This article is a collection of my thoughts derived from reading Erasing Hell, and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the author of the book.
Annihilationism is the view of hell that teaches that people who are sent to hell will not be tormented forever, but will at some point cease to exist.
I believe that the gospel can be preached in an annihilationist theological framework, provided that it supports the doctrine of a lake of fire as a final punishment, with no return or second chances. Some of the giants of the Christian faith rejected the teaching of eternal hellfire; Martin Luther and William Tyndale are two examples, and I would not accuse them of misunderstanding the gospel.
Most of my life I accepted and defended the annihilationist point of view, a view that I now question. As with Francis Chan and Preston Sparkle, the authors of Erasing Hell, I am not prepared to say that the doctrine is dead wrong. I do see potential problems with the overall theology of a hellfire that grows cold, on several accounts.
My three main objections to annihilationism are:
- It is difficult to support from Scripture
- It can remove the urgency of evangelism and acceptance of the gospel
- It insists that God’s justice must be comparable to human justice
1) The first is that it is difficult to defend from scripture, whereas the traditional view seems to be expressly framed in Jesus’ choice of words. I urge readers to consider the plain statements of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels which refer to torment, everlasting punishment, eternal fire and wrath.
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:46
Some will say that “eternal” does not mean “forever” in relation to punishment. If that is so, it puts eternal life into question. Others will say that the phrase “eternal punishment” and not the participle “eternal punishing” is used, but so it is it is with “eternal life not “eternal living“. What applies to one must apply to the other, for Jesus is using them together, to make a comparison.
If “eternal punishment” means “temporary punishment”, then why use the word “eternal” at all in this context? Some will say it refers to a particular “kind” of punishment, citing Jude 7. If so, what quality does “eternal” modify? Eternal is not a “kind” of something, it refers to the chronological aspect of an action or being. In this case, it means “without end”.
As Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 1:7 NKJV
Jude states that they are set forth as an example. They were not punished with eternal fire on the plain, but are “set forth as an example” of those who will suffer the vengeance of eternal fire. Annihilationists (the vast majority who believe in conditional immortality and soul sleep) would not contend that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were immediately thrown into the lake of fire, which is the only eternal fire. The punishment that they endured, of being burned with sulfur and fire from heaven, was a precursor of what they will suffer after the final judgment, and an example to those who follow in their ways.
When reading the words of Jesus, keep in mind the views of the Jews of that day. Both understandings of hell existed (eternal and temporary). If eternal torment was so grossly opposite to the character of God (as annihilationists would have us believe), I would expect Jesus to rebuke that teaching, and express himself clearly against it.
However, his language nowhere seems to be a censure of an eternally burning hellfire. Rather, he uses expressions which clearly seem to support the view of eternal torment: eternal fire, eternal punishment, the fire that is not quenched, where their worm does not die. These phrases and words carry an implication, imply a meaning. Whether one is communicating in Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek, Chinese, Spanish or Swahili, there is a message conveyed of an awful event that does not end.
The obvious question would be, “Why does he uses such language, if the natural meaning it conveys was false”? The answer of the annihilationist is to redefine them. Eternal is temporary, fire not quenched means it eventually burns out, undying worm implies a mortal maggot.
In my mind, this is an enormous hurdle for annihilationists. Nowhere does Jesus convey a message of, “Don’t worry folks, God is kind, and if you continue in your sin, God will make you as if you never existed.” He did speak of a God, who after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:4-5
After the body is killed, there is still the soul to cast into the lake of fire. Why would anyone fear hell after they have been killed? Because the soul still remains to experience a place of torment and an existence without any measure of the grace of God. John, in the Apocalypse, uses clear language to describe this place. His testimony consistently, if read at face value, point in one direction:
And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Revelation 20:10
And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:11
2) Secondly, it removes some of the urgency of spreading and accepting the gospel. I know of people who have rejected the gospel with the mistaken idea that God would be “merciful” to their unbelief, and simply euthanize them in the end.
Thirdly, I believe that those who hold to it unwittingly challenge God’s government through imposing their cultural views of justice on God. Since we are in a fallen state, we must accept reproof from Scripture, allowing our minds to be brought into agreement with it. We must not bend the word of God to be more palatable to our judicial prejudices, even if we think that in doing so we will somehow vindicate God’s character. Jesus had no need to soften the doctrine of eternal punishment, torment, and Divine indignation.
The annihilationist approach often uses human reasoning and not Scripture as its primary argument. I realise that theologians and Bible students will debate the issue long after this ink has dried, so I don’t expect to bring closure to the issue in this short treatment. A good article on the subject can be found here and here.
It is commonly asked, “Is it fair for God to punish a person forever, who only sinned for a finite number of years?” I think this question fails to take a biblical perspective on the enormity of sin. Crimes are treated differently depending on who they are comitted against. For example, killing an ordinary citizen is considered less of a crime than murdering a head of state.
David said, in Psalms 51:4, that his sin of adultery and murder was only against God. Sin is always and ultimately against an infinite Being, and therefore the magnitude of any sin could be understood as infinite. It seems that the Bible teaches that the recompense for sin is visited at that level, in an eternal flame (infinite in time) for the unrepentant, or paid for with the life of the Son of God (infinite in worth) for the redeemed.
Most annihilationists believe in an irreversible judgment with eternal, unalterable ramifications after death. Because of this, the gospel can still be preached within this construct. But, it seems to limit God, reduce the seriousness of sin, and force an unnatural reading of Scripture on its adherents.
I rejected the annihilationist view because of the unavoidable reasoning which measures God’s character by our sense of human justice. The Biblical support for it is sufficiently small, that I do not think it is fair to contend that it is the only possible view, as annihilationists hold.
The primary motive for holding it is, to me, more troubling than the doctrine itself, for it attempts to rob God of being truly God. The annihilationist contests that they have a “more correct” view of God’s character, and that the orthodox view portrays a God that is malicious beyond measure, rather than seeing sin as an immeasurable affront to the glory of God. This attempts to shift the blame from the enormity of sin to the infinite goodness and holiness of God, who does not even wish to look at sin.
They may caricature the orthodox view of God as being even more cruel and evil than Adolf Hitler. In response, I say that man has no right to be the judge of God, and I believe that those who will be changed at the coming of Jesus, will, then as truly holy beings, have their fallen human sense of justice replaced by God’s holy and divine sense of justice. I think the Achilles heel of the annihilationist position is that it ultimately places man’s “rights” above God’s “rights”.
In the end, my view of hell corresponds very closely to the one supported by Francis Chan. The Bible teaches that punishment is forever, but we as mortals can not really grasp what that means. So, I think there is room for discussion on this issue, but at this point, I hold that the clearest and most prominent view is that of an eternal punishment.
Let us not presume to be the judge of God, but accept and be educated by the revelations that are given to us in the Holy Scriptures.