September 30th, 2018
(NOTE: While this post seeks to provide a defense for Annihilationism, I present it not because I definitively affirm the view, but rather to provide an interesting alternative worth considering.)
Orthodox Christian theology has always affirmed the existence of both heaven and hell. Anyone who has currently, or in the past, denied the reality of either of these two places has been deemed as someone who falls into heresy on this particular subject matter. Diversity, however, presents itself in the discussion about the exact nature of hell. What exactly is hell and what happens to those who go there? When the Bible addresses hell as being a place of “eternal destruction”, does that mean that people in hell will face the process of destruction eternally or will they be eternally destroyed? Two lines of thought have emerged in evangelical theology that attempt to answer these questions: The Classical view and the Annihilationist view.
Support for the Annihilationist view on hell can be found in both the Old and the New Testaments. Passages in the Old Testament that address the final fate of the wicked use words and phrases that seem to suggest annihilation. For example, Isaiah states that “those who forsake the Lord will perish” (Isaiah 1:28, NIV). The psalmist in Psalms 1 says that “the way of the wicked leads to destruction” (Psalms 1:6, NIV). In a similar vein, the psalmist in Psalm 37 states that “the wicked will perish” and that “they will be consumed” (Psalm 37:20, NIV). One of the sayings in Proverbs makes the claim that “the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out” (Proverbs 24:20, NIV). All of the terms that these various authors use, “perish”, “destruction”, “snuffed out”, point toward some form of annihilation, at least if the language is taken at face value. Nahum declares that the wicked “will be consumed like dry stubble” (Nahum 1:10, NIV). The word “consumed” seems to suggest a final state of non-existence. Malachi seems to suggest a similar fate when he states that evildoers will be “set on fire” and “not a root or a branch will be left to them” (Malachi 4:1, NIV). If not even a “root” will be left of evildoers, then how could they possible endure a process of punishment eternally? In order to support the Classical view of hell, all of these words and phrases need to be redefined in order to signify some form of conscious torment.
The New Testament talks about the nature of hell in a similar vein to the Old Testament. Jesus, when talking to the disciples, tells them to not fear “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” but to instead fear “the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, NIV). This suggests that in the same way that people possess the capability to kill another person’s body, God can kill a person’s soul. This comparison, therefore, implies a termination of existence. Peter presents some harsh words against false teachers and states that “their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:3, NIV). Paul similarly states that for those who are enemies of the cross, “their destiny is destruction” (Philippians 3:19, NIV). Both Peter and Paul use the term “destruction” which indicates a termination of existence. This term does not line up with the Classical view which claims that the wicked experience endless suffering and are not actually destroyed.
It is also important to recognize that Scripture talks about immortality or eternal life as a gift. Jesus, when talking to Nicodemus, states that “whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV). Paul, talking to the church in Galatia, says that “whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:8, NIV). Eternal life, then, only comes to those who live in unity with God through the Spirit. The Classical view on hell, however, assumes that the soul is inherently immortal, a view which largely stems from the influence of Neo-Platonism, and will therefore be eternally conscious, whether in heaven or in hell.
A supporting argument for the Annihilationist view is that it seems most compatible with the idea of God’s final victory over all things. Paul tells the church in Ephesus that God intends to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10, NIV). If there will exist, however, a vast number of souls who will eternally oppose God, as the Classical view suggests, then how can there ever be unity among all things under Christ? It seems that there would exist an endless state of disunity. The Annihilationist view solves this problem by stating that ultimately all those who oppose Christ will cease to exist. Therefore, only those united with Christ will remain, resulting in an eventual state of unity, as Paul talks about in Ephesians.
A common objection to the Annihilationist view on hell is that it seems to completely remove the fear of hell. Why should anyone turn to God if there is nothing to fear in rejecting Him? First, the Annihilationist view, however, does not deny that those who reject God will endure suffering in hell for a period of time. It simply argues that this suffering will not be everlasting. Second, it should be the love and goodness of God that drives people to repentance and salvation, not the fear of hell. It is difficult to say that a person truly loves God if they repent solely out of a fear of punishment. It should also be noted that none of the apostles used a fear of hell to bring people to Christ in the book of Acts.
Another objection that some raise is that if the wicked do not suffer eternally, then justice is not served; the wicked must consciously experience eternal punishment if God is truly just. Two things might be said in response to this. Firstly, how is it just for a finite number of sins to be met with infinite punishment? Secondly, what is the ultimate purpose? Justice seeks to make right that which is wrong. However, if people are to suffer eternally then it seems that things will never ultimately be made right, rendering hell a place of purposeless retribution.
Image taken from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-is-fire-hot-607320
Boyd, G. A. & Eddy, P. R. (2009). Across the spectrum. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Olson, R. E. (2002). The mosaic of Christian belief. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.