- Matthew 3:12, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
- Luke 3:17, "His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Conditionalists often use these two verses in support of their doctrine of annihilation. They say that as the chaff is burned up, so too the wicked will be burned up and cease to exist on the Day of Judgment. But, this is begging the question. The text does not say that anyone ceases to exist. What it does say is that the chaff will be burned up with unquenchable fire. This is meant to illustrate something. And, that is the question that is being debated.
But the conditionalists will point out that the unquenchable fire actually does go out. They cite verses in the Old Testament such as...
- Jeremiah 17:27, "But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy by not carrying a load and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.” ’ ”"
- Ezekiel 20:47, "and say to the forest of the Negev, ‘Hear the word of the LORD: thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it."
From these two verses, we can see that the idea of unquenchable fire means that it is not quenched until its fuel is consumed. This is something the conditionalists routinely state, and it seems to be supported by these two verses. But it also follows that if the fire is not quenched until the fuel is exterminated, then if a person burns in torment forever, then the fire is unquenchable. But, it all depends on what the meaning of destruction is. The conditionalists will say it means nonexistence and the traditionalists will say it means continued conscious torment in hell.
This brings up an important topic. If the conditionalist asserts that the unquenchable fire means that the fire does not go out until the fuel is consumed, then what is the fuel? Is it the physical human body? Most conditionalists I've encountered believe in some form of soul sleep whereupon at the Day of Judgment God awakens them and reunites them with their physical body only to be cast into fire where their body is consumed and they become nonexistent. If this is the case, then they would be saying that each wicked person's physical body is ignited on fire and they are eventually cremated because once there body is consumed the fire goes out and the soul no longer exists. This would mean that the only qualitative difference between the conditionalist and the traditionalist is the amount of time of the burning torment.
Is this how John the Baptist meant things to be understood?
The imagery that John uses is taken from the separation of the wheat and the chaff in harvest time. Both were thrown into the air, and the heavier seed would fall to the ground where the chaff would fall downwind and be separated. Later, people would burn up the chaff in fire. John uses this imagery regarding the judgment of the wicked. The question is whether or not John was trying to illustrate nonexistence or was he illustrating the terrifying judgment to come which "unquenchable fire" would suggest? I think that's the key. If John wanted to say that the wicked are annihilated, then why did he use the phrase "unquenchable fire"? Was he merely borrowing the idiomatic expressions found in the Old Testament to convey the idea of future nonexistence? Or, is the imagery better suited to the warning of conscious torment? For me, it is obviously the latter. For you, perhaps it is not.
But, this is subjective. I think it is worse for someone to suffer eternal conscious torment than not to suffer - as annihilationism maintains. It is worse to suffer eternally, than not suffer eternally. It would seem clear that the greatest fear invoked by the imagery of unquenchable fire, and the worm that does not die (Mark 9:43-48), etc. would better fit the idea of eternal conscious torment.
Nevertheless, the annihilationists would approach these verses confidently saying as chaff is burned up and ceases to exist, so too with the wicked. If these two verses were the only ones we had on the topic, they might have a case. But, they aren't. There are several sets of scripture that very strongly support eternal conscious torment.
- Luke 16:19-31, the rich man and Lazarus
- Jude 6-7, angels undergoing punishment of eternal fire
- Revelation 14:9-11, worshippers of the beast are tormented forever
Since Scripture must be taken as a whole, I think is best to interpret Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 to be speaking of the coming severe judgment that of the wicked. They should be terrified of what's to come. I don't believe nonexistence qualifies for such terror.
The words of John the Baptist are best understood as a dire warning of the future judgment to come. The imagery of unquenchable fire can be used by annihilationists to support their position, but the text does not necessitate their conclusion. After all, imagery is open to interpretive bias. Since other verses in the Scriptures clearly imply conscious torment after death, i.e., Luke 16:19-31, Jude 7; Rev. 14:9-11 and since we must harmonize all of Scripture together, we cannot say that Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 prove that the wicked are annihilated in a final judgment. If anything, John the Baptist is issuing a dire warning via the imagery of unquenchable fire, which best suits eternal conscious torment rather than nonexistence.