Thoughts on Annihilationism (“Erasing Hell” Conclusions part 4)

20120914-125011.jpgBy Leif L.

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:

  1. It is difficult to support from Scripture
  2. It can remove the urgency of evangelism and acceptance of the gospel
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

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5 responses to “Thoughts on Annihilationism (“Erasing Hell” Conclusions part 4)

  1. Some of the giants of the Christian faith rejected the teaching of eternal hellfire; Martin Luther and William Tyndale are two examples

    It would be nice to have these men on my side but as far I know, neither rejected the teaching of everlasting torment. They did, however, hold to “soul sleep” (even though Luther may have changed his view as some point).

    As for the rest, how open are you to have your thinking challenged on this issue?

    • Bring it on. As long as the discussion is biblical and respectful, I am willing to learn and share.

      My lifelong stand until recently was conditiinalist/soul sleep/annihilationist. I don’t claim to “have arrived”; I view these points of theology as a journey rather than a destination.

      Certain religious movements which hold the conditionalist view are accountable to other writings or organizations than the Bible as their source of truth. Such people are free to read, but I would ask that they refrain from commenting. I can not conceive that they are in a position to approach this subject without partiality or prejudice; indeed, they are not free to practice the principle of “sola scriptura”. I spent a good deal of my youth in such a movement, and don’t wish to go round and round.

  2. Let’s start with Jude 7. You say, “They were not punished with eternal fire on the plain” but that’s not supported by the text. The text says that S&G “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (ESV)

    The NASB reads, “[S&G] are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.” The NET reads, “[S&G] are now displayed as an example by suffering the punishment of eternal fire.”

    You say that, S&G are “are set forth as an example” of those who will suffer the vengeance of eternal fire” but the text does not use the preposition “of.” Neither does it use the construction “of those who.” The NKJV, which you quote, does not support your rendering.

    Even conservative commentators such as Gill acknowledge that S&G were punished by eternal fire. So it’s not legitimate to assume that when the text says “eternal fire” that it’s referring to fire that torments people forever. There is just no indication of that in the text.

    A lot can be said about the specific word used for “example,” but I won’t do it here. I will say that being completely destroyed and reduced is ashes is literally nothing like being tormented forever. So it’s hard to see how, on your view, the first can serve as an example of the second.

    The parallel passage in 2 Peter 2:6 leaves very little room for interpretation:

    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

    God punished S&G with his eternal fire, burned them to ashes, and condemned them to extinction, and that’s an example of what’s going to happen to the ungodly.

    B

    • You make a good and valid exegetical point, but I question how it affects the underlying argument. My question is: have the inhabitants of the cities of the plain indeed been annihilated? Are they not in Hades, dreading (or unconsciously waiting, depending on your point of view) their final judgment? Yes, their bodies were destroyed that day, but was that fire and brimstone really their final punishment? Or was it a display of the displeasure and wrath of God against sin, and an example of what will befall those who continue in their sin, and do not turn to Christ for salvation? Is that not the point of the warning of both Jude and Peter?

      A literal reading of those two passages could easily be interpreted to indicate that S&G have already faced their final judgment. I can’t accept that (Hebrews 9:27, 28). After death is judgment, and after the body is killed, God has the authority to cast the soul into hell.

      I do not mean to be argumentative, and appreciate the discussion. I, like many, am trying to work out these points in a way that seems to make sense of the whole testimony of Scripture … Better men than I have disagreed on these issues, but I don’t want that to hold me back from understanding what there is to understand from these passages.

      The annihilationist scheme has a certain logical beauty in it, the fact that God will finally, in the end, wipe everything clean, and put a final end to sin and sinners. As I stated in this article, I have not closed my mind to that option. But it seems weak to me, at this point.

      I’ll keep browsing your site, there seems to be good information there. Feel free to provide a link to it here.

      • Or was it a display of the displeasure and wrath of God against sin, and an example of what will befall those who continue in their sin, and do not turn to Christ for salvation?

        Absolutely! Being burned to ashes is an example of what will happen to those who have not put their faith in Christ. This is confirmed by numerous passages (most explicitly Hebrews 10:27). This is a striking example of how traditionalists have been forced to deny the plain teaching of Scripture (for example: http://conditionalism.net/blog/2011/09/what-part-of-will-consume-did-you-not-understand/)

        Even if a person believes that human beings have immaterial souls that survive death (and I happen to not believe that, but won’t defend that view now), Matthew 10:28 would show—quite conclusively in my opinion—that what happens to the body in the first death will happen to the entire person, body and soul, in the second death.

        After death is judgment, and after the body is killed, God has the authority to cast the soul into hell.

        We know from elsewhere in Scripture that the judgment does not follow immediately after death. Rather, it comes after the resurrection. Bodiless souls are not cast into Gehenna; entire people are, both body and soul, cf. Matthew 10:28 (the view that bare souls apart from their bodies are tormented in hell after the judgment is an idiosyncratic view historically, as far as I’m aware). The Matthew passage is more illuminating than its Lukan parallel, because it states precisely what will happen to people in Gehenna—they will be killed. The word translated destroy (apollumi) always means something like “to kill” when it describes what one person does to another. It never means “to torment.”

        I’m glad that you’ve found my blog helpful. Unfortunately, I haven’t updated it in a while. I recommend the blog at Rethinking Hell (http://rethinkinghell.com/blog/list-all-posts), which was recently launched and with which I’m associated. I would love to hear your thoughts on this article: (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/their-worm-does-not-die-annihilation-and-mark-948). As it addresses a passage that you mentioned above.

        And if you’re interested and on facebook, feel free to join the discussion there: https://www.facebook.com/groups/rethinkinghell/

        The group is open to anyone who is interested in seriously and respectfully discussing the issues.

Please let me know what you think! I learn from your comments.

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