the language of fire, burning sulfur, smoke, darkness, and torment to picture hell. The rich man in Luke 16 is depicted as wanting to leave the torment of hell but unable to do so. If hell is locked from the inside, then the rich man would have unlocked that door. If the rich man had no desire to leave hell and enter heaven, then why does Abraham bother to tell him that there is a great gulf fixed between the two so that those who want to leave hell cannot? But from Lewis’ perspective, there is no one in hell who wants to do this. Those in hell have no desire to worship the one true God, but that does not mean they have no desire to leave. If they were to enter heaven, their sin would defile it (Rev 21:27). As Charles Spurgeon once said, “A change of nature [is] absolutely necessary, for if a thief went to heaven without it, he would be a thief still, and would go round the place picking the angels’ pockets.” They do not want to enter heaven to worship God, but to escape suffering. In hell, their rebellion is contained and their sin can no longer disturb the people of God (Rev 22:11, 15). The lost do not stop sinning when they enter hell. Only those who are in the Spirit can do that which is pleasing to God (Rom 8:7-9). Only those who have been glorified can cease from sin by loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind (Matt 22:37; Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2).

The mistake that is being made by both Lewis and the universalists is their precommitment to man’s libertarian free will. They believe it would be unfair for those in hell to desire something that could not be given to them. For the universalist, if those in hell desire to leave and enter heaven, then God must allow them to out of respect for their free will. For Lewis, those in hell must not want to enter heaven and would rather remain in torment than to surround themselves with the sights and sounds of the worship of God. Though they begin with the same starting premise, they come to radically different conclusions regarding the wills of those who are in hell.

But if man’s will is not absolute, then we can imagine a place that corresponds with the hell of Luke 16 where those who are in it do not get what they want. Those in hell receive perfect justice for their sins, not the freedom to do whatever they want. What makes hell so horrible is that those who dwell in it can do nothing to change their fate. Their punishment is eternal because they have sinned against an infinite and eternal God. But the good news of the gospel is that today is the day of salvation for all who trust in Christ alone for salvation (2 Cor 6:2). Put your faith in him and what he did for sinners when he died and rose again (Rom 10:9-13). No sin is worth an eternity of torment in hell.

The Early Church Fathers on Hell

If you are debating Christian theology with a cultist, there are two arguments that he or she will certainly bring up: what you believe is not what the earliest Christians believed, and you believe what you believe because of the influence of Greek philosophy. While it is true that some church fathers were unduly influenced by pagan philosophy, Protestants believe that the Bible alone is the Word of God written and our ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice. The argument concerning the influence of Greek philosophy is a double-edged sword because Greek philosophy is extremely diverse with many different schools of thought and contradictory ideas. I would argue that it is the cultist, not the Christian, who is being influenced by pagan philosophy and fallen human reasoning rather than believing in Scripture alone. Annihilationists and universalists will often appeal to the writings of the early church fathers to argue that the belief in eternal torment is a later pagan concept rooted in the belief in the immortality of the soul. But the irony is that Origen, an early church father who taught universalism, was steeped in Greek philosophy having been trained in Platonism and influenced by Ammonius Saccas and Numenius. The following quotations demonstrate that the belief in hell as eternal conscious torment was held by the earliest church fathers living in the second century:

“For if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; otherwise, nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we disobey His commandments” (2 Clement 6:7).

“But the righteous who have done well and endured torments and hated the enjoyments of the soul, when they shall behold those that have gone astray and denied Jesus through their words or through their works, how that they are punished with grievous torments in unquenchable fire, shall be giving glory to God” (2 Clement 17:7).

“And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by the suffering of a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3).

“Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 11:2).

“When thou shalt despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when thou shalt fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. Then shalt thou admire those who for righteousness’ sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shalt count them happy when thou shalt know the nature of that fire” (Epistle to Diognetus 10:7-8).

“For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration” (Justin Martyr, First Apology 28).

“Thus also the punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,’ these shall be damned forever; and to whomsoever He shall say, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity,’ these do receive the kingdom forever” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.28.2).

“We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one, and heavenly, not earthly (since we shall abide near God, and with God, free from all change or suffering in the soul, not as flesh, even though we shall have flesh, but as heavenly spirit), or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated. On these grounds it is not likely that we should wish to do evil, or deliver ourselves over to the great Judge to be punished” (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 31).

“Who hath appointed rewards for those that keep them, in order that, when the allotted time of this world has come to an end, He may adjudge to His own worshippers the recompense of eternal life, and sentence the profane to fire equally perpetual and lasting” (Tertullian, Apology 18.3).

Responding to Arguments for Annihilationism

Annihilationism is the belief that the wicked will one day cease to exist and pass into non-existence rather than being tormented in the lake of fire for all eternity. Annihilationism has become a popular alternative to the traditional and orthodox doctrine of hell in spite of the biblical evidence to the contrary (Matt 25:46; Rev 14:9-11; 20:10-15). Saying that unbelievers will only be destroyed or extinguished softens the blow of the Christian doctrine of hell and the offense of the gospel. In annihilationism, God is simply giving unbelievers what they want and what they expect will happen to them when they die. Annihilationists can quote many passages of Scripture to attempt to support their view, and at first blush, can make a strong sounding argument.

The verse that is quoted most often by annihilationists is 2 Peter 2:6: “If by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” They argue that since Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed, the wicked will be destroyed and cease to exist. There are many passages in Scripture that speak of the enemies of God being destroyed or facing destruction. Hebrews 10:39 says, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that unbelievers “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” Matthew 3:12 declares that “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

While I could respond to each text individually, it is much easier to point out the categorical fallacy and false assumption that is at play behind such argumentation. The key to answering the arguments for annihilationism is found in the book of 4 Maccabees. The book of 4 Maccabees was written in-between the Old and New Testaments and describes the sufferings of the Jews under Antiochus IV from 167-164 BC. In 4 Maccabees 10:15 we read: “No, by the blessed death of my brothers, by the eternal destruction of the tyrant, and by the everlasting life of the pious, I will not renounce our noble brotherhood.” This verse, if removed from the context of the entire book, can be made into an argument for annihilationism. The author speaks of “the eternal destruction of the tyrant” which could be interpreted to mean that the tyrant will be annihilated and cease to exist. The same expression is used in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 when Paul speaks of “eternal destruction” demonstrating a theological link in the thought of both authors.

But the author of 4 Maccabees was no annihilationist. In fact, 4 Maccabees has the strongest theology of eternal torment in Judaism. The author writes: “But you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire” (9:9); “Because of this, justice has laid up for you intense and eternal fire and tortures, and these throughout all time will never let you go” (12:12); “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God” (13:14-15). If the author of 4 Maccabees can utilize destruction language while still believing in the eternal torment of the wicked, why can’t the authors of the New Testament do the same? Therefore, the use of destruction language does not prove annihilationism any more than it proves that the author of 4 Maccabees was an annihilationist because he used such language. We must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture just as we interpret 4 Maccabees 10:15 in light of the rest of the book.

The problem with annihilationist arguments is that they misinterpret analogical statements as univocal ones. The wicked will be destroyed, but in the sense of eternal punishment. The fate of the wicked is analogous to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not in every sense. Trying to find a one-to-one correspondence between the destruction of those cities and the fate of the wicked contradicts the larger testimony of Scripture. 2 Peter 2:6 is parallel to Jude 1:7 which describes their punishment as one of “eternal fire.” Jude interprets Peter’s earlier statement as teaching eternal punishment, not annihilation. Otherwise, why would the fire need to be eternal? He says later that “the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 1:13). Why is this darkness reserved for them forever if the wicked will be annihilated? For more on this subject, I recommend Robert Morey’s book Death and the Afterlife.